Benedick, still smarting from his encounter with Beatrice, needed a break from the intense social claustrophobia and the constant danger of bumping into her. He went to the orchard and sat down and leant against a tree. A gardening boy was working nearby.
The boy looked up. ‘Signior?’
‘There’s a book on my bedroom windowsill. Go and get it and bring it to me, here in the orchard.’
‘I’m back already, sir,’ said the boy.
Benedick smiled. ‘I know, but I want you there and back again.’
The boy took off, running.
Benedick sighed. It was strange how a man, seeing what fools other men make of themselves when they devote themselves to love, will become the very fool he has scorned, by falling in love himself. And after he’s laughed at such shallow folly in others! That was Claudio. He remembered a time when there was no music in Claudio’s soul other than the military sound of the drum and the fife. But now he would rather hear an accompaniment to romance – the music of the tabor and the recorder. He remembered a time when Claudio would have walked ten miles to find a good suit of armour but now he would lie awake for ten nights thinking about fashionable clothes. He used to speak plainly and directly like an honest man and a soldier but now his language was all flowery: his words were an elaborate banquet full of exotic dishes. Could he, Benedick , ever be converted like that? He wasn’t sure: he didn’t think so. He wouldn’t swear that love would never shut him up in a moody silence, like an oyster, but he would take an oath on it that until love did make an oyster of him it would never make a fool of him. One woman he might meet may be beautiful but he was safe: another may be wise but still, he was safe: another may be virtuous and he was still safe. He was safe until he found all those qualities combined in one woman. She would have to be rich, that was a must: clever, or she was out: virtuous, or he would never offer himself: beautiful or he wouldn’t even look at her: gentle, or she wouldn’t get near him: as noble as the coin of that name or he wouldn’t touch her even for ten shillings. She would have to be a good conversationalist, an excellent musician, and after all that, her hair could be whatever colour pleased God.
He heard voices. He got up and crept forward, to the edge of the orchard. The entrance was protected by a trellis, thick with creepers and flowers. He peeped round it. Ah, it was the prince and Monsieur Love! He crouched down behind the trellis. He pulled a cigar out of his pocket, lit it, and prepared to listen to what they were saying.
Don Pedro, Claudio, Leonato, and the singer, Balthasar, stopped at the fountain close to the trellis. Leonato had halted the garden boy and asked him where he was running to so fast, and in that way had discovered the whereabouts of Benedick. He had told the others, and so here they were.
Don Pedro sat down on a bench. ‘Come on,’ he said to Balthasar. ‘Let’s have a song.’
‘What a still evening it is,’ said Claudio. ‘Perfect for listening to music.’
A wisp of cigar smoke rose from behind the trellis. Don Pedro placed his finger over his lips and pointed. ‘See where Benedick has hidden himself?’ he whispered.
Leonato and Claudio laughed silently. ‘When the song’s over we’ll give the crafty fox more than he’s bargained for,’ mouthed Claudio.
‘Come on, Balthasar,’ said Don Pedro loudly. ‘Sing that same song again.’
‘Oh, my good lord,’ said Balthasar, ‘don’t tax such a bad voice to ruin the music any more than once.’
‘It’s a sign of excellence to pretend not to recognise your own talent,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Please sing, and don’t make me woo you again.’
‘As you’re talking about wooing I’ll sing,’ said Balthasar, ‘because many a wooer starts wooing someone he’s not really interested in and yet he’ll still carry on, and swear he loves her.’
‘Come on,’ said the prince impatiently. ‘Or if you want to keep arguing about it, do it with musical notes.’
‘Note this before I start my notes,’ said Balthasar. ‘There’s not a note of mine that’s worth taking note of.’
Don Pedro appealed to the others. ‘He’s talking in crotchets. Notes, notes, and noting.’
Balthasar began strumming on his lute.
Benedick closed his eyes. Music now! The prince’s soul was ravished. Wasn’t it strange how sheep gut strings could call the souls out of men’s bodies? But when all was said and done, for his money he would rather have a battle horn.
Balthasar began singing:
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no moe,
Of dumps so dull and heavy:
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leafy:
Leonato, Claudio and Don Pedro joined in the chorus
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny.
‘By God, that’s a good song,’ said Don Pedro.
‘But a bad singer, my lord,’ said Balthasar.
‘No, no,’ said Don Pedro. ‘You sing well enough in the absence of a good singer.’
Benedick agreed with Balthasar. If he had been a dog howling like that they would have hanged him. He hoped nothing bad would happen as a punishment for that terrible singing. He would rather have heard the raven croaking, no matter what plague that might have brought.
