April, 1590. When the queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, dies of a stroke, the sudden event leaves a dangerous power vacuum in her majesty’s court. Walsingham’s former right-hand man, Nicholas Faunt, believes he was poisoned. And he calls upon the poet and playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe to discover who killed him.
To get to the bottom of this perplexing mystery, Kit must consult England’s leading scientists and thinkers. But as he questions the members of the so-called School of Night, the playwright-turned-spy becomes convinced that at least one of them is hiding a deadly secret. If he is to outwit the most enquiring minds in Europe and unmask the killer within, Kit must devise an impossibly ingenious plan. Good thing he has a knack for formulating plots.
“As always, Trow provides fascinating period authenticity, a crackling plot, strong characters, and plenty of twists.” —Booklist
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The linen stretched over the tenter-grounds like winding sheets, ghostly pale under the Norton Folgate moon. Kit Marlowe, quill in hand, watched them from the window. He heard the watchmen call the hour, echoing from street to street and across the fields to where the windmills turned and groaned in the half-darkness.
He spun sharply, dipping the quill quickly into the ink and scrawled, still standing, along the parchment —
'Albeit the world think Machiavel is dead,
Yet his soul but flown beyond the Alps ...'
The Alps. Nicholas Faunt had crossed them. So had Thomas Phelippes; all the old man's golden lads. Would Marlowe follow them? That all depended on the Queen's Moor, the Spymaster and whatever game he was playing tonight.
Francis Walsingham lay propped on his down pillows, listening to the rasping of his own chest. His lips hung slack, as they had for six days now since he had first fallen into an apoplexy, or so they called it. His mind was sharp but his body did what it would. He tried to chuckle as the thought came to him that this was childhood, come again, but the sound came out in a series of grunts. His chin glistened with the saliva he could no longer control; gentle hands dried his face for him but it was stemming a tide only death could force to ebb. For this childhood would not be followed by growing, but only by diminishing. And yet, he couldn't let go. Not yet, not with the Irish business unfinished. It had been there when he first entered the Queen's service; it was there still. Thomas Wyndebank had been to see Her Majesty, to tell her that Walsingham, who had watched her back for all those years, was facing the end. She had looked at him, cold, unfeeling, with her painted hair and painted face, white with lead. There was no one else; the Irish business must be dispatched, and quickly. She had paused for long enough to let Wyndebank hope and then had dashed it. And it must be dispatched by Walsingham.
Her letter lay beside him on the table, glowing in the candlelight. Cattle. And corn. And secret Papists hiding behind every one. The wind along Seething Lane rattled the window frames. And Walsingham shivered with them.
'To some, perhaps, my name is odious,' Marlowe's pen left its black train for all time, 'But such as love me, guard me from their tongues, And let them know that I am Machiavel, And weigh not men, and therefore not men's words ...'
'Sir Francis.' He heard the words but couldn't, at first, place the voice.
'Who's there?' the Queen's counsellor asked, half afraid of the answer.
'It's me, sir. Mylles.'
'Mylles.' Walsingham breathed easier. His chest was tight and there was a flight of stairs stretching ahead of him in his fevered mind. He frowned for a moment, focusing. 'I thought you'd look ... different.'
'Shall I call Lady Walsingham, sir?' the secretary asked. He had seen men die before. But this wasn't a man. It was Mr Secretary Walsingham, the living sword of the Jezebel of England. If the country stood safe tonight, uninvaded, deaf to the Gregorian chant and unaware of the sweet taint of incense, that was because of Francis Walsingham.
'No, no,' the Spymaster's hands fluttered under his covers. Mylles noted the greyish-yellow of the man's skin and the sunken hollows of his cheeks. He had aged twenty years in the last six days. 'Let Ursula sleep.' A sudden thought occurred to Walsingham and he peered into the growing dark, peered up into his servant's face. 'Everything is all right, Mylles, isn't it? All's in place?'
'It is, sire.' The man placed a gentle hand on his master's shoulder and smiled down at him, his voice soft and soothing. 'Listen.'
Walsingham did. In the passageways of his mind, as along Seething Lane below his window, the watchmen told the hour. All was well.
