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Authors: Margaret Frazer

A Play of Isaac (2 page)

BOOK: A Play of Isaac
But it wasn’t Basset in the doorway. It was the next most worrying thing, a man saying excitedly, “I’ve found you!” And adding over his shoulder to someone else, “They’re here!”
Because too often someone looking for them meant trouble of one kind or another, Joliffe laid aside the bag and stood up, while Ellis moved to join him, and Rose pushed Piers to behind the heavy wicker baskets that held most of what they owned while shifting herself to where she could lay hands to both men’s belts with their daggers, to hand them over if need be. But by then Joliffe had taken clear look at the stocky, undergrown, widely smiling man in the doorway and somewhat eased out of his readiness for trouble. He had rarely seen one of that fellow’s kind grown to man-size because they mostly died young, but there was no mistaking their soft-fleshed, slant-eyed faces. Eden-children they were sometimes called, and children they stayed in most ways, no matter how long they lived, and there was rarely any harm in them. Whyever this fellow was glad to have found them, it was unlikely to be for trouble. The question was where were his keepers, since it took only a glance to see he was no stray, not someone’s cast-off left to wander at will with the hope he’d not come home. From his rolled-brimmed cap to his square-cropped hair to his fine-made doublet and hosen to his low-cut, fashionable shoes, he was well dressed and well-kept and must belong to someone.
As Joliffe wondered whose he was, two men appeared behind him from the yard, one of them saying, more amused than angry, “Lewis, what do you think you’re doing, going off like that?”
The Eden-child turned to him and declared triumphantly, “I found them, Richard. Simon, I found them!”
Both men were as well dressed as the Eden-child and both were young, one of them probably barely twenty, the other somewhat the oldest of all three of them and carrying himself with the easy confidence of wealth and settled living as he said, a little laughing, “We see you did. But have you thought to ask if they wanted to be found?”
Lewis took a moment to think that through, then, stricken, looked back to the players to ask, faint with sudden uncertainty, “I did it wrong?”
Ellis instantly made a flourished bow to him and answered as formally as if to an Oxford burgess, “No wrong at all. You’ve done us honor, good sir, both in the seeking and the finding.”
Lewis’s round face blossomed into delight again. “I did it right? I can stay? Richard, Simon, I can stay!”
“That’s not quite what he said,” the younger of the two men began. “He. . . .”
“But I can, can’t I?” Lewis asked of Ellis, eager as a puppy.
Probably mindful of Basset’s saying, “Never turn away smiling men who look to have money,” Ellis said over Lewis’s shoulder to the older man, “He’s welcome to a visit, if that suits you, my masters?”
“If it’s not a trouble to you,” the man said with equal courtesy.
“Our pleasure.”
Lewis pointed at Joliffe. “You were the Devil!”
“He usually is,” Ellis muttered without moving his lips and too low for anyone but Joliffe to hear.
Ignoring him, Joliffe swept Lewis a low bow in his turn. “Indeed, good sir, you have it right. I played the Devil.”
Lewis laughed, pleased with himself, and pointed at Ellis. “You were the Steward!” A quick frown of concern furrowed his soft brow. “The devils didn’t hurt you really, did they?”
“You can see he isn’t hurt,” the younger man said a little impatiently. “What they do is only pretense. It isn’t real. I’ve told you.”
“I know,” Lewis said, impatient back at him but a little uncertain all the same.
A woman hovered into sight behind the men, well-dressed, too, as well as wimpled and veiled several layers deep in beautifully pressed, whitely starched light lawn. With an uncertain look at the players but claiming her place in things, she laid a hand on the older man’s arm, claiming him, too, as she said, “Lewy loves plays, doesn’t he, Richard?”
Joliffe immediately judged she was his wife and that they all were a tidy little family group—two brothers, probably, and the wife of the elder, with somehow an idiot in tow. Another brother?
Lewis was saying happily, “Plays and plays and plays.
It’s almost Corpus Christi and there’ll be plays and plays and more plays.”
Piers, never one to keep out of anything for long unless he were forcibly stopped, made a small leap onto the sturdy-lidded basket nearest Lewis, struck a pose, and said, “We know! We’re to play the third play. The one at St. Michael’s Northgate.
Isaac and Abraham
. . . .”

Abraham and Isaac,
” Ellis corrected.
