Excerpt: Death by Disputation

Book 2: Francis Bacon Mysteries


Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, 2 March, 1587

Bartholomew Leeds hung from the roof beam that ran the length of the cockloft. He seemed asleep with his head bowed, his eyes closed, and his hands dangling limply at his sides.

Thomas Clarady blinked, twice, then squeezed his eyes tight shut and popped them open, hoping to clear the trick of the light creating this illusion. There must be a stool beneath Leeds’s feet, supporting him.

But who could sleep standing on a stool?

Tom took a few reluctant steps forward from where he had abruptly stopped. He’d been in a hurry and made it halfway across the long room before spotting the man hanging between the curtained bedsteads. Three beds stood crosswise in a row down the center of the loft where the roof was highest: one near the stairwell for the younger boys, Leeds’s grander one in the middle, and the one Tom shared by the far wall. Leeds was hanging between the last two.

Tom had just dashed up to get some money from the box under his bed to pay the carrier to deliver his letter. That’s why he’d skipped out of the sermon early — he’d forgotten to fill his purse. The carrier left promptly at nine and Tom’s report was overdue as it was. He was supposed to write daily, detailing his observations of the events in the college.

Well, now his report would be even later. He wondered how his spymaster, Francis Bacon, would receive the news that yet another of Tom’s tutors had died unexpectedly.

Cold air struck his cheeks. The small windows set into the eaves on each long side of the loft were wide open, letting in a breeze fresh with the earthy smells of the greening fields east of the college. Spring was awakening in Cambridge, and for a mercy, it wasn’t raining. The sky beyond Leeds’s slender figure was a perfect blue. A blackbird on a nearby ledge vigorously declared his melodious philosophy to the breeze.

How could anyone destroy himself on such a beautiful March morning?

Leeds hung perfectly still, his slipper-clad toes pointed downward, two feet above the floor. The hem of his black gown fluttered about his bare ankles. Now Tom spotted the stool, lying on its side against the bed, where it must have rolled when Leeds kicked it over.

This was not a good development. Tom’s masters would not be pleased. How could such a thing have happened with no warning whatsoever? He’d seen the man only that morning when Leeds roused them for five o’clock chapel. Sleepy-eyed, by candlelight, he had seemed his usual self. Leeds was always dapper and correct, even before sunrise. He’d been dark of complexion and had cultivated a vaguely Italianate air, but more in the way of a scholarly curate than a melancholy man.

Though Tom knew little about his humors. Leeds had avoided him as much as possible, given that they occupied the same set of chambers along with three other students. He’d checked Tom’s work in a cursory fashion and sent him off to junior Fellows for further instruction.

 Tom knew why — or guessed. Leeds had been having second thoughts about his letter to Lord Burghley; that was as plain as a poor man’s cuffs. He’d written to warn His Lordship about rising rebelliousness among the Puritan Protestants in the Cambridge area. They were planning to hold a secret meeting, a synod, under cover of commencement in July. One influential zealot was pushing an extreme agenda. There was even talk of separating from the established Church by means of violence.

Tom had been sent to worm his way into the confidence of the Puritan community in Cambridge in order to identify that zealous leader. That was why he was here, living in Leeds’s chambers as an ordinary paying student. By the time he arrived, however, Leeds had obviously begun to regret sending that warning. Tom didn’t mind; he could be patient. He would go about his daily round, studying toward his bachelor’s degree, until time and the Clarady charm worked their customary magic. Leeds would come around in a month or two, remember why he’d written that letter in the first place, and give Tom at least a nudge in the right direction.

What would become of Tom’s commission now? Would he be called back, a failure?

He wished that damned bird would stop its noise so he could think. He needed to have his wits about him. This wasn’t the first corpus he’d discovered, sad to say, nor even the second. The other two had been foully murdered. The circumstances here told a different tale — Bartholomew Leeds had taken his own life. Still, Tom needed to note every detail and commit it to memory and he couldn’t concentrate in the midst of this racket.

