Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
“Go on,” I told him. And he surprised me mightily by throwing his arms tightly around me. “God keep thee safe,” he whispered, before running back inside the playhouse after Sander.
I set off, turning my steps toward the bridge and back to the rooms I supposed I must begin to call home, remembering this time to stop at a stationer’s and buy new pens for Master Marlowe. I thought that I should feel overcome with shame, now that it was irrevocable I must have a player for a brother. But strangely, I did not. Perhaps grief swamps all other feelings, leaving no room for guilt or bitterness.
Sander’s apple was still in my hand. Its skin was satin smooth as I rubbed it with my fingers, a fresh red tinged with green. I bit into it, tasting the rush of juice in my mouth, sharp and sweet at once. I did not know why it should make my eyes sting with tears for the second time that morning, or why it should make me feel somehow comforted.
Before I had been in London a month, the heat of summer started to die and a chill crept into the evenings. But by midday the air was still warm as summer, and on one such day Master Marlowe took a fancy to have a wash.
He sent me to the conduit for water, and kindled a coal fire himself to heat it. I struggled up the stairs with the heavy bucket, biting my lip and trying to think of some excuse I might use to leave the room before the dreadful moment when he would strip off his clothes.
Mornings were bad enough, but Master Marlowe generally dressed himself in his bedchamber, and I could find some task that would keep my eyes elsewhere until he had finished. This, however…
It was ridiculous to clean the whole body at once, I thought. It would no doubt make him ill. Back home we’d bathed in the river now and again in the summer, and
thought of nothing else. Of course, no one in London would choose to swim in the filth of the Thames. Still, it could not be wise of my master to expose himself so recklessly to all sorts of fevers and sickness. Next the foolish man would be wanting to wash his hair.
Panting, I reached the lodgings, emptied my bucket into the pot over the fire, and wondered if I could feign an illness that would confine me to the privy for the next hour or so. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs.
“Kit! News!” The door swung hard enough on its hinges to bang into the wall, and the man who stood in the doorway was breathing quickly from his climb. “Listen, Kit—”
He stopped abruptly. I recognized him, a dark, handsome man in an emerald green doublet, his face frowning between a crisp white ruff and a hat with a tall crown. Master Marlowe’s friend Tom Watson. I had last seen him at the playhouse, leaning on the railing of the gallery, jesting about the devil.
“And if there is news, need you shout it for all the street to hear?” Master Marlowe demanded, coming out of his bedchamber in his shirt and breeches, untying the ruff around his neck. “Henslowe will have you on stage at the Rose; your voice is loud enough for it. Richard.” His attention shifted suddenly to me, and he twitched the ruff
loose and tossed it in my direction. “Take that and have it starched. My cuffs also. Go, get them from the chest.”
I blinked, looking at the bathwater heating over the fire, at the large porcelain bowl with the soap and the linen towels laid out next to it. “But—do you not wish me to fetch more water?” He would need cold, to mix with the hot, or he’d scald his skin as well as catch his death.
“No, I wish thee to go to the laundry,” Master Marlowe snapped. “And when thou’rt done, get me a book as well. Hotman’s history of France. The bookseller will know it. And bring it to me at the Rose. Go on, hurry, do I pay thee to drag thy feet?”
My knees felt watery with relief, and I certainly was not inclined to argue any further. Tom Watson had moved over to the table and stood without speaking, rifling through the papers there, as I collected Master Marlowe’s linen in a basket and sixpence for the book. The heel from a loaf of bread was sitting on the windowsill, left over from the morning meal. I slipped it into the basket as well. Master Marlowe did not notice.
“Does he know nothing?” I heard Master Watson say as I shut the door behind me, and then an angry sound, not quite a word, as if Master Marlowe wished to silence him.
Mistress Stavesly had been right to call Master Marlowe changeable, I thought, as I made my way down
the stairs. To tell me to prepare a bath, and then send me from the room so suddenly, as if—
Well, and what if Master Marlowe wished to speak to his friend in private? Surely that was not so unusual. Any master might desire to keep some matters from a servant’s ears.
It was no concern of mine. But still I could not quite forget it, and tucked it away in my mind along with other of Master Marlowe’s peculiarities. There was his luxurious clothing, for one, and his poor, bare lodgings. There were the many nights he stumbled up the stairs after the bells had rung for nine o’clock, smelling of ale and sack and burnt wine. Or the way he slept late on Sunday mornings and never seemed to see the inside of a church. In a way this last was a comfort to me, since it meant I might avoid church as well, and not risk my soul at the Protestant service. I was only a servant, and if my master did not make me attend church, no one else was likely to do it. But Master Marlowe was well known; how was it that he could flout the law with indifference?
