Gonzalo gave up trying to keep pace with the others. He stopped and rubbed his calf. ‘By our Lady, I can go no further, sir,’ he said. ‘My old bones ache. This is some maze we’ve walked, along straight paths and twisting ones! With your permission I have to rest.’
Alonso was in a very similar condition: he was sweating and gasping for breath. ‘Oh lord, I don’t blame you,’ he said. ‘I am myself exhausted and depressed. Sit down and rest. I’ll give up hope right here: I can’t pretend anymore. The one we are looking for is drowned. The sea mocks our pointless search on land. Well, I have to accept it.’
Antonio and Sebastian watched as the king took his old courtier’s arm and helped him lower himself to the ground.
‘I’m delighted that he’s in such a state of despair,’ said Antonio. He lowered his voice even further. ‘You mustn’t give up on your intention because of one setback.’
‘We’ll take full advantage of the next chance we get,’ said Sebastian.
‘Tonight,’ said Antonio. ‘They’re exhausted from the travelling. They won’t, and can’t, be as watchful as when they’re fresh.’
Sebastian nodded. ‘I agree,’ he whispered. ‘Tonight. Shhh’
Alonso was about to say something when a solemn and strange music began to fill the air around them. Prospero stood, surrounded by spirits, on a rocky outcrop, watching the visitors to the island. They couldn’t see him, though, as he had made himself invisible. More spirits appeared, carrying things. Some set up a table and others covered it with all kinds of food and drink – a sumptuous and complete banquet – and, dancing around it, gently invited the royal party to eat. Then they disappeared. The music continued.
‘What’s this music, my good friends?’ said Alonso. ‘Listen.’
‘Wonderfully sweet music!’ said Gonzalo.
‘Heaven send us kind guardians,’ said Alonso. ‘What were those?’
‘A living puppet show!’ exclaimed Sebastian. ‘Now I’ll believe in unicorns. I’ll believe that there’s a tree in Arabia – the phoenix’s throne, and that a phoenix is reigning there right now!’
‘I’ll believe both,’ said Antonio. And any other unbelievable thing. Just come to me and I’ll swear it’s true. Travellers never lie, even though fools at home condemn them as liars.’
Gonzalo had brought himself to his feet and he stood, amazed. ‘If I were to report this in Naples, would they believe me?’ he said. ‘If I should say that I saw such islanders? For certainly, these are people of the island, who, though they have weird shapes, yet, look, their ways are much gentler, kinder than many of ours are, no, almost all of ours.’
‘Honest lord, you’re right,’ said Prospero to himself. Some of the people gathered around the table were worse than devils.
‘I don’t know what to think about it,’ said Alonso ‘Such shapes, such gestures, such expression – although without speaking. A silent language!’
Prospero smiled to himself. The king should wait till the end of the show before praising the actors!
‘They vanished strangely,’ said Francisco.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Sebastian, ‘as they’ve left their food behind, because we’re hungry.’ He addressed his brother. ‘Will it please you to taste some of this?’
‘Not I,’ said Alonso.
‘I’m sure, sir, you don’t have to worry,’ said Gonzalo. ‘When we were boys who would have believed that there were mountain men who had throats hanging down in flesh purses like bulls? Or that there were men whose heads grew out of their chests? Which now we find that one out of five travellers is assuring us of its truth.’
Alonso regarded the delicious-looking food – the pies and puddings and heaps of fruit: the fine wines and juices and clear sparkling waters. ‘I’ll risk it,’ he said finally. ‘I’ll eat, although it might be the last time. But no matter, since I feel that my life is over anyway. Brother. My lord the duke, gentlemen, risk it, as we do.’
They all reached toward the food on the table but a sudden flash of lightning lit up the heavens and an earth-shattering crack deafened them a second later. A huge birdlike creature with enormous ribbed wings and the face of a woman with sharp bats’ teeth was hovering over the table, preventing them from coming any closer. Then it flapped its wings once and all the wonders of the banquet disappeared. The table stood bare before them. The creature was yet another form taken by Ariel. He rose now, and, hanging in the air above the table, faced the cringing interlopers, stunned into immobility and silence.
Ariel, fierce and frightening, pointed solemnly at the king and his companions. ‘You are three sinful men,’ he said. His voice was firm and clear. ‘Destiny – who rules this world and everything in it – has made the never-surfeited sea belch you up on this uninhabited island – you who, above all men, are unfit to be alive. I have made you mad, and with the madness of self-deception such as you have, men finally hang and drown themselves.’
The king, the duke and the courtiers all drew their swords to challenge this monster but loud laughter greeted them.
‘You fools!’ said Ariel. ‘I and my companions are the agents of Fate. We are the elements from which your swords are made. You may as well try and wound the loud winds, or kill the sea with fruitless stabs, which are enclosed by the swirling water, as try to injure one feather in my plume. My fellow-ministers are as invulnerable as I am. Even if you could hurt us your swords are now too heavy for you to hold.’
All the swords began to sink until their points touched the ground. Then, as though on a signal, they opened their hands and the swords all fell together. Their owners’ eyes were fixed, gazing at the creature that hung above them.
‘But remember,’ said Ariel, ‘and this is why I’ve come to you – that you three expelled good Prospero from Milan and exposed him and his innocent child to the sea, which has now repaid you for it. For your foul deed the powers have caused the seas and shores, yes, every creature, to turn against you. They have taken your son away from you, Alonso, and they pronounce, through me, a lingering suffering for you – far worse than a quick death. It will dog your steps wherever you go. Nothing but repentance and a clean life from now on will protect you from the wrath of these powers, which have finally fallen on your head, here on this desolate island.’
The three men stood, unable to move, not even reacting to the thunder into which the harpy vanished. They watched as the strange shapes, mocking now, danced around them while removing the table, and disappeared.
Ariel, invisible again, except to Prospero, himself still invisible, stood beside his master, looking down on the courtiers.
‘You’ve performed the role of the harpy wonderfully, my Ariel,’ said Prospero. ‘You didn’t forget any of my instructions. My lesser spirits have played their part excellently and convincingly as well. My magic spells are working and my enemies are all tangled up in their confusion. They’re in my power now. I’ll leave them in this state while I visit Ferdinand, whom they believe to be drowned, and his – and my – darling girl.’ He turned, while Ariel remained, watching the confusion below.
Gonzalo had recovered and was trying to get Alonso to snap out of his trance. ‘In the name of all that’s holy, sir,’ he said. ‘Why are you standing there with a strange stare?’
Alonso clutched his head. ‘Oh, it’s monstrous,’ he said. ‘Monstrous! I thought the waves spoke and told me about my crime. And that the winds sang it to me: and the thunder, that deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounced the name of Prospero: it boomed my crime out. It’s for that that my son lies deep in the mud: and I’ll look more deeply for him than has ever been measured and lie with him there in that mud.’ He found the use of his legs and stumbled forward.
‘One fiend at a time and I’ll fight them all,’ said Sebastian.
‘I’ll second you,’ said Antonio.
They followed Alonso.
Gonzalo watched them. They were all desperate. Their great guilt was like a slow-working poison that was beginning to affect their sanity. The other courtiers were looking to him to know what to do. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘Those who can move more easily,’ – he pointed at Adrian – ‘follow them quickly and stop them from doing harm to themselves in their madness.’
‘Follow,’ said Adrian.