Olivia’s household consisted of herself and her only living relative, Sir Toby Belch. There was also a large body of servants: companions to Olivia, serving men and women, gardeners and even a jester. The whole estate was managed by the solemn black-suited steward, Malvolio.
Sir Toby enjoyed the run of his niece’s house and the use of her servants. She tended to be reclusive, while he was as gregarious as any man could be. He had his own set of rooms and was free to entertain whoever he liked – within reason – in spite of his niece’s resolution to admit no-one to her own presence. He had a guest at the moment – Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who had plans to woo Olivia.
Sir Toby, a large, fat, man, lay on a couch in his dayroom, wheezing unhealthily. Maria, one of Olivia’s women-in-waiting, knocked on the door and entered.
‘What the devil does my niece mean by taking her brother’s death like this?’ Sir Toby demanded. ‘I’m convinced that this kind of anguish is bad for your health!’
‘Honestly, Sir Toby,’ said Maria, ‘you must go to bed earlier at night. Your cousin, my lady, takes great exception to your unsocial hours.’
‘Let her make an exception of me then,’ declared the knight.
‘Yes, but you must then confine yourself to what’s modest and reasonable.’
‘Confine?’ Sir Toby hauled himself up and stood facing her. ‘I’ll confine myself to whatever I like. These clothes are good enough to drink in, and so are these boots. If they aren’t they can hang themselves with their own laces!’
Maria shook her head. ‘This boozing will be your downfall. I heard my mistress mention it yesterday: and also a foolish knight that you brought in here one night to be her wooer.’
‘Who?’ Sir Toby looked around as though searching for someone. ‘Sir Andrew Aguecheek?’
‘He’s as important as any man in Illyria.’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ she said.
Sir Toby winked. ‘Well, he has three thousand ducats a year!’
She laughed. ‘Yes but he’ll spend his whole fortune in one year. He’s a real fool. And a waster.’
‘Shame on you for saying that!’ exclaimed Sir Toby. ‘He plays the viol-de-gamboys and speaks three or four languages fluently and he has all the best gifts nature has to offer.’
She laughed even louder, particularly as Sir Toby had assumed a hurt look. ‘He certainly has,’ she cried. ‘He’s a real natural. And apart from that – apart from being a fool – he’s a great quarreller: if it weren’t for the fact that he has cowardly gifts too, which is a check on his quarrelling, it’s thought by those who can think straight, that he would soon have the gift of the grave.’
Sir Toby joined her in her laughter and said mockingly: ‘By this hand, they are scoundrels and…’ He searched for the word and couldn’t find it ‘… subtractors… who say that about him. Who are they?’ He affected an angry search around the room with his eyes.’
When she had stopped laughing Maria shook a playful finger at him. ‘Those who also say, I have to tell you, that he gets drunk every night with you.’
‘With drinking healths to my niece,’ said Sir Toby with a hurt tone. ‘As long as there’s a passage in my throat and drink in Illyria I’ll drink to her! He’s a coward and a bounder who won’t drink to my niece till his brains spin like a spinning top! There, girl, talk of the devil. Here comes Sir Andrew Aguecheek.’
The man who came in, almost tripping as he ran through the door, then righting himself before continuing his forward dash, was tall and thin and lanky, with long, dyed yellow hair. ‘Sir Toby Belch!’ he exclaimed, as though he hadn’t seen his host for years. ‘How are you, Sir Toby Belch?’
Sir Toby spread his arms to embrace his guest. ‘Sweet Sir Andrew!’ he exclaimed.
After a moment Sir Andrew stepped back and greeted Maria. ‘Bless you, fair shrew,’ he said, bowing deeply.
Maria was having difficulty keeping a straight face as she curtseyed exaggeratedly. ‘And you too, sir,’ she said.
Sir Toby nudged his guest and winked. ‘Sir Andrew,’ he said, then in his ear – ‘accost her.’
Sir Andrew looked at him in confusion. ‘What’s that?’
‘My niece’s chambermaid.’ Sir Toby winked at him again and gave him another nudge.
Sir Andrew nodded. He bowed again. ‘Good Miss Accost,’ he said. ‘I’d like to get to know you better.’
Maria lowered her eyes in a pretended display of modesty. ‘My name is Mary, sir.’
‘Dear Miss Mary Accost,’ he corrected himself, and giggled.
Sir Toby grasped his arm and drew him to the other side of the room. He addressed him in a confidential tone. ‘You’ve missed the point, knight. “Accost” means rush her, mount her, romance her, attack her.’
Sir Andrew turned his head and glanced at her over his shoulder. She stood demurely, apparently submissive, waiting. He licked his lips. He made to move towards her then stopped. He shook his head. ‘Honestly,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t take her in public. Is that what “accost” means?’
‘Goodbye gentlemen,’ called Maria, turning to leave.
Sir Toby nudged the bewildered knight. ‘If you let her escape like that, Sir Andrew, may you never draw your sword again!’
Sir Andrew took off and blocked Maria’s way as she was about to reach the door. ‘If you escape like that, Madam,’ he said, ‘may I never draw my sword again.’
She placed her hands on her hips, threw her head back and roared with laughter. Sir Toby echoed her from the other side of the room.
