Authors: Jackie French
I was not ashamed! The friar was the one who had sinned, thinking I might marry another while my husband lived. Womanish fear? I was the girl who would unite the city and end a centuries-long feud.
I met the friar’s eyes. ‘Give me! Tell me not of fear.’
He handed me the vial. It fitted my hand as if it had been made for it. Its glass was cold, despite the warmth of the friar’s hand.
‘Get you gone,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll send a friar with speed to Mantua, with letters to your lord.’
‘Tell him my mother plans to have him poisoned,’ I said. ‘Warn him to take care!’
The friar did not look surprised that my mother planned to kill a Montague.
‘Romeo will be here before she can harm him,’ he said. ‘Warn him yourself.’
‘Love give me strength,’ I whispered. I pushed the vial up my sleeve, next to the knife.
The curtained chair bounced along the streets through the crowd.
Even my bones felt tired, as if each were made of stone. Would the friar’s plan work? It had to work! My tired mind could find no other way. To die, and then to wake. To wake in my Romeo’s arms. Two days, and I would see Romeo again. Two days!
I shut my eyes. I could not bear to play the good daughter, the betrothed wife of Paris, for two days. I would take the poison tonight. And if Romeo and the friar were not there when I woke up, then it would be better to lie in the darkness of the tomb, the bones of my kin around me, than in the house of my parents.
Tybalt’s body would be there too. I shivered, and opened my eyes.
Poor Tybalt. Poor angry boy. I had not liked him, but I had loved him, just a little. He had been part of my life. Now, at last, I truly realised he was gone. All that
he might have been was gone as well. Perhaps if he had become head of our house, he might have steadied once he was sure of his position, lost his anger. Now all was gone: the good, the bad, the might have been. Suddenly the tears for Tybalt came as well. Romeo and I had hope and lives to come, each other’s arms and laughter. Tybalt had nothing but his tomb.
Better a day and night with Tybalt’s dead body in that tomb, with the smell of death and darkness, better even rats, than to pretend in my father’s house for one more day.
Now I knew that I would escape, I could get through this afternoon, and this night too. A few hours and Juliet Catherine Therese Capulet would be gone, and Juliet Montague waiting for her love.
I checked that the vial and knife were safely up my sleeve, then prepared a face and speech to greet my father.
My father was in the hall with my mother and Nurse, the steward and a cluster of our servants. He gave me a hard sharp look, then gestured for the servants to be gone. I forced myself to smile. His angry look softened.
‘How now, my headstrong! Where have you been gadding?’ he asked me.
I curtseyed. ‘Where I have learned me to repent the sin of disobedient opposition to you and your requests.’ No nice girl could have said it better. I rose from the curtsey,
then stepped closer to him and kneeled at his feet. ‘I am enjoined by holy Laurence to fall prostrate here and beg your pardon. Pardon, I beseech you! Henceforth I am ever ruled by you.’
My knees were cold. I looked at my father’s velvet shoes. Black, with jet embroidery.
I felt my father’s hand on mine. ‘Stand up!’ His face had turned to sunlight.
Fool, I thought. Were all old people fools?
He clapped his hands for a footman. ‘Send for Paris,’ he ordered. ‘Tell him of this. I’ll have this knot knit up tomorrow morning.’
Tomorrow or the day after, it didn’t matter to me now when Paris thought the wedding would be. Either way, I would be gone.
I said carefully, ‘I met the youthful Paris at Laurence’s cell and gave him what love I might, not stepping over the bounds of modesty.’
My father looked as if his world was as neatly embroidered as a tapestry again, each person in their place and his daughter nothing but a shadow of his wishes. ‘This is as it should be! We owe this friar our thanks.’
One day, I thought, you shall know exactly what thanks the friar deserves.
I turned to Nurse. ‘Nurse, will you come and help me dress for tomorrow?’
For the first time my mother looked disturbed. ‘No, not till Thursday! There is time enough.’
