Prologue: September 1, 1588
“Kit, are you alive?”
The face of Tamburlaine appears through the upstage curtains like a grotesque on a church door, oil-black rings of kohl smudged around his eyes, revealing something of the actor, Ned Alleyn, underneath.
“They are calling for the author—listen!”
Kit hears nothing but a dull, water-in-the-ears roar that may be a thousand applauding hands or the hammering of his own heart. His fingers make a clumsy gesture at the air around his person, as if to say that he has neither will nor strength to step out of it.
“What, afraid, ye silly giant?” An arm wrapped in a silken sleeve reaches through, brass bangles clacking, and cuffs him on the shoulder, pressing him forward. “Go now, go, and take your poison. Now, now—now!”
In the space of a blink, Kit moves from the huddled dark of the tiring-house to the raging brightness of the Rose Playhouse. A vortex of faces begins below the level of the stage and whirls upwards, three stories, to a dilated eye of cloud-streaked sky. To his left, the assembled players—gaudy, monstrous figures in Mongol furs and turbans—make space for his entrance as if he were ten feet tall and equally wide. Ned backs into their midst with several egregious, wrist-twirling bows and then, for some reason, draws his scimitar and slices it crosswise through the air, as he has practiced a hundred times for the part. With it he waves Kit onwards, the politest of threats.
Kit ventures a step downstage and sets off a surge of cheers. The audience is chanting something. It sounds at first like blood, blood, blood, as at a bear-baiting or an execution. Yet in another moment the words ring clear: “More! More! More!”
This is what ’tis like to be adored, Kit supposes, realizing in a panic that he knows not how to perform “adored.” He is twenty-four years old, the eldest of four children, not counting the dead, and he has been more often in a corner than at the center of things, corners being places of relative safety. Obscurity too was safe, but that familiar house has, in the course of one afternoon, burned down around him; here he stands in its ashes, exposed and soft and awkwardly tall. He has wanted this, has he not? He has pictured this. It means he has achieved worthiness. It means his old self is gone.
At last he dips into an unbalanced bow, grinning as he rises into the cheers. Adoration, in fact, feels slightly embarrassing, as if he has tripped on a stone and the whole city has swarmed in to pull him to his feet.
“Kit!” Hands clamber at his ankles. Down in the pit are a handful of faces he recognizes: Thomas Kyd, Tom Nashe, Michael Drayton, Will Shakespeare. No sign of Tom Watson.
“Jump!” Will shouts, as if for the fourth or fifth time. “Jump down, we’ll carry you out!”
Kit elects not to jump. Rather, he steps down into their waiting arms, on legs like stilts. The poets catch him at the thighs and backside and shuttle him across the pit like a beetle on its back. He twists his head left and right, tries to ask, “Where’s Tom Watson?” but no one hears him, they only deliver him to yet another frenzied handshake, another breathless laud: “Seneca reborn—ay, England’s very own Seneca! Shall we have more Tamburlaine?”
“What is your name!” demands another. And then another, and another.
Kit sputters, having temporarily forgotten it; after all, he has had so many: Marley, Marlin, Merlin, Morely. By the time it comes to him the poets have ploughed ahead, and he resorts to shouting “Marlowe!” this way and that, as if he were only the top half of a man in search of a rogue set of legs, as giddy as a boy riding on his father’s shoulders. He must remember this moment. His life has been upended many times already, and there may come a day when he will disbelieve that ever he was or could have been this man.
A hand manacles Kit’s wrist and rips him from the poets’ grasp, with such force that he nearly stumbles to his knees. But he rises, laughing at the rush. Tom, at last! The world blurs as he is dragged on, bodies parting for him like summer corn. Not for a moment does his captor slow his pace nor loosen his grip, his shape remaining indistinct. They speed towards the sheltered place beneath the galleries, for the safety, Kit presumes, of a shadow.
Up on the stage, Ned has begun the compulsory prayer for Her Majesty’s health and longevity. The groundlings take off their caps and bow their heads, frozen in place as at the casting of a spell.
Kit comes to a halt in his captor’s clutching arms. It is not Tom. Not Tom at all. A hand presses the back of his head, burying his nose and mouth in coarse, dirty hair. He recognizes its smell at once: a stench of pitch and sparked flint, of campfires left to smolder on damp earth.
