Episode Twenty-One – ‘Romeo is Moping’, Part Six

“It’s broken,” moaned Romeo as both Michael and I bent in concern over his prostate form.

“Your ankle?” said Michael, kneeling down to run his hands gently over Romeo’s lower limbs in a search for signs of damage.

“No, my heart,” sighed Romeo. “Rosaline says she does not love me!”

“Well, yes, that’s a real shame,” I murmured in a tone of somewhat distracted consolation. The building behind us was humming with noise now, a confused medley of footsteps, doors opening and closing and bewildered voices calling out to one another. I was sorry for Romeo’s broken heart, I really was, but it seemed to me to be the least of our problems right now. “Do you think you can stand?” I asked the crumpled teenager. “We need to get out of here, pronto.”

Sadly, Romeo did not seem inclined to take such an urgent view of our situation. “How could she say such cruel things to me?” he complained, making no effort to move. “What have I done to deserve such treatment?”

There were several possible answers to this last question, none of which I felt it would do much good to air just at this moment. Together with the growing crescendo of noise, fresh pin-pricks of light were popping up throughout the convent, indicating more and more nuns being roused from their sleep. “Perhaps we can leave the full debrief for later,” I suggested. “If we don’t get out of here right now we’re going to land ourselves in some serious trouble.”

“Trouble? What care I for trouble?” Romeo languidly declared. “Without Rosaline my life is over!”

“Now, now, I’m sure there’s no need to go quite that far,” murmured Michael sympathetically. Sensing that action, rather than words, was what was required now, he grasped Romeo firmly beneath the right elbow and nodded at me to do the same with the left. With a concerted effort we somehow managed to haul the unhappy teenager up onto his feet. “There, how does that feel?” Michael asked him solicitously. “Just a few cuts and bruises I think, nothing more.”

Romeo turned on him angrily. “I see, so you too think my love is fickle, do you?” he challenged. “You believe that my affections are a mere trifle? That they will soon pass like a mild fever?”

“Well, I’m sure it doesn’t feel particularly mild right now,” replied Michael soothingly. “But at your age…”

“Age has nothing to do with it,” asserted Romeo. “Love is love. I love Rosaline. If she cannot be mine then life has no meaning for me.”

The noises from inside the convent building were by now beginning to take on a certain pitch which suggested that, after a period of initial confusion, the nuns within were coming together and organising themselves. I had an alarming sensation of forces gathering just beyond the kitchen door. All the time Romeo was speaking, Michael and I were trying to gently steer him away from the building and into the garden. “Let’s not do anything rash, shall we?” I muttered soothingly as we moved.

But just as we finally reached the edge of some cover in the shape of a row of tall ferns Romeo suddenly dug his heels in. “I mean it, I’ll do away with myself this very night!” he announced, glaring defiantly at us. “Don’t deceive yourselves into thinking I have neither the will nor the means. It would be the simplest thing for me to procure such mortal drugs as would end this pain in an instant!”

“Now Romeo…” Michael began.

But before he could get any further the kitchen door suddenly burst open and a nun in a plain nightdress and loosely wrapped shawl stepped out, holding forth both a large lamp and an alarmingly resolute expression. Framed in the light of the doorway behind her I could see a crowd of similarly-attired nuns. Some carried lamps and candles whilst others seemed to have armed themselves with a variety of kitchen implements. In the flickering light the image immediately brought to mind those scenes in old Frankenstein movies when the villagers gather with torches and pitchforks.

It was clear to me that any further discussions regarding matters of the heart would have to be postponed. Without further ado, I grabbed Romeo by the sleeve and yanked him into the cover of the foliage, relying on Michael to follow on behind. Together, we all plunged through the garden in the vague direction of the gate. Any concern I might have felt for Sister Ursula’s neatly ordered beds was cast aside as we trampled over borders and shoved aside branches in our anxiety to get away. (And before you judge my actions too harshly may I just remind you that I have history when it comes to being chased by nuns, a history that couldn’t help but flash through my mind as we ran. I mean, this lot might not have been quite the ravenous zombie horde I had encountered all the way back in Salzburg during our earliest days in the landscape but I tell you there’s something singularly unnerving about a pack of nuns once they get on your tail.)


The trouble was that the garden was difficult territory to navigate at the best of times; in the dark of night, with a baying crowd in pursuit and a suicidal teenager dragging reluctantly behind you, it was all but impossible to maintain a sense of direction. Plants and trees pressed in on all sides and I soon lost sight of the outer wall. By the time it came back into view again I was no longer sure which section of wall I was looking at – north, south or east? Not daring to stop or slow down, I took the chance on throwing a hasty glance behind as I ran in an attempt to re-orientate myself. But at almost the exact same moment as I took my eyes off the trail ahead, a pair of shadowy figures suddenly emerged out of nowhere, travelling at speed in the opposite direction.

