The servant burst into the tavern with all the unnecessary flourish of a lesser actor making the most of a minor role. As soon as he spotted Michael and I seated at our corner table he hurried over, bowed extravagantly and loudly declaimed, “Good sirs, my Lord Montague doth request a moment of your time.”
I glared irritably at him.
It was not solely, or indeed primarily, the excessive melodrama that irritated me. Nor was it the fact of being addressed as ‘Good sir’, for I was obliged to concede that this was more or less my own fault. When we had pitched up in Renaissance Verona and realised we would need some sort of cover for poking about in search of the latest room of Sturridge’s hidden prison I was the one who had suggested we pose as a pair of wandering scholars making a study of local history. Unfortunately, in making this suggestion I had neglected to consider the fact that for most people of this era the notion of a female scholar was something quite beyond their comprehension. My miscalculation didn’t prove entirely disastrous however as it turned out that, whenever confronted by this apparent contradiction in terms, the Veronese citizens invariably opted to simply ignore all the biological evidence before their eyes and act as though they never doubted for a second that I was a man. Which meant being addressed as ‘Good sir’ wherever I went but I could live with that.
No, what was actually irritating me about the servant’s flamboyant pronouncement was the fact that, after waiting a day and a half to secure an interview with Lord Montague, the summons had finally been issued just as we were about to tuck into our lunch.
“He wants to see us now?” I clarified, gazing dejectedly at the bowl of steaming broth which had just been laid before me.
“My Lord did commend me to issue this writ with all haste,” the servant, clearly not one for a simple yes or no answer, affirmed.
“I suppose we’d better come along then,” sighed Michael, casting a rueful glance over the table.
Thus, with a heavy heart and an empty stomach, we accompanied the servant to the Palazzo Montague.
Lord Montague received us in his counting house, a narrow, wood-panelled room on the first floor that served as part office, part study. He wasn’t especially tall or broad but he exuded a sort of ruddy solidity that made him seem a much larger man than he actually was. In fact, the effect was so pronounced that when he stepped forward to greet us, the fulsome sleeves of his doublet billowing as he raised his arms, I had for one terrible moment the alarming sensation that he was about to swallow us whole. Fortunately, he contented himself with giving Michael and I in turn a simple embrace before retreating to the space behind his desk. It was only once these manoeuvres had been completed that I noticed that there was another person in the room, a tall, willowy young man standing silently but eagerly attentive beside Lord Montague’s desk.
“Welcome Master Redgrave, Master Everingham,” declared Lord Montague in a voice so resonant that it seemed to bounce off the walls. “I thank you for attending upon me. I beg pardon that I have not received you sooner but I am so plagued with business matters just now that my hours are scarce mine own.” He underlined this point by indicating with a vague wave of his hand the numerous papers and scrolls littered across his desk.
Michael made a deprecatory gesture intended to show that we thought nothing of the delay and I did my best not to think of the dish of broth growing cold on the tavern table.
“Allow me to introduce Benvolio, a young kinsman of mine,” said Lord Montague with a nod towards the willowy young man.
Benvolio sprang forward and offered us a low bow. “You do me honour Uncle,” he declared. “For proud indeed am I to belong to the noble house of Montague. Blessed indeed do I count that providential star which guided my birth and enjoined my name to such distinguished lineage…”
“Yes, yes, that’ll do Benvolio,” said Lord Montague, waving him back with an impatient gesture. “Now then, let us straight to business good sirs. I have word that you beg leave to make enquiries within mine estate.”
“That is correct my Lord,” confirmed Michael with a deferential nod of his head. “My friend and I are poor scholars who desire to make a history of fair Verona. Naturally, such a work would not be complete without detailed reference to the noble house of Montague, whose deeds are renowned far and wide. Therefore, we beg that your Lordship will grant us licence to move freely about his estate in pursuit of our studies.”
I confined myself to nodding solemnly in agreement, preferring to let Michael do the talking. It had to be admitted that he had something of a knack for spouting this sort of guff, whereas I tended to stumble over my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and generally sounded like a poorly-prepared understudy in a half-baked school production.
