Authors: Sarah L. Thomson
This did not seem to be what Sam wanted to know. “But is it true that he’s”—his voice dropped to a dramatic whisper—“an atheist?”
I swallowed too large a mouthful and nearly choked. “
No, I am sure—” I faltered a moment. Certainly Master Marlowe avoided church. But that might mean no more than carelessness—or something else. My father himself had gone to church as rarely as he dared, and left before Communion, for the safety of his soul. I forgot to answer Sam as a new thought struck me.
Could it be that Master Marlowe had some reason other than late nights and a sore head for avoiding church on Sundays? Could he, by any chance, be a secret Catholic himself?
“I heard he conjures the devil at night,” Sam persisted.
“He does no such thing!” I objected, and only then remembered the piece of paper, covered with strange symbols, that I had seen on Master Marlowe’s table. But I could not afford to have them all thinking I served a magician or a witch.
“Harry swears he counted an extra man on stage once in
,” one of the other boys put in.
“Master Alleyn says ‘Nonsense,’” Nat countered.
“Well, ’tis true enough that someone was killed during
,” Sam went on, hungry for scandal of some kind. “Sander, were you there?”
“I was not,” Sander answered regretfully, “but I heard of it. ’Tis the scene, you know, where they kill the governor, and somehow the pistol was loaded.” He made a gun of his thumb and forefinger and pointed it dramatically at Robin’s head. “The shot went wide into the audience, and two were killed.”
“But how came it the gun was loaded?” I could not keep from asking.
Sander shrugged. “No one knows, nor could ever
find out. They said the play was cursed. We sold every seat in the house for months.”
And that seemed to satisfy them all. What did two deaths matter, if the galleries were full?
“But Master Marlowe must have something to do with the devil, for such bad luck to plague him,” Sam insisted.
“When Faustus in the play sold his soul to the devil, it was for good fortune all his life,” I countered. “Why should Master Marlowe, or anyone, deal with the devil if only to get ill luck in exchange?”
“Enough talk of this,” Nat said firmly. “Master Henslowe would not like it. Leave it to the Puritans to say we are all devil worshippers. Need we denounce each other? Come. There’s work to do before the performance begins.”
Robin hung behind the other boys to walk beside me as we made our way back inside. “Sam’s an old gossip,” he said, glancing sideways at me. “Do not mind it. But
“Anything about what?”
“About Master Marlowe. ’Tis nothing, I am sure. Only they say….”
“What, for mercy’s sake?” Now Robin, too, was going to question me about my master? “What do they say?”
“Oh…things!” Robin shrugged helplessly as I turned to glare at him. “Nothing so much…only that he was a friend
of Sir Walter Raleigh. And Raleigh went to the Tower.”
Master Marlowe had friends of such high rank? I had not known it. Raleigh, once the queen’s favorite, then condemned as a traitor, if for nothing more than marrying without her leave….
“Well, he’s out again now,” I answered shortly.
“Oh, Ros—” I scowled ferociously at him. “Richard!” he corrected himself hastily. “I do not know all they say. I only wondered.”
“I wonder, too,” I said crisply. “I wonder thou hast time to learn anything here at the playhouse, if all the players do is gossip the day long.” What on earth did they want to know from me, Sam and now Robin? I ran Master Marlowe’s errands and brushed his clothes, but if he had any secrets, he was hardly likely to confide them in me.
And he did have secrets, that was plain. Else why had he sent me out of the room when Tom Watson had arrived?
Well, I had secrets, too. If I did not pry into his, perhaps he would respect mine.
“And Master Cowley?” I asked Robin, to turn the talk into another channel. “He is kind to thee?”
“Aye, he is.” Robin grinned widely. “And Mistress
Cowley makes marchpane for the crackropes.”
“Good, then.” We were at the playhouse door by now, and Robin saw Master Cowley across the yard, struggling with an armful of wooden swords. He ran to help his master, and after piling the swords into his arms, Master Cowley gave him an approving smile and ruffled his hair with affection, then pointed toward the stage, where Master Henslowe stood watching Master Alleyn and Harry rehearse a scene.
Watching from the doorway, I suddenly felt as if a fish-hook had lodged itself in my throat. Was it so easy for Robin? A bit of sweet almond paste and a fatherly smile, and he had found himself a new family.
