It was only later, much later, that I came to realise how those many broken fragments fitted together, and how they would lead to an act of appalling injustice and cruelty, which became known as the Lopez affair. On that sunny summer afternoon, I could not have suspected that I would myself become entangled in the brutal battle already being waged between the great men in Elizabeth’s England.
The stableyard at Walsingham House in Seething Lane was rich with the aromas of hay and sun-warmed horse. I leaned out over the half door of Hector’s stall to watch the two children riding their ponies in demure circles around the yard. The girl, who must be nine years old now, sat astride with confidence, displaying an innate ease around horses. Her brother – or, to be accurate, half brother – was much younger, not long breeched. He looked frightened, clutching a handful of his pony’s mane, tangled amongst the reins, and every tense line of his body betrayed his panic at being thus mounted so high above the ground on an animal which he clearly found terrifying. Harry, the chief stable lad, had a firm hold of the leading rein, and kept his hand comfortingly against the small of the child’s back, but nothing seemed to reassure him.
You would never suppose that little Lord Robert was the son of that boastful and swaggering dandy, the Earl of Essex.
The children’s mother, Countess of Essex – though I still thought of her as Frances Walsingham – walked over to me.
‘Do you think Robert will ever overcome his fear of horses, Kit?’
I smiled at her.
‘He is not yet three, is he, my lady? Plenty of time yet.’
‘Elizabeth was never afraid.’
‘Some children have a natural affinity for horses.’
‘Aye, and some are naturally fearless.’ She smiled wryly. ‘Sometimes I think Elizabeth is a little too fearless. Do you remember that time at Barn Elms, when you snatched her from under the hooves of another horse?’
‘Aye, my lady, I remember.’
We were both silent, remembering. Her father and my employer, Sir Francis Walsingham, had still been alive then. Lady Frances had already lost her first husband, Sir Philip Sidney, but had not yet been married to Essex. I could only observe this second marriage from a distance, but I was certain it was not a happy one. All of London knew of the Earl’s wanton habits.
The little boy still looked terrified.
‘He’s very young to be riding,’ I said tentatively, although I had not been any older when my grandfather had first put me up on a pony back on his estate in Portugal.
Lady Frances grimaced. ‘The Earl is determined that he shall grow up manly, a very warrior. Even while he is still a small child.’
Her voice was bitter. I had noticed before that she always referred to Essex as ‘the Earl’, never as ‘my husband’. And it was perhaps all too obvious that she continued to live, with the children, at her mother’s home in Seething Lane, not at Essex House in the Strand.
‘I am sure that Lord Robert will overcome his fear, given time. That is a very quiet pony.’
She smiled. ‘Aye. He used to be mine, until I outgrew him. He must be more than twenty.’
We watched the children a few minutes longer. The Lady Elizabeth was cantering gently round the perimeter of the stableyard now. She had a good seat and looked happy. I turned away, unhooking the lower half of the door and stepping outside.. It was time to return to my lodgings. After finishing my day’s work at St Thomas’s Hospital, I had crossed the river for a brief visit to my horse Hector, for I had had no opportunity to ride him for more than two weeks. The stable lads exercised him when they had the opportunity, but he fretted if left too long in his stall.
‘Dr Alvarez? Kit?’ Lady Frances seemed suddenly awkward.
‘Aye, my lady?’
‘Would you . . . could you take a look at my daughter?’
I did my best to conceal my surprise. The Walsingham family had their own private physician; they had no need of the services of a physician from St Thomas’s like me, whose role was to care for the poor and needy of Southwark. I did have a few private patients, but the Walsinghams and Essexes were not among them. Ruy Lopez, I knew, was Essex’s physician. However, Sir Francis’s daughter and I had known each other for many years, ever since we were quite young, and by calling me Kit, she was – probably intentionally – drawing attention to that.
‘Certainly, my lady, if I can be of any service to you.’
When Elizabeth had been helped to dismount by one of the stable lads, and had given her pony an apple from her pocket, she ran across to us, her eyes bright and her cheeks flushed. One of the Countess’s waiting women stepped forward, but Lady Frances shook her head.
