Authors: Jackie French
He bowed his knee, but kept his gaze on mine. ‘So thrive my soul.’
‘A thousand times goodnight!’ I slid back inside. I heard him say, ‘A thousand times the worse, to want your light!’
Tomorrow … tomorrow we would be wed. Tomorrow Juliet Capulet would change the world. I floated on weariness and the scent of roses …
Nurse took my arm. ‘You haven’t found when your messenger will meet him, girl! Tell him I’ll come to him to take a message from him to you. But he must say when, and where.’
Dear Nurse. Kind Nurse. I ran back out. ‘Romeo!’
He was still there. ‘My dear?’
‘At what o’clock tomorrow shall I send to thee?’
He giggled. Guigemar would never giggle. Somehow I fell even more in love. ‘We are poor conspirators. By the church steps, at the hour of nine.’
‘I will not fail. ’Tis twenty years till then.’
I stared at him, the square solidness of his body, the shine of his dark hair, his moonlit face. It was as though my whole life had been in waiting, just for this.
I said at last, ‘I have forgot why I did call you back.’
He smiled. ‘Let me stand here till you remember it.’
I shook my head. ‘I shall forget,’ I said solemnly, ‘to have you still stand there, remembering how I love your company.’
‘And I’ll still stay, to have you still forget, forgetting any other home but this.’
Suddenly I was aware the moon had sunk below the garden wall. ‘’Tis almost morning. I would have you gone, and yet no further than a wanton’s bird —’
‘I would I were thy bird,’ he said dreamily.
I smiled at the idea of a small Romeo perched upon my shoulder. ‘Sweet, so would I.’
The moon shadows had turned to black. The sky would grow grey soon. The watchman would be here. If Romeo would not go, then I must send him away, to keep him safe.
‘Goodnight! Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.’
I forced myself to step away from him and through the curtain. I heard his words, too loud for safety, too sweet to wish unsaid. ‘Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest.’
I lay on my linen pillows, but my mind soared higher than the stars. I thought of Romeo, his words, his look, the heat of his fingers touching mine.
I thought of myself too. What is a girl? Born of her family, fed by her nurse, dressed by her maids, kept from the world by her garden walls. But I had seen another life: the world where a woman crossed the sea to find her love; where a woman’s tales were read hundreds of years after her name and home were lost.
I was writing a story now, like Marie de France. But my story was real. Tomorrow I would unite Verona, where even the Prince had failed. Guigemar’s lady’s name was lost, but Juliet’s would be remembered. In a hundred years people would still know my name.
I was more than my family now, more even than Romeo’s love.
I was Juliet.
The nightingale sang. At last I slept, and then I slept too long. The sun was above the courtyard wall when I awoke. Nurse was still snoring, and no Joans had come to wake us. They must think us tired from the banquet.
Today I would be married. Had I dreamed it all? My whole life changed with a few words at a banquet, and an hour in the moonlight and roses. Romeo. I let my lips make his name without a sound. Today Juliet Capulet would be no more, and in her place a Montague.
Dreams need no planning. Marriage did. I had to think.
Marriage was made of more than words. Today’s ceremony could be undone, our marriage made nothing, until we had shared a bed. I knew nothing of what would happen in the marriage bed, only that it was something important. A marriage wasn’t legal till it was done. If we were discovered before we had shared a bed, his father and mine could have our marriage annulled.
Tonight, Romeo must come up here, to my bed. How? Through the halls? Impossible.
I dozed again, and woke as the church bell rang eight. Nurse sat on her truckle bed, staring at me. Her expression was hard to read.
‘The Earl of Paris is a fine man,’ she said, as if we had been talking for the past hour. ‘A flower of a man, the Prince’s cousin too. And that song he sang about you —’
‘I marry Romeo today.’
She looked uncomfortable. Was she regretting her midnight words in the light of day? Had she drunk too much wine last night?
‘Ah well. Romeo,’ she said. ‘Yes. But are you sure, my dove? I remember your dog, what was its name? You loved it too. Cried and cried you did when that dog died. But the next day, the smiles were on your cheeks again.’
Poor simple Nurse. I was the dagger that would slice away the enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues, more powerful than Tybalt’s rapier.
I smiled at her. ‘Nurse, darling Nurse. He is my love, and I marry him today. Call the Joans. It is past the breakfast hour.’
Yesterday I had been a child for Nurse to chide. Today I gave the orders. The touch of his lips and his hand on mine had done all that. What would tonight give? I shivered as Nurse pulled the bell.
