Whatever the future be, if you are reading this, you read the words of a man who knew how to live and who died an unnatural and unjust death. And what follows is the true record of the circumstances leading to my assassination.
My name is Christopher Marlowe, also known as Marle, Morley, Marly, known as Kit, known as Xtopher, son of a Canterbury cobbler. They say shoemakers’ sons go barefoot. It wasn’t so bad for us, but my father had a fondness for style that stretched beyond his means and damaged family fortunes. I inherited his tastes, but desired none of his debt, so I have always been in need of money and have risked much where other men might have scrupled.
I was a clever child. My keenness was brought to the attention of a local Knight who sponsored my early education. Years later he would judge me on a murder charge, never meeting my eye though I knew he recognised me well.
When I was seventeen I persuaded an old Archbishop that my one desire was to enter the Church. He granted me a scholarship to Cambridge University where I was recruited into a strange shadow world, where I was assured I could help my country while helping myself. So it proved and when it seemed my degree might not be granted, due to various absences and rumours which placed me where I shouldn’t be, the Queen’s own Privy Council gave guarantees I had been on Her business and must not suffer for doing Her good service.
Eventually I moved to London as I always knew I would, and set the world of theatre afire. Men left Massacre of Paris with their sword-hands twitching. And when my Faustus was performed, some said Lucifer himself attended, curious to see how he was rendered. Yes, it is no vanity to say my plays were a triumph, and Christopher Marlowe so famous they had heard of me in Hell. And so I made shift betwixt two night-time realms and thought my life charmed.
I am of an adventurous nature. I have often invited danger and have even goaded men to violence for the sake of excitement. I like best what lies beyond my reach, and admit to using friendship, State and Church to my own ends. I acknowledge breaking God’s laws and man’s with few regrets. But if I die tomorrow, I will go to my grave a wronged man. Were this fate of my own doing, I would greet it not gladly, but with a nod to virtue’s victory. As it is, if I meet death tomorrow I promise to face him cursing man and God. * My story begins on the 19th of May, 1593. All of that month I had been installed at Scadbury, the country house of my patron, Thomas Walsingham. For reasons I will soon explain, it was after noon before I woke, but when I drew back my shutters the day seemed new minted. It was as if I had lighted in another land. A world riven with sunlight. I stood by the window enjoying the lack of London’s stink as much as the freshness of the countryside, then repaired to my desk where I worked like the finest of scholars, until the sun edged half the sky and a shadow crept across my words. I let the ink of my last poetry sink into the page and when all danger of smudging was past, locked the manuscript safe in my trunk, slipping one of my own hairs into the clasp, an old precaution, done more from habit than necessity.
It had become my custom to walk in the forest in the early evening. As I write, I search my remembrance, wondering if the weeks cloistered in the country, avoiding the Plague which once more threatened the City, had made me restless. I was used after all to the bustle of theatrical life, London’s stews, the half-world of ambidextors and agents. But it seems when I look back on this walk at the end of a perfect day, that it was the most untroubled hour of my life. I didn’t know that every step I took was echoed by the beat of a messenger’s horse speeding along the London road towards Scadbury. My fate galloping to meet me.
I had much to muse on that late afternoon. The events of the previous night should have been prime in my mind. But I thought of nothing as I walked through the forest. That is, I thought of nothing in particular. Pleasant images threaded through my daydreams: the verses I was engaged on; what might be served for supper; the thighs of a woman I had lain with last winter; the dedication I would compose for Walsingham; how perfect clusters of purple violets looked snug against the forest floor; whether a doublet of the same shade might suit me well. All mingled with contentment at the good fortune of my state. The assurance of my patron’s affection, the vigour of my blood, the good reception I felt sure would greet my poetry when I returned at last to London. I see now there was a complacence in my satisfaction and, were I prone to superstition, might suspect I invoked misfortune by displeasing God with my conceit. But such thoughts are nonsense. When making mischief, man needs no help from God or the Devil.
The sun slipped lower beyond the canopy of leaves. The forest’s green light deepened, tree shadows lengthened, intersecting my path like criss-crossing staves. I registered dusk’s approach and walked through bars of light and dark wondering if I might employ them as a metaphor.
Nature hath no distinction twixt sun and shadow, good and evil.
I saw no one, but the forest was secretly as busy as any London street. Night and daytime creatures crossed, invisible in the gloaming. Birds whistled territorial tunes and small beasts, newly awakened for the night kill, rustled beneath fallen leaves, fleeing my approach. Crickets scratched out their wash-board song and the wind whipped the treetops into a roar. But any crowd has its silent watchers and once I glimpsed the feminine form of a deer, trembling at the edge of my vision.
“That’s right,” I said out loud, “never let your guard down.” Then laughed, because I had let my own guard down, walking unaccompanied through these woods on the verge of night. I remember I paused to light my pipe, trusting the smoke to repel the swarms of midges that hovered around my head, then strode on confident I could reach the house before dark.
So passed my last untroubled moments. I didn’t see the man ride uninvited into the courtyard, hear the familiar clatter of hooves against cobbles, nor witness the manic roll in the eye or the sweat on the flank of the horse driven too fast. But I returned in time to register the customary pomposity of the Queen’s Messenger, who greeted me with sarcastic civility and an order from the Privy Council for Christopher Marlowe, playwright, to return to London immediately.