It’s been a day of much trying and little reward, yet Feste sings on outside the tavern and struggles to exercise his wit on those that come and go.
Once Feste the Fool answered to a different name; it matters no longer what it was (Jack or Will or Ned or such as would bring half the street running at one call). He’s no further use for it. Besides, he has instead stuffed his mind too full with words formed with the letters that once Jack (or Will or Ned) sat and studied; there's no room left for it. He has mastered them all now: letters and notes, words and lines, both backwards and forwards, and so Feste sings for his supper, and cadges coin out of strangers in return for a smile, or a moment’s laughter.
“You make that instrument speak with a fair tongue,” says a newcomer, a tall gentleman the young Fool had not seen approaching. He’s dressed finely, with a bearing to match; too grand for this place. But he throws Feste a coin, and that’s what counts; it adds up to everything in the end.
Feste smiles and gives a bow of his head in acknowledgement, running his fingers over the lute. “Strange, is it not? For when it lived, it was dumb as that post and yet now, dead, it sings sweet harmony.”
“Strange indeed,” agrees the stranger, smiling. He reaches for another coin from his purse, raising Feste’s hopes, but he hesitates and surveys him again. “Whose Fool are you?”
“No man’s Fool, unless I am my own.”
“We are all that, I think,” says the man. “Then perchance you may do me a favour – you shall be well recompensed. I,” he adds, “am Count Giraldo. You may have heard me named if you have been long in these parts.”
Feste nods again.
“For the first,” he says, “aid me to separate a drunkard from the tavern – my wife’s brother, perish the man, but she held him in some affection.” He shrugs. “And for the second, return to my house on the morrow, boy, after noon, and play these songs again. I have a son and daughter, both younger in years than you and my house has not been as merry as it ought of late, not since their mother died. You will cheer us all – and there may be more in it for your pains than yet I say.”
Feste rises from the bench and bows. “Gladly, good my lord.”
A Fool he may be, but he can play at being wise and knows an opportunity when one bites him on the nose.
“Do you have a name?” asks the Count.
“Feste,” he says; Jack and Will and Ned and company are banished forever.
The Count is a fair and generous master, as Feste learns swiftly, once he is become part of his household. He has a son and daughter, as he told him, both yet a number of years short of Feste’s not-yet-great age. The son is another Giraldo, the image of his father in miniature, the daughter, Olivia, a pretty little maid, but solemn. Though she is younger than her brother, they are a devoted pair.
There are far worse places to have been washed ashore, Feste reasons, and so he stays, and stays.
The power to make men laugh is a great thing, but it is double-edged; it cuts both ways. As he moves them, if he does not take care, they move him also. So he thinks, even as he catches the moment that a small, solemn face turns merry at his capering.
“Why, what ails thee, little lady?” says Feste, all but falling over Olivia in a corner and spying her tear-stained face.
She gives a tight little shrug and folds her arms in against her. “My brother. He is in a foul temper and I cannot abide him!”
“Ah,” Feste says, sitting beside her on the boards of the floor. “I have noted it myself. He has become a great peacock. Such feathers! Such spindly strutting legs!”
“That was not my meaning, and so you knew – Fool,” Olivia says, trying to hold onto her ill humour, but despite that a small giggle escapes her at the picture Feste has conjured in her mind. She then breathes a sigh. “He will not have me go with him, and I want to!”
“He could not, princess. He goes now where you cannot follow – such studies and pursuits he is at are not for a maid.”
Olivia does not argue. She kicks with her slippered feet at the dust. “Then what shall I do?”
In answer, Feste becomes in an instant her over-fond nurse: “Take thy physick, my lady. Wrap thy head up well and warm. Do not run – do not make such noise – thou wilt be the death of me!” And then, in another instant, her far sterner tutoress: “Will you be idle, my child? Have you forgotten already your stitching? And so!” He mimes the act, pulling the invisible needle and thread through the edge of his coat. “Oh, no, no. Not so, lady, or all will be unravelled!”
Olivia’s amusement is reluctant, but she cannot keep her laughter back.
“Fear not, my lady,” says Feste, more quietly; a rare moment. He speaks plainer than most, but seldom says what he means. “Your brother loves you as he ever did.” He winks. “And now, a song?”
