Act I: Scene I (Beatrice)
Location: Messina, a chamber in Leonato's House
I have shared a bedchamber with my cousin, Hero, for as long as I can remember. Even when my worthy parents were alive, we spent more merry months at my uncle Leonato's home than we did at our own. And since that sad hour when my mother died of consumption, and my father followed her of what I swear was a broken heart, I have spent the long watches of the night listening to the soft, measured breathing of my fair, dainty cousin and watching the fires of fair Messina flicker in the rolling valley below our chamber window.
Rarely has there been disturbance of our peaceful life in Don Leonato's home. In fact, as loving and good as my uncle is, and as gentle and virtuous as my cousin is, though, our quiet existence is occasionally so peaceful as to drive even the most holy of hermits to the point of violent insanity. Thankfully, the tedious monotony is oft broken by the passing company of various military men, who invariably stop to dine with their old companions-in-arms, Don Leonato and his brother, Antonio. My uncles' hospitality is legendary, and no poor officer awaiting quarter-day would dream of forgoing the pleasures of fine dining, fair company, and joyous revelry whenever chance allows them to partake. My cousin and I have often remarked how welcome we find the sight of well-cut regimentals, regardless of the cut of the figure within them.
Tonight, though, our thoughts run on military lines for a very different reason. The fires flickering in the distance tonight are not of Messina's hearths, but of battlefields. As Hero and I cling to each other in the darkness, I cannot tell the difference between the pounding of my heart and that of cannon-fire echoing in my ears. Hero is praying fervently between the sobs that she cannot withhold, and I know she thinks only of Claudio, the young lord who has only recently captured her heart. I join her in her whispered Aves, but my thoughts lie elsewhere - with a certain tall, dark haired gentleman who begged of me a kiss before he left for battle and was paid only in disdain. Why was I so angry with Signore Benedick that day, that I denied such a noble gentlemen a salute farewell before going into an engagement he may not survive? As I bury my face in my pillow to drown out the distant sounds of war, I cannot remember. I can only wish with all my soul that I might see him again, living and hale and laughing at me as was ever his wont.
The dawn rises brilliant and glorious, as though laughing in the face of such a horrible night. At the sound of a messenger's hoofbeats upon the road, Hero and I run to meet my uncle before the house even half dressed as we are. The news is better than we could have ever hoped for - losses were few, and no men of rank. Hero's darling Claudio has apparently made much of himself in the battle and has earned great favor with his prince. This is enough to set my cousin's eyes dancing with glee, but her joy cannot be contained when my uncle informs us that the prince and his officers will break their fast here before returning to their company. Before she can drag me back into the house to finish our toilets, I make excuses to get information out of my uncle about Benedick - some such nonsense about eating his kills and decrying his wits…how has it come to this? I wonder. There was a time once when…well, no longer. It is enough - he is well, he is noble, he is a good soldier, and he is coming with Claudio. And neither my uncle nor my cousin suspect the truth of my asking.
Were you jealous, Benedick? Was that what caused the rift that suddenly appeared between us? I never meant to hurt you when I received the Prince's attentions, for what choice did I truly have in the matter? What maid of my station and situation could dare ignore so lofty a lord's notice when it is given to her? Particularly when you have refused to declare yourself for all these long years! I deserved neither your rage nor your coldness. And perhaps you likewise did not deserve my censure, but it will not be I who makes the first steps towards amends. I will not risk being dealt such injury by you again until you prove yourself reformed. Though, if our "merry war", as my uncle deems it, continues much longer, I shall have to find a larger box for the many unsent letters hidden in my dressing table. . .