We all went down in a heap.

My oil lamp was wrenched from my grasp and all the breath knocked out of my body. For a moment or two my world was reduced to a confusing swirl of cloaks and limbs while my nostrils were filled with a heavy sent of rosemary. Once I had finally managed to distinguish up from down, I pulled my face out of the patch of herbs into which it had been so unceremoniously thrust and found myself staring directly into that of a very flushed and breathless Friar Lawrence. “Good Lord, what have you done?” he just about managed to exclaim between gasps of air.

Before I could formulate any sort of coherent response, the area around us was suddenly flooded with a pool of light, as if somebody had just flicked a switch and turned on the dawn. I looked up to see a group of nuns in nightwear forming a loose circle around the area of the collision, the glow of their lamps and candles joining together to create an unexpectedly intense spotlight on our fallen figures. After a moment a single figure stepped forward from the crowd and, blinking into the unaccustomed light, I gradually recognised the face as belonging to Sister Ursula.

“Oh, my poor rosemary,” she murmured with a sorrowful shake of her head.

I made a hurried effort to release the remains of the poor plant crushed beneath me but in my struggles to get to my feet only succeeded in rolling over and squishing an adjoining plant.

“My poor milk thistle,” sighed Sister Ursula. “My poor marjoram, my jasmine,” she went on as though reciting a lament for the dead while those of us who had landed in the herb patch went about the business of disentangling our limbs and dragging ourselves upright.


When I had finally got back on my feet, I turned to look down upon the wreckage we had left behind. A rather sheepish “Sorry” was all I could find to say.

For a moment afterwards the two groups – nuns and fugitives – faced one another in awkward silence. Then a murmur seemed to ripple through the ranks of the sisters and finally the circle parted and the Prioress stepped forward through the crowd and came to stand beside Sister Ursula. Even dressed in a faded nightshirt and with thick tendrils of greying hair escaping from a slightly askew nightcap she exuded an air of authority. She surveyed the ravaged remains of the herb patch for a good minute before laying a hand on Sister Ursula’s shoulder in sympathetic silence. Sister Ursula nodded sadly in acknowledgement of the gesture before stepping back into the ranks of the nuns, leaving the Prioress to face us alone.

The Prioress let her eyes range slowly over the ragged band of intruders before finally fixing her eyes on me. “I was afraid it would be our destiny to meet again,” she finally said. “Though even in my wildest imaginings I never suspected you would return to my convent so soon and in such extraordinary circumstances.”

Unable to think of an adequate response, I simply hung my head.

“And as for you sir,” the Prioress went on, turning to Michael. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Have you not done enough damage to this poor girl’s reputation? You would do better to tame your lusts, sir, and return to your wife before your actions lead you to an infernal end.”

Given that I had not yet found an opportunity to regale Michael with the details of my putative pregnancy and the role I had assigned him in its conception, he could only answer with a bewildered, “Excuse me?”

The Prioress’s gaze, however, had already shifted along the line to Friar Lawrence. “And you Father, whatever could bring you into my garden at such an hour?” she said, shaking her head in wonder at the sight of the dishevelled Friar and his young assistant, Adelmo.

“Well, I…” began the Friar.

But the Prioress had already caught sight of Adelmo’s basket, lying at his feet with half its contents scattered on the ground around him, and guessed the answer. “Oh father, how could you?” she said sadly. “Creeping around the convent in the dead of night like a common thief!”

“No, not that, not thief exactly…” responded Friar Lawrence weakly.

“I thought a man of God such as yourself would have more regard for the seventh commandment,” pronounced the Prioress.

“Ah, now that is most unjust of you my Lady,” blustered Friar Lawrence. “That my actions are a little unorthodox, I cannot deny, but it is you who have driven me to such extremes. First you suggest cooperation between our two houses in our efforts to cure the sick and the lame, then you withdraw access to your garden just when we need your herbs the most.”

The Prioress uttered an indignant harrumph. “How quickly you assign blame Father! It is you who has brought dispute between our two houses. How can you expect me to continue to grant access to our garden while all the time you slander both myself and my establishment all across the city?”

“I make no slander my Lady, I speak only the truth,” countered Friar Lawrence. “Everyone knows to what use you put your herbs. The service that you offer to young women is an open secret throughout the region. I can no longer hold my piece on the issue.”

“So, just to be clear, is it the service itself or merely the fact that it is talked of to which you object?” challenged the Prioress.

“By letting it be known that you offer such service you encourage young women to sin,” insisted Friar Lawrence.

“I deny that it is so,” retorted the Princess stoutly. “In my experience, young women are generally brought to such condition by ignorance and, if handled with kindness and patience, can soon be led onto a better path. I will confess that occasionally my judgement fails me (at this point the Prioress flung me a furious look) but I am generally most careful about whom I favour with my assistance.”