Well, it was not my affair. I was his servant, not his keeper or his confessor, and it would be impudence in me to wonder about the state of his soul. My only concern was to get his linen cleaned and starched, and for that I made my way
to the Dutch neighborhood just south of Bishopsgate.
Mistress Pieters, the laundress, was talking closely with a man as I arrived, as fair-haired and blue eyed as she was. Her shop was full of the harsh, soapy scent of starch and a bitter, scorched smell from the metal rods heating in the fire, ready to iron ruffs smooth once they had been cleaned.
“’Tis talk, nothing more,” Mistress Pieters said briskly, but she did not sound certain about it. Her milk-pale skin was flushed red with the heat of her work.
“More than talk,” the man said, shaking his head. “Jan van der Berg’s son was found beaten in an alleyway, half dead.”
“Thieves,” Mistress Pieters said firmly. “Plenty of cut-purses abroad in London without—Good day, Richard. Thy master must have his cuffs cleaned yet again?”
The man frowned at me and said something in a language I did not understand. Mistress Pieters answered him shortly in the same tongue. Dutch, it must be.
“And his ruff, too,” I said, taking the articles out of my basket and handing them over. The thin lawn fabric looked clean enough to me, but I was not the one who had to wear it.
“Wait and see, then,” the man said to Mistress Pieters, brushing past me on his way out of the shop.
Mistress Pieters paid him no heed. “Thank heaven for men’s vanity, or I should beg on the streets,” she said cheerfully, holding the delicate white linen to the light with her red, roughened hands.
“Wait and see about what?” I asked her, looking back the way the Dutch man had gone.
“’Tis nothing,” Mistress Pieters said briskly, folding Master Marlowe’s linen neatly away into a basket. “Idle talk on the streets. Some folk do not love newcomers, especially those from Holland.”
I frowned, baffled. “But you are a Protestant,” I said, without thinking.
“Aye, and what does that matter?”
“I thought…” I wavered, confused. Considering how the English treated Catholics, I would have thought they’d welcome Dutch Protestants fleeing the war Catholic Spain was this moment waging in the Low Countries. “I thought they would not mind it,” I finished weakly. “Other Protestants, I mean.”
“There are always some who do not like outsiders,” Mistress Pieters answered. “But if we work hard and pay our taxes to the city, they will not trouble us.” She smiled cheerfully at me. “And pray, what would the English do, if the Dutch went back to Holland and took the secret of starching with us? Their ruffs would be drooping down to
their armpits. Come back tomorrow, and I will have these ready for thee.”
I made my way down Broad Street, past the Dutch church where Mistress Pieters and the other immigrants prayed on Sundays, and turned on Bucklesberrie, with the grocers and pepperers and the luscious smell of spices in the air. All the way I found myself twisting my thoughts into a tangle over what Mistress Pieters had told me. English Protestants, it seemed, did not care for foreign Protestants any more than they cared for native-born Catholics. I could not claim to understand it. What harm did Mistress Pieters do, starching cuffs and collars and ruffs in her little shop? What harm had my father done, praying to the saints? Why were they all so frightened, as if a country wool merchant and a Dutch laundress could threaten the state of England?
I gave it up as too hard a question when I came in sight of St. Paul’s. As I made my way to the churchyard and the bookseller’s stalls, I saw that the old veteran was there again, begging by the gate. He had been wounded, no doubt, in the very wars that drove Mistress Pieters from her home. An ugly scar marred half his face, a rag around his head covered the ruin of what had once been an eye, and his right hand was crippled and useless.
His son was with him today, a boy half Robin’s age,
huddled by his father’s side. I reached into the basket for the crust of bread I’d put there this morning. I always tried to bring a bite of food with me if I knew I’d have an errand near the churchyard.
“Good day to you,” I said, and bent down to offer the bread to the little boy. His eyes widened eagerly, but he painstakingly divided it in half and handed one piece to his father before he took a bite.
The old veteran never spoke; perhaps he could not. But he nudged the boy, who mumbled, “Thank you, master,” through his mouthful.
“Thou’rt welcome,” I said. “I am sorry ’tis not more.” And leaving them absorbed in this meager meal, I made my way to the stationer’s in the churchyard.
At the stall with the pistol on the sign, the bookseller was helping an elegant young man find
The Art of the Fence,
to improve his swordplay. “A moment,” he said, with a nod to me. “That was kind. Thou’rt the first this morning to give something.”
