[Marlowe] persuades men to Atheism willing them not to be afeard of bugbeares and hobgoblins, and vtterly scorning both god and his ministers
Marlowe is going to outlive him. Of this, he is sure.
He has seen him on the streets of Blackfriars, of Southwark, in Bladder Lane, near Aldgate…
He can pretend to be anything, young Kit. Not so young Kit. The two men are of an age: born the same year (though not under the same stars, not at all), Marlowe the elder by two months and always made much sport of it, saying that in the span of a poet’s brief life, two months equaled two years of a common man’s: witness the glorious successes of his Dido, Queen of Carthage and his Tamburlaine the Great, both on stage with the Lord Admiral’s Men when young Will was still acting messengers and third citizens while sharpening his quill on… Was it that o’ermatched shrew in Verona, that first was played? Or the two gentlemen of Padua (not to mention their dog)?
But Kit looks the younger now. He looks like the man Will knew fifteen long years ago, the last time he saw him, in the spring of 1593.
This is what happens when you make the Bargain, Will.
He is not imagining things. This, Marlowe told him himself, when Will finally cornered him like a fox in his lair, which happened to be a bench in the back of the Boar’s Head Tavern.
Will has been chasing him since that first sighting in the churchyard of St Mary le Bow. The days were shortening to winter. The congregation spilled forth from the packed church hungry for fresh air and a sight of what was left of the blue sky after the sermon by a famous preacher. Will joined the many milling about, commenting on the sermon, the weather, the tombs in the churchyard… Only one man stood, quite still, leaning against the side of Bowe-church, ostentatiously waiting for Will to spot him before he disappeared between one tombstone and the next in the lee of a merchant whose wide-spread cloak was too large by an ell for his station, rot him.
But Will had seen him, seen that little fox face with the lion’s mane—obscured, somewhat, by a great growth of beard, but nothing changed in the set of the shoulders, the length of the stride—a small man, showing the world how he bestrode it with each step.
He saw him again the next day at noon—no ghost, therefore, since ghosts vanish at cockcrow. When Will left his lodgings for a meeting with Burbage, Kit was standing by the corner house, beckoning like the ghost in Hamlet, in the exact manner that Will had played him at the Globe last week. Knowing full well that he was being toyed with, Will still dutifully picked up Horatio’s lines: “Stay! speak! speak! I charge thee, speak!”
Kit put a finger to his lips, swirled a non-existent cloak and vanished—through the simple expedient of walking around the corner. Will followed apace—but since the play demanded it, Will did not seek too hard to find him when he proved nowhere in sight. Marlowe would appear to him again in the form and time of his choosing.
Will emerged from a morning rehearsal at Blackfriars, and there was Marlowe, reading a book against a wall like a man lounging by his own chimney corner. It took no scryer to read it as an invitation to Paternoster Row, where stall after stall of booksellers offered everything from solemn tracts to stolen scripts to new plays, badly-remembered by ill-paid players, ill-set by unscrupulous printers.
The clues were books, today, then, and Will followed a stall or two behind Marlowe, asking each bookseller what the bushy-bearded man in sober black had perused (sans buying). The titles read him Marlowe’s missive:
NEWS FROM HELL
That was Marlowe in his humour, Marlowe who scorned Hell and God at once, a definitely notorious possible atheist always just one patron ahead of the hangman. Had Kit discovered God, now? More likely the Devil—but proof of the one as easily as the other would conquer any man’s atheism.
At the next stall, the fox had lingered long over three titles. So far, all plays, all duly registered with the stationer’s office, including this one:
THE LONDON PRODIGAL
This was easy enough to parse: his friend had been gone from London and was now returned. But how, prodigal? Had he been prodigal with his funds? His talents (which, to be nice about it, the Gospel parables named one and the same)? And did this prodigal son now expect to be fed the fatted calf? Welcomed by his loving, grieving father?
