Verona In Autumn

By Tom C Lloyd

What if Romeo and Juliet had not died? What if tragedy had not been written in the stars?

Verona - 1381

‘Oh faithless apothecary, thy drugs are false!’

Romeo’s head sinks, the weight of grief too much to bear. The vial tumbles from his hands, empty but for an empty promise, and breaks upon the floor. He slumps against the tomb’s side, exhausted by his unwanted survival.

‘I feel nothing. No embrace of death, no final reunion with my love. I lie here in a cold tomb and yet I live. Juliet is beside me and yet we are apart, separated by God’s judgement or hell’s spite. But wait – I have my dagger still. My love will not be denied.’

With unsteady hands, Romeo draws his knife. Its razor edge carries a wicked gleam in the lantern light, but still he presses it to his lips.

‘A kiss I give you, for your edge is honest. The blacksmith was true though his compatriot cheated me and death itself. Soon my wife and I will be together once more, but before your cold embrace, a kiss for my love. Let that be my last memory of this vale of tears.’

He brushes Juliet’s cheek with reverential fingers. The shock of seeing her this way sends a cold ache through his bones as though the tomb’s chill has taken him. For one moment Romeo wonders if the poison was indeed true. The touch of Juliet’s skin is not so awful to bear now; as though he is already within the shadow of death’s wings.

That small flicker of hope quickens his heart however and stills the notion. Amid the graveyard silence Romeo feels the beat in his chest; strong and regular for all that he would will it to stop. In that moment he knows the poison has truly failed and hope lies only in his hands.

He bends to kiss Juliet but pauses an inch away. So close now, as lovers in the darkest hours should all be. At gentle rest with the tiniest kiss of the other’s breath on their skin. Romeo finds his own caught in his chest, locked in the cage of his body.

Even in fitful moonlight he finds himself transfixed, as he was the first moment he saw her. A beauty only glimpsed but seared into his most vital of organs like the kiss of the sun. He bends low and brushes one errant curl of chestnut hair away before placing the gentlest of kisses on her lips.

Despite the letter he received from his cousin – despite the funeral robes and tomb itself – the truth of Juliet’s death still seems unreal. Her pale skin lacks the spectral hue of the dead, her lips the stiffness of an empty vessel.

‘She could be only sleeping,’ Romeo gasps. ‘Even death cannot rob her of such beauty.’

His hand tightens around the grip of his dagger and grief lends his arm strength.

‘My mind mocks me. I know she is dead these several days, for all it seems a mere moment ago. My heart deceives me. It rails against the truth. My guilt punishes me. For those I have killed I am cursed to imagine those I love still alive. Will I see dear Mercutio look on from the doorway now?’

Romeo looks up as though the ghost of his friend is indeed there, then flinches and touches his fingers to his cheek.

‘Even the wind mocks me,’ he says at last. ‘It caresses my cheek like a lover’s whisper. One last cruel cut of justice. It is not sweet Juliet’s breath though. My madness does not extend so far, for all that this final act will seem more blessing than violence.’

He leans back then stops and blinks. ‘I speak too soon, perhaps I am mad indeed. I would have wagered my life upon her lips parting there.’ Romeo shakes his head and reverses the knife. ‘But it is madness only, of that I’m certain. Come, my only friend, cut this tattered soul free of its pain. Taking this last life will serves the world better than the sum of its deeds ever did.’

Raising the knife high, Romeo turns to behold Juliet in his last breath.

‘I come, my love. Reach out your arms to me.’

There is the faintest of sounds and Romeo hesitates. Madness or not, he heard something more than the lament of the wind. There – again, a sound. A tiny huff of breath, a twitch of the folded cloth on her chest. Romeo gapes and the knife clatters to the ground.

Again his madness breathes. Again Juliet’s chest seems to rise and her lips part. Romeo stumbles back, a faint cry lost in the pit of his chest, but still he hears it more clearly than ever – the drawing of breath.

‘What sorcery or sickness is this?’ Romeo whispers, crouched at the side of the sarcophagus and clinging to the edge like a child. ‘Can I not even go to my death in true fashion? Are hell’s demons so impatient they torment me already?’

The breath rises and becomes a wheeze, a cough. Then like the blessed light of God shining upon the world, Juliet’s eyes flicker and open.

‘Do mine eyes deceive me? Is Juliet returned to life?’

In response Romeo receives a twitch of the cheek then a wan smile. Juliet moans and tries to move, but only feebly until Romeo dives to gently gather her up.

‘Oh my sweet, oh my love – is it really true? Speak I beg you, Juliet. Am I mad or blessed beyond words and reason?’

‘Romeo,’ Juliet whispers, ‘you came.’