I knew it was not fair, even as I thought it. Did I begrudge Robin a kind master and a welcoming home? But I felt as lost as I had on that first day in London. The playhouse was Robin’s place, not mine. There were women who scrubbed the stage or sold nuts and beer during the performances, but every player and apprentice was a man or a boy. If they knew the truth of what I was, they would bar the door to me.
Robin had friends, and a kind master, and work that he loved. But I had only a master with something to hide, and secrets of my own.
Robin dropped his armful of wooden swords on the stage just as Harry, in a black wig and an extravagant gown of gold tissue over white brocade, swept his arms out and sank into a low curtsey. Half the swords missed the edge of the stage and fell to the ground with a clatter. Robin hopped back to save his toes and Harry lost his balance, stumbled forward, and trod heavily on the hem of his skirt. There was an ominous sound of stitches giving way as he straightened up.
I ran to help Robin pick up the swords, and Harry looked down in dismay. Several points, the tapes that tied the skirt to the bodice, had been ripped loose, and there was a gap at his waist, showing a patched shirt underneath the silk.
“Clumsy oaf!” Master Henslowe exclaimed, enraged. “Hast torn it?”
“’Twas his fault!” Harry insisted, pointing at Robin. “If he had not made such a noise—”
“Oh, indeed?” Master Henslowe snapped back. “And thinkst thou that, during a performance, thou’lt never hear anything to startle thee? A player keeps his lines in his head and his feet on the stage, no matter what befalls! And if thou canst not do that, thou’rt not fit for this part.”
Harry’s face flushed red and he scowled at the ground. “’Tis but a woman’s part,” he muttered. Perhaps he did not mean anyone to hear, but he was a player after all, and it came naturally to him to speak clearly on a stage.
I had been about the playhouse for less than a month, but even I knew better than to answer Master Henslowe in such a way. Hastily I helped Robin pile the rest of the swords back up on the stage and held my breath, waiting for the explosion.
But to my surprise, it did not come. “Master Henslowe,” drawled a patient voice as Master Alleyn intervened. “You are welcome to beat the boy senseless after the performance. Indeed, I recommend it. But if you do so now, I will have no Zenocrate to make love to this afternoon. Pray, may we continue?”
Master Henslowe seemed to bubble with rage at Harry’s impudence, but he recognized the truth of Master Alleyn’s words. “Well, take it off then, take it off,” he
snapped at Harry, who began to fumble with the remaining points. “Thou canst rehearse in thy breeches, I hope? Or hast forgotten how to speak as well as how to walk? Mark well,” he added venomously as he snatched the skirt from Harry’s hands. “Pretty boys I can pick up by the dozen in the stews, but lace and brocade cost
“I am sorry,” Harry mumbled, standing shamefaced in his gorgeous bodice and shabby breeches.
“Sorry, aye, if thou’rt not now, thou wilt be after the performance is over. Here, boy.” Master Henslowe threw the skirt in Robin’s direction, but Robin’s hands were full of the last few swords he’d picked up, so I caught the armful of gold and white before it could land on the ground. “Take it to the tireman and have it mended,” Master Henslowe ordered. “From your speech, Master Alleyn, I pray you.”
“This way,” Robin said to me, and I followed him backstage and along a narrow passageway to a half-open door.
“Master Green,” Robin said, sticking his head into the room. “Harry has torn his gown and it must be mended.”
“Indeed?” said a dry, impatient voice. “And what else did Henslowe expect, putting a flat-footed lout like that into one of my best gowns? Bring it here; let me see the damage.”
I went behind Robin into the room and drew in my breath.
It was little more than a closet, with one window in the far wall. But it was packed full to bursting with color. For an instant I was back in my father’s warehouse, with the smell of wool and the rolls of cloth stacked up to the ceiling. But here there was more than wool. Chests lined the walls, and above them from hooks hung cloaks and skirts and hats and gowns and doublets in sea-blue velvet, grass-green satin, red silk and ivory lace and taffeta the yellow of sunlight. If a rainbow had come apart at the seams, it might have looked like this room.
Master Green, the tireman, was small and thin and stooped over from his work, with spectacles perched on his nose. He sat on a stool near the window, sewing a new sleeve onto a doublet of crimson velvet. “Well, let’s see, then,” he said, and I handed the skirt to him. “Not so bad, only a few points. Go and find Will and tell him to mend it. I must finish this doublet for Master Alleyn.”
“Would not green suit him better?”
