The supper had been a great success and now everyone had gone off to prepare for the ball. The musicians had assembled in the brightly lit and elaborately decorated ballroom and everything was ready. The family gathered to welcome their guests and sat down together to wait.
‘Wasn’t Count John here at supper?’ said Leonato.
‘I didn’t see him,’ said Antonio.
Beatrice pulled a face. ‘That gentleman looks so sour,’ she said. ‘Every time I see him I have heartburn for an hour afterwards.’
Hero agreed. ‘He does seem sad all the time.’
‘The perfect man would be one who was halfway between him and Benedick,’ said Beatrice. ‘The one is too much like a statue and says nothing and the other is too much like a spoilt child, burbling on forever.’
Leonato laughed. ‘With half Signior Benedick’s tongue in Count John’s mouth, and half Count John’s melancholy in Signior Benedick’s face…’
Beatrice interrupted him with a delighted laugh: ‘Add a shapely leg and a good foot, uncle, and enough money, and a man like that would win any woman in the world, with a little work.’
‘I swear, niece,’ said Leonato, ‘you’ll never get yourself a husband with such a sharp tongue.’
‘It’s true,’ said Antonio. ‘She’s far too cussed.’
‘Too cussed is to be more than cussed,’ said Beatrice, ‘which means I’m harmless. God takes care that the vicious have short horns and lack the power to do harm.’
Leonato looked puzzled. ‘So by being cussed God won’t send you any horns?’
Antonio laughed and nudged Hero, who blushed.
‘Exactly,’ said Beatrice. ‘No husband. I hope he won’t send me one, and for that favour I go on at him on my knees morning noon and night. For heaven’s sake, I couldn’t bear to have a husband with a beard: I’d rather lie in a scratchy woollen blanket.’
‘You may be lucky, and find one who doesn’t have one,’ said Leonato.
‘And what would I do with him then? she said. ‘Dress him in my clothes and make him my waiting gentlewoman? Those who have beards are too old and those who don’t are too young. I don’t like older men and young men wouldn’t want me. So I will be like the proverbial old maid and take a job with a bear-keeper, leading his apes into hell.’
‘Then you’d end up in hell,’ said Leonato.
‘No, only at the gate, and the devil would be there to meet me like an old cuckold with horns on his head, and he would say, get yourself to heaven, Beatrice, get yourself to heaven: this isn’t a place for you old maids. So I would deliver my apes and take myself off to Saint Peter, and he would show me where the bachelors are sitting, and there we would live, as happy as the day is long.’
Hero smiled at her cousin’s picture of eternal bliss. Antonio shook his head. ‘Well, niece,’ he said to her, ‘I hope that you will do as your father tells you.’
‘Yes indeed,’ said Beatrice. ‘It’s my cousin’s duty to curtsy and say yes father, whatever you say, father: but even so, cousin, make sure that he’s a handsome fellow, and if not, make another curtsy and say, father, it’s whatever I say.
They all laughed. ‘Well, niece,’ said Leonato, ‘I hope to see you fixed up with a husband one day.’
‘Not until God makes men out of something better than earth,’ she said. ‘Wouldn’t it be terrible for a woman to be married to a bit of sand? To be accountable to a clod of worthless, poor, soil? No, uncle, I’ll have none of it. In any case, Adam’s sons are my brothers, and I firmly believe that it’s a sin to mate with a relative.’
Leonato gave up and turned to Hero. ‘Remember what I told you,’ he said. ‘If the prince proposes marriage you know what to say.’
‘There will be something wrong with the music, cousin, if he doesn’t get his timing right,’ said Beatrice.
‘If he’s too pushy tell him there should be good timing in everything, and so give your answer in time with the music, as you dance. Because, listen Hero, wooing, marrying and then repenting afterwards are like a Scotch jig, a stately dance and a lively cinquepace: the first wooing is hot and fast, like a Scotch jig, mad and wild: the wedding is controlled and modest, like a measure, full of dignity and tradition: and then Repentance follows, and with his ageing legs, degenerates into the cinquepace, faster and faster, until he falls into his grave.’
‘You analyse it very shrewdly, niece’ said Leonato, laughing .