‘Take Lord Robert back to the nursery, Mistress Godliff,’ she said. ‘Lady Elizabeth will come with me and Dr Alvarez.’
The little girl skipped ahead of us as we made our way into the house and up the backstairs, which I had climbed so many times when I had worked here with Thomas Phelippes, deciphering new codes and transcribing the intercepted letters of England’s enemies. And indeed devising some new form of spurious information to be slipped into the courier service of the king of Spain, in order to create confusion and outwit his many attempts to kill our Queen and invade our country.
Lady Frances led me along the familiar corridor, past the office where I had worked with Phelippes, which now stood deserted, with the door ajar. Past the gloomy portraits of past Walsinghams, until we reached the family’s portion of the house, which I had very rarely entered.
‘This way,’ she said. ‘We will go to my private apartments.’ She turned to her daughter. ‘Elizabeth, go and take off your riding habit and put on a light summer gown, then come to Mama’s parlour.’
The child nodded and ran off, while Lady Frances led me into a pretty room, not very large, with windows facing south and providing a view over the rooftops of lower buildings to the river beyond. Now, at the height of summer, the Thames was crowded with ships, from the small one-man wherries and the larger long ferry which carried passengers down to Gravesend, up to tough little coastal traders bringing coal down to London from the north of England, and the great merchant ships come from the Mediterranean, or the coast of Africa, and even those fast ships carrying a full complement of cannon, belonging to the privateers who harried the Spanish treasure ships along the shores of the New World.
When we were alone in the room, Lady Frances told me to close the door, then turned to me, looking curiously hesitant.
‘Kit,’ she said, ‘we have known each other for many years. You were even a witness at my marriage to the Earl.’
I nodded, mystified as to where this could be leading. ‘Indeed, my lady.’
‘My father . . .’ she hesitated, and cleared her throat. ‘Before he died, my father told me something of your history.’
Unaccountably, she blushed, and I found myself going suddenly cold. Sara Lopez knew who I was, but only three other friends had known my true identity: Sir Francis Walsingham, Dr Hector Nunez, and my companion in Muscovy, Pyotr Aubery. All three were now dead. All of them men I had liked and admired. But with them gone, I thought my secret safe. Except, except, from my personal enemy, Robert Poley, who had tricked me into Walsingham’s service.
Just what had Sir Francis told his daughter?
‘My lady?’ I hoped that by seeming perplexed, feigning lack of understanding, I might forestall what I feared she was about to say.
She looked down. ‘I know that your true name is Caterina Alvarez, and that . . . you are no more a man than I am.’
She glanced up and I saw that she feared she had made me angry. Instead, my mind churned with conflicting emotions. I had known Frances Walsingham a long time, as she said, but never closely, for her rank was far above mine, even when she was Lady Sidney. Now that she was the Countess of Essex, our worlds scarcely touched.
‘I would never reveal what I know to anyone,’ she said, hastily and apologetically. ‘Not even my mother knows.’
‘Nor your husband?’ I spoke through gritted teeth.
Of all men in the world, I dreaded my identity being discovered by Essex. Then I faced what I had been trying to shut out of my mind. That one other man who knew my identity. Poley. I had not seen him of late, not since he had been implicated in the murder of Christopher Marlowe earlier in the year, yet he had lingered like a dark cloud on the horizon of my life ever since I was sixteen. Robert Poley. It was folly even to allow my guard against Robert Poley to slip for a moment. I might be of no account to him now that he served the Cecils and we no longer both worked in the intelligence service of Walsingham, but times might change. Or he might reveal my identity from mere spite.
‘Nay,’ Lady Frances said. ‘Certainly not my . . .’ She hesitated, and swallowed painfully on the words. ‘My husband.’
She walked to the window and stood looking out, her back to me.
‘My father did not reveal your secret to me carelessly, Kit. He believed that some day you might need a friend. Instead . . .’ her voice caught. ‘Instead, it is I who am in need of a friend.’
Before she could say more, the door opened and her daughter came in, followed by the waiting woman.
‘Thank you, Mistress Godliff. That will be all.’
As soon as the door had closed behind the waiting woman, she held out her hand to the child.
‘Come, my sweet. I want Dr Alvarez to examine you, where you were hurt the other day.’