He leaned toward the window and shouted, “Hoi!” The singing stopped.

Tom studied the scene before him with deliberation, turning his attention to each item in turn. Bacon would expect a full accounting and he had the most annoying ability to spot the smallest gaps in Tom’s reports.

The rope from which Leeds hung was plain penny-cord, nothing special. Everyone used it, to tie up trunks and whatnot. It had been passed over the massive central beam that supported the roof of the whole east range of the college quadrangle. The far end of the rope was tied around the post at the head of the bed. The bed itself was plainly decorated but solid oak, sturdy enough to support Leeds’s slender weight. The hitch around the post looked ordinary enough, but Tom was nothing like the expert on knots that his Uncle Luke was. Luke could tell you sixteen things about that noose at a glance. He said knots were as individual as the men who made them. They could tell you where a man came from, what kind of work he did, whether he was right- or left-handed.

Walking around the body, Tom looked up to examine the noose behind Leeds’s head. Something about the knot tugged at his memory, but he couldn’t bring it all the way to the fore. It wasn’t your ordinary noose; not the sort he would tie anyway, to catch a horse or trap a bird. He doubted it mattered, but Bacon had instructed him to err on the side of excessive rather than insufficient detail. Bacon had added, with the natural arrogance that made him so exasperating, that he could easily delete the extraneous material, but he could not supply what wasn’t there.

Leeds was dressed in his scholar’s gown and leather slippers. His ankles were bare and so was his neck. Tom couldn’t bring himself to peek under the robe, but he was fairly certain Leeds was wearing neither breeches nor shirt. Had he gone back to bed after breakfast? He couldn’t imagine his straitlaced tutor being so slothful. Usually, when everyone else left the college to go to lectures or hear a sermon, Leeds took advantage of the quiet to work on his book at his desk downstairs in the study chamber.

A single sheet of paper lay atop the rushes beneath Leeds’s feet near an overturned pewter wine cup — Leeds’s own special cup, a gift from a grateful student. A jug from the buttery stood snugged up against the bedpost where it wouldn’t be stepped on by accident. Drinking in bed? That was less likely than merely returning to his pillow for a bit of extra sleep.

Tom picked up the sheet of paper. It was in English, written in Leeds’s hand. He hadn’t read more than the first line when he heard a groan and a shuffle in the rushes on the other side of the bed. He jumped back, startled. “God’s eyes!”

A man appeared from behind the curtains and stumbled against the bedpost. He glared blearily at Tom, made a harsh sort of gorking noise, then lurched toward the steps and lumbered down. Tom heard the door below creak open and thump shut.

The man was Christopher Marlowe, Tom’s Latin tutor. A shiver ran up his spine. Had Marlowe been lurking in here all this time? Why hadn’t he spoken? He was odd, no question, but far from deranged. On second thought, he’d acted like a man who has been rudely awakened from a heavy sleep. Had he been dozing on the floor behind the bed and been roused by Tom shouting at the bird?

Or in the bed? Tom hadn’t opened the curtains. A party of dwarves could be sleeping in there for all he knew. That thought sent another shiver up his spine. Holding his breath, he whipped the curtains back in a rattle of rings and a rush of wool. Empty. He let out his breath in a sigh of relief, glad no one had seen that bit of unmanly drama. The bedclothes were well rumpled, but the bed-makers always started on the west range and worked their way clockwise around the quadrangle. They wouldn’t reach this southeast corner until after dinner.

Still, Leeds’s state of semi-undress was now explained. Tom, being a lad of better than average looks, was used to fending off advances from both sexes and had known by the end of his first Latin lesson that Marlowe was a man who preferred men. Apparently, Bartholomew Leeds was another. But how could Marlowe have slept through Leeds’s suicide? Tom was getting that tight feeling in his gut that told him there was trouble in the offing.

