6. A Madness Most Discreet
"Romeo, hast thou heard a single word of what I have said?" twelve-year-old Benvolio asked in exasperation one day.
Romeo, who had been lying on his back on the bench beneath the grape arbor, raised his head and looked guilty. "It was thy plans for university, was it not?"
Benvolio rolled his eyes. "That was a lucky guess, as well thou knowest." He plucked a handful of sweet grapes from the arbor and crunched them. It seemed that he was always hungry lately. Romeo lay back and gazed up at the grape leaves rippling above him, and his eyes began to glaze over. Benvolio, who could never remain angry with his cousin for long, smiled indulgently.
"Who is it this time?" he asked. When he received no reply, he bounced a grape off of Romeo's nose, and Romeo started. "Who is it?" Benvolio repeated.
"Who is who?"
Benvolio sighed. "The maid who prances through thy thoughts. I know that look in thy eye. Thou art thinking of fair maidens again."
Romeo smiled. "Truly, Benvolio, thou dost know me all too well. Often I forget that thou art my cousin, for I think of thee as my own dear twin."
"Flattery will get thee nowhere, cousin mine. Out with it." Benvolio leaned over Romeo's head and stared into his upside-down face. "Who is the latest beauty of Verona to have caught thy eye?"
"Bianca, the fair daughter of Signior Neri," Romeo said, a dreamy look in his eye. "She, I'll swear, is the fairest maid Verona ever produced. Alas that she is to be married to Agostino Orsini on Thursday."
"She is far too old for thee," Benvolio said. "She is nearly seventeen. When thou art of age, thy father will find thee a more suitable bride."
Romeo laughed. "Ah, Benvolio, dearest cousin. I see thou hast not yet been in love. When it happens to thee, thou wilt cease thy practicalities and learn the pleasures of the promise in a beautiful glance, the invitation in the tilt of a head, the swell of a –"
"Creamy bosom, I know," Benvolio broke in. "We have had this conversation before. I am hardly surprised that thou thinkst so often of Bianca's bosom, for she is tall enough that thy nose would rest most comfortably in that spot."
Romeo's grin grew even wider, and Benvolio poked him in the shoulder. "I hope I never fall in love, if it will cause me to spout such terrible poetry as thou dost."
"It will happen to thee soon enough," Romeo sniffed. "And then thou wilt know the exquisite agony of a lady's presence in thy heart and her absence from thy arms."
Benvolio could take no more, and climbed up a pear tree, leaving Romeo to his dreams of romance.
Although Bianca Neri had never so much as spared Romeo a glance, as far as Benvolio knew, Romeo fell into a deep melancholy on the day of her wedding to Agostino Orsini. His mood lasted for several days, reaching its darkest point on Sunday.
Friar Lawrence permitted the older boys in the Sunday club to practice fencing with blunted sticks, and Mercutio eagerly engaged Romeo in a friendly bout. Benvolio and Vincenzo had made a private wager on the outcome. Vincenzo pointed out that Romeo was taller and heavier than Mercutio, giving him greater reach and more force behind his blows. Benvolio argued that Mercutio's feet were as quick in a duel as they were in the steps of the galliard, and that his whip-thin body was difficult to hit. Neither of the two participants in the bout seemed to care much about the wager. Romeo had focused all of his concentration on his quicksilver opponent. For his part, Mercutio laughed delightedly as he eluded Romeo's blade.
Vincenzo's cousin Pietro, who had been keeping score, suddenly put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "Hold the battle," he cried. "A great procession enters the piazza."
All the boys ran to look. Amidst a great noise of bells, horns, and drums, Signior Orsini was ceremonially conveying his new wife to his home. Bianca reclined in a litter, wearing a sumptuous gown of green velvet, trimmed with gold. Jewels winked at her throat and hands, and her hair was done up in an elaborately trimmed headdress. Beneath the finery, Bianca trembled a little, but put on a brave expression for her final journey out of her childhood home. Romeo whipped off his cap and gazed at her, feasting his eyes one last time on his unwitting beloved. He remained standing stock still in the piazza even after the bridal procession had disappeared from view.
