Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
By all rights I should continue south, cross the bridge, and go to the playhouse to find Robin. I was still angry with him, and yet—it was his father, too.
But Master Henslowe had said there would be rehearsal in the morning, and I had only an hour or two to spare. If I made my way across the river now, and then
Robin could not go to Newgate with me, I would have spent nearly half the time I had, and to no purpose.
And besides, I needed to speak to my father about Robin, about how to coax or reason or order him out of the playhouse. I could hardly do that with my brother present.
I set off, determined, down Threadneedle Street. After all, if Robin was busy learning his new trade, that was his own choice and no fault of mine. I broke into a run, as if I could outpace the shreds of guilt that still clung to my heels.
By the time I reached the broad avenue of Cheapside, I was out of breath and had to slow to a walk again. I passed shops selling hats, stockings, lace, birdcages, buttons, needles, earrings. None of it held any interest for me. I could see the back of St. Paul’s Cathedral to my left, rising over walls and rooftops, but I hardly spared it a glance.
What will our father say when he sees thee?
What could I tell him, how could I explain my breeches and doublet? I could not reveal what had nearly happened to me two days ago. It would break his heart to know of the danger I had been in, the disgrace he could no longer protect me from.
What-will-I-tell-him, what-will-I-tell-him jogged in my mind to the rhythm of my feet upon the paving stones
as I turned up Newgate Street. No ideas came into my head, but I found I hardly cared. It did not matter. Nothing mattered except seeing my father at last.
There was the prison. My quick steps slowed a little. The street led straight up to the prison’s gateway, and I felt as if I stood in a river with my legs braced against a current that wanted to sweep me away through that gate and into the darkness beyond.
Mere fancy. It was just a heavy stone building, built over the roadway as if there had not been enough space for it elsewhere. It was foolish to let dread churn in my stomach. I’d known well enough my father was in prison. I could not let the sight of that prison, looming dark over the street, stop me in my tracks.
There was a door set in one wall of the dark tunnel underneath the building. As I approached it, a filthy hand, no more than skin drawn tight over bones and knuckles, shot out of a barred window to seize hold of my elbow.
“For pity’s sake, some bread,” a voice whined. “Have mercy, young sir, ’twill be to the credit of your soul….”
I fought back the urge to shriek and wrench my arm away. My father might be reduced to this one day. No, I would never let that happen. But still, I answered civilly.
“I am sorry, friend. I have nothing to give.”
The hand dragged me closer to the bars, and in the
dimness inside I could see a wolfish face, as thin as the hand, half hidden in greasy hair and a long, straggling beard. “Have pity,” the prisoner begged, as if he had not heard a word I’d said.
“I am sorry, I—”
“I have nothing!” I pulled my arm away; although the man clung desperately, he had no strength to hold me. Other hands were thrust out of the window, other voices pleaded. Guilt clutched at my throat. I had still a few coins in my purse, and a master who, strange though he might be, would probably feed me tonight. Should I give all I had to these starving wretches? But I could not. I needed—my father needed—what little money I had. Shutting my ears to the calls for bread and meat and mercy, I hurried past the window to the heavy oak door, bound with iron.
“Pardon, master,” I said to an old man who sat slumped on a stool by the door. One of his legs, thrust out into the street before him, ended above the knee, with a wooden peg strapped on. He squinted up at me under thick white eyebrows and said nothing.
“I wish to visit a—” My voice, already shaken, choked a little on the word. But this was no time for weakness. “A prisoner,” I finished, as steadily as I could. “May I go in?”
The one-legged man held out a hand to me, palm uppermost. His skin was gray, creased with deep lines of black dirt. I blinked in surprise.
“Halfpence for the doorkeeper,” he wheezed at me impatiently.
Oh. I fumbled with my purse and drew out a halfpenny, which I dropped into the waiting hand, and Master Marlowe’s shilling, which I clutched tightly. The old man, with a groan, heaved himself to his feet and limped over to the door. He took out a key on a chain around his neck and worked it in the lock for at least a minute while my heart thumped and my feet twitched.
Let me in, let me in,
my mind whispered, in time to the beat of blood in my veins.
The lock clicked open at last. I pushed past the doorkeeper and nearly tumbled down a flight of stone stairs that led to a long, dark hallway with another door at the end.
“Wait!” I called back up the stairs. “Where should I go?”
“To thy left!” the old man answered impatiently, and heaved the heavy door shut with a solid clang that shook me to my bones.
The air was damp and hot and thick, and it smelled like a privy and something worse. A slaughterhouse.
