Owen Glendower, Worcester, Mortimer and Hotspur had gathered at Glendower’s North Wales castle for a council of war. Mortimer slapped the pile of letters that lay on the huge oak table.
‘These promises are fair,’ he said. ‘Our allies are reliable. We’ve made a good start.’
‘Lord Mortimer, and cousin Glendower, please sit down,’ said Hotspur. ‘And Uncle Worcester. Damn! I’ve forgotten the map!’
Glendower snapped his fingers at a servant, who stepped forward with a rolled-up map. ‘No, here it is. Sit, cousin Percy, sit, dear cousin Hotspur.’ He smiled mischievously. ‘Whenever John of Lancaster refers to you by that name his cheeks grow pale and with a deep sigh he wishes you in heaven.’
‘And you in hell,’ said Hotspur, ‘whenever he hears the name Owen Glendower!’
‘I don’t blame him! At the moment of my birth the sky was filled with the fiery shapes of burning beacons and when I was delivered the whole of the huge earth shook as though quaking with fear.’
Hotspur’s expression showed how unimpressed he was. ‘Why, it would have done that during that season if your mother’s cat had just littered and you had never been born.’
Glendower’s eyes blazed. ‘I’m telling you the earth shook when I was born!’
Hotspur laughed. ‘And I’m telling you the earth disagreed with me if, as you’re claiming, it shook because it was frightened of you.’
Glendower pointed a finger emphatically at the young man. ‘The heavens were all on fire, the earth trembled…’
‘Oh, then the earth shook when it saw the heavens on fire and not because of your birth. When nature’s sick it often breaks out in strange eruptions. Sometimes the fertile earth is cramped and troubled by a kind of colic because a wayward wind is trapped inside her womb. When it tries to get out it shakes the grandmother earth and steeples and moss-covered towers come toppling down. When you were born our grandma earth shook from this farting.’
The others stared at the two as the tension grew. Hotspur was relentless in his attack, refusing to concede to the old Welshman, and Glendower was all the more incensed by the young man’s posture – sprawling, his legs spread out informally.
‘Cousin,’ Glendower said as he stood up. ‘There not many men whom I would tolerate crossing me like this. Allow me to tell you once again that at my birth the sky was filled with fiery shapes. The goats ran from the mountains and the herds filled the frightened fields with unfamiliar noise. These portents have marked me out as special, and the events of my life have shown that I’m not like the common man. Where is the man, within the shores of England, Scotland and Wales who can call me subordinate or can say that he’s taught me anything? And bring out the son of mortal woman who can match me in the mysterious arts of magic and keep company with me in those deep experiences.’
As he spoke his accent became more and more pronounced and when Hotspur, after regarding him for a long time, answered, it was in a Welsh accent that mocked the old magician’s. ‘I don’t think there’s anyone who speaks better Welsh.’ Ignoring the Welshman’s open-mouthed response he yawned and stood up. ‘I think I’ll go to dinner,’ he said.
‘Quiet. Cousin Percy,’ Mortimer hissed. ‘You’ll make him mad!’
Hotspur began to walk away. Glendower stopped him with a hand on his chest. ‘I can call up spirits from the most profound depths.’
Hotspur side-stepped him. ‘Why, so can I, and so can anyone. But will they come when you call them?’
‘Well I can teach you to command the devil!’
‘And I can teach you, cousin, to shame the devil by telling the truth. Tell the truth and shame the devil. If you have the power to raise him bring him here and I swear I have the power to shame him back again. Oh, as long as you’re alive, tell the truth and shame the devil!’
It looked as though Glendower was about to strike the hot-headed
young man but Mortimer stepped in between them. ‘Come come, no more of this pointless chat,’ he said.
Hotspur laughed and slapped Glendower on the back. The older man glared at him then resumed his place at the head of the table. Hotspur sat down again.
‘Three times Henry Bolingbroke has advanced against my forces,’ Glendower said. ‘Three times I’ve sent him home from the banks of the Wye and the sandy bottomed Severn with nothing but a battering from the weather.’
Hotspur could still not let it go. ‘Home without boots? And foul weather too! How does he avoid catching a chill in the devil’s name?’
Glendower decided to ignore that. ‘Come, here’s the map. Shall we divide our territory according to the threefold portions agreed?’