The child looked at me anxiously, then hung her head. ‘I didn’t do anything bad, Mama.’ Her eyes filled suddenly with tears.
‘Of course you did not, my pet. Now, lie down here, and lift your gown. You are not bleeding any more?’
The little girl shook her head, but she had flushed with embarrassment. I examined her quickly. She was but nine years old, too young to bleed. What I found would not have surprised me amongst the sad waifs of Southwark, but here in Walsingham House I was shocked, although I tried not to show it. It was not as I had momentarily feared. The child had not been raped. But her back bore the marks of a recent beating, a vicious beating, which had drawn blood.
The weals were beginning to heal, but still looked angry, so I applied a salve of cooling herbs and spoke cheerfully of how the pain would soon be gone.
Once the child had been sent off to her lessons, Lady Frances motioned me to a chair and ran a trembling hand over her face. She was wearing loose sleeves, not those of the tight fitting cut favoured by ladies of rank, who never undertook any task more demanding of movement than needlework. As her sleeve fell back, I saw that her arm was ringed with bruises, as though it had been held hard by a cruel hand.
‘That was a violent beating the child received,’ I said carefully. It was not my place to comment on how parents might discipline their children, and I knew that many believed that beating was the only way to ensure obedience. This, however, had gone beyond anything I had seen except amongst the most brutalised families in Southwark, cowering under the hand of a drunken and violent man.
‘It was done without my knowledge,’ she said. She drew a deep breath, and flushed with shame. ‘It was done by the Earl, with his horsewhip.’
‘Essex!’ I was too horrified to use his title. ‘And with a horsewhip? But surely . . . his own stepdaughter . . . your child.’
‘She means nothing to him but an encumbrance. You would think, since she is Philip’s daughter . . . he has always professed his great love of Philip Sidney, but it seems not to extend to his child.’
Suddenly she began to weep, great silent tears welling up and spilling down her cheeks, which she made no attempt to check.
I did not know what to say. I had expected nothing like this. But the most urgent matter was that the child should be protected from further harm.
‘Forgive me,’ I said hesitantly, ‘but I understand that the Earl lives mainly at Essex House on the Strand?’
She nodded, drawing out a fine linen handkerchief and wiping her eyes. ‘Aye, and we live here, at home, with my mother. He comes, of course, whenever he pleases, to exact his matrimonial rights. That is, whenever he is not occupied with one of his whores, or at Court, or crossing political swords with Lord Burghley and his son in this endless struggle for power.’
I thought of Thomas Phelippes, employed now by Essex, reluctantly working away at the Customs House, trying to build an intelligence service as successor to Walsingham’s great work which had kept England and our Queen safe for so many years. Phelippes’s great mistake had been his failure to offer his services at once to the Cecils after Walsingham’s death. Instead, Robert Poley had wormed his way into their favour, buying his place (so Phelippes and I both believed) with the secret files and code books which had been stolen from our office here during Walsingham’s very funeral at St Paul’s.
‘Certainly you must keep the child safe from any further beatings,’ I said tentatively. ‘But that may be difficult, if the Earl is constantly about the house. She seems to be bearing it stoically.’
She smiled through her tears. ‘She is a courageous child. She has learned to be. Of course, she cannot remember her own father, she was too young, but her grandfather filled his place, until this second marriage of mine. She was disposed to look on the Earl as her father, but he was indifferent to her from the start. Now, of late, he has become cruel. She is so afraid of him. During the day she wears a brave face, but at night she wakes up screaming from her nightmares.’
‘Then I think you must separate her from him completely,’ I said. ‘More of this and he could do her permanent harm. Suppose I recommend that for her health she should spend some time in the country?’
‘I should hate to part with her.’
‘It may be necessary, for her safety. Is there not one of the Walsingham properties well away from London, where she could go?’
‘The Earl likes to visit them regularly. As my mother and I are my father’s only heirs, he believes that all the property is now rightfully his.’
I recalled that Essex had risen, like his father, from a relatively modest gentry family. The great properties he now possessed in his own right were largely the gifts of the Queen. Little wonder that he snatched greedily at the Walsingham inheritance.