‘Came? I...’ he finds himself unable to finish. Instead he simply stares at the girl in his arms – as struck as in that first sighting.

‘Where is the friar?’

‘Friar?’ Romeo says. ‘I am alone. I came to see you one last time. And yet Death’s cold heart cannot bear to steal such a jewel from the world. If this is madness I embrace it. If this is God’s work then I sing his praises.’

‘Death?’ Juliet winces and tries to sit up but is defeated until Romeo helps her. ‘Did Friar Lawrence not send you word?’

Romeo shakes his head. ‘He? I received nothing.’

‘Then how did you know?’

Juliet, my sun and stars, I came here to die alongside my wife in her undeserved tomb!’ Romeo gestures to the dagger lying in the dust. ‘I knew nothing. I came to join you in death, rather than feign to live when such life was without you.’

From outside there is a sudden clatter of boots and voices. Romeo snatches up his dagger and rounds the tomb, but Juliet touches a shaky finger to his arm.

‘Hold, my love, do no more harm.’

Romeo flinches as though stung by a wasp. ‘Harm?’ he whispers in the voice of a man hell-bound. ‘I... it is too late for that.’

The knife falls once more and he points towards the entrance of the tomb. As Juliet struggles to turn and see what lies there, the voices draw closer. Even in his dazed state, Romeo recognises them – Friar Lawrence and his own servant, Balthasar. Before he can summon words they appear at the doorway and stare first at the dead man there, then in wonder at Juliet.

‘Whose blood stains this place of rest? Oh merciful Jesu – Count Paris, he is dead. Romeo, is that you? Did you kill this man here?’

‘I did,’ Romeo says. ‘Is it not my sword lying stained with his blood? Are my hands not stained also?’

‘What happened?’ Friar Lawrence glances back over his shoulder. ‘How did you come here this night? Did my message reach you some other way or did angels guide you?’

‘Grief guided me, or so I thought.’ Romeo turns back to Juliet and takes her hand. ‘Now I wonder though, for fortune has intervened in ways I never dared hope.’

‘Then... No, no more. I hear voices, there is no time for talk. Come with me, you must away both of you.’

‘Away?’

The friar takes Romeo by the shoulders and stops little short of shaking the sense back into him. ‘A cousin of our prince lies dead and the watch surely follows on his heels!’

He waves Balthasar forward and slips Juliet’s arm over his shoulder. The pair help her up, still weakened by feigned death.

‘Romeo, your sword!’ Friar Lawrence hisses. ‘You may yet be forced to win your freedom. Though I do not condone violence, Balthasar and Juliet are innocents in this and I have seen watchmen do bloody harm on all found present at a crime.’

‘My sword? No, I’ll touch it no longer – the blade has only ever brought me hurt. Never again will I wield such a weapon. If I must surrender myself and announce my crimes to stay hasty hands, I will do so. The guilt is mine alone. I will not add to it unless God himself commands me.’

‘Guilty or innocent, they will take you if they find you and all love’s work is undone.’

‘Let us be quick then,’ Romeo declares. ‘I will carry Juliet, she cannot run yet.’ He sweeps Juliet up in his arms and so burdened seems to stand taller than before. With the friar and Balthasar in his wake, Romeo steps out through the entrance and casts around for the watchmen.

‘Some wondrous angel’s hand has intervened to offer us a second chance,’ he says as they set off through the gloom. ‘Let us be bold and grasp that hand before it is withdrawn.’

‘We must go into exile both,’ Juliet agrees, ‘and send word to our families once we are safe.’

‘I will see you on the path,’ Friar Lawrence says, leading the way with lantern held low to avoid betraying them. ‘Then I will return and explain all. Perhaps the same angel will help persuade your parents into sense and ending their feud. For the sake of Verona and their offspring now united, Montague and Capulet must be reconciled.’

‘It is in God’s hands now,’ Juliet whispers. Let the stars favour us this night.’

 

Chapter One

Verona - 1401

A great flock of starlings wheels and dances in the darkening sky over Verona. The city’s bridges and avenues are illuminated with lanterns like golden beads. The sky above is a haze of hearth-smoke and autumn cloud, but there is no concealing Verona’s slow decline from the heavens. A thousand pairs of avian eyes witness the deeds on its streets, the hunger and the helplessness. Lamentations and entreaties rise in the bitter columns of funeral pyres. From such fragile threads the ancient memory of the flock weaves a pattern that tells of better times and current woes.

Unnoticed at first, a carriage rumbles towards the walls of Verona. The flock’s vanguard swirl down to meet it, feasting on the insects it stirs up until they sense a change in the air. Then they swoop and dance all around the carriage, welcoming two long-absent children and adding a new thread to Verona’s tapestry. Even the flock wonders what will become of Verona now, whether this return heralds rebirth or a final conflagration. 

