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All the Queen's Playersby Jane Feather
THE LEMONY LIGHT of the early-spring sun seemed to accentuate the delicate new greenery of the apple trees and the soft blush of pink on the creamy white flowers. The blossom was so delicate, so fragile, so impossible to capture to her satisfaction, that Rosamund Walsingham, from her perch high in the crotch of an apple tree, muttered an imprecation under her breath, wiped the slate clean of chalk, and began anew. Chalk was not a good medium for such dainty work, but paper was a luxury as Thomas was always telling her. His usual refrain of not being made of money, so oft repeated, had become a mantra. Not that it prevented him from dressing as richly as he chose, or from riding a handsome gelding with the finest leather saddle and silver harness, she reflected, her nose wrinkling as she studied the blossom anew.
And in all fairness, her brother kept her short of nothing important, and he only limited the supply of paper, which merely meant that she couldn’t afford to make mistakes. Once she’d captured something to her satisfaction with chalk on slate, then she could transfer it to paper with the sharpest, finest quill she could find. It wasn’t perfect, but she could manage.
Absently she brushed back behind her ear a stray lock of chestnut hair that was tickling her nose and leaned against the trunk of the tree at her back surveying the slate with a critical frown. It was almost perfect, and it would be easier to capture the impression of the blossom trembling a little against the leaf when she had the fine nib of a quill pen at her disposal.
Voices drifted into the orchard from below her hidden perch. Rosamund listened, her head cocked. It seemed her brother Thomas was back from his travels. He never sent warning of his returns from his frequent absences, so that was not in the least strange. And neither was it strange that he would bring a visitor with him. The voice was not one she recognized. Thomas had many visitors when he was down at Scadbury, some of them friends, others rather harder to define. The latter moved around in the shadows, it always seemed to Rosamund. They rarely acknowledged her with so much as a glance or a nod, and never spoke at all. They came and went at odd times of day and spent their time enshrined with Thomas in the study. Rosamund had learned to disregard them and was quite happy to keep to herself at such times.
She peered through the pale greenery as the voices came closer. Something about being hidden up here, looking down at the two men as they strolled the alley arm in arm between the fruit trees, brought her a little thrill. She was about to announce herself when they stopped on the path and turned to face each other, their conversation suddenly ceased.
Rosamund watched, fascinated as they kissed, murmuring softly, their hands stroking, moving over each other with increasing fervor. And now she wished she were anywhere but hidden in the apple tree. Her moment to declare herself was gone. Now she could only pray that Thomas would never find out that she had been a witness to this, whatever it was. Her brother was easygoing for the most part, carelessly affectionate to his younger sister when he was in her vicinity, but in general he paid her little attention, and that suited them both. He did, however, have a fearsome temper when aroused, and Rosamund had no desire to be on the receiving end of what she knew would be a terrifying rage if she was discovered.
So, trapped, she watched. They moved off the path, still holding each other, and the stranger leaned up against a tree, Thomas pressed against him. And then they slid slowly down the trunk and out of sight in the lush grass of the orchard. Rosamund could not see, but she could hear, and she’d heard enough stable talk in her rough and ready growing to have an idea what was happening between them, although the logistics of the act had never been clear to her. When her brother gave a howl that sounded as if he were in pain, she clamped her hand over her mouth. She could hear moans mingled with little cries, then silence.
After a minute that seemed to last an eternity, she heard them whispering, laughing softly, and the grass rustled. Their voices rose and fell barely above a whisper, so she could make out little of their words, but they sounded happy, in tune with each other. And then Thomas said in his normal tone, “Ah, Kit, if it’s coin you need during the long vacation, then you must speak with my cousin. He is always looking for men such as yourself.”
Rosamund could see Thomas again now as he stood up and leaned down, laughing, to hold out a hand to the brown-haired stranger who went by the name of Kit. The stranger rose, lacing his trunks, then brushing the dust of the ground from them. He was dressed poorly, his shirt darned, his black trunks shiny with grease, his dark cloak threadbare. He seemed a strange companion for her always elegant brother. But then Thomas frequently kept strange company.
