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

Friar Lawrence demonstrated a quite unexpected turn of speed as he wound his way through the dark, deserted Verona streets. The ever-faithful Adelmo trotted obediently along by his side while Michael and I trailed a little way behind in a somewhat foreboding silence. I could sense that Michael had something to say about the events of this evening, could practically hear his thoughts clanking into gear, but he seemed to be taking some time to work up to it. On the rare occasions that he took to brooding like this I had long since learned it was better not to interfere and to let him get to his point in his own time, however long that might take. It was something of a relief then when, turning another corner, he suddenly burst out with, “I knew it was a mistake to try and push this affair of Romeo and Rosaline. I should never have let you talk me into it.”

“Well, we weren’t to know he would make such a hash of his big balcony scene, were we?” I replied, feeling that the blame was being somewhat unfairly apportioned here.

“But that’s precisely my point – of course we were!” said Michael with surprising vehemence. “Didn’t I warn you that we had stumbled into the realms of tragedy? Romeo is a tragic character – he is doomed to his fate no matter what he tries.”

“So, what are you saying?” I countered. “That we should have left him to get on with it and just done our best to step over the trail of corpses he left behind?”

“Maybe,” replied Michael with an unhappy sigh. “After all, we can’t change the outcome. And by meddling in his affairs we put ourselves at the mercy of the same fate. We have essentially become tragic characters too.”

“Excuse me, but I am not a tragic character, I am an actual person,” I somewhat huffily replied. “And I say bollocks to fate.”

“Spoken like a true tragic character,” Michael wryly noted. “Ever heard of a certain character trait called hubris?”

“Yeah, well, that kind of concept is all very well for a critical theory class but it’s not much use when you’re in the thick of the action,” I retorted. “If you start believing too much in fate you run the risk of turning into my Uncle Derek who has never done a stroke of work for the last ten years cos he reckons he had it read in his tea leaves once that he would suffer a terrible accident whilst engaged in some form of manual labour.”

“Alright, I admit your Uncle Derek may be just lazy rather than tragic,” conceded Michael, “but you have to remember that he exists in the real world and not the landscape of the imagination. There are some forces that are rather more tangible in this world and fate is one of them. Only a fool would fail to take that into consideration.”

I responded to this with a noise that came some way between a harrumph and a growl, which was perhaps my way of acknowledging that Michael may have a point there, even if I didn’t care to admit it out loud. We walked on in silence for a moment or two before I responded, “Well, if it is all down to fate then at least whatever happens to Romeo tonight can’t actually be our fault, can it?”

“Perhaps not but I doubt Lord Montague will see it that way,” Michael rather pointedly observed.

It was at just this point that we came to a juddering halt as Friar Lawrence finally reached his destination. He had pulled up in the centre of a narrow lane lined with tall, crooked buildings that seemed to lurch unsteadily towards one another. It seemed unlikely that much sun reached this quarter of Verona at the best of times but in the dead hours of the early morning it was infused with a peculiar sense of gloom that did nothing to ease the feeling of impending doom nurtured by our recent conversation.

“This is the house of the apothecary,” Friar Lawrence told us, indicating a door to the left. A cracked sign hung above the door but in the dense shadows all I could make out to be painted on it were a few faded letters and what appeared to be an upside-down turnip. “Do you see any sign of life Adelmo?” Friar Lawrence asked his apprentice who had his nose pressed up against the murky window.

“There is a dim light Father. I think there must be a candle burning within.”

Friar Lawrence hammered hard upon the door. “Open up! Open up I say!” he cried.

A long silence followed. Friar Lawrence had just commenced knocking for a second time when the door swung unexpectedly open, almost tipping him into the arms of the young woman who had opened it. “Cease your row sir!” ordered the woman. “You will rouse the whole neighbourhood!”

“Call forth the apothecary,” demanded Friar Lawrence, struggling to recover an air of authority along with his balance. “I would speak with him this instant.”


“My master is a-bed sir,” said the maid. “As all honest fellows should be at this hour,” she rather tartly added.

“I seek one Romeo Montague, a young lad who I believe desires to do business with your master this very night,” said Friar Lawrence. “Have you had any visitors this past hour?”

“Business hours are between ten and six,” replied the woman, thereby neatly avoiding the question.

Friar Lawrence regarded her sternly. “This is a grave matter. A young man’s mortal soul is at stake. Think carefully on your answer, my child.”