A hard kiss on his cheek, a hot voice in his ear: “Did ye burn a candle for me?”
Kit senses an impact in some vital part of his body, a thump to the heart, a wave of cold rushing to the fingertips. No one around him sees anything. The crowd intones as one, “God bless her Majesty’s reign!”
The embrace slackens, yet Kit drops his eyes from the face, focusing instead on a grimy jerkin fashioned of something like oilcloth, a substance pretending to be leather. “Look at ye, boy,” says the voice. “Just look at ye!” As if Kit’s looks are an ill fit for his circumstances, or as if his circumstances have, in some indelible way, altered or corrupted his looks.
“God protect her Majesty’s kingdom!” cries the crowd.
“Today is a fine day,” the man says. He stands no higher than Kit’s shoulder, and yet some part of him, his scent or shadow, looms high above his head. “Tomorrow you shall come with me to Northumberland.”
“Death to all that oppose her!” shouts the crowd. “Death to all that oppose her church!”
“If ye refuse me, marry, I’ll have words with your keeper, understand?” The man pauses. “Tom Watson is your keeper these days, is he not?”
Of course he would use that word, “keeper.” Of course to him Kit is a thing to be kept.
“Old Tom has himself a pretty wife now, no? A house up in Norton Folgate? A fine house, with a yard and a little dairy-shed at the back, built of rubbled stone…”
Kit gathers his fury, lifts his eyes but halts at the lips. He watches a smile spread in one direction, amused but also pitying, as at a child stumbling in its first steps.
“Ay, there’s the brute.” The man leans close and whispers against Kit’s earlobe, “Bull’s House in Deptford, tomorrow night. Ere the tide changes.” A hand pats his arm and the shadow slides past him, behind him, and is gone.
Kit places a large hand over his stomach, disbelieving at first that he is whole, that ’tis not the dropping of his guts to the ground that he feels. He sucks in a breath. He is alive yet.
Half an hour later Kit spots Tom Watson at last, across the dark, overcrowded common room of the Dancing Bears tavern. Tom is ten years Kit’s senior, nearly as tall and every bit as thin; they look well beside each other, Kit has been told, like two portraits meant to hang on the same wall. As usual, Tom looms grandly above a circle of admirers, his face twisted into an obliging, patrician smile as if humbled by their praise, when in fact he requires tenfold the love of an average man. There are times when Kit must remind himself of this, must take stock of the scale of the task laid before him: no common love will suffice, not for Tom Watson.
Kit aims a silent scream out through his gaze until Tom looks up, seeming surprised to see him, his grin becoming vulpine and impish, eyes beaming with pride. Kit goes on staring until Tom’s grin sinks at the corners.
Why can you not simply be happy? his look says. Be happy, just this once!
Kit knows not how to escape his own circle of praise. After all he cannot hide; he towers half a head higher than the second-tallest man in the room. Currently he is pinned between the bar and a pack made up of Will Shakespeare and some of his Shoreditch friends, the former ranting excitedly about King Henry IV, oblivious to Kit’s wandering attention.
“To have your hand in it would be a boon to all of us,” Will shouts over the crowd’s roar. “The English parts I shall write, and you, I thought, could write the French parts. For you have been to France, no? I’ve heard it said you’ve been to France.”
“Ay.” Something heavy floats to the surface in Kit’s stomach, like a bloated carcass.
“You even speak French!”
“As I’d thought!” The little fellow looks overheated, wide-eyed and red-faced, like a hunter who, after a long chase, is poised for the kill. “Did you know my father is a glover?”
“And yours a shoemaker! We shall make perfect collaborators, you see? Or rather, I shall be your pupil, for my verses range wild at times, all hands and fingers, but you, you know a good foot when you see one—”
“I’ll be sick.” Kit hands his cup to Will, shoves past him without apology. With a hand clamped over his mouth he scrambles through the same swirl of faces that greeted him when he burst onto the stage at the Rose. Now they stand as thick as hairs on cowhide between him and the door to the alley. Somewhere in those faces, Tom perhaps is watching him clamber for an escape, and perhaps another is watching him too, smiling with half his mouth, like a fishhook.
At last Kit reaches the side door under the stairs and bursts into the narrow alley, where he doubles over and vomits into an ash-barrel.