A TRICK TO CATCH THE OLD ONE
Was Will “the Old One” now? Or was that another reference to Old Nick? This was a play of Middleton’s, a city comedy about a young man in debt, ruined by his spendthrift habits. Prodigal, indeed.
Plain enough, as was the next:
IF YOU KNOW NOT ME, YOU KNOW NOBODY
The best thing about Heywood’s semi-comedy, semi-history had been its title. Will thumbed the quire open, read: Tis bad to do evil, but worse to boast of it: yet He above knows that sometimes as soon as I have come from Bowe-church, I have gone to a Bawdyhouse.
Kit had revealed himself to Will in the Bowe-church yard. But disappearing thence to a bawdyhouse? Not if he expected to be followed by his friend. He snapped the pages shut, returned it to the table, and crossed the yard, as Marlowe just had, to find:
A MAD WORLD, MY MASTERS
Kit was leaning heavily on Middleton. Well, Middleton did come up with good titles. Thomas Middleton, a fine playwright, who had been a lad of 13 years when Marlowe died, stabbed in a tavern in Deptford. The world lost to him, and he lost to the world, save the six dramas he had penned himself, and the many he’d had a hand in, because Kit wrote fast and was always in need of funds.
He moved on to:
WHAT YOU WILL
There was his own name, at last.
Will wondered if he should be relieved or offended that none of the titles Marlowe chose had been his. But which of William’s plays’ titles lent themselves to this riddling? Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Henry V, Anthony and Cleopatra, King Lear, Richard III, Othello, Macbeth… the names of dead kings, dead generals, dead heroes. Only a few of Will’s own titles would fit this game. If he could lay them out, Will reflected, his reply to Marlowe might run something like this:
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
AS YOU LIKE IT
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
…And of course,
LOVE’S LABORS LOST
These made a pretty reply. When he caught Marlowe, he would tell him so. He might tell him now, if he were swift: there was Marlowe at the stall opposite, holding a book upside-down, miming his inability to make it make sense, to the annoyance of the bookseller.
As he viewed the pages, Marlowe’s mobile face slackened; slowly he shook his bearded head over and over, as though he were some country bumpkin overwhelmed by city wit, and moved away, leaving the field—the text—to Will:
WHEN YOU SEE ME, KNOW ME
Those words were clear enough. His mopping and miming were an extra piece of Kit’s deviltry: Marlowe must know how Henslowe had spiced up a production of Kit’s Dr Faustus with bits of Rowley’s silly play back in ’02, right before the old queen’s death.
Will rounded the corner into Pope’s-Head Alley just in time to see young Marlowe strolling away from the stall of Master George Loftes with nary a glance behind him, sure that his old friend followed.
It meant losing his quarry, but Will could not resist the lure of learning the next book’s title, on his life he could not. Besides, he knew Master Loftes—or was known to him—and it would be discourteous to ignore the bookseller’s greeting; still more discourteous, when he heard that “your man, that lately passed this way, and if ye’d been a bit more speedy ye’d have o’ertaken him” had commanded a book to Master Shakespere’s account, and would he like to take it and pay for it now?
Will kept his countenance and received the pamphlet, a small folio of sewn pages, gravely.
“Will you want it bound, sir?”
Why bound, and thus obscured, when the title grinned up at him from the naked title page?
LOOKE TO IT: FOR, I’LL STABBE YE
A threat? He flicked the pages lightly, reflecting on the previous titles: The Prodigal, The Malcontent… Those had been Kit himself, the man to the life. If you know not me, you know nobody. That was addressed to Will. So too might I’ll stab you be?
He opened the book to the first page, where a poem declared:
There is a Humour us’d of late,
By eve’ry Rascall swagg’ring mate,
To give the Stabbe: Ile Stabbe (sayes hee)
Him that dares take the wall of me.
If you to pledge a health deny,
Out comes his Poniard; there you lie…
If you demand the Debt he owes,
Into your guts his Dagger goes.