 He tried to walk through the sequence of events in his mind. Leeds must have prepared his rope, making the noose first and tying his hitch around the bedpost. Then he tossed the noose over the beam. No. He’d have to get the noose in place first and adjust the height before tying his hitch around the post. Then he placed his stool beneath the noose, climbed up, and looped it around his neck. He would have to settle it under his chin so it ran up behind his ears. You’d want your neck to break, if you could manage it, although the beam wasn’t really high enough.

Tom shuddered. Leeds had surely strangled, choking and gasping and kicking his feet. How could Marlowe sleep through that?

Leeds would have said a prayer, Tom supposed, even though prayer would not avail a suicide. But Leeds had been a religious man — a devout Calvinist, in fact. He would have prayed. Then he would have drawn his last breath and kicked away the stool. Had he drunk the wine for courage and dropped the favorite cup heedlessly into the week-old rushes? Had he clutched the letter in his hand until the last?

Tom turned to the sheet of paper now and read:

“For mere living is not a good, but living well. Accordingly, the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free. He holds that it makes no difference to him whether his taking-off be natural or self-inflicted, whether it comes later or earlier. He does not regard it with fear, as if it were a great loss; for no man can lose very much when but a driblet remains. It is not a question of dying earlier or later, but of dying well or ill.”

“Ay, me,” Tom sighed. “Poor Mr. Leeds. May God grant you peace.” He felt responsible, in part. His arrival at Corpus Christi College must have stirred up a torment of bitter doubt in the man’s mind over his betrayal of former friends. Amazing that he could have kept his suffering so well hidden. How long had he been contemplating this sorrowful deed?

Tom owed it to him to take him down before anyone else could see him in this sad state. He dropped the letter on the bed and clasped the body around the hips, hugging it to his own sturdy frame for support. It was pliant and still warm. He tried to reach up to loosen the noose, but it was too high for a one-handed maneuver. He stepped back to study the situation. The easiest course was to cut the rope and let the body fall to the floor, but that seemed disrespectful.

No, this was a two-man job. He’d have to go for help.

The silence since he’d hushed the bird was pure and undisturbed. The college was empty, apart from the servants somewhere beyond the hall. William Perkins was giving one of his fiery sermons in Great St. Andrew’s this morning, so everyone from every college in the university jammed into the church to hear him speak. He was better than the London theater. He could send chills racing through you and make you feel inspired, abased, and lusty all at once. Tom had hated to skip out early, but he hated even more the tart scoldings he got from Francis Bacon when his correspondence lagged.

It must be nearly dinnertime by now. The chapel bell had been tolling nine-thirty as Tom had hurried across the yard to fetch his money. Leeds’s other pupils would soon be coming up the stairs to be shocked, as he had been. He should wait for them downstairs, to warn them. Or perhaps he should go try to find the head of the college.

He jogged down the steep stair with his knees turned sideways, ducking to keep from cracking his forehead on the joist. The study chamber, where he had spent so many of his waking hours in the past six weeks, seemed smaller now and strangely unfamiliar, as if the mute stools and tables had been altered by Leeds’s unnatural death.

Tom went to the window beside his desk to look across the quadrangle, hoping to spot someone friendly coming through the gate. The central yard was greening up. They kept it neatly clipped. A pair of daffodils — the first of spring — opened their yellow faces to the sky. The sun glinted on the small panes of the windows in the west range opposite. A flash of movement in the hall on the south range drew his attention. Mrs. Eggerley, the wife of the head of the college, walked swiftly past the big oriel window. He was momentarily distracted by her lush figure and that special sway she somehow got going in her wide skirts as she walked.

The chamber door squealed suddenly. Tom wheeled around, startled. He’d seen no one in the yard. Christopher Marlowe strode to Leeds’s desk in the center of the room without a glance to either side.

“Hoi,” Tom said. “You were just here. Upstairs.”

