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Saturday, 23 April 2016

Saturday story - 'If we shadows have offended' - part 2 of 2



IF WE SHADOWS HAVE OFFENDED

 Part 2 of 2

By
Nik Morton


After some time, Zeigler noticed a lighter patch ahead, getting bigger. The indefinable edges again, the tint of a dusky sky...
            He didn't recall passing through the hole or landing. Perhaps he simply materialised?
            Darkness. Raised jaunty voices. The rank stench of open sewers. These were his first impressions. It was night. He looked around and discovered he was still lying in the pod amidst a grove of bushes.
            He checked the two console buttons. Red for his return signal. Green for opening the pod. Another button, on the reverse of his eye-pendant, worked the pod’s entrance-hatch for ingress.
            Zeigler operated the green button and no sooner had he stepped out than the hatch shut behind him.
            As he walked a few paces out of the bushes, he glanced back and was surprised to find he could no longer see the pod; its see-through capabilities aided concealment: someone would have to virtually stumble over it to discover the craft’s presence.
            He didn’t have far to walk before he came to the town with its tumbled toppling street, black and white timber awry, cobbles threatening to pitch him every which way. Cats fought for thrown out fish-heads and other unidentifiable scraps.
            Zeigler felt very vulnerable strolling the streets, for in these times no man was safe from the reach of the torturer or the smell of the dungeon. A carrion odour blew towards him and he retched emptily: ahead he noticed the swaying hanging remnants of a human being; some of the hideous butchery on the scaffold was sufficient even to turn the stomach of an Elizabethan crowd.
            A building belched forth the soul of an alehouse but, gagging on the riot of smells, he passed it by. He needed to find Mistress Turner’s lodging house, up a squeeze-gut alley.
            The air inside Mrs Turner’s was thick with tobacco smoke, a relatively new fad. Clay pipes abounded. The place choked with the low and their rank stink: bad breath, black teeth, and foul loud holes of country mouths.
            Nobody paid him much heed as he found a corner bench in an alcove and settled next to an old smocked shepherd who reeked of tar, his nail-ends black crescents.
            A shag-bearded ruffian shouted, ‘What cheer, bully!’
            Another riposted, ‘Go hang yourself, whoreson devil!’
            Zeigler’s pulse raced: he was so thrilled to be here, living in Elizabethan England!
            Then of course doubts surfaced. Was he in the correct building? On the right day?
            He must first locate Marlowe. Gambling upstairs, if the reports could be believed.
            Zeigler suddenly felt angry at the strict State regulations. Surely they could provide period money? How could he hope to merge in with this rowdy lot if he couldn’t purchase any ale? Besides, the journey had left him parched.
            ‘You be a fresh face!’ exclaimed a bewhiskered character in stained breeches and frayed jerkin. ‘Have a drink on me! ‘Tis my lucky day, man! I wed in the morn!’
            ‘Aye,’ chipped in the groom’s companion, ‘this jackanape with scarves is bawd-born for sure!’
            Profuse with his thanks, Zeigler was quick to accept. According to the regulations, he was not prohibited from imbibing drink and eating food from the period, though he was warned against doing so for health reasons.
            The groom jostled and joked around the tavern, obviously well prepared for tomorrow’s eve if his suggestive remarks to the bar-harlots were anything to go by. Zeigler sidled round to the door leading to the staircase above the bustling taproom.
            ‘Give us a feel of your tushy twat, you triple-turn’d whore!’ a young gentleman requested of a barmaid.
            ‘Piss o’ th’ nettle! Thou thing of no bowels!’ She suddenly reached down under the man’s codpiece and squeezed sharply. The man she thus assailed squealed in a high pitch that brought laughter from his companions but no aid. ‘Pedlar’s excrement, thy cannon is not big enough!’ she laughed uproariously, her breath wafting the stink of Banbury cheese, revealing black teeth that showed their waists.