Into his guts, indeed. His guts, his heart, his head—he’d heard it was one, the other, and worse, the wound that had felled Kit Marlowe in the widow’s house in Deptford that spring of 1593. There were as many reasons given as wounds. Which humour was used to give the stabbe to Christopher Marlowe? A debt unpaid, a toast undrunk, respect withheld…? No one knew. Well, the killers would know. Or those who’d set them on. Say rather, nobody was foolish enough to tell, or brave enough to find out.
Marlowe wasn’t dead, then, was that the message of this Look to It doggerel? That he was somehow instead living a life of such ease that it did not age him? Will would not put it past Kit to have written this very verse, sleek-paced and pointed—credited to one “S. R.,” but that meant nothing. It might even be another riddle.
Will gave up the chase for the day, went home via a cookshop, ate his meat as he perused the book Marlowe had caused him to buy.
If you demaund the Debt he owes,
Into your guts his Dagger goes.
Death seeing this, doth take his Dart,
and he performes the Stabbing part.
he spareth none, be who it will:
his licence is the World to kill.
He spareth none, be who it will.
Be who? It Will.
So, Kit, you are dead, yet licensed to roam the World—great news from Hell indeed—to tell me what? That I am next? To tempt me to your strange, atheist-disproving damnation?
The day with the titles had unsettled him. A game of words, the kind he liked so well that, he must confess, it might all just be his own fancy run wild. Was it truly Marlowe, he began to wonder. Or just a young man who resembled him—a son of his body, even—a man with a roguish wit and invention, leading the ageing writer a merry dance for the sheer joy of it? How could it be Marlowe, in sooth? Will taxed himself with these thoughts in the watches of the night. His brain was overheated, his liver cold… His mother’s late death quick followed upon by the birth of his daughter’s first child making him brood on mortality, lending to an idle shape the name of Christopher Marlowe. He missed Kit still, he did. They’d meant to vie each for Fame and the even more elusive Greatness together. There is no one like the friend who knew you when you first began to know yourself.
He was not seeking Marlowe when at last he found him. On the street, a light touch on his shoulder—a pick-pocket’s trick, and Will clapped his hand to his purse—but it was Kit.
“Good day, Will.” Kit’s voice was gentle. He knew that voice as he knew his own name. “Shall we walk out of the sun?”
And so he found himself in the Boar’s Head Tavern, where he knew no one and was known to none, on a bench deep at the back, far from everything, facing Marlowe across the table. The two men were silent, just taking each other in.
The scar on Kit’s forehead was still there: a small thing that bit off the corner of his right eyebrow. Some said it was there he had received his death wound in Deptford.
But Will had been present when his friend had taken the blow that caused the scar: a jesting duel between Marlowe and the actor Ned Alleyn, each armed with a wooden sword, debating how the ancient Romans had fought in truth, and how to render it onstage. Alleyn struck an unhappy blow. Kit reeled. As the blood from his forehead flooded his face, Kit had roared and roared, caught between his terror at his drowned vision and the hilarity of Ned’s apologies, an actor’s words borrowed from all the parts he knew, that grew more lush and self-abasing with Marlowe’s every holloa.
In the end, it was nothing. Head-wounds bleed, and when this one was finally staunched, it left the mark, the very mark Will gazed on now. No question, then, but that he beheld his friend in truth.
The little fox gazed earnestly at him. “You look older. But of course, you are.”
“And you, somehow, are not?”
“As you see.” Marlowe showed him one smooth palm, turned it over and back again, a conjuror at a fair displaying the same trick over and over: the ball you see, the ball that you do not.
Will saw a young man’s hand, unmarked with labor. What he did not see was the stain of any ink.
He held his own hand out for contrast. It looked as though it had been dipped in the stuff—he must needs forebear to take out his handkerchief and scrub at it. The forefinger and thumb, twin graspers of the pen nib—the streaks of gall between them, and then the bump on the side of the third digit, the seat of Jupiter, above the mount of Saturn, where the quill rubbed ever against it.
“You do not write,” Will stated.