‘I’ve got a good eye, uncle,’ she said. ‘I can even see a church in the daytime.’
There were voices as the first guests arrived.
‘They’re here, brother,’ said Leonato. ‘Go and show them in.’
Leonato put his mask on in time to greet the first group of young people. Don Pedro, Benedick and Balthasar arrived soon after, although no-one could tell who they were, with their masks. Then Antonio returned, also masked, with another group that included Don John and Borachio. Hero’s attendants, Margaret and Ursula, were also somewhere among the throng. The hall was soon crowded with young women and masked men, and the musicians began their work.
After what her uncle had told her about Don Pedro’s attentions and what her father had said during the lighthearted conversation, but nevertheless as a very serious warning, Hero was on her guard, watching out for him. So when a masked man who could have been him approached her she was ready.
‘Will you dance with your admirer?’ he said.
She smiled. ‘As long as you dance gently, and look but say nothing. I’m yours for the dance – until I walk away.’
‘With me?’ he said.
‘Perhaps,’ she said, ‘if I feel like it.’
‘And when will you let me know?’
‘When I see your face and if I like it. I hope your face is better than your mask!’
‘My mask is Philemon’s roof,’ he said. ‘Inside the house is Jove.’
‘Well then,’ she said, laughing loudly, ‘your mask should be thatched.’
‘Shhh,’ he said, drawing her away towards a dark corner. ‘One should speak quietly when one talks about love.’
Balthasar, who had spotted Margaret on their arrival, had made a beeline for her, and now they were in the middle of an exploratory conversation.
‘Well, I wish you did like me,’ he was saying.
‘Well I don’t wish that,’ she said, ‘for your own sake, because I’ve got a lot of faults.’
‘Tell me one,’ he said.
‘I say my prayers out loud.’
‘I love you even more,’ he said. ‘Those who are listening will have the chance to say ‘Amen’.’
He accidently trod on her foot and she cried out. He stood back and looked at her apologetically.
‘God send me a good dancer!’ she wailed.
‘Amen,’ he said.
She laughed. ‘And God keep him away from me once the dance is over! What do you say, priest?’
‘Nothing. The priest has been put in his place.’
Ursula was having fun. She had recognised the man she was dancing with. ‘I know you well enough,’ she was saying. ‘You are Signior Antonio.’
‘In one word, I’m not,’ he said.
‘I know you by the trembling of your head.’
‘Seriously,’ he said, ‘I’m imitating him.’
‘You couldn’t do him so badly unless you were the man himself,’ she said, ‘and his withered hand, shaking all over the place. You’re him, you’re him.’
‘In one word, I’m not,’ he said.
‘Come come,’ she said, ‘do you think I don’t recognise your high intelligence? Can a quality like that be disguised? Go on, hush. Certain things show themselves and that’s the end of it.’
‘Won’t you tell me who told you so?’ said Beatrice.
‘No, excuse me,’ he said.
‘And you won’t tell me who you are either?’
‘I’m High and Mighty’ she said, ‘and I got my intelligence from the joke book, the ‘Hundred Merry Tales.’ Well that’s what Signior Benedick said, anyway.’
‘I’m sure you know him well enough.’
‘I don’t, believe me.’
‘Didn’t he ever make you laugh?’
‘Please tell me who he is.’
‘He’s the prince’s jester – a very stupid fellow. His one talent is making up incredible slanders: only layabouts appreciate him. And the main thing about him isn’t his intelligence but his offensiveness: he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him. I’m sure he’s here somewhere. I wish he had tried to approach me!’
‘When I meet the gentleman I’ll tell him what you said.’
‘Do, do,’ she said. ‘But he’ll make some derogatory comments about me which, if ignored or not laughed at, will send him into a depression, saving a partridge wing, because the fool will lose his appetite and not eat anything that night.’
The dancers were forming up to follow the leading pair in a dance round the hall.
‘We must follow the leaders,’ said Beatrice.
‘In everything that’s good,’ he said.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘If they lead us into anything bad I’ll leave them at the next turning.’ They joined the line.
When the dancing ended the revellers drifted away. Don John and Borachio, left alone except for one man who was talking to the musicians, took their masks off.
