The huge doors of the glittering state dining room opened and the King and Queen stood there, smiling. Behind them the long table was set for a banquet. The anteroom was crowded: everyone of importance in Scotland had been commanded to attend – from the great thanes down to the lesser lords and their ladies – and almost everyone had obeyed.
‘You all know your own rank,’ said Macbeth. ‘Come in and sit down. From the greatest to the least you’re all most heartily welcome.’
They filed past the King and Queen and took their seats: the more powerful a man was the nearer he sat to the royal couple at the head of the table.
When they were all seated Macbeth stood up and smiled round at them. ‘Ourself will mingle with you and play the humble host,’ he said. He swung round and beamed down at his radiant queen. ‘Our hostess will keep her place for now: she will receive you later.’
‘Greet our friends for me, Sir,’ she said, ‘for I welcome them with all my heart.’
While acknowledging the clapping and table thumping Macbeth glanced up at the doorway and saw that a new face had appeared among those of the servants. It was one of the murderers.
‘See?’ Macbeth said to his wife. ‘They greet you in turn with their hearts’ thanks.’
Lady Macbeth smiled graciously at the applauding guests. When the noise had subsided Macbeth spoke again. ‘Both sides are even, then. Enjoy yourselves. In due course we’ll drink a round of toasts.’ He made his way to the doorway, stopping every now and then to greet one of the guests, until he stood beside the murderer.
‘There’s blood on your face!’ he said.
‘It’s Banquo’s then.’
‘It’s better outside you than inside him. Has he been dealt with?’
‘My Lord, his throat is cut. I did that for him.’
‘You’re the best of the cut-throats. But whoever did the same for Fleance would be even better. If you did that you would be the best of them all.’
‘Most Royal Sir.’ The murderer came closer. ‘Fleance escaped.’
Macbeth stared at him. He felt one of his fits of terror coming on. Just when everything was going perfectly: when he was feeling safe – as firm as marble, as solid as rock, as free as air. Now, suddenly, he was enclosed, cramped, full of the most painful fears and doubts.
‘But Banquo’s safe?’
‘Yes, my Lord, quite safe, buried in a ditch with twenty deep gashes in his head – each one of them enough to kill him.’
‘Thanks for that,’ said Macbeth.
Banquo’s death was all very well but Fleance was the issue: he was the mature snake – his escape breeding venom in time – even though it had no teeth at present. There was only one thing in the world to be feared – the seed of Banquo.
‘Go now,’ he said. ‘We’ll talk again tomorrow.’
Lady Macbeth watched him and became concerned when he stopped halfway to his chair and seemed to be lost in thought. She got up and went to him. ‘My royal Lord,’ she said. ‘You’re neglecting your guests. They might as well be at an inn, paying for their meal, without the warmth of your hospitality. If it was just food they wanted they could have stayed at home. Ceremony adds flavour to the meat: without it it’s tasteless.’
‘Thanks for reminding me,’ said Macbeth.
Lady Macbeth went back to her place and Macbeth clapped his hands loudly. ‘Now!’ he said. ‘Bon appetite! And your good health!’ He took a tankard from a table and raised it. They all stood up and drank.
Lennox, who sat at the top end of the table, signaled him to return and sit. He walked towards his old friend who was seated beside Ross.
‘All the greatest in the land would be under one roof if we had been honoured with Banquo’s presence,’ he said. ‘I hope I’ll have cause to confront him for his discourtesy rather than pity him for any accident.’
‘He is at fault for breaking his promise,’ said Ross. Ross indicated the vacant chair beside Lady Macbeth’s. ‘Will it please your Highness to grace us with your royal company?’
‘The table’s full,’ said Macbeth.
Lennox pointed to the empty chair. ‘There’s your place, reserved for you,’ he said.
Macbeth looked up. All the colour in his cheeks drained away. He swayed.
‘What’s the matter?’ said Lennox.
Macbeth backed away, not taking his eyes off his chair. Then: ‘Which of you have done this?’ he shouted.
There was a change of atmosphere as people stopped eating and talking and looked at him. ‘Done what?’ they asked each other.
They watched as the King pointed to the empty chair.
‘You can’t say I did it!’ he screamed. ‘Don’t shake your gory locks at me!’
Ross sprang to his feet. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, rise: his Highness is not well.’
‘Sit!’ cried Lady Macbeth. She was moving fast to her husband. ‘Sit, worthy friends. His Majesty is often like this – has been since childhood. Please, just stay seated. It’s only a brief fit. He’ll be himself again in an instant. Take no notice of him: if you give it too much attention it will make him worse. Carry on eating and take no notice of him.’
She reached his side: she took his arm and spoke urgently into his ear. ‘Are you a man?’
‘Yes, and a bold one, daring to look at something that would frighten the devil!’
Lady Macbeth dragged him to the side of the hall. The guests had turned back to their conversations.
‘What nonsense!’ she said. ‘This is just a picture of your fear – the same thing as the dagger which you told me led you to Duncan. Come on, now – these outbursts are ridiculous, far more suitable for women telling winter’s tales. You should be ashamed of yourself.’
Macbeth was even paler now, and his face showed real fear.