Rosamund was excruciatingly uncomfortable in her apple tree. Her bladder ached, her back itched as if ants had dropped down her neck, and she longed to stretch her cramped legs. But she held herself still, barely breathing, lest something make them look up through the delicate screen of leaves and blossom. But they were too taken up with themselves to give thought to their surroundings, and finally they moved away down the alley towards the sweep of lawn that led up to the half-timbered, slate-roofed house.
She dropped her slate and chalk to the ground, then swung herself down from one of the curved branches to drop beside them. She dived into the trees to relieve herself in the thick grass at the side of the orchard, then she straightened her skirt and petticoat, picked up her chalk and slate, and made her own way up to the house.
She entered through a side door and walked down the narrow, stone-flagged passageway that led from the servants’ quarters at the back of the house to the front hall. As she emerged into the sunlit hall, she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. A shadowy, black-clad figure sidled into the gloom on the far side of the central staircase. It would be Frizer, of course. Ingram Frizer, her brother’s . . . her brother’s what? She was hard-pressed to think of what role Ingram Frizer played in Thomas’s life, but it was certainly ever-present. Thomas rarely came to Scadbury without Frizer clinging to his coattails, hugging the shadows in brooding silence. He seemed more a servant than a friend, but more a confidant than a servant. Their manner towards each other seemed to imply shared secrets. Somehow though Rosamund couldn’t imagine that Thomas and Frizer would have the kind of congress her brother had been having in the orchard with the stranger.
Where was the stranger? Who was the stranger? If Thomas didn’t want his little sister to meet his visitors, he ensured that she didn’t, but this particular visitor Rosamund was determined to meet. She hurried up the curved oak staircase towards her own bedchamber thinking of various casual ways to effect an introduction.
As luck would have it, she was halfway down the corridor that led to her bedchamber when Thomas emerged from his bedchamber, accompanied by the stranger. He stopped as he saw his sister coming towards him.
“Rosamund, where have you been hiding?” His voice was cheerful, no indication of an underlying motive to the awkward question.
“I was walking in the fields, sketching a little,” she offered as she curtsied. “I am glad to see you home and well, Brother.” Her eyes darted as she spoke to the figure standing beside him. It was the stranger from the orchard, but he was transformed. The threadbare, grimy garments were replaced with a winged doublet of emerald velvet slashed over a lining of cream silk, his trunks were the same velvet, and his shirt was adorned with a collar of Thomas’s favorite cobweb lace. Thomas’s generosity extended even to his wardrobe it seemed. The two men were much of a size, and of similar coloring.
Thomas was looking at her quizzically and she realized that she was staring. “Kit, let me make you known to my little sister, Rosamund,” Thomas said. “I fear she has never seen your like before, judging by her ill-mannered stare.”
“Forgive me, sir,” Rosamund said with a quick curtsy, stammering a little as she tried to extricate herself. “I didn’t intend any discourtesy.”
“I perceived none,” the man responded. “Indeed, such scrutiny could be seen as a compliment, if I choose to take it as such.” He smiled. “Christopher Marlowe at your service, Mistress Walsingham.”
The smile transformed him as much as the clothes. The rather arrogant cast of his angular features, a certain suspicious wariness in the brown eyes, disappeared. “I trust it was a compliment.”
“Indeed it was, Master Marlowe.” Rosamund had recovered herself and responded with a smile of her own and another curtsy.
“I swear, Rosamund, you grow into a flirtatious minx,” Thomas declared. “It’s past time we found you a husband, else you’ll be sporting a swollen belly the next time I come back.”
“Not with the fare available in Chiselhurst, Brother.”
Thomas frowned at her. “You must learn to put a guard on your tongue, miss. Not everyone appreciates a coarse wit in a woman.”
Rosamund blinked in confusion. Thomas had never shielded her from his own coarse humor, indeed had always invited her to respond in kind, and since he was the only member of her family since earliest childhood to pay any consistent attention to her, she had never found anything in the least objectionable in the way he spoke to her, or considered the possibility that her own responses might be frowned upon as unbecoming.
Master Marlowe came to her rescue. He clapped his friend on the shoulder, saying, “I for one appreciate an honest tongue in a woman, Thomas. The world is not a pretty place. Why should anyone, man or woman, have to pretend that it is?”
“If they want to find a husband, Kit.” Thomas walked off towards the galleried landing. He turned at the end to look back at them. “We will dine at four, Rosamund. Join us, I have matters to discuss. Do you come now, Kit?”
