Elanor Bull’s Public House Deptford, England
May 30, 1593
The smell of roasted meat and the noisy clank of kitchen pots filled the room. A young potboy whistled as he gathered dishes from a table and shuffled them off to the back of the house.
Christopher Marlowe gazed out the window at the rapidly fading sunlight. He took a long draw from his tankard of ale, closed his eyes, and savored the brief moment of peace. It had been, to say the least, a bad year. The plague had once again cast a spell of death across London. In an effort to slow its progress, by order of the Crown, the theaters had been closed. As if the loss of his livelihood was not sufficient, Marlowe had—in just the previous month—been arrested, charged with heresy, and forbidden to leave the city until called upon for trial.
Marlowe was not a fool. He knew that the trial would be a mere formality. It was clear that forces were aligned against him—the same forces that had once called upon his assistance. The charge of heresy was utter nonsense. Facts, however, were of no consequence. He would be lucky to escape a date with the executioner’s sword. Two days earlier it had seemed all but certain that he would spend the remaining days of his life in shackles and under guard. And yet for some reason, he had been allowed to remain at liberty until the time for his trial.
Odd, Marlowe thought as he took another drink from his tankard. The Crown is usually not so . . .
He paused in midthought.
Fie! What a fool I am. Of course they let me go.
He contemplated the obvious: that they had never intended to provide him a trial. He knew far too much—his fate had already been decided.
I shall leave for France forthwith.
Marlowe started to rise from his seat when he no- ticed that the room had suddenly turned silent. No banging of pots in the kitchen. No scuffing of chairs along the stone floor. No murmur of conversation.
Marlowe peered around the room. It was empty. Elanor Bull, who owned and operated the public house, was nowhere to be seen. The potboy’s whistle was silent. Marlowe had been so absorbed in his own thoughts that he had failed to notice what was taking place around him.
He set his tankard on the table, and his hand went instantly to the dagger at his side. The front door creaked open. Marlowe shielded his eyes from the light of the late afternoon sun as it streamed through the open doorway. He could not see who had entered or how many.
When the door shut, a large man dressed in black turned to face him. He held a sword at his side. Two men stood beside the man in black—their swords drawn.
“Robert Poley,” said Marlowe to the man standing at the door. “What news? Have ye come on behalf of God, the Crown, or the Devil?”
Poley spoke slowly, his voice deep and raspy.
“Neither God nor the Crown has any use for thee, Christopher Marlowe.”
“Aye, ’tis true, Robert Poley,” Marlowe replied, “but I suspect that it is on the Devil’s behalf that a man such as yourself was sent.”
Marlowe held the dagger close to his hip as he stood and moved toward the center of the room. He needed time to assess the situation. “So the Earl of Essex prefers his secrets in the grave?” he said.
Poley grunted and spat on the floor. “Impertinent dog,” he growled. “’Tis worms who shall bear witness to what secrets ye hold.”
Marlowe knew that there was a rear door leading to a narrow alley behind the tavern. He could make it to the alley before Poley and his men had time to react. But he also knew Poley—he would have the exit covered. The only way out would be through the front door and at the point of his own dagger. Marlowe cursed himself for lack of more substantial arms.
At that moment, Marlowe heard a faint shuffle of feet in the darkness behind him.
He smiled. Clumsy fool.
Marlowe pivoted backwards just as a sword thrust at him from the shadows. His dagger flashed from his side and into the right arm of his attacker. The
man screamed as the sword fell from his hand and clanked onto the hard stone floor. Marlowe grabbed the sword and turned to face Poley and his henchmen. He grinned as he ran the steel of his dagger down the blade of the sword. “Ye may seek to whet thy swords on my bones,” he said, “but ye will find me a most unwilling grindstone.”
“So be it,” growled Poley.
The clank of steel on steel rang through the room and into the street beyond.