‘I can see that my brother’s in love with Hero and has gone with her father to broach it with him. Everyone’s left but there’s one mask remaining over there.’
‘That’s Claudio,’ said Borachio. ‘I recognise him by his bearing.’
They strolled over to him.
‘Aren’t you Signior Benedick?’ said Don John.
‘Ah, you’ve recognised me.’ said Claudio. ‘I am.’
‘Sir,’ said Don John, ‘you’re very close to my brother. He’s fallen in love with Hero. I beg you to dissuade him from her: she’s not his equal in birth. It would be an honest thing for you to do.’
‘How do you know he’s in love with her?’ said Claudio.
‘I heard him swear his love for her.’
‘So did I,’ said Borachio, ‘and he swore he would marry her tonight.’
‘Come, let’s go to the banquet,’ said Don John.
Claudio, left on his own, was bewildered. He had answered them as Benedick but heard their bad news with the ears of Claudio. It must be true: the prince had been wooing her for himself. Friendship was constant in everything except matters of love. In those affairs, all hearts speak for themselves. No-one should trust anyone to woo for him, but should do it himself, because beauty is a witch whose spells not even friendship can resist, but melts in passion. This was common: he had always known it. Well that was the end of his aspirations regarding Hero.
The musicians had packed up and gone, and he stood there, grief stricken. He was startled by his friend, Benedick, greeting him.
Claudio removed his mask. ‘Yes, it’s I.’
Benedick took his arm. ‘Come with me,’ he said.
‘To the nearest willow tree,’ said Benedick. ‘How are you going to wear the willow garland we’re going to make? Around your neck like a money-lender’s gold chain? Or on your chest, like a soldier’s banner, challenging this? You must decide, and wear it one way or the other, because the prince has won your Hero.’
‘I wish him joy of her,’ said Claudio, sadly.
Benedick slapped him on the back. ‘Why, spoken like a true cattle dealer,’ he said, ‘as long as they sell bullocks. But why do you think the prince has treated you like this?’
Claudio sat down and put his head in his hands. ‘Please, go away,’ he said.
‘Hey, now you’re thrashing about like a blind man,’ said Benedick.
Claudio stood up. ‘If you won’t go then I will,’ he said. He walked off briskly, leaving Benedick on his own.
What a poor bird Claudio was: he would creep into the undergrowth now. Benedick felt sorry for him but there was nothing he could do about it. He had his own problems. He was still smarting from his encounter with Beatrice. She knew him well so it was surprising that she had got him so wrong. The prince’s jester! Ha! Maybe she thought that because he was always in a good mood. Yes, maybe he wasn’t doing himself any favours always being like that. He thought about it. No, he didn’t have that reputation: it was Beatrice’s jaundiced outlook, thinking that the whole world thought as she did, and so putting things like that about. Well, he’d get his revenge. He smiled at the prospect.
His thoughts were interrupted by Don Pedro’s arrival.
‘Now, Signior,’ said the prince. ‘Where’s the count? Have you seen him?’
‘I swear,’ said Benedick, ‘I’ve been spreading rumours. I found him here, as sad as a cottage in the middle of a forest. I told him…’ Benedick looked questioningly at the prince, ‘… and I think I was right: that your grace has been accepted by this young lady, and I offered to accompany him to a willow tree, either to make himself a rejected lover’s garland, or a cane, as he needs whipping.’
‘Whipping? What’s he done?’
‘Made the common mistake of a schoolboy who, overjoyed at finding a bird’s nest, gives it to a friend, who steals it.’ Benedick looked disapprovingly at Don Pedro.
‘Are you trying to turn a mission into an offence?’ said Don Pedro. ‘It would be terrible if I were a thief.’
‘But it wouldn’t have been in vain if he had made the cane, and the garland too,’ said Benedick, ‘because he could have worn the garland himself and used the cane on you, who, I gather, has stolen his bird’s nest.’
Don Pedro laughed. Benedick looked at him uncertainly. ‘I only want to teach the birds to sing then give them back to their owner,’ said the prince.
Benedick grasped Don Pedro’s hand and shook it vigorously. ‘If they learn to sing then you’ve done a good thing,’ he said.
