Desdemona and Emilia went out to the courtyard to enjoy the sunshine. They settled themselves on a bench under a tall shady tree. Desdemona beckoned to the old sweeper.
‘Do you know, my good man, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?’
‘I wouldn’t dare say he lies anywhere,’ the old man said.
‘He’s a soldier and for one to say a soldier lies is slander.’
Desdemona and Emilia laughed. ‘Where does he lodge?’ said Desdemona.
‘To tell you where he lodges is to tell you where I lie,’ the old man said.
Desdemona looked at Emilia. ‘Can one make anything of this?’
‘I don’t know where he lodges,’ said the old man. ‘And for me to invent a lodging and say he lies here or lies there would be to lie in my own throat.’
‘Can you seek him out? And honour us with a report?’
‘I will examine the world for him: that is, compile questions and by them, answer.’ The old man bowed exaggeratedly and they laughed.
‘Look for him,’ said Desdemona. ‘Tell him to come here. Say that I have succeeded with my husband on his behalf and hope all will be well.’
‘To do that is within the possibility of man’s intelligence and therefore I will try doing it.’ The old man bowed again, saluted and set off on his errand.
Desdemona sighed. ‘Where do you think I lost that handkerchief, Emilia?’
Emilia avoided her eyes. ‘I don’t know, Madam,’ she said.
‘Believe me,’ said Desdemona. ‘I would rather have lost my purse, full of gold coins. And if my noble Moor weren’t so straightforward, with none of that unpleasantness that jealous men have, it would be enough to give him negative thoughts.’
‘He’s not a jealous man?’
‘Who? He?’ Desdemona laughed. I think the sun in the country where he was born dried up all those kinds of fluids in him.’
‘And here he comes,’ said Emilia, as Othello strode towards them.
Desdemona spoke softly in Emilia’s ear: ‘I won’t give him any peace now until he sends for Cassio.’ She smiled brightly. ‘How are you, my lord?’
‘I’m well, my good lady,’ said Othello. It was so hard to hide his feelings. ‘And how are you, Desdemona?’
‘Well, my good lord,’ she said.
‘Give me your hand,’ he said. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed her palm. ‘Your hand is moist, my lady.’
‘It hasn’t yet felt age, or known sorrow.’
‘It’s a sign of passion and open-heartedness.’ He stroked her palm. ‘Hot, hot and moist,’ he said ‘This hand of yours requires locking up, fasting, prayer, a lot of penance and religious exercise, because there’s a sweating and rebellious young devil here. It’s a good hand, a frank one.’
She laughed. ‘And so you should say that. It was the hand that gave my heart away.’
‘A free hand!’ he exclaimed. In olden times hands were given with hearts but the modern way is giving hands without hearts.’
‘I know nothing about that,’ she said. ‘Come now. Your promise.’
‘What promise, darling?’
‘I’ve sent to tell Cassio to come and talk to you.’
‘I’m getting a bad cold.’ he said. ‘Lend me your handkerchief.’
She took a handkerchief from her sleeve. ‘Here, my lord.’
He shook his head impatiently. ‘The one I gave you.’
‘I don’t have it with me.’
‘No I don’t, my lord.’
‘That’s a mistake,’ he said. ‘An Egyptian gave it to my mother. She was
a mystic and could almost read people’s thoughts. She told her that as long as she kept it it would make her agreeable and subdue my father completely to her love. But if she lost it or gave it away, my father would loathe the sight of her and he would look for new women. She gave it to me as she was dying and told me that when my turn came to marry I should give it to my wife. I did so, and take note of this: value it as you do your eyesight. To lose it or give it away would be damnation that nothing else could match.’
Desdemona breathed in sharply. ‘Is it possible?’ she said.
Othello nodded vigorously. ‘It’s true – there’s magic in the weave of it. A sibyl, who was two hundred years old, sewed it in a prophetic burst. The worms that made the silk were sacred, and it was dyed in fluid from mummies and the colour fixed with extract of virgins’ hearts.’
‘Really!’ Desdemona was uncertain. ‘Is it true?’
‘Most surely,’ he said. ‘Therefore look after it well.’
‘Then I wish to God I had never set eyes on it!’ she exclaimed.
‘Ha!’ Othello twitched. ‘Why?’
‘Why are you shouting?’
He put his face close to hers and raised his voice even more. ‘Is’t lost? Is’t gone?’
She stepped back.
‘Tell me!’ he shouted. ‘Is it missing?’
Desdemona looked desperately at Emilia. ‘Heaven bless us!’
‘What did you say?’ Othello gripped her arms.
‘It isn’t lost,’ she said. ‘But what if it was?’
‘I said it is not lost.’
‘Get it. Let me see it!’
‘Why, I can, Sir, but I don’t want to now. This is a trick to distract me from my suit. Please, see Cassio again.’
‘Go and get the handkerchief. My mind is uneasy.’
‘Come on now,’ she said. ‘You couldn’t find a more adequate man.’
Othello didn’t take his eyes off her. ‘The handkerchief!’ he bellowed.
‘I beg of you,’ she said. ‘Talk to me about Cassio.’
