The following day, Elena spent most of the morning lying on the sofa reading, fighting off any weariness by making herself cups of tea. In the end, Michael had gone to work a little later than normal, though not until he had made sure she was feeling better.
Around eleven, just after she had re-opened Mary’s book, she turned the page – and her heart skipped a big beat.
Before her was a painting and a very familiar face. She knew those eyes, as cute as a dog’s, but as sharp as the devil. And those lips, too, and particularly the thick, flowing hair. Even his shirt, or coat, black with the strange gold stripes and buttons; she recalled it from that dream in the church. He had his arms folded, with a slight but telling smile, as if he knew something. On the top left of the portrait was a date, 1585, and what appeared to be his age, 21.
There was a knock on the door. Elena knew who it would be. She got to her feet slowly and walked to the door.
“Mary, you’d better come in and look at what I’ve just come across.”
Without saying a word, Mary followed into the living room, where Elena handed over the open book she’d borrowed from her friend.
“Mary, this is him, I’m sure.”
“Damn and blast, I haven’t got my specs with me,” Mary held the book a little further away from her. “Oh, my… are you sure, Dear?” Mary immediately sat down and drew a deep breath.
“I should’ve known this, something was bugging me.”
Elena walked over, pointing at the portrait. “My Latin is very rusty, what does this verse mean?”
Mary had gone almost white and was holding her chest. “I’m too old for this. Let me see. Oh, Elena.”
“What is it?”
“It means, ‘what feeds me… destroys me’.”
“He said that I had destroyed him.”
Elena sat down beside her friend. “Last night, and then he died.”
Mary lay the book open on the coffee table and took her hand. “You poor girl. I’ve seen this portrait so many times before, why didn’t I think of it?”
“Where have you seen it?”
“Didn’t I tell you? I went to Corpus Christi College Cambridge in the late seventies. And this, my Dear, is the notorious, even infamous playwright Christopher Marlowe, though he was often called Kit.”
Elena’s shock was now turning to embarrassment. “I don’t think I know too much about him, if I’m honest.”
Mary was shaking her head. “No, if you don’t have a strong interest in literature you might not have.”
“So what do you mean by notorious?”
“Oh, he was supposedly a brawler, a bragger, highly controversial, but a literary genius as well.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, for one thing I don’t believe all the stories.”
“It’s a long story, but he was said to be an atheist and a counterfeiter, despite the fact that he spent six years at Cambridge studying divinity. But his first play, Tamburlaine, rocked the Elizabethan stage around the mid 1580s. It was so popular, he had to do a part two.”
“Mary, I never knew this.”
“And he wrote other plays, great plays, like Edward the Second, The Jew of Malta and Faustus. Ah, Faustus.”
“I’ve heard of that one, the name.”
Mary’s gaze assumed its own dreamlike quality. “It’s probably his most well known play today, and it’s still performed from time to time. It’s about John Faustus who sells his own soul to the devil in exchange for earthly knowledge and magical power.”
“It sounds like pretty heavy stuff to me.”
“Oh, it is, he even manages to conjure up people from the past like Helen of Troy, in the flesh. Which reminds me, I must read the Iliad again, it’s so important.”
Elena began to smile. “Now I’ve read that, such a great story, but so brutal. I can see why Kit Marlowe would use references from it.”
Mary stood up, looking restless. “A war that lasted ten years, all over Paris of Troy kidnapping Helen of Sparta, but maybe that’s a sounder pretext than some of our modern wars.”
“It’s all so tragic.” Elena was playing with her hair. “But tell me, if Marlowe was so great, why don’t I know more about him? What happened to him?”
“He was murdered, Dear.”
Elena looked shocked. “But wait, I saw him die, in bed. I think. Assuming it was him…”
“It seems poor Marlowe overstepped the mark one too many times, in his own way a bit like poor John Faustus. He died in a supposed tavern brawl in London in 1593, I believe.”
“Right, but then what could he have meant when he said that I destroyed him?”
“I think he was referring to this verse.” Mary was pointing again at the portrait. “It’s the reverse of what a phoenix does.”
Elena looked back blankly at Mary.
Mary moved over to the fireplace. “You see the phoenix, in mythology, rises from its own ashes.”
“I get that, but Marlowe is saying it in reverse?”
“Kind of, Dear, kind of. I’m pretty sure it can’t be a mistake.”
“You wouldn’t go to all that trouble of having your portrait done with a mistake on it. But what does he actually mean? It’s very negative and obscure.”
Mary looked back at the portrait. “You see his pose, the folded arms? In Elizabethan portraiture this pose means ‘I keep secrets’.”
“It means precisely that. That’s his real career, if you like, he was as an intelligencer.”
“A spy, in other words, Dear. The English secret service was in its infancy then, all tied up with the on-going conflict with imperial Spain and other Catholic countries. He would play roles, portray himself as someone he was not so he could infiltrate enemy organisations and find out about their plans. That’s why I don’t believe all the negative stuff written about him, you can’t necessarily take the things he said and did at face value. And he was doing this sort of thing while he was still at university.”
“So he probably worked for the government.”
“Yes, for his queen and they certainly protected him more than once, got him out of some sticky situations which were all to do with his role as an intelligencer.”
“And all these plays you’ve told me about, he did all that in his spare time?”
Mary chuckled. “It seems that way, but, then ‘I know not what seems’, my Dear.”
“Which reminds me.” Elena, opened her laptop and searched for Christopher Marlowe. “Hm.”
“What is it?”
“He was christened on February 26 1564 in Canterbury.”
Mary pointed a finger at Elena. “The number twenty three you saw in your first dream. Was this dream, this ghost, or whatever he was, trying to tell you he was born on February 23, three days before his christening?”
“Isn’t it true that babies were baptised within a few days after birth back then.”
Elena continued on her laptop, using astrological software which calculated birth charts. Allowing for the change over back to the older Julian calendar still being used in late Elizabethan times, she brought up the midday chart for February 23, 1564, set for Canterbury, where Christopher Marlowe was born.
“I don’t believe it.” Elena was ushering Mary towards the chart.
“Incredible, Dear, simply incredible. Pluto, Hades himself, almost exactly conjunct his Sun in Pisces when he was born. What are the chances of that?”
She put down the laptop.
“Are you alright, Elena?”
“I’m sorry, I’ve just had one of those shivers go up my spine. I’m like you, I don’t believe in coincidences either. It’s as if he really was speaking allegories to me from beyond the grave, four hundred years after he died. But why? And how is any of this real?”