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A Meeting of the Minds

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Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might:
"Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?"

 

"There is a man I wish you to meet," Francis Walsingham told him, the next time that Marlowe came to see him. Kit had deliberately made himself late, staying to watch the fifth act of the Spanish Tragedy although he had seen it many times before; to his irritation, Walsingham pretended not to notice.

"A Catholic?"

"A Scotsman, in London on a brief visit. He is staying at Baynard's Castle and tomorrow rides to Penshurst; he's a friend of the Sidneys. He is a friend, in fact, to a great number of people. The Queen speaks kindly of him, and he is an intimate at King James's court."

"A man so well-befriended can hardly need a visit from a servant of yours," Kit said.

Walsingham put down the letter he had been pretending to read. "You know the Queen has named no heir. Should the worst happen, we shall of course require allies in Scotland."

We, in this case, was the government of England, which was not synonymous with the Queen. The Queen invested it like a garment; but like a garment, it could be doffed and passed on to be worn by another, from waiting-chamber to pawn shop, until at last it came to tread the boards of the playhouse stage. Kit Marlowe knew himself to be the cast-off rags of the government: only those who had never seen the real thing might be taken in by the glitter.

"And do you think, my lord," he said, in a tone a scholar might have called Sceptic, "that I am the man to make this Scot our ally?"

"There were stories," said the Secretary, picking up the letter again with the tips of his long fingers, "of a series of beautiful young men in his youth. Perhaps the taste has not left him."

Kit looked at Walsingham's bloodless face within its ruff, and imagined it was John the Baptist's head on a platter, with himself a gleeful Salome. "I thank you for the compliment."

"And I hope that you will prove more apt at seducing Scots than suborning Frenchmen, Mr. Marlowe," Walsingham replied. He left Kit to see himself out, turning back already to his correspondence: dismissive as a man who knew he had the other's life securely in his hands, indexed and filed away in his neat secretary's hand, with the dates already written in.

*

Baynard's Castle was a great imposing structure on the very banks of the Thames: the Earl of Pembroke's residence, not a Sidney one, though Pembroke's wife was old Sidney's daughter. They were patrons of poets, but not of Christopher Marlowe; Kit, he was often told, was too sharp-tongued to please a patron long. Honest was the word that he himself preferred, in his art if in nothing else.

Claiming to be a messenger gained him admittance, along with a modest manner and the fact that he had bathed and changed his clothes that week. He would find the Scottish baron in a chamber overlooking the river, he was told, part of the new western extension added forty years before. An elegant room, not over-large, with wood panelling and a trestle desk near the fire, the bedcurtains discreetly closed.

Kit had learned that the man he sought was a younger son, who had roamed all Europe as a mercenary in his twenties, been awarded a French earldom, and then further ennobled by James's regents after that ugly business with Queen Mary, for a service no one was subsequently quite able to name. He was therefore expecting a bluff, ginger-bearded Scot with a ready sword-arm and few morals, willing to sell his own granny for a fat purse. That was the trouble with thinking like a writer of characters.

What he found was a fair-haired gentleman of three-score, as spare and elegant as the room: dressed richly but without ostentation, attenuated rather than grown gross with age. His skin had a light, papery quality that emphasised the bones of the face, folding in delicate tracery about the clear blue eyes and the fine lips. He stood in a casual attitude by the window, to all appearance an ageing, prosperous nobleman; and yet there was something about his bearing that made Kit think, without quite knowing why, that all his own stage-rattling kings were no more than mountebanks.

"My lord," he began.

The Scot waved away his civility. "The bare surname will do. You must be Walsingham's man." Then, as Kit rose from his bow so that the grey river-light hit him square in the face: "No, forgive me. You are nothing of the sort."

