It had all happened so fast. Banquo was a guest of the King at Forres once more but it was a new king now. It was difficult to know what to think about it. Macbeth had it all now: King, Cawdor, Glamis – everything. Just as the weird women had promised. And Banquo feared that his friend had played a terrible hand to get it. Still, they had prophesied that it wouldn’t stay in his line but that he himself would be the root and father of many kings. If it had all come true for Macbeth wouldn’t it happen for him too?
Heralds at the entrance to the state rooms came to attention and blew a brassy fanfare. The King and Queen emerged into the courtyard.
‘Ah,’ said Macbeth. ‘Here’s our chief guest.’
Banquo went across to them.
‘It would be a gap in our great feast if he wasn’t going to be there,’ said the Queen. The Royal couple smiled graciously.
‘We’re having a formal banquet tonight, Sir,’ said Lady Macbeth. ‘And I’ll expect you.’
Banquo bowed. ‘Whatever your Highness commands I will obey. I am bound to you with an indissoluble tie.’
Macbeth swept the formality aside by putting his arm around Banquo’s shoulders and walking him aside. ‘Are you going out this afternoon?’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ said Banquo.
‘Pity,’ said Macbeth, ‘because I would have valued your good advice in today’s council. But tomorrow will do. Are you going far?’
‘A few hours ride, there and back,’ said Banquo. ‘I’ll be back by suppertime. Unless my horse has difficulty. In which case it will be a bit longer.’
‘Don’t miss our banquet.’
‘I won’t, my Lord.’
Macbeth beamed at him and gave him a playful punch. Then his face became serious. ‘We hear our murderous cousins are hiding in England and Ireland,’ he said. ‘Refusing to admit the cruel murder of their father, telling outrageous lies to anyone who’ll listen. But more of that tomorrow when we’ll work on state matters together. You’d better go then. Goodbye. See you tonight.’
They started off in different directions. Then Macbeth turned and called after Banquo: ‘Is Fleance going with you?’
‘Yes, my Lord.’
‘Well I wish you a good trip.’
Courtiers, thanes and aides milled about in the courtyard.
‘Find ways of amusing yourselves till seven tonight,’ said Macbeth. ‘We will spend the afternoon by ourself. God be with you.’
He went to a private room where an attendant waited.
‘Are those men here?’ he said.
‘They are, my Lord,’ said the attendant. ‘Outside the palace gate.’
‘Bring them to me.’
While the attendant was gone Macbeth paced. It was all very well to put on a pleasant face for his guests but that wasn’t how he felt. He was on edge. To become king was nothing. But to stay king: that’s what really mattered.
Banquo was the problem. He was a big threat: it was his great dignity that was so frightening. And he was fearless. And careful. Banquo was the only person in the world he feared and when Banquo was around he felt inferior, as Mark Antony had done in the presence of Octavius Caesar.
He remembered the way Banquo had reproached the witches when they’d first put the name of king on him. And he had insisted that they speak to him. And when they did they looked respectful and hailed Banquo as the father of a line of kings. On his own head they had placed a fruitless crown and put a barren scepter in his hand! To be wrenched away by a hand not of his own family – none of his sons succeeding him. So it was for Banquo’s descendants that he had corrupted his soul. He had murdered the gracious Duncan for them! Stuck thorns in his peace of mind just for them. And given his precious soul to the Devil to turn Banquo’s sons into kings. All that for the seed of Banquo! Rather than that he would defy Fate and fight it to the death.
The attendant returned with two rough-looking men.
‘Go to the door and stay there until we call,’ said Macbeth. When the attendant had gone Macbeth nodded to the men. ‘Wasn’t it yesterday that we spoke?’
‘It was,’ said one of them.
‘Well now,’ said Macbeth. ‘Have you thought about what I said?’
The two men exchanged glances.
‘You know that it was he who kept you in such a low condition in the past, not me. I told you that yesterday. I told you everything that Banquo’s done to you.’
‘You did,’ said the first man.
‘Yes I did,’ said Macbeth. ‘And I went further, which is the point of this meeting. Are you really so forgiving that you can let it go? Are you such Christians that you’d pray for this man and his children when his heavy hand has oppressed you and your children for ever?’
‘We are men, my Liege,’ said the first.
‘Well you pass for men,’ said Macbeth. ‘Now, if you have any manhood in you at all I will give you a job that will remove your oppressor while at the same time tighten your bond with me: I’m sick and won’t be well until he’s dead.’
‘I’m so bitter, my Liege,’ said the second, ‘that I don’t care what I do.’
‘Me too,’ said the first. ‘I’m so tired of hardship that I’d do anything to try and mend my life or else be rid of it.’
‘So both of you know Banquo was your enemy?’
‘Well he’s mine too. And so much so that every moment he lives is a knife wound in my heart. I could blow him out of sight with naked power if I wanted to but I mustn’t because certain friends who are his as well wouldn’t like it. That’s why I’ve come to you – to do it in private.’
‘We’ll do anything you ask of us,’ said the second man.
‘Even though our lives -’ the first man began.
‘Your courage is outstanding,’ Macbeth interrupted. He went to the window. ‘Right! Within the next hour I’ll advise you where to plant yourselves and you can go and get ready. It must be done tonight – and some distance from the palace. And remember, I require a good, clean job – no bungling or botches. His son, Fleance, will be with him. His death is just as important to me. I’ll leave you alone, now, so that you can make up your minds in private. I’ll come back in a little while.
‘We’ve already decided, my Lord.’
‘Alright. Off you go. I’ll come to you straight away.’
They went out and Macbeth smiled. Good. That was it then. If Banquo’s soul was going to heaven it would go tonight.