Malcolm ushered Macduff out into a garden at King Edward’s palace. The sun shone out of a cloudless sky. ‘Let’s find some shade and pour our sorrows out to each other,’ he said.
Macduff frowned. ‘Let’s rather take our swords and defend our poor country like brave men,’ he said. He followed Malcolm towards a shady bower beside a fountain. ‘Every day there are new widows and orphans. New howls of grief reach up to heaven every day.’
Malcolm sat down and invited Macduff to join him on the bench. ‘I’ll only weep for what I think is true,’ he said. ‘And only believe what I know to be a fact. Perhaps what you’ve told me is true, and if and when I discover that then it will be the time to take up swords. After all, this tyrant, whose name blisters everyone’s tongue, was once considered noble and honourable. And you loved him greatly: he’s done nothing to you yet. I’m young and powerless but how do I know you’re not trying to win favour with him by deceiving me? It’s possible that you think there may be some advantage in offering up a weak, poor, innocent lamb like me as a sacrifice to an angry god.’
Macduff looked at him with indignation. ‘I’m not treacherous,’ he said.
‘Ah, but Macbeth is. You see, a good and virtuous nature may give way under pressure from a determined king.’ Malcolm watched his visitor closely as he talked.
‘But it doesn’t matter what I think – it won’t change what you may or may not be.’ Macduff looked at the ground. ‘That’s the end of my hopes, then.’
‘Perhaps it was just that – your action in coming to England – that made me suspicious,’ said Malcolm. ‘Why did you leave your wife and children in such a hurry and unprotected?’ Macduff’s chin had sunk to his chest and Malcolm touched his hand. ‘Please don’t let my suspicions put you off. You must understand that I have to protect myself: you may be truly honourable, whatever I may think.’
‘Bleed, bleed, poor country!’ groaned Macduff. ‘Tyranny’s foundation is very firm when goodness won’t stop it: it can commit its crimes openly. Its claim to the throne has become unassailable because everyone lives in fear of it!’ He stood up.
‘Goodbye, my Lord. I wouldn’t be the scoundrel you take me for the whole of Scotland. And the rich East as well!’
Malcolm patted the bench and indicated calmly for Macduff to sit down again – which he did. ‘Don’t be offended,’ he said. ‘I’m not absolutely certain that you’re someone to be feared. I can see our country sinks beneath the yoke. It’s crying, it’s bleeding: and every day a gash is added to her wounds. I also think there would be many people prepared to join me in an effort to regain my rights. And here in England, gracious Edward has offered me thousands of men. But for all that, once I had defeated the tyrant, my poor country would have more misery than it had had before – more suffering and more evils from the one who succeeds.’
‘Who would that be?’ said Macduff.
Malcolm stood now, and looked down at the unhappy thane. ‘I mean myself. I know enough about myself to realize that I have so many potential vices that should they be given reign the venomous Macbeth would seem as pure as snow. And the miserable country would consider him a lamb compared with my boundless evil.’
Macduff shook his head. ‘Impossible. You wouldn’t find anyone more evil than Macbeth in hell!’
‘I agree he’s bloody, lecherous, greedy, false, deceitful, bad tempered, malicious, full of every sin you can name. But there’s no end to my lust – none. All the wives, daughters and mothers in Scotland couldn’t satisfy my lust. I would stop at nothing. It’s better that Macbeth reign than such a man.’
Macduff stood up and shook his head sadly. ‘Excessive behaviour has brought many kings down. But you’ll still be preferable to him. You will still be able to take your pleasure: there are enough willing women in Scotland. You can’t be so insatiable that you’d get through all the women who’d be prepared to give themselves to the king if he wanted them.’
‘Perhaps so,’ said Malcolm. ‘But in addition to that I have such a bottomless greed that if I were king I would top the noblemen for their lands; I would want this one’s jewels, that one’s house. And the more I had the more it would make me want so that I would manufacture quarrels with the good and loyal and destroy them just for their wealth.’
‘This greed is bad,’ said Macbeth. ‘Worse than a bit of lust: it’s brought many of our kings to grief, but don’t worry: there’s enough wealth belonging to the crown in Scotland to satisfy you. These two vices, weighed against your virtues, can be accommodated.’
‘But I don’t have any virtues!’ exclaimed Malcolm. Not the virtues that would make a good king, such as justice, honesty, temperance, stability, generosity, perseverance, mercy, humility, devoutness, patience, courage, fortitude. I’ve no taste for them: but I’ve got limitless variations on the vices. Indeed, if I had power I would turn all peace into war and destroy all the harmony on earth.’
‘Oh Scotland! Scotland!’ Macduff shook his head.
‘If such a man is fit to govern, tell me,’ said Malcolm. ‘Because that’s what I am.’
‘Fit to govern?’ Macduff was incredulous. ‘No, not to live. 0 unhappy nation!
