I never discovered precisely when Marco da Cola arrived in England, or by what means, although I am certain he had already stepped ashore before I spoke to the Spanish ambassador; this belief was later confirmed by Jack Prestcott when I interrogated him. By the third week of March, Cola was in London and I assume he was warned that something of his purpose had become known to me; he must also have learned that Matthew was my servant, and that the lad also knew much that was dangerous.
I saw Matthew that morning; he came to my house in the greatest of hurry, his face flushed with achievement, to say that he had found Cola in London, and planned to go and see him. Instantly I knew I had to prevent any such encounter.
“You will not,” I said. “I forbid it.”
His face fell, then turned dark with anger, an expression I had never before seen on him. At once, all my fears returned after I had successfully kept them at bay, hoping that all would be well once more now he was back by my side. “Why? What nonsense is this? You look for this man, and when I find him for you, you forbid me to discover where exactly he is.”
“He is a killer, Matthew. A very dangerous man indeed.”
Matthew laughed in the lighthearted way he had, which had once given me such pleasure but did so no longer. “I do not think an Italian holds much danger for a child of London,” he said. “Certainly not this one.”
“Oh, but he does. You know the streets and the alleys, and all the ways across the town far better than he. But do not underrate him. Promise me you will leave him be.”
His laughter faded, and I could see I had wounded him once more. “Is that it? Or do you want to deny me a friend who might do me good, who might patronize me freely, without requiring so much in return? Who listens to me, and values my opinions instead of forever criticizing and imposing his own? I tell you, doctor, this man was kind and good to me; he did not beat me and always behaved well.”
“Stop it,” I cried, anguished that I should be compared to another in such a cruel way, and have this Cola’s success thrust at me merely to wound my heart. “It is true what I say. You must not go near him. I cannot bear the thought of him touching you, hurting you in any way. I wish to protect you.”
“I can look after myself. And I will show you that I can. I have known thieves and murderers and fanatics since the day I was born. Yet here I am, unscratched and unharmed. And you think nothing of this, and talk to me as though I were a child.”
“You owe me a great deal,” I said, angry with his anger, and wounded by his words. “And I will have your respect and courtesy.”
“But you will not give it, as I also deserve. You never have.”
“That is enough. Get out of my room, and come back when you are ready to apologize. I know why you wish to see him. I know what he is and what he wants of you; I see it better than you can. Why else would a man like him keep a boy like you by his side? Do you think it is for your wit? You have little. Your money? You have none. Your learning? You have what I gave you. Your breeding? I picked you up from the gutter. I tell you, if you go to him tonight, I will not have you in this house again. Do you understand?”
I had never threatened him so before, and had not intended to do so then. But he was fast slipping from my grasp. The temptation of dissoluteness was growing on him, encouraged by this man, and it had to be stopped immediately. He had to know I commanded, and was his master. Otherwise he would have been quite lost.
But it was too late; I had delayed too long, and the corruption had already gone too deep. Still, I thought he would have asked my pardon and realized his error, as he had been prepared to do so recently in the past. But he stared at me, not knowing whether I was serious or not, and seeing that gaze I weakened and spoiled all.
“Matthew,” I said, “my boy, come to me.” For the first time in my life, but God help me, not for the first time in my dreams, I took him in my arms and held him tightly to me, hoping to feel the softness of his response. Instead, Matthew stiffened, then pushed his arms hard against my chest, and broke away, stumbling backward in his haste to part from me.
“Leave me be,” he said in a hushed voice. “You cannot command me, nor forbid me anything. It is not me who has done wrong here, and not this Italian who keeps me for impure reasons, I think.”
And he walked out, leaving me to bitter anger, and the sadness of regret.
I never saw Matthew alive again. That same evening Marco da Cola cold-bloodedly cut his throat in a dark alley, and left him to bleed to death.
Even now, I can hardly bear to recall the details of the day I learned that no amends would ever be made. My housekeeper’s husband (I had allowed the woman to marry the previous year, and had such a regard for her honesty that I did not see fit to throw her out) came himself to Gresham College, where I was dining with Mr. Wren, to tell me of the calamity. He was a big, slow, stupid man, fearful of my wrath but courageous enough to bring the bad news himself.
He trembled as he stood there before me and told me what had happened. With some resource, he had gone to the scene itself when the news came, and asked those who lived nearby what had transpired. It appeared there had been a murderous assault a few hours previously. Matthew had been attacked from behind, his mouth covered and his throat slit with a single cut. There had been no noise, no sound of any shouting, none of the normal commotion that signifies a struggle or a robbery in progress. The culprit was not seen by anyone and Matthew was left to die. It was not a duel, not a fight of honor, he was not given the chance to die in the knowledge at least of having acted as a man should. It was pure and simple murder, carried out in the most despicable manner. My dream had warned me, and I had let it happen nonetheless.
I see from Cola’s memoirs he even has the audacity still to indicate his crime, although he pretends it was self-defense. He says he was set on by bravoes, who (he claims) he thought were sent by the former associate of his father. With what nobility and courage did he defend himself against such bloodthirsty rogues! With what modesty does he recount how, all alone, he sent them packing. He does not say, of course, that his assailant was but a boy of nineteen, who never fought a man in his life and who certainly intended him no harm. He does not say that he followed the boy, and deliberately set upon him, leaving him no chance of defending himself. He omits to say that he committed this one crime that he might be free to commit still greater ones later.
And he does not say that he extinguished the light of my life by that deed, cast all into darkness and ended all joy forever. Matthew’s death rested on my shoulders, for my mistrust excited him to bravado, and it mattered not that I suffered most from the mistake. Such a glory to God, my Absalom, my clay, which I had fashioned myself into the finest of creation. Would to God I had died for thee, my son, my son. (2 Samuel 18:33.)
His obedience matched his piety, his piety his loyalty, and his loyalty his beauty. I had imagined growing old with him by my side, to comfort me as no woman ever could. He alone made the day bright, and the morning glow with hope. Such love had Saul for David, and I wept at the bitterness of my punishment.
“He that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). How often had I read those words without understanding the burden they lay on all mankind, for I had never loved any man or woman before.
And the lesson was swift and harsh, and I rebelled against it. I begged the Almighty it should not be, that my servant was wrong, that another had died in his place.
And I knew the cruelty of desiring that another suffer instead of me, that another father should grieve for me. Our Lord had accepted His cross, but even He had prayed the burden might be taken from Him, and so I prayed as well.
And the Lord told me I had loved the boy too much, and made me remember those nights when he had slept in my bed, while I lay awake listening to his breathing, wishing only to reach out and touch him.
And I remember how I begged deliverance from my desires, and also wished them fulfilled.
This was my punishment, so fully deserved. I thought I would die under the pain of it, and never recover from the loss.
And in my heart my anger grew fierce and cold, for I knew also that it was Marco da Cola who had tempted my dearest boy away from me, and seduced him so he would not notice as the knife slipped from its scabbard.
I asked that God should say to me as he had to David, “I will deliver thine enemy into thine hand, that thou mayest do to him as it shall seem good unto thee” (1 Samuel 24:4). I vowed that this Cola’s brutality would undo him.
It is written—“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).