“’Twill only encourage the man in beggary,” the gentleman said, giving me a disdainful look.
“’Twas but a piece of bread,” I answered. My eyes fell on the man’s black kidskin gloves, pinked around the cuffs to show the lining of bright blue silk through tiny heart-shaped holes. The cost of one of those gloves would
have fed the old veteran and his son for a year.
“No bread’s due to the idle,” he insisted.
Idle! I felt my temper rising. “He has only one eye and one hand,” I objected. “What work is he fit for?”
“Here’s your book, master,” the bookseller intervened, and gave me a frown as the gentleman departed. “Art here to buy, lad, or simply to argue with my customers?”
I bought the book Master Marlowe had wanted. The beggar family was gone by the time I left the churchyard again and turned my steps toward the Rose.
I greeted John, who nodded me in, and saw Robin, in the midst of a tumbling lesson on the stage. I waved to him. He could not wave back, being in the middle of a handstand, but he smiled.
“Looking for Master Marlowe?” asked Sander, who stood in the yard before the stage. “He’s in the galleries, I think, with Master Henslowe.” He was juggling three apples as he spoke, and never took his eyes off them. “Watch this, now, tell me if ’tis good.” One apple flew up higher than the others, well above his head. On the way down he snatched it, took a bite, and sent it spinning about with the rest.
I clapped for him. “Very good, i’faith.” Sander took a second bite out of the apple and dropped all three to bounce and roll at his feet. He sighed, the boys onstage
laughed, and I climbed the stairs to find Master Marlowe.
He was sitting in one of the second galleries, talking with Henslowe and another man. “And your new play, William?
” Master Marlowe was asking the stranger as I came up to them. “How comes it?”
“Well, thank you, Kit.” The man glanced at me. He had a calm manner and mild brown eyes. “Someone to see you, I think.”
Master Marlowe turned around to regard me. “Well, Richard? Didst get the book?”
“Yes, sir.” As I handed it to him, I could not help glancing at him, curious. Had he taken his bath? Maybe he’d thought better of it, and only washed his face.
“Excellent.” He flipped through the book and then waved a dismissive hand at me. “I do not need thee at the moment. Thou’rt welcome to visit thy brother, if Master Henslowe will permit it.”
“’Tis dinnertime at any rate,” Master Henslowe said. “Aye, stay and welcome, lad. It does the boy good to see thee. Master Cowley says he is shaping well.”
“Of course, since I found him for you.” Master Marlowe tossed me a silver penny from his purse. “Buy thyself some food with the crackropes, Richard, and then make thy way home before the performance begins.”
At the foot of the stairs, I hesitated, the penny clutched
in my hand. Master Marlowe had told me to eat with the apprentices. But I’d always tried to stay away from the other boys at the Rose and visit with Robin in private. They might notice something odd about me. They might suspect. Would it be better to make my own way home and try to see my brother later?
“Richard!” Robin called from behind me, ruining my cautious plans. The tumbling lesson had ended, and the boys were trooping together toward the playhouse door. “Stay and eat with us, canst thou?”
No graceful way to avoid it now. “Aye,” I said, following him outside. I was probably too anxious in any case. After all, I had been Richard for nearly a month now, and no one—not Master Marlowe, not Mistress Stavesly—seemed to suspect. Why should the boys be any wiser? I would simply stay quiet and draw no notice. Easily done. Players, even apprentice ones, were too fond of attention themselves to spare much of it for others.
One of the older boys, Nat, bought meat pies from an ordinary near the playhouse. I bought one for myself with Master Marlowe’s penny, and we settled down on the grass near the Rose to eat our meal.
“Where’s Harry?” Sander asked, before he stuffed his mouth with half his meat pie at once.
“Rehearsing with Master Alleyn,” Nat answered.
“Too grand to eat with the crackropes,” one of the other boys said at the same time. “Have you ever seen his like for pride, since he got this part?”
“You live with Master Marlowe, then?” one of the younger boys—Sam, I thought his name was—asked, changing the conversation as he turned to me. All my plans to stay quiet and unnoticed fell into ruin with this simple question. “What is he like, truly?”
Now all the boys were looking at me as I bit down through the tough pastry of my pie into the salty, savory filling, and wiped gravy from my mouth with the back of my hand. I tried to find a quick answer, something to satisfy them and let the talk turn elsewhere. “He’s—”
Changeable as March wind.
“Full of strange moods. But he’s been a good master to me.”