The driver and guard of the carriage, one dark and grave the other fair and full of cheer, both wear long cloaks against the advancing chill of an autumn evening. They barely notice the starlings that sweep overhead as they chatter all the way to the city gate and are hailed by the soldiers of the Porta Palio.

 ‘From where do you come?’ calls the sergeant of the gate, holding his lamp across the roadway. ‘The hour is late and the gate is locked at dusk.’

‘From your home,’ replies the swarthy man while his fairer and fatter companion reins in. ‘We bring letters from Milan and passengers too.’

‘How many?’

‘Five in all, and one of those not so patient as to submit to interrogation before a warm meal is in him.’

‘Their names?’

Before the guard can reply the carriage door bangs open and a young man swings out. He is tall and broad even for a fighting man, with softly curling brown hair that spills from his head. He wears the smile of a man quick to laughter and the scars of one just as swift to wrath.

‘My name will be tattooed on your backside, Sergeant,’ he bellows, ‘if I don’t get a cup of wine before the last light has faded. I recognise that voice, do I not?’

There is a laugh from the guard. ‘As God is my witness, do I spy the Cattle-dog of Carmagnola? Messer Francesco, is that you?’

Francesco offers a theatrical bow. ‘The very same – come to bless this unhappy place with my magnificent presence.’

‘Then you are most welcome here, Messer, unless you hide a ravaging band in that carriage.’ the sergeant exclaims, laughing. ‘Open the gate!’

‘I have no ravagers but Rufus and Aylward here, for I’ve been tempted away from service for a time, Sandro.’

‘You honour me, Messer by recalling.’

‘I honour all those who stood with us on that dark plain, sergeant.’

Sandro bows his head in recollection of the dead. ‘Your pardon, but I must ask your business.’

‘And so you have, Sergeant,’ Francesco replies as he steps up onto the carriage. ‘If any man questions me on it, I shall assure them you did your duty. Now the day is ended and I am weary from travelling. I will visit you tomorrow and toast those who cannot drink with us. Look upon my companions by all means, but their business is mine and my business is in service of your lord.’

The sergeant inclines his head, the bond they share invoked, and waves the carriage forward. Francesco holds the opens the door, permitting the sergeant to peer into the gloomy interior with his lamp held high.

‘A good evening to you all, gracious ladies and honourable gentlemen,’ he says in a more subdued voice. ‘All friends and companions of Messer Francesco are most welcome.’

‘I thank you, sergeant,’ replies a neatly-bearded man of middle years, the father of the family assembled. A life of less than noble ease shows on his lean face though his speech is that of a gentleman. ‘We are indeed glad to count ourselves friends of this bold warrior.’

‘Bold indeed, Messer, and such is the temperament required in Verona. The bravos that prowl this city are a faithless and ignoble breed, whether they be noble-born or hired scum. Like rabid dogs I warn you now, those bound to Montague and Capulet, and just as eager to tear strips off any likely prey. I would caution you as gentle-born to carry a blade whenever you are abroad.’

‘I am not abroad,’ the bearded man says. ‘I am home – and I would carry no blade in either place.’

‘You will not persuade him, Sando,’ Francesco laughs. ‘I’ve tried all the days I’ve known him, but he resists every tactic I employ.’

‘In which case I will withdraw while my dignity remains intact. I claim no greater knowledge of strategy than yours, Messer,’ Sandro says. ‘I wish you all well and a good night. Be safe in this lawless city.’

Francesco closes the door and raps his knuckles against the frame to signal the driver, Aylward, to move on. The carriage rattles through the gate and up the street where soon they are enveloped in the sounds of a city at its evening revels.

Of his companions, two are in their middle years and parents to the younger pair. Mother and father both look at Francesco with perturbed expressions while their offspring, a brother and sister, crowd together at one window. Each displays that wonderstruck manner of a childhood not so long since left behind. The young man is dark-haired like his father and soon to be of a size with him, but both children owes more in features to their delicate and fairer mother.

‘So, my friends, it is done,’ Francesco says. ‘We are here, you are returned safe.’

‘Safe?’ the mother replies, incredulous. ‘You think us safe?’

‘Juliet, peace,’ her husband says. ‘We are here and we are safe. Tonight we eat and sleep after our journey. Let us fear for tomorrow when it comes, there’s nothing more to do.’

‘Should you wish walls and steel about you, my lady,’ Francesco adds, ‘you have but to say the word. This writ I hold from our lord, the duke, is all it requires.’

Juliet shakes her head. ‘A prisoner is not safer than a free man. Anonymity is safer still. Twenty years have passed and I would keep our names from being spoken aloud until we have at least taken stock of the city.’

