Kent arrived at Gloucester’s castle and handed his horse over to the stable attendants. Oswald and his attendants were riding towards the castle. Oswald drew up and called to Kent.
‘Good evening, friend. Are you a a servant here?’
‘Aye,’ said Kent.
‘Where can we put our horses?’
‘In the mud,’ said Kent.
‘Please, if you have any respect for me, tell me.’
‘I don’t have any respect for you.’
‘Well then, I don’t care about you either,’ said Oswald.
‘If there’s any more lip from you I’ll make you care about me,’ said Kent.
‘Why are you abusing me?’ said Oswald. ‘I don’t even know you.’ He dismounted.
‘Fellow, I know you,’ said Kent.
‘What do you know about me?’
‘You’re a knave, a rascal, an eater of rotten meat: a low-life, vain, shallow, beggarly, overdressed, filthy, shabby knave: a lily-livered, officious whoreson: a conceited, out-and-out, complete rogue: one who thinks that being a pimp is a good profession but is nothing more than a mixture of knave, beggar, coward, pimp, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch – one whom I will beat until you shriek if you deny one syllable of what you are!’
‘Well! What a monstrous fellow you are, to badmouth someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know you,’ said Oswald. He turned to remount his horse.
‘What a brazen-faced rascal you are!’ said Kent. ‘Denying you know me! Is it two days since I tripped you up and beat you in front of the king? Draw, you rogue: although it’s night-time the moon is shining. I’ll make you a thing through which the moon will shine,’ He drew his sword. ‘you whoreson, miserable fraud, draw!’
Oswald screamed: ‘Get away! I’ll have nothing to do with you.’
He tried desperately to grab the reins of his horse but Kent pulled him away and turned him round.
‘Draw, you rascal,’ he insisted. ‘You’ve come here with letters against the king and you side with that vain nobody against her royal father. Draw, you rogue, or I’ll really roast your shanks. Draw, you rascal! Come on!’
Oswald was terrified. He looked around desperately then opened his mouth. ‘Help! Ho! Murder! Help!’
Kent flung his sword down and started beating him with his fists. ‘Fight, you scum.’ Oswald fell over. ‘Get up, you rogue. Get up, you affected slave. Fight!’
Oswald lay on the ground screaming. ‘Help! Murder! Murder!
Edmund appeared, his rapier drawn. ‘Hey! What’s going on?’ he shouted. ‘Stop!’
‘I’ll take you on too, young fellow-me-lad, if you like,’ said Kent. ‘Come on, I’ll show you. Come on, my lad.’
The news of the disturbance had reached the ears of the great ones and they came rushing towards the fighting men.
‘Weapons!’ exclaimed Gloucester. ‘Fighting! ‘What’s this?’
‘No more, upon your lives,’ said Cornwall. ‘The next one to strike dies.’
Some attendants pulled Kent back and stood, holding him.
‘What’s this about?’ said Cornwall.
‘They’re messengers from our sister and the king,’ said Regan.
‘What’s the quarrel? Speak!’ said Cornwall.
Oswald got up slowly and brushed himself off. ‘I’m out of breath,’ he said.
‘No wonder,’ said Kent. ‘Your courage has been over-active. You cowardly rascal, you’re not real: a tailor made you.’
‘You’re a weird fellow,’ said Cornwall. ‘A tailor make a man?’
‘A tailor, sir. A stone mason or a painter couldn’t have done such a bad job of it, even if they’d been in the trade for only two years.’
‘Anyway, tell me, how did your quarrel start?’
‘This ancient ruffian, sir,’ said Oswald, ‘whose life I have spared because of his grey beard ….’
‘You whoreson zed, you unnecessary letter!’ fumed Kent. ‘My lord, if you’ll allow me, I’ll grind this useless villain into mortar and plaster the wall of a john with him. Spare my grey beard you wagtail?’ He tried to raise his arm and the servants tightened their grip.
‘Quiet, sirrah,’ said Cornwall. ‘You coarse rogue. Haven’t you got any respect?’
‘Yes, sir, but anger takes first place.’
‘Why are you so angry?’ said Cornwall.
‘Because such a slave as this should wear a sword but wear no honesty. Smiling villains like these often gnaw like rats through the holy cords of love that are too tight to be severed in any other way. They facilitate the wild passions of their masters: they pour oil on fire: they chill their dejected moods: they deny, affirm and turn like weathercocks with every wind blown by their masters. They know nothing other than how to follow like dogs.’
Oswald smirked, and winked at Cornwall.
‘Damn your smirking face!’ yelled Kent. ‘Are you laughing at me as though I were a fool? Goose!. If I caught you on Salisbury plain I’d drive you cackling home to Winchester!’