            On tenterhooks, Zeigler tiptoed up the first creaking flight, round the doglegged landing, into a candlelit room where he discovered a group of four quite young men hunched over a rough well-scrubbed table laden with black bread, cold fowls, kickshaws, ale and applejohns. They were talking in deep hushed voices.
            The place was poorly lit with one wooden candelabrum on the table and another on a chest of drawers. Zeigler was unable to identify any of the men.
            ‘More ale, scullion!’ one called, holding up a flagon.
            Heart hammering, Zeigler realised that, in the shadows, he had been mistaken for a servant.
            ‘Aye, sir!’ Zeigler answered gutturally, and slipped out onto the landing again.
            To his left was a dumb-waiter, on which three flagons overflowed. Animalistic grunts and groans and a girl’s breathless transports of passion came from the adjoining room. At least he now knew where the real servant had gone.
            Unbuttoning his doublet, Zeigler lifted a filthy apron from a peg by the dumb-waiter, dishevelled his hair and sauntered back inside with a frothy flagon of ale.
            ‘... been here most of the day, now...’
            ‘Damme, Christopher! A pox on the Privy Council! If they want to arrest you for Heresy, then let them find you!’
            ‘Well spoken, Master Poley, but I have said before refrain from calling me Christopher – “one who bears Christ on his back”!’ laughed the poet. ‘You forget,’ he went on, his young voice dripping irony, ‘I am an alleged atheist!’
            As Zeigler served, he found it difficult to contain his excitement. Marlowe had been known to associate with a group of free thinking intellectuals called “The School of Night”, so perhaps these were the same fellows, and not the ruffians from the reports? His temperature rose, surging in his veins. So close!
            ‘I hear Topcliffe’s keen to meet you, Chris?’ said Poley.
            ‘Her Majesty’s rackmaster, eh? Who not only tortures for the Queen but, so he boasts, fondles her thighs and belly and puts his hands between her breasts and sucks her paps!’
            ‘Have a care, Chris!’
            ‘Do not fear, Nicholas, I be among friends! Besides, I am already informed against by that recreant and most degenerate traitor himself, Richard Baines!’
            Nicholas Skeres still looked worried. ‘But you’ve never said that Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest, surely?’
            Marlowe grinned, downed his ale. ‘That is one of the blasphemies attributed to me, yes. Also, that Christ and St John were as the sinners of Sodoma, I do believe!’
            ‘And,’ interrupted Ingram Friser, ‘that all they who love not tobacco and boys are fools!’
            ‘Mayhap I should not have penned The Jew of Malta?’ Marlowe mused aloud. And he quoted, ‘I count religion but a childish toy, And hold there is no sin but ignorance.’ He laughed bitterly, wiping soft fleshy lips. ‘God’s body, I have a thirst on me tonight!’
            ‘Another, and be quick about it!’ snapped Skeres.
            ‘Tish, that’s no way to speak with yon fellow, Nicholas!’ Marlowe berated softly. ‘But enough, this is the silliest stuff that I ever heard!’
            Zeigler stared, disbelieving he had just heard words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
            ‘We must talk on how we are to deal with the Privy Council -- when our other, most secret duties require me to be free... What say you, Ingram?’
            It was most exasperating, unable to catch but patches of conversation between these men. Zeigler had an inkling that there was government business involved. But he couldn’t be sure.
            ‘Since Sir Francis’s death three years gone, we’ve had sorry dealings from the government, would you say?’
            A hearty roar of assent hurried Zeigler on his way for more beer. Fingers crossed, he shouted his order to the scullions below.
            When he returned, an older, stouter man had joined the party. He busied himself fastening his codpiece, all the while leering at the flushed serving girl who stood by the door.
            ‘... and the prating mountebank threatened the widow with the sight of the devil unless she consented to his desires!’ ended Poley, grinning.
            ‘The only devil she will get sight of is his loaded cannon!’
            ‘God’s breath! What a foul-mouthed and calumnious knave!’ remonstrated Friser.
            Feeling a little bolder now, Zeigler asked the newcomer, ‘Is it ale you’ll be wantin’’