Blood and corruption. I put a hand over my mouth and looked to my left. Now I saw an open door, halfway down the hall. When I entered, I found a tiny closet of a room with a single small window. Even the sunlight that streamed through that square hole, bare of glass, seemed greasy and dull. A short, squat man, half bald, sat at a table with a book open before him. The pages were brown, scattered with spots of ink and candle grease. He looked up at me and grunted a question.
“Please, master, I wish to see Robert Archer.” I shut my hand hard around Master Marlowe’s shilling. The metal had warmed to the temperature of my skin; the sharp edge of the coin bit into my palm.
The jailer sucked his teeth and put out a hand. I gave him the shilling. He looked it over carefully, rubbed it, nibbled it, and seemed satisfied at last, dropping it into a small iron box on the table before turning to the book.
He flipped over a few pages and ran his thumb down the paper. “Archer, Archer. Robert. Here.” He stopped and looked up at me. “A papist.” I nodded. The man shrugged and put his thumb in his mouth to chew on the nail.
“Dead,” he said indifferently, and spat out a shred of thumbnail. “Of the flux. A week or so ago. A fair lot of them had it, and a right mess it was. The cells still stink of it. Here, hold up, boy.”
I had to put both hands out and grasp the edge of the table to keep myself from falling.
“One less papist in the world’s nothing to grieve for,” the jailer said. “Friend of thine, was he?” And his eyes ranged over my face, coldly suspicious.
I did not answer him. My jaw was locked, my tongue cold and heavy in my mouth. Somehow I made my way outside into the sunlight. But the smell of the prison stayed with me, and its thick, damp air clung to my skin.
Slowly, a little unsteadily, I began to walk back the way that I had come.
What a flat, cold, ugly word. “Dead.” Such a short word to destroy everything that was left of my life.
It could not be true. We could not have come so far, struggled so hard, lost so much, for
. I felt hollow inside, as if my skin were only a fragile shell over black emptiness. The next person to knock against me in the crowded streets would shatter me into pieces. There would be nothing left.
We had fled home, Robin and I, and walked so many miles south to London. We had lost our money, I had thrown away my name and my modesty, Robin was courting blasphemy at a playhouse, all so we could be near our father. And none of it was worth the effort it had cost.
“God keep thee safe, Rosalind,” he’d whispered, holding
me as if he would keep everything evil away by the strength of his arms. But he could not protect me anymore. I was alone, and the street beneath me was not a river anymore; it was a whirlpool, black and deep, sure to drag me down.
He could not keep me safe. He could not keep himself so. What had been the point, then, to all those years of faithfulness? Of the priests that my father had hidden in that tiny room? Of the prayers and the secret candles to the saints, if none of it helped him? Where had they been, his saints, when he had died alone and unshriven, not even knowing if his children were safe?
No, no, I dared not think so. I realized with a jolt how close I had come to the edge of blasphemy. With my father’s soul perhaps now in purgatory, how dared I even think reproach to the saints? “Forgive me, forgive me,” I murmured under my breath. “Forgive me, have mercy.”
I was jostled and pushed and fell more than once. I often lost my way, but I did not ask for help. I simply kept walking. At last, more by accident than anything else, I struck the broad street that led up to Bishopsgate, and made my way north to Master Marlowe’s lodgings.
I stood for some time in the street, staring at the building, until it occurred to me that I ought to climb the
stairs. There had not seemed so many of them before. When I reached the top at last, Master Marlowe came out of his bedroom, frowning.
“I gave thee leave to visit Newgate, not the antipodes, Richard. Hast been wandering about London at thine ease?” He was wearing the black velvet doublet again, I noticed without interest, and a pearl earring in one ear.
I rubbed my hands up and down my arms. It was very strange how cold it was, for the end of summer, just before the harvest. I should not have been shivering.
Master Marlowe came closer. Gently he put two fingers under my chin, tipping my head back so that he could see my face.
“Art ill? Richard, what is’t?”
“My father’s dead,” I told him. The words reminded me of bits of ice in the river when it had just started to freeze, bobbing and swirling by themselves in the cold gray water.
With his hand on my shoulder, Master Marlowe steered me over to my pallet in the corner. He pushed me down. My knees had no strength to resist. He took a blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders, guiding my hand so that it held two corners together at my throat. Then he was gone, clattering down the stairs.
After some time he was back again, pushing a wooden tankard into my hands. The cup was hot. He moved it up toward my face. I smelled sweet wine, cinnamon, honey. It burned my throat when I swallowed.