‘What? Are you mad, old fellow?’ said Cornwall.
‘How did you fall out?’ said Gloucester. ‘Tell us that.’
‘No enemies harbour such hatred as I and such a knave.’
‘Why do you call him a knave? What’s he done?’
‘I don’t like his face.’
‘Or mine, or his, or hers probably,’ said Gloucester.
‘Sir, it’s my practice to be blunt. I have to admit that I’ve seen better faces in my time than any that sit on the shoulders before me now.’
‘This is a fellow who, having once been praised for bluntness, affects an insolent roughness, but he gets it all wrong,’ said Cornwall. ‘He cannot flatter: oh no, he must speak the truth. If people accept that so be it, if not, oh well, that’s just his manner. I know this kind of rogue. Behind this so-called bluntness they harbour more craftiness and more corrupt purposes than twenty simple bootlickers who do as they’re told.’
Kent took his cap off and bowed exaggeratedly. ‘Sir, in all good faith, in sincere honesty, begging your greatness’ pardon, whose power, like the flames that flicker on the surface of the sun…’
Conrwall interrupted him. ‘What are you up to?’
Kent continued, with real sincerity this time: ‘Changing my manner of speaking, which you disapprove of so much. I can tell you, sir, I’m no flatterer: he who tricked you with plain speaking was a blunt rogue. That’s something I’ll never be even though I’d risk incurring your displeasure by refusing to be.’
Cornwall turned to Oswald. ‘What did you do to him?’
‘Nothing,’ said Oswald. ‘Very recently the King, his master, decided to hit me because he had misconstrued something. Whereupon, he -‘ pointing at Kent – ‘in support of him, pandering to his rage, tripped me from behind. Being down, he insulted me, abused me and, making himself out to be the big man, got acknowledgement and was praised by the King for attacking an innocent and defenceless man. And to finish this brave campaign he drew on me here again.’
‘All rogues and cowards like him think they’re superior to Ajax in courage,’ said Kent.
‘Bring the stocks!’ exclaimed Cornwall. ‘You stubborn old rascal, you old braggart, we’ll teach you.’
‘Sir, I am too old to learn,’ said Kent. ‘Don’t call for your stocks for me. I serve the king, on whose business I was sent to you. You would be showing little respect, over-reaching yourself, personally insulting my master, by placing his messenger in the stocks.’
‘Bring the stocks!’ insisted Cornwall. ‘Upon my honour, he’ll sit there till noon!’
‘Till noon?’ said Regan. ‘Till night, my lord, and all night too.’
‘Why, madam,’ said Kent, ‘if I were your father’s dog you wouldn’t abuse me like that.’
‘Sir, you being his stooge, I will,’ she said. ‘This is the very sort of fellow our sister speaks of.’
The cart with the stocks on it was being driven out of a barn and it trundled up to them.
‘Come, bring the stocks, said Regan.
Gloucester had said nothing while this was going on and now he put his hand on Cornwall’s shoulder. ‘Let me plead with your Grace not to do this,’ he said. ‘He’s very much out of order and the good King, his master, will reprimand him for it. The undignified punishment you’re proposing is for the lowest and most discredited wretches for petty thieving and minor offences. The King will take it as an insult that his messenger should be shackled like this.’
‘I’ll take the responsibility,’ said Cornwall.
Regan tossed her head. ‘My sister may be much more offended by the way her gentleman has been abused and assaulted for carrying out her business. Put his legs in.’
They didn’t have to force Kent into the stocks. He smiled round at them all, climbed on to the cart and positioned himself, even placing his feet in the holes himself. They started walking towards the castle doors. Gloucester hung back and Cornwall called to him.
‘Let’s go my lord.’ He, Regan and Edmund entered the castle.
‘I’m sorry about this, friend,’ Gloucester told Kent. ‘It’s the Duke’s whim and everyone knows that his temperament won’t allow any contradiction. I’ll plead on your behalf.’
‘Please don’t, sir,’ said Kent. ‘I’ve travelled a long way and gone without sleep. I’ll sleep some of the time away and for the rest I’ll whistle. Even a good man’s luck can run out. Good morning to you.’
‘The Duke’s to blame for this. It’s not nice.’ Gloucester walked away, shaking his head sadly.
Left to himself Kent reflected on matters. The good king should have remembered the old proverb – from the frying pan into the fire. It had been a long day. He wished the moon would come out again so that he would be able to use its light to read a letter he had received. He knew it was from Cordelia, who had most fortunately been informed of his disguise. He knew that she would find the time to bring some healing to this terrible state of affairs. He glanced down at his feet then looked away. His weary and heavy eyes should take this opportunity of not looking at these shameful stocks. Good night, Fortune. Smile once more and turn your wheel! On that thought he fell asleep.