Maria was scolding Feste, Olivia’s young jester.
‘No,’ she said, cutting him off, ‘either tell me where you’ve been or I won’t open my mouth by as much as the width of a bristle on your behalf. My lady is going to hang you for your absence.’
‘Let her hang me.’ he said defiantly. ‘He who is well hanged in this world doesn’t need to fear the colours.’
‘Explain,’ she said.
‘He won’t be able to see them anymore.’
‘A good plain answer,’ she said. ‘I can tell you where that saying ‘I fear no colours’ comes from.’
‘Where, good Miss Mary?’
‘The wars,’ she said, referring to regimental flags. ‘Feel free to use that information in your foolery.’
‘Well, God give wisdom to those that already have it,’ he said, ‘and those who are fools, let them use their brains.
‘But still, you’re going to be hanged for being away so long. Or sacked! Wouldn’t that be as serious as a hanging to you?’
‘Many a good hanging prevents a bad marriage,’ he said. ‘And if I’m sacked it won’t be so bad because it’s summer.’
‘You’re unrepentant then?’
‘Not really. But I’ve braced myself for two things…’
‘That if the one breaks the other will hold,’ she interrupted, laughing, ‘and if both break your trousers fall down!’
‘Nice one,’ he said. ‘Very nice. Off you go then. If Sir Toby were to give up drinking you’d be as pretty a piece of tail as any in Illyria.’
Maria put her hand out swiftly to stop him pinching her bottom. ‘Shut up, you rogue. That’s enough of that. Here comes my lady. You’d better have a good excuse.’ She left hurriedly.
Olivia was walking towards him along the central garden path, accompanied by her steward, Malvolio. Some of her companions walked behind them as she discussed household matters with the stiff-limbed steward. They all wore black. Feste shut his eyes tight. He prayed that his fooling would be on form. Fools who try to be too clever often show themselves to be fools but he, knowing that he wasn’t very clever, could sometimes pass for a wise man. As his imaginary mentor, Quinopalus, always said, “better a witty fool than a foolish wit.” He ran to meet his mistress and, stopping in front of her, swept his hat off and bowed with a flourish.
‘God bless you, lady!’ he said with great energy.
She sighed. ‘Take the fool away.’
They had all stopped and were staring at him.
He looked from the one to the other. ‘Didn’t you hear?’ he said. ‘Take the lady away!’
Olivia, clearly not in the mood for his foolery, shook her head irritably. ‘Stop it right now,’ she said. ‘Your wit is too dry. I’ve had enough of you. In any case, you’re becoming dishonest.’
‘Two faults, madam?’ he said. ‘Drink and advice can put them both right because, give the dry fool drink and he won’t be a dry fool anymore. Tell the honest man to mend his ways and if he does then he’s not dishonest anymore. If he can’t, let a cheap tailor mend him because anything that’s mended is only patched. Virtue that offends is only patched with sin and sin that’s mended is only patched with virtue. If this simple syllogism works, fine, if not, what can I do? In the same way as there’s no misfortune other than complete disaster, there’s no real beauty – it will always fade. The lady told you to take the fool away so, I say again, take her away.’
‘Sir, I told them to take you away.’
Encouraged by the fact that he had drawn her in, he continued. ‘What great mockery! Lady, cullus non facit monachum. That is as much as to say that I don’t wear my motley in my brain! Dear madonna, give me permission to prove you a fool.’
‘Can you do it?’
‘Very easily, dear madonna.’
‘Go on then, make your proof.’
Malvolio sighed exaggeratedly. Feste ignored him. ‘I have to question you for it, madonna.’ She nodded and he continued: ‘My dear virtuous mouse, answer me. Good madonna, why are you in mourning?’
‘Good fool, because of my brother’s death.’
‘I think his soul is in hell, madonna.’
Her eyes flashed. ‘I know his soul is in heaven, fool!’
‘The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven.’ Feste nodded to Malvolio. ‘Take the fool away, gentlemen,’ he said.
Olivia laughed. ‘What do you think of this fool, Malvolio? Do you think he’s improving?’
Malvolio stood rigidly and looked down his nose at the young man. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and will do so until the pangs of death shake him. Old age, which decays wise men, makes fools even more foolish.’
Feste bowed low before him in mock deference. ‘God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, all the better to increase your folly. Sir Toby would swear that I’m not very bright but he wouldn’t bet tuppence that you’re no fool.’
Olivia stifled a smile. ‘What do you say to that, Malvolio?’