The first man to emerge from the noisome tavern is not Tom Watson. “Are you—”
“I will nail your tongue to the bar, Shakespeare!”
Just as Will retreats, a second man slips outside: Tom, the politic smile barely faded from his face. “Oh, come now, not this again,” he says. “Kit, ye cannot do all your drinking ere the night has even begun.”
“Richard Baines was there,” Kit says.
Tom stammers into silence, lips pursed as if about to ask, feather-headedly, Who?
“Richard Baines, Tom, Richard Baines!”
“At the Rose—in the pit—”
“He knows! I know not how, but he knows!”
Again the door opens, disgorging a pack of players in merry pursuit of the man of the hour. Deaf to all protests, they drag Kit back into the close air of the Dancing Bears, and he can do naught but watch as Tom vanishes into the crowd.
“What, long-faced?” the players say. “We’ll not allow it! Give us drink, here! Give us whiskey! Give us a lass!” Kit accepts the whiskey, declines the lass, and helplessly passes from one man to another like a bridal cup, though ’tis his own cup filled again and again along the way. At some point a hush flutters over the room and all eyes turn to the stairs, where, one after another, the players climb up and offer toasts to Kit’s health, declare their undying loyalty, and swear up and down that none ever doubted him, which Kit roundly disbelieves. He has been nothing before this, other than Tom Watson’s “friend.” Sometimes, Tom Watson’s “boy.”
After the supporting players have had their say, comes the great epilogue: Ned Alleyn, still in traces of Tamburlaine paint, slinks down the stairs in a blond wig and a toga, with false bosoms swaying against his hairy chest, and introduces himself as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy. He launches into a rambling, falsetto panegyric in Kit’s honor, riddled with tiresome innuendoes at which the audience screams with laughter:
“…And to the gallish inkpot, I say this:
Rude vessel, you are too base a well for dipping
The noble quill that composéd Tamburlaine!
O, that I were such a vessel, for him
To dip in me!…”
Here the clown Rowley puts his arse in the air and blows through his trumpet, lest there be any confusion about what vessel is meant.
The surrounding faces turn upon Kit at every jest, all guffaws and applause. Someone grabs him by both shoulders and shakes him violently, as if to shake his good cheer to the surface. Nearby, he sees the poets Thomas Kyd and Robert Greene chortling behind their hands, no doubt gossiping about him:
Crying in the alley! At his own party!
That’s Kit for you, all gall in one moment and all spleen in the next.
I’ll warrant Tom Watson did soothe him.
As no other man could!
Tom has vanished again. When at last the spectacle draws to a merciful close, Kit sets off in search of him, refusing the handshake of one sweaty neophyte after another. In the snug he finds Tom at last, pontificating about Sophocles to an audience of lesser poets and bored-looking whores: adored Tom, desired Tom, the patriarch of English poets, arms wide open to all his children. Many a time Kit has watched him hold court, torrents of jealousy pumping through his heart. But he is mine. They know, and of this they whisper. But ’tis enough that they know: he is mine.
Kit takes a firm hold of Tom’s shoulder and turns him around mid-sentence, very nearly kissing him on the mouth right there, publicaverunt.
“Take me home,” Kit says.
They walk east, following the river towards London Bridge. Across the water, a string of possets fume along the Thames’s northern embankment. Walls and posterns snake illuminated through the darkness, threaded tightly through narrow, gabled buildings of gridded timbers or stern bricks. Across the river, St. Paul’s tower rises out of the houses like a lone pillar out of rubble, its top lightning-struck decades ago and to this day spireless. Half a mile ahead, a jagged spine of rooftops marches across the long neck of the bridge, their trails of chimney-smoke bowing as one with the wind.
“They’ll all bethink you terribly ungrateful,” Tom says.
“I care not what they think,” Kit says, rubbing the cold tip of his nose. Though drunk and unsteady on his feet, he storms ahead faster than Tom can comfortably follow, weighed down as he is with his prized French rapier.
“We live by shows, do we not?” Tom says, holding the pommel as he jogs. “Sometimes, we must show a face to the world that pleases it best—”
Kit barks a sound of disgust.
“You know, when I was your age, I would have sold my soul to be so admired.”
“Have at my soul then, Tom. ’Tis not mine anyway!”