“Aye.” He moved off after his host, his stride lengthening.
Rosamund turned aside to her own chamber feeling rather bruised. It was unlike Thomas to turn on her without just cause. That had been more their mother’s forte whenever her youngest surviving daughter had ever intruded upon her consciousness. She hadn’t known what to do with Rosamund, who had so unaccountably survived childbirth and early childhood, while most of her other babies had either been stillborn or had simply withered away within months. The tiny stones in the village graveyard made a pathetic line alongside one pathway.
But Dorothy Walsingham had been dead for several years now, and her last years had been so marked with ill health that as far as Rosamund was concerned, her mother might just as well already have been in her grave. She had learned to rely on Thomas for the lessons of life, and he had generally obliged in a haphazard fashion, sometimes answering her questions, sometimes telling her the answers weren’t fit for a maiden’s ears. Their elder brother Edmund was never at Scadbury, even after he inherited. He preferred London, and his succession of mistresses . . . whores, Thomas called them, who according to Thomas had rendered him poxed and senseless for the most part.
In truth it had been so long since she had last seen Edmund that Rosamund couldn’t summon up a clear picture of the present head of the family. She closed the door of her bedchamber behind her and took her slate to the scratched deal table beneath the window. Here she kept her precious supply of paper, quills, and ink. She set the slate down and gazed critically at her chalked sketch in the light from the mullioned window. It still seemed good to her, and she could see how to create just the right impression of fragility, the delicacy of the little tremors the blossoms made against the pale green foliage.
Excitement coursed through her and she forgot her brother’s puzzling and hurtful criticism, forgot the scene in the orchard, forgot Christopher Marlowe, as she sat down on the stool and smoothed out a sheet of paper. She tested the tip of a quill and sharpened it quickly, impatient with a task that had to be completed before she could begin. Then she dipped the quill in the standish and began to draw.
It took two hours to complete, and she leaned back away from the desk and gazed at her drawing. Such a small, delicate object was difficult to render with accuracy, much more difficult than a person, or a scene, but she thought she had succeeded. The sound of voices below her open window brought her out of her reverie, and she leaned over the table to peer down to the terrace below.
Thomas was sitting on the low parapet of the terrace and Ingram Frizer was standing beside him, a sheaf of papers in his hands. Frizer always reminded Rosamund of some malevolent creature of the undergrowth. His skin had an unhealthy greenish cast, always with a slightly greasy sheen, his lank, dirty fair hair hung to his shoulders in rats’ tails, and his clothes looked and smelled moldy as if they’d just emerged from a crypt. His voice had a squeak to it, which reminded her again of a nighttime predator, but his eyes were what chilled her. Opaque, hard, tiny pinpricks of an indeterminate color, but a massive malice.
He was presenting papers to Thomas, who was sitting at his ease, one crossed leg swinging casually, as he read. “You’re a fine man of business, Frizer,” he said with one of his infectious, booming laughs. “You’ll make me a fortune yet, my friend.”
“As long as there are fools in the world,” the other responded with a dour nod. “’Tis no crime to take advantage of such.”
“Well, some might not agree.” Thomas handed back the paper he held. “But I’ve too many debts of my own to fret over such niceties. See that they’re executed. You can be on your road to London within the half hour.”
Frizer looked askance. “You’ll be rid of me then?”
“Aye . . . about your business.” Thomas stood up. “What’s to do, man?”
“What’s the stranger doing here then?” Frizer jerked his head towards the house behind him.
“None of your business, my friend. He’s a man of words, a playmaker, a poet . . . and soon he’ll be joining our little fellowship. Leave him be.” Rosamund could hear a hint of threat in her brother’s voice. It would seem that Thomas recognized the need to keep Frizer in check.
She moved away from the window back to her drawing. What did that mean? What was this fellowship? The little clock on her mantel chimed three o’clock, and she put the question aside for the moment, turning her attention to the armoire. Dinner at four in the company of her brother and his friend merited a certain degree of effort. Most days she dined in the kitchen with the servants, it was more cheerful than the solitary meals that would otherwise be her fate, but it required no change of dress from her usual simple country gowns.
She examined the meager contents of the armoire with a somewhat disconsolate frown. It would have to be her Sunday gown.
© 2010 Jane Feather
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