Malvolio raised his nose even higher. ‘I’m amazed that your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal,’ he said. ‘I watched him being outdone the other day by an unexceptional fool who had no more brains than a stone.’ Feste put his tongue out at him and Malvolio pointed. ‘Look at him now!’ he exclaimed. ‘He’s put out already. Unless you laugh and humour him he’s silenced. Really, I regard these wise men who laugh so loudly at these rehearsed fools as no better than the fools’ fools.’
Olivia looked at him and shook her head. ‘Oh you take yourself too seriously, Malvolio and everything tastes sour to you.’ She sighed. ‘To be generous, tolerant and liberal is to see your imagined cannonballs as the mere bird-shot that they are. There’s nothing offensive about a licensed fool even if all he does is shout abuse, and there’s nothing wrong with a man recognised for his discretion, even though he does nothing but disapprove,’ she ended pointedly.
Feste bowed deeply again. ‘Now may Mercury give you the gift of lying because you speak well of fools.’
Maria joined them. ‘Madam,’ she said, ‘there’s a young gentleman at the gate who very much wants to talk to you.’
‘From the Count Orsino, is he?’
‘I don’t know, madam. He’s a pleasant young man and has a lot of attendants.’
‘Which of my people is keeping him there?’
‘Sir Toby, madam, your relative.’
‘Pull him off, please! He talks nothing but madness. Shame on him!’
Maria ran off and Olivia turned to her steward. ‘You go, Malvolio. If it’s a suit from the count I’m sick or not at home. Do whatever you like to get rid of him.’
When Malvolio had gone Olivia smiled at Feste. ‘Now you see, sir, how tedious your fooling is becoming and how people dislike it.’
‘You have spoken out for us, madam, as if your eldest son had been a fool – whose skull may Jove cram with brains because here he comes – one of your family, with a weak brain for drinking.’
‘Upon my honour!’ she exclaimed as Sir Toby wove his way towards her. ‘Half drunk! What kind of person is that at the gate, cousin?’
‘A gennelman,’ slurred her uncle.
‘A gentleman? What gentleman?’
‘Tis a gennelman.’ He belched. ‘Curse these pickled herrings!’ He slapped Feste hard on the back and sent him reeling. ‘Hello sot!’ he bellowed.
Feste regained his footing. ‘Dear Sir Toby,’ he said.
‘Cousin, cousin,’ said Olivia. ‘How have you come by this lethargy so early?’
‘Lechery!’ Sir Toby punched the air. ‘I defy lechery! There’s someone at the gate.’
‘Yes indeed,’ said Olivia. ‘Who is he?’
‘Let him be the devil if he likes, for all I care. I say give me faith. Oh well, it’s all the same to me.’
Sir Toby staggered off.
Olivia shook her head. ‘What’s a drunken man like, fool?’ she said.
‘Like a drowned man, a fool, and a madman,’ he said. ‘One drink too many makes him a fool, a second makes him mad and a third drowns him.’
She laughed. ‘Go and find the coroner, then, and let him sit on the case of my uncle because he’s in the third degree of drink – he’s drowned. Go and look after him.’
‘He’s only at the mad stage at the moment,’ said Feste. ‘The fool will take care of the madman.’
As he left to find Sir Toby he passed Malvolio and pulled a face at him. Malvolio ignored him. He approached his mistress.
‘Madam, that young fellow over there insists on talking to you. I told him you’re sick. He accepts that and so wants to talk to you. I told him you’re asleep. He appears to know that too and therefore has to speak to you. What is to be said to him, lady? He’s armed himself against any rejection.’
‘Just tell him he will not speak to me.’
‘He’s been told that and he says he’ll stand at your door like a flagpole and be the buttress of a bench until he speaks to you.’
‘She looked thoughtful. ‘What kind of man is he?’
‘Just a man.’
‘Yes, but what kind of man?’
‘Very rude. He’ll talk to you whether you like it or not.’
‘What does he look like and how old is he?’
Malvolio shrugged disdainfully. ‘Not yet old enough to be a man, nor young enough to be a boy – like a pod is before its peas are full-grown, or a pippin before it’s an apple. He’s like water is between the tides – neither man nor boy. He’s very good-looking and he’s cheeky. One would think his mother’s milk isn’t fully out of him yet.’
Olivia stood for a moment, not knowing what to do. Then she smiled. ‘Let him in,’ she said. ‘Call my gentlewoman.’