“That’s all very well but the church is here to sustain life not destroy it,” returned Friar Lawrence. “You charge me with breaking the seventh commandment but I say to you, what of the fifth?”

“I will not sustain life by turning away these women in their hour of need,” asserted the Prioress. “If I refuse to help, what happens then? They must give birth to a child they have no means of supporting. Society shuns them, no decent house will take them in. Those that survive the trauma of the birth will expire from want within six months, mother and baby both.”

“That’s all very well but I say again that your service is an encouragement to vice,” was all Friar Lawrence had to offer by way of return.

“Well, if we are to talk of encouragements to vice then perhaps we should make mention of the particular service for which your monastery is renowned,” argued the Prioress, immediately on the attack again. “Is it not widely known that any gentlemen afflicted with a member of poor standing might apply to you for a remedy that will restore all his powers to him? What is that if not an incitement to lust and vice?”

“Ah, now, such infusions as we make are provided to respectably married men only,” retorted Friar Lawrence, somewhat officiously. “Such aids to divinely sanctioned procreation are in fact a means of strengthening the bounds of holy matrimony, not an incitement to vice.”

The Prioress let loose another indignant snort. “You cannot tell me that you believe for an instant that the regular deliveries of your so-called ‘saffron tea’ provided to the Duke of Mantua are for the purposes of enabling him to lie with his wife! It is common knowledge that the Duke and Duchess have not shared the same room, let alone the same bed, for years.”

“Ah, now, I cannot be expected to be fully aware of all the intimate details of the Duke’s household arrangements,” blustered Friar Lawrence.

“But I’m sure you’re fully aware of the steady stream of buxom young servant girls that find employment at the palace,” challenged the Prioress. “Several of whom have subsequently ended up at my door. If your conscience is so badly troubled by the prospect of unmarried young mothers you might find that you were able to thin their ranks quite considerably merely by curtailing the Duke’s supply of saffron tea.”

Friar Lawrence, seeing that the Prioress now had him backed into a corner, could only look unhappily at the ground before weakly protesting, “But the Duke of Mantua is a very great patron of our order. His funds help pay for the upkeep of the monastery.”

“And you respond by turning a blind eye to his peccadillos while condemning those of others,” asserted the Prioress. “That is rank hypocrisy.”

Friar Lawrence briefly tried to maintain a defiant posture but under the Prioress’s withering gaze he soon slumped into a weary sigh. “To tell the truth, I only spoke out about the young women visiting the convent at the urging of the Bishop,” he said mournfully. “If it were not for him, I would gladly have held my counsel on the subject.”

“Ha, the Bishop!” cried the Prioress. “Now there’s another who stands vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy. Some of the stories I have heard about what goes on at the Bishop’s Palace would make your hair stand on end.”

“Yet he holds ecclesiastical sway over our order, I cannot openly defy him,” bemoaned Friar Lawrence. “Believe me, I would gladly steer clear of such things if I could. I’m really not cut out for all this politicking. Why does a man join a monastery, if not to avoid the corruptions and pitfalls of the wider world?” He sighed heavily again. “Only sometimes it seems there is no hiding from the world, wherever you go.”

Friar Lawrence’s expression was so crestfallen by this point that the Prioress couldn’t help but soften her own. “We build our walls, thinking we can remain pure,” she said with a nod to the high white walls of the convent, “yet we cannot hold ourselves entirely aloof from the world around us. Somehow or other it will always find a way in. What choice do we have but face up to whatever God brings us with an open heart and a devout will?”

Friar Lawrence responded to the Prioress’s sympathetic smile with a grateful nod of understanding.

“Which brings me to the question of how to deal with the rest of our nocturnal visitors,” the Prioress added, her glare swinging back in my direction with such suddenness that it caught me entirely off guard. To be honest, I’d been so absorbed by the quarrel between the Prioress and the Friar that I had all but forgotten my own awkward situation.

“Perhaps our two lovers will now tell us exactly what reason they had for sneaking into my garden at night,” the Prioress continued with a pointed look. “Are there really no other, more convenient spots for a midnight tryst in Verona or did you think you might also help yourself to some of our herbs?”

“Lovers? Trysts?” piped up Michael in some confusion. “I’m sorry, am I missing something here? You seem to have got quite the wrong end of the stick.”

“Don’t try playing the wounded innocent with me sir,” retorted the Prioress sharply. “Your looks and charm will have no effect here.”

I could see that there was nothing for it but to come clean. “I’m very sorry my Lady but I must confess that I did not tell the truth when I came to see you this afternoon,” I said, adopting as contrite an expression as I could manage. “Michael and I are not in fact having an affair and I am most definitely not pregnant.”

