Edmund entered the English camp, with drums beating and flags flying in celebration of the British victory. He gazed down from his horse at the two heavily guarded royal prisoners, who had been brought there.
‘Some officers take them away,’ he said. ‘Guard them well – until we know what those who will decide their fate want to do with them.’
Cordelia held her father’s hand. This was surely a mistake. ‘We aren’t the first to suffer the worst after having had the best of intentions,’ she told him. ‘I’m depressed on your behalf, as a suffering king. If it were only me I could have faced up to ill-fortune. Do you want to see these daughters and these sisters?’
Lear shook with emotion. ‘No, no, no, no!’ he cried. ‘Come, let’s be off to prison. We two, alone, will sing like birds in a cage. When you ask me for a blessing I’ll kneel down and ask your forgiveness. And that’s how we’ll live. And we’ll pray, and sing, and tell each other stories about things that happened in olden times, and laugh at courtiers covered with decoration, and listen to ordinary people gossiping about court news. And we’ll gossip with them too – who loses and who wins: who’s in, who’s out – and we’ll solve the mysteries of existence as if we were God’s spies. And in an enclosed prison we’ll outlast the packs and sectors of great ones who come and go monthly.’
Edmund was becoming impatient: ‘Take them away!’ he said.
Lear put his arms around his daughter. ‘The gods themselves honour such sacrifices as you have made, Cordelia,’ he said. She buried herself in his embrace and sobbed. ‘Have I made you cry?’ He stroked her hair. ‘Whoever separates us now will have to use a burning torch from heaven and drive us apart with fire. Wipe your eyes. Time will decay them before they will make us weep. We’ll see them starve first. Come.’
The guards led them away and Edmund dismounted and beckoned to one of his officers.
‘Come here, Captain: listen.’ He held a note out to the officer. Then, lowering his voice, he gave his instructions: ‘Take this. Go and follow them to prison. I’ve already given you a rung up the ladder. If you follow these instructions it will lead you to glory. Understand that men should take advantage of the opportunities offered them. To be tender-hearted doesn’t become a soldier. This important assignment doesn’t admit debate. Either say you’ll do it or you can go and find your fortune elsewhere.’
The captain took no time at all to make his decision. He would do it.
‘Jump to it then,’ said Edmund, ‘and enjoy the satisfaction of completing it. Listen. I’m saying immediately, and do it precisely according to my instructions.’
‘I’m not a horse,’ the officer replied. ‘If it’s a man’s job I’ll do it.’
Albany, Goneril and Regan joined Edmund, now, in the British camp, as victors, with their banners, trumpets and drums. They all entered the royal tent and Goneril called for refreshments.
Albany approached Edmund and addressed him formally. ‘Sir, you’ve shown your valiant heritage today, and you’ve had some luck. You are in possession of the captives who were our antagonists in today’s battle. I require them of you, to do with them what their deserts and our security shall equally determine.
‘Sir,’ said Edmund, ‘I thought it fitting that I should send the old and unhappy King to some guarded sanctuary. His age has a particular power, and even more so, his title, which could win the hearts of the common people and turn the weapons of our conscripted soldiers against us. I sent the Queen with him, for the same reason, and they will be ready tomorrow, or at a later time, to appear wherever you intend to hold your trial. At the moment we are sweating and bleeding: friend has lost friend. Even the best of victories can, in the heat of the moment, be cursed by the feelings of injured parties. The case of Cordelia and her father requires a more appropriate place.
Albany bristled. ‘Look here, sir,’ he said. ‘I regard you as a subject in this war, not as an equal.’
Almost before he had finished the sentence Regan burst out with: ‘His rank is up to us to decide. I think our opinion might have been sought before you said so much. He led our armies and acted with the authority of my rank and person. In that capacity he may well stand up and call himself your equal.’
Goneril turned on her. ‘Not so fast,’ she said. ‘He’s elevated more in his own right than because of any rank you’ve given him.’
‘In representing me he ranks with the highest,’ retorted Regan.
‘That would only be the case if he were your husband,’ said Albany.
‘Those who speak in jest often speak prophesies,’ said Regan.
‘Well I never!’ exclaimed Goneril. ‘That’s straight talking all right!’
Regan turned on her. ‘Madam,’ she said, ‘I am not well, otherwise I’d blast you out of sight!’
She smiled at Edmund. ‘General,’ she said, ‘take my soldiers, my prisoners, my inheritance. Do whatever you like with them…’ She took his arm and glared at Goneril – ‘… and me. I’m all yours. Let the world witness that I hereby pronounce you my lord and master!’
