Authors: Jackie French
Ours is a good hall. My brother and I played there when we were small, hiding behind the tapestries while Nurse looked on. He had been four years old that day, two months before he caught the flux, and I was six. The hall had been all shadows. Now its shutters were open and light poured in, like golden wine. A horseshoe of tables half-filled the banquet room, covered with white linen, and set with silver forks and spoons, goblets of Venetian glass, trenchers and linen napkins. The glasses of jellies and sweetmeats were laid out already; and small sugar cupids pulled their arrows at each setting, with marzipan hearts and roses. My father’s chair, with its arched back and arms, stood at the centre of the main table. My mother’s had been placed next to his, smaller, low-backed and armless; and next to hers stood a chair as grand as my father’s, for the Earl of Paris.
I was early. I sat in the waiting room behind the banquet hall, my hands in my lap. I heard the guests
arrive: cousins and second cousins, known to me since I was small and allowed to join the adults for an hour at Christmas-tide and on saints’ days. I heard Tybalt’s voice, laughing a little too loudly.
I felt sweat drip down my neck, smelling of the rosewater I’d been washed with. I realised I was scared. What would the Earl be like? What should I say to him? He would be dignified, close to my father’s age. I should have rehearsed something, all the poetic words fitting for a well-bred young lady. Instead, I felt as dumb as a lovebird in a cage that has not been taught to talk.
I thought of my bird, dead on the floor.
The door opened and my father strode in. ‘Well, my daughter?’
He smelled of wine and lavender and bearskin. I curtseyed. My mother’s face was a smooth mask of white lead, her cheeks and lips rouged like the rubies at her throat and ears. Her hand rested on the jewelled and velvet-clad arm of a stranger. I curtseyed more deeply, too deeply to see the stranger’s face.
‘My Lord Paris, may I present my daughter?’ I had never heard my father so pleased before.
I rose and looked at the man I was to marry. He was tall. He might have been Verona’s flower, as my mother had promised. He was also a boy, sixteen perhaps. He still had pimples on his chin.
How could this boy be a friend of my father? Because he is a prince’s cousin, I thought. Because he is an earl.
I hoped I had not gaped at him. He wore red silk stockings on fine legs and a gold velvet doublet embroidered with silver. Only those of noble blood may wear gold or silver. The eagle feather in his tall hat was gilded. If Tybalt was a peacock, then this boy was a rooster. He knew that he was the noble here, that he did our house an honour in asking for my hand. All his gold and silver shouted it aloud.
The Earl of Paris swept off his hat. He bowed as deeply as if I were royalty. ‘My honoured lady.’
I caught my mother’s eye, then quickly held out my hand so the Earl could kiss the air above it.
‘My loving daughter, Lord Paris, our house’s blooming rose, my Juliet.’ My mother’s speech was as perfect as always.
The silence grew. I had to say something. All poetry had flown. ‘Yes, I am Juliet,’ I said, then wished the tapestries would fall and cover me.
The young Earl laughed, as if he were pleased I hadn’t a too-ready wit. ‘A rose indeed,’ he said. ‘And with no thorns, or sharp tongue to bite.’
He bent and kissed my lips in greeting. His breath smelled of caraway. He held out his arm to me and I slipped my hand onto his sleeve. The musicians
began to play. My father led my mother into the hall. The Earl of Paris and I followed.
I sat on the bench next to the Earl. The table’s centrepiece was a forest made out of marzipan, covered with a snow of sugar and ice. The snow had begun to melt in the heat of the fire and many people, revealing summer-green sugar trees beneath it.
Servants brought in the first course: a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth; turkeys with their feathers painted on; a haunch of venison with turnips; two lambs, dressed whole with salad, on a bed of roses made of carved radishes.
The horns blew. The harpists played. Tybalt laughed too loudly again farther down the table. Once he would have sat between my mother and myself. Not now.
Servants served the wine from the sideboard. The young Earl helped me to slices of pig, to venison, his manners perfect. Too perfect. My father had once bidden actors to come to his name-day feast to perform for our family and cousins. This boy was like an actor, playing the lover, showing everyone how an earl could be gracious to a family that traded for its wealth.
