Read A Play of Isaac Online

Authors: Margaret Frazer

A Play of Isaac (23 page)

BOOK: A Play of Isaac
“Sire John set up young Wat to run tell us when they start and end, the ones ahead of us here. So you’ll know to be ready, like,” the man said.
Young Wat did his work well. They knew when
The Creation and the Fall
ended and the while later when
Noah’s Flood
began. By then Joliffe would have liked to walk a little but his wings kept him where he was: there was not room for them and pacing, too. Once Ellis stood abruptly up, as if he would have paced if he could, but sat down again, only to stand up again a few moments later. The space was growing warmer and Piers made to lie on his belly, probably to lift the edge of the curtain for a breath of air, but Rose caught him by the shoulder before he had more than reached his knees and stood him in front of her to fuss his tunic straight, then took a comb from her belt-pouch to tidy his curls. Only Basset sat composedly, upright and hands on knees, his quiet waiting betrayed only by the slight drumming of his fingers on his kneecaps.
Finally their man put in his head to say
Noah’s Flood
was over. Soon after that there were the raised, excited voices of a great many people coming into the churchyard. Joliffe was past concern for anything by then but the play itself, his awareness of what was coming tightened in to only that, everything else forgotten.
Sire John put his head through the rear curtain, flushed with haste and eagerness. “All’s ready?”
“All’s ready,” Basset said, already using his God-voice.
“I’ll tell the trumpeter?”
Sire John’s head disappeared, presumably gone with the rest of him to order the trumpeter assigned this duty today to give the flourished call that told the play was about to begin. Piers moved well aside, out of everyone’s way. Rose went to the left side of the curtain that hid them from the fore-part of the scaffold and made ready to lift it aside. Basset, Joliffe, and Ellis lined up and stood with intense quiet of readiness, already more than half way to no longer being themselves. From somewhere overhead, probably at a window in the church’s bell tower, the clear, bold notes of a long trumpet sang out, asserting the moment had come for all within its call to give heed. “Now,” said Basset, and Rose, standing back so she would not be seen herself, lifted the heavy, painted cloth aside and up to clear the way for Basset, Joliffe, and Ellis to go out to the bright sunlight and hundreds of people watching them.
The trumpet cast a few last notes and ceased as Basset mounted the steps to his throne. He turned, seated himself with the immense dignity of Divine Majesty, fixed his gaze into a distance above and far beyond the audience’s crowding heads, and went completely still.
Coming behind him, Joliffe, once the wings had safely cleared the curtain, moved with a dignity only slightly less exalted than God’s own to in front of the throne, bowed to God the little the wings allowed him, was blessed by a godly hand raised toward him without any shift of godly gaze, and went stately on to take his place below the throne at God’s right hand and—somewhat more importantly—in front of the hidden ram-in-the-bush, a single deliberate twitch of his gown spreading its skirts wide behind him as he a quarter-turned toward God on his throne and raised his eyes to gaze upon him with heavenly adoration.
That meant he was only slightly able to see Ellis as he came on in his turn, going with no heed of God or Angel to the front of the stage, where he knelt facing out to the audience, his head bowed over his clasped hands as if in deep prayer. He held there while a waiting hush spread through the crowd. When there was near-silence, only murmurs left, he raised his head, lifted up his hands, and began Abraham’s prayer of thanks to God for his dear son Isaac. In the hearing of God and his Angel, he swore, “I love no thing so well as him, except yourself, dear Father of bliss.”
After Abraham’s stately prayer, Isaac’s entrance was all merriment. He skipped on, tossing and catching his rainbow-colored hoop, his curls like burnished gold. When he spoke to Abraham his voice was light and bright to match, with hint of a childish lisp only lately outgrown. Basset had worked him hard to get that, and as intended, a cooing arose from a great many of the women watching.
Abraham and Isaac spoke lovingly together, lovingly embraced each other—and stopped moving, holding where they were while God, having listened to them with deep attention, told his Angel, “Fast go your way and say to Abraham that I command him take his young son Isaac that he loves so well and blood sacrifice of him make. Thus will I assay whether he loves better his child or me.”