‘Why are you pulling faces?’ she said. ‘When all’s said and done, you’re only looking at a chair.’
‘Oh yes?’ said Macbeth. ‘Look! Look there! What do you say now?’ He stepped forward and shook his finger at the chair. ‘Why, what do I care? If you can sit there nodding then you can speak, too, so say something! If the dead won’t stay in their graves then we should feed them to birds of prey. That would stop them!’
‘Has this foolishness completely destroyed your manhood?’
Macbeth seemed to come to himself again and he looked at her. ‘As true as I stand here I saw him.’
‘Fool!’ she said.
‘Blood has been shed before now,’ he said. ‘In the olden days, before we became civilized, and yes, since then, too, there have been murders too terrible for the human ear. There was a time that a man would die when he had his brains knocked out and that would be the end of him. But now they rise again with twenty gashes in their heads and push us off our chairs. This is even more unnatural than Banquo’s murder.’
‘My dear Lord,’ said Lady Macbeth, ‘your noble friends are wondering what’s going on.’
‘I’ve forgotten myself,’ he said. He addressed the guests. ‘My most worthy friends, don’t be amazed. I have a rare illness which is nothing to those who know me well. Come, let’s drink to love and health then I’ll sit down.’ He snapped his fingers at a serving man. ‘Give me some wine.’ The man poured from a pitcher. ‘Come on, fill it up,’ said Macbeth. He took the chalice. ‘I drink to the whole table. And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss. I wish he were here.’ He raised the chalice and held it up with both hands. ‘To all of you and to him, we drink. And all of you drink too.’
They stood: they watched him empty the chalice then they raised their own tankards. Before they could drink he flung the chalice across the room. It landed with a mighty clatter on the stone floor.
‘Go away!’ she shouted. ‘Get out of my sight! You should be in your grave! Your bones are marrowless, your blood is cold: there’s no intelligence behind those eyes you’re glaring with!’
They all looked from him to the chair and back again. They shook their heads and began muttering to each other.
‘Just think of this as a normal occurrence,’ said Lady Macbeth as loudly and firmly as she could. ‘That’s all it is, except that it’s spoiling our pleasure.’
But it was clearly more than that. The King seemed to have shrunk. His face was so pale and pinched that his features were quite changed. He coughed – a choking, gurgling cough – and saliva foamed around his lips. ‘I dare to do anything a man dares,’ he muttered. He covered his eyes with his hands and whimpered. Then he stood up straight and looked fiercely at the empty chair. ‘Come at me like the rugged Russian bear, or the armour plated rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger: take any form but that!’ He pointed and covered his eyes. ‘And I wouldn’t turn a hair. Or come back to life and challenge me to single combat. If I flinch then, you can call me a coward.’
He flung himself to his knees. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His red eyes contrasted starkly with his white face. ‘Go, please go, horrible ghost. Unreal thing! Go!’
Suddenly he looked round at the stunned guests. He stood up unsteadily. ‘It’s gone. And I’m a man again.’ He was speaking haltingly, as though in pain. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Sit down.’
‘It’s too late. You’ve ruined the atmosphere and destroyed the dinner with an astonishing loss of control,’ whispered Lady Macbeth fiercely.
‘Can it be?’ he said. He was speaking softly, as though to himself. They were all gazing at him in silence. ‘That something like that can happen without your being amazed? You make me doubt my senses when you can see such sights and keep your colour while I’m drained of mine.’
‘What sights, my Lord?’ said Ross.
‘I beg of you,’ said Lady Macbeth. ‘Don’t talk to him: he’s getting worse and worse. I’ll say good night to you all at the same time. Go now.’
The lesser lords at the lower end of the table waited respectfully for the thanes.
‘Ignore the order of going!’ Lady Macbeth almost screamed. ‘Just go as quickly as you can!’
Lennox was reluctant to leave but Lady Macbeth told him with a look that his presence wasn’t wanted. ‘Good night,’ he said. ‘I hope his Majesty will be better soon.’
As the last one left Lady Macbeth dismissed the attendants and closed the doors. Macbeth was slumped on the floor.
‘It will have blood,’ he said. ‘They say blood will have blood. Gravestones have been known to tell on murderers and trees to speak their names. Soothsayers have used birds as omens to reveal secret murderers.’ He stood up. ‘What’s the time?’
Macbeth sat on his chair and adjusted his crown. ‘What do you think of Macduff, refusing to obey my command to come to our great banquet?’
‘Did you ask him why he wasn’t coming, Sir?’
‘I’ve heard it unofficially, but I’ll ask him personally. I’ll get to the truth: there’s not a household among them where I haven’t got a spy.’
Lady Macbeth looked at the shadow which her husband had become. His nose ran and dried spittle encircled his mouth.
‘I’m going to find the weird sisters early tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘I want to hear more. I’m determined to know the worst. It’s my top priority. I’ve waded so far into blood that I couldn’t turn back now. There are some dreadful things I want to do that I must act on before I can think about them.’
‘You’re badly in need of a good sleep,’ said Lady Macbeth.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘We’ll get some sleep. This episode tonight is the fear that inexperience in evil brings. It won’t happen once I’m used to it. This is all new to us.’