Actions

Work Header

an he were, I would burn my study

Work Text:

an he were, i would burn my study

 

.x.

 

DON PEDRO

Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of
Signior Benedick.

 

BEATRICE

Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave
him use for it, a double heart for his single one:
marry, once before he won it of me with false dice,
therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.

 

.x.

 

Innogen tells her daughter fairytales before sleep; Beatrice lies still in the bed beside and listens. Hero loves the tales that end in kisses, Maid Marian in the fields and Isolde in the shadows, but Beatrice is of limited patience. She cannot abide all that waiting.

 

They have lived in Messina for almost as long as Beatrice can recall. Her only memory of her mother is faded and blurry, a plain face shaded by a long, dark braid that laughed as Beatrice tugged her shirtsleeves. It's a nice enough memory, but Beatrice has no real need for it. She has her father.

 

In another life, Antonio might have been a scholar; but he was his father's eldest son, and had been a lord instead. When his wife died, having no male heirs, the land left his hands and went to his late wife's brother's. Now Antonio is a devoted man without wife or property to give himself to; so he gives himself to Beatrice, and she accepts.

 

Leonato and Innogen are kind, and call her "beloved," but Beatrice knows—in a way that Hero never fully will—that she lives in the household as an act of charity. Her mother is dead, and Antonio would have her fostered. She learns from Innogen and her ladies the same tricks of womanhood that Hero does: poise, modesty, sewing, conversation, and the harp (to be played only upon request and special occasion).

 

From her father she learns to read.

 

"That one," she says, pointing at the deep red binding on her father's small shelf. She had slept beside him when they first arrived in Messina, but Hero became so accustomed to her presence that soon she cried whenever Beatrice went away too long. Now she sleeps in a small bed in the girl's room and listens to Innogen's gentle voice: the hero Robin Hood loved Maid Marian, a shepherdess and most virtuous of maids . . .

 

Antonio pulls it down, chuckling. He pulls Beatrice onto his lap. "Ahh, Antigone," he reads as she runs her fingers along the embossed writing. "You do love your tragedies."

 

Beatrice looks up at him, her tiny brow furrowed in a way that always makes Antonio think of his father. "Antigone is hardly a tragedy," she tells him, almost gently, the way she speaks to Hero when the girl skins her knee or rips her dress.

 

"She dies in the end," Antonio points out, and Beatrice says, "so it may be, but she made her point."

 

.x.

 

Her role in the household is a complicated one. She is not a servant; she does not mend anybody's clothes, nor make their bed, nor bring them supper, but she is not—will never be—Leonato's daughter, either. She will have no house of her own, unless her father finds her a farmer willing to take a dowry-less wife, worth nothing but the titles she inherited from her mother.

 

Hero calls her "sister," but across the dinner table, Beatrice sees Innogen's uncomfortable glance and knows that they are not. She is nine, ten, eleven. She understands how these things work.

 

Well, she thinks, and so; it does not bother her. She cares not to be what Innogen is and what Hero is to become. Her aunt spends her days ordering servants about and playing at politics over warm cups of tea. She speaks of news as her husband reports it, because she cannot read the letters firsthand. Beatrice sneaks into Leonato's study and reads them by candlelight. She does not always understand what is being said, but at least she can read aloud the words.

 

Beatrice has no interest in marrying a farmer, or a carpenter, or any of the tradesman that might be willing to have her. She has no position of her own in Leonato's house. She is free to do as she pleases.

 

Hero is younger, and more precious: she has perfect, dark curls that rest against fair and marble skin; her eyes are almond-shaped and bright, sky-colored on summer days and hazel-grey in winter; and when she laughs, the whole world laughs with her. She will be a dazzling lady of the house, when she marries.

 

Beatrice is tanned, and her hands callused from turning pages. She has hair the color of autumn that she keeps plaited and out of her dark brown eyes, unremarkable except for the wit written in them. She will never be like Hero.

 

She does not try.

 

.x.

 

Her change of heart comes two weeks before her thirteenth birthday. An old friend of her father and her uncle comes to stay for the summer. He brings his merry wife and son, and with them all the servants and stable boys a lord requires. Beatrice is introduced as "our cousin."

 

At first she pays their guests little mind. Benedick is fifteen, Hero ten, and both of them of equal title; if there is a match to be made, it is not for Beatrice.

 

A month into summer, Hero falls into the pond and nearly drowns. She catches a fever from the water and is confined to bed for a week. Hero makes her promise in the interim to "see if there is a Robin Hood in him," and Beatrice—loyal if nothing else—agrees. She has nothing better to do, anyway.