“Never a word. Your chariot has out-paced mine, sweet William. Five-and-thirty plays to my six—and never mind all that verse.”
“I’ve had more time than you, my gentle ghost.”
“I am no ghost.” Kit reached his clean white hand across the table. But Will had no desire to take it. “I go too fast,” Marlowe said.
“An old, old fault.”
“If you won’t take my hand, will you still drink with me? Two men, ale from one pitcher, and we’ll see who needs must rise to piss first.”
“I never knew a ghost who pissed.”
“And do not know one now. Listen—it’s true I left the writing life. But I am well-paid in return.”
“And, thus, in returning?”
Kit laughed delightedly. “There’s my gentle Will. I am as I was at the moment before my death. And will remain so always. Ho, boy!” he called to the potman. “Ale for my friend and me, and no spitting in the jug!”
“How do you live?”
“I live on air, as birds do.”
“With worms and flies?” The lines from his own play came to him as easy as breath.
“I made a bargain, Will. The writing was the price of it.”
“They paid you to stop writing?”
“Not with money.” Across the table, Marlowe rose to his feet, a player playing at being offended. “Do you think me such a low-mouthed cur as that?”
“I’ve known you to do much for merely the price of a pipe of tobacco,” the poet said mildly.
“Well.” Kit sat himself down again. “My silence is not so easily bought.”
“Yet bought it was.”
Will Shaxpur had more patience than any man in Southwark. Marlowe knew it, so he took his time playing out the moment before revelation. He fidgeted with his goffered sleeve cuff, prized a splinter out of the table with his penknife (even a man with no pen still had one, fit to other uses; Will observed his hands; there was nothing wrong with them to stop Kit from holding a pen), lifted it to pick his teeth before finally calling halt to his little dumbshow.
“I do not write. I live.”
Will nodded brusquely. He’d heard that from many a University wit, come up to London to make his fame with words only to give way to temptation, having found his father’s allowance allowed him to postpone the work that precedes fame.
Kit had heard it, too, and hurried on to say: “I live the lives I wrote about, I mean. The time of my choosing, and the personages as well, one upon the next. I have seven times seven centuries of youth and perfect health before me. Like the man born to be hanged—which I suppose I might be, when my times comes (I didn’t ask; I’m nice about such things)—I shall never drown at sea. No plague can touch me. It’s true my skin can be pricked—but the blood I spill regenerates itself.” He gestured with his hands like a very Italian: “Thus I may be pirate, thief or renegado; merchant, painter, costermonger… prince, I suppose, should the means present itself. I’ve all the time to learn a thousand skills, and practice each unto my heart’s content.”
“I see,” Will said, for so he did. “Only have you lost the power of generation.”
“Of writing, merely! That was the Bargain.”
“You’ve traded your future work for present immortality.”
Kit always looked surprised when Will saw straight to the point of things. No one else did that, anymore. Will was forty-four now, and had forgotten the days when everyone expected him to be a raw-boned fool. No friend like an old friend.
“My ingenuity I have not lost. That creative force which makes us higher than the angels. I may yet paint, compose, carve… shape pastries if I will!”
“It’s a fine art, the pastrycook’s. I saw a pie once at the Queen’s table at Windsor made to look like the Tower of Babylon. I might have desired to eat it—but never to craft it myself.”
Marlowe’s retort was lost with the arrival of the potboy with the ale, in a pitcher, and two cups. Playing host, Christopher filled them both, and raised his own to Will.
“To the reunion of true friends,” he said, and William drank to that; how could he not?
But he had his own retort, his own toast ready. “And to truth in reunion.” He drank. “Now, by our friendship, Kit, if you do hold it sacred as you say: tell me what happened.”
“I’ll tell you.”
Had Marlowe’s eyes always been this light, like mirrors he could see into? Or was it the simple pleasure of looking into them again, when he’d long thought them food for worms, that held him so?
“They came to me when Faustus was being played at the Rose. So spare me your suspicions, friend! I know a good bargain from a bad. All I have gained is my life. All I have lost is my writing.”
