It was better this way. The storm had blown itself out and Edgar wandered around in the vicinity of the hut, deep in thought. It was better to be openly despised than subjected to flattery – that was far worse. The most lowly and dejected victim of ill fortune could still hope, and so didn’t live in fear. The worst thing was to fail to appreciate the good things but when one was at rock-bottom matters could only improve. So he welcomed the formless air that embraced him. His thoughts went to the King. The man those elements had made such a wretch of owed nothing to their fierce winds, however.
Someone was coming.
Was that his father, led by an old peasant? Oh world, world, world! We would never age and die if it weren’t for your erratic behaviour.
He crept closer and crouched down so that he could hear what they were saying.
‘Oh my dear lord,’ the old man was saying. ‘I’ve been your tenant and your father’s tenant these eighty years.’
‘Away, go away,’ Gloucester said. He made a feeble shooing gesture. ‘Good friend, be gone. Your help can do me no good at all. And they may hurt you.’
‘You can’t see your way,’ the old man said.
‘I have no way, and so I don’t need any eyes. I stumbled when I saw. Prosperity usually makes us feel secure so setbacks teach us something. Ah, dear son Edgar, the object of your abused father’s anger, if I could only live to see you by touching you I’d say I had my eyes back.’
Edgar stood up.
‘Hello!’ the old man called. ‘Who’s there?’
Edgar was weeping. Oh gods! Who could ever say that one had hit rock-bottom? He was lower than he had ever been.
The old man came close. ‘It’s poor mad Tom,’ he said.
And he may sink even lower, he thought. It wasn’t the lowest while one could still tell oneself it was the lowest.
The old man put his hand on Edgar’s shoulder. ‘Fellow, where are you off to?’
‘Is it a beggar man?’ said Gloucester.
‘Madman and beggar, too,’ the old man said.
‘He must have some reason or he wouldn’t be able to beg,’ Gloucester said. ‘In last night’s storm I saw a fellow like this, which made me think that man is no more than a worm. My son came into my mind even though I was feeling anger towards him. I have had new information since then. To the gods we are like flies are to naughty boys: they kill us just for fun.’
Edgar could see the state of his father’s face now, and he wondered what had happened. This wasn’t the right situation in which to pretend to be an idiot – it was unfair to both.
‘Bless you master!’ he said.
‘Is that the naked fellow?’ Gloucester said.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Then I would beg you to go now,’ Gloucester said. ‘If, in your concern for me, you catch up with us a mile or two from here, on the road to Dover, do it because of our long association. And bring some clothes for this naked soul, whom I’ll ask to guide me.’
The old man was reluctant. ‘Alas, sir, he’s mad.’
‘It’s a sign of our fallen times that madmen lead the blind.’ When the old man hesitated Gloucester insisted. ‘Do as I tell you, or if not, do as you like. Above all, go!’
‘I’ll bring him the best clothes I’ve got – no matter what the consequences are.’ The old man left them.
‘Sirrah!’ Gloucester felt about at the air around him. ‘Naked fellow!’
‘Poor Tom’s a-cold,’ wailed Edgar. He couldn’t keep it up. But he had to.
‘Come here fellow.’
‘Bless your sweet eyes. They’re bleeding.’
‘Do you know the way to Dover?’
‘All the ways – stile and gate, bridle path and foot-path. Poor Tom has been scared out of his wits. Bless you, laddie, from the foul fiend! Five demons have been in Poor Tom at the same time. Obidicut, the lustful one: Hoberdidance, the prince of dumbness: Mahu, of theft: Modo, of murder: Flibbertigibbet, of face-pulling: who have all since possessed chambermaids and serving wenches. So, bless you, master.’
Gloucester untied his purse from around his waist. ‘Here, take this purse,’ he said, ‘you who have been brought right down by fortune’s worst strokes. My wretchedness is worse than yours. May the heavens continue to deal in that way. May the man who has too much and is too self-indulgent – who abuses your bounty and refuses to see things because he doesn’t himself experience them – feel your immediate power! Distributing what you give us more evenly would remedy excess, giving each man enough. Do you know Dover?’
‘There is a cliff whose high and bowed head looks fearfully into the churning sea below. Just take me to the very edge of it and I’ll remedy your misery with something valuable that I have on me. I won’t need any guide from there.’
‘Give me your arm,’ said Edgar. ‘Poor Tom will guide you.’