‘Yes indeed,’ said the prince, ‘Listen Balthasar, ‘get us some nice music because tomorrow night we want to serenade beneath Lady Hero’s window,’
‘The best I can, my lord,’ said Balthasar. He got up and turned to go.
‘Do that,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Goodbye.’ He put his finger on his mouth again and jerked his head towards the trellis, from which puffs of smoke came from time to time. ‘Come here, Leonato,’ he said loudly. ‘What was that you were saying about your niece Beatrice being in love with Signior Benedick?’
Claudio rubbed his hands together gleefully. ‘Oh yes, stalk on, stalk on, the pheasant’s a sitting target,’ he whispered. Then out loud: ‘I never thought that lady would ever love any man.’
Benedick almost swallowed his cigar and had to struggle to stop himself from coughing. He got up and pushed his ear into the creepers.
‘No, nor I neither,’ said Leonato, ‘but it’s very strange that she should dote on Signior Benedick so much when she’s made such a point of publicly hating him for eternity.’
Was it possible? Could that really be? Benedick’s mouth hung open.
‘I swear, my lord,’ said Leonato, ‘I don’t know what to think except that she really does love him, with a violent passion. It’s beyond contemplation.’
‘Maybe she’s pretending,’ said Don Pedro.
‘That must be it,’ said Claudio.
‘Oh God, pretending!’ exclaimed Leonato. ‘No pretence has ever come as close to real passion as she shows it.’
‘Why, what passionate behaviour does she show?’ said Don Pedro.
The trestle shook. ‘Keep baiting the hook,’ said Claudio quietly. ‘The fish will bite.’
‘What behaviour? Well listen.’ Leonato looked at Claudio for help. ‘My daughter told you.’
‘She certainly did,’ said Claudio.
‘But how, how?’ said Don Pedro. ‘You amaze me. I would have thought her spirit was invincible against all assaults of love.’
‘I would have sworn it too, my lord: especially against Benedick.’
Benedick was confused. He would have taken it for a practical joke, except that it was the white-bearded fellow saying it. Surely deception couldn’t hide itself in such reverence?
‘He’s hooked,’ whispered Claudio. ‘Keep it up.’
‘Has she told Benedick?’
‘No,’ said Leonato, ‘and swears she never will: that’s what’s tormenting her.’
‘That’s right,’ said Claudio. ‘So your daughter says, “Shall I, who have so often treated him with scorn, write and tell him that I love him”? she says.’
‘She says this now that she’s beginning to write to him,’ said Leonato, ‘because she’s up twenty times a night and there she sits, in her night-dress, until she’s covered a sheet of paper. My daughter tells us everything.’
‘Now you mention a piece of paper,’ said Claudio, ‘I remember a funny episode your daughter told us about.’
‘Oh, that when she had finished she read it over and found Benedick and Beatrice between the sheets?’
‘That one,’ said Claudio.
‘She tore the letter into a thousand little pieces and told herself off for being so immodest as to write to someone who would flout her. “I judge him,” she says, “by my own perceptions, because I would flout him if he were to write to me: yes, although I love him, I would.” ’
‘Then she drops to her knees, weeps, sobs, beats her heart, tears her hair, prays, curses: “O sweet Benedick! God give me patience!” ’
‘She really does,’ said Leonato. ‘My daughter says so: and the passion has so overwhelmed her that my daughter is sometimes afraid that she’ll do something desperate. It’s very true.’
‘It would be a good idea for someone to tell Benedick about it if she won’t,’ said Don Pedro.
‘What would be the point?’ said Claudio. ‘He would make fun of it and torment the poor lady even more.’
‘If he did it would be an act of charity to hang him. She’s the sweetest lady and, without exaggeration, she’s virtuous,’ said Don Pedro.
‘And very clever,’ said Claudio.
‘In everything except in loving Benedick,’ said Don Pedro.
‘Oh, my lord,’ said Leonato, putting on his best melodramatic manner, ‘cleverness and passion fighting each other in such a young body! There are ten proofs to one that passion has won. I’m sorry for her, and I have cause, being her uncle and her guardian.’
‘I wish she had directed this adoration at me,’ said Don Pedro. ‘I would have ignored everything else and married her immediately. Please, tell Benedick and listen to what he has to say.’
‘Do you think that’s a good idea?’ said Leonato.
They pretended to consider it and Benedick held his breath.