His words were delivered with such weight that a lesser soul would surely have crumbled but I sensed that fending off urgent enquiries in the middle of the night was all part of the job for the apothecary’s maid. She calmly held the Friar’s searching gaze for a moment or two before offering up a contemptuous shrug by way of response. And her sterling effort to brazen the whole thing out might well have succeeded were it not for the fact that in the next instant a first-floor window of the next-door house was flung open and an irate voice called out from within, “Either let them in or send them away but, for God’s sake, let the rest of us have some peace! If I hear one more person shouting and banging at your door this night I’ll send for the watch!”

“Aha!” declared Friar Lawrence in triumph. “Step aside, my child, I will not be denied.”

Bold as she was, the maid clearly knew when the time had come to beat a retreat. As Friar Lawrence barrelled forward, she simply melted away before him, nipping nimbly back up a flight of stairs that stood immediately behind the door. Friar Lawrence, clearly familiar with the layout of the building, made no attempt to pursue her but instead made a sharp turn and disappeared through a low doorway to the left. The maid stayed where she was, glaring resentfully at us from halfway up the stairs, as we followed the Friar into the apothecary’s shop.

The room we entered, lit by just a couple of candles, revealed itself in flickering glimpses between dark shadows. It was cut in two by a long wooden counter and hung about with pots and jars and bundles of dried plants and herbs. Strips of greasy seaweed and various animal skins hung from the ceiling like flypaper and the glassy eyes of a huge dead lizard stared dispassionately at us from a shelf behind the counter. The place was filled with such a rank, fusty smell that I was inclined to hold my breath for fear of ingesting something deadly with my portion of air.

Adelmo brought forth his lantern and slowly swung it around the interior for a better look. At first the place seemed devoid of life but as the light passed over the counter it became apparent that a pile of cloth in one corner was rhythmically moving up and down ever so slightly. We all stood and watched this effect curiously for a moment before Friar Lawrence took a step forward and abruptly slammed his hand down on the counter. The pile of cloth flinched and let out a frightened squeak.

“Show yourself Master Apothecary,” Friar Lawrence called out wearily. “We know you’re there.”

Slowly, reluctantly, a figure unfurled itself from beneath the fabric and regarded us with all the dignity that can be mustered by a man who has just been discovered cowering beneath a heap of dirty laundry. He looked about thirty, spindly and round-shouldered, with lank, greasy hair and small beady eyes. He shifted nervously for a moment or two in an apparent effort to find just the right posture for receiving potentially hostile visitors at two o’clock in the morning. Once he had settled on the preferred pose he coolly remarked, “Why Friar Lawrence, this is an unexpected honour.”


“Where is Romeo?” Michael anxiously demanded before Friar Lawrence had chance to answer.

The Apothecary raised his eyebrows in a facsimile of polite confusion. “Romeo?” he repeated uncertainly. “I don’t believe I am familiar with that name.”

“We’re talking about the young lad who called on you probably no more than half an hour ago,” I told him by way of jogging his memory. “You know, the one who was shopping for deadly poisons.”

“Truly, I know not of whom you speak,” replied the Apothecary, furrowing his brow for added effect. “No man has been to my shop tonight, young or old, and if he had he would surely know better than to seek poison from me. The Prince’s law forbids sale of such mortal drugs.”

Friar Lawrence snorted. “And since when have you concerned yourself with the Prince’s Law?” he demanded. “False knave, thou wouldst sell Spanish Fly to a nun if there were coin on offer.”

After the momentary discomfiture of his initial discovery the Apothecary seemed to slip into what appeared to be a well-rehearsed performance with practised ease. “Oh, cruel slander!” he cried, flinging up a hand in a melodramatic gesture. “What e’er hast I done to merit such base condemnation?”

Friar Lawrence snorted again. “You know well enough your own misdeeds. They are sufficient to fill a heavy book.”

The Apothecary turned his gaze upon Michael and I. “Kind strangers, I beg that you do not take me at the measure of this harsh foe,” he pleaded. “I fear the good Friar’s opinion of me is clouded by the natural distaste of any man for a rival. He despises me simply for daring to practice the same trade as he.”

“Crafty cur!” exclaimed Friar Lawrence, unable to resist rising to the bait. “Our trades are nothing alike. I provide much needed medicine to the sick and the poor, you peddle false cures and witch’s brews to any fool you can part from his money.”

“Ah, would that I too had the patronage of some noble Lord like the Duke of Mantua, that I might forebear taking payment for my services,” sighed the Apothecary. “But must I be so roundly condemned for no more than trying to feed my family?”