‘Francis Mylles,’ I said.
‘Master Mylles? My father’s principal secretary?’
‘Aye. Did he not purchase one of your father’s country manors, when Sir Francis was turning some of his landed property into coin before his death? To provide for you and Dame Ursula? Why not send the Lady Elizabeth to Francis Mylles and his wife? She has known them all her life. He is a good, kind man. She would be safe in his home. The Earl would have no cause to go there. If he beats the child merely because he finds her an encumbrance, a mote in his eye, he is unlikely to go in pursuit of her.’
‘Aye,’ she said slowly. ‘That might serve. Indeed, I think it might.’ She sighed. ‘Oh, but I shall miss her! It is such a comfort to me, to see her grow into a fair young maid. Philip would have been so proud of her.’
‘Indeed he would.’
I had only ever seen Sir Philip from a distance, for he had been killed not long after I had first been drawn in as a code-breaker in Walsingham’s service, but I knew that he had been not only handsome and courageous, but a fine poet, a man of intelligence and tenderness. To be tethered now to that strutting popinjay Essex must be a constant torment to Lady Frances.
‘The Earl does not beat his son?’ I asked, nervous that I might be venturing too far into private matters.
She shook her head. ‘Not yet, though I have seen him clout Robert on the head. I think he believes all boys should be brought up as hardened warriors, like King Arthur’s knights of old.’ Her mouth twisted in a grimace. ‘He seems to think the days of knightly chivalry are still with us in our modern world of cannon and muskets. He has little interest in matters of intellect and culture.’
I nodded, remembering Essex during the Portuguese expedition. As the army had begun its despairing retreat from Lisbon, Essex had ridden up to the gates of the city, challenging someone to come out and meet him in single combat, to fight for the honour of Queen Elizabeth. As he rode to join the rest of the shambling, starving remnant of our army, he had smirked complacently, assuming that no one from the Spanish garrison had dared to face him.
But from within the city we had heard the sound of mocking laughter.
‘You needs must keep a watch on Lord Robert,’ I said. ‘Blows to the head in a child so young can lead to permanent damage.’
‘I shall indeed watch as best I may, but Essex is my son’s father and may overrule me.’
She sighed again. She was very pale and drawn. I thought that a time on Francis Mylles’s country manor could do her own health no harm.
‘Do you wish me to write a note advising that the Lady Elizabeth should be sent into the country?’ I asked. ‘Or will you leave that to your family physician? I believe it is Dr Lopez.’
She twisted her fingers together. ‘I should prefer it from you, Kit. You have a name for treating children. Dr Lopez is an excellent man – we are fortunate to have the services of the Queen’s own physician – but matters are somewhat strained of late. Dr Lopez has been the Earl’s physician for many years, but now, in this struggle with the Cecils . . . it seems Dr Lopez is their man.’
I shook my head in despair. Until his death, Dr Nuñez had been physician to the Cecil family, but now, like Essex, they too employed Dr Lopez. On the other hand, both physicians, who were Marranos like me, had also been merchants, dealing primarily in spices and other costly goods, imported to England through the Mediterranean. This had made them useful allies of Sir Francis Walsingham, their captains and mercantile agents providing eyes and ears for his intelligence service, while their ships also carried secret despatches and intercepted those of Spain and France. Now that England was being torn apart, and our security placed at risk, while Essex and the Cecils fought for control of the new secret service, Ruy Lopez was in an unenviable and ambivalent position. Physician to both parties, he had, so it seemed, allied himself with the Cecils’ intelligence network. As Phelippes should have done.
‘Certainly I will write a letter, advising country air for the Lady Elizabeth,’ I said. ‘Do you but provide me with paper and ink.’
She gestured toward a small writing table placed beneath the window, where I could see a pile of heavy-laid paper, and an inkwell, and a flat box containing uncut quills. Her sleeve fell back again as she moved her arms, and I caught sight of those bruises again, but for the moment I said nothing.
With the small penknife I carried in my medical satchel, I trimmed a quill and quickly wrote the required advice, urging that the child should have plenty of exercise, including walking and riding and archery, and should be given a wholesome diet of fresh country food, none of the elaborate dishes which I was sure would be served up when Essex was in residence. Walsingham, who had suffered from many internal complaints, had always been abstemious in his diet, as I was sure his own family would be still.