Desdemona refused to give up. She tried again. ‘A man who has been your best friend, shared dangers with you…’
Othello’s eyes bulged. ‘The handkerchief!’
Desdemona turned away. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you,’ she said.
Othello threw his hands up. ‘God’s wounds,’ he shouted and strode to the castle entrance.
‘He looks like a jealous man,’ said Emilia as they watched him storm away.
I’ve never seen this before,’ said Desdemona. ‘There must be something special about that handkerchief. I’m dreadfully sorry that I lost it.’
‘It doesn’t take more than a year or two for a man to show his true colours,’ said Emilia. ‘They’re nothing more than stomachs and we’re only food. They eat us hungrily and when they’re full they belch us. Oh look, Cassio and my husband.’
Iago was saying, ‘There’s no other way: she’s the one who has to do it. Go and ask her.’
Desdemona put her hand out to Cassio. ‘Welcome, good Cassio,’ she said. ‘How are you?’
Cassio showed his distress. ‘Madam,’ he said. ‘About my former request. I beg of you, that with your help I may again exist and be a member of his love, whom I honour with all my heart. I can’t bear any delay. If my offence is so bad that nothing I have done to serve him in the past, nor my sorrow, nor my future good intentions, can bring me back into his favour, then I have to know so that I can get used to it and find something else to do with my life.
‘Oh dear, my good friend Cassio,’ she said. ‘This is not the best time for me. My lord is not himself, and I wouldn’t even know him if he had changed in his looks as much he has changed in his mood. I assure you, I have done my best to speak for you and have aroused his displeasure for being so bold. You must be patient for a while. I’ll do what I can, and even more than I really dare to. Let that be enough for you.’
Iago looked surprised. ‘Is my lord angry?’ he said.
‘He’s just left,’ said Emilia, ‘ and was certainly very disturbed.’
‘Could he be angry?’ said Iago. I have seen the cannon blasting his ranks into the air and strike his brother down and not seen anger in him. This is something momentous then. I’ll go and see him. There’s some real substance in this if he’s angry.’
‘Please do so,’ said Desdemona.
When he had gone Desdemona shook her head. She appealed to Emilia. ‘It must be some matter of state,’ she said. ‘Either something from Venice or some unhatched plot that’s been revealed to him here in Cyprus has muddied the clarity of his mind. In such cases it’s the nature of men to wrangle about small things when they have important matters on their minds. That must be it. It’s like when a finger aches it makes every part of us feel that it’s in pain. No, we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that men are gods, nor should we expect them always to behave towards us as they do at the wedding. Forgive me, Emilia, I was, inadequate ‘warrior’ as I am, resenting his unkindness but now I find I was being unjust and accusing him falsely.’
‘Let’s hope it is state matters, as you think it is, and nothing – not any jealousy – concerning you.’ Emilia looked thoughtful.
‘Oh no,’ said Desdemona. ‘I’ve never given him cause for that.’
‘But jealous natures don’t need a cause. They never have a reason for their jealousy. They’re jealous because they’re jealous. Jealousy is a monster, conceived of itself, born of itself.’
‘Heaven keep that monster from Othello’s mind,’ said Desdemona.
‘Amen!’ said Emilia.
‘I’ll go and look for him,’ said Desdemona. ‘Stay in the vicinity, Cassio. If I find him in the right state of mind I’ll ask him again and try my best to bring it about.’
‘I’m most grateful to your ladyship,’ said Cassio.
He went out, past the guard, and stood at the gate, staring down at the sea. A voice startled him. It was Bianca, a young townswoman he had struck up a friendship with.
‘What are you doing here?’ he said. ‘How are you, my beautiful Bianca? I was going to go to your house.’
She smiled coquettishly. ‘And I was on my way to your lodging, Cassio.’ She slipped an arm round his waist. ‘What’s this?’ she said. ‘Keep a week away from me? Seven days and nights? Eight score eight hours? And lovers’ hours away from each other more tedious than the eight score on the clock. So slow.’
‘Forgive me Bianca,’ he said. ‘I’ve been oppressed with a heavy heart these last few days but I’ll be able to make up for this absence soon.’ He pulled a large handkerchief out of his pocket. ‘Sweet Bianca, take this embroidery out for me.’
Bianca looked dismayed. ‘Oh Cassio, where did this come from? This is a gift from a newer friend. Now I understand your absence. So it’s come to this. Well, well.’
‘Go on, woman!’ he exclaimed. Throw your vile guesses back in the devil’s teeth where they came from.’ And when she turned away he caught hold of her. ‘You’re jealous now. You think this is a souvenir from some woman. No, I swear, Bianca.’
‘Well whose is it then?’
‘I have no idea, Sweetheart. I found it in my bedroom. I like the pattern a lot. Before someone claims it, as I’m sure they will, I want it copied. Take it and do it, and leave me for the moment.’
‘Leave you?’ she said. ‘Why?’
‘I’m here to see the General, and I don’t think it will be helpful – nor do I want it – that he should see me with a woman.’
‘Why ever not?’
‘It’s not that I love you not.’
‘But that you do not love me. Come on, walk a little way with me and tell me if I’ll see you tonight.’
‘I can only walk a little way with you because I have to be here, but I’ll see you soon.’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to make do with that.’