“This is getting us nowhere,” Michael impatiently interrupted before Friar Lawrence could retaliate. “We need to find Romeo before he does anything stupid.”

“He can’t have gone far,” I remarked. “Maybe we should just search the place and we can be on our way.”

At mention of the word ‘search’ the Apothecary couldn’t help himself from throwing an instinctive glance to his left. He recovered his poise almost immediately, saying with a light laugh, “A search? No need. You can see for yourself there is none but I here.” But the damage was already done. That dart of the eyes brought to all our attention a previously-unnoticed low doorway behind the counter.

“What’s behind that door?” Michael bluntly asked.

“Those are my private quarters, there is nothing for you to see there,” replied the Apothecary, his breezy tone beginning to show signs of strain.

“Show us,” demanded Friar Lawrence.

“Certainly not,” retorted the Apothecary, springing up onto the balls of his feet as though ready to physically repel any attempt to reach the doorway. “That is my home, you have no right to enter there.”

There was a moment of silent stand-off, the two sides eyeing one another warily. We undoubtedly had the numerical advantage and could probably force our way through if we chose but there was something about the place that urged caution. I found myself picturing elaborate booby-traps and deadly snares designed to catch out the unwitting intruder.

“Adelmo, set forth for the barracks and fetch the Sergeant of the watch,” Friar Lawrence finally ordered. “If Master Apothecary does not wish to open his house to us then perhaps he will do so for the Prince’s men.”

“What? No! Stay right where you are!” cried the Apothecary as Adelmo turned to leave. “This is an outrage! You barge into my shop at this evil hour and throw out wild accusations and… and…”

The Apothecary’s blustering words died on his lips as a figure stepped calmly forward from the shadows of the disputed doorway.

“Romeo!” cried Friar Lawrence, Michael and I in unison. The pattern of our voices all followed an identical trajectory – rising sharply in an expression of relief at seeing the young Montague still alive and well before swiftly falling away in concern as we spotted the ominous vial of dark liquid he was holding in his right hand.


Friar Lawrence turned angrily towards the Apothecary. “Obey the Prince’s laws, do you?” he challenged. “What foul substance hast thou supplied to this boy?”

“Condemn not this poor wretch,” Romeo interrupted before the Apothecary could respond. “His honour would obey but it is his poverty that hath compelled him to grant my request for this draught of purest hemlock.”

The Apothecary, somewhat surprised by the unexpected character reference, took the opportunity to shrug and raise his hands as if to say, “See? Not my fault guv.”

“Hemlock?” exclaimed Friar Lawrence. “Oh Romeo, thou fond mad man, give me the draught and let’s hear no more of this foolish plan.” As he spoke the Friar took a step towards Romeo, holding out his hands.

“Stay, Father!” cried Romeo, holding up the vial high with one hand whilst holding out the other as though to fend off any challenge. “The bargain is done, my mind is made up. One step more and I will drink this down right here and now.”


Now it was the Apothecary’s turn to look concerned. “Come now, Master Montague, remember the terms of our bargain. You swore you would take yourself far from here before you drank the potion.”

“Would that I could, Master Apothecary, but you see now that my hand is forced,” replied Romeo. Still holding forth his vial, his eyes whipped warily round the room, ready for an attack from any quarter.

“Please Romeo,” began Michael with a soothing gesture. “There is no need to be so hasty.”

“That’s right,” I quickly agreed. “At least let us take you home to think things over. Everything might look very different in the cold light of day.”

“The cold light of day can do nothing to mend a broken heart,” insisted Romeo stubbornly. “There is no other way out for me now.”

“By my holy order, I thought thy disposition better tempered,” said Friar Lawrence in a sorrowful tone. “Canst thou be so easily undone? Wouldst thou truly allow one blow to fell thee so utterly? This world can indeed be cruel sometimes but think a moment on thy friends, thy family who still love and esteem thee so. Can you not, for their sake at least, find a little strength to go on?”

For a moment it seemed that the Friar’s heartfelt words had struck home. Romeo looked down at the vial in his hands and then slowly around the desperate, pleading faces arrayed around him. Nobody dared say a word.

But then Romeo looked back again at the vial, gave a sort of sulky shrug, and announced, “Too late, I am done!” Then he opened his mouth wide and tipped the entire contents of the vial down his throat in one go.


