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Love's Labour's Won

Chapter Text

Rosaline: You shall this twelvemonth term from day to day
Visit the speechless sick, and still converse
With groaning wretches, and your task shall be
With all the fierce endeavor of your wit
To enforce the pained impotent to smile.
Berowne: To move wild laughter in the throat of death?
It cannot be, it is impossible.

“I have had a letter from your friend, Lord Longaville,” said the doctor. “He writes that he is returned from the wars with another lord, Dumaine, who was wounded in this late action against the Turk. They intend to travel to the court and take you with them. They should be here within these two days.”

Berowne started a little at this news. “Has it been a year since I came to you?”

“A year and odd days.”

“And I have served but eleven months of my term. I had better write to Longaville and tell him I will join them in a month. Have you paper?”

The doctor shook his head. “Lord Longaville told me of your vow. You are not to be blamed for losing some weeks to sickness, any more than a soldier is to be blamed for losing some term of his service to injury. You are hardly well enough to travel yet; but I think it better that you go at once than remain here, exposed to all sorts of pestilence.”

Berowne grinned. “In other words, I have worn out my welcome in your hospital, and you would fain lose a jester whose poor wit cannot keep pace with his tongue.”

“No, Master Berowne – Lord Berowne, I should say.”

“Longaville’s given me away, has he? I should have the rogue put in prison for slander, save that what he says is true.”

“You ought, rather, to thank him for explaining who you are and why you came to us, and so saving you from conjectures that might be far more slanderous. I myself thought you a madman when you first came here.”

“And you do not now? Why, man, you had it right the first time!”

“No. Lord Berowne, if you will hear me for a moment and not talk yourself back into a fever, I was about to say that you have done great good here. I had thought it some wild and indecorous fancy of yours to go into a hospital and try to raise laughter from the sick; I see now that it was not so. I have never known a year in which so few of our patients died.”

For almost the first time in his life, Berowne was too astonished to speak. It seemed to him that he had seen nothing but death this twelvemonth: death from plague, from fevers, from consumption, from strange cancers, from age and hunger and despair. It had cost him almost all he had to find matter for laughter, day after day, and even before his own illness he had felt worn to a very shadow.

“I think you have discovered a cure beyond any pill or potion I can give. I shall hire a jester to visit every week, if I can persuade our patron to give us the money.”

“Why not me?” Berowne raised a hand to his roughened cheek. “You would save on motley; mine is in grain, and will not wash out.”

He laughed at his own jest. The doctor did not. “You have never asked me for a glass. Would you like one?”

“A glass of what?” Berowne asked. “Wine? By all means, doctor; I thank you.”

The doctor took a bottle of wine from his cabinet and poured it out, suddenly unwilling to look his patient in the eye. “I meant a looking-glass. It is the first thing most people ask for when they have had the smallpox.”

“No,” said Berowne, who had known from the first what the doctor had meant. “I thank the Lord, I am no Narcissus to fall a-doting on mine own reflection, and I am sure that it has not improved since I saw it last.”

“You may find that it is not so bad as you fear, my lord. And the marks often fade with time.”

“Who said anything of fear?” Berowne knocked back his glass of wine at a gulp.

The doctor was looking at him with more pity than was strictly comfortable, and Berowne decided it was time to end the interview. “I had almost forgot. Your fee, doctor.”

The doctor tried to hand back the purse almost as soon as Berowne had given it to him. “This is too much.”

“Not so. You saved my life, I think.”

“As to that, I do not know. No man knows for certain why some patients live and some do not.”

“You’re the first doctor I’ve known who owned as much. I should double your fee for that alone. Take it, man, ‘tis a donation for the hospital. Hire a jester for every day of the week, if you would do something for my sake.”

* * *

Longaville and Dumaine arrived at the hospital of St. Luke on the following day. Dumaine walked with a limp, and leaned heavily on a cane; he had taken a musket-ball in the leg, he said, and the surgeon had wanted to amputate it, but Dumaine had refused. And he had, after all, been proven right. “Better a bad leg than none at all, if a man has to choose. I see you are of the same philosophy with regard to faces.”

Berowne laughed and embraced Dumaine. Longaville looked distinctly uncomfortable.

They left the hospital as soon as things had been arranged to Longaville’s satisfaction, which took some time, as he insisted on treating both Berowne and Dumaine as if they were made of glass. Once they had been helped into the back of the coach by the servants, and smothered under a quantity of furs and robes more suited to a Russian winter than a warm spring afternoon in Navarre, Longaville at last mounted his own horse and gave the order to leave.

Berowne looked at Dumaine, grimaced, and thrust most of his robes toward the other side of the coach.

“What are you doing?” Dumaine protested. “Do you not see that I have enough of my own? There – there’s room for them on the floor. Poor fellow, he means well. I think he had a worse time of it in the war than I did, to tell you the truth.”

Berowne was about to object that this was absurd, but then thought better of it. He had been watching by sickbeds for nearly a year, and it was not, after all, easy to watch.

“Tell me in sober judgment, Dumaine, what do I look like?”

“Like a death’s head well rubbed with a cheese-grater. What do I look like?”