“. . . and I’m Isaac,” Piers went on, uncorrected. He and Ellis often differed on their views of the world and, presently, particularly on the name of the play they had been hired to do for Oxford town’s Corpus Christi plays. To Piers’s mind, if he was playing Isaac then Isaac had to be the more important. “I even cry when my father is going to kill me,” he said proudly.
“He kills you?” Lewis breathed, looking awed at Ellis.
Ellis was too often mistaken for Pier’s father for Piers to care; he went on, heedless of it, “My father in the play. Abraham. No, he doesn’t kill me. The angel stops him, remember. That’ll be Joliffe.”
“But aren’t you afraid he might kill you?” Lewis insisted, wide-eyed.
“No,” Piers said with bold scorn and friendliness. “The sword we use wouldn’t cut hot butter. I’ll show you.” Quickly, the way he did almost everything, he slipped off the far side of the basket and had it open and Lewis was come to join him before anyone could gainsay them.
The woman with her hand still on her husband’s arm said in embarrassed despair, “Oh, Lewy!” while her husband said to Ellis, “I’m sorry. He’s like that about things. Simon, can’t you . . . ?”
The younger man was already going toward Lewis and Piers as if taking responsibility for Lewis were a long accustomed thing for him, while Rose came forward, saying with a smile, “It’s no matter, sir. He’s welcome to see. But, Piers, if you mess things about, you’ll spend the afternoon straightening them.”
“I won’t,” Piers said in the voice of one forever much put upon by others.
Lewis echoed, “We won’t,” sounding so much like him that over their heads Rose and Simon unexpectedly widely smiled at each other with much the same depth of affection.
But beside her husband the woman was saying, “We really should have brought Matthew. He’s the only one who manages Lewy well, he really is. Richard, shouldn’t we be going home?”
Simon looked to Richard who slightly nodded agreement to his wife’s insistence. Unhurriedly but firmly, Simon set to extricating Lewis and Piers from each other’s company and the depths of the basket with a casual hand on Lewis’s shoulder and, “We must needs go now, Lewis. You heard Geva and Richard. We have to go home. The players have things to do. We have to go.”
Lewis surfaced from behind the propped up lid. “Do we, Simon? I don’t want to.”
“We do,” Simon said gently, firmly.
Great grief shimmered dark into Lewis’s odd-formed eyes, but even as he protested, “I don’t want to go,” he was moving to follow Simon, probably too used to doing what he was told to do to make real trouble over it. Then suddenly delight as utter as his grief had been bloomed across his face. He stopped where he was between the baskets and said, “They can come, too! They can come and do plays for me!”
Geva cried with instant and complete dismay, “Oh, Lewy,
!”, while her husband said more moderately, “I don’t think so, Lewis.”
Only Simon kept countenance, saying calmly, “Lewis, the players can’t come with us. They have things to do.”
“They can do things with me. Where I am,” Lewis insisted.
“We don’t have any place for them to stay,” Simon insisted back patiently.
“Or time for them,” Richard said, not quite so patiently. “Not with everyone who’s coming and everything that has to be done this week. Nobody is going to have time or place for players on our hands.”
“I have time. I have place,” Lewis insisted. “There’s lots of places.”
What Simon would have said to that, Richard cut off with, “There aren’t places. Everywhere is going to be full in a few days. Now come on. We’re expected home. We’ve been here long enough.”
“I want them!” Lewis said. He crossed his arms over his chest and dropped solid-rumped to the floor, defying anyone to change his mind or make him move.
Simon made a small gesture at Richard and Geva to stay quiet and sat down on his heels to come eye-to-eye with Lewis. Lewis looked scowlingly at him, but Simon said slowly, calmly, “Lewis, we have to go home now and the players can’t come with us. It’s no good worrying at them and no good worrying at us. They have other things to do. They can’t,” firmly, “come with us.”
Intent on the dealing with Lewis, Joliffe had not noticed Basset come back from his dealings with Master Norton, but from the doorway he said now in the mellow, warm, commanding voice he used when he played God, a prophet, an apostle, or a saint in a kindly humour, “Not necessarily so, my good lord. Not necessarily so at all.”