There was sealing wax and a small silver burner for melting it. As I drew out the seal ring I wore on a chain round my neck, Lady Frances smiled.
‘Did Arthur Gregory make that for you?’
I smiled in return. ‘He did.’
‘I miss it, you know. Oh, certainly I was never a part of my father’s work, and he rarely spoke of it to my mother and me, but it was exciting to know that here, in this house, so much was happening, to out fox our enemies.’
‘He was a great man, Sir Francis,’ I said. ‘Few in England realise how much their safety over all these years was secured by him.’
‘Do you ever see Arthur Gregory?’ she asked. ‘He had a little boy, I remember.’
I was surprised by this. ‘Why, my lady, he is employed in the Earl’s own intelligence work, not far from here, at an office in the Customs House, along with Thomas Phelippes.’
She shook her head. ‘I know nothing of that, only that the Earl employs the Bacon brothers, Anthony and Francis. And I know of this great rivalry of the two parties, locked in combat like a pair of rutting stags. The Earl hates Sir Robert Cecil. They have been sworn enemies ever since boyhood, when the Earl was taken in by Cecil’s father after his own father’s death. Lord Burghley was only Sir William Cecil then. He was the Earl’s godfather.’
I nodded, but said nothing as I pressed my seal ring into the blob of soft wax before it could harden. It was a tangle indeed. Burghley was Essex’s godfather. The Bacon brothers were his son Robert’s cousins, yet now they were working for Essex, Robert’s deadly enemy. It was no surprise that Cecil and Essex hated each other. Cecil, thin, small, pale, crippled since childhood, but with a brilliant mind – what must he have thought of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, this cuckoo introduced as a boy into the family nest – large, handsome, athletic, but stupid.
Francis and Anthony Bacon were the greater puzzle. Why had they thrown in their lot with Essex? Perhaps they felt they could not compete with their brilliant cousin within Lord Burghley’s party, but must seek their future elsewhere. The mothers of Robert Cecil and the Bacon brothers were sisters, two of the gifted daughters of Anthony Cooke, tutor to the Queen’s brother, King Edward. Their father had ensured they were educated as well as his sons, and they were famous still as amongst the most talented and learned women in England, next after the Queen herself. The sisters had belonged to a close-knit family, and Francis and Anthony, clever like their cousin, must surely see through the arrogant boorishness of Essex. But, then, Essex had the Queen’s ear, and might be able to do much to advance them. How glad I was that this was not my world!
As I returned my penknife to my satchel, I took out a small pot of salve.
‘My lady,’ I said, ‘this is a salve of pounded arnica root, sovereign against bruises. Will you allow me to treat those bruises on your arm?’
At my words, she blushed a fiery red, drawing the loose sleeve down over the exposed arm.
‘It is nothing,’ she said.
Greatly daring, I said, ‘You told me you needed a friend. As a friend, I can treat the bruising and say nothing, as I shall say nothing about the beating your daughter has suffered.’
She hesitated, then she nodded. ‘You are right, Kit. I am foolish to refuse your help.’
She turned back both sleeves and held out her arms to me. Both were ringed with black bruises, beginning to turn yellow at the edges. Someone had gripped both her arms in a vicious hold. Probably she had twisted, struggling against it, which had made the bruising even worse.
I spread the salve lavishly over the bruises on both her arms.
‘This is best used at once, before too much of the blood gathers under the skin,’ I said, ‘but it will help to disperse it even now, though more slowly. I will leave this with you. In case you should need it again.’
Her eyes were cast down, watching my fingers smoothing in the salve, but I saw the colour rise again from her neck to her cheeks. She was wearing a small ruff, not over elaborate, the sort worn by ladies of quality in their own homes by day, unlike some of the elaborate affairs affected, even at home, by a few of the merchants’ wives who lived in Goldsmiths’ Row on Cheapside. At Court Lady Frances would don one of those larger elegant ruffs in fashion amongst the aristocracy. Although I believed she did not often attend Court.
