It was a frosty night and the stars shone brightly above Kit Marlowe’s head as he made his way to Bishopsgate through the dark and slippery streets. He pulled his cloak closer round him and began to whistle a catch softly under his breath as he approached the gatehouse. To his satisfaction – for on a cold night such as this, he did not want to linger longer than was necessary – he saw a dark figure standing in the shadows, peering out at the Shoreditch road. Taking his pipe from his pocket, he hurried forward, calling out softly, “Give you good even, sir. Have you got a light?”
The figure turned towards him with a start. “Is that you, Kit? In God’s name, don’t light that foul tobacco or we’ll never pull!”
“Will? Fancy seeing you here.” Disappointed, Kit halted next to the other playwright in the shelter of the wall. “It’s a bit quiet tonight.”
“Dead as the grave,” Will agreed with a sigh. “Where are all the young men seeking their fortune in the great sounding house of London?”
“Tucked up in bed if they have any sense.” Kit put his pipe back in his pocket. “So, what brings you out on such a night as this, Will? No joy with Mr W.H.?”
Will snorted. “If I never see Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, again it will be too soon! When I think of the time I’ve wasted writing sonnets to him – and this is how he repays me! Blow, blow, thou winter wind! Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude!”
“What’s he been up to then?”
“I don’t think I can bring myself to speak of it.”
Kit glanced at him, intrigued. “Oh come on! You can tell me, Will! In confidence, of course.”
Will hesitated. “No, it’s too painful.”
“You’ll feel better if you tell someone. A trouble shared…”
“It’s not my troubles that Henry Wriothesley has been sharing!”
“Then what?” Kit coaxed. “Come on, spit it out.”
There was a pause. “You know the Dark Lady?”
“Yes.” Kit found some difficulty in keeping up with Will’s love affairs, but that one was still ongoing.
“Well, so does he.”
For a moment, Kit was puzzled, then he said slowly, “You mean him – and her?”
Will gave an exasperated sigh. “Sometimes I wonder how you produce your so-called deathless verse, Marlowe. Yes, him and her! Behind my back!”
“Golly.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say. To be frank, he was surprised Wriothesley even knew what a woman was, let alone what to do with her. After a moment, he asked, “Are you sure?”
“Caught them at it,” Will said gloomily.
“Well, blow me!”
“No chance, Marlowe, particularly on a night like this.”
Kit grinned at the other playwright. “A jest! Things can’t be too bad!”
Will gave him a black look. “My heart is broken. And what’s more, I can’t find the inspiration to write - and me with a contract for three plays with Richard Burbage.”
“Now that is serious,” Kit agreed. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of Burbage or he’ll be after you with a broom.” He thought for a moment. “Tell you what, I could help you out a bit, if you like. I’m not so busy on the writing front at the moment - things have gone a bit quiet since ‘Edward the Second.’ Alleyn has stopped nagging me for some reason.”
“Probably because he’s had the City Fathers after him,” Will commented dryly. “How you dared, Kit, in the current social climate…I wonder it wasn’t banned.”
“There was nothing wrong with ‘Edward’,” Kit protested hotly. “It was a perfectly moral tale!”
“About two men in love,” Will pointed out. “Your trouble is you’re before your time. Give it four hundred years and you might get away with that sort of thing. Anyway, everyone including Burbage would know that you wrote it. Your style’s completely different to mine. No one’s ever going to mistake them.”
“I’m sure I could do a passable imitation.”
“You can’t write women.”
“That’s not fair! What about Hero and Leander?”
“What about it?”
Kit decided to abandon the subject. His companion was clearly not in a generous mood. “Oh, come on. Be of good cheer! Here, have a potato – Walter gave me some.”
He tossed the vegetable across to Will, who caught it, studied it thoughtfully, and took a doubtful bite. “I don’t know why Raleigh wastes his time with these, they’ll never catch on. And you shouldn’t be accepting gifts from him – he’s trouble.”
“I can’t help it if he fancies me,” Kit protested, chewing his own potato. Will was right, they were a bit hard and tasteless. Much like the current play at the Rose theatre…
“You should never have written him that poem.”
“I didn’t expect him to write back. Besides, he’s very good looking.”
“He’ll come to a bad end, you mark my words.”
“Well, I tell you, if it gets much colder I’m going to go and look him up. There’s no point in standing round here freezing my balls off if - ”
At this point he caught sight of a dark figure sloping off towards Shoreditch and recognised it instantly. “There’s Kyd!” he exclaimed. “Three crowns says I can make him run!”
“Not worth the bet,” Shakespeare told him but Kit was already calling out, “Thomas! Thomas Kyd! Over here! We’re just having a theological debate on the existence of God!”
Without a backward glance, the figure sprinted out of sight.
“You shouldn’t tease him, Kit,” Shakespeare told him with a frown. “You know how sensitive he is.”
“Yes. That’s what makes him so teasable. No point in doing it if he doesn’t respond.”
“Well, I think you’re being very unkind -” Will began, but they were interrupted by the sound of quick footsteps behind them.
Someone in a short cloak and exaggerated codpiece was approaching from the Bishopsgate road. “I saw him first,” Will said quickly, spitting out his potato and stepping into the lamplight. “Tis a cold evening, young sir, is it not?”
The figure exclaimed, “Will? I thought I’d find you here. God’s death, I’m frozen stiff.”
Shakespeare recoiled with a muttered oath. “Wriothesley, I told you I never wanted to see you again!”
Lord Henry Wriothesley patted Will on the arm and grinned at Kit, his long fair hair falling over his shoulder in that artfully casual way he affected. “He doesn’t mean it. He’s just a bit cross.”
