Authors: Jackie French
The friar gave us a half-hour together in his cell after the ringing of the bell. No more, or my family might wonder why I tarried so long at church.
We sat on the narrow bed in the cell while Friar Laurence sat on the bench outside. For a moment I was afraid my new husband might want to consummate our marriage then and there. My body wanted him, but not like this, in daylight, with the friar at the door. Besides, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. If this had been a proper marriage — and yet it was, I told myself, for all its haste and secrecy — my mother might have prepared me.
I glanced at Romeo. Did I imagine it, or was he as nervous as I was? He took my hand and kissed it; no lingering lover’s kiss, but one a knight might give his lady. He kept my hand in his.
‘Well,’ he said.
‘Well,’ I said at almost the same time.
And suddenly we were giggling as though we were five years old, not husband and wife, not lovers who had defied their families, nor the couple who would yet unite them and bring peace within the city’s walls.
‘I think,’ he said, his voice tentative, ‘that night’s love must wait till night.’
‘You’re not scared?’ he asked.
‘Of … of night matters? No,’ I said, although I was.
‘Of what our families will say tomorrow?’
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ I said. ‘The Prince will be our friend.’
He stared. I saw he had not thought about our union in this light. It struck me deeper than a dagger, that he had risked his name and fortune, all for me.
‘The Prince will have his wish,’ I said softly. ‘Our houses are united. You will be the heir to the House of Capulet.’ I met his eyes. ‘My lord husband, a Montague, will guide it as my father has.’
He looked at me in wonderment, then kissed my hand again. ‘I will.’ It was a vow as solemn as those we had made in church. ‘And you will be the empress of my heart, and chief gentlewoman of our land.’
We smiled at each other in the dimness of the cell. I could see our future rolling out before us, like a footman rolls out a carpet, the years, the days, the hours, spent with my Romeo. Our grandchildren on our knees, our
robes of heavy silk. The combined house of Montague and Capulet would be the greatest trading house in all of Europe. I saw us receiving guests at a banquet, the Prince bowing over my hand, and Lord Paris too, not my lord at all but just another guest. I would be gracious.
We were married. It was done. There would be anger from our parents tomorrow, but not for long, not once the Prince gave us his blessing. Nurse must send Peter with a message to the palace … No, I now had a husband who should do that.
As if he heard my thoughts, Romeo said, ‘I will go directly to the palace and ask a private audience of the Prince.’
‘Pray him not to tell our fathers,’ I said. ‘We must have this night together first, so they can’t undo the marriage. Then we will tell our fathers what we have done.’
‘When the clock strikes ten tomorrow,’ he said, ‘we tell the world. Let the church bells ring again, for Juliet and Romeo are wed.’
For the third time he lifted my hand to his lips.
The friar cleared his throat outside. ‘My Lady Montague,’ he said, and I started as I realised that now that was me. ‘Your men will wonder where you are.’
We stood. My husband kissed me then. I had thought a kiss a brief dry thing. This was long. I tasted him. He tasted of himself, a scent so sure and strong. The kiss went on and on, growing deeper, closer …
‘My Lady Montague.’
I broke away, but still our gazes locked. I wished we had not spent the half-hour talking, but had kissed instead.
My husband whispered in my ear, ‘Tonight there shall be a new bright star, made from our love today. Its light will guide all lovers along love’s bright flowered way.’
I had no words to say to him, no artful phrases. I smiled, and let the friar lead me from the cell, while my husband waited behind so that none would see us together.
I sat on the cushions on the balcony, but I did not sew. I sent the Joans away. I watched the petals on the roses in the garden below. I looked at the garden wall. Beyond it was my love.
I wished that fiery horses would drag the sun down the sky; wished to close the curtains on the day. Let Romeo fly here on the wings of night. I had bought the mansion of my love, but not yet crossed the threshold …
Tonight he would come and claim me, with the Prince’s blessing. Tomorrow, my mother would glare, my father shout, but I would be gone, my hand in my husband’s.
I tried to imagine the days after that. We would breakfast in our rooms at first so I would not have to face Lord Montague, for he would be angry too. But surely his anger would pass as he realised his son would now inherit the Capulet wealth?
I tried to imagine the next Christmas feast, with our families at the table together, a babe in my arms with
eyes like Romeo’s. But I could see nothing. How could I dream my love so clearly and not be able to see our years ahead? Why could I imagine Guigemar’s long life, happy with his love, but not my own?
I knew before Nurse told me. Knew the moment I heard her step. A shadow struck me, cold as night.
Nurse pushed the curtain aside. Her hands held the rope ladder that would bring my husband to my room. She threw it down as though it were made of snakes, her face shadowed like a mid-winter cliff. I ran into the room.
‘What news?’ I asked. ‘Nurse, tell me fast, what news!’