'You see,' Mylles summoned a laugh from somewhere, pleased with the watchman's timing. 'We can't all be wrong.'
'Let Ursula sleep,' Walsingham said again. 'I'll see her at breakfast.'
'Admired I am, of those that hate me most ...' Marlowe wrote furiously, dropping ink along the rough edges of the parchment. He could hear Tom Watson snoring in the next room – or was it the girl he had with him tonight? Either way, it made no difference. The Muse was with Marlowe tonight, leaning over his shoulder, breathing air and fire into his pen. She would not leave him now ... 'Though some speak openly against my books, Yet they will read me, and thereby attain To Peter's Chair ...'
Peter's Chair. All his life, Christopher Marlowe had been afraid of that chair. It housed the anti-Christ, the Devil's vicar-on-earth, who had sent scattered killers against the Queen and an entire Armada to bring England to heel. But Machiavel could face that chair and the great beast who sat on it.
'And when they cast me off,' Marlowe scratched on, ink flying, 'Are poisoned by my climbing followers ...'
Walsingham's breathing was the only sound in the chamber now. The watchmen had gone and the first sparrow had not roused itself from the huddled roofs. London slept. Seething Lane slept. Francis Walsingham did not.
'I count religion but a childish toy,' Marlowe wrote, 'And hold there is no sin but ignorance. Birds of the air will tell of murders past, I am ashamed to hear such fooleries!'
He shuddered suddenly, as though something nameless had crept over his grave and touched his soul. He looked up at his own reflection in the leaded panes, the dark curls, the smouldering eyes. For the briefest of seconds, he thought someone stood at his elbow, like the scythes-man that comes to us all. He half expected to see Tom Watson, yawning, scratching himself, the pre-dawn poet in search of a rhyme. But his steady snores through the wall told him it wasn't so – and when he looked again, there was nothing. Nothing.
'Mylles.' Walsingham had difficulty framing the name.
'I'm here, Sir Francis,' the man assured him through his tears.
'I'm sorry,' the Spymaster said.
'Sorry, sir?' Mylles frowned. 'Whatever for?'
'In all the years you served me, faithfully and well, I never called you by your given name. Never called you Francis.'
Mylles tried to laugh. 'It would have been too confusing, sir,' he said. 'Too ...' But the Queen's Spymaster wasn't listening. Not any more.
There was a crash as something hit the window just by Marlowe's head. The pen leapt from his hand and rolled across the page, leaving a stuttering, limping snail trail of ink as it went. The poet looked up, eyes wide, and saw, printed in the grease of its feathers, ethereal in the candle's gleam, the image of an owl, wings outspread, beak agape, as it had struck the window, misjudging the distance to its imagined prey, the tiny gleam in Marlowe's eye as he flew with Machiavel over the peaks. The bird itself had gone, flown back to its frowsty, bone and fur-filled nest in the tower of the old Crutched Friars, to nurse its aching head until hunger drove it out once more. But Marlowe couldn't shake the foreboding which had been standing at his side since darkness had fallen. He wiped his pen, stretched, yawned and rolled into his bed. He would lie sleepless still, but a man's body must rest, even when his mind cannot. The foreboding stood behind the hangings, breathing softly, waiting for dawn. Outside and far away, a clock struck the quarter hour; eleven o'clock and black as pitch, with a late frost pricking the night with cold stars.
The door clicked open and a roisterer crept in, his plumed cap in his hand, his Colleyweston cloak glittering with gold embroidery in the candle's flame.
'Master Faunt.' Mylles turned in surprise in that most precious and personal moment, never to be given to anyone twice. He stood upright and fought to take a grip, sighing heavily. 'You're too late, I fear.'
Nicholas Faunt crossed the room in two strides and looked down at the husk of Sir Francis Walsingham. The man who had held England, not to mention Nicholas Faunt, in the palm of his hand looked, suddenly, surprisingly, so small.
'Fetch Lady Walsingham,' Faunt ordered. For a moment, Mylles dithered. Then he nodded, clicked his heels and made for the door. Instinctively, Faunt, the projectioner, took up the goblet on the bedside table and sniffed its contents. He frowned.