 

Benedick spends most of his time down by the stables. He has befriended one of the working boys and they call themselves sworn brothers. Beatrice, who plaits her hair and rips her skirts to make them easier to move in, rolls her eyes.

 

"You cannot choose your family," she tells them disdainfully, and Benedick pulls on her braid, hard.

 

"Yes you can," he says.

 

"Can not."

 

"Can too."

 

She leans in to study him closer: his fair skin, but slightly knobby nose; his long eyelashes and freckled cheeks; skinned elbows and pants ripped at the knees. "Well," she offers, "why don't we race to see who has the truth of it?"

 

Benedick doesn't scoff and remind her that she is a woman; he puts his saddle on his horse and asks, "What are you waiting for?"

 

Ten minutes later, they are sprinting across the back fields, her braid unraveling at the ends, Benedick's horse ahead—but only by a step!—and she is laughing, laughing in a way that sober Beatrice rarely does, laughing with the wind in her mouth as Benedick turns his head to grin in her direction.

 

In the end, he beats her. Beatrice rides like a boy and always comes home with her skirts stained, but Benedick doesn't comment on these things. He slows his mount and smiles so widely at her that she feels her heart break, a little, and is not yet old enough to understand why.

 

"Well, sir Benedick, it seems you've bested me," she acquiesces, but she is laughing, and her hair is in tangles.

 

He reaches across the space between them and takes her hand. "How would you like to be a sworn brother?" he asks.

 

She takes the hand, but slowly. "What do I have to do?" she asks. "I'll not cut myself."

 

His expression is serious as he tightens his grip on hers. "Promise it will be forever," he tells her. "That is all, but that is everything."

 

Beatrice nods, her breath catching in her throat. "Forever," she promises, and means it.

 

.x.

 

The rest of the summer is like this:

 

Beatrice wakes up before the sun has risen because someone is throwing stones at the servant girl's window, and in the panic that ensues he manages to find her and drag her off to the barn.

 

"What did you want with Emilia?" Beatrice asks in a whisper as they sit face-to-face and cross-legged in the tack room of the barn.

 

Benedick flushes dark in the soft light. "Nothing," he admits. "I have poor aim."

 

She laughs until her stomach aches, and he kicks her gently in protest. They lie back against stacks of hay and look up at the sky through the hole in the ceiling that Leonato still has not had fixed.

 

"You are not like other girls," he murmurs, and she feels him looking at her.

 

She smiles and does not meet his eyes. "Sworn brothers rarely are."

 

.x.

 

(And the rest of the summer is like:)

 

When Hero is well enough to leave her bed, they have a picnic in the garden. She makes two crowns of flowers and begs Beatrice to wear one; Beatrice, who loves her cousin, does.

 

Benedick laughs when he sees her, stained skirts and flowered braid. "Why, Milady, you look to me a summer's day," he says in exaggerated poetry, and she punches him in the shoulder.

 

Hero glances at them askance, and frowns as Benedick clutches the wound and laughs harder. "No, in all sincerity, you are more beautiful and more temperate—"

 

She hits him again, and tucks a purple partridge pea behind his ear. He rolls his eyes and calls her "entirely a girl," but he leaves the flower until dinner.

 

.x.

 

(And the rest of the summer is:)

 

"And so Antigone hung herself in a cave, her uncle realized that she'd had the right of it the whole time, and everyone was terribly sorry to have wronged her."

 

"What of her betrothed?"

 

"Haemon? Oh, he died too. He killed himself so that he would never have to live without her."

 

Benedick frowns. "How stupid. If I were Haemon I'd have just killed my uncle and called it finished."

 

Beatrice shrugs, plucking dust off her sleeve. "Well, if I had been Antigone you'd not have had to bury me; I'd never have given up and hung myself. I'd have dug my way out of the cave and gathered an army so that I could avenge my brother on the battlefield."

 

"If only we had been Haemon and Antigone, the play'd have had a better ending."

 

"Like as not we'd have plotted together and killed your uncle without all of the foolish suicides."

 

"Probably we'd just have married and been done with it."

 

They look at one another and then away, quickly.

 

.x.

 

(And the rest of the summer . . .)

 

Her father worries she is spending too much time with boys, and forces her to sit for double lessons with Innogen and her ladies. Benedick stands outside the window and makes faces as she does and redoes her stitches.

 

At dinner, they sit side-by-side and he puts all his vegetables onto her plate when he thinks she isn't looking. She lets him, though she doesn't know why. She also doesn't know why her arm tingles when he leans against it.

 

At night in the dark, Hero asks, her voice tinged with something Beatrice cannot name, "well? What think you, cos?"