‘He’s dead. He’s dead! Lady, we are undone. He’s gone, he’s killed. He’s dead!’
‘No!’ I would have felt his death, a knife ripping us apart. ‘Not Romeo.’
Nurse sat on my bed and wailed. ‘Oh Romeo, Romeo. Whoever would have thought it? Romeo!’
I grasped her shoulders. ‘What are you, that you torment me thus? Has Romeo slain himself?’
Nurse covered her face with her big hands. ‘I saw the wound, saw it with mine eyes. Pale, pale as ashes, all bedaubed with blood. I swooned at the sight.’
I whispered, ‘Oh, break, my heart! Poor bankrupt, break at once! Let the earth take me, so I and Romeo share one bier.’
Nurse rocked her body back and forth. ‘Oh Tybalt,
Tybalt, the best friend I had! Oh courteous Tybalt, that ever I should live to see you dead!’
‘Tybalt?’ I said. ‘Is Romeo slaughtered and Tybalt dead too? My dear cousin and my dearer lord? Who is living if those two are gone?’
‘Tybalt is gone,’ Nurse wept, ‘and Romeo banished. Romeo that killed him, he is banished.’
The earth shifted once again. ‘Oh God! Did Romeo’s hand shed Tybalt’s blood?’
‘It did. It did! Alack the day, it did!’
Two hours ago Romeo and I had been hand in hand, and wed. Two hours, and his hand had killed my cousin. Who had I married? A serpent heart hid within a flowering face? A vile book bound in a sweet cover? A few hours ago I had been a warrior wielding a sword stronger than any knight’s to bring peace to Verona. Now I was a girl, lost in the world of hate and men.
‘There’s no trust, no faith, no honesty in men. All are perjured, all forsworn, all naught, all dissemblers,’ Nurse wailed. She reached under her pillow for the flask of whisky I wasn’t supposed to know she kept there. She pulled out the stopper and took a swig. ‘These sorrows make me old. Shame to Romeo!’
Romeo. The world steadied.
I knew the man I had married. Romeo loved me. He had never breathed an insult to my name of Capulet. I was a beast to think that Romeo could do wrong.
‘Blistered be thy tongue!’ I told Nurse. ‘He was not born to shame: no shame would ever sit upon his brow.’
Nurse looked at me, amazed, the flask in her hand. ‘Will you speak well of him that killed your cousin?’
‘Shall I speak ill of him who is my husband? You think him a villain, to kill my cousin? My cousin was a villain, to try to kill my husband.’
For a moment the breeze blew clean again. I wiped away the tears I had not realised I had shed. Then I remembered. Romeo was banished. I had lost everything. My husband, my future, the hope of our two houses mended together. But most of all, I had lost my Romeo.
I tried to find my voice. ‘Where are my mother and father?’
‘Weeping and wailing over Tybalt’s corpse. Will you go to them?’
‘Have they called for me?’
Nurse shook her head.
‘If they haven’t called, they do not need me. My loyalty is to my husband, not to them. They can wash Tybalt’s corpse with their tears.’
An icy sea swept through my heart. What could I do now? I had been married, but wasn’t yet a wife. I still did not know what men and women did in the marriage bed, but I did know that if we did not do it tonight, our marriage could be annulled.
I would have to marry Paris … I couldn’t, even if I had wanted to. I was another’s now.
The world was grey. My sun had gone. I was lost in a dark tunnel.
I picked up the rope ladder from the floor. ‘Poor ropes,’ I whispered, ‘you are beguiled, both you and I, for Romeo is exiled. He made you for a highway to my bed. But I, a maid, die maiden widowed. Come, ropes; come, Nurse. I’ll to my wedding bed, and death, not Romeo, shall take my maidenhead.’
Nurse stared at me, her mouth open. ‘I’ll find your Romeo. I know where he is.’ She sounded panicked at my despair.
Her words were a light in the dark. ‘What say you?’
She sighed. ‘He’s hid in Friar Laurence’s cell. I’ll bring him to comfort you.’
I blinked at her. One night together, I thought. One night instead of all our lives. But in that night I would truly be his wife. It was a small gift when so much was lost.
I pulled off the ring Romeo had given me. ‘Give him this, to show that it’s no Capulet trick.’
Nurse looked at me grimly. ‘I’ll bid him come to take his last farewell.’
I sat in my room, but left the curtains open. I looked at the sky, so blue that it seemed impossible tears of rain
could ever cloud it. I would die rather than marry the Earl of Paris and betray my love. I did not want to die, but Juliet Montague could not go back to being Juliet Capulet, the obedient girl who would marry the man, or boy, her father chose for her.
Did dying hurt? Living hurt, so I supposed dying did as well. I wanted so much to live.
