An unexpected encounter (1612) – By Robin van Koert

When he walks past The Bell Inn, his favorite public house, he pauses. Pensively, he rubs his beard. He pulls the handbill out of his pocket, reads it, but decides to have a beer after all and walks towards the door. Suddenly, a feeling that something is wrong comes over him. It stops him in his tracks. Thomas’s words from long ago echo in his head: a spy should always trust his second nature. He knows better than to ignore his sense for danger. Over the years, it has served him well. He turns and continues on his way. He hurries down Gracechurch Street now, past displays of pig heads, sausages, veal, fruits and vegetables. A few streets further, he leaves the crowds, sounds and smells of the street markets behind and walks down a narrow lane to the Old Swan Stairs. The theater is not far anymore, but he is done walking.

“Westward ho!”
“Whitefriars Stairs.”
“Ay, sir, come aboard.”
He finds a seat, pays the boatman, sits back, briefly admires the swans floating on the Thames River and then closes his eyes. The rhythmic splashing of the oars in the water and the accompanying mild squeaking of the rowlocks soothe his mind. It soon lessens his anxiety and almost lulls him to sleep. Never mind the stench.

“Whitefriars Stairs!”

He walks up the stairs. Soon, he reaches the theater, together with other latecomers. He drops his entrance fee in the gatherer’s loudly jingling box. As he walks in, he looks up at the circular chandeliers with burning candles that cast a yellowish light over the stage. The play, A Christian turn’d Turk, has already begun. He finds a spot on the last bench. Before he takes his seat, though, he glances over at the comfortable boxes for the wealthier members of the audience that are lining both sides of the playhouse. Although he does not recognize anyone, he senses someone noticing him, another unsettling feeling. Still, he claims his spot and focuses on the stage, where four men are playing at cards, while surrounded by ordinary sailors.

‘... Ward, lord of the ocean, terror of kings, landlord to merchants, rewarder of manhood, conqueror of the Western world, to whose followers the lands and seas pay tribute; and they to none but once in their lives to the manor of Wapping and then free ever after. This is he my noble mummers.’

Upon hearing Wapping, melancholy overwhelms him. He has made too many trips to the scaffold in that rowdy, filthy sailor settlement. Only last week, a man who once saved his life was hanged on the execution dock. Briefly, he chokes up, but then re-directs his attention to the stage. As for the play, the young actors proclaim their lines with conviction. They have excellent reputations, but the man sitting next to him says that the play has not been well received. He adds that it may not be staged again. He smiles and acknowledges the fickle nature of theater audiences. Then he continues to watch the scenes unfold.

‘My valiant friends, this four years Dansiker
Hath led you proudly through a sea of terror,
Through deeds so full of prowess they might have graced
The brow of worthiness, had justice to our cause
Given life and action.’

A mocking smile appears on his face: Dansiker and just causes. Right.

 … , but by some worthy deed,
Daring attempt, make good unto the world.
Want of employment, not of virtue, forced
Our former act of spoil and rapine.’

He shakes his head. The much-feared Dansiker, his countryman and former captain, was a man of action and not known for reflection. Like him, the famous corsair had been forever scarred by the terror the Spanish had unleashed in the Low Lands. He had come to hate Catholicism and its callous representatives. While campaigning together, he never heard Dansiker regret his so-called reign of terror. On the contrary, he relished his reputation of ruthlessness. Then again, the playwright probably had not set out to paint an accurate picture. After a while, he grows tired of the dialogues and loses interest. He buys an apple, nuts and a bottle of ale from a vendor and starts a conversation with the person next to him. Suddenly, however, the words of the play pull him away again.

‘Twixt two extremes they chose the better part:
Take land and to the governor present
Themselves and fortunes, show their act, intent
And penitence, their promised pardon, What befell
This show presents, which words deny to tell.’

Silently, the actors perform a dumb show. He frowns as he watches the pantomime of the Dutch pirate’s repentance. He was with Dansiker when his countryman used a Spanish Jesuit to send a message to Henri IV. There was never any repentance. His neighbor nudges him out of his reveries.
“Hey, look straight ahead, but I think someone is staring at us.”
“To the left, in the lower box just where the stage begins.”
He waits for a vendor, draws his attention, buys shellfish and takes out his dagger to start eating the oysters. Surreptitiously, he looks at the box. A shock. Briefly, he stares into familiar eyes, but the face turns away and hides behind a post. He has seen enough. It is Ingram Frizer.

He only met Frizer a few times in Algiers, but that face is etched into his brain. He helped the Englishman with buying goods, which Barbary privateers seized, but he remembers him mostly for what he did to his friendship with the recently executed corsair. Then, of course, there are the rumors about Fizer’s involvement with the murder of Marlowe. Christopher hadn’t been a close friend of his, but they had cooperated occasionally, most notably in Lisbon. The two men had respected each other’s craft and it hadn’t been a secret that they got along. Therefore, Frizer has reasons to be wary of him. So, will he go after him? Had Frizer, perhaps, already been aware of his return to London? If so, that could explain his earlier unease outside The Bell Inn. Enough, he chides himself, never give in to paranoia.
“What do you think?”
“Don’t know. Doesn’t look familiar to me.”
“Perhaps I am imagining things, then.”
The man’s instincts are spot on, though.
“Who knows? There are plenty of odd people around. Let’s just enjoy the rest of the play.”
“Sure. You’re probably right.”

Judging by his theater seats, Frizer clearly has become a well-established member of society. Still, if people find out that the rumors about his wealth are more than just envious chatter, he would risk losing everything. He could, however, also reveal my past, he muses. In all likelihood, that would earn him a one-way trip to the execution dock. At least, it would give him a first-hand perspective of a hanging, he thinks jokingly. Then, his sense of reality takes over. Despondently, he looks up to the ceiling as if, somehow, the solution to his current predicament is to be found there. He shakes his head wistfully. How to leave the building unseen?
He realizes that the play is almost over, but does not yet see an opportunity to slip out of the theater. From the corner of his eye, he observes Frizer gesticulating to someone in the darkness behind him. Surely, he is handing out instructions to one of his men. Next, he sees a shadowy figure moving towards the exit of the boxes. Time is fast running out.

 ‘… that live by theft and piracies,
That sell your lives and souls to purchase graves,
That die to hell, and live far worse than slaves,
Let dying Ward tell you that heaven is just,
And that despair attends on blood and lust.’

‘Down with the villain!’

The entire cast is shouting now. Suddenly, a spectator in the back of the pit shouts ‘traitor’ at the actor playing the English pirate Ward. A few others join in, soon more follow suit. A stage sitter angrily jumps up and yells something at a person in the box behind him. A brief, but nasty exchange ensues and a roar fills the theater as all the people rise from their benches, eager as always to see some live action. The brawl has interrupted the play, with the youthful actors amusedly watching the heated exchange. At the urging of their friends, the two gentlemen agree to let the matter rest, for now at least, much to the disappointment of the crowd. Boos replace the earlier shouting. After the fracas, the play resumes for the last few lines. In the back of the theater, a man looks at the seat next to him. His conversation partner has vanished, leaving only a bottle and empty oyster shells behind.

He steps off the wherry at the Paris Garden Stairs and breaths a deep sigh of relief. Then he pauses. He hears a second boat approaching, turns around, but sees no lights, nothing. It is quiet again.