Everyone – Friar Lawrence, Michael, myself, Adelmo, even the Apothecary – made an instinctive lurch towards Romeo but there was no chance of stopping him. The poison was swallowed in an instant and we all froze as he dropped the empty vial on the counter and looked around at us with an expression that seemed half-triumphant, half-terrified. I felt as though I had swallowed hemlock myself, an icy chill spreading slowly through my veins while I could do nothing but stare helplessly, waiting for the poison to take effect.

I waited…

And waited…

Slowly, the look on Romeo’s face shifted from a sort of twisted exultation to one of confusion. His face seemed to cycle through a whole rainbow of colours, first flushing a deep red, then blanching to the palest white, before settling into a rather sickly green. He opened his mouth to say something, shut it again, then opened it once more and produced an enormous belch. This was followed by a long, low gurgling sound in the pit of his stomach. “Oh Lord, I don’t feel very well,” he murmured.

His brow furrowed, Friar Lawrence stepped forward, retrieved the discarded vial from the counter and gave it a cautious sniff. “This is no hemlock,” he declared. “This is…” He sniffed again, then dipped in a finger to scoop up the last of the dark, sticky liquid still clinging to the sides. Gingerly he put his finger to the tip of his tongue. “This is… elderberry wine,” he cried. He turned to the Apothecary. “You sold the boy elderberry wine disguised as hemlock?”

“Well, have you any idea how difficult it is to get hold of real hemlock,” returned the Apothecary defensively. “Not to mention expensive. Do you suppose I can afford to keep quantities of pure hemlock lying around?”

“But elderberry wine!” declared Friar Lawrence. He dabbed a little more on his tongue. “Rancid elderberry wine it would seem. How old is this stuff?”

“I’ll grant you it is a little past its best,” conceded the Apothecary. “But it makes a most effective purgative and I judged that to cure his melancholy spirit the boy was very much in need of a good purge.”

“You swindling wretch!” exclaimed the Friar.

“Would you rather I had sold him genuine hemlock?” retorted the Apothecary.

Romeo, meanwhile, was growing greener by the minute. “Does this mean I’m not going to die?” he said plaintively, following up his question with another loud belch.

“I shouldn’t think so,” replied Friar Lawrence. “But I fear you’re going to feel rather unwell.”

“I don’t feel very well,” agreed Romeo and hiccuped.

“I think we had better take you home,” suggested Michael.

Romeo could only nod unhappily to the accompaniment of another deep gurgling from his stomach. He allowed Michael and I to help him out from behind the counter and, taking one arm apiece, we steered him uncomplainingly to the door. As we headed into the cold night air, a frustrated Friar Lawrence turned back towards the Apothecary one last time. “I should have you up before the Sergeant of the watch,” he threatened.


“There is no law against the sale of elderberry wine,” replied the Apothecary with a satisfied smile. “Do call again.”


Two days later Michael and I were seated once more at our preferred corner table in the tavern, patiently awaiting the arrival of our lunch order. After a diligent search the latest hidden door of Sturridge’s prison had been checked off and now there was only the small matter of lunch to consider before we were ready to say farewell to Verona for good. With Romeo safe and well at home, still recuperating from the effects of his unfortunate elderberry wine experience, I was inclined to be mildly triumphant.

“Should we order a jug of wine with our dinner?” I suggested to Michael. “I reckon in conjuring up a happy ending out of a tragedy we’ve earned ourselves a treat.”

“I’m not sure I’d call a severe case of food poisoning a happy ending,” mused Michael.

“It’s an improvement on fatal poisoning,” I pointed out. “We’re leaving town with a body count of zero, aren’t we? I’d say that has to go down as Us – one, Fate – nil.”

“You did say you understood the concept of hubris, didn’t you?” noted Michael with a raised eyebrow.

“You just don’t like admitting you might be wrong,” I taunted. “Fate is not such a mighty force. All it took was a little nudge to steer Romeo away from Juliet and everything looks rosy.”

“Well met Master Redgrave, Master Everingham!” cried out a hearty voice from the other side of the tavern before Michael could respond. “I thought I might find you here.” We both looked up to find Benvolio striding cheerfully towards us.

“Hail to thee Benvolio,” Michael responded in kind. “Will you join us? We are just about to eat.”

“I’m afraid I can stop but a moment,” replied Benvolio, taking a seat but waving away the suggestion of food. “I have much to do today.”

“Have you seen Romeo this morning?” Michael asked.