            The man stared. ‘What bloody man is that?’ he said, clearly unaware he had used a phrase from the still-to-be-written Macbeth.
            Silence fell.
            Marlowe’s brows arched. ‘Why, landlord, he is one of your staff, been serv-’
            ‘’Sdeath he is not!’
            Hands fell on Zeigler then, as he tried backing away.
            ‘Whoremonger!’ shouted Skeres.
            ‘Grab the bitch-wolf’s son!’ snarled Poley.
            Ingram Friser caught hold of Zeigler’s open doublet; the material ripped, spewing bran stuffing onto the table of ale.
            Flagons were upset, spilling to the stone floor, crashing amidst chicken legs and sides of beef.
            ‘He’s a spy -- a toady degenerate traitor!’ shouted Nicholas Skeres.
            In the struggle, heart hammering fearfully, Zeigler dismantled the nearest candles, plunging half the room into shadows.
            Lancing pain signalled the thud of a rounded leather shoe thudding maliciously into his stomach.
            Whooping and spluttering, Zeigler managed to roll out of Friser’s grip.
            Someone swore. ‘Slit the taffeta punk’s gizzard!’
            The table scraped noisily. Bare boards rattled.
            ‘Have a care!’ It sounded like Marlowe’s voice. ‘I ended up in Newgate three years gone -- just for being involved in an affray like this!’
            ‘He’ll run to the Privy Council if we let him go now, man!’
            ‘He’s been at our great feast of languages and stolen the scraps!’
            ‘We can’t--’
            Zeigler gasped, eyes smarting, a searing pain in his chest and back. He coughed, staggered and fell to the hard boards.
            ‘Quick, I skewered the bastard!’ Friser.
            ‘A light -- more light, Robert! Over here!’ Marlowe urged, kneeling down by Zeigler’s side.
            Head swimming, Zeigler didn’t realise immediately; then, as Poley carried over more lighted candles, he sucked in a dread, expectant breath: Friser’s sword had pierced the pendant eye, penetrated his chest and come out through the black box at his shoulder.
            But he didn’t disintegrate: nothing happened!
            Relief made him tremble in Marlowe’s arms.
            ‘I’m sorry, stranger,’ Marlowe said gently. ‘Friser lost his nerve.’
            A new horror struck Zeigler. With the pendant destroyed, its obverse button wouldn’t be able to re-open the pod. He was trapped! ‘My eye,’ he moaned. Absurdly, a quotation from The Tempest burgeoned to his mind:
            ‘We shall lose our time
             And all be turn’d to barnacles, or to apes
             With foreheads villainous low.’
            Then he noticed Marlowe’s hands gently unbuttoning the fastenings below his knees, pulling his baggy breeches down, together with his yellow knitted stockings. Dear God, what was he -- ?
            Then Marlowe whispered, absently,
            ‘Whereat with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
             He bravely broach’d his boiling breast.’
            And Zeigler forgot any imagined sexual threat as his heart soared, because those were the words of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, supposedly not written until next year, 1594. Vindicated, at last!
            Suddenly, he jerked his head round as he heard Skeres and Friser in heated discussion, apparently threatening the landlord in the far corner. ‘A quarrel -- over the bill’s settlement,’ Friser insisted.
            As though a disinterested spectator, Zeigler watched Marlowe undress himself and don the clothes approved by the Timedoor Committee. ‘My fellow, you have an undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion. But it will serve.’
            Zeigler tried to shout, to demand an explanation, but no sound came, only a mouthful of warm blood.
            Marlowe addressed Ingram Friser. ‘You’ve agreed to do it, then?’
            Friser nodded. ‘Aye, in his foolish brain -- to confound any identification.’
            They all seemed vague now, like shadows flitting in front of his eyes. But the wound would not mend and this was no dream, midsummer or otherwise.
            Zeigler’s vision faded. His mind seemed to be tossing on an ocean. Dimly, he heard Marlowe sadly intone:
            ‘If we shadows have offended,
            Think but this, and all is mended,
            That you have but slumber’d here
            While these visions did appear.’
Winter closed in upon Zeigler and he went very cold.

THE END

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