‘Do you intend to have him?’ said Goneril.
‘It’s not your business,’ Albany snapped.
‘Nor yours, lord,’ said Edmund.
‘Oh yes it is, bastard!’ said Albany.
Regan took both Edmund’s hands and looked up at him. ‘Let the drum sound and proclaim my title yours.’
‘Just a minute,’ said Albany. ‘Wait till you hear this! Edmund, I arrest you for capital treason. And your accomplice – this gilded serpent.’ – pointing at Goneril. ‘As for your claim, fair sister, I deny it in favour of my wife: she’s the one who’s sub-contracted to this lord, and I, her husband, contradict your banns. If you want to marry make your proposal to me – my lady is spoken for.’
Goneril turned away. ‘So dramatic,’ she said dismissively.
Albany was adamant, however. ‘You’re still wearing your armour, Gloucester,’ he said. ‘Let the trumpet sound. If no-one appears to try your heinous, undeniable many treasons, here is my challenge!’ He threw his gauntlet down at Edmund’s feet. ‘I’ll prove with your life before I ever eat anything again, that you are nothing other than what I’ve proclaimed you to be.’
Regan moaned suddenly. She put her hand to her heart. ‘I’m sick – oh, I’m sick!’
Goneril looked on, satisfied with the effect of her work on Regan’s drink. If her sister hadn’t been sick to the death she wouldn’t ever have trusted poison again!
Ignoring Regan, Edmund faced the angry Albany. ‘Here’s my response,’ he said coldly, throwing his gauntlet down too. ‘I don’t care how exalted he is who labels me “traitor”: he lies like a villain. Instruct the trumpeter. Whoever dares to come forward, I will steadfastly defend my honour against him, against you – against anyone.’
Albany signalled to one of his aids to write the challenge then he went to the door and instructed the guards: ‘A herald there!’
Edmund echoed him: ‘A herald there, a herald!’
‘You will have to depend on your personal valour,’ said Albany, ‘because your soldiers, all levied in my name, have taken their discharge from me.’
In the heat of the moment they had both forgotten about Regan, who was clutching her throat, now, and having difficulty breathing. ‘It’s getting worse,’ she gasped.
Albany told an officer to have her taken to his tent. Two officers supported her between them and took her away as the herald arrived.
‘Come here herald,’ said Albany. ‘Let the trumpet sound and read this out.’
The herald took the document from the officer who had written it.
An officer at the entrance called out an order: ‘Sound – trumpet!’
The trump sounded and the herald loudly issued the challenge, reading from Albany’s document: ‘If any man of any high birth or rank, enlisted in the army will maintain that Edmund, supposed Earl of Gloucester, is a multifold traitor, let him appear by the third sound of the trumpet. He will vigorously defend himself.’
The officer gave another order: ‘Sound!’ There was no response. ‘Again,’ the officer ordered. No response to the second trumpet call. ‘Sound!’ the officer shouted and the third trumpet sounded.
They waited. The silence in the camp was profound. Then another trumpet sounded in the distance. They waited and soon a knight in full armour, with visor down, rode into the camp. It was Edgar. He dismounted and waited to be acknowledged. Albany instructed the herald to ask the knight what his intentions were and why he had appeared on the trumpet call.
The herald asked him formally and Edgar replied: ‘Know that my name has been lost, destroyed b y the gnawing tooth and canker-bite of treason. And yet I am as noble as the adversary I have come to fight.’
‘Who is that adversary?’ said Albany.
‘Who speaks for Edmund, Earl of Gloucester?’
Edmund stepped forward. ‘Himself,’ he said. ‘What do you have to say to him?’
The brothers faced each other.
‘Draw your sword so that if what I have to say offends a noble heart your valour may do you justice,’ Edgar said. He drew his own sword. ‘Here is mine. Drawing it is the privilege of my position, my vows and my knightly rank. I proclaim you – notwithstanding your strength, position, youth and eminence, despite your victorious sword and brilliant new fortune, your bravery and courage – to be a traitor, who has betrayed his gods, his brother and his father. You have conspired against this exalted, illustrious prince: you are, from the very top of your head to the dust below your feet, a most toad-spotted traitor. If you deny it this sword, this arm, and all my energy are strained to prove to your heart, to which I’m addressing myself, that you lie.’