Don Pedro laughed and wagged his finger at Benedick while Benedick shook his head at the doubts he’d had about his friend.
‘The Lady Beatrice has a bone to pick with you,’ said Don Pedro. ‘The gentleman she danced with told her that she’s been very wronged by you.’
‘Oh, she abused me beyond what a block of wood wouldn’t have failed to react to,’ said Benedick. ‘An oak with only one green leaf on it would have risen to her. Even my mask began to come to life and take offence. She told me, not knowing it was I, that I was the prince’s jester, that I was duller than slush, bombarding me with ridicule after ridicule, in such an unbelievable attack on me that I felt like a target with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks daggers, and every word stabs: if her breath were as terrible as her language there would be no coming near her: she would infect as far as the north star. I wouldn’t marry her if she were endowed with everything Adam possessed before he sinned. She would have made Hercules turn the roasting spit, yes, and chop his club up for firewood. Come, don’t mention her: you’ll find that she’s the infernal Ate, the goddess of discord, in nice clothes. I wish to God some scholar would exorcise her, because one things’ certain: while she’s in the world a man may live as quietly in hell as in a sanctuary here, and people would sin on purpose so they could go there because wherever she is there’s unease, horror and distress.’
Don Pedro pointed to the door where a group was coming into the ballroom. ‘Look,’ he said through his laughter, ‘here she comes.’
Benedick went down on his knees in a mock plea as Beatrice and Hero approached, followed by Leonato, and Claudio trailing forlornly behind them. ‘Will your grace send me on some mission to the end of the world?’ he said. ‘I will go on the most flimsy excuse, to any place, even if it’s the Antipodes, that you care to send me to. I will get you a toothpick from the furthest inch of Asia, bring you Prester John’s foot measurement, a hair from the Emperor of China’s beard, take a message to the pigmies of Ethiopia, rather than have three words conversation with this harpy. Do you have an errand for me?’
‘None but to hope for your good company,’ said Don Pedro, raising his friend up.
‘O God!’ said Benedick, looking around for an escape route. ‘I can’t endure my Lady Tongue!’ He spied a side door and made for it.
Don Pedro didn’t even try to control his amusement as the others came up to him. ‘Come, lady, come,’ he said to Beatrice. ‘You have lost Signior Benedick’s heart.’
‘You’re right, my lord,’ she said. ‘He lent it to me for a while once, and I gave him good interest on it – both our hearts for his single one. He won it from me once, but with false dice, so your grace may well say that I have lost it.’
Don Pedro shook his head. ‘You have put him down lady,’ he said, ‘you have put him down.’
‘I wouldn’t if he wouldn’t do it to me, my lord,’ she retorted. ‘If I allowed him to get away with it he would make a great big fool of me.’ She changed the subject suddenly. ‘I’ve brought Count Claudio, who you told me to go and find.’
‘How are you, Count?’ said Don Pedro. ‘Why are you so sad?’
‘I’m not sad, my lord,’ said Claudio.
‘What then? Sick?’
‘Neither, my lord.’
‘The count is neither sad, nor sick, nor happy nor well: just civil count – Seville as an orange, and something like that same sour complexion,’ said Beatrice.
‘To tell you the truth, lady, I think your description is accurate: although I have to tell you that if he is sour it’s because he misunderstands the situation.’ Don Pedro indicated Hero, whom Claudio had been avoiding looking at. ‘Here, Claudio, I have wooed in your name and fair Hero has been won. I’ve informed her father and obtained his approval. Name the wedding day, and God give you joy!’
Leonato took Hero’s hand and offered it to Claudio. ‘Count,’ he said, ‘take my daughter from me, and with her my fortunes. His grace has made the match and may God endorse it.’
Claudio looked stunned. He stepped forward and took Hero’s hand from Leonato. He was overwhelmed with feeling and couldn’t speak.
‘Say something, count, it’s your cue,’ said Don Pedro.
‘Silence is the most perfect sign of joy,’ said Claudio. ‘I would fail to tell you how happy I am if I tried to put it into words.’ He turned to Hero and looked into her eyes. ‘Lady, in the same way as you are mine, I am yours. I give myself to you and consider myself the winner in the exchange.’