‘The Archdeacon has divided it into three areas very equally,’ Mortimer said. ‘England, from the Trent southwards and the Severn eastwards is assigned to me. All to the west – Wales beyond the Severn bank, and all the fertile land within that boundary, goes to Owen Glendower. And to you, dear cousin’ – smiling at Hotspur – ‘the remainder lying north of the Trent. Our three-way contract has been drafted and once we’ve signed it (which we can do tonight) then tomorrow, cousin Percy, you and I and my dear Lord Worcester, will set out to meet your father and the Scottish force, which has been offered to us, at Shrewsbury. My father-in-law, Glendower, isn’t ready yet, nor shall we need his help for a fortnight. By that time,’ he told Glendower, ‘you will have had a chance to bring your tenants, friends and neighbours together.’
‘A shorter time than that will bring me to you, gentlemen,’ Glendower said. ‘And your ladies will come with me – you will have to sneak away from them without saying goodbye otherwise there’ll be an ocean of tears at your departure,’
Hotspur wasn’t listening: he was examining the map. ‘I think my
portion, north from Burton – ‘ he stabbed the map with his forefinger ‘here! It’s not as big as either of yours! Look at the way this river comes curving in and cuts a huge half-moon out of the best of my land – an enormous chunk! I’ll dam the river up here and the calm and silver Trent will flow this way on a new more even and fair course. I’m not going to let it wind with such a deep indentation that it robs me of so much of this fertile valley!’
‘Not wind?’ said Glendower. ‘It shall! It must! You can see it does!’
They were all bending over the map now.
‘Yes,’ Mortimer said. ‘But look at how it flows and gives me a similar disadvantage on the other side, clipping as much from the opposite bank as it takes from you.’
Worcester put his finger on a section of the river. ‘Yes, but a bit of gunpowder will stop it here and gain this section of land on the north side. And then it will run straight and even.’
‘That’s what I’ll do,’ said Hotspur. ‘A bit of gunpowder will do the job.’
Glendower’s brow darkened. ‘I won’t have it altered!’
‘You won’t, won’t you?’
‘No, and you won’t either!’
‘Who’s going to stop me?’
‘I didn’t understand that. Say it in Welsh.’
‘I can speak English as well as you, sir,’ the old magician said. ‘I was brought up in the English court where, being young, I adapted many English songs for the harp very sweetly, with beautiful poetry. You couldn’t do that!’
‘And I’m certainly glad of that!’ exclaimed Hotspur. ‘I’d rather be a kitten miaouing than one of those third-rate rhymsters. I’d rather hear a brass candlestick turned on a lathe or a dry wheel scraping on its axle. They wouldn’t set my teeth nearly as much on edge as that effeminate poetry – it’s like the unwilling gait of an exhausted nag!’
Glendower looked as though he was going to burst but then his face broke into a craggy grin. ‘Come, you can change the course of the Trent.’
‘It doesn’t matter to me,’ Hotspur said casually. ‘I’d give thee times that much land to a well deserving friend. But listen here; when it comes to bargaining, I’d quibble about a ninth of a single hair. Have the contracts been drawn up? Shall we get going?’
‘The moon’s bright: you will be able to set out tonight,’ Glendower said. ‘I’ll chase up the clerk. Go and tell your wives that you’re going. I’m afraid this will drive my daughter mad – she just dotes on her Mortimer.’
Glendower left to fetch the women, and Mortimer reprimanded the young man who had behaved so outrageously. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, Percy,’ he said. ‘the way you cross my father-in-law!’
‘I can’t help it,’ Hotspur said. ‘I sometimes get very impatient with his stories about moles and ants, of the visionary Merlin and his prophesies, a dragon and a finless fish; a clip-winged Griffin and a moulting raven; a crouching lion and a rampant cat, and such a load of rubbish that it’s enough to put me off religion altogether. Let me tell you, he held me captive for at least nine hours last night and recited the names of all the demons who were his servants. I kept saying things like ‘wow’ and ‘you don’t say’ but I wasn’t listening to a word. Oh, he’s as boring as a tired horse, a nagging wife, worse than a smoky house. I’d much rather live on cheese and garlic in a remote windmill than eat cakes all day and have him talk to me in any summer house in Christendom!’
‘Actually, he’s a very worthy gentleman,’ said Mortimer. ‘Exceptionally well-read, master of magic arts, brave as a lion, incredibly good-natured and as generous as the mines of India. Let me tell you, cousin, he has a great respect for your temper and controls his natural responses when you antagonise him – he really does. I promise you, there’s no living man would have got away with provoking him the way you did. But I implore you, don’t do it too often.’