Marlowe startled in his turn. “Clarady! What are you doing here? Didn’t you go to the sermon?”

“You knew I was here. You saw me. Upstairs, before you ran down.”

“What the devil are you talking about?” Marlowe peered at him suspiciously. “Have you been drinking, so early? I’m just back from St. Andrew’s. I left ahead of the crowd. I wanted to look something up in Barty’s dictionary.”

Tom was flummoxed. How could the man stand there telling him a barefaced lie? Tom studied him for signs of — what, he didn’t know. Guilt, deception. A trembling hand, a sideways flicker of the gaze. Horns sprouting on his head, the lash of a forked tail.

All he saw was Christopher Marlowe: as tall as Tom but rangier built, like a man who walked long distances with slim provisions. He had longish chestnut hair and keen brown eyes that stared right through you. He was unshaven, but not bearded, with a thin moustache that emphasized the arc of his lips. His academic gown was frayed at the hem and his cuffs were yellowed. Junior Fellows often dressed this way inside the college, saving their good clothes for the town.

Marlowe was only twenty-three to Tom’s nineteen years, but he seemed much older. Worldlier. A man who had traveled and seen things he couldn’t talk about. Tom envied him that worldly air. He distrusted him too, though he’d only known him for a few weeks. More than anything though, for no good reason he could think of, Tom wanted Marlowe to respect him.

Marlowe accepted the scrutiny; indeed, he seemed to welcome it. He stood at Leeds’s desk, head cocked, lip curled, a challenging gleam in his eye. Unfortunately, that was his habitual pose. It didn’t necessarily indicate guilt. Tom began almost to doubt his own memory. The shock of finding a man hanging in the middle of the cockloft would surely affect him to some degree. True, he’d seen several bodies, but never one hanging like that and not in his own bedchamber. Could he have imagined seeing Marlowe rise from behind the bed?

No. He was no girl — frail, susceptible, full of fancies. He could hold his own in a fight with a range of weapons and stand his ground in a Latin disputation. Lord Burghley and Francis Bacon had entrusted him with a ticklish commission. He knew what he saw when he saw it, and what he had seen was Christopher Marlowe acting strangely at the scene of a death.

But what could he do if the man refused to admit it?

Not much. Tom scratched his short beard, thinking. Maybe Marlowe had been up there; it didn’t mean he’d tied the noose. He might as well enlist him to help with the body. “If you haven’t been upstairs, then you don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?” Marlowe flipped through a stack of loose pages on the table.

Tom watched his face closely. “Leeds is dead. He’s hanged himself.”

“You lie!” Marlowe turned to face him, eyes flashing and fists curled.

Tom was taken aback by his fury. “Why would I lie about such a thing?”

“I don’t know why you would do anything.” Marlowe glared at him, his hard gaze traveling from head to toe, returning Tom’s suspicious scrutiny in full measure. Then he abruptly jerked away and tromped up the steps.

Tom followed closely, hoping to catch that first reaction to the sorry sight upstairs. He noticed Marlowe was wearing his scruffy intra-college shoes. The right one had a hole the size of a penny piece in the sole. Wherever he had been while Leeds was hanging himself, he had certainly not been at the sermon.

“Ah, Barty!” Marlowe cried. He backed toward Leeds’s bed, feet scraping a trail through the rushes, and sat down. He lowered his head to his hands and murmured to himself, or to Leeds perhaps, “Thou art gone and leav’st me here alone, to dull the air with my discoursive moan.” He directed a hollow laugh at the floor.

Tom could feel the man’s grief wafting from him like a heat. It must be genuine. But then he saw him furtively kick something pink under the bed with his heel.

Marlowe was the most brilliant poet Tom — and probably all of Cambridge University and possibly the whole world — had ever known. He could make such music with his words that you lost yourself, helplessly abandoned to his enchantment. Tom had never seen him act, but rumor had it he was no slouch on the stage. He was a man of high emotion, given to sharp laughter in solemn moments, raging insults traded across a tavern table, and rare, unbalancing, flashes of sympathy. If Marlowe and Leeds had been lovers, perhaps he had come in and found Leeds hanging, as Tom had done, and simply fainted behind the bed. Shame would stop any man from confessing that.