Abraham and Isaac parted, and while Isaac played alone with his hoop at one side of the stage, the Angel gave the message to Abraham who protested, accepted, and called Isaac to him. The moment came that Isaac understood he was to die. He first pleaded for his life, then accepted his doom, saying with a little boy’s innocent longing, “I wish God had given me a better destiny.” And when he asked, trembling but with his chin up, “Father, hide my eyes. The thrust of your sword I would not see,” there were some open, very satisfying sobs from the audience. It did not matter that everyone knew the story and how it came out. It was a tale that played to emotions that never staled. There was probably no one watching who had not felt the pain of losing a child, whether their own or someone’s near to them, and when the Angel stopped Abraham from the fatal blow, declaring, “This day you shall not shed his blood,” there were glad cries from women and even a few cheers from men.
From there on to the end, it was pure glory. Saying, “Make your sacrifice with this ram,” the Angel stepped aside, sweeping his gown’s wide skirts clear of his feet with one hand while with the other he pointed at the ram-in-the-bush, apparently appearing from nowhere (except for those people close enough on that side of the scaffold to see it pushed out, and they should have been looking elsewhere, anyway). While it trundled forward on its wheels, nodded its head, and pawed with its one jointed leg at the ground, the Angel ordered, “Take up your son, alive and free, while I to Heaven homeward go.” The ram nodded as if in agreement and pawed some more, and Abraham and Isaac embraced in joy and relief at the front of the stage, while behind them God rose from his throne and exited as he had come, the curtain opening in front of him, his Angel following after him. When they were safely away, Abraham and Isaac went, too, hand in hand, Isaac skipping again. Rose let the curtain fall behind them and the ram-in-the-bush stayed where it was, looking smug.
Applause burst up then, and Rose—smiling so widely her face must hurt with it—pulled the curtain open again. “God” did not do end-of-play bows but Piers skipped merrily out, followed by Ellis, followed by Joliffe still wary of the wings. The more impatient of the lookers-on were already wiggling to get clear and on their way to the next play but most went on clapping long enough to see the players through three bows before Ellis clamped a hand on Piers’s shoulder to draw him off and they all withdrew behind the curtain again, to find Basset grinning as widely as Rose, and Sire John scrambling onto the scaffold through the curtain at the back, as excited and pleased as any of them.
Their helpers were waiting for them on the ground, along with a few other men and some women who had not gone straight on to the church of St. Peter in the East for
Moses and the Israelites.
Joliffe left Basset, Ellis, and Piers to the congratulations and eager talk as soon as he could, wanting to rid himself of the wings. Rose had already gathered the rods and ram-in-the-bush and slipped away. No one had been interested in her because she had not been seen in the play, and she was waiting in the tower, still smiling, when he came wing-warily through the tower door. With no need to tell each other it had gone well, they merely embraced briefly before he turned his back to her, for her to unfasten and help him out of his angelic robe, then loosen and lift off the wings. He was both tired and gloriously borne up in the way that came only when a play had gone well for both the players and their audience.
By the time the others came in, laughing and talking together all at once, he had wiped down with a towel Rose had ready and was off to one side, dressing in his usual shirt and doublet, leaving room for first Basset and then Ellis to give Rose great hugs. She and Ellis kissed, too, both of them laughing, and Piers danced around and around, crowing his triumph until Rose pulled free of Ellis and caught him into her arms for an embrace he only pretended to resist.
Watching them while he fastened up his doublet, Joliffe had the unwanted thought that

of this—was what they were threatened with losing. Whether someone had left the dead man outside their door deliberately to make trouble for them or only by chance, they would have been in deep, destroying trouble if Master Penteney and Master Barentyne had been different men, willing to lay blame quickly rather than bother to look further. Nor did their escape thus far mean trouble might not circle back and fall on them after all. If no one else could be found to blame, someone might well decide it was better to blame lordless players than to blame no one at all.
And then there was Basset and whatever secret he and Master Penteney dangerously shared between them. Joliffe tried to stop the following thought: What if the dead man and their secret were not two possible threats but parts of a single, greater one, worse than either threat on its own?