“Faustus at the Rose. So, two years before your dea—before Deptford.”
“I do confess I thought I had more time.” Marlowe scratched his chin through that deep, ridiculous, obscuring beard. “They never say when it will come. How could I know?” He sighed. “I would have liked to finish my Hero and Leander.”
“Chapman finished it for you with a creditable third Sesto.” Will couldn’t stop himself from talking shop.
“Did he? I haven’t dared to look.”
“The tale of the doomed Greek lovers is hardly unknown,” Will added a bit meanly. “And he was brave to take on not just your poetry but your dimple-arsed Leander.” Will quoted:
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back…
Marlowe smiled as though tasting fine old wine, then took a sip of ale. “Well, never mind it. The point is that I knew as those three villains surrounded me in Deptford, held me up against that table with their blades out… I knew my time had come. But I tried not to piss myself in fear, for if the Bargain held, I would outlive their stabbings.” He paused. “They say that at the moment of his death, a man sees his whole life pass by like a great procession. As the knives came closer, my faith in the Bargain was sustained: for what I saw was all my plays, one after the other—stripped of their imperfections, each sweet and meaty like a banquet… a banquet I would never taste again. And that was all there was of death for me.”
Will leaned forward, almost took one of the pale hands. “Is that your purpose here, Christopher? Do you want me to write your plays for you?”
Kit looked at him bleakly. “How?”
“You cannot write. But you speak well enough. Am I to play your scribe, as when we first worked together on all the Henry plays?” Will tried to keep his voice level, lest he betray to them both his strange mix of longing and disdain, of rage at the insult and desire for what was past.
Marlowe was looking down at the nicks he’d made in the table. “No. No, that’s not it. Not it at all.” His mouth twisted in a painful grimace. “Nothing could be farther from my mind.”
“What then?” He asked it gently.
“Have you not divined? Truly not? Then I will spell it out.” He looked up with those strange eyes. “It’s your turn. You are next.”
Will heard the scraping of his own bench, found he had pushed back violently from the table. “How? How can I be next, when I’ve made no bargain? This is not right! I will not have it so!”
“Sit, Will, sit, I pray you. I’ve said it wrong. My lines are all ill-metered, now. Please, friend, sit. Of course you have a choice. Let me explain.”
Will sat, and took a long pull at his cup.
“An invitation only, Will. To the banquet that I now enjoy. Listen: they will come to you, offer you the Bargain, and ask for your consent.”
“They?” The time had come to ask. “What is this they you speak of?
Kit shook his head, like a horse ridding itself of flies. “I cannot say.”
“It is impossible.”
If Will was angry, it was on his friend’s behalf. “What bright new Mephistopheles have you found, Kit, that binds your tongue from speaking his Master’s name?”
“It’s not the Devil, Will! I swear it.” He shook his head again in that strange way, as though to clear it. “Nor yet God’s ministering Angels, nor yet the earthy bubbles of the Faerie Realm. They are the stars wrenched from their courses—they are the seekers and the seeking, the judges and the judging, past and future ransomed by a mercy none but they will show—”
“Peace, Mercutio, peace.” Will spoke the lines that he had written for his dead friend. “Thou talkest of nothing.”
And the friend fixed those deep, bright eyes upon him. “When your time comes, you will apprehend.”
“When will that be?”
“I do not know. They come while you are hale and living, so that you may choose before the shadow of death is on you, choose freely and give consent to the Bargain.”
“Which is to write no more, after I die? Not much of a choice. I’ll write no more in any case.”
“That’s not quite it, though, Will.” Marlowe twisted his long fingers against one another. “We who take the Bargain must accept an early death—earlier than nature might have purposed—to turn from writing to eternal life.”
“A violent one?”
“What? Oh—no. Not unless you spy for Walsingham, and consort with atheistical nobles. I believe you’re safe there. You may die in your bed in Stratford. Just not at threescore years and ten.”