He spoke with an educated northern accent, the r's precise as bullets but the vowels drawled just enough to suggest a hidden well-spring of irony. Though Kit preferred youth to dotage, when given the choice, his task of seduction appeared at once more easy and more difficult to him. He knew his own appeal was all in his wildness, the promise of abandon in his red mouth and tousled hair: yet this man seemed to have long-since looked wildness square in the face, worn it out and turned away from it. He was contained, though not as Walsingham was contained: not by denying his flesh, but by inhabiting it fully. Kit wished that he might teach him the trick of it.

"Much like my namesake saint," Kit said, "I serve a master until I can find a stronger one. I am here on the Secretary's behalf, to treat with you."

Crawford passed this over. His eyes were still on Kit, observant, which might have been flattering if the gaze did not reach so far beneath the skin. "You are well-spoken, for a professed intelligence agent."

"I am a spy by trade," Kit answered, with a touch of pride. "A poet by profession." After a moment, he added, unable to restrain himself: "Tamburlaine was mine."

"A great and thundering play," Crawford acknowledged. "I have seen it printed, though not, alas, acted. It was, however, enough to make me wish to meet you."

"You wish to meet me?" Kit blurted, shocked into artlessness. "But..."

"As you have gathered, Mr. Marlowe, you are here under false pretences. I can give your master nothing at present," Crawford went on. "I would rather take something from him, and that is you. I do not like to see a man of your talents waste in the gutter."

"And you think that, having served the emperor, I am ready to move on to the devil?"

"I would hardly claim to be anything more," Crawford said, modestly: after the devil, St. Christopher served Christ. "And have been called worse in my time. I trust you've brought your long spoon?"

Kit smiled his most winning smile, trying to turn it into an innuendo. "Why, I carry it with me always."

"It grows heavy, I would imagine," Crawford said gently, and Kit felt prickles at the backs of his eyes, just from the modulations of that voice. He had been wrong, he thought distantly, to think that strength lay in bombast; here was not a cudgel but a scalpel. "The mis-spent time, the service vain... Lay this damned work aside, Mr. Marlowe," he added, "and come sing your pastorals in Scotland."

"Scotland!" Kit echoed. Then, rallying: "It is hardly Arcadia."

"But no Cimmerian wilderness, neither," Crawford said. "We can read and write, as well as the English; we have plays at court, though mainly in Latin, and a King's printer, and a King who values poets as his brethren. Is the poor pipe disdained, which sometime out of Meliboeus' mouth can show the misery of people under hard lords or ravening soldiers?" 

"And what shall I do there? Fall dumb like Meliboeus or wax tedious like Melibee?"

"I don't believe you capable of either. You might pen dispatches to Master Secretary telling of your successes, if you really do fancy prose. But why not write us a play instead – a Scottish play, of King Macbeth or Robert the Bruce, who conquered the world?"

"But they did not conquer the world," Kit pointed out.

Crawford smiled. "What stopped them, then?"

"The weather," Kit said, but it was too late: there were fireworks going off in his already-dizzied brain, thoughts sparking on thoughts. Did he have a Scottish chronicle history at home, or had Tom Kyd pawned it for candles?

Crawford's smile widened: it seemed to promise a warm, well-lit room, and books, all the books that Kit could want. If James came to the southern throne, a Scottish play would be politic; but Kit was not thinking of politics.

"Besides," Crawford added after some time, as though there had been no pause in the conversation, "my wife would be glad to meet you."

"Wives do not tend to be overfond of me," Kit said ruefully.

"Mine will be, I think. She has a great love for the theatre, and for the saving of souls foolish enough to resent it. She is, besides, an Englishwoman: you will not feel entirely alone among the Mandevillian wonders of the north."

Kit looked suspiciously at this fair-haired stranger, still reeling from the oddest – indeed, the only – offer of patronage he had ever received. No one had yet been willing to house and clothe and feed him, for the price of a dedication. His flesh whispered treacherously that, were the price higher, still he would be willing to pay it. But the man had a wife, a family – there would be jealousies and recriminations, and Kit would end up thrown out by the ear upon a Scottish hillside, like a man ejected from Faeryland.

