Authors: Jackie French
I would not let them wash me. Let them think it was grief for Tybalt’s death. I wanted my husband’s scent to stay with me, to know it was there under my clothes.
Joan brought me a black petticoat, black overdress and grey sleeves. At first I thought it was to suit my mood, but then remembered our house was in mourning for Tybalt. I had never seen the clothes before. Perhaps they were my mother’s; or kept for just such a case as this and quickly altered during the night to make them fashionable. The hat had a loose veil to hide my eyes, my nose, red from so much crying.
None of the Joans spoke. Nor did Nurse — it was the longest time I had known her to go without saying a word. At last they were finished. Nurse picked up her cloak to come with me.
I shook my head. ‘I will go alone.’
‘But, my little dove —’
‘I’ll go alone.’
Nurse had given me a night with Romeo just as she had tempted me with honey cake when I was small, to stop me crying. Our love for each other was no honey cake, to give and then take back. Her heart was with her Susan, not with me. I had been a plaything, to fill the place Susan had left.
I pulled down my veil. Little Joanette darted to open the door curtains. As she held them back, she whispered, ‘I’m sorry about your cousin.’
‘Joanette!’ hissed Joan. A serving maid did not speak unless her mistress spoke to her first.
‘It’s no matter. Thank you, Joanette.’ I hesitated, then pulled a black ribbon from the trimming on my sleeve. ‘Wear this, with my thanks.’
Joanette curtseyed. ‘Yes, my lady. Thank you, my lady.’
A good child. I tried to imagine a future where I might take her into my own household, mine and Romeo’s. I held my love like a small warm ball against my heart. It was all I had to anchor me in the shattered tumble of what had been my home.
I had to get to Mantua.
My chair jogged and swayed above the cobblestones. The knife was cold inside my sleeve. Once I had planned to be the knife that would sever our families from their hate. Now I was being blown like a small leaf on the winds of fate.
Romeo. His name was a talisman to keep me steady. I could still smell him, faintly. No, not his scent, the scent of us together.
My head ached with grief. My mind was dazed. My body longed for him.
I felt slightly sick, but also as if my body floated somewhere else. I had not slept last night, nor much of the night before. I pinched myself hard, to try to think. There was no time for dozing now.
How to get to Mantua? I had no money. Even if I had, what was I to do with it? Who would hire a horse to a girl? A few great families kept carriages, but there were none for hire. When I had travelled before, it was only to our own estates for a brief time in the summer or when the plague raged in the city. The litter curtains were always drawn, for modesty. While they prevented the common folk seeing me, they also prevented me seeing where we were going, except when I peeped out between the curtains. Could I hire chairmen to carry me to the city gate, and to keep going till they came to Mantua?
But travellers needed food. They needed inns with rooms prepared for them, the fires lit, the sheets aired, the beds warmed, the hot water waiting. The household steward did all that. I realised I did not even know how much it cost to buy a loaf of bread.
I should have asked Romeo to hire men from Mantua to bring me to him! Stupid, stupid girl.
But if I had not stayed, I would not have discovered the threat of poison that still might strike him down. I tried to think which poison my mother would use. Foxgloves? Two drops could help the dropsy. Four could kill. Bitter almonds? One crushed into a hundred sweet almonds gave almond paste a rich flavour, but death followed hard and painfully if it were eaten alone. Even the hemlock my mother dropped into her eyes to make them sparkle in the candlelight could kill if given to a man to drink. Well, she had taught me a cure for her poisons too — a paste of rue and figs and walnuts. Friar Laurence must send Romeo the recipe. He must eat some of the paste each time he took food or drink.
My thoughts drifted to Mantua … was it a city just like ours? Faraway places had dragons, monkeys, elephants. Did Mantua have those?
I lay back on the cushions and shut my eyes, then opened them in case I wasted time in sleep. Think! Once I was gone to Mantua, my father would disown me. He would not break a vow. Would the Montagues disown their son too, for marrying a Capulet? Were Montagues kinder parents than Capulets? If both families disowned us, how would we live? Jewels were worth money, I thought vaguely. We could sell my jewels. My father would disown me, but he probably would not abandon my children.