“Like a most excellent match for the Lady Katharine. Thou art grown as crooked as she.”

Dumaine, of course, did not take this insult to his beloved quietly, and the rest of the journey passed quickly in a friendly battle of wits.

* * *

When they arrived at the inn, Longaville insisted that Berowne was to be given some supper and a bed at once. Berowne was, for once, grateful for his friend’s solicitude. He felt too weary to linger over his wine, as Longaville and Dumaine showed every sign of doing; he bid them good-night and dragged himself up the stairs like an old man.

He was fast asleep by the time his friends came in, and knew nothing of their presence until he was wakened by a terrified shriek.

To horse, to horse! They are upon us – treachery, treachery, fly! I saw him die – this is his blood –

Berowne groped for his candle and lit it from the embers of the fire. Dumaine was sitting on the edge of Longaville’s bed, trying to wake him.

“All’s well, old fellow – there’s no danger here. Come, wake thee. Steady; thou’rt in thine own country, and there’s none here but good friends.”

Longaville’s eyes were open, but he was staring about him wildly, as if unable to comprehend that he was not in the midst of a battle.

“How long hath he been thus?” Berowne whispered.

“Since we came from the wars. Give me some light, there. It will pass when he knows us again.” Dumaine managed to fit his arm around Longaville, who was flailing violently, and pulled him closer. “Come, lad, take heart. The worst is past.”

“A cripple, a disfigured man, and a madman,” said Berowne. “We want only a trained monkey, and then we can travel the countryside and take in pennies from any peasant who would see a gallery of monsters.”

Longaville managed to get a grip on himself and smiled weakly.

Dumaine drew a long breath. “Thy railing is a faster cure than gentleness, I see.”

“Should we send downstairs for some wine or aqua-vitae?”

Dumaine shook his head. “He’s had enough to drink. I think that makes it worse, in truth.”

“Many men have such dreams when they have been to the wars,” said Berowne. “My own father was plagued by them until the day he died, and he had as much courage and sense as any man in Navarre.”

He saw Longaville relax at this, and a little of the fear go out of his eyes.

“Go to sleep,” Dumaine whispered. “I’ll watch. I promise.”

* * *

How long Dumaine kept his promise Berowne did not know, but none of them woke until quite late in the morning. Fortunately, the court of Navarre was less than a day’s journey away.

When they drove up to the palace, Berowne’s young servant looked about with wide, astonished eyes, until at last Berowne ordered him to stop staring and look to the horses. The boy was called Lucas. He had been left at the hospital as a baby, and like most of the foundlings, he had been named after St. Luke. In his sixteen years, he had never before traveled farther from the hospital than the town square; he had never known a place where you could call “Lucas!” without a dozen boys running to you.

Life at court, Berowne thought, would be something else altogether. He amused himself for a few moments by imagining it through Lucas’s eyes.

“Has the king arrived?” Longaville asked one of the gentlemen of the palace.

“Aye, he came yesterday. He will be glad to see you, my lords; I will make it known to him.”

King Ferdinand had been away for a year, mewed up with his books at a remote monastery. Longaville and Dumaine had gone with him, but they had decided after a few months that the solitude was too much to bear, and they would be more profitably employed in the wars. The king had given them his blessing, but had professed his own determination to follow his lady’s commands to the letter.

Berowne wondered how well he had endured his year of enforced solitude. It was true that the king was a zealous and accomplished scholar, but he was also a sociable young man who must have found life very dull without his three favorite companions and a handful of sillier courtiers on which to exercise their wits. Well, it served him right for vowing to dedicate three years of his life to study and asceticism in the first place, and then breaking that vow within a week.

The king spotted Longaville first and ran forward to embrace him. (Berowne would always remember that moment: the sheer joy with which Ferdinand flung himself at his old friend.) He and Dumaine were following behind, more slowly, because of Dumaine’s leg. Ferdinand caught sight of them and his face changed, all in an instant, as a swift-moving cloud covers the sun and chills the air.

The cloud passed; the king mastered himself; but things were not quite as they had been before.

“My dear lords,” said Ferdinand, “welcome home.”

* * *

The king seemed to be in a very ill humor at breakfast the next morning; he ate little and spoke less.

“Do we travel to the hermitage of St. Syncletica today, my liege?” Longaville ventured to ask.

The Queen of France had spent the year since her father’s death at the hermitage, which lay just beyond the border between Navarre and France. She was accompanied by three of her ladies, who were betrothed – more or less, and with certain conditions – to Berowne, Longaville, and Dumaine.

“Oh, aye.” said the king. He was scowling. “I have much to say to my lady of France.”

“He had better fit his face to his discourse, and not his discourse to his face,” commented Berowne. “If he looks like that when he speaks to her, the poor lady is like to mistake his offer of marriage for a declaration of war.”

“Peace,” whispered Dumaine, “he’ll hear you, and he seems in no mood for jests. What on earth ails him?”

“Where did Longaville lie last night?” Berowne asked.

“In the chamber next to the king,” said Dumaine, and then realized the implications of this. “Do you think the king heard anything? I told two of the servants to stay with him and keep him quiet, but perhaps they could not.”