“That’s the offer, Kit? After my own short span, a lifetime of being other folk besides myself?” Will drank again, and wiped his mouth. “It holds no true allure. I have been all those people—on the stage, some, but more so in my crafting of them, through and through.” It was his turn to look at the table. “That art is my own,” he murmured to the wood. “The art that others—even you—only begin to scratch at. To know each man, each woman, as I write them, heart and soul and contradictions, all. To give them words to make each moment sing bass, alt, and treble. I’d rather live, and know them, still, than survive my own death trying to become what I am not and failing to do that which I am.”
The fox’s eyes narrowed. He let out an impatient breath. “Write all you like. Write all you may. But don’t play the fool. The bargain is to accept a thousand lives—to live the life that writing has denied you.”
“And then become but mine own audience, ever after?”
Marlowe sat back, considering. In that one moment, he seemed less of a young man, more one his own age, and Will was glad to see it finally. “Is that what troubles you?”
“A bargain is an exchange where both parties benefit. You get eternal life without a pen. But what is it that this mysterious They have gotten in return? The knowledge that you consented to trade your art for life?”
“I do not know.”
“Kit, my only Kit. No matter how long you lived or however much you wrote, you were destined to die a poor man. You don’t know how to bargain, never did. University man!” he scoffed. “I have a house in Stratford, Kit. I have restored my family’s name. I leave my wife and children—and their children; yes, there is one now—a firm foundation.
“Tell, me, Marlowe: what of that other posterity? Is your seed still good, I mean?” Both Marlowe’s eyebrows shot up together, scarred and unscarred. “In your long, scripting-free life, will you people the world with Christophers, or leave it bare of that as well?”
“Too soon to tell,” Kit said with roguish bravado, the young scapegrace again. “I’ll let you know when I find out.”
“When you find out,” the poet repeated. “You will find out many things, if you live forever.”
“They play it yet, my Tamburlaine.”
“But if you live and live, you may live to see it utterly forgotten.”
“What matter?” Kit pretended not to care. “It is my life that goes on, with or without the work remembered.”
“Then your true, natural life was all for naught.”
“Not so! What’s more, whatever wind may sway a theater audience this way or that, a printed text is writ in stone. My Faustus, for example: though I am gone from the world’s stage, yet Bushnell still saw fit to publish the text some two years past.”
“It’s four years past, Kit. Published the same year as my Hamlet.”
“And you have written other plays since then.”
“Write all you like. Write all you may. Does it comfort you to think that you will die of old age, with all your words played out?”
He said nothing.
“Will—Will, listen to me. It’s fine to be a crafter of words. Not just to be admired for it, but to do it well, and know you do it well. But is not there something… monkish in it? For the time that you are writing, you are mewed up in your cell, your books your only company. The words break upon the page like waves. You’re on an island. An exile.”
“A room in a cave, on an island on an island. This sceptered isle, this England…”
“Which of us wrote that?” asked Kit, distracted by the phrase.
“I can’t remember. We argued over it; I forget who won.”
“This is the way off the island, Will! This—” Marlowe flailed in the air, then paused, suddenly sure of himself: an actor’s pause, then spoken with a flourish: “This is Illyria, lady.”
The words went through him like a spear. The sound each syllable made, the very simplicity of them, that beckoned—no, that ushered one into a brave, new world.
Marlowe saw, and pressed home the advantage. “Illyria, Will. News on the Rialto. Come from the farthest steppes of India. I am again for Cydnus! And that strange seacoast of Bohemia.” He chuckled, and Will let him; an old joke, a land-locked land, before he knew better. “What, not one hit?” Kit persisted in quoting, play after play: “From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, From Lisbon, Barbary? Grapple your mind to the sternage of this navy, and leave your England as dead midnight still… Think you are now in Mytiline… Come to the bay of Ephesus…”
“Was ever Scythia half so barbarous? Really, Kit, you do torment me.”