'Is there nothing you can do for him, Master Faunt?' Mylles hesitated at the door. He knew the sound of a man's last breath when he heard it, but nothing was cut and dried in this house of secrets and lies.
'Yes,' Faunt said, tucking the empty goblet into his purse and doffing his hat, finally, to the man for whom he had worked for so long. 'Yes, there is.' He looked up at the secretary, his face a grim mask of determination. 'I can send for Kit Marlowe.'CHAPTER 2
Francis Walsingham had haunted the corridors and secret corners of his home for so long, slipping on silent foot from room to room, materializing at the elbow of the gossip and spy so often that it was hard to dismiss his shade. His family were sitting, eyes wide with grief and shock, trying to warm themselves at the thin flames in the enormous grate. His widow, Ursula, was all in black, his daughter too. The clothes had come out of the press so pat, so ready for this day, it was as if they had been expecting it and, in some ways, so they had. But not like this. Not so sudden, so soon. A knife in the ribs from one of his projectioners, turned by an enemy; or a rope around the neck, pulling him down to the earth in his beloved garden, where he walked alone at dusk. But this end, this choking death in his bed, this was not what they had seen for him. Each of them, in the quiet of this house, in the quiet of their hearts, had been mourning him for years, against this day. It seemed as though the whole house wept.
It wasn't like Christopher Marlowe to sleep in late. He left that to Tom Watson, who caroused almost for a living and had hardly seen a morning hour since he entered man's estate. For Marlowe, sleep was an optional extra in his life, something to do when nothing else presented itself and yet this morning, he was dead to the world. He didn't hear the hammering on the door, only stopped when Agnes flung it open, dragged from her early kitchen tasks. He didn't hear the booted feet on the stairs, the crash as his bedroom door was flung wide. The first thing he knew was being hauled upright in his bed, the grey dawn light outlining a silhouette he knew.
He shook himself free and tweaked his shirt back into place, pushing himself upright against the head of the tester. 'Nicholas,' he said, trying to shake the sleep from his eyes. 'To what do I owe the pleasure?'
'Walsingham is dead.' The words fell like lead in the cold room.
'What?' Marlowe had heard full well what Faunt had said and yet somehow it didn't really make any sense. Three simple words, but for some reason they sounded much like gibberish to him.
Faunt shook him impatiently. 'Shake off your sleep, Kit,' he said. 'Sir Francis is dead. This six hours, dead.'
'I knew he was unwell, but ... dead?' A thought suddenly struck the poet. 'Murdered?'
Faunt stepped back, into the faint light from the window. 'It would depend on who you ask.'
'I'm asking you.'
'Then ... yes. Murdered.'
'And if I ask someone else?' Marlowe needed to have all the information at his disposal, even though he had not often found Faunt to be wrong.
Faunt crossed to the window, where the first light of a new day was creeping over the steeples and the gables. 'The Papists will tell you it was God – their God, of course – exacting His justice at last. They'll have the old man uttering curses with his dying breath before Satan's emissaries dragged him off to Hell.'
Marlowe looked at Walsingham's right-hand man and raised an eyebrow. 'It wasn't like that?' he asked.
Faunt turned to him, a grim scowl on the tired face. 'Of course it wasn't like that,' he said. 'Mylles was with him, at the end.'
'A good man, I believe,' Marlowe remembered.
'One of the best.'
'And the family?' Marlowe asked. 'How are they taking it?'
'Ursula's a stoic. She'll do her crying in private but never in front of me. Frances has lost her father as she lost her husband ...'
'Some have sorrow thrust upon them,' Marlowe murmured.
'And some have problems thrust upon them,' Faunt echoed. 'And that would be us.'
Marlowe lifted his head and squared his shoulders. 'Us?' he said. Faunt looked at him levelly. It had always been an uncertain world. With Walsingham gone, it was like staring into an abyss.
'I always assumed you were us, Kit,' he said softly. 'In the breach, within the meaning of the Act, whatever phrase you damned playwrights want to play with.'