“Hmm, I see,” said Lord Montague thoughtfully. “Before I answer your petition, allow me to ask one question; how far have you got with your studies?” He left the briefest of pauses and then went on. “Hast thou made enquiries in any other quarter of the city? Will any other names feature in this work of yours?” Lord Montague again paused, drumming his fingers distractedly on the table. Michael and I, sensing that he wasn’t quite done yet, waited patiently. “In short, good sirs, what I mean to say is…” Lord Montague finally, with the greatest of efforts, wound himself up to the crucial point. “Have you spoken to the Capulets?”
Michael and I exchanged a wary glance. We had been expecting this. You couldn’t spend more than five minutes in Verona without becoming aware of just how all-encompassing was the Montague-Capulet feud. It was like a black hole that sucked in everyone connected with the city. No matter how neutral you might wish to remain, every place you visited, every person you spoke to, even the way you dressed was liable to be construed as favouring one side or the other.
Fortunately, the co-ordinates on the inter-dimensional travel drive indicated that the hidden room of Sturridge’s prison almost certainly lay somewhere within the Montague side of town so Michael and I figured we ought to be able to side-step the feud by simply avoiding the Capulets altogether. With this in mind, Michael considered his words carefully before replying.
“Having at first cast our gaze across the whole of Verona, my Lord,” he said slowly, “it soon became apparent to my companion and I that by far the most interesting history lies in a very clearly defined area of the town. The rest is mere filler. Therefore, if your Lordship will permit our enquiries within his estate, we desire to look no further.”
“Ha! Well spoken my man!” exclaimed Lord Montague in delight. “You will find nothing of consequence has ever happened in that other Verona estate and I say it shows great intelligence for you to have realised this so soon. Wouldn’t you say so, Benvolio? What worthy scholars, eh?”
“Quite so my Lord,” Benvolio hastily agreed. “Verily, you speak the truth. Why, one can see at once that the fine light of reason shines clear o’er their…”
“Yes, yes, that’s enough Benvolio!” interrupted Lord Montague. He turned upon Michael and I with a benevolent gaze. “Good sirs, I gladly grant leave for you to make such enquiries as you see fit within mine estate. And what is more you shall have that in writing. Benvolio, fetch me parchment!”
I allowed myself a slight triumphant smile as Lord Montague seated himself with some ceremony behind his desk while Benvolio hastened to set before him parchment, quill and ink. The wandering scholar pose had worked a treat.
“You are most generous, my Lord,” said Michael as Lord Montague dipped his quill in the ink. “I cannot think how we could ever repay you for such kindness.”
Lord Montague got as far as touching the quill lightly on the paper before hesitating. Suddenly, he looked up. “Well, now you come to mention it, there is one thing you can do for me.”
My heart sank.
“Of course, if we can be of service…” Michael somewhat warily returned.
Lord Montague set down his quill altogether and rose to his feet in the manner of someone who had something they had long wanted to get off their chest. My heart sank a little further. “What I am about to say concerns my son, Romeo,” Lord Montague began. “Perchance you may have heard of him?”
“Ye-es,” said Michael slowly.
“The trouble with Romeo is…” Lord Montague began to pace back and forth. “Well, perhaps I should start by saying that Romeo, mine only son and heir, is a young fellow on the very cusp of manhood. He is most dear in my affections and I would not for all the world see any harm come to him.”
“Most worthy sentiments that any father would understand,” said Michael graciously.
“The trouble I have is that I must take myself out of town on business for a day or two and I am afraid that something may befall young Romeo whilst I am away,” advised Lord Montague. “Every hour of my journey is likely to be fraught with worry unless I can assure myself of his safe-keeping whilst I am gone.”
“You think Romeo is in some sort of danger?” said Michael with a puzzled frown.
“The danger I must confess is largely of his own making,” replied Lord Montague with a sigh. “What you must understand is that Romeo is a sensitive boy, inclined to thoughts of a poetical nature. I would gladly shake him out of his dolorous temper but Lady Montague says that it is only a phase through which many a young man must pass and that we should show patience.” Lord Montague threw Michael and I an exasperated glance that indicated precisely how highly he rated Lady Montague’s opinion on the matter.