Poor mother. Stupid mother. Worrying about a wedding banquet to prepare by tomorrow, a daughter and herself to dress.
My father shook his head. He would not risk me flying my cage now. ‘We’ll go to church tomorrow.’
I wished I could tell my mother that there was no need to rush about preparing a banquet tonight. I wished … I was not sure quite what I wished. For a moment I felt my lover’s hand upon my skin, his fingers running through my hair.
Would my parents mourn me when they found what looked like my dead body tomorrow morning? No. They would not mourn the inside me; only the loss of the daughter who would have joined their house with the nobility. A loss more like the sinking of a Capulet ship than the death of a cherished child. You’d mourn the loss of a ship, but that did not mean that you had loved it.
My father waved me away. ‘Nurse, go with her.’
I heard him discussing the wedding decorations with my mother as we left.
My room had never seemed a prison before. Silk bed curtains, velvet cushions, tapestries on the walls, the scent of roses from the garden. No rats, no darkness, like
the dungeon of Guigemar’s lady. I had not even realised I had been as trapped as she.
Nurse bustled in behind me. ‘I will send the girl for thy dress, my lambkin … Oh, it is such a dress!’
‘Bring me a mirror,’ I told her.
She stared. ‘You may look at yourself in your mother’s once the dress is on.’
‘Bring me one. Now!’
Nurse gestured to the Joans. A short time later, I heard the footmen on the stairs, carrying a mirror up from the hall. They propped it against a wall.
I nodded to the Joans and to Nurse. ‘Go. Good Nurse, please leave me to myself.’
‘My poppet …’ She looked at me for a moment, then left the room.
I knew she would not go far. She would be listening at the door, peering around perhaps. It did not matter.
I looked at myself in the mirror. No, not at myself. At the black taffeta dress, the underskirt, the bodice, the ruff, the hair in its gold snood.
Slowly, silently, I slipped off the snood, the overdress, the petticoat. The ruff and sleeves took longer. I had not realised there were so many pins.
At last I stood there in my shift. I let it crumple onto the floor.
Now there was only me. Just Juliet. White skin. Dark eyes. The breasts that his hands had stroked. My rounded
knees. This was what he had seen. His wife. Now I had seen it too.
No one else in this world, except for Nurse and the Joans, had seen me like this. But servants didn’t count.
I was Juliet and I was his. I stood there and I vowed that all this was his alone, and always would be. No other man than him.
I lifted the shift from the floor, put it on, and moved towards the bed. I think I cried. I do not know. I knew nothing, except that the day lacked him.
Then I called for Nurse, and for the Joans, and for my wedding dress.
The underdress was silver, the overdress cloth of gold, trimmed with pearls along the sleeves and cuffs and in long braids all down the overskirt. Only the wife of a man of royal blood could wear cloth like this. So my parents had always hoped for a noble marriage. Poor Tybalt, hooked with empty hopes.
The dress was too big. My parents must have hoped I would grow to be tall like my mother. The Joans pinned and tucked it; yawning, for the hour was late. But I must be dressed now, to be ready in the morning. There was no time to get the dress right today and then spend another two hours unpicking it, just to dress me again tomorrow in time for church. More stitches, more pins. The candles flickered down to stumps. Little Joanette brought fresh ones.
‘Are you hungry, my lady?’ she asked.
I shook my head. I was light-headed from lack of food, but wanted nothing that might blunt the poison’s bite.
Then I realised that Joanette had asked because she was hungry too. It had been a long time since our last meal. If I did not eat, the Joans would get no proper dinner either.
‘I could eat a little,’ I said.
‘Ah, she’s excited, aren’t you, my pet? Fine as the sun you are in that bright dress, and a fair groom waiting for you tomorrow. And, oh, the house you’ll have. Glass in every window. Even the Earl’s privy has a window, so they say, with glass in it, and forcing houses for pineapples, and big pots of oranges too. Oh, you’ll even eat asparagus and apricots in mid-winter, and jewels on every finger …’
Nurse babbled faster than usual, as though words could fill up the emptiness between us. We had lost each other somewhere this afternoon. We both knew it, though neither of us spoke of it.
