The ghost kept walking. Hamlet held it in sight, afraid that it would disappear. ‘Where are you leading me to?’ he called. ‘Speak. I won’t go any further.’
The ghost stopped and turned. Hamlet found himself looking into the blank, staring white face of the man who had been his father.
It was his father’s voice, but cold and expressionless.
‘The time has almost come when I must surrender myself to sulphur and tormenting flames.’
‘Alas, poor ghost!’
‘Don’t pity me. Listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you.’
‘Speak. I have to hear it.’
‘You will also have to revenge when you hear it.’
‘I am your father’s spirit, doomed for a certain time to walk the night, and for the day to burn in fires, till the foul crimes done during my lifetime have been burnt and purged away. But that I am forbidden to tell the secrets of my prison-house I could tell a tale whose lightest word would shrivel up your soul, freeze your young blood, make your eyes start from their sockets and your hair stand up on end like the quills of a frightened porcupine. But this eternal torture is not for ears of flesh and blood. Listen, oh listen! If you ever loved your dear father ….’
‘Oh God!’ It was too much for Hamlet.
‘….revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.’
‘Murder most foul, as murder always is, but this one was most foul, strange and unnatural.’
‘Tell me quickly so that, with wings as swift as meditation or thoughts of love, I may sweep to my revenge.’
‘I find you willing, the ghost said, ‘and if you didn’t act on this you would be more drowsy than the fat weed that roots itself in the comfort of the banks of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Now Hamlet, hear: It’s been reported that, sleeping in my orchard, a snake bit me. So the ear of Denmark has been grossly abused by a fraudulent account of my death.’ The ghost paused again and seemed to be overwhelmed by the thought he had just pronounced. Then his voice came again, as steady and cold as it had been up until now. ‘But know this, you noble youth. The serpent that did take your father’s life now wears his crown.’
‘Oh, I had almost thought that!’ exclaimed Hamlet. ‘My uncle!’
‘Yes, that incestuous, that adulterous, beast. With the witchcraft of his intelligence, with his traitorous qualities – oh evil intelligence and qualities that have the power to seduce like that – he forced the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen to his shameful lust. Oh Hamlet, what a falling-off was there!’
Hamlet stood in shocked silence.
The ghost continued: ‘From me, whose love was of that dignity that it was of the same high order as the vow I made to her in marriage, to descend to the level of a wretch whose natural gifts were poor compared with mine! But in the same way as virtue will never allow itself to be seduced by lewdness, even if it comes in the shape of heaven, lust, though disguised as a radiant angel, preys on the garbage to be found in a holy bed.’
The ghost turned its head slightly towards the east then looked at Hamlet again. ‘I think I can smell the morning air,’ it said. ‘Let me be brief. Sleeping in my orchard, which, as you know, was my custom in the afternoon, your uncle crept up with a vial of poisonous yew when he was certain that I would be asleep and poured the poisonous liquid into my ear. This substance is so alien to a man’s blood that it glides rapidly, like quicksilver, through the veins and arteries, and with mighty energy, thickens and curdles the thin and wholesome blood like lemon juice in milk. And so it did mine. I was instantly scurvy, like a leper, my smooth body covered with vile and loathsome scabs. And in that way, sleeping, at the hands of a brother, I was summarily deprived of my life, my queen and my crown. I was cut off, right in the fullness of my sins, without benefit of sacrament or the last rites of repentance, no chance of atonement, but sent to my judgment with all my imperfections on my head.’
The ghost raised its head and looked at Hamlet with infinite sadness. Hamlet stared, horrified.
‘Oh horrible! Oh horrible! Most horrible!’ The ghost took a moment before it continued. ‘If you ever loved your father refuse to accept it. Don’t allow the royal bed of Denmark to be a couch for lechery and damnable incest. However you decide to pursue this act, do not let it corrupt your mind, nor let your soul contrive against your mother. Leave it to heaven to deal with, and to her conscience that will prick and sting her heart like thorns. Farewell. The fading stars show the morning to be near. Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me.’
The voice faded and the figure merged with the mist.
Hamlet’s heart was beating fast. In the name of all the angels, of earth, and even hell, don’t let his heart burst! And don’t let his muscles fail him, but hold him up. Remember him! Yes, as long as memory would last in his confused brain. Remember him! Yes, he would erase every other foolish memory – everything he had read, people he had known, all the troubles he’d had in his life, and the ghost’s commandment would be the only thing that lived in the book of his mind, uncomplicated by the presence of irrelevant things. He swore to that. He doubled his body over, as though in physical pain. Oh most pernicious woman. Oh villain, villain, smiling damned villain! His slate. He would have to write it down. He pulled the small slate and a piece of chalk out of his pocket. That one may smile and smile and be a villain! That was at least certain in Denmark. He made a few notes in the dawn light. ‘So, Uncle, there you are,’ he said aloud. ‘It’s adieu, adieu! Remember me!’ He put the slate away. ‘There. I have sworn it.’