‘Really, my lord,’ said Worcester, you are too wilful and since you’ve been here you’ve done more than enough to make him lose his patience. You must learn, my lord, to control this fault. Though it sometimes indicates greatness, courage, spirit – and there’s a lot of that in you – it often looks like crude anger, bad manners, lack of self control, pride, arrogance, selfishness and contempt. Even the least serious of these faults in a nobleman is enough to lose the loyalty of others. His better qualities are submerged and unrecognised.’
‘Well that puts me in my place!’ Hotspur exclaimed. ‘I hope good manners bring you success! Here come our wives,’ as Glendower returned with their wives. ‘Let’s say goodbye.’
‘This is where I get really frustrated,’ said Mortimer. ‘My wife can’t speak English and I can’t speak Welsh.’
‘My daughter is crying because she doesn’t want to be separated from you,’ Glendower said. She wants to be a soldier too, and go to the wars.’
‘Dear father, tell her that she and my aunt Percy will follow very shortly with you.’
Glendower spoke softly to his daughter in Welsh and she replied in tearful tones, raising her voice at moments.
Glendower shook his head. ‘She’s in despair at having to stay here: a peevish, willful, girl, who’s impervious to persuasion.’
The young woman came close to her husband and looked up at him. She implored him in Welsh.
‘I understand what you’re saying from your looks, and those tears that pour down like pretty Welsh drops from swollen skies confirm it,’ Mortimer said. ‘Only shame stops me from answering you with tears.’
She kissed him and spoke again, imploring him.
‘I understand your kisses, and you mine,’ Mortimer told her. ‘And they’re full of feeling. I will never truant again until I have learnt your language because your voice makes it as sweet as exquisite songs sung by a beautiful queen in a summer bower, to the seductive accompaniment of her lute.’
‘No!’ Glendower said. ‘If you start crying she’ll go mad!’
The young woman spoke again.
‘Oh, I’m ignorance itself!’ exclaimed Mortimer.
‘She’s asking you to lie down on the soft rush mat and lay your head on her lap. She’ll sing a song you like and put you to sleep, charming your blood with a pleasant heaviness – taking you to a place between day and night that’s like the twilight.’
‘With all my heart,’ said Mortimer, lying down on the rush mat. I’ll lie here and listen to her song. By the time it’s finished perhaps the contract will be ready.’
‘Do that,’ Glendower said. ‘The musicians whoiwill play to you are hanging in the air a thousand miles from here and will be with you right away. Sit down and listen.’
The others had been watching this romantic scene, fascinated. Hotspur grinned wickedly at his wife. ‘Come Kate,’ he said. ‘You’re good at lying down. Come, quick, quick, so that I can lay my head in your lap.’
He grabbed her but, laughing, she pushed him away. ‘Get away, you giddy goose!’ Then she sat down and allowed him to lie beside her and rest his head in her lap, where she stroked his hair.
Lady Mortimer began her song.
‘Now I can see that the devil understands Welsh,’ Hotspur said, ‘and it’s not surprising that he’s so moody. My goodness he’s a good musician.’
‘In that case you should be very musical,’ his wife said,’ because you’re completely at the mercy of your moods.’ When his hands began to stray she dug him in the ribs. ‘Lie still, you thief, and listen to the lady singing in Welsh!’
‘I’d rather hear my dog howling in Irish.’
‘Do you want a broken head?’
‘Then lie still.’
‘Never!’ he exclaimed. ‘Lying still’s for women!’
She slapped him. ‘God help you!’
‘Into the Welsh lady’s bed,’ he said.
‘Quiet, she’s singing. Come on, Kate, you give us a song too.’
‘Not me, for heaven’s sake.’ She laughed.
‘Not you, for heaven’s sake! Sweetheart, you swear like a jammaker’s wife. Not you, for heaven’s sake! And ‘as true as I’m alive’, and ‘God forgive me’, and ‘as sure as day is day!’ Your oaths are so mild, one would think you’d never travelled further than Finsbury. Come on Kate, give us a good mouth-filling oath like the Lady you are! Leave ‘for heaven’s sake’ and other such mild-mouthed expressions to posers and Sunday trippers. Come on, sing!’
‘I will not sing.’
‘It’s the way to become a tailor, or train songbirds.’ He got up. ‘Once the contract has been drawn up I’ll be away within two hours. So call me when they’re ready.’ He walked out.
Glendower shook his son-in law. ‘Come on, Lord Mortimer. ‘You’re as slow as the over-heated Lord Percy is on fire to go. Our contract should be ready. We’ll just sign it then jump on our horses.’
Mortimer sprang up. ‘With all my heart!’ he said.