Crawford seemed to have an uncanny knack for guessing his inner struggles. "Might I give you a word of general advice," he asked, "from my Methuselah-like eminence?" The lines around his eyes deepened: pale against darker skin, as though he had once spent much time in the sun. Despite his words, he did not move like an old man: Kit had the sense that he greeted his shaving-mirror each day with astonishment, like one who had never expected to live so long. "You cannot hope to protect your heart," said Crawford, "by ever shrouding it in quills, like the porpentine. As with the giant's life in the story, it must be given to another for safekeeping."

"There is no other for me," Kit said, with a bitterness that surprised him: he had thought himself resigned. What was all-consuming passion, after all, but folly and weakness – it landed you like Edward II, betrayed and spit-roasted for your pains.

"Perhaps even for you. You range over the face of the earth like one of your conquerors, tasting and discarding, and believe me, I can comprehend the impulse. Stopping is a risk; laying down roots is a risk, lest they prove not strong enough. But it is on that risky ground that the true companions of your heart will find you, and call you home."

"You promise me love in Scotland?" Kit asked, insinuating. "These pretty pleasures might me move..."

"I promise you nothing but peace," Crawford said, "as it was never promised to me at your age. Laughter, and music, and books, and amateur actors eager to speak your verses. That is all I can promise; but it is, I have learned, a great deal. What does London and Walsingham's service offer?"

"Danger," Kit answered honestly. "Whore's employment. Excitement. The theatre. An early grave."

Has age no charms for you? the stranger might have said, if Kit had been writing the dialogue. Instead, Crawford left him to think it out. Kit came over to join him by the window, and looked out over the teeming Thames, and Southwark beyond, with the theatre at Newington Butts just visible among the roof-trees. He thought of his friends, or, more truly, his occasional drinking fellows: Kyd and Shakespeare and Alleyn, Greene and Lodge and Lyly. He owed most of them money. The obscene, hilarious things they would say, when they heard why he was suddenly grown capable of paying it. And all of them would sell out his life for a ha'penny, if it came to that – they could not afford to do otherwise, if they wished to keep open the theatres that supported them, and maintain possession of all their own ears and noses.

At last he said, more hesitant than his wont, "The Secretary mentioned you are headed to Penshurst..."

"You might come with me," Crawford said. "Sir Philip's death still hangs heavy over that house, but they will entertain you well."

Kit shook his head. "I must settle my affairs. Call for me on your way back from Kent, and I'll be packed with my bundle on my shoulder, waiting."

"Will you truly?" Crawford asked. They looked at each other across the window embrasure, two men of similar height and build and temperament, with a lifetime between them – Kit's lifetime, all the risks taken and sufferings endured. Seeking to bridge the gap, Crawford made his only mistake, for he came near and touched Kit's arm lightly: pathos, following logos and ethos. There were three layers of cloth between them, yet Kit shuddered like an ill-trained foal under his hand. He felt a sudden sense of doom, which he saw reflected in the trace of sadness in Crawford's eyes.

Kit had always rejoiced to live in his own era of learning and ferment, of London theatres and university wit. Now, for the first time, he wished that he had been born sooner, so that he might have been a companion, however lowly, of this man's youth. Walsingham had said that there were a series of beautiful young men, in a tone that implied that Crawford had preyed on them – how much more likely, that he was simply a flame around which those moths gathered? What must it be like, to be such a flame...did one also, Kit wondered, get burnt?

Well, here he was, Christopher Marlowe, about to immolate himself upon that banked fire as surely as a Jesuit priest seeking martyrdom. Damned fool, he thought: about to be dragged off to hell, and yet deluded with beautiful visions.

"Remember, Mr. Marlowe," said Crawford, still standing close to him. "In Scotland, verbal contracts are binding."

Kit backed away and bowed, his unentrusted heart beating wildly in his chest. "We are not in Scotland yet, my lord."

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