He must have been listening long enough to know something of what was toward, and with everyone now looking at him, he finished his entrance like the practiced player that he was, bowed first to Richard’s wife, then to Richard, and finally to Lewis and Simon. In his younger days a strong-built man, Basset was, with years and gray hair, gone somewhat to bulk but carried his years well when he chose, and now, at his top of dignity, turned all his heed to Richard with yet another bow, deeper than the first, and said, “If there’s some way we could oblige the young lord, we’ll be more than merely glad to do so, sir.”
Half-wit he might be but Lewis knew an ally when he heard one and scrambled to his feet so fast he nearly over-set Simon who rose somewhat more slowly and with a shading of . . . relief, Joliffe thought. At the same time he wondered at what Basset was aiming. Lewis, not bothered with any wondering, said, simply happy, “They can come! They can come!”
“That’s not what he said, Lewis,” said Richard, whose rapidly shifting expressions betrayed he was looking for his best way out of the tangle in which he suddenly found himself. He took the shortest one by saying to Basset, “What do you mean?”
If it had been to a cue written in a play, Basset’s answer could not have come more pat. “Why, simply, that we’re not tied to anything or anywhere these few days from now to Corpus Christi. If it would make the young lord happy . . .”
“Master Fairfield,” Richard said. “His name is Master Fairfield. Not ‘lord’.”
“Lord, Lord,” Lewis burbled happily.
“. . . Master Fairfield,” Basset smoothly amended. He had taught Joliffe early on that you never went wrong giving someone a title higher than was actually their own. They would correct you, but they would remember the pleasure you had given them. “If having us to hand would please him for that while, we could make do with anywhere given us to stay. A corner of a stable. A loft somewhere?”
“Loft, lost, loft,” Lewis said, close to singing now.
“It isn’t . . .” Richard began.
But Simon moved away from Lewis to Richard, taking him by the arm and turning him aside to say, low-voiced, “Listen a moment. You know as well as I do what it’s worth to tell Lewis he can’t have a thing he’s set to. If he thinks we’re giving in, he’ll come home with us, and when it comes out he’s not having what he wants, he’ll throw his fit there instead of here with everyone to see him.” Simon suddenly smiled. “Besides, there’s always the chance your father will say they can stay and then there’ll be no need for tempers lost at all.”
Except perhaps by Geva who said, “We can’t troop through the streets with a band of players at our heels. I won’t!”
She sounded as ready to make trouble over having her own way as Lewis was, but Basset, putting something of her own dismay into his voice, instantly agreed, “Assuredly not, my good lady. But if I came and . . .” He threw a quick look past Ellis in his shirt and hosen and bare feet to Joliffe, marginally more dressed with shoes already on and his workaday brown doublet in his hand. “. . . and Master Southwell with me, we can talk to whomever the decision lies with or . . .” He dropped his voice and leaned a little forward, conspirator-wise. “. . . at least have Master Fairfield home without trouble. You see what I mean.”
She saw, and her struggle between choosing to go through the streets with a wailing Lewis or with two men who, after all,
presentable enough, despite what they were, was both visible to Joliffe and brief before she said, taking hold of her husband’s arm again, “Yes. That would do. Yes, let’s do that. Simon, would you make him come now?”
Simon turned back to Lewis, quiet now that things seemed to be going his way. Joliffe flung on his doublet, and Basset turned to Rose who briskly smoothed his hair, centered his belt buckle, handed him his hat, and when he had put it on, nodded he was fit to be seen. She was his daughter and Piers his grandson but she saw to them both with an almost identical and frequently aggravated affection. Now, for good measure, she also ran a quick eye over Joliffe to be sure of him, which he acknowledged with a twitch of a grin at the corners of his mouth, knowing that to Rose he and Piers were much of an age and often of like trouble.
With the dignity he kept despite how much the world at large sought to take it from him, Basset faced Richard again. “We’re ready when you are, Master Fairfield.”
“Penteney,” Richard corrected. “I’m Master Richard Penteney. Master Fairfield and his brother Master Simon are my father’s wards.”
Which went some way to straightening how matters stood—but not to explaining the mingled glint of wariness and question that crossed Basset’s face, there and quickly gone and probably undiscernable to anyone who didn’t know his face as well as Joliffe did. Besides that, Joliffe knew, too, how well Basset could keep hidden behind his face what he wanted to keep hidden. What had disconcerted him that much in the little that Master Richard Penteney had said?
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