Never too Late
Harvey knocked another door. The woman he was looking for had to be in that part of the slums, and she would soon be his dear acquaintance.
This time, the one who answered to his call was a man drenched in sweat and covered with cinder.
“Good day, my good sir. I’m looking for Miss Isam, and I was hoping you could tell me- ”
The man, a goldsmith with a short fuse for interruptions, slammed the door in his face. Offended but not surprised, Harvey muttered a curse and went to the deeper part of streets.
The stench of rotten water and vomit made him sick to his stomach. His feet were soaked in mud, though he didn’t doubt some of the brown had a more disgusting origin. He wished the reek of the slums wouldn’t linger with him for the rest of his days.
It mattered not.
Harvey walked across that lowlife alley with determination.
He knew better than to allow his insecurity to show, for only God knew how many criminals and cut purses were watching him, as lions chasing their prey. At the slightest chance, they wouldn’t hesitate to slit his throat and run away with his purse. His heart hammered inside his chest.
He tried to give himself courage and swallowed another breath of that thick niff.
Harvey turned around the corner, where he found a group of drunkards drowned in drink. One of them threw up just as he passed next to him. Drops of vomit landed on his shirt and his waistcoat.
At the sight of his ruined clothes, the beggars exploded into a joyful laughter, as if London had never seen a funnier jest.
Against his will, Harvey stopped and faced the men with the same confidence an earl scolds a vulgar servant. This small spark of indignation lit his bravery, but it was short lived. When Harvey realized he was dealing not only with drunkards but hardened criminals, he understood that defying them could mean his death.
“What the hell are you looking at, you damned capon?!” roared one of the men, showing his rotten teeth.
Harvey shrunk in fear, tears gathering in his eyes. His mouth became dry, and the few steps he managed to take back made him shiver. The rest of the men became wary, and each of them examined Harvey from head to toe.
“Pray, aren’t you a nice looking fellow! Strumpets must cling to you like bitches in heat. You can join us if you are in the mood for some idle fun.” Proposed the same man. He caused a second fit of laughter and cheering among his friends. He reached a pox-ridden hand towards Harvey, who had never been as horrified as when that claws brushed against his skin.
He backed off and ran away from the group, not daring to look back. It wasn’t until he could no longer hear the echoes of their disgusting voices that he stopped. By then, his new white shirt was ruined by sweat and filth. He had bought it with the hope it would help him blend better among the people of the slums of Dowgate than his usual silk velvets.
“Fie, I knew I should have bought a hemp one.” He scolded himself, longing for the time to take those clothes off and burn them. He wiped his tears with a handkerchief and scrubbed the flesh where the beggar had touched him until his skin scraped.
Much to his surprise, he realized he had run in the correct direction, and was now closer to a new set of houses he hadn’t visited. One of them had to be the shoe maker’s home. Harvey felt proud of his natural orientation instincts and went directly to the first house on the left.
He had a good feeling. He hadn’t felt so excited since he had met the Queen and debated in Latin for her delight years ago, before his life became tainted with the presence of the foul green monster.
He knocked the door with the tip of his foot, not wanting to further dirtying his hands by touching another of those pathetic houses. No doubt it was riddled with sickness and filth, like everything else in Dowgate. He knocked, or rather, kicked the door again. When he was about to kick it a third time, the door opened with the howling echoing of the hinges. A ragged woman wearing a worn apron emerged from the inside.
Her scarce hair covered a head not unfamiliar with lice or dandruff. Her face was little more than a messy compilation of wrinkles and beauty marks; all Harvey could think while looking at her was of rotting fruit and fungus. The sole remaining beauty in the woman were her eyes of a light shade of emerald green.
In a general consensus, she was horrible.
“What do you want?” she asked with a steeled voice. Her breath smelled like death, but Harvey made his best to give her his most charming smile, hoping he wouldn’t pass out due the fume in the process.
“Good keep you, dear madam. I’m Gabriel Harvey, a Cambridge scholar. I’m looking for Miss Isam.”
“Aye, it’s me.”
“Excellent! You see, the reason of my visit is my dear friend, the writer Robert Greene. Rumor has it that he is sick and that you have given him shelter. Bless your in soul; I pray God I’m not too late , for I wish to see him.” Harvey mellowed his voice and looked at the woman directly at the eyes.
The woman’s jaw dropped. A word died in her tongue and was followed by a sob. She looked down and covered her foul talking pit with the back of her hand. Her whole body was shaking and doddering . If she hadn’t been so disgusting, Harvey may have felt a twinge of pity for her.