This was no wooing. There were no words of love. This boy in his cloth of gold was not Guigemar. I knew why he had offered for me. If there was love at this table, it was for my father’s estates, the wealth from his ships.
I drank the wine, then wished I hadn’t. The table was already too bright, too loud. I had never drunk unwatered wine before.
The dishes were removed; the second course brought in. A tall pile of fried larks; leeks in honey; cheese pies; a loin of veal with pomegranate seeds; gilt-edged pies cut open to show hare and chicken in gold jelly with hardboiled eggs; fat capons stuffed with rice coloured gold with saffron. Gold food, to match the Earl’s gold clothes.
I ate, I drank.
The young Earl talked to my mother about his country estate, in between helping me to food I did not want. His house had been built by his great-grandfather; it had pools of carp, a thousand glass windows, fountains in a grotto … A boasting boy. One day the carp pools and fountains would be mine, but I would not boast.
The servants brought in the final course. I was glad there were only three courses today. My mother looked more intent as they carried in the new dishes, for they were the work of her and her ladies. I too had helped make those trees and sugar cups. I remembered the disgrace when I had burned the sugar when I was seven years old. It had been a fortnight before my mother had called for me again.
The servants put the centrepiece in front of the Earl. There was a marzipan forest with a tiny marzipan knight killing a boar, just like the knight and boar on the Earl of Paris’s crest. The wafers had the Earl’s crest
on them too. The apple pastries were in the shape of a child in a cradle. The rose cups were filled with stewed quinces, the food of love.
A cooing from the second cousins. My cheeks flushed. It would have been less obvious if my mother had hired a town crier to yell it through the streets: ‘My daughter and the Prince’s kinsman are to be wed!’
‘My lady?’ The Earl of Paris smiled at me and offered me the sugar knight. I saw that he chewed his fingernails. ‘Will you take my knight?’ He bent and added too loudly in my ear, ‘This knight, and all the nights to come.’
I felt my cheeks turn as red as my dress. I took the knight, already a little sticky from his fingers. ‘I thank you, sir. I will indeed accept your knight.’
‘Which part will you eat first?’
I flushed with anger. I hoped he would take it for modesty. ‘Why, sir, he is too fine. I will keep him to admire.’
My mother nodded almost imperceptibly at my answer.
‘By your bed?’ He looked around the table, expecting everyone to applaud his wit.
‘Nay, sir, I would not keep him so confined. By the window, so he can look down upon the town.’
And where, hopefully, a sparrow would eat him before breakfast tomorrow.
The Earl had not noticed the bite in my voice. ‘A good wife’s answer, not to keep her lord confined.’
‘As she is a good daughter, she will be a good wife,’ my mother said.
Her voice was quiet, but there was a hint of steel too. She didn’t like this boy teasing me. I wondered if perhaps she loved me, not just as her daughter but the me inside. Our eyes met briefly, then she turned to the Earl of Paris with a smile.
Shadows grew outside. The lamps were lit in the gardens, bringing the last of the day’s scent of roses. The table’s grand centrepiece had melted from winter to summer, adorned with marzipan wheat and apples for fingers to pluck.
More guests arrived to dance, masked as bears, as stags, as birds. My father laughed and donned a mask too. So did some of the cousins. But I did not, nor did my mother or the Earl of Paris.
The musicians played. My hand touched the Earl’s in the dance before he passed on; his skin was soft. We met again as the dance came to its close. The Earl bowed to me, then went over to the musicians. They stopped playing to attend to him. The dancers waited for the music to begin for the next set.
The musicians took up their instruments again. A drum beat softly. Lord Paris began to sing. His voice was still high, not quite a man’s, but well trained.
My mistress’s eyes are like the sun
Her lips are red as coral
If snow be white, her breasts be snow
And I the fortunate to know
Her rose is plucked by only one
Who’ll ever wear her laurel
I thought: he should be singing a love song to me. Instead, he was singing a song to the company, claiming me and the House of Capulet, while my father smiled among them.