Edmund matched his brother’s chivalric formality: ‘Wisdom tells me I should ask your name, but because you appear so good and valiant and because your speech shows evidence of breeding, although I could, within the rules of chivalry, postpone this encounter, I disdain to do that. I toss these accusations of treason back in your face, together with the hateful charge that you’re lying. Though right now they glance by, scarcely bruising, this sword of mine will guide them to where they will stick for ever. Trumpets, speak!’
Trumpets sounded the start of the combat and the brothers began, each trying to land a wounding blow in the other with their broadswords. It was a long and testing fight and they both began to drag with exhaustion, neither one being able to gain an advantage, they were so equally matched. But eventually, Edgar managed to get his foot behind Edmund’s leg and he pushed him over, where he lay, on his back, at the mercy of the heavy sword that came down, piercing his breast-plate with its weight and force. He groaned and Edgar stepped back and raised the sword again.
‘Save him! Save him!’ cried Albany.
Goneril knelt down beside Edmund. ‘This is deception, Gloucester.’ She spoke sharply. ‘According to military law you’re not bound to respond to an unknown enemy. You’re not defeated but cheated and deceived!’
‘Shut your mouth woman or I’ll stop it with this letter!’ exclaimed Albany. He held a letter up in front of her face – the letter that Edgar had found on Oswald’s body. ‘Hold back, sir,’ he told Edgar. He shook the letter in Goneril’s face. ‘You unspeakable…! Read you own evil.’
She tried to snatch it from him and he pulled it out of her reach. ‘No snatching lady. I see you know what it is.’
‘What if I do?’ she said. ‘The laws are mine. Who can prosecute me for it?’
‘Oh monstrous!’ Albany exclaimed. ‘Do you know this letter?’
‘Don’t ask me what I know!’ she screamed. She ran towards the royal tent.
Albany snapped his fingers at an officer. ‘Follow her. She’s desperate. Keep her under control.’
Some officers had removed Edmund’s helmet and others were trying to remove the breast section of his armour, which was impeding his breathing. He lay on the ground, wincing, while a red patch around him grew. Edgar stood over him, still fully armoured. Albany stood beside him.
‘I have done those things you have accused me of,’ Edmund told Albany. ‘And more – much more. It will all come out in time. ‘It’s all over for me now. He turned his head painfully and spoke to the mysterious stranger. ‘But who are you who has this advantage over me? If you’re noble I forgive you.’
‘Let’s exchange love,’ said Edgar. ‘I am no less in breeding than you are, Edmund. If I’m more than that then you’ve wronged me even more.’ He paused for a moment to ease his helmet off and when he had done that and handed to an officer he looked down at his dying brother. ‘My name is Edgar, and I’m your father’s son. The gods are just and use the vices we indulge ourselves in as the instruments of their torture. The dark and vicious act of adultery out of which you were conceived cost him his eyes.’
‘You’re right,’ gasped Edmund. ‘It’s true. The wheel of fortune has come full circle and I’m at the bottom again.
Albany shook Edgar’s hand. ‘I thought the way you walked told of a royal nobility,’ he said. ‘I welcome you. May sorrow break my heart if I ever hated you or your father.’
‘Noble prince, I know,’ said Edgar.
‘Where have you hidden yourself?’ Albany said. ‘How did you know about your father’s suffering?’
‘By soothing them, my lord. Listen to a brief tale, and once it’s told, oh, how I wish my heart would burst! The need to escape the threat of violence that was following me so closely – oh, how wonderful this life is that we suffer the pain of death hourly rather than have a sudden death – taught me to disguise myself in the rags of a madman and assume an identity that even dogs held in contempt. And in these clothes I met my father with those bleeding rings that had just lost their precious gems. I became his guide: I led him, begged for him, raised his spirits. I never revealed myself to him until about a half and hour ago, when I was armed up. Not sure of this victory, although hoping for it, I asked his blessing and told him of my mission from beginning to end. But his injured heart, alas, too weak to support the conflict between the two extremes of passion – joy and grief – burst with happiness.’
Edmund’s eyes were filled with tears. He reached up weakly and took his brother’s hand. ‘This speech of yours has moved me,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it will do some good. Go on, you look as though you have more to say.’
‘If there is more that’s even sadder, keep it in, because I’m about to dissolve in tears as I listen,’ Albany said.