Berowne observed the king’s manner toward Longaville for a moment, and noted a constraint that had not been there yesterday. “I am sure he did.”

* * *

Another day of travel brought the king’s party to the hermitage. Berowne had been thinking nearly all day of Rosaline: what he might say to her, and what she would say to him. But when the time came, he found that he would fain have delayed it a while longer.

Rosaline, though well known as the merriest and wittiest of the French queen’s ladies, was not a classic beauty. Her hair and eyes were as black as ink, and her skin was more brown than fair; some said she had Moorish blood. To Berowne, though, she seemed perfectly beautiful, and heart-breaking in her perfection.

“Lady Rosaline,” he said softly, and stepped into the light.

She started at her first sight of him. He kept his eyes on her face, which was, after all, the only looking-glass that mattered. He saw sadness in her eyes, but not revulsion. Good. She stepped forward and took his hand. Better.

“Lord Berowne. I am very sorry to see that you have not been well. How do you?”

“Better than I was. My lady –” He had been dreading this part, but knew that it had to be said. “If you would be released from any of the vows we made before I left, I do release you.”

“Is that what you wish, my lord?” She spoke as if she were holding back tears.

“I? No, not for the world. Why would I wish such a thing?”

“I set you a rash task, not pausing to think what the consequence might be. I cannot blame you if you are very angry with me.”

“No. I am not angry. I have much to tell thee, Rosaline, hereafter – but know this much now. I think I have seen and done more in a year at the hospital of St. Luke than I could have in a hundred years at court. More that is real, I mean. I am glad that you sent me there.”

She moved a little closer, her cheek almost against his shoulder. “It’s changed you.”

“Yes.”

“You do not talk in verse, as you were used to do.”

“No. Do you miss it?”

“No,” said Rosaline. “Most true it is, that true love has no power to looken back; his eyes be fixed before.” She stood on tiptoe and kissed him, rather hesitantly at first, and then more positively.

“Is that a French proverb, my lady?”

“An English poem. We have been reading about the qualities of a great queen.”

“I did not know the English had any poetry of their own. I thought they only filched bits and pieces from other nations, as they do with their language, their manners, and their wearing-apparel.”

Rosaline took a step back. “My lord, I see that I have not cured you of that fault of flouting and mocking at the world.”

“No, my dear. You have not, nor you cannot. I shall die in that fault, if it be a fault, before I shall live cured of it. Come, will you take me with all my faults, as you promised you would do if I could not reform them?”

“With all my heart.” She kissed him again. “I am glad of it.”

This conversation was, naturally, so absorbing to the participants that neither Berowne nor Rosaline noticed much of what was going on around them. Their first indication that things were going wrong was the sound of Katharine’s raised voice:

“I beg pardon, your majesty, but Maria and I did not bid them go to the wars. They did that of their own choice.”

“That is true, my liege,” said Dumaine. “I am wounded, but not by her hand, nor by any wrong she hath done me.” He was standing with his arm around Katharine’s waist, as if it had frozen there; both of them had their eyes fixed on the king.

“And what of Rosaline?” said the king. “She sent her love to bide a twelvemonth in a place of pestilence, and there you see the issue. Look on him, for God’s sake!”

“Er – my liege?” said Berowne. “Before I am introduced as an exhibit in a law-case, I should like to know the nature of the cause!”

Ferdinand ignored this and addressed himself to the queen. “My men have learned what Adam and Samson learned to their cost: it is not good to follow a woman’s bidding.”

The Queen of France replied, “And I, it seems, have learned what Ariadne and Dido learned before me: there is no faith in a man’s declarations. Though he swear himself hoarse, yet he’ll be forsworn ere he’s a twelvemonth older. O rash false heat, wrapped in repentance cold!”

“Thy haste spills still our blood, and turns youth old,” retorted Longaville, who appeared to be taking King Ferdinand’s part. Maria looked as if he had slapped her in the face.

“This sounds not like lover’s talk,” Berowne observed.

“No,” said Rosaline, “it appears that your liege and my lady have gone directly from wooing to repenting, and passed over the wedding entirely.”

“Longaville,” Dumaine protested, “be reasonable. The ladies have spilt no one’s blood.”

“I will not be reasonable. I have watched beside you when you seemed like to die, I have seen men lose their lives, I have heard the roaring of the Turk’s cannons. I hear them still. And all the while, these ladies have sat comfortably in their hermitage, no doubt making sport of our troubles and mocking at how willingly we became their slaves!”

“You talk as though you had confounded Maria with the Turk! Look at her, you fool! Where is her turban and her beard?”

“Never you mind, my lord.” Maria’s voice was thin and flat. “I am learning much about Lord Longaville that I had not known before. I thank him for the intelligence.”

“We are all, I think, learning much that we had not known before,” said the queen. “Ladies, come away. If we are indeed so troublesome to these men of Navarre, we’ll trouble them no longer.”

It was plain that she would brook no disobedience. Maria turned and followed her at once; Katharine broke away from Dumaine and came away more slowly; and last of all, with a stricken look at Berowne, followed Rosaline.