Still without speaking, Master Marlowe sat back on his heels and studied me for a moment. He rose swiftly and left again, only to reappear almost at once, with Moll in tow.
“Sit thee down,” Master Marlowe said to her, giving her a push in the direction of my pallet. “Do not speak to him, just wait for me.” And he left the room once more.
Obedient as a dog, Moll didn’t try to talk to me, or ask how I did, or even inquire what was happening. She seemed content just to sit, doing nothing, hardly moving, as if breathing were enough of an occupation for her.
When Master Marlowe came back for the third time, he brought Robin with him. My brother’s face was smudged with dirt and tears.
“Come, Moll, good lass,” Master Marlowe said quietly. “Let’s leave them now.” Moll patted me gently on the arm, like she might a sick puppy, and followed Master Marlowe out of the room.
“Rosalind?” Robin knelt down by the pallet. “He—he told me. How couldst thou go without me? Do not look so. Art angry with me? I am sorry for what I said. I did not
mean it.” The pitch of his voice grew higher, and new tears spilled down his cheeks. “Rosalind, speak a word to me. Rosalind, please?”
Then I began to cry at last.
When I woke the next morning, I lay still, looking at the slanted ceiling above me. I wished I had not woken. How pleasant it would be to lie in this bed until the Last Judgment came.
But I could not. I had a duty, and one that must be finished before Master Marlowe was stirring. I threw back the blanket, dressed quickly, and knelt beside my pallet.
I’d failed my father once. I had not reached London in time to help him. The money I’d lost my first day in this city would have moved him to a better cell, would have paid for food and blankets, would have brought a doctor to him. It might have saved him.
It was too late for that now. But I could at least do what I might for his soul. I was no priest; I could not say Mass, but I whispered, as quickly as possible, the few words that I knew, asking for remembrance, for mercy.
Remember my father, please. Keep him safe, as he could not keep me. The Latin words slurred together in my hurry, but it did not matter. God would understand.
I had barely murmured “Amen” and crossed myself when a voice spoke behind me. “Awake early, art thou?”
I flinched as if Master Marlowe’s voice had been a thunderclap. But my back was to him. He could not have seen me make the sign of the cross. And surely he could not have overheard my whispered prayer. Rubbing his hands over his face and squinting in the light, he did not appear to have noticed anything amiss. Mercifully he was dressed more thoroughly than yesterday, with a shirt hanging loose over his hose.
“Fetch water,” he said shortly, barely looking at me. There was nothing of yesterday’s gentleness in his tone. The day before he had gotten leave for Robin to stay away from the playhouse, and had not asked any work of me, letting us mourn together. But clearly his kindness had its limits.
I brought water for Master Marlowe to wash, and food to break his fast, and borrowed Mistress Stavesly’s broom again, watching my hands go through these servant’s tasks as if they belonged to someone else. How strange it was. My father was dead, and yet I must fetch and carry and
clean. I must breathe and my heart must beat, even though I would never see my father again until I died myself.
Then all might yet be well. Then he might take me in his arms, declaring that he’d missed me terribly, that he’d wept for grief every night.
But in the meantime, there was still this day to live, and tomorrow, and only God knew how many more. I became aware that there were tears on my cheeks and that Master Marlowe, who sat at his table writing, had lifted his head from his work and was steadily watching me.
“I envy thee,” he said quietly, when I stopped sweeping and looked up. “My father lives in Canterbury. I’ve hardly seen him since I left the university and came to London to write plays. If he were gone, I would not weep for him. Nor he, I am sure, for me.”
Then he looked back down at his work, and began to write busily once more, as if he had never spoken.
I lived my first days in London in a haze of grief, as if I had suddenly been struck half blind, half deaf, and as slow-witted as Moll. I walked into doorjambs and tripped over cobblestones and often did not hear when someone spoke to me.
Robin, when I saw him as I accompanied Master
Marlowe to the playhouse, let tears fall easily as he spoke about our father. “Dost remember the wooden horse he carved for me, with the short front leg?” he would say. “Dost remember when the pigs got into the garden, and he chased them out again, and fell in the mud, how he laughed? Dost remember?”
I would nod wearily. Yes, I remembered. But I had few tears to shed and no stories to add to his. I was only tired, so tired that it seemed I could never sleep enough. Only a night that lasted until the end of the world would be long enough for me.
I had tried so hard to take care of Robin, to take care of us both, to keep things as they should have been. But I had failed, that was all. Nothing more was to be done. Now I must learn to live the rest of my life in sorrow, as simply and naturally as a fish lived in the sea.
