Title The Condition
Word Count 2361
'Enough schoolbooks.' That is what Thomas had said. He had said on the day when Kit had been hot and shivery, and Kit had only looked up, silent, his mouth sticky with sweetness. No one ever had said 'Enough schoolbooks' before. There had been schoolbooks as far back as his memory would go, as far forward as he dared look. A future without them could only be the leather shop.
Father's awls, and his sore red hands, and his ruined knee, had fed and clothed Kit, had given Kit books. School had been something to run to. Kit liked to learn new things-- even if it rarely happened anymore. On any day, after all, it could happen. But this was something that felt quite different. 'Time to try what you can do.' Thomas had sounded very sure. He had rested his hand for a moment on Kit's knee. It had been hard to breathe then, for a while.
'I will send the details in a letter-- in the new cipher. Oh-- what a face!” He had punched Kit's arm, in play, but hard. Kit brought his own hand up to cover the place, torn between laughter and protest.
“And I shall take you on to Scadbury after that.” Thomas said. To meet uncle Francis.” And Kit had nodded, dry mouthed, smiling through the roaring in his head.
The letter had come the next day, sealed tight, plump with promise. (This, a number code, Kit's least favorite. But even this was becoming less difficult with practice just as Thomas had said it would.) Kit had crouched by the fire, ready to feed the paper in once he was sure of it. The room was empty so there was nobody to ask why he pressed the paper to his face before he gave it to the flames.
That had been last week. And it had been so hard to wait, to sit for classes, to obey the small rules that pressed him. The hours had crawled, implacable, like a rope, knotted hard in the rain. But they had unwound at last, to now. Now here he was.
They had left Cambridge early, when shadows still lay black in the gate. The day had warmed as they rode, south with the sun in Kit's eyes, and the mist rising from the mud below the moving fetlocks.
Now and his bones still had a little of that empty ache of illness. The early evening smelled of spring, but the wind was raw. It felt very strange to not be wearing his scholar's robes. Thomas had given him a warm cloak to wear instead. Kit had had thought black would be best for lurking. But this was a dim worn green color. Thomas said that was better, although you might not think so. And after all when Thomas wore black he drew the eye. The cloak was soft, soft enough to cling to Kit close and warm.
Kit had had a rabbit's foot once, when he was small. He had kept it in his pocket, feeling the soft fur, and the hard bone and claw. Boys have such treasures, Kit had carried it about until it went off. He had not paid attention to that but Mother had noticed it. She had wrinkled her nose at him, and held her hand out. She had carried it at arms length, and thrown it into the gutter. This cloak was soft the way the rabbit fur had been. The cloak smelled much better than the rabbit foot had, of course. It smelled of sheep soap. He wondered if Thomas smelled that way too, up close. The smell of the sheep soap, went to the place where Kit kept such thoughts: the softness of long ago fur, the way Thomas had smiled, had touched Kit's feverish face,the black ink on the white paper, sweet marchpane sticky in his mouth-- thoughts for the time when his mind and body were his own. Thoughts for the edge of sleep.
Kit shook his head slightly. Not now. Now he needed to keep his wits about him. The sun was low on the western horizon. Another hour and it would be twilight, with purple shadows and the first prickles of stars. Kit was immobile shadow of a tree, across and slightly downwind. Downwind was good, there were two spotted dogs resting in the dirt by the tavern door. One had flicked an ear when Kit had settled into the dark by the tree. The dog had not moved since. Kit could hear scraps of conversation. All of what he had heard so far was predictable-- bits of talk, laughter and boast that would have been the same outside the Vernicle at home.
He did not care about any of that. He was watching for one man. A small man, with sandy hair and crooked teeth. A man who owned spectacles, but would not be wearing them. There had been a drawing, Kit and Thomas had studied it together.
“He will look different walking remember.” Thomas had said. “ The likeness is said to be very like but-” Thomas shrugged and made a sour mouth. “It is not a simple thing. We never do seem to be looking for a man with a limp and one eye, and yellow cross-garters, and an accompanying monkey. I suppose that would be too easy.”
They had laughed together. That was before Kit realized how many sandy haired, crooked toothed men this town seemed to be supplied with. However, only one of them carried a satchel to the tavern. Only one of them carried a slightly different and noticeably lighter satchel out. His boots scuffed along the mud of the street, Kit let him get well ahead, then followed at a distance, quiet as he could. The man went into a modest house. Kit noted which. A light flared briefly in the open window, and then went out. It was enough. Others would do the rest.
It was a short walk back to where Thomas waited. They rode on in silence. Thomas had taken a room for them in a better town, with a coaching inn. Never for Thomas Walsingham, Kit thought, the mean dark tavern where men with satchels came and went. They let the horses walk slowly. There was no hurry now. It was getting dark, the birds were calling each other to rest, fluttering to the trees, fussing and settling. In the little house, the man with the satchel would be washing before bed. He would be saying his forbidden prayers. Kit and Thomas came to a cobbled yard, wide and smelling of hay. It was swept clean, lest booted feet be soiled. A child came to take the horses.
Everything here was soft and clean and fine. The floor was made bright with a painted cloth. There was a desk in the corner, by the window. And here a rush-seated stool, so a man might sit to read and write. But here one need not wait to catch the daylight. Two candles stood, tall and pale. There was another candle on the washstand, another mirror there too. The light from that one puddled in the copper washbasin, and lit an ivory toothbrush and comb.