Nurse left as the bell rang nine, sailing off in her best skirts, winking at me while the Joans dressed me, saying she must go to the market to buy ribbons as I had torn my best last night.
I ate. I sat. I waited. I could not write or read or draw or play my harp. I did not want the company of the Joans. Time dragged like a crust through a bowl of honey.
I waited while the clock struck ten, eleven, noon, and still she did not come. Love’s heralds should be thoughts
that are ten times faster than the sun’s beams, not a fat-legged nurse.
At last I heard her footsteps. I pulled aside the curtain and there she was, Peter the page behind her, holding a package that must contain the ribbon.
‘Oh, honey Nurse, what news?’ I asked. ‘Have you met him?’
Nurse looked at me warningly. ‘Peter, stay at the gate,’ she said.
I waited till the page had vanished down the corridor, then let the curtain slip back. ‘Now, good sweet Nurse.’ I tried to read her expression. ‘Oh lord, why do you look so sad?’
Had he changed his mind? Had Nurse even met him?
‘I am weary,’ she said. ‘Give me leave awhile. Fie, how my bones ache! What a jaunt I have had!’
‘I wish you had my bones, and I had your news! Now come, I pray you, speak. Good, good Nurse, speak!’
‘Do you not see that I am out of breath?’
My heart was midnight ice. ‘How are you out of breath when you have breath to tell me that you are out of breath? Is your news good or bad?’
‘Well, you’ve made a fool’s choice. Romeo! His face is good, and his legs. But he is not the flower of courtesy.’ Nurse peered at the table. ‘Have you dined yet?’
‘I wasn’t hungry. What says he of our marriage? What of that?’
‘How my head aches. It would break in twenty pieces. Oh, my back too. Here I’ve been, trudging back and forth for you —’
‘Sweet, sweet, sweet Nurse, I am sorry that you are not well. Tell me, what says my love?’
‘Your love says, like an honest gentleman, and a courteous, and a kind, and a handsome, and, I warrant, a virtuous … Where is your mother?’
She was teasing me. She had to be teasing me. Or delaying the bad news. ‘My mother is within. Where should she be?’
‘Is this the poultice for my aching bones? You can do your messages yourself.’
I sat on the bed, my hands in my lap, an obedient child to her nurse again. ‘What says Romeo?’
She smiled. At last she smiled. My heart melted, just a little.
‘Have you got leave to go to church today?’ she asked.
‘Then get you to Friar Laurence’s cell. There stays a husband to make you a wife.’
The world spun. The colours faded, then came back too bright.
Nurse looked at me, amused. ‘Now comes the wanton blood up in your cheeks. Get you to church. Now I must find a rope ladder, so your love can climb to his bird’s nest as soon as it is dark. I am the drudge and toil for
your delight.’ She grinned at me. ‘But you shall bear the burden soon at night.’
My cheeks did flame then.
Nurse bent and kissed me, smelling of sweat and the honey pastry she must have eaten at the market. ‘Go. I’m going to find my dinner. Get you to the friar’s cell.’
By myself? I looked at her. Nurse might be my secret messenger, but if she were a witness at my marriage my parents would dismiss her, casting her out to starve. Even when I was married to Romeo, perhaps his father might not let Nurse join me. She could only help me so far.
But I didn’t need a nurse now. I was Juliet, and I would change the world.
‘Hie to high fortune.’ I hugged her. When next I saw her, I would be married. ‘Honest Nurse,’ I whispered, ‘farewell.’
I called for my chair. It was made of cedar wood, sweet smelling, with damask cushions and curtains in Capulet green. The footmen trudged on either side as we bobbed down the street. I kept the curtains shut. I smelled the sawdust and vomit stink of the tavern, the stench of chamber-pots, the blood smell of the butchers’ row.
The smells changed as we reached the marketplace. Someone yelled, ‘Oysters, fresh oysters!’ The apple seller shouted, ‘Codlins ho!’ Someone cried, ‘Buy sweet lavender!’
Sweet lavender. Sweet Romeo.
It seemed a thousand leagues across the marketplace. We must be by the baker’s now, the scent of the morning’s hot crusts still in the air. The smell of ale and sweat and stew, the clucking of hens and flap of pigeons as we crossed the square, the clatter of hooves from some noble’s horse.
At last Peter drew the chair’s curtains at the church steps. He handed me out. I thanked him for the courtesy. I lifted my skirts and climbed the stairs.