Mercutio tapped his stick on the ground. "They are gone now, Romeo," he said. "Come, shall we continue our duel?"
Romeo turned to face him with a mournful sigh. "Alas, good Mercutio, I fear that I must concede to thee. I have no heart for any more childish games today."
Mercutio's smile vanished, and a hard, angry look spread over his face. He threw his stick to the ground, and advanced on Romeo. "What is childish about fencing?" he demanded. "All the young men of Verona fence, probably all the young men in all of Italy."
"Mercutio, canst thou not see that I am mourning my love?"
"Thy love?" Mercutio's eyebrows shot up. "Thou hast fallen in love?"
Romeo nodded. "Aye, the more pity is mine. She that I love is married now, and all my dreams are turned to dust."
Romeo turned to stare at Mercutio in amazement. "What dost thou mean by that? What is good about this? I shall never see my love again."
"Good, because now perhaps thou wilt see how ridiculous thou art," Mercutio said. "It is silly to fall into fits over such a thing as love." He spat the word out as if it tasted of wormwood.
Even Benvolio was intrigued at this vehemence. "Why, what sort of a thing is love?" he asked amiably.
Mercutio stared at his feet, and for a moment, Benvolio thought he would not answer. But he raised his head, and there was a sharp, defiant gleam in his eyes. "Love is a sickness, no less deadly than the pox or the plague," Mercutio said. "It is a storm that blows across the land, destroying everything in its path. It is a quagmire that traps one before an oncoming foe. Love forces one to choose between two paths equally filled with pain. Love hurts!" Mercutio's voice cracked, and he fell silent.
The other boys in the piazza stared at Mercutio, dumbfounded at his outburst. Romeo blinked, shocked from his self-absorbed stupor. "Surely there is more to love than that," he ventured. "Who has broken thy heart, Mercutio, that thou wouldst say such things?"
"No one," Mercutio said. "No one will ever break my heart, for I shall not give it to anyone to be broken." He tossed his head and stormed away from his friends, his stick forgotten in the dust of the piazza.
Mercutio was mistaken, Benvolio thought. His heart was already broken, though he did not seem to know it. Benvolio wondered where that notion had come from, and he thought about the strange look in Mercutio's eyes. His body had radiated anger and contempt, but desperation and a flash of naked terror had lurked behind his eyes. Upon reflection, Romeo's question had been a good one. Benvolio, too, wondered what had happened to Mercutio to set him so firmly against the idea of love at twelve years old.
Both Romeo and Benvolio soon had other things to worry about besides the nature of love. A week after Bianca Neri's wedding procession, Friar Lawrence asked them to stay in with him at recess, along with their friends, and Tybalt, and Tybalt's friends. Friar Lawrence did not seem displeased with them, and they had not had any fights recently. None of the boys could think of a reason for them to be called, for they had nothing in common save that they were the oldest boys in the Latin school.
Friar Lawrence tucked his hands into his coarse brown robe and looked them all over. He was silent for a moment, as if searching for the right words. At last, he smiled at the boys, that kindly, almost friendly look that led Romeo to hang on the good Friar's every word.
"Next week will be the last week of school for all of us in this room," Friar Lawrence said. The boys stared at each other in shock, and Friar Lawrence went on. "You have learned all that I can teach you," he explained. "I was never called to be a teacher, but after Brother Salvatore died, I agreed to take over the school, and – well, even the Franciscans can be guilty of sloth sometimes. But recently, a new brother has joined this most humble order, and he is much more suited to elementary education than I am. So I will return to my duties as an ordinary brother, and you will return to your homes."
"What of our education?" Tybalt asked. "My family sent me here to learn things befitting a young gentleman."
"Indeed he did, and indeed thou hast learned such things," Friar Lawrence replied. "I have spoken to all of your families, and I trust that suitable arrangements will be made for each of you. In the meantime, this is an occasion, and we must think of a way to mark it. On Saturday next, there will be no ordinary lessons. Instead, all of you will stand before the school and show what you have learned. You may read something in Latin, or recite, or work sums, whatever it is that shows off your skills to best advantage."
"Will the little boys watch us?" Romeo asked.
