Edmund paced the floor of the great hall in his father’s castle. He held a letter, which he had written himself, copying his brother’s handwriting and signature. He was harbouring some very strong feelings as he paced. He went and stood before the huge mirror that dominated one end of the hall. He nodded. Nature was his guide and it was her laws he followed. Why should he have to put up with the stupidity of convention and let the idiosyncrasies of an old fashioned society deprive him of his rights, just because he was some twelve or fourteen months younger than his brother? Why should he have to carry the stigma of “bastard”: why should he accept that he was inferior? He half turned and looked at himself in the mirror. His body was as compact, his mind as intelligent, and his figure as good as the son of his father’s legal wife was. Why did they brand people like him with the word “inferior”? With inferiority? Bastardy? Inferior, inferior? – They had stronger constitutions and were more red-blooded as a result of the lust and passion that accompanied their conception than a whole tribe of fops conceived between bedtime and morning in a boring, tedious matrimonial bed had.
So, legitimate Edgar. He would have his brother’s inheritance. Their father loved the bastard Edmund as much as the legitimate Edgar. Fine word, “legitimate”! Well then, legitimate brother, if this letter proved effective and his plot succeeded, Edmund the bastard was going to oust the legitimate. He raised his arm and made a fist in the mirror. Grow! Prosper! Now, gods, stand up for bastards!
The Duke of Gloucester walked into the hall, talking to himself. He was shaking his head and tutting: ‘Kent banished like that!’ he said. ‘And France departed in anger! And the king gone tonight, his power reduced to ceremony. All done on the spur of the moment!’ He looked up and saw his son. ‘Edmund! Hello. What news?’
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 Goucester’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.
Edmund knew where his brother was and he made his way there. What his father had been saying was typical of the stupidity of the people around him: that when something bad happened, often as a result of our own extravagant behaviour, we blame it on the sun, the moon, the stars, as though we can’t help being villains – fools because heaven has commanded us to be fools: knaves, thieves and traitors because of the position of the spheres at our birth: forced to be drunkards, liars and adulterers by the stars, and all the evil in us thrust on us by divine intervention. What a wonderful evasion by a lecher to blame his goat-like disposition on a star! His father mated with his mother under the Dragon’s tail and he was born under the influence of Ursa Major, so it followed that he was rough and lecherous! Rubbish! He would have been exactly the same if the most chaste star in the firmament had twinkled over his bastardy!
And here was his brother, where he knew he would be – as predictable as the ending of a familiar comedy. Edmund’s role was to affect a deep melancholy, with a sigh like that of a Tom of Bedlam – a lunatic beggar. He sighed deeply, and looking very sad, exclaimed: ‘Oh, these eclipses are predicting terrible disorder!’
‘Hello, brother Edmund!’ said Edgar. ‘What deep thoughts are bothering you?’
‘I’m thinking, brother, about a prediction I read the other day concerning what’s going to happen as a result of these eclipses.’
‘Are you really spending your time thinking about such things?’
‘I promise you,’ said Edmund, ‘the consequences he writes about are unpleasant, such as unnaturalness between child and parent: death, famine, and the end of old friendships: civil wars: threats and ill will towards king and noblemen: unnecessary suspicions, banishment of friends, desertion of soldiers, marriage breakups, and I don’t know what else.’
Edgar looked uncomprehendingly at his brother, then he laughed. ‘Since when have you been a student of Astrology?’
‘When did you last see my father?’ said Edmund, not responding to his brother’s light manner.
‘Last night.’ Edgar raised an eyebrow in a silent question.
‘Did you speak to him?’
‘Yes, for a full two hours.’
‘Did you part on friendly terms? Was there anything about the way he spoke or looked to suggest displeasure?’
‘Nothing at all.’
‘Try and think how you may have offended him and, I beg you, avoid him until his anger has subsided because at the moment his fury is such that if he sees you it will hardly cool down.’
‘Some villain has done me wrong,’ said Edgar.
‘That’s what I’m afraid of,’ said Edmund. ‘I beg you to keep your distance until he’s calmed down. And, as I say, come back with me to my lodgings and then, when the time is right, I’ll take you to where you can overhear what my lord says. Please, go. Here’s my key. And if you do go out, go armed.’
‘Brother, I’m giving you the best advice,’ said Edmund. ‘If there’s any good will towards you I’m no honest man. I’ve told you what I’ve seen and heard, but I’ve played it down – nothing like the real horror of it. Please, go now.’
‘Will I hear from you soon?’
‘I’m on your side in this business,’ said Edmund.
He watched his brother’s back. He sneered: a gullible father and a noble brother, whose nature was so far from evil that he doesn’t suspect it in others. Edmund would be able to ride easily on his brother’s foolish honesty. It was a very simple matter: if he couldn’t have property through inheritance he would have it by using his intelligence. As far as he was concerned anything that suited his purposes was appropriate.