“Certes,” the lion-maned fox said. “Do you think I do not know you? The Bargain: it’s not just life they offer. It’s the chance to read every book yet to be written. Every sea yet to be sailed. Exploration, Will! A way off the island for you at last.”
“And do you come to tempt me now to take this Bargain of yours? to forswear my so potent art only to draw more breaths in this all-hating world? And therewith to see my memory fade, my life’s work come to naught? How is that not hell, my Christopher?”
Marlowe shrugged and drained his cup. “Then stay in your cave, my friend. Leave the world to us. Wait, year by year, for either your death, or the death of your pen—the Bargain is yours to make or to refuse. But think of it, Will! To savor the world in all its flavors. Its honey on your tongue… its words in your mouth…”
Will held up his hand, the sign for an actor to halt.
“It’s not an easy choice, Kit. There is regret in it either way. If I say No, I will regret it on my deathbed. If I say Yes, I will regret it one hour after, the first time I set quill to paper and find I cannot write. And I will have the pleasure of seeing youth overtake me, as my plays go out of fashion, my name forgotten… What comfort, then, is there?”
“To make a new name,” Marlowe said. “Or none at all. But to know the world in all its glory, to be a fully living part of it at last.” Marlowe emptied the last drops from the pitcher into Will’s cup. “Say yes to them, Will. And then you’ll see me again.” He smirked, and rolled his eyes piously heavenward. “We cannot know our ends. But I’ll wager a gossip to a goose I’ll see you again on some high battlement, pennants flapping in a blist’ring wind, what teeth you have left by then bared joyously to the elements, ready with me for a battle that we two cannot lose.”
“How attractive you make it sound. I think…”
“I’d rather travel. Learn every tongue, speak with rogues and dukes their language everywhere… inhabit an infinity of lives that way.”
“And so you may.”
“I’ve a good ear for language,” Will said. “And music, too. I’ve never mastered an instrument. There would be time for that.”
Will Shakspere sat back, and templed his fingers. “I’m 44 now, Kit. So I might write on for one year, two years… or even ten, and still count it before my time, I hope.”
“I have always thought a man should die on his birthday.”
“As you will.” Marlowe chuckled affectionately. “I didn’t.”
“Like Caesar’s Cassius.” Will, smiling, quoted his lines:
This day I breathèd first. Time is come round,
And where I did begin, there shall I end.
Kit said, “Or the Scottish Queen’s last words to the headsman: ‘In my end is my beginning.’”
“No, I was there. I couldn’t tell you at the time.”
Will kept to the point: “But Mary meant her end in this world, the beginning her eternal life.”
Marlowe tried to look demonic. “Faith, so do I.” He rose, dropped coin on the table for the tab.
“Wait—one question, Kit.”
Marlowe leaned down, so that their two heads almost touched. “What is it, Will?”
“With all this time ahead… with death defeated, and life begun anew… what was it you chose to learn first?”
Marlowe’s fair skin flushed so deep a crimson it looked as though only his immortality could save him from the loss of blood. “To ride a horse,” he said. “I chose to learn to ride like a gentleman, and not a sack of sticks.”
Will grinned at his friend. “A fine choice, Kit. Very practical.”
“Think on’t,” Marlowe said. If he could have vanished theatrically in a blast of fire and smoke, he would have done so. But he just turned, and walked away through the tavern, one man in many, soon lost on the London streets.
She’d meant to go straight to the Ladies’ Waiting Room before her train. But Euston Station had recently been graced with a brand-new bookstall stocked with superior reading matter for passengers on the train lines, courtesy of Mr. W. H. Smith, a gentleman known for his taste and high morals. Here, for example, in ten tempting pocket volumes, the complete works of William Shakespeare. She picked up the last of them. These were the plays she knew the least. Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale… tales of travel, adventure on sea and land—though there was a favorite, The Tempest: a man exiled to an island, living in a cave, surrounded by magic of his own making, until he returns home at last. She had not known the Bard had written that one so late in life, before his sudden death at the age of fifty-two.
