Edmund flashed the letter so that his father should see it then made a show of slipping it hastily into his pocket. ‘May it please your lordship, none,’ he said.
Gloucester pointed to his son’s pocket. ‘Then why are you trying so hard to hide that letter?’
‘I have no news, my lord.’
‘What was that you were reading?’
‘Nothing, my lord.’
‘No? Then why the great hurry to shove it in your pocket? Something that’s nothing has no need to hide itself. Let’s see it. Come; if it’s nothing I won’t need spectacles.’
‘I beg of you, sir, excuse me. It’s a letter from my brother that I haven’t finished reading, and from what I’ve seen so far I don’t think it’s fit for your eyes.’
Gloucester put his hand out. ‘Give me the letter, sir.’
Edmund frowned. ‘I’ll offend you either to give it to you or withhold it. The contents, as far as I can follow them, are offensive.’ He half extracted the letter then stopped.
‘Let’s see, let’s see!’ Gloucester snatched it.
Edmund stepped back. ‘To be fair to my brother, I hope that he wrote this to test my loyalty.’
Gloucester had put his glasses on. He opened the letter and read aloud. ‘ This custom of revering old men leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of young men. It keeps our fortunes from us till we’re too old to enjoy them. I’m beginning to find it’s a useless and stupid slavery to be controlled by an old tyrant who rules, not because he’s powerful, but because we’re willing to put up with it. Come to me so that I can explain it further. If our father would sleep till I awakened him you would enjoy half his wealth forever and live to be beloved of your brother. Edgar.’
Gloucester looked up at Edmund. His features expressed enormous conflict. ‘Hmm!’ he exclaimed. ‘Conspiracy? “Sleep till I awakened him you would enjoy half his wealth?” My son Edgar! Could he have done this? Has he got the heart and mind to instigate it? When did you get this? Who brought it to you?’
‘It wasn’t brought to me, my lord. That’s the cunning of it. It was thrown in through the window of my room.’
‘Are you sure this is your brother’s handwriting?’
Edmund appeared to choose his words carefully: ‘If the contents were good, my lord, I would dare swear it was his, but in respect of those contents I’d like to think it isn’t.’
Gloucester studied the letter. He nodded. ‘It is his,’ he said.
‘It is his hand, my lord, but I hope his heart isn’t in the contents.’
‘Has he ever sounded you out in this business before?’
‘Never, my lord,’ said Edmund. ‘But I’ve often heard him maintain that it would be more suitable for sons, on reaching maturity, and fathers fallen into decline, the father should be in the custody of the son and the son should manage his affairs.’
‘Oh villain, villain!’ Gloucester shook the letter. ‘That’s exactly what he says in here. Despicable villain! Unnatural, unspeakable, brutish villain! Worse than an animal! Go, sirrah, look for him. I’ll arrest him. Abominable villain. Where is he?’
‘I’m not sure, sir. If you could manage to contain your indignation against my brother till you can get a better picture of his intentions, it would be better because if you’re mistaken and over-react it would greatly damage your honour and shake his loyalty to the core. I’d stake my life on his loyalty: I think he’s written this to test my affection for your honour, and without any harmful intention.’
Gloucester’s eyes appealed desperately to his son: ‘Do you think so?’
‘If your honour thinks it appropriate, I will place you where you can hear us discuss this and by hearing for yourself, settle it in your mind, and we can do this without any further delay – this evening.’
‘He can’t be such a monster…’ said Gloucester.
Edmund put his arm around his father’s shoulders. ‘I’m sure he isn’t.’
There were tears in Gloucester’s eyes as he accepted his son’s embrace. ‘…to his own father, who loves him so tenderly and entirely. Heaven and earth!’ He clenched his fist. ‘Edmund, find him. Let me hear this. You decide how to do it. I’d give everything I have to be assured of his innocence.’
‘I’ll look for him straight away, sir, do my best to arrange things, and keep you fully informed.’
Gloucester shook his head vigorously. ‘These recent eclipses of the sun and moon don’t bode well for us,’ he said, ‘though wise men can explain it away as this or that, nevertheless we still have to suffer the consequences. Love cools, friendship dwindles, brothers are divided – riots in cities, civil wars in countries, treason in palaces and the bond between father and son broken. This villain of mine falls into that mould – son against father. The king goes against his own nature: there’s father against child. Our best years are behind us. Plots, hypocrisy, treachery and chaos follow us distressingly to our graves. Investigate this villain, Edmund – you won’t lose anything by it – do it discreetly. And the noble and loyal Kent banished! His offence, honesty! It’s strange.’ He patted Edmund’s back and stumbled away, shaking his head.
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