When will you see your wholesome days again? Your royal father was a saint. The queen who bore you, more often on her knees than on her feet, lived every day as though it was going to be her last.’ He turned and began walking to the palace. He stopped. ‘Farewell. The things you’ve told me have banished me from Scotland. Oh, my heart, your hope ends here.’
‘Macduff,’ said Malcolm, coming towards him. ‘Your noble reaction has removed my suspicion and convinced me of your honour. I’m placing myself under your leadership and withdrawing my allegations against myself. I’m not like that at all. I’ve never been with a woman; I’ve never perjured myself, hardly ever coveted something that wasn’t my own and never broken a promise. I’m truly yours and my poor country’s to command. And I can tell you now. Even at this moment, Old Siward is setting out with ten thousand men. So let’s go. Why are you so quiet?’
‘It’s hard to reconcile such welcome and unwelcome things at the same time. Who’s this?’
A man was walking towards them across the lawn.
‘He’s our countryman but I don’t recognize him,’ said Malcolm.
Macduff suddenly began running towards the newcomer. ‘Ross! My dear cousin, welcome!’
‘I recognize him now,’ said Malcolm. ‘Pray God remove the circumstances which makes us strangers.’
‘Amen to that, Sir,’ said Ross.
‘Are things still the same in Scotland?’ said Macduff.
‘Alas, poor country!’ said Ross. ‘Almost afraid to know itself. It can’t be called our mother, but our grave – where no-one ever smiles anymore; where no-one takes any notice of the groaning and shrieking of torture; where violent sorrow is commonplace. No-one asks whose funeral the bell is tolling for and good men’s lives are shorter than the flowers they wear in their hats – dying even before they begin to fade!’
‘What’s the latest?’ said Malcolm.
‘News that’s only an hour old is already stale. There’s something new every minute.’
‘How’s my wife?’ said Macduff.
Ross hesitated before he spoke. Then: ‘Why . . . she’s well.’
‘And all my children?’
‘Well too,’ said Ross. He bent down to smell a rose.
‘The tyrant hasn’t interfered with their peace?’
‘No, they were at peace when I left them.’
Macduff raised his voice. ‘You’re holding something back. Out with it.’ Ross ignored him and spoke to Malcolm: ‘When I was on my way here everyone I met said this is the moment. Your presence in Scotland would inspire everyone to fight. Even our women would respond.’
‘Let them take comfort. We’re on our way. Gracious England has lent us Siward and ten thousand men. You couldn’t find a more experienced and better soldier.’
‘I wish I could answer that with similar comfort. But I have words that should be howled out in the desert air where there are no ears to hear them.’
‘Concerning what?’ said Macduff. He looked tense. ‘Is it about the political situation or something personal?’
‘Something shared,’ said Ross. He looked at his cousin now. ‘But mainly to do with you.’
‘Quickly, let me have it,’ said Macduff.
‘Don’t hate me for ever,’ said Ross. ‘Because this is the worst news you’ve ever heard.’
‘Ha! I’ve already guessed it,’ said Macduff.
‘Your castle was surprised; your wife and babes savagely slaughtered. If I were to relate the details to you it would kill you.’
Macduff bent forward as though he had been hit in the stomach and stayed unmoving for a long time.
‘Come on,’ said Malcolm at last. ‘Don’t muffle yourself. Say something. If you don’t give expression to your grief it’ll break your heart.’
‘My children too?’ said Macduff.
‘Wife, servants, everyone they could find.’
‘And I had to be away at the time! My wife killed too?’
‘I’ve told you.’
Malcolm put his hand on Macduff’s shoulder. ‘There’s some comfort: we’re going to get revenge.’
‘He has no children,’ said Macduff. He stared at Ross. ‘All my pretty ones? Did you say all?’ He kicked the exposed root of an apple tree. ‘Oh hell-kite!’ He turned back to Ross. ‘All? What? All my pretty chickens and their mother at one fell swoop?’ He walked away from them and cried.
‘Take it like a man,’ said Malcolm.
‘I will,’ said Macduff. ‘But I must also feel it like a man. Nothing was as precious to me. Did heaven watch and not come to their help? Oh, it’s my fault. They were killed because of me! Not because of their faults but for mine. Heaven rest them now.’
‘Let this sharpen your sword. Let grief turn into anger, ‘ said Malcolm.
‘I could waste time crying,’ said Macduff. ‘But gentle heavens, let’s not delay. Bring this fiend of Scotland and me face to face. Bring him within my sword’s length. If he escapes let my punishment be that heaven forgives him.’
‘That’s more like it,’ said Malcolm. ‘Come let’s go to the King. Our army’s waiting: there’s nothing left to do. Macbeth is ripe for shaking. Cheer up, gentlemen. It’s a long night that never finds the day.’