The music stopped, to laughter and applause. The Earl of Paris bowed, as dignified as if he were forty years old, then turned to speak to my father. The servants poured them wine.
‘Well, can you love him?’ My mother spoke softly.
I met her eyes again. ‘With a daughter’s duty, and a wife’s.’
She nodded, satisfied. ‘Do not confuse a poet’s love with that found between a husband and his wife. My dear, he will not use you ill. Better to come to him rich with the dowry of a wealthy house and fine estates. Respect lives on when love has died.’
My mother spoke from experience. She had brought two large estates to my father when they married.
She touched my cheek gently. ‘If you give him heirs, my dear, and a great estate, he will be happy. If he is happy, you shall be too.’
‘And if … if there are no heirs?’
‘A rich dowry can be a great comfort to a man.’ Her voice was dry. My mother had not succeeded in giving my father an heir who had reached manhood. ‘The Earl will guard our house well. That too is important.’
I watched my intended husband laugh with my father. There would be no courtship then; no suitors vying for my love like in the stories. I would exchange my father’s house for my husband’s, with a prince for a cousin, my husband’s bed instead of French lessons, children, and the respect of the city as the Earl’s wife. And from the day I married, the House of Capulet would be a noble one, leaving the rats of Montague scrabbling in the marketplace muck.
Guigemar existed only in a book. This was real. What else could I want?
‘Love,’ sang the minstrel. He stroked his mandolin.
Love in the month of maying
When merry lads are playing, fa la
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass
Fa la la! Fa la lala, la la
The Spring, clad all in gladness
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The lovers tread out their ground
Fa la la! Fa la lala, la la
I joined the dance, one hand linked to the other dancers, the other holding up my skirts. It was a dance I had performed a hundred times with the Joans and my dance master, but it was different here, dancing with strangers
by torchlight. This was my home. But it was also another world, the world of womanhood.
I liked it not. Womanhood seemed like the dance, with steps that no dancer was allowed to change. I would be my father’s daughter and my husband’s wife. But Juliet, who was she? A person as insubstantial as our shadows on the wall.
The guests had all stared at me a short time ago. I had been like the table centrepiece when it was fresh upon the table. Now my snow had melted. The guests laughed with one another, watched the dancers or joined in. My mother had moved down to the terrace. Even the Earl of Paris was back in the banqueting room, discussing I knew not what with men my father’s age. No one even glanced at me.
Except for one. Even through the room’s warmth I felt the heat of someone’s gaze. I searched the crowd to find his face as I wove in and out inside the dance.
And then I saw him. He stood by the pillar on the terrace, slightly beyond the flaring light of the torches. I knew him. I had known him all my life. He was my dream shadow, come to life.
He wasn’t tall; not much taller, perhaps, than I. He wasn’t handsome. A little plump, like me. Brown hair. Brown eyes that smiled. Young — Tybalt’s age perhaps. But Tybalt was a boy, and the Earl a boy too, despite his conversations with the older men. This was a man.
He had been wearing a mask; I saw it dangling by
his waist. I did not need to see the rapier by his side to know he was a gentleman. He bore himself as one of noble blood. Rings on his fingers, but no other jewels; no peacock displaying himself. His eyes held mine, straight and true. We knew each other for a hundred years in that one glance. He looked at me with love. I had only ever seen love in my dreams, but I knew it now as if I had met it a thousand times.
I hadn’t danced with him. His hand would have burned mine if once we had touched. If our bodies had brushed against each other …
I stopped dancing so suddenly that the ladies either side had to remind me to move on. I lifted my hands again and made the right steps. I had never felt my body properly before. It was something others tended, something to be fed and washed and dressed. Now I felt every part of my skin. My body was a star. No, half a star. The other half was him.
The dance ended. I curtseyed. No one looked at me, except for him. His gaze burned through the crowd. So, I thought, this is what it is to be a woman.
The minstrels began another song. I stepped from the dance floor as a yell shattered the music. ‘Fetch me my rapier!’
