‘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.’
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