 

"He's my Sworn Brother," Beatrice answers, and remembers suddenly that if there is a match to be made here, it is not for her. "He is—"

 

She breaks off. Then, decisively, "You had do best to wait, dear cousin."

 

.x.

 

At the end of the summer, his parents and his house gather at the gate. Beatrice does not go to say goodbye; she sits in the stables with tears stinging her eyes and wipes them angrily away.

 

She can hear her father calling: "Beatrice! Beatrice? Where has that girl got to . . .?"

 

She digs her heels into the wood and kicks at straw. Let them go. She does not care. She was happy being displaced and free before he came, and she has Hero. She does not need any more siblings, sworn or otherwise.

 

She hears him on the stairs and turns sharply to face the wall.

 

"There you are," he says, and plops down beside her. "I had thought that we would leave without saying my goodbyes."

 

She scowls at him. "Goodbye," she says curtly.

 

She knows she is being unfair. She doesn't care.

 

He nudges her shoulder with his. "That is not how Sworn Brothers say goodbye," he tells her gently, and something in his voice makes her turn her head.

 

His face is close to hers, too close, and suddenly he presses his mouth against her lips. It is too fast and too hard, and their teeth smack against one another so painfully that she gasps, but then he pulls away and his face is so red that she bursts into laughter.

 

"Goodbye," she says again, gentler this time, and he grins.

 

"Sworn Brothers are forever," he promises, and pulls her plait before sliding down the bannister.

 

.x.

 

"Well," Beatrice tells her father, "perhaps I shall marry. If it please me."

 

.x.

 

Benedick sends her letters. Not always, and not regularly; he is a boy. They come every few months, with nothing important in them. But they are a reminder: sworn brothers are forever.

 

Beatrice does not respond. It would not be proper for a young woman to send letters to a man, particularly not one who was in consideration to marry her young cousin.

 

She turns fourteen the following summer, and Benedick does not return. She reads Le Morte d'Arthur and finds Guinevere tiring and Lancelot a fool, though Arthur is pitiable. She likes Morgaine.

 

Her uncle is tickled by her love of literature; over supper they bicker over who is the hero, Arthur or Merlin, and Beatrice takes a bite of biscuit as she says, "Uncle, it cannot be but Merlin; for Arthur was weak and gave into love."

 

"Was not his love his greatest strength?" asks Leonato, and he looks pleased with her. "Love of the land is a sovereign's duty."

 

"Excess of love produces weakness," Beatrice bites back, "and had someone but told Guinevere this, Arthur's descendants might yet have land to sovereign over."

 

Her uncle booms his laugh, and Antonio is proud, but Innogen looks uncomfortable, for she has never read the tale.

 

.x.

 

At Christmas, Benedick returns. She greets him with the same expression that she greets his father and mother; he kisses her hand and she bows daintily, as she has been taught.

 

Later, though it is so cold that her toes ache in her shoes, she waits for him in the barn.

 

He comes. "You didn't answer my letters, brother," he says coolly.

 

She is surprised by his tone. "How could I? It would be indecent."

 

Benedick rolls his eyes. "When have you cared about decency? You wear pants, for Heaven's sake."

 

"Only when the occasion calls for it." She takes a tentative step forward. "I have hurt your feelings," she notes gingerly. "I am—"

 

He cuts her off by kissing her, and she lets him, though if sending letters had been indecent then this is unspeakable. Still she lets him.

 

He is sixteen, and taller than she, the beginnings of a beard making his chin rough. She runs her fingers along his jaw and laughs quietly. "You look like you've a shadow always on your face," she teases.

 

"Don't be jealous," says Benedick, "yours will come in soon, brother," and she hits him in response.

 

.x.

 

It is too cold to meet in the barn, yet she feels his leg pressed against hers at dinner, his hand under the table that twines their fingers, and does it anyway.

 

Beatrice has never wanted to be more than she is; but she cannot help the thought of Benedick's family crest engraved and wrapped around her finger. She is young. The idea appeals.

 

"When we are married," says Benedick, and Beatrice startles.

 

"We cannot get married," she blurts unthinkingly. "I have no dowry."

 

Benedick rolls his eyes. "What of that?" he asks. "I have no need of it."

 

"Yes, but your father," she begins, and he clamps his hand over her mouth.

 

"If you'll be kind enough to produce a son, my father won't care if you're a Moor, for pity's sake," he cuts her off. "And so you shall. You'll be the head of my household, and I'll be a war hero. I plan to have more decorations than even my father. You can hang them on the bedroom wall to remind you of me when I am gone."

 

Beatrice pulls away. "I'll not be the head of your household," she says slowly.