The words were out of my mouth before I realized that they might sound like a criticism. It had been the memory of Master Alleyn’s face on stage that had prompted me to speak. He was dark-haired and red-cheeked, and his face flushed easily with emotion or heat. A crimson doublet would make him look parboiled.
Master Green’s spectacles slid down his nose and he
looked at me in surprise. “And thy name is?”
“My brother, Richard,” Robin said. “I’ll go and find Will, then.”
“Kit Marlowe’s boy?” Although Robin’s hand was out for the torn skirt, Master Green did not hand it to him, but only looked quizzically at me, as if marveling at the impudence of a servant.
“Pardon, master,” I mumbled, ducking my head. Had I not just vowed to stay quiet and in the background? “I did not mean—”
“Quite right, green would suit him much better,” Master Green said, waving his hand, still holding a needle, as if to brush my apology aside. “But he is to play Tamburlaine, a barbarian king, and it must be red, to show he is a bloodthirsty tyrant. So he will storm and sulk, but he must wear it. A ruff around the neck will help, to draw the red away from his face.”
A white ruff against red? He would look like a clown. “Or a fur trim, perhaps?” I said thoughtfully, my mind caught up by the idea of color on color. “Like this.” I was not sure what animal it had come from, but the fur I picked up from the top of a chest was a rich brown with undertones of gold.
Master Green took the fur from me and laid it across the red velvet on his lap. “Thou mayst be right.” He held
the combination up to the light. “Thou hast an eye for color, indeed. Go on, then, Robin, what art waiting for? Find Will and get that mended.”
“I should have known better,” I muttered to myself as I followed Robin back out of the tireroom. I had known far too much about clothes for a boy named Richard.
“He thought nothing of it,” Robin said cheerfully. “Now, where’s Will gotten himself to?”
“Robin, hurry!” Sam was suddenly at Robin’s elbow. “Master Edmont is to give us a fencing lesson. Come, he’s waiting.”
“But I must find Will,” Robin protested. “He’s to mend this skirt of Harry’s.”
“I saw him go up into the second gallery,” Sam said, pointing.
“Richard, wilt look for him?” Robin asked, turning to me. “Please? Master Edmont is the best fencer in the company, and ’tis rare that he teaches the crackropes.”
“Hurry!” Sam called, running back toward the stage as Robin thrust the armful of skirt at me.
“But who is Will?” I asked helplessly.
“The ’prentice tireman,” Robin called, already turning to follow Sam.
With no other choice, I tucked the skirt more securely into my arms and climbed the stairs to the galleries.
I saw no one in the second gallery and went on to the third, the highest. But that was empty, too. Frowning, I started back down. Sam must have been mistaken. But as I passed the second gallery, something caught my eye.
It was a shoe, lying upon one of the benches as though some player had carelessly abandoned it there. Except that there was a foot in this shoe, and a leg attached to the foot. A few steps nearer and I could see a boy, perhaps a year or two older than I was, lying flat on his back in the space between the first bench and the gallery railing, intent on a book he held open a few inches from his nose. It was a perfect hiding place. No one could see him from the stage below, and if he had not left a foot propped up on the bench, I would probably have missed him as well.
I cleared my throat. He did not move.
“Pardon. Are you Will?”
The boy sprang up as if he’d been stung by a bee, and his book almost flew over the railing into the midst of the fencing lesson below.
“I’ve finished. Nearly. A few stitches more. Who are
With my arms full of cloth, I could not put my hands to my face to smother my smile. He was so quick to defend himself, and so startled to find that he was not being accused.
“Richard Archer,” I introduced myself. “Robin’s brother.”
“Oh.” He sighed with relief. “You nearly killed me with the shock. I thought you were come to hound me back to my work.”
He brushed a length of bright yellow hair out of his eyes and grinned at me. The face that had been so studious a moment ago, and then so comically alarmed, was now friendly and cheerful.
“I was, I suppose. Master Green sent me to find you. This must be mended before the performance.” There was the oddest pressure around my heart, as if someone had fixed an iron band about it, and was squeezing it gently but steadily tighter. I showed Will the torn points on Harry’s skirt, hoping to draw his attention away from my face.
“Ah, God’s teeth,
performance?” Will looked wildly alarmed. “I’ll never finish it! I was meant to be sewing these tabards for the soldiers. I thought I had time enough….” He looked at a heap of red and yellow linenon the floor, a threaded needle stuck into the cloth, as if he expected it to have sewn itself up while he read.