The Queen had disapproved of Frances Walsingham’s first marriage, to Sir Philip Sidney, whose rank had been certainly higher than Sir Francis Walsingham’s, despite the spymaster’s importance in the governing of England. When the Lady Frances had later been married in haste – and in some secrecy – to the Queen’s favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, it was said that the monarch had been incandescent with fury. Since then, it was widely rumoured that the lady had not been welcome at Court. In my own mind I was sure that it had been no love match. It was certainly none such on Lady Frances’s part, for she had wept at her wedding, and from all I had seen it was not on Essex’s part either. Nay, Essex had married her for political reasons, hoping to step into his late father-in-law’s shoes as Principal Secretary to Her Majesty. His anger that he had still not achieved that aim might well lie behind his harshness to the child Elizabeth. And also, I suspected, to his wife.
For I saw now, appearing above the edge of her small ruff, the mark of further bruising on her neck. Just for a moment, I had a flash of memory. I was standing in the filthy kitchen of a mean farmhouse in Portugal, gazing in horror at my sister Isabel. She too had just such bruising on her neck, the marks of a man’s fingers which had come close to throttling her.
It was not my place to make any comment now on the relations between husband and wife. Just as Dr Lopez must remain discreet in his treatment of the Queen, so I would keep silence about what I had observed here today, but that did not bar me from providing medical help.
‘If you will remove your ruff, my lady,’ I said quietly, ‘I will salve the rest of the bruising.’
Her colour deepened, but she said nothing. Instead she began to fumble with the many pins holding the ruff in place. At last she had freed it, and laid it aside. She would need the help of her waiting woman to replace it, for I had not the skill. I had not worn a full ruff since I was a child in Portugal, and then my own waiting woman had secured it for me. These days I never wore one, just the frilled collar of my shirts, which did duty as a substitute.
The bruises on her neck showed the clear imprint of a man’s fingers. The thumbs had come close to her windpipe. Too close. I set my mouth grimly as I spread the arnica salve gently over her neck, where I could feel the faint pulse beating.
I replaced the stopper in the jar and set it down beside the discarded ruff. Then I looked her squarely in the eye.
‘That was a near thing, my lady.’
She nodded, tears welling in her eyes, but she did not speak.
‘It seems that you too need protection.’
‘I must endure,’ she said dully. ‘I have no other choice.’
‘It is monstrous.’
‘No worse than many women must face.’
Not for the first time, I was thankful for my male disguise. Even were I to return to my woman’s estate, no one could force me to marry a brute and a bully, for reasons of state or inheritance. I knew that Sir Francis had agreed to the marriage because he wanted to secure a safe future for his daughter and granddaughter, but had he really taken Essex’s measure? Had he still lived, he would never have tolerated this. But women even of Lady Frances’s rank had little redress against an abusive husband. In law, she was his property. He might treat her however he wished.
‘Perhaps,’ I said slowly (for I was treading on dangerous ground here), ‘perhaps you should accompany your daughter into the country? It would give you some respite.’
She shook her head. ‘He would never permit it. I will have some difficulty even arranging for Elizabeth to go if he decides to refuse. Me, he would never permit. Besides, there is my son. I need to stay with him. And I am again with child.’
She was right, of course.
‘Then I suggest you make some provision to protect your throat, my lady. At least a thick starched collar beneath your ruff.’
She gave me a wan smile. ‘I think I am safe enough now that I have told him I am with child. The Earl wants more sons. A single boy cannot be sure to secure his line.’
This, too, was true. For men of the Earl’s rank, a solitary heir was no security for the future. Many eldest sons had failed to live long enough to inherit from their fathers. The Queen’s own father, the late King Henry, was a younger son, whose brother had perished in his youth. Essex would hope for a whole quiverful of sons.
As I made my way out of Walsingham House, down the backstairs and through the stableyard, I turned over the uncomfortable discoveries I had made about the Essex marriage. Although I had never suspected that the Earl was violent toward his wife and stepdaughter, I found it did not surprise me. I had never known anyone so totally self-obsessed and arrogant. He would not hesitate to use violence against anyone who – for so much as a moment – stood in his way. And the woman and girl who formed part of his property he would regard as his to use as he wished. I had heard it whispered that Essex was even becoming overbearing with the Queen herself. For a time she might tolerate it. But I think, in the end, he would go too far.
