Portia had a secret plan, a scheme to help her husband resolve the situation his friend had found himself in. She invited Lorenzo and Jessica to join her and Nerissa in the garden. She assured the young couple that Bassanio would be back very soon.
‘Madam,’ said Lorenzo, ‘although I say it in your presence, you have a great understanding of true friendship, judging from your acceptance of your husband’s absence. But if you knew the man you’re honouring, what a good gentleman you have lent this help to – how much he loves my lord, your husband – I know that you would be even prouder than you are of the help you are giving.’
‘I’ve never regretted any good I’ve done,’ she said, ‘and I’m not regretting it now because friends who talk and spend their time together, who love each other equally, must have such things as character, style and ideas in common. That makes me think that this Antonio, being the close friend of my lord, has to be similar to him. If that’s true then I have rescued a soulmate from hellish cruelty very cheaply. But this is too much like praising myself, so not another word about it. I want to mention other things. Lorenzo, I’m putting the management of my household in your hands until my lord’s return. There’s a monastery two miles away and that’s where we’re going to stay. I hope you won’t object. It’s something we have to do.
Lorenzo bowed. ‘Madam, I’ll always concede wholeheartedly to your requests.’
‘My servants already know my plans and will obey you and Jessica in the absence of Lord Bassanio and me. So farewell until we meet again.’
Lorenzo bowed again. ‘May you have peaceful thoughts and a happy time,’ he said.
‘I wish your ladyship great peace of mind,’ said Jessica.
‘Thank you for your good wishes,’ said Portia. She beckoned to a servant who stood at a discreet distance. ‘It gives me pleasure to wish you the same.’ She watched them as they walked back to the house. Then: ‘Now, Balthazar, I’ve always found you honest and faithful so that’s what I expect of you. Take this letter and hurry to Padua. Make sure you deliver it to my cousin, Doctor Bellario, personally. He’ll give you some documents and some clothes. Bring them with lightning speed to the terminal where the public ferry leaves for Venice.’
Balthazar opened his mouth to speak but she stopped him. ‘Don’t waste time with words. Just go. I’ll be waiting there.’
‘Madam, I’ll hurry,’ he said.
‘Come on Nerissa,’ said Portia when Balthazar had gone. ‘I’ve got work to do that you don’t know about yet. We’ll see our husbands before they even get a chance to think about us.’
‘Will they see us, though?’ said Nerissa.
‘They will, Nerissa, but they’ll think by our clothes that we’re men.’ Portia laughed. ‘I’ll bet you anything that when we’re both dressed as young men I’ll be the more handsome of the two, wearing my dagger in a jaunty way and speaking in a high voice like someone between boy and man. I’ll exchange my lady-like walk with a manly stride and talk about fighting like a swaggering youth. I’ll exaggerate my experience of honourable ladies, of how they throw themselves at me and die broken-hearted when I reject them. Then I’ll show remorse and wish I hadn’t killed them. I’ll tell twenty such stories so that everyone will believe that I must have left school at least a year ago. I’ve got a thousand of those bragging stories in my mind, which I’ll practise.’
‘What?’ Nerissa affected alarm. ‘Are we going to be turned into men?’
Portia laughed. ‘Shame on you! What a question that would be to ask if there were a dirty-minded person within earshot! But come, I’ll tell you my whole plan in my coach, which is waiting for us at the park gate. So let’s go: we have to travel twenty miles today.’