And I was alive. I had a whole night before me, with my love. Tomorrow I would think of a world with no Romeo in it. Tomorrow, I would think of dying.
If this would be the only night of love I had, I would cram a lifetime into every hour.
I stood up slowly and pulled the bell.
The Joans arrived, their smiles gone. Little Joanette looked as though she had been weeping. Had she loved Tybalt, that smiling fool who had killed my future?
I would not think of Tybalt now.
I said abruptly, ‘I have been crying too much.’ Let them think it was for Tybalt. ‘I wish a bath, then bed.’
‘My lady,’ began Janette, ‘we are so sorry about your cousin.’
‘Not now,’ I said.
Joan and Janette carried in the bath, a china one from a far land, with peacocks painted on it. Peacocks, like poor Tybalt. They brought jugs of warm water, scented with lavender. Lavender eased sorrow. Today its scent was not enough.
Be happy, I told myself, as I let them soap me, dry me, powder me, slip a linen shift over my head. You must be happy.
I felt neither sorrow nor anger. So much life and death and love, all in a single day.
The Joans left, taking the bath, leaving the fire built up with logs of apple wood and dried lavender to scent the room. I sat before the flames in my linen shift and dried my hair, then pulled a comb through it. It caught in the tangles. I had never combed my hair myself before. I used my fingers to undo the knots as best I could, then combed my hair again. It sat in a cloud around my shoulders.
Outside, the shadows lengthened. The cries of the far-off market quietened. And still Nurse did not come with Romeo.
Had he left Verona already? Was Nurse eating dinner in the kitchen to avoid facing me with the news? Or had she gone to tell my mother?
No. Nurse was loyal.
I should feel something. Anger. Pain. Eagerness for my husband. But it was as though I was locked in a room of ice that the fire could not melt.
At last I heard Nurse’s step along the corridor, slower than I’d ever heard it before. I tried to feel the excitement I had felt this morning, but that was gone too.
I looked up from my cushions. ‘Well?’
‘He is coming. Like the soot from a fire, you can depend he’ll come.’ Nurse sat heavily on a cushion and looked at me. ‘He’ll be a monkey, climbing the garden wall as soon as it’s dark.’ She nodded at the rope ladder
I’d half-hidden under my bed. ‘But he’ll need the ropes to get to you. Oh, I’m that tired. My bones ache worse than in winter, and my feet, galloping here and there …’
I lifted the ladder, interrupting her complaints. ‘From where should I hang it?’
‘You twist it around the railing … Oh there, I’ll do it.’ She heaved herself up, took the rope ladder from me and wound the top part around the balcony, twisting it to make it secure.
I went back and sat by the fire. Nurse sat across from me, her eyes closing. The flames crackled and spat. The scent of lavender filled the room. Her mouth opened for the first snore. I said, ‘Nurse?’
‘What?’ She opened her eyes again. ‘What is it, my pigeon wing?’ She sounded more weary than I had ever heard her.
‘What …’ I stumbled over the words. ‘What must a bride do on her wedding night?’
Nurse opened her eyes properly at that. ‘Why, her husband’s will, that’s what.’
‘But what is that?’
‘Bless the child, there’s no need for you to worry over it. Thy Romeo will know it all. Although, of course, the groom is young. But young or not, he is a man.’
One night, I thought. Only one night. I have to do it right.
‘But what do
do?’ I asked.
My anguish must have reached her for she patted my hand. ‘You lie there on the bed, that is all. The groom will do the rest.’
‘Just lie there?’
‘And shut your eyes is best, so you don’t see what’s coming and be afraid.’
‘But … but why should I be afraid?’
‘No reason in the world,’ said Nurse airily. The thought of marriage beds had perked her up. ‘The pain is less than nothing. And besides, it don’t last for long, not if your groom’s eager, as your Romeo will be. Oh, my Simon, never was there a better man. In and out he was each time, before I’d time to blink. It’s what happens out of the marriage bed that counts, so you just think of that, though with your Romeo banished it’s not a thing to think on.’
I stared at her. Emptiness grew around me.
Nurse reached for her whisky flask, under her pillow. ‘Such a fine husband, my Simon was. He’d have me eat my fill before he ate his when I was carrying our Susan and the bread price rose. He put the best of the salt beef on my plate, not his. A jewel of a man he was, and we were so happy until the plague took him. Ah, a plague on all the plagues.’
‘Then tonight …’ I began.
‘Worry not about tonight, my poppet.’
She did not say, ‘You have made your bed, now you must lie in it.’
The watchman had just called ‘All is well’ when I heard a scratching below the balcony.
Nurse pushed herself to her feet again. ‘Well, he is here, or else it is a squirrel, but didn’t I see them put the squirrel traps out myself, so it must be him. I’ll call the girls to bring a pallet to the corridor. If anyone comes, I’ll tell them you’re tired with weeping, and have set me as a guard so you may be alone. And true enough, I’ve been a guard to you ever since I held you in my arms …’ Her words ran out. She stared at me.