‘This would seem a concluding moment to those who can’t cope with sorrow,’ Edgar said. ‘To elaborate would make you more sad and it would be going too far. While I was crying my heart out a man arrived who, having seen me at my worst moment, would normally have avoided my repulsive company, but seeing who it was that was suffering so profoundly, he placed his strong arms around my neck and bellowed out as if to burst the heavens. He flung himself on my father and told the most piteous tale of Lear and himself that anyone had ever heard. In recounting it his grief overwhelmed him and the strings of life began to loosen. The trumpets sounded twice, then, and I left him there unconscious.’
‘But who was that?’ said Albany.
‘It was Kent, sir, the banished Kent who, disguised, followed the king who had banished him, serving him even better than a slave would.’
Edgar’s account was interrupted by the arrival of a distraught officer waving a bloodstained knife. ‘Help, help. Some help, oh!’ he shouted.
‘What kind of help?’ said Edgar.
The officer tried to speak but he was overwhelmed by his emotions.
‘Speak, man,’ said Albany.
‘What’s the meaning of this bloody knife?’ said Edgar.
‘It’s hot – it’s steaming.’ The officer had difficulty in getting it out. ‘It came from the heart of… Oh, she’s dead!’ he exclaimed, unable to believe what he was reporting.
‘Who’s dead?’ Albany was losing patience with this officer. ‘Speak man!’
The officer finally managed to say it. ‘Your wife, sir, your wife. And her sister has been poisoned by her. She confessed it.’
Edmund made an effort to speak through his pain. ‘I was contracted to them both. All three of us are now marrying in a single moment.’
Albany made no comment. They were all silent. Then Edgar said: ‘Here comes Kent.’
Albany said: ‘Bring the bodies, whether alive or dead.’ The officer went off and Albany nodded. ‘This judgment of the heavens, awesome as it is, doesn’t move me to pity.’ He acknowledged Kent with a gesture. ‘Oh is this he? This isn’t the right time for conventional courtesies.’
‘I have come to say farewell to my King and master,’ said Kent. ‘Isn’t he here?’
Albany’s eyes opened wide. ‘We forgot all about such an important thing! Tell us, Edmund. Where’s the King? And where’s Cordelia?’
Some soldiers brought the bodies of Goneril and Regan and put them on the ground beside Edmund.
‘Do you see this spectacle, Kent?’ said Albany.
‘Alas!’ exclaimed Kent. ‘How did this happen?’
Edmund raised himself to look at the sisters. ‘So Edmund really was loved after all,’ he said. ‘The one poisoned the other for love of me and then killed herself.’
‘Exactly right,’ said Albany. ‘Cover their faces.’
‘I’m breathing my last,’ gasped Edmund. ‘I want to do some good in spite of myself. Send quickly – hurry up – to the castle, because Lear and Cordelia are under the death sentence from me. Come on, get to them in time!’
‘Run, run!’ exclaimed Albany, looking at no-one in particular. ‘Oh, run!’
‘Who, my lord?’ said Edgar. ‘Who are you sending?’
Albany pointed to an officer.
‘Give him your reprieve warrant,’ said Edgar.
‘Good thinking,’ said Edmund. ‘Take my sword as the token. Give it to the captain.’
The officer took Edmund’s sword and ran.
‘Hurry, on your life!’ Edmund called after him. Then he lay back. A tear rolled down his cheek. ‘He had an order from your wife and me to hang Cordelia in the prison and announce that despair caused her to commit suicide.’
‘The gods protect her!’ exclaimed Albany. ‘Take him away for now.’
The soldiers lifted the armoured Edmund with difficulty and carried him away.
Edmund and Albany waited for the officer to return with the news that he had prevented Cordelia’s death. When he came back the King was with him, staggering, carrying the dead Cordelia in his arms. He lay her on the ground and sank down beside her.
‘Howl, howl, howl!’ he cried. ‘Oh, you are men of stone! If I had your tongues and eyes I’d use them to crack heaven’s roof! She’s gone for ever. I know when someone is dead and when someone’s alive. She’s as dead as earth. Lend me a mirror. If her breath mists or stains the glass, why, then she lives!’
Kent, Albany and Edgar looked on with emotion. It was as though the end of the world had come, or something very like it. The heavens could just as well have fallen and ended everything.
Lear looked about on the ground and found a small feather. He held it beneath Cordelia’s nose. ‘The feather moves!’ he exclaimed. ‘She’s alive! If so it’s a stroke of luck that cancels all the sorrow I’ve ever felt.’
Kent knelt beside the grief-stricken King. ‘Oh my dear master!’ he said.
