Malvolio strode along the cobblestoned village street until he could see the strolling attendants of the duke ahead of him. He sent his young page to stop the young man in their midst. Viola turned and walked back. Malvolio stood stiffly, and watched her.
‘Weren’t you with the Countess Olivia a few minutes ago?’ he said when she was standing in front of him.
‘Just a moment ago, sir, walking slowly, I’ve just got here.’
Malvolio raised his cane and slipped the ring on to the end of it. He extended it towards her. ‘She returns this ring to you, sir. You might have saved me some trouble by taking it away yourself. She adds, moreover, that you should make it absolutely clear to your master that she won’t have anything to do with him. And one more thing: that you don’t ever dare come again on that matter unless it’s to tell her how your lord has responded to her rejection.’
He held the cane out and when she ignored it he lowered it and the ring fell on to the ground. ‘Take it like that, then,’ he said.
Viola thought fast. ‘She took the ring from me,’ she said. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘Come sir,’ he said. ‘You threw it to her rudely and she wants it returned in the same way. If it’s worth stooping for, there it lies, as you can see. If not, let whoever finds it have it.’ He turned stiffly and started walking away.
Viola watched him disappear round the corner. She was confused: she hadn’t left a ring with the lady. She picked the ring up. She didn’t recognise it. What did the lady mean? She drew her breath in. Surely she hadn’t taken a fancy to her looks! The lady had looked her up and down a lot: in fact so much that she’d seemed to have become tongue-tied, because she had spoken distractedly, in fits and starts. Viola’s eyes opened wide as it struck her. That was it.! Olivia had fallen in love with her! Her passion had given her the cunning to invite her back as a simple messenger – it had nothing to do with her master’s ring because he hadn’t sent her one! She was the man the lady had fallen in love with! If it was as it seemed, the poor lady might as well be in love with a dream! Disguise, she could see, was a kind of wickedness, allowing the devil to do his work. How easy it was for false hearts to deceive the hearts of women! Unfortunately, it was the weak nature of women that was to blame, not women themselves. They had to be what nature had made them. How would this turn out? Her master was in love with her and she, poor devil, was equally in love with him! And the lady, deceived, seemed to be in love with her! What was going to happen? As a man, she had no chance of enjoying her master’s love: as she was a woman – God forbid she should cease to be that – how fruitless the sighs will be that Olivia breathes! Only time would untangle it: it was too hard a knot for her to untie.
She ran to catch up with the others.