“I do mean it, you two-timing popinjay! You tickle-brained strumpet! You -”
“You’re making these up, Will.” Wriothesely slid his arm round the irate poet’s waist. “Have you missed me?”
Really, Kit reflected with some amusement, the man was either socially inept or the most arrogant git ever created. Probably the latter…He was going to be lucky if he didn’t get a kick up the arse from the irate playwright.
Will glowered at his ex-lover. “Yes, I have missed you – like I would a sore thumb, an unpaid debt, a cheating friend -”
Wriothesley interrupted again. “Boring, Will. God’s beard, it’s freezing out here. Why don’t you come home with me?” His eyes slid to Kit’s. “Both of you?”
An interesting suggestion, Kit mused, but one that he didn’t think Will would go along with somehow…
“Don’t mention threesomes to me, Wriothesley,” Shakespeare spat. “Have you no shame?”
Wriothesley appeared surprised at the question. “No, of course not. What would I want to be ashamed of?”
“If you don’t know, then far be it from me to tell you. Let’s just say that if you’re expecting any more sonnets, then you’re going to be disappointed.”
“No sonnets?” Wriothesley looked aghast. “Will! What about my immortality?”
“Sod your immortality.”
He really was in a bad mood, Kit decided. It would be interesting to see what Wriothesley did.
What Wriothesley did was pin Will up against the gatehouse wall, smothering his protests with a long and lingering kiss. Kit had to admire him for his boldness, if nothing else.
“Mmph-mmh-hmm!” Will demanded, struggling a bit. If he had really wanted Wriothesley to let him go, he would have put up more of a fight, Kit reflected. He suspected that Will couldn’t make his mind up whether to carry on being cross or to effect a reconciliation and all that went with it. When Wriothesley came up for air, the playwright gasped, “You just can’t keep it in your doublet, can you?”
“I can on a night like this,” the earl assured him, “but if you’ll come home with me, I’m perfectly willing to get it out. Or better still, let’s go to yours, it’s closer.”
“Blow, blow, thou winter -”
“Wouldn’t you rather compare me to a summer’s day?”
“You mean you’re hot but don’t come very often?”
Wriothesley appeared to tighten his grip. “Oh Will, you’re so unkind! If you knew how much I missed you!”
“I do know,” Will assured him grimly. “Hardly at all. You are surrounded by sycophants, my lord.”
“My point exactly, Will.”
“Don’t think I’m going to flatter you like they do.”
“I’ve got better things to do with my time, like writing plays.”
“Indeed you have, Will.”
At this point, Kit began to lose interest and leaving the lovers to come to terms, he strolled through the gateway and out onto the Shoreditch road. The ground under his feet was hard and slippery with ice, and the houses and inns to either side had their doors firmly closed. There was a smell of woodsmoke and decaying refuse.
From a nearby alleyway came a low whistle and Kit glanced round sharply. He saw a hand beckoning him and casually made his way over the glistening ground towards its owner.
“You took your time getting here,” said Thomas Walsingham, making room for Kit in the shadows. “I was just going to give up and go home.”
“I got delayed,” Kit replied, rummaging in his sleeve and producing a rolled up piece of parchment which he handed to Walsingham. There was the clink of money changing hands. “You know, it’s getting much more difficult to pick up anything worth reporting,” Kit continued, leaning against the wall beside Walsingham and pulling his cloak closer round him. “People aren’t plotting like they used to.”
“The Armada scare put a lot of people off,” Walsingham agreed, taking out his pipe and lighting it. “And losing Mary Queen of Scots did the business no good. Still, I daresay it’ll pick up again in the end.”
“And in the meantime, what are poor spies to live off?” Kit asked.
“You’re a playwright, aren’t you? Write a play. If it’s good enough, the Queen’s majesty will ask for a command performance and then you’re made.”
Kit snorted. “When Good Queen Bess parts with so much as a groat in payment, then I’ll know that God really does exist.” He added hastily, “For goodness’ sake don’t repeat that to her, or my head will be on London Bridge, swaying in the breeze.”
Walsingham blew a smoke ring. “What’s it worth not to tell her?”
“I’ll buy you a drink. Come on, let’s go and see if the White Horse has any of that new Scottish spirit that everyone’s raving about.”
“You drink too much, Kit,” Walsingham told him sternly. “No good will come of frequenting taverns.”
“Those who don’t love tobacco and booze are fools,” Kit stated.
“Can I quote you on that?” Walsingham asked drily. “Anyway, I can’t oblige you with my company - I have another assignation. I’ll have to love you and leave you, Kit.” He straightened up and, pipe in hand, strolled off towards Shoreditch.
Kit made a disgusted noise and turned back towards the gatehouse. There was no sign of Will and the Earl, so he presumed they had made up their differences and gone off together. He shivered and huddled into his cloak. Might as well go home himself, he mused. There was nothing doing tonight.
He had just stepped out from the gateway when he heard the sound of weary footsteps on the Shoreditch road, and low voices. Probably just some drunken reveller making their way home, but all the same he paused and waited to see.
Two finely dressed but rather travel-stained figures made their weary way towards the gate. They were both male, young, and carrying small packs. Kit paused hopefully and the nearer of the two caught sight of him.
“Oh, hello,” the stranger said. “My name’s Beaumont and this is my friend Fletcher. How d’you do?”
Two of them! Well, who’d have thought he’d strike lucky? “Gentlemen,” said Kit, taking each by the arm, “welcome to London.”