Friar Lawrence nodded. "Of course. We must give them something to inspire them to learn. Perhaps we might even invite your families," he added dubiously, glancing back and forth between Romeo and Tybalt. "Or perhaps they might have business of their own to attend to. In any event, we cannot send off such a fine group of young scholars without some ceremony."
Benvolio smiled at the prospect of being allowed to stand and recite in front of the whole school, but at the same time, something about the idea of the ceremony made him a little melancholy. It was not until Sunday that he realized what was bothering him. Though Benvolio suspected that no one else minded but him, he knew that their little group would not be complete, for Mercutio would not stand among them on Saturday.
Uncle Tiberio hired a tutor for his son and nephew, claiming that, useful as the Latin school had been, he preferred to have both of them at home. "You are both becoming good enough with your swords that you could cause real damage, should you encounter one of the Capulets in the streets," he said. "And you are not good enough to know when you should stop causing damage. I am growing old, and weary of this eternal feud. I do not wish to make it easy for young bloods to start it again. You will study at home."
The tutor, Signior Boccardi, was kind, and certainly more than competent. Under his eye, Romeo and Benvolio began to learn Greek and a little Hebrew, as well as mathematics. The mathematics intrigued Benvolio, in part because Mercutio had once spoken highly of the subject. It was more precise than anything Benvolio had yet studied, and demanded quite a bit of concentration at first. Romeo never did become especially proficient at mathematics, but Benvolio found that he could manipulate numbers almost as easily as words. Every time he clicked a bead on his abacus, he thought of Mercutio and smiled a little.
He and Romeo saw their friends on Sundays in the piazza, and at the dancing classes. However, they were rapidly becoming old enough to go along when Uncle Tiberio and Aunt Susanna were invited to feasts and balls. They were not old enough to go masking yet, but that day would come. In the meantime, they discovered that their dancing lessons had been worthwhile, for they could now join in the dancing instead of standing at the sidelines watching or playing childish games.
This new wrinkle in their social lives would have been perfect if Romeo had not insisted upon falling in love with a different young lady at each feast. He sighed and moaned, and would usually produce a terrible poem in the lady's honor several days after the feast. He insisted upon telling everyone within earshot all about the beauty of the current apple of his eye and how much he longed to be with her.
Mercutio rarely sat still for these speeches. When he was in a good mood, he would wander off to find someone who would play with him, sometimes leaving Romeo in mid-sentence. When he was in a bad mood, which seemed to be at least three times a week, he would argue the merits of love with Romeo, insisting that love was nothing but a source of pain that was best avoided.
Benvolio had to admit that Mercutio had a point. Only rarely did the objects of Romeo's affection take note of him at all. Romeo maintained that it was because of a mysterious blindness shared by all the women of Verona, but Benvolio tried to offer him a different perspective.
"Romeo," he said, "thou art twelve years old. Thou art not nearly old enough for marriage. Perhaps, when thou art grown a little more, maids will take more note of thee."
"That is not so," Romeo replied. "I am doomed to remain what I am, helpless and overlooked."
Benvolio laughed. "Thou art only helpless and overlooked because thou dost choose to be so," he said. "I think that thou dost enjoy the pain of love more than the pleasure."
"Benvolio, art thou mad?"
"Not mad, but one who has eyes to see. This constant falling in and out of love would distress anyone, and most people avoid distress. Thou dost not. Indeed, I think that thou must enjoy being overlooked, since thou dost constantly seek it out."
Romeo glared at Benvolio, with all the dignity he could muster. "I do not seek it out."
"Thou dost. If thou didst not seek it out, thou wouldst not declare thy undying love for maids thou canst not have every fortnight."
Romeo sighed, and Benvolio knew that his point had struck home. "Wait, Benvolio," he grumbled. "One day, thou wilt know the pain of loving one who does not love thee back."
Benvolio smiled. "On that day, gentle Romeo, I hope that thou and Mercutio will join forces and mock me until I regain my senses. Come, I am hungry. Let us go in and see if Cook will give us something to eat."
"Thou art always hungry," Romeo said, but his expression was gentle. Together, the two boys raced into the house.