Early one afternoon I came back from an errand to find Master Marlowe sitting at his table as usual, scribbling away. “Ah, Richard,” he said, looking up. “Good, I have finished the last sheet of paper. And didst get the new pens also?”
I took half a ream of fresh paper out of the basket I carried over my shoulder and set it down on the table, staring stupidly at it. Had he said he wanted pens as well?
“Thou didst not buy them?”
“I am sorry, sir,” I said dully.
“God’s teeth—” Master Marlowe sighed. “Never mind it. Thou hast been in my service a week, Richard. Didst know that?”
Had it been so much as a week? I was vaguely surprised to hear it.
“I’m well enough pleased with thy work,” he went on, rifling through the stack of paper on the table and not looking up at me. “I’ll take thee on a year’s contract, if thou’rt willing.”
There was a reason, I thought, why I had not wished to stay in Master Marlowe’s service. Oh yes. He was a playmaker, a blasphemer, with a careless tongue and a strange manner. I had planned to search for other work, for my brother and myself.
But the idea of going out into the street, asking strangers if they knew of servant’s work elsewhere, made me want to weep with weariness. And what did it matter now? I had no family left to be shamed by my service to a playmaker.
“Aye, master,” I said indifferently. But then a thought stirred in my mind. For the first time since I had learned of my father’s death, I gave consideration to something besides myself. It occurred to me that I had not proven to be of much value. That any other master would surely
have cast out such a lackwitted, ham-handed, idle, and forgetful servant as a bad bargain, and not offered me a year’s worth of food and clothes and wages.
“I thank you for your kindness, sir,” I said belatedly, my gratitude little better than an afterthought.
Master Marlowe took up a new sheet of paper, smoothed it with his hand, and began to write.
“I told thee before, ’tis not kindness,” he said before he blew on the paper to dry the ink and folded it in half. “Take this to Henslowe at the Rose. And have the goodness, pray, to buy those pens on thy way back, or I shall be reduced to dipping a finger in the ink.”
When I arrived at the Rose, I found one of the playhouse’s hirelings struggling to peel off a large sheet of paper that had been pasted up by the door. It was a libel, printed in bold black letters for everyone who could to read:
PLAYS CAUSE PLAGUE
“’Twas pasted up overnight,” said John, the porter, when he saw me looking. “Puritans, no doubt. For all the good it does them, when they know ’twill be down in the morning. Thou’rt Kit Marlowe’s boy, art not?” He waved me inside.
Master Henslowe was sitting in the gallery to watch the
rehearsal. When I handed him Master Marlowe’s message, he read it, sighed heavily, and told me to wait until he had a moment to write a response.
I sat myself down on the far side of the yard, away from the stage, and wrapped my arms around my knees, hugging my warmth to myself.
Where was Robin? I didn’t see him. Perhaps I should go search for him. But it was pleasant just now to sit and let my mind rest. I laid my head down on my knees, feeling the heat of the sun across my back and shoulders.
A rich voice drifted into my awareness. It was deep and smooth, caressing the words it spoke as if it loved them. It did not seem loud, yet I heard every word distinctly, as if the speaker knelt beside me.
“Ah, good my lord, be patient; she is dead,
And all this raging cannot make her live.
If words might serve, our voice hath rent the air;
If tears, our eyes have watered all the earth;
If grief, our murdered hearts have strain’d forth blood.
Nothing prevails, for she is dead, my lord.”
That was right, it was true. How did he know?
My eyes stung as I lifted up my head to see the stage
through a strange haze. The paint and gilt swam in a mist of brightness, red and gold, blue and green. Some of the colors moved and gestured and became people as I blinked and a tear or two slipped down my cheeks. There were men in doublets of red brocade or tunics of yellow satin, bearing helmets and swords that caught the sun in bursts of light. The swirl of color centered around a plain, dark figure who knelt in dejection by a bed on which a woman lay, her white gown spilling like milk to the floor.
God’s truth, ’tis beautiful.
Then I blinked again and saw more clearly that it was Master Alleyn kneeling, in a plain, dark doublet, the only one on stage not in costume. Master Cowley stood beside him, a hand on his shoulder, and I thought it was he who’d just spoken, as if he’d plucked the grief out of my heart and shaped it into words. The boy Harry, in the gorgeous white gown, his eyes closed, lay gracefully across the bed on cushions of black and gold.
There was a long silence. Then Master Alleyn spoke.
“I beg your pardon, masters. What is next?”
