The Capulet mansion was one of the biggest – filled with servants and buzzing with preparations for the day ahead. It was an hour till breakfast and while the cooks sweated over the fires in the kitchen, producing mouthwatering smells of baked bread and frying bacon, the serving-men killed time as best they could.
Two of them, Gregory and Sampson – hot, bored and restless – stepped out into the bustle of the piazza and swaggered about among the bright colors, the animal smells and the din of traders’ voices, hoping to find some action. It was a thrill for them because of the Prince’s warning, and the new game was to see how far you could go without attracting his attention.
‘I can tell you, Gregory,’ said Sampson, ‘I’m ready for them. Just watch me. Let a Montague so much as put a foot in the piazza and you’ll see how quick I am.’
‘Sure.’ Gregory knew that his friend’s boasts just added to the hot air around them. He loved winding the fiery Sampson up, so he said: ‘How quick you are to run away, you mean.’
‘Not from the Montagues.’ retorted Sampson. His face was twisted with scorn. ‘I’ll take on any of their men – or women,’ he said.
‘I know that’s your level,’ said Gregory, ‘but our quarrel isn’t with the women. This is between the men. Anyway, here’s your chance to show me.’
Two young servants dressed in the red and silver uniform of the Montague house were coming round a corner and on to the piazza.
With an exaggerated flourish Sampson put his hand on the hilt of his sword. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re on. Pick a fight with them. I’ll be right behind you.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ said Gregory.
‘No wait.’ The Montague men were almost there. ‘Be careful. We mustn’t put ourselves in the wrong. Let them be the ones to start.’
‘Alright.’ They might as well have a bit of fun. It wouldn’t come to anything serious. Just a bit of fun. ‘I’ll frown as we pass them. Let’s see what they do.’
‘Good thinking,’ said Sampson. ‘And I’ll bite my thumb at them. If they take that it will really show them up.’
It certainly would, because biting your thumb at someone was the worst insult you could give to another person.
The Montague servants came closer. With Gregory’s clownish frowning and Sampson’s pointed biting of his thumb the pair presented a very strange and obvious spectacle, which the Montague men couldn’t ignore.
The Montague servants stopped. One of them, a rather superior young man named Abraham, peered at Sampson as though he were an insect. He turned slowly to his companion with a look on his face as if to say, ‘Are they really daring to do this to us?’ His friend, Balthasar, shrugged. Abraham turned back to Sampson.
‘Are you biting your thumb at us?’ he said.
‘I’m biting my thumb, as you can see,’ said Sampson.
‘I can see that. But are you biting your thumb at us ?’
Sampson leant over and whispered to his friend: ‘Is the law on our side if I say ‘yes’?’
Gregory shook his head.
‘No.’ Sampson straightened up. ‘I’m not biting my thumb at you.’
‘Well,’ said the Montague. ‘That’s alright then.’ He knew as well as Sampson what the penalty for starting a fight was. ‘Peace to you then.’
The Montagues were about to move on but the temptation was too much for Sampson. He couldn’t let this chance pass.
‘I’m definitely biting my thumb, though,’ he said.
Gregory, forgetting the dangers in this moment of excitement, stepped forward then and gave the Montagues a hard look. ‘Do you want to make something of it?’
Abraham seemed to consider that for a moment. Then: ‘Make something of it?’ he said calmly. He turned his head and asked his friend, Balthasar. ‘Do we?’
Balthasar pulled a face.
Abraham shook his head slowly. ‘No. We don’t want to make anything of it.’
Sampson, seeing that the Montague men were about to walk on, brought his face closer to Abraham’s and put on an even harder look, ‘Because if you do.’ he said, speaking slowly, ‘I’m ready.’ He stepped back, leant his elbow on Gregory’s shoulder, crossed one leg in front of the other and looked the Montague servants up and down.
Abraham nodded, signaled his friend to follow, and turned to go.
Sampson didn’t like to think that the fun was over. He moved quickly to bar the Montagues’ way. ‘I don’t know who you think you are,’ he told them. ‘I’ll have you know my master’s just as good a man as yours is.’
‘Not better, though,’ said Abraham, stopping again.
‘Well.’ said Sampson. He knew that if he said his master was better it would be an unbearable insult: there would be no going back, so this was the big moment.
The four youths were in complete deadlock. They stood staring at each other, all of them itching to let fly, when a well-dressed young man emerged from one of the streets that led off the piazza.
‘Look,’ whispered Balthasar. ‘There’s Montague’s nephew. Tell them our master’s better.’
Abraham had been controlling himself really well, but now the balance was tipped by the arrival of a member of the Montague family and that made him feel safer. The temptation was too great. He tapped Sampson’s chest with his forefinger. ‘There’s something I have to tell you,’ he said. ‘My master’s better than yours.’
‘You’re a liar!’ Sampson drew his sword. ‘Come on, draw if you’re men.’
The Montague’s swords were already in their hands. In an instant the four were fighting, their rapiers reflecting the morning sunlight in sharp bright flashes.
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