When Macduff reached England he headed directly for the palace of Edward the Confessor. He had heard, as had all Scotland, that the King of England had given Malcolm shelter and every assistance possible. Through officials at the palace Macduff was able to get a message to Malcolm. They met the next day down by the river near the palace.
“Let’s find some quiet shade and empty our hearts of their sadness,” said Malcolm.
“It would be better if instead we kept a firm hand on our swords and defended our homeland. Every day, new widows scream and new orphans cry. New sorrows strike Heaven in the face so loudly that is seems to echo Scotland’s wails in acknowledgement of her suffering.”
Macduff’s stark comments provoked Malcolm.
“I’ll mourn what I believe. What I know, I’ll believe. What I can redress, I shall find the time to do so, friend. What you are saying may be the truth. This tyrant, whose name alone blisters our tongue, was once thought honest. You loved him well. He hasn’t touched you yet. I am young, but maybe you are planning something that could earn a reward from Macbeth. It is wise to sacrifice a weak, poor and innocent lamb to appease an angry god!”
“I am not treacherous,” Macduff said.
“But Macbeth is.”
Malcolm stared at Macduff. He continued: “Even a good and virtuous nature can be crushed in an imperial charge. I ask your pardon. My line of thinking cannot change what you are. Angels are still bright, though the brightest fell. Foul things are often to be found disguised as good. Goodness is always true.”
“I have lost all my hopes.”
“Perhaps that is what makes me doubt you. Why leave you wife and children so vulnerable? Your possessions and those strong knots of love abandoned without farewells? Don’t let my suspicions dishonour you. They’re for my own safety. You may be honourable, whatever I think.”
Malcolm’s reminder of how Macduff had left his family unnerved him. Macduff knew he must get back to Scotland soon to ensure his family’s safety.
“Bleed, bleed, poor country!” Macduff said. “Tyranny lays strong foundations because goodness dares not stop it! Macbeth can enjoy his ill-gotten gains, it’s all legal! I bid you farewell, lord. I wouldn’t be that tyrant’s villain for all the lands under his fist, or even if the rich East was thrown in to boot.”
“Don’t be offended,” said Malcolm. “I speak not in absolute distrust of you. I think our country sinks beneath the yoke. It weeps, it bleeds and every new day another gash is added to her wounds. Nevertheless, I think many men would raise their hands to volunteer for my cause. Here, the King has offered a force of several thousand. But for all this, when I shall rest my foot on the tyrant’s head or have it on my sword, but my poor country will have more vices than it had before. It will suffer more, and in more sundry ways, than before under him who succeeds the tyrant.”
“Who will that be?” asked a puzzled Macduff.
“I am speaking of myself. I know the particulars of all the vices within me. When they blossom, black Macbeth will seem as pure as the snow. My subjects will regard him as a lamb compared with my limitless evils.”
To Macduff the comments seemed absurd.
“Not in the legions of horrid hell could there be a devil more versed in evils to top Macbeth!”
“I grant you he’s violent, lusty, greedy, treacherous, deceitful, impetuous, malicious and smacking of every sin that has a name. But there’s no bottom, none, to my lust. Your wives, your daughters, your matrons and your virgins could not satisfy my desire. Any impediment put in my way would be crushed, regardless of reason. Better Macbeth should reign than one like that.”
Macduff was uncertain of how deep Malcolm’s failings were. He pursued another line of thought: “Uncontained desire can lead a man to tyranny. It has emptied many a happy throne and caused the fall of kings. But don’t be frightened to take on what is yours. You can partake of your illicit pleasures discreetly. Hoodwink them by seeming celibate. We have plenty of willing women. Even the vulture in you will be satisfied by numbers available!”
Surely, even he could be satisfied, thought Macduff.
“But growing in tandem with this is a sly avarice. If I were ruler, I’d execute the nobles for their lands, desire one man’s jewels and another man’s house. The more I had of this sauce, the hungrier I would get! I would forge unjust quarrels against the good and loyal with the sole purpose of destroying them for their wealth.”
On hearing that Macduff’s heart sank. He had fled Scotland to find the man he thought would save the country to be confronted with this bitter reality. But he persisted, clutching at the faintest hope.
“This avarice goes deeper,” Macduff said. “Its roots are strong, this is more than a fleeting craving. Many a king has come to grief through it. Yet do not fear. Scotland has plenty to fill your needs, within the royal treasury. These faults can be sustained by your subjects if they are outshone by finer, regal qualities.”
“But I have none. The king-becoming graces – such as justice, truth, temperance, stability, generosity, perseverance, mercy, humility, devotion, patience, courage, fortitude- are not found in me. Instead I pursue all possible routes of crime. No, if I had power I would spill the sweet milk of concord and uproot the universal peace with the sour milk of discord.”
Then despair gripped Macduff: “Oh, Scotland, Scotland!”
“If such a man is fit to govern, then say so. I am as I have said.”
Macduff could no longer contain his tongue.
“Fit to govern? No, not to live! Oh, miserable country! With an untitled and bloodthirsty tyrant on the throne, when will we see honest days again? The heir to the throne, by his own interdiction, stands accused of lechery, blaspheming his breeding. Your royal father was most saintly. The Queen who bore you spent more time on her knees, praying, than on her feet. Daily she prayed in preparation to meet her maker. Farewell. The evils you tell about yourself have banished me from Scotland forever. Oh, my heart! Hope ends here.”
For Macduff the immediate need was to save his family. He had counted on Malcolm saving Scotland. Now he would have to go back on his own, facing certain death for treason and with no definite plan for getting his family to safety.