‘Pretty lady! Pretty lady!’ the beggars called as they glimpsed my silks. A man with no arms darted forth, his cap held in his teeth. A hunchback grovelled at his side, and a small boy who had no legs but slid on a small trolley with wheels.
I shook my head at them to show I had no money. They accepted it, seeing I had no maid or footman to carry coins.
I stepped past the woman with scars for a face and the girl with white eyes, and into the dimness of the church. I genuflected and crossed myself, then slipped to the side door and out again, using the damp path above the graveyard. I could smell fresh earth and baking bread from the friars’ kitchen.
The friars’ cells were built with their backs to the cliff, of the same stone but mossy, each with a bench outside and a small door. Most of the rooms had been empty since long before I was born, when the King had ordered the monasteries disbanded, but a few of the friars had stayed, bound to the new church now, giving lessons and guidance to the young.
Which cell was Friar Laurence’s? I should have asked.
One door stood open. Suddenly it seemed that I had done this a hundred times, a thousand.
was the door.
was what I had to do, had always had to do.
I peered in. The friar smiled at me from the room’s shadows. He might have been a shadow himself, middle-aged and thin, in his brown robe and sandals.
I tried to find my voice. ‘Good even to my ghostly confessor.’
‘Romeo shall thank you, daughter, for us both.’
The friar stood aside, and there was Romeo. He looked the same. He looked quite different. This was no moonlit smile now, but a husband come to claim me. If I were older than I had been last night, then so was he.
‘If you are as happy as I,’ he said quietly, ‘then it seems impossible that this should make us happier.’
I smiled at him, both bold and shy. ‘My love is grown to such excess, I cannot sum up half my wealth.’
He took my hand and bent to kiss me. His lips were warm. There was nothing in the world but him and me …
Friar Laurence cleared his throat. ‘Come, come with me, and we will make short work! You two shan’t stay alone till holy church make two in one.’
We parted, guilty, but my hand stayed clutched in his. I felt half-terror and half-joy.
Back along the path we went, into the church again, quiet at this hour save for a nun praying to one side. She stood as we came in.
I kneeled with Romeo. The friar stood above us and began to pray.
‘Dearly beloved friends, we are gathered together in the sight of God …’
But there were no friends gathered here, no family, just Friar Laurence and the sister standing as witness by our side.
A bride should remember all her marriage words. I remembered little. Just Romeo’s closeness and his smile; the beams of sunlight drifting through the windows; the fear that someone might interrupt before the friar was done. But no one spoke.
‘Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour and keep her, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to her, so long as ye both shall live?’
Romeo met my eyes. Our glance held. He was telling me that although this was all so fast, his vow was true.
He said, ‘I will.’
Friar Laurence looked at me. ‘Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honour and keep him, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to him, so long as ye both shall live?’
I did not pause. ‘I will.’
‘Who gives this woman to be married unto this man?’
My skin prickled. My father was not here to give me away! But Friar Laurence took my hand, then Romeo’s, and bound us two together.
‘And now please say after me …’
Romeo repeated the words, each one quiet and clear, his gaze still on mine. ‘I, Romeo Montague, take thee, Juliet Capulet, to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I plight you my troth.’
He let go of my hand. For a moment I felt bereft, till Friar Laurence gestured to me that I should take Romeo’s hand in mine again.
I said the words steadily. I knew them from my cousins’ weddings. And what girl has not said them under her breath, imagining when they would be her own?
‘I, Juliet Catherine Therese Capulet, take thee, Romeo Montague, to my wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I plight you my troth.’
Romeo reached into the pocket of his doublet and drew out a ring. It gleamed in the church’s shadows, gold, with a circlet of rubies. It was too large to be a woman’s ring. Perhaps it had been a present from his godfather or his grandfather. Now it was mine. He slipped it on the fourth finger of my left hand. I had to clench my fingers a little to keep it on.
‘With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship …’
I flushed at the thought of the night to come.
Romeo smiled at me, but his voice was steady. ‘… and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’
We prayed, the friar’s voice over us.
At last we stood. The friar said, ‘I pronounce that they be man and wife together. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.’
More words. So many words. I heard them not, not any one of them. For we were wed, his hand in mine.
Finally we kneeled again, to receive Communion, then walked, still hand in hand, to the room behind the altar. I had never been there before, had not even known that it existed, but only had eyes for my new lord.
We signed a book, and then some papers. I used my old name for the last time: Juliet Capulet.
I walked from that room as Juliet Montague.