‘Dear lady,’ said Sir Andrew, not knowing what to do. ‘Do you think you have fools in hand?’
She wiped her cheeks. ‘Sir,’ she said, ‘I don’t have you by the hand.’
He giggled. ‘Indeed you will have,’ he said, ‘and here’s my hand.’
She took his hand. ‘Now, sir, there’s no charge for wishful thinking.’ She placed his hand squarely on her breast. ‘Come on, bring your hand to the buttery bar and let it drink.’
His pale face was flushed with embarrassment and he tried to remove his hand but she held it firm on her breast.
‘What do you mean, sweetheart?’ he said at last. ‘What’s your metaphor?’
‘It’s dry, sir.’
‘I should hope so,’ he said. ‘I’m not such an ass that I can’t keep my hand dry!’ When she and Sir Toby had stopped laughing, still standing awkwardly with his hand held hard against her breast, Sir Andrew said: ‘but what’s the big joke?’
‘A dry one, sir,’ she said.
‘Are you full of them?’
‘Yes sir,’ she said. ‘I have them at my fingertips.’ Sir Toby guffawed. She let Sir Andrew’s hand go. ‘There. Now I’m barren.’ She turned and left.
Sir Toby, weak from laughing, staggered to Sir Andrew and led him to the daybed. He sat him down and dropped his bulk beside him. ‘Oh knight,’ he said, ‘you need a cup of sherry. When have I ever seen you so put down?’
‘Never in all your life, I think, unless you’ve seen sherry put me down,’ said Sir Andrew. ‘Sometimes I think I’ve got less intelligence than a Christian or an ordinary man has. But I eat a lot of beef and I believe that harms my brain.’
‘No question,’ agreed Sir Toby.
‘If I thought that I’d give it up,’ said his guest. He stared gloomily at the floor. Then he turned to Sir Toby. ‘I’m going to ride home tomorrow Sir Toby,’ he said.
‘Pourquoi my dear knight?’ Sir Toby stood up and stood before him.
‘What does Pourquoi mean?’ Sir Andrew shook his head. ‘Go or not go? I wish I had spent the time on foreign languages that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting. Oh! If only I had pursued the arts!’
‘Then you’d have had a wonderful head of hair,’ said Sir Toby.
‘Why? Would that have improved my hair?’
Sir Toby took a bunch of Sir Andrew’s hair in his hand. ‘’Beyond a doubt: it obviously doesn’t curl naturally.’
Sir Andrew drew his fingers through his hair. ‘But it suits me well enough doesn’t it?’
Sir Toby slapped his thigh. ‘Excellently!’ he exclaimed. ‘It hangs like flax on a distaff! And I look forward to seeing a housewife take you between her legs and spin it out!’
Sir Andrew smiled sadly. ‘No, really,’ he said. ‘I’ll go home tomorrow, Sir Toby. Your niece won’t be seen, and even if she will it’s four to one she’d have nothing to do with me. Her neighbour, the count, is wooing her as well.’
Sir Toby swept his objections aside with a gesture. ‘She’s not interested in the count. She would never marry above herself – neither in wealth, age nor intelligence. I’ve heard her swear to that. Come on, there’s still mileage in it, man!’
Sir Andrew shook his head. Sir Toby patted him on the back encouragingly. He got up and did a little jig in front of the sad knight. Sir Andrew smiled. Then he got up, too, and offered a jerky, uncoordinated movement around his host.
‘I’ll stay another month,’ he said. ‘I’m a fellow with the strangest tastes. I love masques and revels – sometimes all at the same time.’
‘Are you good at these entertainments, knight?’ said Sir Toby.
Sir Andrew stopped and drew himself up proudly. ‘As any man in Illyria, provided he’s my inferior, because I can’t compete with a professional.’
‘How good are you at a reel, knight?’
‘I swear, I can cut a caper!’
‘And I can cut the mutton to go with it!’ exclaimed Sir Toby.
‘I believe I’ve mastered the back step as well as any man in Illyria,’ said Sir Andrew. He was becoming very excited.
Sir Toby stared at him in mock admiration. ‘Why are these things kept hidden?’ he said. ‘Why have you drawn a curtain in front of these gifts? Are they going to gather dust like the Mona Lisa? Why don’t you go to church doing a reel and come home with a fling?’ He demonstrated the two dances while Sir Andrew clapped his hands delightedly. ‘In your place my very walk would be a jig. I wouldn’t even pass water unless I were doing it rhythmically. What are you doing? Is this a world to hide virtues? I thought, when I saw your legs, that they were formed under the star of a reel!’
Sir Andrew stretched a leg out behind him and looked at it admiringly. ‘Yes, it’s strong and looks pretty good in a flame-coloured stocking.’ He was all fired up now and he tugged excitedly at Sir Toby’s sleeve. ‘Shall we start partying?’
‘What else?’ exclaimed Sir Toby. ‘Weren’t we born under the sign of Taurus?’
‘Taurus?’ Sir Andrew was bewildered again. ‘Isn’t that sides and hearts?’
‘No sir! Legs and thighs!’ Sir Toby drew his sword. ‘Let me see you dance!’ He began sweeping his sword backwards and forwards under Sir Andrew’s legs, making him leap with each swipe. ‘Ha, ha,’ he laughed. ‘Higher! Excellent!’