He kept his outward smile but inwardly hurt with the thought of losing all of this because of something not part of it at all.
Chapter 14
With a strong inward effort, Joliffe shoved the dark thoughts and their fear-fed hurt away and finished fastening his doublet. There was nothing he could presently do about either of the troubles or any of his questions. Maybe nothing would need to be done. Maybe he and the others would leave Oxford in a day or so unscathed, problems and questions left behind. In the meanwhile, he wanted to enjoy the rest of today and, St. Genesius willing, he was going to.
Their helpers came in, bringing their curtain and throne-cloth from the scaffold, all as carefully folded as could be wanted. Sire John came with them, still full of praise but, better yet, ready to give over the well-earned coins to Basset, who bowed deeply and thanked him for the honor of performing at St. Michael Northgate. Everyone was pleased all around, and the Northgate men were willing to carry the hampers back to the Penteneys now if the players wanted it. That was to the good because it would save the trouble of retrieving the baskets later, but the players traded quick looks among themselves for who would go to see the hampers safely locked into the barn. It would mean losing some of the holiday, but Joliffe—to let Basset, Ellis, Rose, and Piers spend the time together like the family they nearly were—said, “Give me the key, Rose. I’ll see to it and catch you up at one play or another.”
But once the hampers were safely locked away and he had given a half-penny to each of the men with his thanks, he made no great haste to overtake the others. Instead, he took his own time at making his way through the crowd, enjoying the high good cheer all around him and everyone dressed in their bright holiday best. Rich, varied smells from food booths and tray-wielding vendors brought his attention to his hungering stomach and he bought a fist-sized pork pie to eat as he wended his way along. He joined the play-following crowd at the churchyard of St. Peter in the East just as Moses was smashing the Ten Commandments. Having no mind to edge and elbow his way into the watching crowd, he hung at its rear edge. He knew the play would have started with Moses seeing the Burning Bush and gone on to his confrontation with Pharoah, followed by the drowning of Pharoah’s army. Now the Israelites were being condemned to forty years wandering in the wilderness for worshipping an idol. Joliffe didn’t know which company of players this was but they were good, and he indulged in a strong tweak of envy at what a full company—with undoubtedly a prosperous patron backing them—could do in the way of a larger play. He wished he had seen how Pharoah’s army had been drowned.
Basset and the others were here somewhere, he supposed, but he did not try to find them. In fact, he tried not to find them, losing himself in the crowd as it broke away at the play’s end. There would be a long pause now before the next play, to give folk time for their dinners before the afternoon’s plays began with Jack Melton’s company doing
The Birth of Christ
at All Saints Church. Joliffe bought a beef pie and a bowl of ale at a tavern and sat on an outside bench in the sun to enjoy them.
He saw the Penteneys go by—Master and Mistress Penteney side by side, followed by Master Richard with Mistress Geva beside him and their small son on his shoulders. Then came Kathryn walking between Simon and Lewis, with Matthew close behind them. They would have been an ordinary family gathering, save for Lewis bobbing happily up and down, all but dancing with wide-smiled delight, refusing to hold Kathryn’s hand, being kept from bumbling sideways into passersby only by Matthew taking hold on him and guiding him back to where he ought to be whenever he lurched too widely aside. Twice while Joliffe watched, Lewis lurched the other way, into Kathryn, and the second time she would have fallen if Simon had not caught her with an arm around her waist.
His arm was still around her waist when Joliffe lost sight of them in the crowd.
Only the rare pleasure of seeing a play instead of being in one brought Joliffe to his feet and on his way a little while later, when a town crier went past, crying the next play; but he only rejoined Basset and the others three plays later, at
The Harrowing of Hell
at St. Aldate’s church. The company was good but Joliffe thought Basset would have better directed them in their business.
The day’s last play,
The Resurrection
at St. Ebbe’s Church, went the least well of any Joliffe had seen today. All too plainly some of the players had spent their waiting-while in drinking more than they should have. The apostles, running to the tomb to find Christ’s body gone, stumbled into each other and had to hold each other up as they staggered their last few steps, giggling, bringing the audience to laughter with them and at them.
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