Joanette left and returned carrying a tray covered with a linen cloth, Peter at her heels with two big jugs of ale.
‘Such a fuss in the kitchens!’ she panted. ‘No one will sleep at all tonight! The boys are turning a whole ox roasting on the spit for your wedding feast, and chickens and pheasants. The footmen are still bringing more from the farms, with torchlight to see their way! The hall is filled with jellies cooling and blancmanges and a hundred great big pies.’
‘A hundred sucket spoons I have to shine,’ said Peter. ‘And a hundred forks. Every bit of Venice glass in the house to be polished, and your lady mother has sent out to borrow more china plates.’
‘The bakehouse will be glowing all the night,’ added Joanette. ‘There’s five hundred jumbles going down there to be baked. Then they’ll be gilded —’
Nurse glanced at my face. ‘Hush, girl. Put the tray down and get back to your pins.’
Joanette set out the dishes on the table. Loaves of golden saffron bread; sweet cubes of jellied milk dotted with gold leaf; mutton in lemon and sultana sauce, all golden too; all from the wedding feast. Gold is the feast’s theme, I thought. Capulet gold married to Paris’s blue blood.
I ate a cube of jelly, then nodded to the Joans to eat their fill. They didn’t stop their work to eat, but wiped their fingers on a linen cloth between each bite.
They finished at last. The Joans cleared away the pins, the ribbons, the sewing baskets. Little Joanette lifted up the tray with its smears of food. She lingered at the door.
‘You wish to speak, Joanette?’
‘I … I have been happy in your service, my lady. When you are in your new house …’ She bit her lip.
I said gently, ‘When I have my own household, I shall ask my mother if you may share it, as my own first maid.’
‘Oh, my lady!’ Joanette flushed with pleasure.
She bobbed a curtsey, making the tray tilt, then quickly straightened it before the dishes fell. I heard her singing as she hurried down the corridor.
‘Listen to her!’ said Nurse. ‘Singing like a dairy maid! And a girl that young to be your maid!’
I gazed at the woman of gold and pearls in the mirror. Only the half-ruff was white, to frame my face and bosom. They had even dusted my hair with gold, and netted it with pearls. More pearls hung in three great ropes around my waist, then down my skirt.
I thought: I am beautiful. But any tavern wench would have been beautiful dressed like this, even with dark shadows under her eyes, like mine. And the pearls are worth money, and the dress too, if my Romeo has need of it.
‘There,’ said Nurse, as proudly as if I were her own Susan. ‘Now you lie down and I’ll put cushions round you. It will never do to have this gown crease. Fine as the sun it is. I’ll sit up and make sure you don’t roll in your sleep —’
She stared at me.
‘I pray thee, leave me to myself tonight. I … I need to pray.’
Nurse knew well enough what I should be praying for. If I were truly marrying the Earl of Paris tomorrow, the marriage would be a sin, for I was already married in the sight of God to Romeo. So many sins …
The door curtains parted. My mother stood there. She was also dressed for the wedding, in green silk and taffeta slashed with red and rubies. She examined me, then smiled. Her maids had whitened her teeth too.
‘Do you need my help?’ she asked.
‘No, madam. So please you, let me now be left alone, and let Nurse this night sit up with you. For I am sure you have your hands full in all this so sudden business.’
My mother nodded. I had no doubt she had a hundred uses for another pair of hands. I was dressed and settled, and there was no need for her to think of me till tomorrow.
‘Goodnight,’ she said, and looked at my white face, my shadowed eyes. ‘Get thee to bed and rest, for you need it.’