I almost smiled. Children; mine and Romeo’s. Blood of my father, and of his father too. No matter what the
son and daughter did, their children would be innocent, and the only blood relatives our fathers had. Blood called to blood.
If the Prince was happy with our marriage, he might decree that we be called back by Christmas-tide, allowed to live under his protection. Perhaps the Prince too had wept last night, for his cousin, slain Mercutio.
The chair stopped. Peter drew the curtains and helped me down. I climbed the stairs, not even glancing at the beggars, then hurried through the church and down the path.
The friar’s door opened. A man came out. For a moment my heart stopped, thinking it was Romeo. He had not yet left for Mantua. We could go together!
It was the Earl of Paris. He wore pink stockings, puffed-up gold breeches and a wide hat with three long feathers. It made him look younger, not older as perhaps he’d hoped.
He swept the hat off and bowed. ‘Happily met, my lady and my wife!’
My skirts were too wide to get past him on the narrow path. I tried to keep my voice calm. ‘That may be, sir, when I may be a wife.’
He smiled. ‘That must be, love, on Thursday next.’
Fear clutched at my heart. I kept my voice steady. ‘What must be shall be.’
Friar Laurence stepped out from the shadows of his cell. ‘That’s a certain text,’ he said grimly.
The Earl grinned. It was a good grin, not like his courtly smiles. ‘Come you to make confession to this father?’
He was different, here in the open air. Gentler; no prancing dog showing off his new bone. Perhaps he had been pretending at the banquet, just as I had been, each in the role expected of us. But I was not his wife yet, nor ever would be.
‘To answer that I should confess to you,’ I said.
The Earl laughed. ‘Do not deny to him that you love me.’
I felt my cheeks flush under my veil. Did he think that my father could promise him my heart as well as my body?
‘I will confess to you that I love him,’ I countered.
‘So will ye, I am sure, that you love me.’
He looked happy, as if I were his already, meek and obedient, the perfect wife. And so I should have been, perhaps, if the last two days and nights had never been. He’d have had the shell that was the proper daughter, well trained to be a proper wife.
I could bear his face no longer. I looked at the ground. ‘Love being spoke behind your back will be of more value than to your face.’
The Earl reached out and lifted up my veil. I wondered what my face must look like: blotchy with tears, red and swollen from my father’s slaps. Whatever he saw in it
was not what he expected. The laughter faded and he touched my arm gently.
‘Poor soul, thy face is much abused with tears.’
There was true kindness in his tone now. Kinder than either my father or my mother had been. Perhaps the shell of Juliet could have been happy with this boy. Perhaps even the girl inside too. It did not matter. I belonged to another now, in heart, in body and in law.
I tried to pull away. ‘My face was bad enough before the tears.’
‘Your face is mine, and you hast slandered it.’ His voice was soft.
Was it a compliment to me, or to himself? Had I been wrong, that night at the banquet? Did Paris love Juliet, and not her father’s wealth? But my heart was my husband’s, and my body too.
I said briefly, ‘It may be so. My face is not mine own.’ I looked to Friar Laurence. ‘Are you at leisure now, holy father?’
‘I am free.’ He stepped from his cell, solid in his cassock.
How much had he seen and known in his long life, this old man who had lived through the wrenching away of one faith, and lived now with another? Who had heard the confessions of so many souls year after year?
‘My lord, we must entreat the time alone,’ he told the Earl.
The Earl bowed, to the friar, not to me. ‘God shield that I should disturb devotion. Juliet, on Thursday early I shall rouse you. Till then, adieu, and keep this holy kiss.’
His lips were on mine before I could stop him. He tasted of wine and ginger this time, sweeter than before. He stepped back and bowed again, this time to me.
I wanted to spit his taste out on the path. Not because it was foul, but because it was not Romeo’s. My lips belonged to my husband and I must keep the memory of his kisses.
Instead, I curtseyed, then pulled my veil down again as the Earl stepped past me. He was whistling as he strolled back to the church.
It was dim and cool inside the cell, and smelled of the spice scent that came from long years of prayer. It smelled of earth and moss too. I shivered.
‘Please, shut the door,’ I said.
The friar looked at me, his face hard to read. ‘Lord Paris won’t be back, my daughter.’ But he shut the door.