Beatrice clapped her hands delightedly. ‘Speak, cousin,’ she said, ‘ or if you can’t, stop his mouth with a kiss, and don’t let him speak either.’
Hero blushed and, indeed, couldn’t speak. Instead, she whispered something in Claudio’s ear.
Don Pedro was amused. ‘In faith, lady,’ he said, addressing Beatrice, ‘you have a cheerful heart.’
‘Yes, my lord, and I’m grateful to it, poor dear, because it’s steering clear of trouble.’ She nodded towards the happy pair. ‘My cousin is telling him in his ear that he is in her heart.’
Claudio was all smiles. ‘And so she is, cousin,’ he said.
‘Good lord, he’s quick to claim me as a relation!’ exclaimed Beatrice. ‘Everyone gets married except me, and I am dried up and ugly. I just sit in a corner and sigh for a husband!’ She laughed.
‘Lady Beatrice, I will get you one,’ said Don Pedro.
Beatrice looked him up and down. Then she laughed again. ‘I would love to have one of your father’s sons,’ she said. ‘Has your grace got a brother like you? Your father has produced excellent husbands if a young woman could catch them.’
‘Will you have me?’ said the prince.
They looked at each other for a brief moment. His face was serious.
‘No, my lord,’ she said. Her tone was gentle, apologetic. Then she laughed. ‘Unless I can have another for working days: your grace is too expensive to wear every day. But excuse me, your grace, I was born to talk nonsense and never seriously.’
‘I would be offended if you didn’t,’ said Don Pedro, ‘and lightheartedness suits you best because, without doubt, you were made for it.’
‘That’s for sure, my lord,’ she said. ‘My mother was sad enough but there happened to be a dancing star at the time and it was under that that I was born. Cousins! Happiness to you!’
‘Niece,’ said Leonato, will you see to those things I told you about?’
‘Sorry, uncle, of course,’ she said. ‘If your grace doesn’t mind…’
She hurried off.
‘What a pleasant, high-spirited lady she is,’ said Don Pedro, full of admiration, as he watched her go.
‘There’s not an ounce of melancholy in her, my lord,’ said Leonato. ‘She’s never sad, except when she’s asleep, and not even then. My daughter has often said that whenever she’s had a bad dream she’s woken herself by laughing.’
Don Pedro stroked his beard. ‘She can’t bear any talk about husbands.’
‘Not at all,’ said Leonato. ‘She puts all suitors off with her mocking.’
‘Hmm,’ said the prince. ‘She would make an excellent wife for Benedick.’
They all laughed. ‘O lord!’ said Leonato. ‘If they were married they’d drive each other mad in a week.’
The happy couple stood close together, holding hands.
‘Count Claudio,’ said Don Pedro, ‘when do you intend to go to church?’
‘Tomorrow, my lord,’ said Claudio. ‘Time limps painfully slowly until love has its fulfillment in marriage.’
‘Not till Monday, my dear son,’ said Leonato, ‘which is only a week away, and still not enough time for me to arrange things the way I want them.’
Claudio couldn’t hide his disappointment.
‘Come,’ said the prince, ‘you’re shaking your head at such a long pause for breath, but I guarantee, Claudio, that the time won’t drag. I’m going to use the time to undertake a Herculean task, which is to make Benedick and the Lady Beatrice fall in love with each other. I would love to make that match and I’m sure I can do it, if you three will help me as I direct you.’
‘My lord, I am with you,’ said Leonato, even if it costs me ten nights’ loss of sleep.’
‘And I, my lord,’ said Claudio.
‘And you too, gentle Hero?’
‘I’ll do anything, within reason, my lord, to help my cousin to a good husband.’
‘And Benedick wouldn’t make the worst husband I can imagine,’ said Don Pedro. ‘I’ll say this about him: he’s of noble birth, of proved courage and confirmed honesty. I’ll tell you how to condition your cousin so that she’ll fall in love with Benedick, and I, with the help of you two, will work on Benedick in such a way that, in spite of his sharp mind and queasy stomach for marriage, he’ll fall in love with Beatrice. If we can do this, Cupid won’t rule anymore: we’ll be the only gods of love. Come with me and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking.’