My mother and Nurse left with no other word. I watched them go. I had thought that perhaps my mother might kiss me on the last night of what she thought was my maidenhood, but it seemed she did not want to muss my dress, or hers.
Farewell, I thought. God knows when we shall meet again.
I reached under my pillow. My fingers found Romeo’s ring, now on a gold chain. I hung it around my neck, hidden beneath my ruff and dress. I reached under the pillow again for the vial of poison and, last of all, the knife.
I had never felt so alone.
My body was beyond sleep. Soon, perhaps, I would sleep too long. I looked at the small vial. A poison that would keep me sleeping till my Romeo could come for me. It had seemed the only way when Friar Laurence spoke of it in the shadows of his cell. But now, as the last of the sunlight slipped away from my garden, the friar’s plan seemed as fantastic as a play.
There was another way, a better way. I must go to Mantua, tonight.
If Romeo were found when he came to fetch me from the tomb, he would be put to death, either by my kin or by the Prince. Even if he weren’t discovered, he would still have the task of spiriting me away.
I was the girl who had dared to ask her love to marry her! Surely it could not be so difficult to get myself to Mantua? People went there every day and then came back.
Thank you, Master Scholar, I thought. At least I knew where Mantua was. Our estates were to the south and
Mantua was also south of Verona. All I had to do was find the road to our estates and then keep going.
My thoughts felt as if they were swimming through jelly. Guigemar’s lady had found a boat conveniently to hand. I had no boat, but a chair could be hired. I had seen the chair bearers waiting for clients after church. They must be paid, though, and I had never handled money. I had never seen my mother with money either; our footmen handed over the coins for any hat or ribbon she chose.
How many coins did it take to hire a chair to go to Mantua?
I had no money. But Nurse had her savings, from her wages. Romeo would pay them back. Perhaps she would not even miss the coins till they were repaid.
I reached under the mattress of Nurse’s truckle bed. Yes, there was the silk purse, with coins inside. Enough to get me to Mantua? To pay for food and lodging along the way? If it were not, my Romeo would pay the chair bearers what else I owed. And once we got to Mantua, everyone would know the Montague estate if I asked for directions to it.
The friar’s messenger to Romeo would go by horseback, far faster than I could travel in a chair. But once we were on the road, I would keep the chair curtains open. I would see and hear Romeo galloping towards us, call out to him to stop. Perhaps he would know I was
near without my calling, just as he had found my garden two nights ago.
There was one problem only. The farthest I had ever walked alone was from my chair into the friar’s cell. But I was Juliet Catherine Therese Capulet Montague. I would stride across the world.
I leaned over and looked under my bed. The rope ladder lay coiled like a sleeping snake.
I lay stiff in the gold cloth of my wedding dress and waited for darkness. A draught blew through my room, warm and smelling of roast pig. Slowly the house quietened, apart from faint voices from the kitchens. The servants there would work all night on my wedding feast. I wondered if they would be allowed to eat the banquet food when they found that I had gone, or if the leftovers would be given to the poor. Perhaps my father, in his fury, would order the foods burned in the furnace.
My body screamed for sleep, my mind for peace. But there could be no rest yet.
I stood, careful of my wedding dress, then realised I had no need to be gentle with it. I could not travel to Mantua in a dress made of cloth of gold. Nor could I climb down a ladder in a farthingale. I moved to the door curtains, my stiff skirts rustling, and peered down the corridor. It was empty.
I crept down the corridor to the closet where Nurse hung my clothes and furs and linen, lifting my skirts so they did not rustle against the floor. I had never been in the closet before, though I had glanced inside at the dresses, petticoats, sleeves and cloaks all hung around the hole where the chamber-pots were emptied. The smell kept away the moths. The holes were cleared at mid-summer, when we left the city for the fresh air of our estates, returning only when the steward said the stench had gone. It would be mid-summer soon, but the room smelled only of roses, dried lavender, orange peel and cloves.