Harry opened one eye and snorted. Master Alleyn threatened him with a gloved hand, and he promptly shut both eyes and lay still.
“‘For she is dead,’” prompted a thin, anxious-looking man who sat cross-legged on a corner of the stage,
hunched over the manuscript in his lap.
“Ah, yes,” said Master Alleyn. “‘For she is dead? Thy words do pierce my soul….’”
“Richard? Richard Archer?”
I looked up to see a tall, gangly young apprentice standing before me. He had light brown hair that he pushed out of his eyes with one hand, a shy smile, and a folded piece of paper in one hand.
“I’m Sander Ramsey,” he said, holding the paper out to me. “Master Henslowe sent me to find you. He says to take this answer to Master Marlowe.”
“I thank you,” I murmured, and got to my feet, taking the message. To my surprise, I saw that Sander was holding something else out to me, something that sat red and glossy bright in the palm of his other hand. An apple.
“I’m lodged with Master Cowley,” he said awkwardly, as if this explained why he should offer a gift to a stranger. “With Robin. Your brother. He told us about your father. I’m sorry for it, truly.”
An apple, as if that could make up for the raw loss of a father. But Sander looked anxious, and a little embarrassed, and I knew he was only trying to be kind.
Kindness was not a quality I’d looked to find in a playhouse.
“And Robin said he’d meet you outside the playhouse,”
Sander went on. “He said he’d wait for you there.”
“I thank you,” I said again, confused, as I took the gift from his hand. Why should Robin wait for me in the street, as if he had a secret? “For the apple and the message.”
Sander grinned. “I must go, there’s a lesson starting,” he said. “Tell Robin not to be late.” And he ran toward the stage as I made my way out the playhouse door. As Sander had said, Robin was waiting for me, looking uneasy.
“Robin? Art well?”
“Aye, well,” he said, and shrugged. “Ill. Both. And thou?”
I smiled, for the first time, it seemed, in days. I almost felt the skin of my face cracking, like thin ice. “The same.”
Robin shifted his feet a little, scuffing at the dusty cobblestones.
“Sander says there’s a lesson starting,” I said. “Thou’lt be late.”
“Aye, I know.”
“Robin? What is’t?”
“I must tell thee.”
“What, in heaven’s name?”
“Master Henslowe said my week of trial’s over.” Robin looked up at me at last. “He says I’m shaping well. I can stay.”
So that was why he seemed so doubtful, almost afraid.
“’Tis not like being a fortune-teller or a tumbler at the fairs.” Robin burst into speech before I could say anything at all. “Master Henslowe owns the Rose himself. He’s very nearly rich! And Master Marlowe studied at Oxford! They are gentlemen, truly. And—”
I held up a hand. “Robin, listen a moment.”
He paid no heed. “’Tis a trade like any other. There’s no disgrace in honest work. And I can do it well.”
I repeated. Truly I had not meant to quarrel with him, but I could not keep a sarcastic twist from my voice. “Honest to lie for a living?”
It was a mistake. Robin’s jaw tightened.
“’Tis my own choice to make,” he said mulishly.
“But, Robin, think a moment.” Argument, I knew, would be wasted, but honeyed words might still sway him. “Thou’rt a merchant’s son—”
The truth of that stopped my words in my throat.
The stubborn expression had melted off Robin’s face. He only seemed sorrowful, and older than his years. I blinked in surprise to see my younger brother look so much like a man. So much like our father.
“I would not quarrel with thee,” he said simply. “But I want to stay. I will stay.”
And what was I to answer? The choice was plain before me. I could accept Robin’s decision or I could quarrel with him. But either way he would not leave the playhouse behind.
Robin was all the family I had left. I could not bear to be at enmity with him, not now. Not after everything else I had lost.
I sighed. “Stay, then.”
Robin looked startled. “Thou dost not mind it?”
I did mind it. But I could see no help for it. So I gave voice to another lie and took yet another sin upon my head.
“I do not mind it.” But something else still seemed to trouble my brother. “What is’t?” I asked.
“Master Cowley—” He shifted his feet uneasily, and suddenly looked his years again, and guilt-stricken. “Master Cowley says we must all to church on Sundays. ’Tis well? Should I go?”
“I think thou must,” I said, resigned. “There is no other way.” Robin still looked worried. “God sees thy heart, Robin. Keep thou the true faith there. Dost pray for Father’s soul?”
“Every night, I swear.”
“And say thy beads?”
“Robin Archer!” Sander appeared at the playhouse door. “Master Cowley says thou’lt have no supper if thou dost not come back!”