On his way to the gate Malvolio encountered Maria. ‘Gentlewoman, my lady needs you,’ he said.
Olivia held out her hand to her attendants. ‘Give me my veil. Come on, throw it over my face. We’ll hear Orsino’s suit once more.’
Viola strode in, followed by Orsino’s attendants. She stopped and looked at the women, all dressed in black, their faces covered by veils. ‘The lady of the house!’ she proclaimed. ‘Which is she?’
‘Speak to me.’ said Olivia. ‘I’ll answer for her. What do you want?’
Viola took up a pose – her head back and her hand on her heart. She had prepared her speech and she began now: ‘Most radiant, exquisite and unmatchable beauty…’ She stopped suddenly. ‘Please tell me if this is the lady of the house, because I’ve never seen her. I would hate to waste my speech because besides being excellently written I’ve taken great pains to learn it off by heart.’
The women laughed and nudged one another. This young man was quite ridiculous.
Viola shook her head. ‘Good beauties, don’t mock me. I’m very sensitive, even to the most unintended impoliteness.’
‘Where have you come from, sir?’ said Olivia.
‘I can say little more than the speech I’ve prepared and that question isn’t in it. Dear lady, just give me a little assurance that you really are the lady of the house so that I can continue my speech.’
‘Are you an actor?’
‘Dear me, no!’ exclaimed Viola, ‘and yet, in the face of rumour, I swear that I’m not the person I’m playing. Are you the lady of the house?’
‘If I’m not doing myself an injustice, I am.’
‘Most definitely,’ said Viola, ‘if you are the lady of the house, you are doing yourself an injustice because what is yours to give is not yours to withold.’ She reached for Olivia’s hand, raised it and brushed it with her lips. Then she dropped the hand suddenly and stepped back. ‘But this is off the point. I’ll get on with my speech in praise of you and then reveal the heart of my message.’
‘Get straight to the point,’ said Olivia. ‘Don’t worry about the praise.’
Viola’s face showed indignation. ‘Oh no!’ she exclaimed. ‘I took great pains to learn it and it’s poetic.’
‘All the more likely to be insincere,’ said Olivia. ‘I beg you to keep it to yourself… I heard you were cheeky at my gates and I allowed you to come in to satisfy my curiosity rather than to listen to you. If you’re crazy then go; if you’re sane, be brief. I’m not in the mood to banter with you.’
Maria pointed in the direction of the gate. ‘Will you hoist your sails, sir? That’s the direction.’
‘No, dear deck swabber,’ retorted Viola. ‘I have to lie at anchor here a bit longer.’ She gazed down on Maria, who was even smaller than her. ‘Keep your giant in check, sweet lady,’ she said.
All the ladies laughed.
‘Tell me what’s on your mind,’ said Olivia.
‘I am a messenger.’
‘You must have some terrible news to deliver considering how serious the formalities are. Out with it then.’
‘It’s for your ears only,’ said Viola. ‘I bring no declarations of war, no demands for homage money. I hold the olive branch in my hand; my words have as much peace as substance in them.’
‘And yet you began offensively. Who are you? What do you want?’
‘My rude manner was because of the way I was treated. Who I am and what I want are as secret as virginity. To your ears divine; to any others’, profane.’
Olivia stared at her. Then, her mind made up, she turned to her gentlewomen. ‘Leave us,’ she said. ‘We’ll hear this divinity.’
Viola signalled to her attendants to leave them too and they moved away towards the gate.
‘Now sir,’ said Olivia when they had gone, giggling as they went, ‘what is your text?’
‘Most sweet lady…’
‘An acceptable doctrine,’ said Olivia, ‘and there’s a great deal to be said for it. ‘Which scripture does it come from?’
‘His heart! Which chapter of his heart?’
Viola smiled. ‘To answer in the same vein: Chapter One of his Heart.’
‘Oh, I’ve read it,’ said Olivia. ‘It’s heresy. Haven’t you anything else to say?’
‘Good madam, let me see your face.’
‘Have you a commission from your master to negotiate with my face? You’ve now departed from your sermon.’ A hand went up to the veil. ‘But we will draw the curtain and show you the picture.’ She lifted the veil. ‘Take note, sir. This is one I’ve just had painted. Isn’t it well done?’
‘Excellently done. If God painted it all!’
‘It’s fixed sir!’ she exclaimed in mock indignation. ‘It will endure wind and weather.’