Once across the river in Southwark, I made my way swiftly to St Thomas’s. I had left my dog Rikki with the gatekeeper Tom Read longer than usual, for I had gone straight to Seething Lane after visiting one of my recovering patients in a wherryman’s cottage on the river bank. Rikki jumped up enthusiastically to greet me, while Tom’s old wolfhound Swifty raised his head and thumped his tail.
‘I am sorry, Tom,’ I said. ‘I meant to be back long before this.’
Tom looked up from his supper – a thick pottage from the hospital kitchen. On a side plate was fresh bread, awaiting honey from a pot provided by an admirer of his amongst the hospital bee keepers.
‘Rikki is no problem, doctor,’ he said. ‘And do not let him play the beggar with you. He has had a good bowl of scraps already.’
‘Do you hear?’ I said. Rikki cocked his head innocently, tongue hanging out as if in hope of a second supper.
As we set out for my lodgings, however, he ran ahead cheerfully, turning aside only once to chase a neighbourhood cat up one of the spindly trees which grew between the street and the river.
‘Have a care,’ I warned. ‘Harm that puss and Bessie Travis will string you up by your paws.’ Bessie Travis kept the nearby whorehouse and was a figure to be reckoned with in our neighbourhood. I recognised the cat as one of the three or four who made their home in that nest of Winchester geese.
It was a soft summer evening, such an evening as I would usually have chosen to make my way to the Lion, the inn close to the Rose playhouse, where the players were wont to gather to eat and drink after the day’s performance. Tonight, I knew, they would not be there. Ever since the murder of Christopher Marlowe in the early summer, the players had been grieving and subdued. Marlowe had often made himself unpopular, for he was arrogant and quarrelsome, often flaring up, ready for a fight, yet he was of their company, though a playwright, not a player. The murder had touched them too close.
I knew another side of his life, one not truly understood by the players. For, like me, Marlowe had served Walsingham, although not as a code-breaker. I knew a little of his work. He had been sent on missions abroad, sometimes to infiltrate Catholic groups which were planning attacks on the Queen. It was dangerous work, occasionally also undertaken by Robert Poley, though in the latter’s case there was the possibility that he was a double agent, serving our enemies, whoever would pay him the most. I had guessed that the risks had drawn Marlowe to the work just as much as the purses of coin, for he was a man who lived always on the knife edge of danger and seemed almost to feast on it. Yet the money must also have attracted him. Despite his talents he came from a humble family. His fine clothes, his arrogant air, I realised now, were in some sense an attempt to claw his way out of that modest life. He had tried to seduce my friend Simon into his spendthrift ways, to his harm. It was easier to forgive him, now that he was gone.
The true facts of Marlowe’s death were hidden, but I suspected that he had come to know too much and could not be trusted to keep silent. After Walsingham’s death he had worked for Lord Burghley and his son. Like Robert Poley, like Ruy Lopez. Had the Cecils decided he was too dangerous to remain alive? I shivered. I cared nothing for Poley, but Ruy was married to my friend Sara, and I did not want to see her in danger, should Ruy, like Marlowe, prove an expendable pawn in the political game of chess being played out between Essex and the Cecils.
Why could not these men of power lay aside their differences and work together for the safety of England? How futile – and ultimately how dangerous – was their quarrel over who should maintain the network of intelligence and agents now that Walsingham was dead. Three years had passed, and still it was unresolved.
Rikki ran ahead of me up the stairs in my lodging house, but I stopped to knock on Simon’s door, the room below mine.
‘Come in.’ His voice sounded dispirited.
He was sprawled on his bed, with his shoes on, some loose pages of a play script strewn across his lap.
‘You are late home,’ he said. It sounded like an accusation.
‘I went to Seething Lane after I finished at the hospital, to see Hector, then the Lady Frances asked me to physic her daughter.’
‘Do they not have their own physician? Dr Lopez?’
‘Aye.’ I had not meant that to slip out, so I prevaricated. ‘I expect he is busy. It was nothing. Just some salve. Are you learning a new part? Have you eaten?’