Horatio’s voice called: ‘My lord, my lord!’
‘Lord Hamlet!’ shouted Marcellus.
The voices came nearer. ‘Heaven keep him safe,’ said Horatio.
‘Amen!’ shouted Hamlet.
They were peering through the mist. Horatio cupped his hands round his mouth and called like a falconer. ‘Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!’
Hamlet replied:’Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come, bird, come!’
They came out of the bright morning mist.
‘Are you alright, my noble lord?’ said Marcellus.
‘What happened?’ said Horatio.
‘Oh, it was a marvel,’ said Hamlet.
‘Tell us, my good lord,’ said Horatio.
‘No, you’ll reveal it,’ said Hamlet.
‘Not I, my lord, I swear,’ said Horatio.
‘Nor I, my lord,’ said Marcellus.
‘No-one would believe it. But you’ll keep it a secret?’
‘Yes, my lord,’ said Horatio.
Marcellus nodded eagerly. ‘I swear.’
‘There’s not one villain living in all of Denmark who isn’t a frightful rogue,’ said Hamlet.
‘It doesn’t need a ghost, come from the grave, to tell us that,’ said Horatio. He and Marcellus looked at each other, puzzled by this comment.
‘You’re absolutely right,’ said Hamlet. And so, without any more ado, I think it would be fit that we shake hands and part – you to your business or your pleasure, whatever it is, and I…….. I’m going to go and pray.’
‘Your words are wild and meaningless, my lord,’ said Horatio.
‘I’m sorry they offend you. Heartily. Yes, indeed, heartily.’
‘There’s no offence in them, my lord.’
‘Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio. And a great deal of offence too. About this vision, it’s an honest ghost, let me tell that. As for your desire to know what happened between us, suppress it as well as you can. And now, good friends, because you are friends – scholars and soldiers – grant me one small request.’
‘Whatever it is, my lord, we will,’ said Horatio.
‘Never tell anyone what you’ve seen tonight.’
They both assured him of that.
‘Yes, but swear it.’
‘I swear,’ said Horatio
‘I too,’ said Marcellus.
Hamlet drew his sword. ‘On my sword,’ he said.
‘We’ve already sworn,’ said Marcellus.
‘On my sword. I insist.’
A ghostly voice came from below: ‘Swear!’
‘Aha, boy!’ exclaimed Hamlet. ‘Is that you? Are you there, my honest friend, Truepenny? Come on, you heard this fellow in the basement. Agree to swear.’
‘Word the oath, my lord.’
‘Never to say a word about what you’ve seen. Swear on my sword.’
The ghostly voice came again: ‘Swear!’
Hamlet crouched and addressed the stone floor. ‘Hic et ubique? Then we’ll move away.’ He walked several paces away and beckoned the others. ‘Come here, gentlemen, and lay your hands on my sword. Never to speak of this. Swear by my sword.’
As they approached the voice came yet again.
‘Well said, old mole,’ said Hamlet. ‘Can you work so fast through the earth? A worthy tunneler. Once more, let’s move further, good friends.’
‘Oh day and night, this is weird,’ said Horatio as they followed him.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come.’ Hamlet held his sword out. ‘Here, as you were going to do, swear that you will never, so help you God, no matter how odd or strangely I behave – because perhaps at some stage I may think it appropriate to put on an act – that you, seeing me at those times, will never, with such things as folded arms, or a shake of the head, or by saying something like “well, well, well, we know”, or “we could tell you if we wanted to”, or “our lips are sealed”, or “there are people who could explain this if they wanted to”, or such ambiguous communication, to show that you know anything about me. Don’t do it. So that grace and mercy will help you when you need it most, swear.’
The ghost echoed him again. They placed their hands on his sword.
‘Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!’ shouted Hamlet. He sheathed his sword. ‘So gentlemen,’ he said. ‘I give you my friendship with all my heart. And whatever a poor man such as Hamlet is can do to express his respect and friendship, he will do, God willing. Let’s go inside together. And please, your fingers always on your lips.’
He set off. Things were terribly wrong. What a curse that he had ever been born to set them right.
‘Yes, come on,’ he said. ‘We’ll all go together.’