Benedict stopped Margaret in the garden. ‘Do me a favour, sweet Mistress Margaret,’ he said. ‘Get Beatrice for me.’
‘Will you pay me with a sonnet in praise of my beauty?’ she said.
‘In such a high style that no man alive will be able to rise to it because, quite honestly, you deserve it.’
She laughed. ‘I deserve to have no man rise to me?’ she said. ‘Am I always going to be kept below stairs, never to be a mistress?’
‘Your mind is as quick as a greyhound’s mouth,’ he said, ‘it connects with mine.’
‘And yours is as blunt as a fencer’s foil, that hits and doesn’t hurt.’
‘A very masculine mind, Margaret: it won’t hurt a woman.’
She pretended to lower her eyes and looked at him through her eyelashes in mock modesty.
‘Go on, call Beatrice,’ he laughed. ‘I give up and surrender my bucklers.’
‘You provide the swords: we have our own bucklers.’ She looked at him, challenging him to match that.
His answer came in a flash: ‘If you want to use them, Margaret, you must screw the spikes in, and that’s a dangerous job for a virgin.’
When she had stopped laughing she wiped her wet cheeks with backs of her hands. ‘Well, I’ll call Beatrice,’ she said. ‘I think she’s got legs.’
‘And therefore will come,’ he said.
She ran off laughing.
Benedick sat down on a bench. He would write a love poem to Beatrice. The god of love… He made up a melody for his first line and hummed it. That sits above… He tried to develop the tune. And knows me… Hmmm. And knows me… How pitiful I deserve… He laughed to himself and gave up. How pitiful he deserved in singing, he meant. As for loving, well… Leander, who swam the Hellispont for love, Troilus, who used a go-between, and all the other famous lovers who fill the pages of poetry, were never as smitten by love as he had been. No, he couldn’t express it in verse. He had tried, but he couldn’t find a word that rhymed with ‘lady’, except ‘baby’, which was a silly rhyme. For ‘scorn’, ‘horn’. He laughed. That was a hard rhyme! For ‘school’, ‘fool’: that was a nonsense rhyme. Very bad rhyming. No, he wasn’t born under a rhyming star. He couldn’t woo with poetry.
He got up and went to meet Beatrice as she came, walking fast, up the path. He took her hands. ‘Sweet Beatrice, did you want to come when I called you?’
‘Yes signior,’ she said, ‘and go when you tell me to.’
‘Oh, stay till then!’ he exclaimed.
‘You said “then”, so goodbye, but before I go tell me what I came to find out, which is what happened between you and Claudio.’
He pulled her close. ‘Only foul words, and on that note I’ll kiss you.’
‘Foul words are only foul breath, and foul wind is only foul breath, and foul breath is noisy, so I’ll depart unkissed.’
‘You’ve subverted the meaning of the word: your brain’s too sharp for me,’ he said. ‘But I must tell you bluntly: Claudio has accepted my challenge and so I must either hear from him soon or I’ll have to denounce him as a coward. And now, tell me, for which of my bad qualities did you first fall in love with me?’
‘All of them together,’ she said. ‘They maintained such a well organised state of evil that they wouldn’t allow any good quality to intermingle with them. But for which of my good qualities did you first suffer love for me?’
‘Suffer love! That’s a good description! I do indeed suffer love because I love you against my will.’
‘In spite of your heart, I think. Your poor heart, being spited for my sake. I will spite it for your sake because I’ll never love anything that my friend hates.’
‘You and I are too clever to woo peacefully,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t seem so,’ she said. ‘It’s not very clever to praise oneself.’
Benedick nodded. ‘An old saying, Beatrice, that he who praises himself has bad neighbours: but in these times, if a man doesn’t build his own tomb before he dies he’ll be forgotten before the bell stops ringing and the widow stops weeping.’
‘And how long would you say that is?’ she said.
‘As you’re asking I’ll answer. About an hour for the bells and a quarter of an hour’s tears. So, as long as a man’s conscience is clear, it’s better for him to trumpet his own virtues, as I’m doing. But enough of praising myself, who, I have to say, is most praiseworthy. So tell me now, how is your cousin?’
‘Very upset too.’
He drew her close. ‘Serve God, love me and be comforted. And that’s where I’ll leave it, because here’s someone with an urgent message.’
Ursula was out of breath. ‘Madam, you must come to your uncle. It’s all confusion in the house. It’s been proved that my Lady Hero’s been falsely accused and the prince and Claudio have been deceived. Don John’s the culprit and he’s fled. Will you come right now?’
‘Do you want to come with me to hear this news, signior?’ she said.
‘I want to live in your heart, die in your lap and be buried in your eyes,’ he said. ‘And moreover, I’ll go with you to your uncle.’