“Pregnant?” spluttered Michael, turning to glare at me in astonishment.

“But why make up such a falsehood?” asked the Prioress, with an air of confusion.

“It was simply a ruse to get me through the door,” I confessed, preferring to avoid Michael’s gaze for the time being. “I wanted to speak to one of your novices, Rosaline, and it was the only thing I could think of to persuade you to let me in.”

“Novice Rosaline?” repeated the Prioress in a puzzled tone. She turned sharply to the crowd of nuns behind her. “Are you here, Novice Rosaline?” she called out.

“I am, my Lady,” replied a voice and a figure stepped forward from the mass, bowing her head humbly before the Prioress. This was in fact the first time I had got a good look at Rosaline and I could quite easily see why she might turn a teenage boy’s head. She appeared to be a few years older than Romeo, rather on the petite side, with a sweet round face and long dark hair that tumbled loosely round her shoulders.

“Did you invite these people to the convent tonight Novice Rosaline?” demanded the Prioress.

“Please, my lady Abbess, I did not,” replied Rosaline. “It was Romeo who came clambering up my balcony unbidden. I told him I wanted nothing more to do with him but he insisted on pressing his suit.”

“Romeo?” repeated the Prioress uncertainly. “Who is Romeo?”

“Well, he’s…” I began, intending to draw Romeo forward as I figured it was high time he shouldered some responsibility for this whole farrago. But it was only now, as I turned and looked right round the whole herb patch, that I realised that the lovesick teenager was nowhere to be seen.  “Hang on a minute, where’s Romeo?” I said in confusion

“He was with us when we collided with the Friar,” said Michael, glancing around with an expression just as puzzled as my own.

“He most certainly was, he fell right on top of me!” confirmed Friar Lawrence in a disgruntled tone.

“I think he must have escaped in the confusion after our fall,” piped up Adelmo. “I have an idea I saw him running off in the direction of the wall just before the nuns encircled us.”

“Well, how do you like that?” I muttered. “He scuttles off to save his own skin while dropping us right in it.”

“I’m afraid that saving his own skin might be the last thing on his mind,” returned Michael in a worried voice. “Don’t you remember what he was saying just before we had to make a dash for it?”

“Oh hell,” I said. “You don’t suppose he really meant that, do you?”

“Meant what precisely?” demanded Friar Lawrence, looking keenly at the pair of us.

“Well, he just… That is, what with the whole wooing thing not going quite as he’d hoped,” I unhappily confessed, “he kind of suggested he wanted to do away with himself.”

“By my holy order, I knew it was a mistake to raise his hopes like this,” exclaimed Friar Lawrence.

“But who exactly is this Romeo of whom you speak?” asked the Prioress, struggling to follow the unexpected turn in the conversation.

“He is Lord Montague’s only son,” explained Friar Lawrence. “He was previously enamoured of sweet Rosaline and had come here tonight in the hopes of persuading her to forsake her vows and return to him.”

“And you had rebuffed these fresh advances?” said the Prioress to Rosaline.

Rosaline nodded. “Forgive me, my Lady. I did try to let him down gently but he was so insistent. I do try to hold my temper but it’s hard sometimes…”

“Calm yourself child,” said the Prioress, laying a soothing hand on Rosaline’s shoulder. “If you offered no encouragement then I cannot see that you have done anything wrong. But it sounds as though we would do well to assure ourselves of the boy’s safety. Do you think him one who is likely to carry out such a threat?”

“He was always rather fond of the grand gesture,” remarked Rosaline worriedly.

“We must act quickly to track him down,” advised Friar Lawrence, “for he is swift of foot and has a fine start over us. The difficulty is in knowing here would he be headed. Home to fashion a noose for himself? Or to the bridge with the idea of jumping in the river?”

“The last thing he said was that it would be the easiest thing for him to obtain such mortal drugs as would end this life forever,” noted Michael.

Friar Lawrence and the Prioress exchanged a look. “The apothecary!” they declared as one.

“Well, that ought to buy us a bit of time,” I said with a sigh of relief. “At least we know the apothecary won’t be open at this hour.”

“I would not rest easy just yet,” warned the Prioress. “If there is coin on offer that man will open his doors at any hour.”

“And he will not scruple at what he sells,” added Friar Lawrence with a shudder.

“Then I think you had better tell us the quickest way to the apothecary’s house,” said Michael grimly.

“I will show you the way myself,” replied Friar Lawrence. “I know it well.”

“Our blessings be with you,” said the Prioress. “We will pray that you are successful in your quest.”

Friar Lawrence nodded resolutely in acknowledgement. “Come, come,” he said to Michael and I, “Let us find young Romeo with all speed, Before he can enact his dreadful deed.”

To be continued…

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