There was an instant when his compassion was about to betray him, and for a moment, he felt the honest need to comfort the woman.
After all, she had never wronged him, and only God knew what she had gone through.
But Harvey remembered he was far from being the good Father of the Heavens, so in the end he couldn’t care less for the old hag. Hushing his heart and silencing his conscience, Harvey pretended to be shocked by the woman’s reaction. Inside, he was laughing as merrily as the drunken group he had met before.
When he asked for the reason of her weeping, the woman put her hand wet with her tears on Harvey’s cheek. It was warm and sticky; Harvey hoped he wouldn’t have to cut out the piece of flesh where her acid tears had tainted him.
“You are too late sir, too late.” The woman said between hiccups. “Robert passed away days ago, the third of September. Poor soul… he would have loved to have a friend by his side, but no one came. You are the first, but now he is dead.”
Harvey had never been an actor in the strict sense of the word, but the performance he gave while crying along with the woman for the death of Greene would have left the most skeptical audience in awe. After a few moments, old Miss Isam invited him to enter her home so they could continue mourning Greene in private.
Harvey dried his tears with his handkerchief again.
His crying was real, and they were tears of joy.
The wooden table was identical to the one at his parent’s house back in Saffron Walden. Harvey remembered his childhood days with his brothers Richard and John.
The trio would pretend to study their school lessons while their father fabricated his ropes. He would scold his sons whenever he caught them wasting their time with jests or falling asleep. Richard spent most of his time daydreaming and gazing at the sky, and little John used to join his brother in his fantasies.
It Gabriel’s duty as the eldest son to keep his brothers with their feet on the ground and out of trouble, though he wasn’t above playing along with their mischief and dreams from time to time.
Harvey blinked and smiled after some wavering.
“My apologies, I’m just tired.”
Miss Isam let out a sour chuckle that made Harvey wonder if he had insulted her.
“What a polite and proper man you are, Mister Harvey. I never thought Robert was capable of being friends with someone else other than his whores and the scribblers.” She took a sip from the chirped cup and burped. Harvey’s throat was sore with thirst, but he didn’t dare to drink from whatever brew Miss Isam had served him. Judging by the smell, it was some kind of alcohol, though its pale color was in no way similar to wine’s.
Disgusted and unwilling to drink anything that came out of Miss Isam’s bottle, Harvey focused on the conversation.
“Robert was once a Cambridge student, madam, and I had the honor to be his mentor. A fine lad he was, though I must admit he wasted much of the dew of his youth with foul company. Nevertheless, he was still a witty man , and a good friend to me. ”
“To you and no one else, it seems.” Miss Isam rushed the whole drink down her throat and filled the cup again. “Yes, he used to babble about his college fellows when he was high with the fever. He was always blabbering about some Christopher Marlowe and some Nashe. Pray, the screams he gave out for a fool named Peele were no quieter.”
“I’m sure you are familiar with them, Miss Isam. At the very least you must have heard of Marlowe, the writer that has all of London eating from his hand…”
“I don’t eat from his hand, and for all I care, I’d shit on it.” She spat on the floor. “He is just a poor boy who thinks he can get what he wants by screaming and causing trouble. He is no different than the scoundrels that run like pests here in Dowgate from the moment their mothers push them out of their wombs. And the other one, Nashe… poor lad, he’s as deluded as his friend. I wouldn’t be surprised to find their corpses abandoned in a back alley one of these days.”
Harvey hesitated, each of those words breathing life to his motivation.
They weren’t his main target, but Marlowe and Nashe would pay as well for all the shame they had brought upon his family.
Clenching his fists, he continued with his charade.
“Why Miss Isam, I didn’t know you despised the men of letters this much.”
“Those were not my words I just said.” Interrupted Miss Isam. “They were Robert’s. Poor soul, in his mouth they sounded more gracious than in mine, though I think I kept true to what he meant. None of his friends came to visit him, and this made Robert grow bitter. He knew they hated him, and I always pretended not to notice, be he cried more than once because of this.”
The woman rushed down anther drink, with some drops of alcohol escaping from the corner of her mouth. She was getting her humor too excited ,but her expression had also softened, as if talking about Greene and his death had undone a knot inside her soul. Harvey frowned, and realized how alone that miserable woman really was.
It was sad, but irrelevant.
There were a lot of widows in Britain for him to waste his pity in one. Besides, what Miss Isam had just said was the beginning of what Harvey was truly after.