Romeo smiles. ‘Then keep that shawl about your head, my love. This beard of mine may hide what the years have not, but your beauty is undiminished.’

‘Pah, who in Verona remembers that foolish slip of a girl, beyond her name and parentage?’

‘All of Verona – should you doubt it, take one look at your daughter there. Come, Estelle, turn your face this way. Remind your mother of the youthful promise she has made good on. Now I may grant there is some tilt of proud Montague about our young model’s nose, but the rest is the flower of Capulet that blooms still by my side. Even our friend Francesco can be brought to silence by her regard. God alone knows there is only one man in Italy with such power.’

Juliet is silent a while. She squeezes her husband’s hand in acknowledgement of his words, but whatever truth she finds in them perturbs her more than the fear of advancing years.

‘Should you wish, mother,’ their son suggests with a sly gleam in his eye, ‘we could trawl the markets and find you some substitute for father’s beard there. None would recognise you even if all the city remarked upon it.’

Juliet makes an exasperated sound and swats at her son. ‘Mercutio, you have too much of your namesake’s mischief and high opinion of your own wit! While I wish he were here to welcome us, it is perhaps good he is not available to lead you into bad habits. Trouble is drawn to so sharp a wit; our own history is testament to that.’

While Romeo bows his dark head at the reminder, Francesco laughs. ‘Fortunately our young Mercutio has the pretty eyes of his mother’s house. Those will eject him from trouble as much as they imperil the maidens of Verona!’

Before Juliet can reply, the carriage jolts to a halt, lurching sideways as Rufus swings himself off the driver’s bench.

‘The inn, Messer,’ he announces as he opens the carriage door. ‘Do you want me to secure rooms?’

‘I’ll do that, anything to stretch my legs.’ Francesco gives his companions an assessing look. ‘I’ll take these younglings with me too. Their instruction in the art of negotiation is sorely lacking and the innkeeper here is a miser of the first order.’

When neither parent objects the young pair tumble out of the carriage, while the guards set about unloading the luggage. Romeo and Juliet sit in silence together, hands clasped and lips pursed to contain the fears bubbling inside.

‘Are you ready to walk the streets of Verona again?’ Juliet asks softly.

Above them the guards clatter away and resume their talk of past battles and lost comrades, casting a protective cloak of noise around those within. Romeo flinches as the trunks crash against each other and wrings his hands. The handsome youth he once was has not entirely fled, yet Romeo the elder is greatly more sober and serious.

‘Will I ever be ready?’ he replies. ‘The warrant of arrest may be suspended, but most in Verona consider me a murderer and despoiler of graves – the worst of all men.’

‘Yet they think you alive,’ Juliet says, her small laugh coming close to a sob. ‘That much I cannot claim myself.’

‘An opinion more easily transformed. Your son would hide your beauty behind some scratchy beard, yet one look at your face will be enough for all to acknowledge the truth.’ He brings her fingers up to his lips and kisses them. ‘Just as it is enough for me, each day, my love.’

Her eyebrow raises. ‘Enough, my heart? Oh husband of mine, oh love of mine, I saw you at the tollhouse yesterday. That lady’s maid had every man panting like dogs. Not even my noble husband was immune to her charms.’

‘Then forgive me, Juliet, for I am a man as any other. You know I was a flitting youth and my eye may wander still, but the rest of me keeps true. My youth and foolishness are one and the same, but slowly my hair turns to grey. My forebears assured me that wisdom would accompany it and the further I am from intemperate youth, the more I agree with them.

‘One eye may contain that last scrap of foolishness, but what man is without foolishness?’

‘Oh indeed,’ Juliet says, less sharp than before. ‘None I have ever shared a bed with for certain!’

The gentle jibe brings a smile to Romeo’s face. ‘My other eye beholds only your light. This sinister bee may flit from blossom to blossom, but the trusty right is yours. I would pluck out the other for the offence it does you if not for—’

‘Oh enough, my heart!’ Juliet breaks in, won over and laughing. ‘You are a capering fool even in your maturity, but I would not spoil the face I love still. Grey hairs become you better than they do me and so I trust your eyes and tongue and lips and fingers. I do not mean to dredge up old arguments, tonight of all nights when we must be of one spirit. An eye cannot fail to see, a heart cannot fail to beat and the drum I hear as I sleep beside you tells me all.’

‘It tells you no lies,’ Romeo insists. ‘Of that I swear.’

‘Then I am content. I ask no more than a bath to wash off the stink of travelling and clean sheets. We have spent but one night together in Verona, our wedding night. I would take the pleasure of my husband’s company here once more. Let our moans chase away the unquiet ghosts that have dogged our steps for twenty years. Tomorrow we begin to put them to rest.’

‘So it shall be. Tonight is ours. Verona will wait for the morrow.’ 

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