“Let’s get him down,” Tom said softly.

Marlowe nodded and stood up, wobbling a little. “My mind’s a blur. I can’t think how this could happen. Barty would never kill himself.”

“We can’t know what was in his mind. But we’ll sort it out in time. Things will come out; pieces will come together.”

“Oh, you’re an expert in this sort of thing, are you?” Marlowe sneered.

“More than you might think.” Now was not the time for a discussion of Tom’s experience with unnatural death. “One of us should hold him while the other cuts the rope. Which do you—”

“I’ll hold him.” Marlowe walked to the body and put one hand tentatively around Leeds’s ankle. Tears glimmered in his eyes as he looked up into the swollen face. “Ah, Barty,” he whispered.

Tom looked away to give him some privacy. When he looked back, Marlowe’s expression had hardened into something more like anger. “Ready?”

He nodded and clasped the body about the hips. Tom ran a hand down the slanted rope toward the knot at the bedpost. He sliced through the penny-cord about a foot above the knot. Leeds’s body slumped into Marlowe’s arms. He lowered it gently to its feet. Tom tucked his knife into its sheath at the back of his belt and caught the body under the arms while Marlowe lifted the legs. They laid it flat upon the bed. Marlowe worked the noose free, his handsome features contorted in a grimace. He drew it over Leeds’s head and tossed it to the floor. Tom frowned down at it, its shape tugging at his memory again.

The two of them then stood side by side and gazed down at the earthly remains of Bartholomew Leeds.

“Why did he do it?” Tom asked, not expecting an answer.

Marlowe snapped, “What makes you so certain he did?” His gaze fixed on the sheet of paper lying near the foot of the bed. “What’s that?”

“A note,” Tom said. “A suicide letter. It sounds like he’d been thinking about this since —”

“Since you moved in?”

That silenced him. Could Marlowe know about his commission from Lord Burghley? It was supposed to be an absolute secret. Had Leeds confided in him?

Marlowe read the page rapidly, pronouncing the words under his breath as he read. Then he shook the paper in Tom’s face. “Is this your idea of a joke?”


Marlowe folded the sheet and started to tuck it into his cuff. Tom reached out and grabbed a corner. “The headmaster should see that.”

“I’ll show it to him.”

Tom knew he would do no such thing. “Better if I keep it.” He tugged; Marlowe tugged back. The paper ripped in two. Marlowe snarled. “Give me —”

The door downstairs squealed. Tom’s chamber mates were back from the sermon. Marlowe stuffed his scrap of paper up his sleeve and folded his arms across his chest. He held Tom’s gaze in a stony glare as if daring him to be the first to move. Tom positioned himself in sight of the stairwell. He folded his arms and glared back.


Diligence Wingfield’s voice rose from below. “Here, I’ll take your cloaks up.” He was their sizar: a student who performed menial chores in lieu of the usual college fees. His father was one of the hottest preachers in Cambridgeshire but too poor to support a second son at university. Diligence’s head rose as he mounted the stairs, his gown looped into his girdle, three cloaks across his arm. “Hallo, Tom! How’d you get back so quick?”

“Go back down, Dilly.” Tom saw Marlowe slip behind the bed curtains. Why hide from the sizar?

It distracted him. The boy darted forward. “Is that Mr. Leeds? Still abed at this hour! Aren’t you going to wake him?”

Before Tom could stop him, he had moved far enough forward to get a look at Leeds’s bloated, mottled face. He screamed and dropped his burden of cloaks. Bending nearly double, he vomited up the dregs of his breakfast into the rushes beside the bed.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Death by Disputation. Copyright © 2014 Anna Castle.

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