Here were two boys, younger than Kit, bringing hot water and firewood. He watched as Thomas smiled for them, shut the door behind them.
And now they were alone. He had not thought-- he had assumed they would share a common room with others. This luxury was nothing he had imagined. Stupid. Kit was stupid. His heart was aching, thundering. His words, the words that lived in him always, had gone away to nothing, like water dried in the sun.
Thomas was across the room, pulling the window closed, fussing with the shutters. There was a heavy curtain too, to block the drafts of night.
“Going to rain,” he said.
There was a chair by the fire. Thomas crossed to sit there, and removed his boots. He added a bit more wood, and poked the fire to make it catch.
“Come sit, Mr Marlowe where it is warm,” he said.
And Kit wanted to do that. There was a pillow by the hearth, red wool, warm and soft.. He folded himself down to it. His head was level now with Thomas's knee, and he leaned against the edge of the chair. The heat of the fire pushed at his face. The inn keepers boys had brought a small trestle table. They were laying out covered dishes. Kit felt his stomach tighten. He pulled his own knees up and rested his chin on them.
“I could sit this way forever, ” he said. “Never go anywhere.” He realized with dim surprise that he had said this aloud. Even the shame of that felt distant. He was rising away from himself, above his body and the fireside.
“Ah, that would be a waste of your talent, Mr Marlowe,” Thomas replied. “I think you are made to achieve greatness.”
Kit turned to look at him then, puzzled.
The covered dishes proved to be capons, deliciously crisp on the outside, but yielding under Kit's knife. Stewed leeks and carrots and jugged plums filled out the corners, soft with a spice that was new to him. He had almost no corners at all left for soft white bread and butter. He made room.
“I am glad it is not a fish day,” Kit said. “I think that is the best thing I have ever tasted..”
“They do good fish here also.” Thomas said. And he smiled. “I have had a memorable lamprey. But I am glad if you are.”
And it was so strange to sit on the rush seated stool, and eat with his old horn handled knife, and the fine spoon that the place provided. Stranger still to undress and wash in the cool water in the copper basin. (Thomas had gestured for Kit to go first.) -- and climb into the fine bed, as if he belonged there. Thomas got in on the other side.
He woke, knowing it was later, knowing that it was deep in the night. Smell and silence and comfort of feathers confirmed for him, before his eyes opened, he was not in the narrow bed in Cambridge. He had this bed to himself. Thomas was-- where was he? Thomas sat before the fire, a candle by his side. His feet were bare, his head bare too, and golden in the diffuse light. He had a box by his side, of papers. He was reading most of them, quickly, briefly, some he did not read at all, but cast aside into a growing stack beside his chair.
And it as good to indulge a little. It was a sin, of course to lie with his eyes nearly shut, in feather muffled indolence, and to watch the swift pale hands in the firelight. A worse sin to dream on the bend of the neck and the golden hair. Kit wondered if it was as soft as his own hair. Maybe it was as soft as Jane's hair. Jane's hair was yellow too. Maybe yellow hair was softer. Kit's hair was not really any particular color. It got light in the summer sun, indoors it was something between fox and mouse. Mother said it has been yellow as Jane's before he was breeched. She said he had been bald as an egg as a baby. Jane had been so too, so Kit had to believe.
Jane's hair had been his task, when she was small. It had started on Sundays. Mother was always in a rush, before church, the house in an uproar. Somebody always seemed to have a missing stocking or a runny nose. Mother had slapped Jane one Sunday morning, hard enough to leave a red hand on her cheek, like paint on a wall. Mother had been sorry after, and got down on her knees to hug poor sobbing Jane. After that Kit was the only one Jane would let near her with the comb. So he knew how not to pull. Jane was big now, and did her own hair. But it as still yellow.
Thomas looked tired. Kit could see that the paper he was reading did not hold his attention, and now he let it fall to the desk again, and scrubbed the back of his hand over his eyes. He shook his head sharply at some thought that Kit would never know, and picked it up again.
Kit kept his breathing slow and even, he let his eyes rest heavy and nearly shut. He could see his own eyelashes, dark against the lighter room, like the ribs of a wreck, half submerged. The light of the fire spread warm gilding on Thomas. Oh Thomas would be warm to touch. His face, his neck. To kiss.
He could feel the heat pooling in him-- the thoughts were unwise. And as soon as the thought had formed, Thomas looked up.
“Did I wake you Kit?”
“No,” Kit swallowed. In daylight he had been 'Mr Marlowe.' Not now. His heart was racing.
Thomas grimaced, stood up and stretched. “A letter from my mother. This work takes us from those that would love to see us most. And you may find that it is a great interruption to your sleep. If you have a sweetheart, best warn her.”
Thomas crossed the room, bringing the candle with him. The firelight edged him, bright against the darkness. His nightshirt cobweb lawn, translucent.
The bed sank as he climbed in, Kit, on his knees, scrambled backward. He dared not look down at Thomas looking up.
“ I have no sweetheart,” Kit said.
“No pretty girl then? a lad perhaps, a school-fellow?”
“Now that is a shame,” Thomas yawing, leaned to blow the candle out. “A shame to find yourself alone. Still, I doubt the condition will persist.”