Chapter 1 – Caput Draconis

THE FIRST POET I saw die was in a garden in Deptford. It was May 1593 and in truth I never really liked the fellow. They said it was about money but that was a lie. It was murder all right, and afterwards I had no choice but to disappear for a while.

It all started with an invitation to dinner. That’s when I met them both. Otherwise I’d never have recognised him, and might well have thought better of getting involved when I did. But if it was a case of who you know rather than what you know, then that was less than half of it. For me, the how you know has always had the greater part to play in my fortunes. And if that invitation was the spark, the kindling had been in place long before.

I was twelve when my grandfather was appointed rector at the Sorbonne and I went to live with him. I picked up the language with ease and before long I was running his errands and writing his letters, and in return he taught me Latin, Greek, History, Ethics, Rhetoric, Logic, Mathematics and much more besides. Of all the subjects, Natural Philosophy was his favourite – except that branch called Alchemy. When I asked him why, he looked at me with disappointment. “Only God can turn bread and wine into flesh and blood,” he said, “and a man is a fool who thinks he can change lead into gold.”

Well I’ve met many such fools in the years since.

After my grandfather died, many expected me to stay on at the university, but much as I liked Paris the academic life was never for me. I returned home and moved to London, where I took a room in a boarding house south of the river, close to the royal docks.

I soon found work inking copy for the printers around St Pauls – nothing regular, just pamphlets of the common sort, penny a line. My colleagues were a sociable lot, and most evenings we’d end up drinking in some alehouse or visiting the stews until the early hours, and I quickly learnt to avoid the thieves and vagabonds who roamed the empty streets and piss-soaked alleys as I made my way home.

I was whiling away a pleasant afternoon in the Anchor Tavern, when two I hadn’t seen before came in. The first, Tom Nashe, was about my own age, tall, thin and dressed in a grubby brown frock coat. The second was a few years older, well-built if a little on the heavy side, with a red face, a russet beard and clothes to match. His name was Rob Greene, and while most of us hacks struggled to make a living, he was very much in demand.

One of my friends introduced them, and Nashe extended a clammy palm. “And you are?”

“Francis Sparry.”

“Francis Sparry! A scribbler too?”

“Trying to be.”

Nashe was a lively talker and easy company, but he was no better off than me, and as the landlady came over he looked eagerly towards the kitchen. “Steak and kidney pudding on the menu, Molly?”

“Yes, sir,” the lady replied.

“And you, Tom, can watch me eat it!” teased Greene, with a wink.

“If my purse is a little light tonight,” said Nashe, somewhat sniffily, “you may count yourself privileged.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes.” Then, addressing us all, he continued. “I’m forming a society – let’s call it a fraternity – and today we meet for an evening of unparalleled entertainment and discussion. I can see you’re eager to join, Brother Greene!” He slapped the older man on the shoulder. “For the price of a pudding you qualify for admission! Molly, fetch your trolley!”

We all laughed and Greene, to his credit, not only paid for Nashe’s dinner but bought a round of drinks for the rest of us too.

A few days later I bumped into Greene again, this time at the Mermaid on Cheapside, and we got talking. Whether he saw me as just another drinking partner, I enjoyed his company and we were soon meeting up regularly.

He was always generous, was Rob Greene, but never more so than when he went out of his way to advance my prospects by putting me forward to translate The Geomancie of Maister Christopher Cattan: a practical guide to the construction of the figures and how to read them, which had gained a certain popularity in Europe. I’d never paid much heed to that sort of thing before – my grandfather’s influence I suppose – but it was only intended as a bit of fun. Besides, money is money and I wasn’t in a position to be choosy.

As it happened, there was something about the book that gripped me from the first. I completed the assignment in six weeks, and even the publisher’s expectations were exceeded when it went on sale.

If I regret anything about our acquaintance, brief as it was, it’s that through Greene I got to meet that other writer; that son of a Canterbury cobbler who could hold the masses enthralled with the power of his pen yet could put his foot in his mouth so easily. Some say he couldn’t resist playing Devil’s advocate. All I know is that his unruly tongue sealed not only his death warrant but mine as well …