“Writers are busy men, my dear Isam. And with the plague just around the corner and so many theaters closed, they must spend all of his time searching for a play to pen or a pamphlet to print. I’m sure Marlowe and Nashe wanted to visit Robert, but were unable to do so. And what about the rest of Robert’s friends? Thomas Lodge appreciated him dearly; surely I’m sure he must have paid at least one visit. Honorable Thomas Watson also…”
“Has the plague made you deaf or were you born stupid? I’m sure one of the first things I said was that you were the first one of his friends to set foot on this pisshole I call my house.” The mocking voice of Isam made Harvey flinch. After filling her cup a third time, she smiled and revealed a toothless mouth where Harvey feared his soul could be sucked in. Under her red nose, a line of snot began to form. “You want to know who came to his side while he was delirious on his flea-ridden bed? Only his whore mistress and her cut-purse brother, the Ball siblings. And let’s not forget about that little bundle that stank of shit, his base born child Fortunatus.”
“Greene had a son? A bastard?” Harvey’s shock numbed his body; he didn’t notice how his hand put the cup on his lips and his dry throat swallowed the brew. Whatever it was, it was strong enough to make his head dizzy after the first drink. Though to be fair, Harvey had never honed his drinking abilities.
“Clean your ears, I don’t like to repeat myself, but aye! I swear, that little pup drove me insane with his endless crying. Like father, like son. Greene and his Little Lucky Bastard, I called them! Poor child, his father never acknowledged him, but his mother still insisted in giving him Robert’s last name. Strumpets always get away with what they want, don’t they?” Said Mrs. Isam with a humorless laugh.
“Tell me more, I beg you!” In his excitement, Harvey took another drink, emptying the entire cup. His clumsy tongue took a while to remember how to talk with eloquence. He babbled and huffed nonsense.
Miss Isam continued with her confession, her eyes more focused in the distance than in Harvey.
She talked of the times when Robert Greene had to borrow her husband’s shirt while she took the fleas off of it; she talked of how Greene was forced his dearest possessions in order to earn some money. She talked of how after she had found him dead on his bed the morning of the third of September, she had adorned his head with a bay crown.
“It was his last wish. Poor bastard.”
Harvey nodded with enthusiasm after every confession. That ragged woman had a rustic and boring manner to tell the anecdotes, but Harvey’s imagination helped him picture each one perfectly in his mind. He could see him, the great Robert Greene, bed ridden, penniless, friendless…
What a sight, a true delight!
He filled his cup and drank
The images in his head became more vivid and poetic.
Greene’s red beard devoured by lice, his once word-crafting hands consumed by the gout, his intense green eyes now bloodshot and probably (hopefully) blind. And next to him was his punk queen, holding their bastard prince in her arms.
“…Oh Robert Greene, the saddest of men. You blasphemer and liar, you didn’t deserve such death!”
Harvey’s euphoria found an obstacle in the form of Mrs. Isam tears. He hated her loud lamentations.
How dared she to ruin his moment by blotting over the images on his head with her pitiful sobs?
Poor idiot woman, he thought. But maybe her words held some truth: Greene hadn’t deserved that death; he had deserved much worse demise. Maybe one soaked in dog’s piss and with his rotting flesh peeling off his bones, attended in his misery only by rats and flies.
A fitting end for such a fool.
Isam again ruined his visions with her sobs.
Harvey lost his patience and stood up, slapping the wooden cup of the table. He was about to mercilessly slash Miss Isam with his tongue; but when he looked at her and saw her face hidden between her arms soaked with snot, tears and saliva, his heart sunk in a sorrowful memory.
‘’Repent brother, for the end is nigh!’ He remembered Richard exclaiming in excitement.
Harvey’s voice broke. He needed to get away from that place, and above all, especially from Mrs. Isam. He couldn’t spend any other second in her presence. He felt a nudge in his throat and tried to swallow it, but it loosened up and was now attempting to come out in the form of tears.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done, Miss Isam. Forgive me, but I must go now. Goodbye.” He muttered, turning his back on the woman and dashing towards the door. He heard how Mrs. Isam took breath to talk, but he left before she could say a word.
He slammed the door behind him.
Dowgate welcomed him once more; the sun was setting and he had to get going if he wanted to get to his lodgings before night time.
Before he left, he did one of the few thing in his life he never found a reason of why: he grabbed some of his coins out his purse and left them at the entrance of Isam’s house; he then knocked the door before running away, as if he was a kid pulling a silly jest.
As for the coins, they were found and spent on alcohol and food by a group of drunks who lived only for the pleasure of debauchery and nothing else.