“How can you be angry?”
Kit answers him not. Too frequently are such questions asked of him: Why are you angry? Why are you sad? Why do you laugh? Why do you cry? Other men are never so often called upon to explain themselves, a fact of which Kit has grown painfully aware with the onset of manhood. However he feels, it is too either wrong or too much.
“Stop, stop.” Tom loops his arm through Kit’s, dragging him to a halt, and for a moment they stand so close that Kit hangs his head for shame of being seen.
Then Tom embraces him, a gesture not without its dangers. The street is empty, the night pitch black, yet Kit looks past Tom’s head to scan the dim windows above. For all these months that he’s thought himself safe, he’s not known how relentlessly an unseen watcher has fondled him with his eyes.
“I cannot stay with you, Tom.”
“Shhh. That is not true.”
“He talked about Anna, and the house. He knows about the dairy-shed!”
“That man is a fly to me.” Tom draws back, holds Kit at arm’s length. “I know how to be rid of Baines.”
Kit understands him not at first. “How? Will you murder him?”
Tom takes this as a joke. “If it should come to that…”
Kit turns a shoulder on him, walking on.
Tom follows. “Listen to me! You must think of him as a man thinks of another man, not as a child thinks of a bugbear. You see it not, but the devil has weaknesses, many. For one thing, he is despised. The very men from whom he draws his power, they despise him. In the Privy Court they talk of him as an unpleasant houseguest—”
“And yet they tolerate him, do they not?”
“He has his uses. But this country is teeming with men willing to do the same filthy work. My point is there are those in the Privy Council who would welcome any reason to be rid of him.” Tom falls quiet a moment. He gnaws on his tongue ere he whispers, “The rumors about yourself and him—”
“They are not true!” Kit says, too loud.
“Well, that is well.” Tom sighs, though he looks neither relieved nor credulous. Kit has denied the rumors before, and no one ever seems to believe him. Not even Tom.
“But there were others before you,” Tom goes on. “And there have been others since, though never for long. ’Tis a mainstay of gossip: ‘Baines and his boys.’ Some of them were young. Very young.”
Kit was sixteen when it started. Far from home, in his first year at Cambridge. He was a poor boy, a scholarship boy, living on bread and beer; Baines was a Privy Council spy in search of a long-legged courier with a legible hand and a malleable mind. Three years later, when Kit first met Tom, in Paris, he’d become a silent, hunching beanpole of a lad, so accustomed to standing three feet behind Baines that when he closed his eyes he could see the shape of him still, as if he’d stared at the sun. His time in Paris was spent mostly underground, in a cellar where the Council held prisoners for questioning. Those nights when he would run through the dark, war-ravaged streets to Tom’s house on the Seine—to deliver messages, receive letters—were his only salvation. A kind man in a warm house, who asked him sometimes if he was being treated well.
“Think of those boys, will you?” Tom says after a long silence. “As long as Baines works for the Council, there will be more.”
Cautiously, Kit takes Tom’s hand in his. “What would you have me do?”
Tom leans close, speaking through his teeth. “Tell the Council a beastly thing about him. Tell them a thing they are already likely to believe.”
Kit halts. “No!”
“Fear not,” Tom says, as one soothing an imaginative child. “Tomorrow, I will take you to see Thomas Walsingham. He’ll listen.”
“Shall we tell all your previous lovers while we’re about it?”
“Shhh!” Tom looks over his shoulder, but it seems they are still alone. “Thomas has his uncle’s ear. He could see to it that Baines is banished from the country. Of course the Council shall not permit the matter to go to trial. ‘Such things do not happen in the Holy Kingdom’ and all that. But he could be out of your life, forever.” He studies Kit’s face. “You do desire that, no?”
“I do,” Kit says, though it feels strange to say, like stepping into blackness with his hands outstretched. No one will ever harm you, Baines used to say to him, so long as you have me.
Tom takes his hand, and they walk on in silence, fingers threaded through fingers. It feels like a knot of safety within an immense and howling peril, but an invisible knife prods them between the shoulders, and does not stop until they let go.