“Anyway, for the sake of peace within the family I have learned to live with the boy’s moods, more or less, but this past week I swear there has been something more,” Lord Montague went on. “Romeo is now so uncommonly melancholy that all who look upon him are grieved by his countenance. Fearing for his health, I sent forth Benvolio to speak with his cousin and see if he could learn the cause of Romeo’s troubles. Benvolio, tell Master Redgrave and Master Everingham what you discovered.”
“Certainly, my Lord.” Eagerly accepting the invitation, Benvolio stepped forward and struck up a thoughtful pose. “It was an hour before the sun peered forth the golden window of the east,” he declared, “whence I did set forth upon your quest and go in search of Romeo. At last, beneath the grove of sycamore that…”
“Skip to the detail Benvolio,” urged Lord Montague.
“Of course, my Lord,” Benvolio humbly nodded. “So, here espying good Romeo I engaged with him by calling forth, ‘Good morrow cousin’. To which he, with melancholy sigh, replied, ‘Is the day so young?’ ‘But new struck nine,’ said I…”
“The detail Benvolio!” cried Lord Montague in exasperation.
“Quite so, my Lord,” said Benvolio, only slightly chastened. “Anyway, in short, after discoursing this way and that on various topics for some time…” Out of the corner of his eye Benvolio caught sight of Lord Montague’s glowering face and hurried to the end. “…in short, I say, I am brought to the conclusion that dear Romeo doth sicken for love.”
“Love!” Lord Montague coughed up the word like an unwanted furball.
“Ay, my Lord. I was unable to wrest from him the name of the young lady in question but it seems that Romeo has been thwarted in his affections and doth waste away as a consequence.”
“A lovesick son, heaven help me!” cried Lord Montague, throwing up his hands in despair. “What sins have I committed that my offspring plagues me thus? Now surely you will understand my cares. If Romeo, a moody boy at the very best of times, has been cast aside by some girl there is no saying what he might do while I am away!”
“I have every sympathy for your worries my Lord,” said Michael soothingly, “but I’m afraid I fail to see what Master Everingham and I could possibly do to help.”
“Keep him busy!” cried Lord Montague. “Occupation, that’s what the boy needs! I’ve been wracking my brains wondering what I might do to take his mind off his troubles and now you show up with this study of yours and I say to myself that sounds like just the thing! If you would only agree to take him under your wing then I should be able to leave town with a much lighter heart.”
Michael and I exchanged worried glances. I couldn’t say I much fancied the job of babysitting a lovelorn Romeo at the best of times and it could only impede our efforts to find the hidden room of Sturridge’s prison. But how to politely refuse Lord Montague’s request without losing his patronage altogether?
“Well…” Michael began slowly, stalling for time.
“Come now, tis a fair exchange, tis it not?” urged Lord Montague. “You shall have the run of my estates in return for showing but a little care for my son.”
“Very fair, certainly,” returned Michael diplomatically. “But we’ve never even met Romeo. Surely he would prefer the company of friends at such a time?”
“What Romeo would prefer and what he needs are rarely alike,” said Lord Montague sternly. “I know that crowd he runs with – vagabonds and reprobates mostly. Lord knows what trouble they will lead him into.”
“Then someone from the family perhaps…” Michael suggested.
“The best part of my retinue travels with me and of those that are left…” Lord Montague gave a despairing little shake of his head. “My best option before you came along was Benvolio and, with the best will in the world, a dose of Benvolio is scarcely the best medicine for a moody boy.”
Benvolio opened his mouth to speak but, for once, thought better of it and merely adopted a wounded look instead.
“No, fresh faces are what are needed for this business, wouldn’t you say?” insisted Lord Montague. “Give him something different to think on.”
“Well…” said Michael again.
“So, what say you to my proposal?” Lord Montague gave a nod to the blank piece of parchment on his desk. “Undertake to keep my son busy and safe from care during my absence and you shall have my blessing to study whenever and wherever you please.”
Michael threw one last helpless glance in my direction but I had nothing to offer other than a despairing shrug.
“Very well, my Lord,” Michael finally, reluctantly, conceded. “We will gladly take care of Romeo for you in your absence.”
Lord Montague clapped Michael enthusiastically on the shoulder before returning to his desk and picking up his quill. “Excellent news! This arrangement will work out perfectly,” he said as he began to write. “By the time I return I surely know, you will have cured poor lovesick Romeo.”
To be continued…