As the short-sighted woman lingered there, examining the titles—a small woman in a plain gray traveling costume—she did not see the two men approaching until they were at her side.
They were well but plainly dressed, themselves—gentlemen, clearly—though the shorter of the two, a ginger man with luxurious whiskers, had allowed himself the levity of a pair of bright plaid trousers in the new analine dye.
They doffed their tall hats to her, bowed courteously.
“Yes?” she asked stiffly. They appeared to be gentlemen, but this was London.
“Have we the honor of addressing Miss Bronte?”
She pressed her lips tightly together and tried not to squint. Should she know them? Were they from her publisher? Had she met them at some dinner last time and forgotten? The taller, older man did look faintly familiar to her.
“Forgive this intolerable rudeness,” the shorter man said. “We have not been introduced, but time presses. Your train will be leaving shortly. You are expected elsewhere. We will not trouble you long.”
The older man shook his head impatiently, as though annoyed at the time even these courtesies were taking.
“We bear a message,” he said softly, “to the Genius Talli.” She clutched a book rack for support. “From the Duke of Zamorna.”
Charlotte knew them then.
“Where have you been?” she said. “I have been waiting for you.”
In April of the dread year 2020, a visit to friends in Arizona that had been meant to last two weeks was already stretching into two months. It was, in many ways, the world’s nicest pandemic lockdown: my wife Delia Sherman and I had gone there to write, and now no one was stopping us.
But my soul craved something more. I started dropping hints on Facebook about doing a playreading. To my absolute amazement Emily Carding, a professional British actor (whose one-woman performance of Richard III is a wonder and delight), suggested we read A Winter’s Tale together via Zoom, with her as the jealous, raging King Leontes, and me as her wise Paulina. After I’d stopped running around the house shrieking with glee, I pulled in a few other readers from various corners of my life: in Maine, in my New York neighborhood, in Massachusetts, in Devon… and we sorted out our various time zones and did the reading. It filled us with such joy that we decided to read As You Like It together the following week. That was so utterly engaging that we chose Henry IV, Part I for the next week (because Falstaff), bringing in a guy I auditioned with for my very first in high school play (now a professor of theater himself), a friend’s young daughter training to be an actor, a professor of Spanish and Queer Studies who specializes in crowd scenes with finger puppets… As the weeks and the plays mounted up, we invited in more friends, all professionals (two Toronto, one London, one L.A.) who were hurting something fierce because they were locked down in apartments with no text and no audience. Oh, and my wife Delia and my nephew.
I don’t know when we decided that we were going to read through the entire Shakespeare canon, with each play uncut. I know it was Patrick who decided we should call ourselves “All the Bard’s Words (all of them!).”
Almost exactly a year to the day we began, we read our final play in the canon.
I call it a Gift of the Pandemic. Every single week, every word of every play layering in my ear, in my brain. I caught subtleties I’d never noticed before, made connections from play to play of theme, character, language . . . And the friendship amongst this varied and various international gang grew into something rich, magnanimous, nourishing.
I want to thank them for this story. I only wrote it because they were there every week, bringing their skills, their passions, their humor, and their insights to all the Bard’s characters. Thus, when I, um, was reminded that I had a story due for Uncanny shortly after we’d completed the canon, I realized that if I didn’t use the gift the year had given me, I was an ass.
So thank you, my beloved Zoomers:
Stuart J. Hecht
Alexander J. Kushner
Patrick J. O’Connor
While I was struggling to write “Immortal Coil,” they were there, too, helping out with everything from palmistry to place names. Some Facebook friends came through as well, most notably the scholars Kavita Vidya and Carey Mazer. And when I was in the throes of trying to make page after page of pretty language say something that actually made sense, my dear Liz Duffy Adams, Mimi Panitch and Delia Sherman sat around a big kitchen table with me and saved my life as usual.
Finally, thanks to my generous editors, Lynne Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, for their patience and inspiration.
— Ellen Kushner