Great Stone Gate towers higher and higher at the southern end of London Bridge, its crenelated ramparts studded with torches, as sheer and stern as a promontory over the sea. Tom stops just before the bridge, looking up at the gate as if it were a judge before whom he must go anon and can only hope will be reasonable. Before the sneering portcullis and on the ramparts above, guards armed with arquebusses mill about, laughing at their superiors’ jests. Among them, impaled on stakes, thirty human skulls roost in varying stages of preservation, slack-jawed like a row of mute choristers.
Tom pulls Kit into a corner behind an abutment, out of light and sight. He touches his face. “I will kill him for you, if you ask it of me.”
Kit shakes his head. One man with one sword cannot give Richard Baines the death he deserves. In any case, vengeance is of no use to the powerless. Kit’s only aim is to survive.
Tom nods, steps back. “Exile it shall be, then.” He touches the tip of his tongue to the back of his teeth, his habit when working over some delightful treachery. “Where shall we send him? France? The Low Countries?”
“The Low Countries,” Kit blurts out. Baines has always hated it there. It will be as good as sending him to hell.
“The Low Countries!” Tom laughs. “You have a tint of spite in you.”
Kit shares not in his mirth, and Tom cuffs his arm gently, in that estranged manner he adopts whenever they are watched or he presumes them to be watched. “Come now, why so serious? What did he do to ye, to make ye so serious?”
Kit remembers the cellar in Paris: so many hours he spent seated at a writing desk, from whose corners sprouted tiny clusters of white mushrooms, like anemones, soft little fingers that searched the air, whose growing he could watch day by day. Patiently, he would stare at them. Through the screams, he would stare at them.
One day Baines dropped a man’s finger upon the desk to startle him out of this reverie: a thick, gnarled worm, the nail-bed black with filth, the bone denuded at one end. Across the room, a man was crying aloud like a child. Baines still had one of his instruments in hand—a pair of pliers, greasy in the candlelight. He wiped his brow on his sleeve, flushed and grinning as men are after running, as if for the sheer pleasure of feeling his own body.
“Put that up your arse,” Baines said, and then returned to his work.
“Kit.” Tom touches his arm, and Kit flinches as if burnt. Tom’s green eyes look on him with kindness, but also with urgency. “Tell me what he did to you,” he says. “Tell me as you will tell it to the Council.”
My historical literary novel, Lightborne, is set during the final days of the poet, spy, and provocateur Christopher Marlowe. Alternating among three viewpoints—those of Marlowe; his traumatized young friend, lover, and then killer, Ingram Frizer; and a sinister agent of the Privy Council, Robin Poley—Lightborne is about men who are forced into impossible choices by an oppressive, violent world.
Once the most beloved playwright in England, “Kit” Marlowe is now a wanted man, accused of treason, sodomy, and heresy and possibly facing torture and execution. While in hiding at a country house owned by a friend, Marlowe captures the attention of Frizer, a servant in the household and avid devotee of the poet’s work. When at last the Privy Council’s agents track Marlowe down and arrest him, Frizer is assigned to be Marlowe’s minder while he is free on bail in London. Over the next ten days, dogged by enemies from Marlowe’s past, the two young men form a passionate bond that upends their perceptions of the world and themselves. As forces within the Privy Council close in around them—in particular the sadistic spy and professional assassin Robin Poley, known as “the vilest of all two-legged creatures”—both Marlowe and Frizer must choose between their love for one another and survival, leading Frizer to do the unthinkable.
In the novel’s Prologue, a young and newly successful Marlowe and his lover, the poet and spy Tom Watson, plot to have Marlowe’s former mentor in the Privy Council sent into exile. Their actions will have fatal consequences when, five years later, Richard Baines returns to England, bent on revenge.
This book represents an obsession of mine that dates back to the first time I slipped my father’s moldering copy of Doctor Faustus out of the bookcase and marveled at the gold-foil devil on the cover. That encounter led me to study Christopher Marlowe as an undergraduate and later to earn my Ph.D. in Drama, specializing in Elizabethan theater. All the while, I was writing this book, and in fact I could say that my primary focus was the book. My dissertation and the first draft of this novel were written simultaneously, and I am astounded at times that I was able to finish the former at all.
Hesse Phillips, originally from Pennsylvania, now lives in Madrid, Spain. Her short story “The Way of the Pack” received a Highly Commended Award from the Bridport Prize Committee in 2019. She is a graduate of the Novel Incubator program (class of 2013) at the GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020