Lear was packed, dressed and ready to leave. ‘Go ahead of us to Gloucester with this letter,’ he told Kent. ‘Don’t tell my daughter anything that you know other than what may come out of her questions about the letter. If you don’t hurry I’ll be there before you.’
Taking the hint, Kent moved fast. ‘I won’t sleep, my lord, till I’ve delivered your letter,’ he called over his shoulder.
The fool watched him and laughed. ‘If a man’s brains were in his heels wouldn’t they be in danger of chilblains?’
‘Yes boy,’ said Lear. He was answering the fool but the tension within him was unbearable.
‘Then cheer up,’ said the fool. ‘With your intelligence you’ll never have to wear soft slippers.’
That made Lear laugh, a forced, bitter laugh.
‘You’ll see,’ said the fool. ‘Your other daughter will be kind. Although she’s as similar to this one as a crab apple is to a crab, I know what I know.’
‘What do you know boy?’
‘She will taste the same. Do you know why one’s nose is in the middle of one’s face?’
‘Why, to keep one’s eyes on either side of one’s nose, so that what a man can’t smell out he can look into.’
Lear wasn’t listening. ‘I did her wrong…’ he said under his breath.
‘Do you know how an oyster makes its shell?’ demanded the fool.
‘Nor do I. But I know why a snail has a house.’
‘Why?’ said Lear.
‘To put his head into, of course: not to give it away to his daughters and leave himself without protection.’
‘I’ll forget myself,’ said Lear. ‘So kind a father,’ he muttered. ‘Are my horses ready?’
‘Your asses are doing it now,’ said the fool. ‘The reason why the Pleiades are no more than seven stars is a good one.’
‘Because they aren’t eight?’
‘Yes indeed. You’d make a good fool.’
Lear shook his head. ‘To take it back again,’ he muttered. ‘Monstrous ingratitude!’
‘If you were my fool, Nuncle, I’d have you beaten for being old before your time.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You shouldn’t have got old before you were wise.’
Lear groaned. ‘Oh don’t let me go mad: not mad, sweet heaven. Keep me sane. I don’t want to be mad!’ One of the knights was coming towards them. ‘Well? Are my horses ready?’
‘Ready, my lord.’
The fool, skipping after him, grinned.
‘She that’s a maid now, and laughs at my departure,
Shall not be a maid long, unless things be cut shorter.’