Viola stepped back and regarded Olivia’s face as though she were viewing a beautiful painting. ‘It’s beauty well integrated,’ she said. ‘Its reds and whites are the best work of Nature’s sweet artistic hands. Lady, you are the cruellest woman alive if you intend to take these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy.’
Olivia laughed. ‘Oh sir, I will not be so hard-hearted! I’ll distribute several catalogues of my beauty. It will be inventoried and every detail and item labelled as I dictate: such as, Item – two lips, reasonably red; Item – two grey eyes with lids to them; Item – one neck, one chin and so on. Were you sent here to price me?’
‘I see you for what you are!’ exclaimed Viola. ‘You are too proud! But even if you were the devil I would have to say that you’re beautiful. My lord and master loves you. Such great love could only be recompensed if you were crowned the most beautiful woman ever.’
Olivia was thoughtful. She walked to a nearby bench, sat down and invited Viola to join her. ‘How does he love me?’ she said.
‘With adoration, and copious tears, with groans of love as strong as thunder, with passionate sighs…’
Olivia interrupted her. ‘Your lord knows my feelings: I cannot love him.’ She sighed. ‘But I’m fully aware that he’s virtuous and I know he’s noble, very wealthy, a fresh, uncorrupted young man of good reputation, generous, educated and brave. He’s graceful and handsome but in spite of all that I cannot love him. He should have taken no for an answer long ago.’
‘If I loved you with such a passion as my master does, with such suffering and such misery, I wouldn’t be able to make sense of it – I wouldn’t understand your rejection.’
‘Why? What would you do?’ Olivia was looking at her with wide eyes, apparently genuinely interested in her answer. Her joking manner had gone.
‘I’d make myself a willow cabin at your gate, and visit my beloved in the house; write songs of devotion about hopeless love and sing them loudly in the small hours of the night. I’d shout your name to the echoing hills and make the vibrating air cry out “Olivia!” Oh, you wouldn’t be able to exist between the air and the earth without taking pity on me.’
‘You might even be successful,’ said Olivia. ‘What’s your social rank?’
‘Above my current situation – good, in fact. I’m a gentleman.’
Olivia got up and turned her back on her visitor.
‘Go back to your master. I cannot love him. Tell him not to send any more messages.’ She swung round to face Viola. ‘Unless, perhaps, you come to me again.’ She put her hand up and pulled the veil down. ‘To tell me how he takes it,’ she added swiftly, glad that the veil hid her blushes. ‘Goodbye. I thank you for the trouble you’ve taken.’ She dug in her purse and took out a gold piece. ‘Here, spend this for me.’
Viola looked offended. ‘I’m not paid for this, lady. Keep your money. It’s my master, not I, who lacks a reward. May you fall in love, as my master has, and the man you love have a heart of flint, and may your fervour, like my master’s be treated with contempt. Farewell you beautiful, cruel woman!’ She bowed, then turned and marched to the gate, where her companions waited.
Olivia watched her back then sank down on to the bench. Bits of the exchange were being played over in her mind. What is your rank?…… Above my current situation – I’m a gentleman…… She would bet on that! His voice, his face, his limbs, manner and spirit, all showed a top-notch pedigree. She stopped herself – her mind was moving too fast. Calm down, calm down. She placed her hand on her chest and felt her fast-beating heart. If it were this man and not his master wooing her. What then? She opened her fan and began cooling her face. Can one fall in love so fast? She could feel the youth’s perfections subtly and invisibly creeping in through the eyes that had just seen him. Well that was that! She saw Malvolio at the other end of the garden, talking to a servant. ‘Hello there, Malvolio!’ she called.
She removed a ring from her finger as her Steward approached in his slow, stately way.
‘Here, madam, at your service,’ he said.
‘Catch up with that cheeky messenger, the count’s man,’ she said. ‘He left this ring whether I liked it or not. Tell him I want nothing to do with it. Tell him not to allow his master to believe that I’m interested, not to let him harbour false hopes. I’m not for him.’
Malvolio took the ring and turned.
‘Should the youth come this way tomorrow,’ she said, feeling her blood rise again, ‘I’ll give him my reasons for that. Hurry Malvolio,’ she said impatiently, as he began walking in his usual manner.
‘Madam, I will.’ He increased his pace minimally.
Olivia watched him, walking as though there was no urgency in the matter. She fanned her face furiously. She didn’t know what she was doing. She had the feeling that her eyes may be affecting her mind. Fate would decide – we are all in Fate’s hands. What Fate decreed must be and that included this.