The Mermaid was the tavern for the disreputable; thieves, roaring boys, actors… playwrights. And on this night in our year of grace 1603, every disreputable faction was present. It was a cold March night in Southwark, too early in the year for most of the play houses to open yet, even if it hadn't been Lent.
Three men were at a warm corner table by the fire. There was space there, but two of them got up and left when another man joined them. Will Shakespeare said, "Good evening, Ben," without even looking up from his writing.
"How did you know?"
"No one else could get Middleton and Dekker to shift from a warm seat on a cold night."
Ben Jonson said, "Bah, I need some hot ale in me and some ink and paper."
"The ink's as thin as the ale, but the landlord says we have to pay for the paper."
"A pox on him. Blackfriars just let out for the night. He'll make a fortune this evening."
"Dull as ever. Can't understand why so many praise Marlowe so high. I mean, yes, he has a mighty line, but 'swounds, can his generals never be quiet?"
Another man sat at the table, "'sBlood, can you?" John Fletcher was a well framed young man who was hoping to write for the stage. He made his way among the playwrights by buying them supper.
The landlord hurried over when he saw him and took an order for hot ale for all three gentlemen, two capons, green sauce, and six leaves of paper for Misters Jonson and Shakespeare.
"I say thanks, though it's doubtful I mean it," Jonson said.
Fletcher merely nodded at him with a knowing smile.
Will said to Fletcher, "Your shadow is behind you again."
Fletcher shrugged. "He was in attendance at Blackfriars, too."
Jonson said loudly, "Hi Moll, cutting a purse?" which startled the young man and let him see the roaring girl who was about to rob him.
Mary Frith spat on the floor and spewed out some colorful cant as she drew on her pipe and returned to her table.
Will and Ben laughed, and Will made a note of some of her curses on the corner of a page.
Ben said, "I don't know your name, but you can buy me my next pint of ale since I saved your purse." He indicated the seat next to Fletcher and the young man blushed.
"Francis Beaumont, Mister Jonson. I am an admirer of your works." He sat down and called the landlord over ordering a venison pie and malmsey for the table.
"The Metamorphosis of Tobacco. You have a knack for verse, young man."
"And I'm John Fletcher. I read your Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. Is it true what Jonson said? That you were following me?"
"I…yes. I was. I'd seen you at the theater before, and you seemed much moved by Tamburlaine."
Jonson muttered "'Strewth."
"What do you think was Marlowe's greatest work?" Beaumont asked the table.
Fletcher answered immediately, "Doctor Faustus. He was absolutely right to have him go to hell at the end. What true scholar could burn his books? Or repent of knowledge?"
Beaumont beamed. "Exactly. If you love learning and words, then it's the most important of all -- beyond women or religion. It's the life of the mind."
Jonson sipped his malmsey and rolled his eyes. "You're fools both to speak of such things at the Mermaid."
"You haven't answered," Beaumont said.
"Marlowe was before my time, but I think his Massacre at Paris, which extols the true Protestant faith was his best work." Jonson said, piously.
Beaumont looked to the head of the table. "And you? Mister…?"
"I just call him Shakescene," said Jonson.
"Will is sufficient." The man smiled. "I have a great fondness for Arden of Faversham.
Jonson barked a laugh and swigged some ale to help his throat.
Fletcher looked at Jonson, then at Shakespeare. "Marlowe did not write Arden of Faversham."
William Shakespeare grinned. "Titus Andronicus was successful, but definitely a young effort on my part. I'm good with histories, better than Kit was at comedies, and the heavens will attest that I am once again assaying tragedy. Kit remembered hearing stories about Alice Arden and her lover. I'd read Holinshed's version, and, well, we sat at a tavern, much like this one, with paper and ink in our hands and wrote it together. I did most of the villain scenes. He did most of Thomas Arden's scenes."
"You knew Marlowe?" Beaumont's somewhat worshipful gaze locked on Shakespeare's, and Will chuckled quietly to himself.
"Kit was an interesting man, sharp of wit, keen of intellect, and well-formed of limb. Our styles were different enough that we were never in direct competition. We were friends, and I still miss him even a decade after his death."
Fletcher said, "I knew him, too."
All three men stared at him. He finally said, "I was thirteen and had come down from Oxford to stay with my father for a month or two. I saw the first performance of his Edward II and followed him home from the theater. He thought at first I was a cutpurse, then that I had been sent to spy on him, but after setting me a translation from the Greek to prove I was a student, he let me work with him. I made fair copies of some of his pieces. Read over some of his Latin translations, just to see if there were clear errors. He was as good an education as Oxford itself. Three months I knew him. He taught me some Dutch -- he said Philip Sidney had taught him -- and helped my French."
"No doubt improved your knowledge of Greek matters," Jonson muttered.
Fletcher caught his eye. "No doubt," he said coldly.
Beaumont lowered his voice, "Is it true that he didn't really die at Deptford? It's said none who knew him saw the body. He could still be alive, working on plays…"
"Just don't say that he's been writing mine. I swear, no one ever seems to believe an actor can write." Will made a few notes on his page as he spoke. "I think Kit would have contacted someone had he lived. But, if it's true he was working for Walsingham, then maybe he had not the opportunity to communicate as well as escape his fate."
Fletcher shook his head. "I saw the body." He ate a little of the capon and sauce and sipped some malmsey before he continued. "When the warrants went out for his arrest, he sent me away. I followed. Perhaps, I had some romantic notion of rescuing him." He lowered his voice. "Kit was close to Raleigh and Harriot at that time." He glanced around before quietly saying, "Free thinkers."
All at the table nodded their understanding. Fletcher said, "I thought they were the ones who'd called him to Deptford. Some proof of nature or the great spheres had been discovered, and they wanted him to help impart it to the world. Instead... I didn't hear the conversation. I never saw the men he met with before or since -- and pray fervently never to meet them. Voices were raised, and then hands were raised and daggers were out. They say Kit swung at the man's back, but that's a lie. Switzer, Fritzer -- whatever his name was -- he threw his knife with force from across the room, and it lodged in sweet Kit's eye. I don't doubt he was dead before he fell to the ground." He took another swallow of the strong drink young Beaumont poured for him. "I shamed myself by running. I didn't rouse the neighbors or the magistrates. I just ran until I found my way back to London, back to my father's house. I didn't bother to return to Oxford."
"How terrible must that sight have been," Beaumont said. He put an arm around his new friend and patted his shoulder. "I'm sorry to know that he's really gone. It was intriguing to think Marlowe might still be sitting somewhere watching his plays and writing marvelous poetry."
Jonson and Shakespeare glanced at the younger men and smiled their understandings of this new friendship.
A long, low tone came from the great bell at Westminster Abbey across the river. Southwark's bell began to ring and then Saint Paul's and other parish churches.
"Sic transit Gloriana mundi," said Fletcher.
"She's dead?" Francis Beaumont seemed confused. "I cannot believe it."
"Then we should drink the health of our new king, the first with the name of James." Shakespeare raised his glass high, and the other joined him.
"Long live the King," resounded through the tavern.
"Long live the words of Kit Marlowe," said William Shakespeare.
And the others at the table cried, "Hear, hear!"