 

Benedick sits up, frowning at her. "I told you," he says, "my father—"

 

"No, you misunderstand," Beatrice interrupts. "I mean to say that I'll not be the head of any household. What good of it? To order servants about and teach my daughters sewing? I'd lead a more exciting life as a farmer's wife, and I've no wish to do that, either."

 

Benedick doesn't answer. "And what will you do instead?" he asks, his voice careful.

 

"Well," begins Beatrice, and then stops. "I don't . . . know, yet."

 

He seems to relax. "You'll change your mind," he announces confidently, and Beatrice says, "No. I won't."

 

"You're young," he begins.

 

"You're barely sixteen," she returns. "Do not tell me my mind."

 

He shakes his head. "I'm not! I only meant—"

 

"I'll not be my aunt." She stumbles over the words, panic swelling within her.

 

"Brother, I am not trying to—"

 

"No," she says again, and Benedick cries, "All right, woman, have mercy! If you'll not marry me then let that be the end of it!"

 

Beatrice recoils, stung, and he stutters as he backpedals: "no no, brother, I didn't mean the end—"

 

"Here is your mercy, then," she spits, and scrambles out of the barn.

 

.x.

 

They do not speak for the rest of his visit; the changed attitude bewilders her father and her uncle, but she will not speak of it, except to say he is insufferable and she'll have none of it.

 

"I'll never marry," she tells her father firmly, "I'll join a convent first."

 

Antonio shakes his head. "If it please God—" he begins, and Beatrice finishes, "it pleases me."

 

Benedick returns to the stable boy in search of a sworn brother; he needs not tell Beatrice that her oath has been forgot.

 

.x.

 

When Hero turns fourteen, Leonato and Innogen hold an enormous party. Beatrice is seventeen, and wears a dress befitting the lady of the house's cousin. It is dark blue, and looks nice against her skin. They live a sheltered existence, but Beatrice reads enough to be aware of this; she sees the looks that pass between boys and girls her age, and sees the way the kitchen girls swell up and disappear in the months after.

 

"'Tis coming on time, Beatrice," her uncle announces in a booming voice, thick with drink, "soon this gathering should be a celebration of your marriage."

 

She swipes the wine glass from his hand and takes a generous sip. "Nay, uncle," she disagrees, and smiles enough for the joke to be shared, "better to live and die a maid then marry and never live at all."

 

 Everyone laughs.

 

.x.

 

After that, the suits begin in earnest, but she refuses them all. Beatrice knows well how to use her words, how to mold her barbs so that those they hit accept the blow with laughter. She is sought and she says no, but the men go away smiling, for she is a laugh, that Beatrice, but not fit to take to wife.

 

"Daughter," begs Antonio in the library as she reads to him (his eyes are getting to weak to do it on his own), "if you'll not have them, then who?"

 

"None, dear father," she responds. "Unless I might be married to myself, that I should be more sure of the bond than I am certain the sun might rise on the morrow. What think ye more likely: that we should have daybreak, or that Beatrice should go on with Beatrice?"

 

"But why, child?” He puts his hand on her cheek and she leans into it, grasping his wrist. "Do not you want a daughter, Beatrice?"

 

She laughs gently, pulling her father's hand from her face and kissing it gently. "What should I do with a daughter? Teach her to read, that she might know the man's world in which she can take no part? Or teach her to sew, that she might learn to complement her colors when she mends? No, Father. I do not want a daughter."

 

"A son, then!"

 

"And what use have I of him? Boys grow into men, Father, and with the notable exceptions of yourself and my dear uncle Leonato, I have no patience for men."

 

Antonio sighs, shaking his head as he lowers himself into a chair. After a few moments, she begins reading again, softly so that he might fall asleep.

 

"You agreed, once, to marry the boy Benedick," he reminds her after a moment.

 

Beatrice puts the book onto her lap. "Yes, i'faith, I did," she agrees, and runs her hands over her eyes. Then she smiles. "But we both know it would be an ill match, do we not? He'll not have me now, nor I him. Signior Benedick must needs find a wife with more ambition."

 

"I would see you taken care of, child," her father murmurs, and Beatrice presses a kiss to the crown of his head.

 

"Taken care of?" she asks. "Nay, Father; married or no, I'll not countenance the thought of a man as my master."

 

Antonio sighs again. "I said 'married,' not 'mastered,'" and Beatrice replies, "isn't it the same thing?"

 

.x.

 

Benedick returns for the summer that she is eighteen, though both families are coming to realize that he is not a match for Hero. He pays the girl no mind—not Hero, nor Beatrice, though he's seen in the company of one of the kitchen girls, and shortly after becomes known for making trips into town so that he can flirt with the butcher's daughter.

