Shaxper could hardly believe that the wretched man had once been a popular jester.
“It’s about time you arrived, my love,” Meg chided. “I was beginning to think you’d left me.”
“Nonsense, sweeting, whither would I go? And who have we here?
One of your many admirers, I suppose.”
“Pinch, this is Mister William Shaxper, come all the way from London to see you. He wants to be an actor.”
“Accept my condolences, sirrah,” Pinch sneered. “I’d rather express them to you now, instead of to the audience, later.”
“Say what you will, sir,” Shaxper chuckled, politely, “but my feet are set upon the stage.”
“Well, don’t set your heart upon it,” Pinch grumbled. “I did that once, and look at me.”
“Mister Shaxper sought you out so he can learn comedy from a master,” Meg said. “It’ll do both of you good to let him apprentice his ears to you for a while. I’ll go tend to our customers and have one of the girls fetch you some ale.” Before Pinch could object, Meg kissed him on the cheek and toddled towards the bar.
Now that he was alone with Shaxper, the fool’s suspicion was palpable.
“You can drop all that rubbish about learning comedy from a master,” Pinch growled, as he drank his ale. “That’s not the real reason you came to Hedingham, is it?”
“No, not really,” Shaxper replied.
“You’ve been asking a lot of questions in the village. I’ve got big ears, and it’s easy to catch my neighbors in the act of gossip. I’m sure they’ve told you that the Earl of Oxford and I haven’t spoken in years, not since his wedding to Lord Burghley’s daughter.”
“You knew him as boy –“
“Has Meg been gossiping, too? She should leave the past where it is, dead and buried.”
“I’m willing to pay you for what you know,” Shaxper said, sliding a few coins across the table.
“Oh, I see - planning a bit of mayhem against Lord Oxford, are you? Well, your money’s no good here. Edward and I may be estranged, but I wish him no harm. Surely Meg told you that.”
“She did . . . and she also said you encouraged his acting.”
“Until his debauched mother drove us apart and sent him to live under Lord Burghley’s strict governance. My heart has never mended over Edward’s tragic departure. It was nearly the death of me.”
Shaxper wondered if that had caused the jester’s suicide attempt. Instead, he said, “The young earl was lucky to have lived with such a brilliant and powerful man as Lord Burghley.”
“Is that what you think?” Pinch glared. “Well, you’re right - Lord Burghley has unlimited power. That self-aggrandizing opportunist shifted political alliances every time the wind changed. He supported each one of King Henry VIII’s children, whichever one looked to be the next monarch. First, he supported the boy King Edward VI, and then his Catholic sister Mary and finally, our Protestant Elizabeth. It didn’t matter, as long as the situation yielded him advancement.”
“I intend to rise from the common ranks as Burghley did,” Shaxper said.
“What, by becoming an actor? Ha! If you believe that, you’re more fool than I am.”
“Meg assured me of it. She read my fortune in my palm.”
“Did she? Well, never mind what she says. The poor woman’s illiterate. She seems wise, but her seams unravel quickly.”
Pinch signaled for another ale. When it arrived, he took a long drink, set his tankard down and stared into it, his face a portrait of self-pity. Shaxper felt he could almost see his tongue loosening.
“Some people don’t recognize treachery when they see it,” the old jester said. “Lord John was a fool in that respect, and perhaps a greater fool than I ever was.”
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