‘Come weep with me,’ I whispered. ‘Past hope, past cure, past help.’
The friar’s eyes were uneasy. He would break God’s law if he married me to Paris. If he did not, he faced death or exile.
‘I already know thy grief,’ he said. ‘You will be married to Lord Paris on Thursday. Nothing I said would make him delay the wedding.’
‘Tell me not of weddings unless thou tell me how to prevent it.’
He shook his head. He looked even older, his face sagging and wrinkled. So, I thought, you do not have the nerve to tell the Capulets you have married their daughter in secret to their enemy. If you do not have the courage, then it must be mine.
I took a breath, and drew the silver knife out of my sleeve. It felt warm from my body. Who listened to a girl? No one, not her mother nor her father. The good friar too would dismiss my words.
But he could not dismiss a knife. Killing myself would be a sin, a sin to prevent another sin, marrying another when in the sight of God I was my husband’s. Would the death and damnation of a girl give the friar pluck enough to help me to my husband?
I held the knife out to him. My hands did not even tremble. ‘God joined my heart and Romeo’s; thou our hands. And ere this hand, by thee to Romeo sealed, shall be the label to another deed, this bloody knife shall be the umpire. If you have no remedy, then I will die.’
The friar stared at the knife, then at my face, as if I were new to him.
‘You mean it,’ he whispered.
I said nothing. I did not know if I could kill myself. Would not even try to answer that until all chance of living with my Romeo was done. I heard the drip of water from the rock face and the faint cries of the beggars by the church.
The friar ran his hand through his thin ring of hair. I’ve made you think, I thought. At last he spoke. ‘Hold, daughter. I do spy a kind of hope.’
‘What? Tell me!’
‘It’s as desperate as that which we would prevent. If, rather than marry Paris, thou hast the strength of will to slay thyself — well, if you dare to do this thing, I’ll give thee remedy.’
My heart beat hard against my chemise. ‘Oh, bid me leap from the battlements of yonder tower than marry Paris, or bid me lurk where serpents are.’ I gazed at him, desperate to convince him. ‘Chain me with roaring bears, or shut me at night inside a tomb, covered with dead men’s rattling bones, or bid me go into a new-made grave, and hide me with a dead man in his shroud. I will do it without fear or doubt, to live an unstained wife to my sweet love.’
The friar bit his lip. ‘Hold then; go home, be merry, give consent to marry Paris —’
He lifted his hand for silence. ‘Tomorrow night, before the wedding, look that thou lie alone. Let not thy nurse lie with thee in thy chamber.’
He kneeled and pulled a box from under his narrow bed, then opened it. It was filled with dried herbs, of the kind friars used to help the poor when they were sick, and small stone jars filled with medicines. He picked up a vial and looked at my face.
‘Drink this when you are in bed. Your veins will run cold. Your pulse will stop. No warmth, no breath, shall testify that you live. The roses in your cheeks and lips shall fade. You shall be cold and stiff and stark, like death.’
Even a good friar has poisons, I thought. How much have I never seen from my room above the garden?
The friar waited a moment, perhaps to see if I would scream, or faint. I did not. He nodded, almost to himself.
‘You shall continue in this state for two and forty hours,’ he said, ‘then wake as if from a pleasant sleep.’
I shook my head, dazed, weak from hunger and lack of sleep. How could this help me get to Mantua?
The friar continued. ‘When your bridegroom comes to wake you in the morning, there you are, dead.’
I thought of the graves outside; of lying in the cold ground in my coffin, of waking to the company of bones and corpses. The friar saw my thoughts on my face.
‘No,’ he said quickly. ‘You shall be borne to that ancient vault where all the Capulet kindred lie, dressed in your best clothes, laid on top of your bier. I shall send letters to Romeo. He and I will sit by your bier till you awake, and that very night shall Romeo bear thee hence to Mantua.’
I couldn’t think clearly. No one would expect Romeo to come back so soon. No one would see us in the darkness of the graveyard. The friar’s plan seemed as far from real life as a story from one of Marie’s tales. But it might work. And it was all that he could give me.
The friar looked at me steadily. ‘And this shall free thee of thy present shame, if no inconstant toy nor womanish fear abate thy valour in acting on it.’