‘Thank you,’ I said. I could not tell what she was feeling. I did not know what I felt myself.
‘I’ll be on watch, my sweeting. I’ll be in earshot if you call.’ She left.
I should have gone to the balcony to greet my husband. I didn’t. I stayed by the fire.
‘My lady? Juliet?’ He stood there in the dark, the firelight on his face.
‘My lord.’ I tried to smile.
He didn’t kiss me. He didn’t touch me. He sat on a cushion on the opposite side of the fireplace and watched the flames. His face looked thinner, his eyes darker. I made no move to touch him.
At last he said, ‘It was an accident.’
‘Do you speak the truth?’
He looked at me, then, ‘No. Tybalt killed my friend, Mercutio. Stabbed him like a dog, all for a joke. I stabbed your cousin then so my friend’s soul would not ascend to heaven by itself. I killed Tybalt in anger, with no thought of you. And that is the truth.’
And I had asked for it. ‘Do men ever think of women when they fight?’
‘I do. I mean … I will. I … I’ve had no practice as a husband.’
‘But much at sword play.’
‘No more than any other man. Nay, less. I tried to stop them fighting. Tried to curb your cousin’s anger, told him even that I loved the name of Capulet. I was on my way to see the Prince as I had promised. An arrow plucked from the air just by mischance, that hit us both.’
I said nothing. He could have walked on. Walked away. Left Tybalt to the Prince’s anger.
‘Juliet, my love, give me your face, your smile. Mercutio’s men saw the fight. They will tell the Prince that Tybalt struck first, that I hung back till Tybalt killed Mercutio. Friar Laurence says we must have patience, not despair. Mercutio was the Prince’s cousin; he is grieving for him too. The Prince will forgive me.’
His words melted the prison of ice that had stopped me thinking or feeling since I had heard the news. Spring began to flower through the snow. ‘The friar truly thinks the Prince will let you return to Verona?’
‘I must stay away long enough for your family to bury your cousin. All summer, at the least.’ He took my hand. I did not draw it back. ‘Our winter shall be warm,’ he whispered. ‘We must think of that, when summer aches with drought of love.’
‘Where will you go?’
‘My family has land near Mantua, far enough to quench your family’s anger. Near enough so I will still drink the same breeze as you.’
‘Then take me with you!’
‘If I could, I would. My love, I must ride hard tomorrow, before your family’s revenge bites.’
He was right. Of course he was right. He was a man, and I a girl. When I rode, it was balanced side saddle, not as a man rides. I had never galloped, never even ridden for long. When we travelled to our estates, I was carried in my chair. I would need men to carry me to Mantua, to keep me safe. Romeo would be in more danger if I were with him, forcing him to travel slowly.
‘I will write to the Prince,’ my husband said softly. ‘I’ll ask for his forgiveness, as I beg for yours now. If you will let me be your husband truly tonight, then we are wed, and I can tell the Prince that the war between our houses ceases from this day.’
So there was hope. No, not hope. Certainty. Spring’s green shoots became a rose. It was not long till winter. Winter, and my Romeo.
I managed a smile. ‘Well, husband?’
‘Well, my wife?’ And then he asked gently, ‘Are you scared?’
‘No. Yes. A little.’ I wanted to ask, Do you know what to do? But, unlike me, Romeo had not lived his whole life behind a garden wall. ‘Yes, I am scared,’ I said.
One night, I thought. And then: I must keep each heartbeat, every breath. This is my summer, to keep me till the leaves turn gold in autumn, till snow lays a path for my returning husband.
Lie back, Nurse had said, and with the Earl of Paris I might have done just that; let my husband take my body, his by law. But not with Romeo. I had walked to meet him: at the banquet, and on the balcony, and then to church to marry him. I wanted to
now, not simply be. But do what?
His finger stroked my neck, a kiss of butterfly wings. And suddenly my body knew it needed him. His skin upon my skin. His breath mixed with mine.
For a second I held back, hoping he thought me beautiful, with my short body, my dark hair. He met my gaze. I realised he was as uncertain as I was.
But he was all wonder, the warmth of him, the solidness, the joy growing in his eyes as he looked at me. I had not known my love for him could grow, but it did then, as I knew he wanted me to find beauty in him too.
He pushed the shift from my shoulders so it puddled at my feet. My hands were at the buttons of his shirt, helping him to pull it off. Man and wife are one flesh, said the marriage ceremony. This was the magic of the night. My flesh yearned for his, skin on skin and breath on breath, so close that we were one.
I pressed my body to his. I let my hands explore him, every shape and shadow. His hands found me.
My body was heat and darkness.
This was the night. And it was ours.