Olivia nods. “A song,” she says with decision. “Let it be cheerful. And not one that shall have me scolded if I should sing it after – rogue!”
She pays him well this once; she makes him laugh.
“What are you doing?” Olivia asks, coming upon Feste in the garden, hidden away behind a tree. “My father asks and asks for you and you are nowhere to be found, yet here you are!” She comes closer and frowns at him. “You are not sad, surely? You cannot be so!”
Feste heaves his most theatrical sigh. “Alas! my lady, I fear I must be. So would you be were you like to die any moment.”
“You are ill?” she asks. “Then why not say? My father knows your worth; you know that well. He will send for the physician.”
“And then my death would be certain. No, my lady, I fear instead that your good father values me no longer and so I fear his summons. He is missing some trinket – a chain or cup – and someone has told him the Fool is a Thief, most like it was your steward. Your brother tells me so, and so it must be true – and they will cut off my head for my sins.”
Olivia sits at the bench nearby. “But that is madness! My father is most constant in his favours and would never hear such an accusation without you to answer it. He complains only at the lack of your fooling. Will you hide here, for this?”
“I’m afraid I must,” says Feste. “Folly is permitted in a Fool and folly though it be; I value my head too highly to risk its being removed. Why, I have only now been stuffing it ever fuller of sage. Should all these efforts to increase my wit be wasted?”
Olivia shakes her head at him. “You have tried my poor brother too hard with your raillery too often of late, Fool. He has now gulled you. Come with me now, for if we tell him so, the news will swiftly make him love you again.”
“You think so, lady?” says Feste, and perchance he sounds a little too innocent.
She turns and her eyes widen a little; she gives him a sharper look. “Why, yes, I do. And so do you, I vow. But do not tell me so – for as ‘tis I may yet in good faith recount my brother how well he has fooled the Fool. And if that be not true, then believe me, your fears are unfounded. Why, my father would have any man who dared to cut off your head hanged the day after!”
“Now that is a comfort and a great kindness,” says Feste. “Though do not think me ungrateful – I should rather he hanged the knave the day before!”
The sunshine of these days, these years, do not last forever; there must be some rain, some vale of shadow. So it is: the Count dies suddenly. One day he is well; the next he will not be woken – silenced and gone from Illyria.
The house is cast into deep mourning; a Fool suddenly undesired company. Although Feste grieves for that good man, the Count, he also fears for his future. The Count will laugh no more at Feste’s jokes; he has taken that reward to the grave with him. Perchance he takes all else, too.
“You’ll stay with us,” Olivia says, unwittingly putting his fears to rest before even so have they laid her father. “My brother hopes the same; he told me so. You will, I trust, good Fool?”
“An it pleases me,” he says, “I may.”
Yet it is the first reminder of a winter that must also come, be he fortunate enough to live to see it. When a Fool is too stiff to caper and tumble and too dulled in his wits to amuse – and what then will remain? Only what little has been saved, or hopes of charity.
He stays; there is no question, but he does not stand by the graveside when the time comes. There is no place for a Jester there. He makes his farewells first, before Count Giraldo is cast into the earth: “I made you laugh,” he says to his late master in a stolen moment alone, “and what reward is this? For now you make me weep.”
And a sad Fool, he knows, is no Fool at all. Never again, he vows, but it is not an easy promise to keep.
“Art thou sad, Fool?” Olivia asks. “After you bade me be more merry! Now I am, will you not be pleased?”
Feste holds out his hands. “But my lady now has a fool of her own – a few too many, some might say. And tell me – I am so muddled in my wits of late – do I now have a new master or a mistress?”
“No more of that,” says Olivia, affecting to be stern, but amusement lurks in her face. She pats his arm. “Good Fool, I am not yet tired of your folly. I came now to call you – come, give us a song. You know all my favourites; those I would have my husband hear.”
Feste bows. “And indeed, it were well he had some simple pleasure, not only that which you bestow – which is pain and pleasure both together.”
“And why is that?” she prompts him with a twinkle in her grey eyes, knowing well her part in these games.
“That is the nature of Beauty,” Feste says with a shrug. “It wounds the heart even as it pleases the eye.”
Olivia smiles. “Then come ease that wound with your music.”
“A song, my lady?”
“A song,” she says again, with a small decided nod.
This smile they share in fair exchange; both give and take.