Lear looked at him with fear in his eyes. ‘Go away! Please!’
Edgar tried to explain who he was. ‘It’s the noble Kent, your friend,’ he said gently.
Lear’s eyes b lazed. ‘To hell with you!’ he shouted. ‘Murderers, traitors, all of you! I could have saved her: now she’s gone for ever!’ He hugged the lifeless body of his daughter. ‘Cordelia, Cordelia,’ he moaned. ‘Stay awhile.’ He put his ear to her lips and listened. ‘Ha! What’s did you say? Her voice was always soft, gentle and low – an excellent thing in a woman. I killed the wretch who was hanging you!’
The officer nodded. ‘It’s true, my lords: he did.’
A smile passed across Lear’s features. ‘Didn’t I just, fellow!’ he said. ‘I’ve seen the day when, with my keen sharp sword, I would have made them jump! I am old now, and my ailments impede me. Who are you? My eyes are not as good as they should be, I’ll tell you straight…’
Kent shook his head. ‘If Fortune should brag about two men she loved and hated we are looking at one of them now.’
‘… my sight is dull,’ continued Lear. ‘Aren’t you Kent?’
‘The same!’ Kent said joyfully. ‘Your servant, Kent. Where is your servant, Caius?’
‘Ah, he’s a good fellow, I can tell you that,’ said Lear. ‘He’ll fight, and quickly too!’ Then he looked down sadly. ‘He’s dead and rotten.’
‘No, my dear lord,’ said Kent, ‘I am the very man…’
‘I’ll deal with that in a minute,’ said Lear.
‘… who has followed you from the beginning of your misfortunes,’ Kent said.
‘You are welcome here,’ said Lear, still bewildered.
‘Kent nodded vigorously. ‘The very man. Everything is cheerless, dark and deadly. Your eldest daughters have done themselves in and have met a desperate end.’
Lear wasn’t listening. He was still staring at Cordelia. ‘Yes, I think so,’ he muttered.
‘He doesn’t know what he’s saying,’ said Albany. ‘There’s no point in talking to him.’
‘Absolutely pointless,’ agreed Edgar.
An officer arrived to tell them that that Edmund was dead.
‘That’s a minor issue here,’ said Albany. ‘Lords and noble friends, know our intentions. We will give whatever comfort we can to this noble ruin. For ourself, we will resign absolute power to this old majesty during the remainder of his life. As for you ‘ – indicating Edgar and Kent – ‘take up your rightful places and, in addition, the lands and titles that your noble deeds have more than merited. All friends will know the rewards of their loyalty and all foes punished according to their deserts. Oh look, look!’
Lear had lain Cordelia’s body on the ground and he was kneeling beside her and looking up at the sky and shouting out his anger to the gods. ‘And my poor child is hanged! No, no, no, life! Why should a dog, or a horse, or a rat have life, and you no breath at all? You’ll not come again – never, never, never, never, never!’ His face was red and he looked as though he was choking. He tugged at his collar. ‘Please, undo this button.’ Albany helped him and the collar fell loose. Lear smiled. ‘Thank you, sir.’ He looked down at Cordelia again. ‘Do you see this? Look at her. Look, her lips. Look there, look there!’ He took a deep breath and then, without warning, fell on top of Cordelia’s body.
‘He’s fainted!’ exclaimed Edgar. He shook Lear. ‘My lord, my lord!’
Kent put his hand on Edgar’s shoulder. ‘Let his heart break. Please, break!’
Edgar was still shaking him. ‘Wake up, my lord!’
Kent took Edgar’s arm and turned him away from the pitiful spectacle. ‘Don’t trouble his departing soul,’ he said. ‘Let him pass. Only someone who hated him would stretch him any longer on the rack of this tough world.’
Lear lay completely still.
‘He’s indeed gone,’ said Edgar.
‘The wonder of it is that he endured for so long,’ Kent said. ‘He lived longer than he should have.’
‘Take them away,’ said Albany. ‘Universal mourning is now our present concern. Friends of my soul,’ he told Kent and Edgar, ‘you two will rule in this kingdom and support this wounded state.’
Kent shook his head. ‘I have to go on a journey soon, sir. My master is calling me. I must not say no.’
Edgar shook Albany’s hand. ‘We must respond to the problems of these sad times,’ he said, ‘and speak what we feel and not what we ought to say. The oldest have borne the greatest burden. We who are young shall never see as much nor live as long.’
The royal bodies were lifted and the three noblemen and their officers followed in a sad procession.