‘Aye and nay. ’Tis a poor thing. We are still waiting for Will’s new piece and must make do with this rubbish in the meantime. In this good weather we need to fill the playhouse every day, for there is no talk of a winter season this year.’
He swung his legs round to the floor and yawned.
‘And I have not eaten. You spoke of collops of mutton.’
‘Aye. Come up to my room. I left them there before I visited a patient on my way to Seething Lane. I have enough for the children too.’
‘You cannot feed those four hungry mouths all the time, even if you are now earning a full physician’s pay.’
He often teased me about what he called my lame ducks, though I had grown accustomed to it and no longer paid it any mind. Tonight he simply sounded tired and discouraged.
‘Mostly they eat in the hospital,’ I said, ‘but the butcher gave me extra today. He has not forgotten that I cared for his child during that false accusation of plague.’
We followed Rikki up the next flight of stairs to my small room, and while Simon climbed the ladder to the garret, where the four children who had once been street beggars now lived, I set to lighting my fire and frying the collops in a little saved bacon fat, with some onions and a few chopped carrots. The carrots I had bought cheap, for they were somewhat withered, but stirred in with the rest they would help to bulk out the meal. The weather was too hot to be leaning over a fire, and I was wiping the sweat from my forehead when Simon returned with the children.
He fetched a loaf from his own room and soon we were all eating hungrily, Simon and I sitting at the table, the children cross-legged on the floor. It could hardly compare with the food served at the Lion, but we all wiped up the last drops of gravy with our bread, and finished with some small early apples Katerina produced proudly from her pockets, windfalls from the hospital orchard. They were hard and somewhat sour, but left us feeling satisfied. I thought Simon seemed less downhearted, now that he had eaten. There was a time when he had been a close friend of Marlowe, even shared lodgings with him and Thomas Kyd. It was not easy for him to shake off the memory of the man’s brutal killing. Truly, none of us could.
‘And have you worked hard today?’ I asked the children.
The two older ones, Katerina and Matthew, were employed at the hospital, she in the laundry, he as one of the boys who ran errands and did any odd jobs that were needed. The twins were too young to find employment there, but followed the others about and helped, unpaid.
‘I am learning to iron sheets,’ Maggie said proudly. ‘You must be careful not to scorch them. You spit on the iron to see if it is hot enough, but if it smokes when you put it to the sheet, then you must let it cool.’
‘I see,’ I said gravely. Are not the sheets very large and heavy?’
‘Katerina helps me,’ she admitted. ‘But soon I shall be strong enough to manage by myself.’
There was some truth in this. When I had first know the little group of beggar children they had been gaunt and starving, but two years of food and now a roof over their heads, had transformed them. No violent beatings with a horsewhip for them, I thought, and although they had been kicked and punched often enough in the past, they were safe enough now, a little family with a home of their own, even if it was no more than a small attic room.
Soon after we had finished eating and scrubbed the greasy bowls clean, I chased the children off to their beds. I knew they found it entertaining that anyone should bid them to bed, having for so long been responsible themselves for finding some sheltered outbuilding or doorway to sleep in, but they went obediently enough. Simon and I sat a little longer with a cup of ale, looking out of the window as the sun sank, crimsoning the waters of the river, and candles began to shine out from windows across in the City.
‘So, you are now at the beck and call of the Countess of Essex,’ he said. ‘I did not know you knew her well.’
‘Not well,’ I said. ‘But indeed I have known her these many years, ever since I began to work for Sir Francis.’
‘I remember when we stood in the freezing wind watching the funeral procession for her first husband,’ he said.
‘The child was very small then. How old is she now?’
‘About nine, I think.’
‘And does the countess wish to retain you as her personal physician?’
‘Oh, not at all. It was just a small matter.’ I would have liked to share what I knew with Simon, but I must respect the Lady Frances’s confidence.
‘She is unhappy,’ I said. ‘Essex is a brute.’
‘Aye, well,’ he shrugged. ‘I suppose even great riches and a place at Court cannot buy you happiness.’
‘Very true,’ I said. ‘They cannot.’