I looked back to see Tybalt pulling at a servant’s shoulder. He’d had too much to drink. Too much of everything, perhaps, today.
My father stepped in quickly to quieten him. ‘Why, how now, kinsman, wherefore you storm so?’
Tybalt gazed wildly about the room. ‘Uncle! There is a Montague at your banquet! Now by the honour of my kin, I’ll strike him dead, and hold it not a sin.’
The guests all stared at Tybalt. No, not all. I glanced back at the young man to see his eyes still on me.
I looked back at my cousin. His hands shook with anger as he snatched his rapier from a footman. The room grew silent under the beat of music. For certain, Tybalt had drunk too much wine. How could a Montague dare to come here, to pollute our walls? Poor Tybalt. He had lost the House of Capulet today. Now he was being a fool, in front of all our guests.
My father smiled, and shook his head at us, as though to say, ‘It is nothing.’ He drew Tybalt into a corner. Tybalt’s face was flushed, his rapier still in his hand, but the ripple his anger had caused died away and the guests began to dance again.
I looked at the young man by the pillar once more. I watched him watching me. Vaguely I was aware of Tybalt striding through the room, flinging his mask down at the door. Then he was gone. I didn’t care.
Another dance began, but I stood back. Silks and velvets, damask and lace, dancers and musicians … it was as if they were a painted backdrop for the young man and me. If a man’s life can be contained in a book,
then his face was a book too. I could read his life there, just as I had read the Earl’s.
But there was no Earl now. There was no one except us two. Could I reach him? Perhaps, even now, if I walked to him, I would find a sheet of glass between us. Perhaps he would merge with the shadows and be a dream.
He did not walk towards me. He let me come to him. No one had given me that gift of choice before.
I moved slowly around the room, nodding at an uncle, kissing a cousin on her lips. Out onto the terrace, past the fall of light. He stood there, still, and watched me come. I was almost near enough to feel his warmth.
I stopped, suddenly unsure. What should I say? I had never greeted a gentleman without my mother or my father to introduce us. Should I curtsey? And yet it was as if we had known each other from the moment of our births. I held out my hand for him to kiss, as my mother did to men whom she knew well.
He did not kiss my hand. He took my fingers, then matched his hand to mine. The world changed in that single touch.
He did not smile. Nor did I.
He spoke softly, so only I could hear. ‘If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle fine is this: my lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.’
It was a question. To kiss, or not to kiss? Once more, he left me to decide. I felt my smile grow. The poetry I had not been able to find for Paris came easily now.
I glanced at our hands, already kissing. ‘Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much. For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, and palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.’
He moved so close that I could smell his breath. He smelled of a garden in summer, the moment the earth gives its blessing for the plants to grow. ‘Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?’
My smile became a grin. I was Juliet now, and not my mother’s daughter. ‘Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.’
His eyes crinkled with the joke. ‘Oh, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. Move not while my prayer’s effect I take. Thus from my lips, by yours, my sin is purged.’
His lips met mine. To anyone watching it would have seemed a cousin’s kiss. But I had kissed many cousins, and none like this. We were awkward at first; I did not know where to put my nose. And then our lips met properly. The kiss lasted a scatter of drops from the fountain. It lasted half my life.
He drew back, his eyes on mine.
‘Then have my lips the sin that they have took,’ I said. This time I kissed him.
His hand tightened on mine. ‘Sin from thy lips? Oh trespass sweetly urged! Give me my sin again.’
I pressed my body to him. Our lips met …
‘Madam, your mother craves a word with you.’
It was Nurse. She must have been watching from the servants’ door. I flushed and dropped him a curtsey. My hand felt suddenly bereft, as did my lips.
Nurse gave me a warning stare as we made our way back to the dancing. I turned to smile at him and caught his smile at me. It warmed me as his lips had done, a warmth that flowed through my body like a rose unfurling.
My mother was talking to her aunt, who wore the same green she had worn to the last Christmas feast, and the one before. Her wrinkles sagged into her wimple.