“Indeed, I have,” responded Benvolio. “The lark had scarce raised his sweet voice towards the breaking dawn when I did present myself at the House of Montague. ‘Good morrow Benvolio’ the steward at the gate did cry unto me. ‘Does this crisp morning air not seem to you to hold the promise of a blessed day?’ ‘I should say it does good sir,’ I did reply…”

“And skipping to the Romeo part of the story…” I did my best to chivvy him along. “Sorry but you did say you were busy, didn’t you?”

“You speak the truth, sharp-witted Master Everingham,” acknowledged Benvolio. “I must, as you suggest, press on with my tale. I was, at last, shown up to Romeo’s own chamber for, alas, he does still keep a-bed to this very hour. I fear I cannot say he looks altogether well. Pale still is his cheek and furrowed yet his brow. His words but weakly come and contain many groans and lamentations. But on the whole I would say he looks rather brighter today.”

“He’s stopped throwing up then?” said Michael.

“I am hopeful of it. Though I dare not speak in too certain a manner for many is the time during the last day and night that it has been thought Romeo must have emptied himself of the very last drop of that accursed wine in his body, only for his heavings to begin again but a moment later.” Benvolio shook his head in amazement. “Tis a wonder that such a slight and slender body can contain such a quantity of bile.”

“Well, quite,” I murmured sympathetically.

“But tis my hope that some good may yet come of this unhappy event by way of diverting poor Romeo from his previous woes,” Benvolio confidentially advised. “For I have it on good authority that in all the time Romeo has spent a-bed, the name of Rosaline has never once passed his lips. It is my most fervent hope that the web that maiden did weave around his heart may yet be prised loose.”

I couldn’t resist throwing Michael a glance of mild triumph. “That’s good news indeed,” I remarked to Benvolio with a satisfied smile. “Time for a new chapter in the Romeo saga, you think?”

“I do indeed Master Everingham,” Benvolio eagerly agreed. “And, what is more, I have in mind a most excellent plan for dispelling that last trace of melancholy from his mind and setting him on a new and better path.”

My smile faded somewhat. “You do?”

Benvolio leaned forward. “I have it on good authority that there is planned a mighty feast to be held at the house of Capulet this very evening,” he told us confidentially. “Tis my avowed intent to rouse Romeo from his bed and persuade him to join me and some other friends in stealing into that party and making merry in the home of his avowed enemy.” Benvolio gazed at us with bright, eager eyes. “What a most excellent jest, think ye not?”

I did my best to ignore Michael’s searching gaze. “Well, I’m not really sure…” I began.

“Such frolics are sure to once and for all dispel the clouds of gloom that have hung over poor Romeo these last few days,” Benvolio pressed eagerly on, oblivious. “What is more, I am told that all the finest beauties of Verona will be at this feast. What is more likely, say I, to rid Romeo of the last pangs of his tormented affection for Rosaline than for him to cast his eye over the fair faces to be found beneath the Capulet roof?” Benvolio gave us a wink. “I tell you I have a strange presentiment that there will be one Venus in particular, though I know not which, that will catch young Romeo’s eye and grasp his heart forever.”


“Oh brother,” I murmured.

“You don’t think it might be best for Romeo to steer clear of such entanglements, for a while at least?” suggested Michael.

“One cannot expect a nature such as Romeo’s to stand clear of thoughts of love for long,” replied Benvolio lightly. “It would be as well to expect the wolf to stand clear of the hunt. But fear not. Though the Rosaline affair did not turn out so well I have every confidence that the next romance will end quite differently. I could swear that it is written.”

There was no avoiding Michael’s look this time.

“Now, though, I must away to make arrangements,” went on Benvolio. “I am to meet with Mercutio very shortly and advise him of my plans. Would you care to accompany me? I think you will both like Mercutio – he is a fellow of excellent wit.”

“I’m afraid we’ve already ordered lunch,” I told him.

“Ah, that is a shame. But I fully expect to see you there this evening,” insisted Benvolio. “You would not want to miss it for all the world. We will meet by the fountain as the clock strikes eight. Do not tarry or I will be obliged to come looking for you!” And with a cheery laugh, Benvolio rose from the table and hurried out of the tavern.

There was a long pause, Michael looking at me expectantly.

“Alright, I give in,” I finally said, acknowledging his victory with a resigned look. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“You don’t want to wait for your lunch?” said Michael with a teasing smile.

“Are you kidding?” I responded, rising from my seat. “There’s no doubt that here fate clearly holds sway, So let’s flee this damn place without delay!”

Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return…

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