Juliet was just inside the nunnery’s gates when it started raining. She shivered a little and adjusted her shawl while she waited. There was a chill to the morning, and perhaps she felt slight concern, as she looked over the courtyard.
She had always thought herself a little timid compared to Isabella, who was kind and gracious, to be sure, yet there was also a harshness to her. A kind of strength and greatness Juliet could not discern in herself or Claudio – though she loved him well – that she rather lacked the words to describe. It was enough to turn down a duke, and to accuse his deputy, as if Isabella were their equal not in rank, but in all other ways and virtues.
Nonetheless, she could not help but wonder if it still would be the same. She was a mother now, of two babes, but perhaps not much the wiser; Isabella a maid. It pained her a little, when she thought of her own newly formed family, which had already brought her so much joy. And yet, could she imagine Isabella in her place, with a husband? Or in a palace, as the mistress of it, refined and remote?
I would not marry to be a duchess, Isabella had written to her once, but find merit and meaning in my own work. Was there another woman in all of Vienna who would have rejected a duke, and traded a palace for a cell?
She sometimes dreamt of Claudio in his cell, enclosed by heavy walls. The Father, the Duke, who had told her the execution was set. Her heart in her mouth, when she understood that both she and her child would be forever parted from him. Claudio’s child would never know him, and she would have no other children by him.
Here, when she entered the convent, she had shut behind her the weighty doors that separated the cloister from the city. To never leave this place, to never love, could there be any happiness in that? Perhaps there was a hidden cruelty in the Duke (die tomorrow, she would never forget those two words), but surely Isabella could find herself another husband?
There, in the corner of her eye, was Isabella. Hurrying down the stairs, from another tower than the one Juliet had been looking at. She was dressed in a simple habit, but wore a vibrant smile.
“Dear Juliet,” said Isabella and embraced her. She gestured towards a stone bench. “Let’s stay here in the shadows, with a roof over our heads. It is a blessed rain, but the garden may enjoy it more than we do.”
And so, she told Isabella of the great and small domesticities that filled her life. First her youngest had been poorly, then the elder. Both children were looking much better, however, and had regained a plumpness of the cheeks and a healthy flush, and Juliet dared to leave them in caring hands that were not her own. She even felt a little free to be outside, surprisingly content in the crisp air now.
Isabella listened patiently, and spoke of her time at the convent. Of prayer and contemplation, of seclusion and a sense of community, and her daily duties, for there was always work to be done. Then suddenly, her face turned serious. “I am a member of a sisterhood, and we have all taken vows which bind us to speak the truth. But if I were not at Saint Clare’s, we would be sisters, and there is question that has weighed on my heart for too long.” She looked straight at Juliet. “Do you fault me?”
“You are the most virtuous woman I know. How could I ever find fault with you?”
“But I am severe and cold!” Isabella exclaimed, then turned sober again. “My sisterly affection did not extend far enough. I spurned Angelo, before I knew the true measure of his falsehood. I wished Claudio were a better man – or indeed, no worse than he was. That he would not have asked me to commit such a despicable act. That neither of you had ever known each other, even though you were with child.”
“I think,” Juliet said cautiously, “that if Claudio were any other than he is, he would not be our Claudio. And if you were not yourself, I would not admire you so. He was wrong to demand it of you.”
Isabella did not ask her who she meant. Instead she said: “Oh, Juliet. I wish you the greatest happiness.”
They embraced once more; it had stopped raining. Then Juliet hurried home, and left Isabella to her own certainties and doubts. A life of solitude in a convent was not what she ever would have wanted for herself, but then, Juliet would not trade her husband and children for a Duke, a palace and all the riches in Vienna either. There was something else for a woman, another kind of life imaginable. If Isabella had found it inside the walls of a convent, and through companionship with her fellow sisters, that was both in her nature and her choice. If she was happy, then Juliet could be nothing but happy for her.
Isabella would stay in her heart. Nor was this goodbye forever, nor was Isabella alone.