I curtseyed to her, then to my mother. ‘Madam, you wished for me?’
‘Dear child, many times have I wished for such a daughter, and I have her now. But I did not call for you.’ She patted my cheek. ‘We shall see a betrothal ring this summer.’
I blushed and nodded, then realised my mother spoke of Paris. The banquet seemed a hundred miles away. So did the Earl of Paris. I could never marry the Earl now. What would my mother say when I refused him? What would my father think of his daughter choosing a man to love?
I met my mother’s gaze. She looked happy for me; happy that I was happy, not merely because I was to marry a kinsman of the Prince. Perhaps if I chose another, she would accept my choice.
And my father? I did not know my lover’s name, but the rubies on his fingers, his fashionable rapier and his bearing told me he was wealthy. He must be of a good house to be here tonight. He might not be an earl, but surely my father would like him well enough to let him court me.
Suddenly I realised I did not even know if he lived here in Verona. Was he a visitor?
It didn’t matter. Even if he were a stranger, anyone here could tell him who I was. He would come to our house tomorrow, to seek my father’s leave to court me. My father would find out his family and estate. Perhaps he even had royal connections, like the Earl …
I turned to look at him. But no dark-eyed man gazed at me from the terrace.
Where was he? Had he gone to find someone to introduce us?
I moved through the crowd. He had vanished. Gone, just like my dreams. But he was not a dream. I could still feel his warmth on my lips, my hand.
And then I saw him. He stood by the door to the street, with two young men I did not know.
He was going! And not even a farewell to me! Had
I imagined all we had exchanged? No. Then why was he leaving?
My breath hurt suddenly, as though my heart clenched too hard around it. I had to find out his name, at least, before he left. I slipped over to the servants’ door and hissed: ‘Nurse!’
She peered out, holding a goblet of wine, her fingers sticky with date pastry. ‘What is it, my lamblet?’
‘Who is that young gentleman?’
Nurse looked over to the door. ‘The one with the silver stocking tops? That’s the son and heir of old Tiberio.’
‘Who is he that now is going out the door?’
‘With the eagle plume in his hat? Young Petrucio.’
‘No! The man who follows him, who didn’t dance?’
Nurse shrugged and grabbed another pastry from a passing tray. ‘I know not.’
‘Go, ask his name,’ I told her. ‘If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.’
She looked at me, alarmed. ‘What do you mean?’
Someone touched my arm: a cousin, to ask if I would dance the next set. I shook my head. When I looked back to the door, the three young men had gone. He would come back! He had to. He was seeing his friends to their chairs …
Nurse made her way through the crowd towards me. She looked as grim as when Joanette had spilled orange
juice on my new gown. No, worse. She pulled me into the shadows.
‘His name is Romeo, and a Montague; the only son of your great enemy.’
He could not be a Montague. If he were a Montague, then everything I knew was wrong. A Montague was evil, vile.
The world cracked open. The noises were too loud, the fire too hot.
‘My only love sprung from my only hate!’ I whispered. ‘Too early seen unknown, and known too late! Prodigious birth of love it is to me, that I must love a loathed enemy.’
Nurse stared at me. ‘What’s this?’
If he were a Montague, then all I had believed was wrong. The world swam, as though every candle flickered at the same time. Even the firelight seemed not quite real.
I would not sob. I would not show my anguish on my face. I said, ‘A rhyme I learned from someone I danced with.’
It was not a lie. For we had danced our own dance, there in the shadows, he and I.
It was my mother’s voice, from inside the banquet room. Most of the guests had moved there now. Supper would be served. I had to sit with her, and the Earl of Paris. I had to smile. Tybalt was trained for fighting. I had been trained for this.
I smiled. My fingernails dug into my clenched hands. ‘Anon!’ I called to my mother.
Nurse looked at me, concerned. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘let’s away. The strangers are all gone.’
Gone? He would never be gone from my heart. But he was a Montague.
How could a Capulet love a Montague? Who was Juliet if not the dutiful daughter who loved and hated where she was told?
I stepped away from Nurse, towards supper in the banquet room.