 

"At the rate you're going, you'll have an army of Sworn Brothers before the summer is out," Beatrice tells him derisively, and does not cry, and does not cry, and does not cry.

 

Benedick snorts. He kicks his feet up onto her uncle's desk. They are seated in the study; she has been tasked with tutoring him, as her uncle hasn't the time and her father hasn't the patience. "I've learned better than to trust a woman with brotherhood," he tells her, leveling a glare in her direction. "They are too fickle for the responsibility. 'Tis no wonder they are confined to house chores and child rearing; they have not the constitution for day-to-day living as men do it."

 

"Ay, the constant rotation of sworn kinsman would drive the steadfast woman to insanity," Beatrice bites back. "We are play less fast and loose with our affection."

 

"Fast and loose?" Benedick cries, bringing his feet back to the floor with a loud stomp. "You're the one who—"

 

"Children?" Her uncle pokes his head into the study. "Might we call an armistice in this merry war betwixt you? There are those of us what would like to get through the day without our ears ringing with insults."

 

They fall into sullen silence. Leonato shakes his head. "There was a time we had thought to make a match between you two," he says dryly. "Had not this animosity arisen, I might be even now scolding husband and wife."

 

He removes himself from the room, and Beatrice and Benedick stare at one another.

 

"Brother," she begins, "perhaps I wasn't . . . perhaps, when I said I wouldn't—what I am trying to say—"

 

"Keep your pity, I'll have it none," he spits. "You are too proud to be the head of my household; well and so. If you want it not, I'll offer it not. I'll have no household!"

 

"Good!" she hisses back, conscious now of the fact that others can hear them. "Remain a bachelor, chasing after butchers' skirts and kitchen girls! And I'll take no husband, for if you won't have me, none will!"

 

"Fine!"

 

"Fine!"

 

He leaves the study. Beatrice is not entirely sure what deal they have just struck.

 

.x.

 

She sees Signior Benedick just one more time before he goes to war. There is a young man with him, Claudio, a Florentine. He follows Benedick's movements and listens to his words with a kind of awed obedience. Beatrice rolls her eyes.

 

The troops stay at Messina only two nights; under the leadership of Don Pedro, they are mid-march to some far-off destination, and Beatrice argues all evening with the noble commander over their purpose.

 

Don Pedro, at the last, raises his glass to her and laughs. "Milady Beatrice, you are unlike others of your sex," he declares. "I came to Messina unsure of the righteousness of war; I leave more brutal than a savage, spurred by your certainty. Truly, you'd have made a good soldier."

 

She looks over her glass at where Benedick is dancing with one of the local women. Her smile is hard when she says, "I'd make one still, my Lord."

 

.x.

 

When they march, she stands with the other women at the gate. Don Pedro kisses her hand.

 

"I would see thee again, my lady," he says, standing close. Over his shoulder, Beatrice meets Benedick's eye.

 

"Then do not die, my Lord," she answers.

 

Benedick approaches once her hand is free, and he takes it before anyone else has the chance. "Do you forget already our agreement?" he asks, his voice a challenge. "Have you found the household you would break your word inherit?"

 

She slips her hand free before he can kiss it. "I have never broken my word, Signior," she replies coolly. "Do not you die, either, that you may live to see me keep it."

 

He rolls his eyes. "Aye, I'll live; and bring you back the bodies of those that fall beneath my sword, that it may please such a man as you."

 

Hero gasps a little, offended for her cousin's part, but Beatrice just laughs. "Such a small number would not please the litter's runt, dear Signior; but bring them, that I might feast on that lonely rabbit you manage to trap to provide sustenance for those that do the true soldiering."

 

"You are an impossible woman, my dear Lady Disdain," Benedick declares. "May God grant that I return to find you unmarried, that no man has been punished with your sharp tongue."

 

"We are of like mind in that, Signior Mountanto," she answers him. "And may God grant that I find you returned a bachelor, for womankind would see you turned horse before we see you turned husband."

 

Benedick's eyes hold hers as he says, "I leave you."  

 

She answers, "I am left."

 

.x.

 

"I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?"

 

"I know none of that name, lady: there was none such in the army of any sort."

 

"What is he that you ask for, niece?"

 

"My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua."

 

"O, he's returned; and pleasant as he ever was."

 

"He set up his bills here in Messina and challenged Cupid at the flight. And my uncle's fool, reading the challenge, subrscribed for Cupid, and challenged him to a bird-bolt. I pray you, how many have he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing."

 

"Faith niece, you tax Signior Benedick too much; but he'll meet with you."

 

"I doubt it not."