‘Well Hero really thinks she’s going to die,’ said Claudio, ‘because she’s saying she’ll die if he doesn’t love her and she’ll die before she tells him she loves him, and she will die if he starts wooing her: she won’t withhold a single breath of her usual crossness.’
‘She’s doing the right thing,’ said Don Pedro. ‘If she told him it’s possible he’d scorn it because, as you all know, the man is contemptible.’
‘He’s a handsome man,’ said Claudio.
‘He’s not too bad looking,’ said Don Pedro.
‘By God!’ exclaimed Claudio, pretending to be angry, ‘in my opinion he’s very clever.’
Don Pedro pretended to consider that. ‘Hm,’ he said, ‘I suppose he does show a few sparks that resemble intelligence.’
‘And I regard him as brave,’ said Claudio.
‘As Hector, I assure you,’ said Don Pedro. ‘And in his conduct of fights you can say he’s clever because he either avoids them with great care, or undertakes them with a most Christian-like fear.’
‘And so he should,’ said Leonato. ‘If he fears God he must necessarily keep the peace: if he breaks it he should enter into a fight with fear and trembling.’
‘And so he will do,’ said Don Pedro. ‘Because the man does fear God, although you wouldn’t think so from some of the things he gets up to. Well, I’m sorry about your niece. Shall we go and look for Benedick and tell him about her love?’
‘Don’t tell him, my lord,’ said Claudio. ‘Let her deal with it with the help of good advice.’
‘No, that’s impossible,’ said Leonato. ‘She may break her heart first.’
‘Well, your daughter will keep us informed. Let it cool off for a while. I’m very fond of Benedick but I wish he would examine himself to see how unworthy he is of such a good lady.’
‘My lord, shall we go?’ said Leonato. ‘Dinner is ready.’
They got up and walked to the villa. When they were out of earshot of Benedick they collapsed with laughter.
‘If he isn’t infatuated with her after that then I’ll never trust my instincts again,’ said Claudius.
‘Let’s have the same net cast for her,’ said Don Pedro. ‘And your daughter and her gentlewomen must do that. The fun will start when each one thinks the other is in love and they’re not. That’s the encounter I would love to see, which will be no more than a dumb-show. Let’s send her to call him to dinner.’
Benedick gave them a minute then stumbled out from behind the trellis and sat on a bench beside the fountain. It couldn’t be a practical joke: the conversation seemed serious. And they had it from Hero. He now knew how they disapproved of his behaviour towards her, but they thought he would behave well once he knew about her true feelings. They also said that she would die rather than show any sign of affection.
He got up and began walking slowly round the fountain. He had never thought he would marry… but he shouldn’t be too obstinate. Those who can hear others’ low opinion of themselves and have the chance to rectify their faults are fortunate. They said the lady was beautiful. That was true. He agreed. And virtuous. That was true too: he couldn’t disagree. And clever, except in loving him! No, that was no proof of her intelligence, nor evidence of stupidity, because he was going to be madly in love with her. Hmmm. He was going to get some scornful comments and they were going to laugh at him because he had spent so much time decrying marriage. But didn’t one’s feelings change? A man often loves food when he’s young that he can’t bear when he gets older. Should superficial things like jokes and sarcastic comments at his expense put him off? No, the world has to be populated. When he said he would die a bachelor it was because he didn’t think he would live long enough to be married.
Beatrice was walking towards him. Here she was. By heaven, she was a beautiful woman! And as she came up to him he was sure he could see signs of love in her.
‘Against my will I have been sent to tell you to come in to dinner,’ she said pointedly.
‘Fair Beatrice, thank you for your pains,’ he said.
She tossed her head. ‘I took no more pains for those thanks than it took you to thank me. If it had been painful I wouldn’t have come.’
‘Do you take pleasure in the errand then?’
‘Yes, as much as you take in pulling out a knife and killing a jackdaw with it.’
When he stood there gawping and didn’t respond, she turned sharply. ‘You have no stomach for a fight, Signior. Goodbye.’
He stood transfixed, unable to move, as she walked swiftly back to the villa.
He resumed his slow walking round the fountain. This time he spoke to himself out loud.
‘Ha! “Against my will I’ve been sent to tell you to come in to dinner.” There’s a double meaning in that. “I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me.” That’s the same as saying, any pains that I take for you are as easy as thanks. I’m a scoundrel if I don’t take pity on her.’
He walked round the fountain a few more times then stopped and looked at the villa. ‘If I don’t love her I’m no Christian.’ He would go and get a picture of her.