The rowboat had filled up with water in the violent storm and they barely made it to the beach. The wind had died down completely and the shipwreck seemed like a nightmare that they had woken from. The captain sprang out and gave his hand to the young woman, Viola, and she followed him onto the hard sand. The sailors got out and turned the boat over to drain the water.
‘What country is this, friends?’ she said.
‘This is Illyria, my lady,’ the captain told her.
‘So what am I doing in Illyria when my brother’s in heaven?’ she said. ‘Or maybe he didn’t drown after all. What do you sailors think?’
The captain shook his head. ‘You were lucky to escape.’
‘Oh, my poor brother!’ she exclaimed. ‘Perhaps he will too.’
‘True madam,’ the captain agreed. ‘And it may be comforting to know that after our ship split, when you and the few who were saved with you clung on to our helpless vessel, I saw your brother – very astutely in the circumstances, courage and hope both inspiring him – tie himself to a strong mast that was floating on the sea. And I saw him negotiate the waves, like Arion riding to safety on a dolphin’s back, for as far as I could see.’
She produced a wan smile and untied the little leather bag that hung from her girdle. ‘For saying that, here’s gold,’ she said. ‘My own escape gives me hope, supported by what you’ve just told me about him.’ She looked around. They were on a vast sandy beach, from which sheer cliffs rose vertically. ‘Do you know this country?’
‘Yes madam,’ said the captain. ‘I was born and bred less than three hours away from here.’
‘Who rules it?’
‘A noble duke, in name and nature,’ said the captain. He pointed towards the clifftops.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Orsino?’ She looked surprised. ‘I remember my father mentioning him. He was a bachelor at the time.’
‘And still is – or was till very recently, because I left only a month ago and rumours were rife at the time – you know how everyone gossips about celebrities – that he was trying to win the love of the beautiful Ophelia.’
‘Who’s she?’ said Viola.
‘A virtuous young woman, the daughter of a count who died about twelve months ago, leaving her in the protection of his son, her brother. Then, shortly afterwards, he also died and they say that for his dear love she has decided to shun the company and the sight of men.’
‘Oh I wish I could work for that lady, and hide away there until I can sort myself out.’
The captain shook his head. ‘That would be difficult because she won’t consider any approach from anyone: not even the duke.’
Viola stood thoughtfully. Then she looked directly at the captain.
‘You look like a straight man, captain. And though nature often encloses bad things in an attractive outside, in your case I’ll assume that your mind matches your decent appearance. So, I would like to ask you – and I’ll pay you well – to help me change my identity with whatever disguise we can come up with so that I can carry out my plan. I want to work for this duke. You’ll present me to him as an eunuch. It may prove worth your while because I can sing and speak in many different musical ways that he will enjoy. What else may happen only time will tell. Just keep quiet about it until I tell you otherwise.’
The captain agreed immediately. ‘You be his eunuch and I’ll be your mute. May I go blind if I ever blab about this.’
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘Let’s go then.’