“I could help,” I offered. He blinked at me in surprise. “My father was a wool merchant”—this, at least, was true—“and a tailor as well”—this was not. “I have some skill with a needle.” I fervently hoped Robin had
said nothing to contradict my claim.
Will, however, was far too relieved to wonder. “Can you, truly? A miracle! If you can finish these tabards, I can do this skirt of Harry’s. Half the points ripped off, and here’s the lace at the hem torn, too. God’s teeth, he’s a clumsy ox, is he not? He’s grown much too tall this past winter to play the women’s parts. Sit you down here, Richard. I thank you a thousand times. You’ve saved me a beating from that slave driver, that sour-faced, shortsighted, mean-spirited wretch.”
I was already spreading the first tabard, a simple smock with no sleeves, out on my knee to see what needed to be done. “But he—is your master, is he not?” Even after weeks among the folk of the playhouse, I was still a little shocked at the freedom of their tongues.
Will groaned as his long, thin fingers tugged at the points on Harry’s skirt to see which would need repair. “Worse than that. He is my father. If I were only an apprentice, I might buy my freedom, but a son has no such escape.”
I bit my lip and bent my head over my sewing. Three stitches, four, five.
“I am sorry, Richard. I had forgotten about your father.”
“Of course. All the playhouse knows.” He shrugged and smiled gently. “We spend so much time together, there are no secrets here. I beg pardon for speaking so carelessly.”
He sounded honestly contrite. I gave him a quick smile, though it came hard, to show I bore no ill will. “You wish to escape?” I asked. “And where would you go?” Anything to take us away from the subject of fathers.
“Where? Anywhere!” He snatched up his book from the bench and waved it in my direction. “The Indies! The New World! They say there are cities of gold, and savages who eat men’s hearts, and jungles with beasts no one has ever seen. And my father expects me to sit here in this prison, sewing players’ rags all my life!” He jabbed the needle angrily into the white silk.
I finished one tabard and picked up another. Below us Master Alleyn’s voice boomed from the stage.
“I hold the fates bound fast in iron chains,
And with my hand turn Fortune’s wheel about,
And sooner shall the sun fall from his sphere,
Than Tamburlaine be slain or overcome.”
Magnificent, his rich voice rolling forth like a dark, deep river. Magnificent, but absurd. No one held the fates
captive, no one spun Fortune’s wheel at his own will. Not Tamburlaine the barbarian king nor Will the tireman’s son. We were all who we had been born to be.
But I had not been born to be Richard, a playmaker’s servant boy, and yet here I sat, in my breeches and doublet, sewing costumes in the playhouse, and no one suspected my duplicity. If my new life as Richard was so easy, what did that say of my old life as Rosalind? Was that the secret of the Rose—that none of our lives were any more real than a part played on Master Henslowe’s stage?
We had been sewing quietly for some little time when Will spoke again, and now his voice was more wistful than angry. “They show foreign lands on that stage every day, and people crowd in to see it. But ’tis all a show, ’tis nothing. When there are
lands to explore, lands where no one has ever set foot, how could anyone be content to molder away here?” His gaze went up over the roofs of the galleries to the clear sky, though his hands never faltered in their quick, neat work.
I knew what it was to long for something like that, something beyond my reach. The iron band inside me loosened suddenly and, released from its pressure, my heart seemed to turn liquid and gush out into the hollow spaces of my chest. I wished I could speak, to tell Will that I understood a little of what he felt. But I was no playmaker like Master
Marlowe, no player like Master Alleyn, to let words roll easily and lightly off my tongue.
“You think it foolish, no doubt.” His eyes were back on his sewing.
“No, in truth—”
“There, ’tis done.” He bit the thread off deftly between his teeth. “Why, you’re finished as well. You are wasted as a servant, Richard; you should find a place as a tailor’s apprentice. I’ll repay you for your help one day.”
I thought to tell him there was no need of repayment, but he was already getting to his feet, folding the tabards neatly and setting the skirt on top. Then he held out a hand to me.
“Many thanks, Richard.”
His skin was smooth and warm.
“I hope you get your wish, Will Green,” I said to him. His eyes were blue, like cornflowers wet with rain. He looked a little puzzled at my earnestness, as well he might, and I blushed suddenly, my cheeks painfully hot. What must he be thinking? I tugged my hand free, muttered a graceless farewell, and hurried down the gallery stairs.