David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 3, Scene 5

— 3.5 —

An old widow stood outside the walls of Florence along with her daughter, Diana. With them were her friend and neighbor Mariana and other citizens. The Florentine army had won a military victory and was returning to Florence, and the old widow and her companions had come to see the army.

The widow said, “Come, for if they approach the city, we shall entirely lose the sight.”

They began to walk to a position that they thought the army would pass by.

Diana said, “They say the French Count of Rousillon has done very honorable service.”

“It is reported that he has captured their greatest commander,” the widow said, “and that with his own hand he slew the Duke of Siena’s brother.”

A military trumpet sounded from a different direction the widow and her companions expected. The sound was a tucket, which identified a particular individual.

The widow said, “We have lost our labor; they have gone a different way. Listen! You may know who is arriving by their trumpets.”

“Come, let’s return to Florence again, and satisfy ourselves with what other people tell us about the return of our army,” Mariana said.

She then said, “Well, Diana, take heed of this French Count — the Count of Rousillon. The honor of a maiden is her name — the name of virgin — and no legacy is so rich as chastity.”

The widow said to her daughter, Diana, “I have told my neighbor Mariana how you have been solicited by a gentleman who is the Count of Rousillon’s companion.”

“I know that knave — hang him!” Mariana said. “He is named Parolles, and he is a filthy officer — a pander — in those suggestions he makes to the young Count. Beware of both of them, Diana; their promises, enticements, oaths, tokens, and all these instruments of lust are not the things they seem to be. Many maidens have been seduced by them, and the misery is that their example, that so terribly shows the wreck of maidenhood, cannot for all that dissuade other maidens from being seduced. Instead, the other maidens are limed with the twigs that threaten them. They are like birds that have been captured in sticky birdlime. I hope I don’t need to advise you further, but I hope your own grace and virtue will keep you where you are, even though there were no further danger known but the modesty that is so lost.”

Of course, there was a further danger in a young woman losing her virginity before being married — pregnancy. Another danger was becoming what was known as “damaged goods”; if men knew that she had lost her virginity, they would refuse to marry her.

Diana replied, “You shall not need to fear me losing my virginity.”

“I hope so,” the widow said.

Helena, who was wearing the clothing of a religious pilgrim, walked toward them.

The widow said, “Look, here comes a pilgrim. I know she will lodge at my house; thither the pilgrims send one another. I’ll question her.”

The widow said to Helena, “May God save you, pilgrim! Whither are you bound?”

“To the shrine of Saint Jaques le Grand. Where do the palmers — religious pilgrims — lodge, I ask you?”

The widow replied, “At the inn bearing the sign of Saint Francis here beside the city gate.”

“Is this the way?” Helena asked.

“Yes, indeed, it is,” the widow said.

They heard military drums coming toward them.

The widow said, “Listen! They are coming this way.”

She said to Helena, “If you will tarry, holy pilgrim, just until the troops have come by, I will conduct you where you shall be lodged. I will do this because I think I know your hostess as well as I know myself.”

“Is the hostess yourself?” Helena asked. She had a quick intelligence.

“If that shall please you, pilgrim, yes,” the widow said.

“I thank you, and I will wait until you have leisure to show me the way,” Helena said.

“You came, I think, from France?”

“I did so.”

“Here you shall see a countryman of yours who has done worthy service,” the widow said.

“What is his name, please?” Helena asked.

“The Count Rousillon. Do you know such a person?”

“Only by hearsay, and what I have heard describes him as being very noble. I don’t know what he looks like.”

Diana said, “Whatever he is, he’s well esteemed here. He stole away from France, it is reported, because the King had married him against his liking. Do you think it is true?”

“Yes, certainly, it is entirely the truth,” Helena said. “I know his wife.”

“A gentleman who serves the Count of Rousillon reports only coarse things about her,” Diana said.

Helena asked, “What’s his name?”

“Monsieur Parolles,” Diana said.

“Oh, I believe the same as him,” Helena said. “As the subject of praise, or compared to the worth of the great Count of Rousillon himself, she is too mean and common to have her name repeated. All her merit is a well-guarded chastity — I have not heard her chastity questioned.”

“Alas, poor lady!” Diana said. “It is a hard bondage to become the wife of a husband who detests her!”

The widow said, “I am sure, good creature, that wherever she is, her heart weighs sadly. This young maiden here — my daughter, Diana — might do her a shrewd turn, if she pleased.”

Displaying her quick intelligence, Helena asked, “How do you mean? Is it perhaps that the amorous Count solicits her for an unlawful purpose?”

“He does indeed,” the widow said, “and he bargains with all who can in such a suit corrupt the tender honor of a maiden. But she is armed for him and keeps her guard in the most honest defense of her chastity.”

Mariana said, “May the gods forbid she do anything else!”

“Now the soldiers are coming,” the widow said.

Drums sounded, and flags fluttered. Bertram, Parolles, and other soldiers marched into view.

The widow pointed out some notable soldiers: “That is Antonio, the Duke of Florence’s eldest son. That is Escalus.”

“Which is the Frenchman?” Helena asked.

Diana pointed and said, “He is the soldier with the plume. He is a very gallant fellow. I wish that he loved his wife. If he would be more virtuous, he would be much better looking. But isn’t he a handsome gentleman?”

“I like him well,” Helena said.

“It is a pity he is not virtuous,” Diana said. “There’s that same knave who leads him to these places.”

She was unwilling to use the word “brothels.”

She continued, “If I were his wife, I would poison that vile rascal.”

“Which is he?” Helena said.

“That jackanapes — buffoon — wearing all the military sashes,” Diana said. “Why is he melancholy?”

“Perhaps he was hurt in the battle,” Helena said.

Parolles said to himself, “Lose our drum! Damn!”

The military drum was a symbol of regimental honor, just like the military colors — the flag.

Mariana said, “He’s shrewdly vexed at something. Look, he has spied us.”

“Indeed!” the widow said, looking at Parolles. “Hang you!”

Mariana said, “And hang your courtesy, because you are a ring-carrier!”

A ring-carrier is a pander, a go-between. Parolles was currently engaged in trying to convince Diana to sleep with Bertram. The pander could carry a real ring, or the promise of a ring. Many maidens give up their virginity to men who falsely promised to marry them.

Bertram, Parolles, and the other soldiers exited.

“The troop is past,” the widow said. “Come, pilgrim, I will bring you to where you shall stay. Of penitents bound by oath there’s four or five already at my house who are heading to the shrine of great Saint Jaques.”

“I humbly thank you,” Helena said. “If it pleases this matron and this gentle maiden to eat with us tonight, I will gratefully pay the charge, and to reward you further, I will bestow some precepts on this virgin that are worthy of note.”

They replied, “We accept your offer kindly.”

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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