'And the problem of Walsingham's death?'
Faunt turned back to the window, watching the first draymen of the morning, scratching and coughing their way along the winding lane below. 'If you're thinking of the succession to Spymaster, as it were, your guess is as good as mine. The Giffords must be considered, I suppose, that bugger Anthony Bacon. I'm sure Burghley will decide eventually. In the meantime, Marlowe, it's me. You'll have to live with that.'
'Let me put it another way,' Marlowe smiled. 'The problem of Walsingham's murder.'
'Ah.' Faunt hauled up the goblet from his doublet. Its silver inlay gleamed in the light from Marlowe's candle and flashed as Faunt threw it on to the bed. 'This is your Holy Grail,' he said. 'If I'm right, it's a poisoned chalice. Will you take it up?'
Marlowe hesitated. He had been given impossible tasks by Walsingham before, often via Faunt. But this one made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He reached forward, lifted the cup and sniffed it. Fortified wine, certainly. Herbs of some kind. But something else; something an old man, ill and careless, might have missed. Walsingham, who had been so careful all his life, may have blinked at last. The cold, grey eyes that missed nothing for so long, just might have missed this; the dark phial in the liquid, the bringer of sleep.
'Why have you brought this to me?' he asked.
Faunt looked at him. 'You have a knack for these things,' he said. 'A nose for treachery – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I want to know what was in that cup and who put it there. But you'll have to tread softly. There are a few thousand Papists in this great country of ours, not to mention those over the seas, who wanted Walsingham dead. I can hear the bells of joy ringing now, can't you? In Madrid and Rome and Rheims. The ways of the Lord are strange, Marlowe; we both know that.'
Marlowe chuckled, in spite of the solemnity of the hour. 'And we both know that the Lord put nothing in the cup, Nicholas. A man did. You want me to tell you who.'
Faunt nodded. 'And then, I want you to bring him before Her Majesty's Justices,' he said, 'Master Topcliffe will do the rest. It's astonishing what truths a man will divulge when he's about to have his fingernails ripped out.'
'And what lies,' Marlowe reminded the man.
Faunt ignored him. 'I must be at Placentia,' he said, tugging his doublet straight. 'If Her Majesty finds out about Walsingham's death before I get there, there'll be Hell to pay.'
'Hell, Nicholas?' Marlowe turned the chased cup in his hand. 'Do you know, in all the time we've known each other, I didn't have you down for a superstitious man.'
Faunt tapped the side of his nose. 'For all his cynicism,' he said, 'Francis Walsingham was a godly man. A Puritan through and through. I'm going to miss him.'
'So am I,' Marlowe suddenly realized. He caught the look on Faunt's face. 'But don't worry, I'm not going to miss his murderer.'
'You can resolve that?' Faunt asked. 'The poison, I mean?'
'No.' Marlowe shook this head. 'But I know a man who can.'
Thomas Sledd was yelling at someone slung by ropes high in the ceiling of the Rose. Thomas Sledd was always yelling these days, or so it sometimes seemed. Only when he was at home with Meg and the new baby could he drop his voice and coo like any suckling dove. But cooing here wouldn't get a show put on and, as Philip Henslowe told him every day, often several times and with additional jabs to the chest: the show must go on.
'How many times do I have to remind you, you jobless idiot?' Sledd asked rhetorically. 'You don't work up there without tying your tools to your belt.' This time it had only been a leather mallet that had dropped unexpectedly at his feet, but even that would have fetched him a nasty one had it collided with the top of his head.
A formless grumble came from above his head.
'Oh, sorry, my apologies,' Sledd said, sarcasm dripping from his lips. 'But when I called you a jobless idiot, I was indeed telling the truth. Get down the ladder now and hand in your paintbrush. Your set-painting days are over, Peake. Painter of the Revels, my arse!'
Again, the grumble.
'I don't believe you can actually do that,' Sledd observed, but stepped back a couple of long strides nonetheless. He cannoned into someone standing in the wings and turned sharply, another reprimand ready.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Eleventh Hour"
Copyright © 2017 M.J. Trow and Maryanne Coleman.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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