I hesitated. I had never dressed nor undressed myself; nor could a lady’s dress be put on without at least one helper to do the sewing and pinning. But I would not meet my husband’s people looking less than a lady. I must be dressed in clothes that reflected my rank in society.
At last I chose a petticoat of red silk to go over my chemise, and an overdress of blue, red sleeves, a camisole and a black cloak to cover it all. No farthingale, for no matter how hard I tried I could not bundle one up to carry it. And finally, the silk slippers with a leather sole that I wore on visits to our estates.
I carried the clothes back to my room and dumped them on my bed. I began to unpin my wedding dress. By the time the church clock chimed the hour, I had only one sleeve removed. It would be morning before my untrained hands could do the work of three Joans.
I took my knife and ripped the seams from shoulder to armpit, and then the dress itself right down one side. It did not cut easily, but it was done.
I stepped out of the cloth of gold. I slipped on the petticoat and camisole. I managed to attach them with three pins — they would have to be enough till I could get a maid to help me. The stockings would not stay up so I put them in a bundle in Nurse’s purse, along with the ropes of pearls. No one would see my legs under my skirt and cloak.
I looked at the knife, the poison. I had no need of them now. I slipped them back, under my pillow.
I fumbled as I tied the cloak strings. I had never even tied my own cloak strings. How could I possibly find my way to Mantua?
I bit my lip. My body had lived here in this garden, or in the grounds of our country estates, but my mind and heart had roamed the world. I could do this!
I fixed the ladder, as Nurse had done, winding it around the railing and letting it fall. I tried to climb over the railing after it, but my skirts got in the way. I tied them up about my waist as I had seen farm girls do, as I had done myself when I was small and played with my brother.
Over the railing. I grabbed the ladder and somehow found a footing as it swung. I managed one step down. The ladder swayed again and I grabbed the railing to steady myself. Escape was not easy.
But the ground was nearer now. I jumped. I landed hard.
No time to think of bruises. I slipped through the rose bushes, my feet silent on the path, to the pomegranate tree by the wall. I grabbed the first branch and swung myself up, as I had done when I was small. My body remembered how to climb a tree, at least.
I looked down on the wall. I hadn’t known that it was topped with broken glass embedded in the mortar. Anyone who tried to climb over this wall would find their flesh slashed as if by rapiers. But Romeo had climbed this wall. How had he done it?
Think, I told myself. What would protect flesh from broken glass?
Padding. Romeo must have wrapped his cloak into a cushion over the shards of glass. A bundled-up petticoat would do as well. I slid down the tree again, wadded my petticoat into a small hard ball, then carried it back up. I leaned awkwardly over to the wall and thrust the bundle onto it. I stepped carefully from the branch onto the cushioned wall. I could feel the glass under my feet, but it did not cut through my shoes; or if it did, I did not feel the pain.
Nice girls did not jump from walls. It had been nearly eight years since I had played with my brother in the banquet hall. My body remembered. Remembered jumping as a little girl. Remembered last night when I had loved as a woman.
It turned out my body had forgotten about landing. I hit the ground roughly, rolling in what I hoped was only mud. My arms ached. My ankle muttered in pain. I ignored them and looked at my cloak. It was too dark to see much, but I could feel the slime. I tried to brush it off, but whatever it was — it smelled worse than slime — did not want to be brushed away.
I turned my cloak inside out, as Nurse had done once when I spilled pomegranate juice on it at the market. (My mother had not let me go to the market again after I spilled the juice and patted a donkey with fleas.) I could still smell the muck even with the cloak turned, but surely there would be an inn along the road to Mantua, with a maid who could clean it.
I was free. It was so strange and so sudden that I felt giddy. No footmen. No Nurse. No father, nor even a husband. I could head for the forests where dragons lurked. Could walk to the harbour and sail away like Guigemar’s lady. Here, now, in this dark lane, I was not Juliet Capulet, nor Juliet Montague. I was simply … Juliet.
Who loved her husband.