“Macduff, this noble passion, born of your integrity, has dismissed all my black suspicions and satisfied me as to your truth and honour. Devilish Macbeth has used many methods to win me into his power. A little bit of logic has saved me. But God above has seen the deal between us. From now on I shall be guided by you. I renounce my own detractions. They are strangers to my nature. I have never been with a woman. I have never broken my word. I have scarcely wanted what was mine. At no time have I broken faith. I wouldn’t betray the devil to one of his own. I delight in truth as much as life. My first lie was against myself. Truly, I am yours and my poor country’s to command. Before you arrived, old Siward with ten thousand armed soldiers was ready to invade. Now we’ll go together. Our chances of success are as warranted as our quarrel! Why are you silent?”
Macduff understood that Malcolm had been testing his resolve and loyalty in an unexpected and extravagant way.
“Such welcome and unwelcome things at once are hard to reconcile!”
A doctor, Malcolm recognised from the court was passing.
“Well, more later,” Malcolm said to Macduff, curtailing the sensitive conversation. “Tell me,” Malcolm said to the doctor, “is the King out today?”
“Yes, sir. There’s a crowd of afflicted people hoping for a cure. Their maladies have defeated medicine but at his touch, such sanctity has Heaven given his hand, they are immediately cured.”
“I thank you, doctor.”
“What’s the disease he means?” asked Macduff.
“It’s called the evil. A most miraculous gift this English monarch, Edward, has. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen him use it on several occasions. How he gets help from Heaven, only he knows. He cures people with unusual ailments. Swollen and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye and the despair of doctors. He puts a golden amulet round their necks and prays. It is said that he will pass on this healing benediction to his successors. As well as this he has the gift of prophecy. His rule is blessed. He is full of grace.”
They paused, struck by the unspoken irony of seeking refuge from a king who is a plague on his subjects and finding it with a king who heals the ills of his subjects. They sat silently for many minutes until Macduff stirred. He saw a face that looked familiar. As the figure came closer he recognised the man. It was Ross. Macduff had no inkling of the reasons that brought Ross to England.
“Look who is coming towards us!” Macduff said to Malcolm.
“My fellow-countryman, but I don’t know him.”
“My ever-gentle cousin, welcome to you,”Macduff said to Ross.
“Ah,” said Malcolm, “I know him recognise him now. Good. God, remove the means that kept us strangers.”
“Amen, sir!” said Ross.
“Are things in Scotland as bad as they were?” asked Macduff.
“Alas, the poor country, it hardly knows itself. It cannot be called our motherland, but our grave. Only simpletons can smile. Sighs, groans and shrieks are ignored. Violent sorrow is the norm. People no longer even bother to ask for whom the funeral bells are ringing. A good man will die before his time, in fact before the flower in his cap.”
“Succinctly put, only too true,” Macduff said.
“What’s the latest horror?” asked Malcolm.
“News of an hour ago is so old that they jeer the teller. Every minute there is new savagery.”
“How is my wife?” Macduff asked.
“Why, well…” Ross hesiatted.
“And my children?”
“The tyrant has not disturbed their peace?”
“They were well at peace when I left them.”
“Elaborate. How are things going?” asked Macduff.
“Well, as I was leaving to come to England, there ran a rumour that many worthy men were rebelling. And I think that was confirmed by the sheer number of the tyrant’s forces on patrol. Now is the time to help.”
Ross then spoke directly to Malcolm: “Just the sight of you in Scotland would inspire an army. Even our women would fight to rid themselves of their dire lot.”
“Let them take comfort. We are on our way. The gracious King of England, Edward, has lent us good Siward and ten thousand men. You won’t find a more experienced or better soldier in Christendom.”
“It would be nice if I could answer comfort with comfort. But I have news fit only for howling in the desert air, where privacy could be assured,” said Ross.
“What are you talking about?” asked Macduff. “A public grief or a private grief?”
“Everybody will share the woe, but the main part is yours.”
“If it’s mine don’t keep it from me. Quickly, let me have it,” demanded Macduff
“You ears will despise my tongue forever. They are about to hear the saddest story they have ever heard.”
“I think I can guess…”
“Your castle was surprised. Your wife and children were savagely slaughtered. To go into details would only make the pain deeper.”
Malcolm looked at the silent Macduff: “What man! Never pull the hat over your eyes. Give sorrow words. The grief that doesn’t speak whispers to the heart until it breaks.”
“My children too?”
“Wife, children, servants. Anyone they could find,” Ross said.
“And I wasn’t there! My wife killed too?”
“As I have said,” Ross softly added.
“Be comforted with the medicine of revenge, which will cure this deadly grief.”
“He has no children. All my pretty ones? Did you say all? Oh, the beast! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their mother at one fell swoop?”
“Fight grief like a man,” urged Malcolm.
“I will. But I must also feel it like man. I cannot but remember that what was most precious to me. Did Heaven look on and not help them? Sinful Macduff! They were killed for me. Nothing as I am, they were killed for me. It was nothing of their doing. Rest in peace!”
Malcolm said, “Sharpen your sword on it! Turn grief to anger. Don’t blunt your heart, stir it!”
“I could cry like a woman and rant and rave with my tongue! But gentle heavens, avoid any delay. Bring me and this fiend of Scotland face to face! Have him within a length of my sword! If I let him escape, then Heaven can forgive him!”
“The word of a man!” Malcolm said. “Let’s go to Edward. Our forces are ready. We must take leave of the King. Macbeth is ripe for toppling, and the powers above will help us do so. Find cheer in this: The night is long that never finds the day.”