Tales From Shakespeare
What He Saw
I thought that I could not make the trudge from the prison to where they might lead me but I put foot forward and then the other, again and again, my legs maintaining the balance her body threatened to overthrow. Men walked me, as guards I supposed, bent on leading to yet another horror but they could not. All the horror the world might yet hold in store lay in my arms. The man hanged her, her voice screaming to me his actions, my eyes by fortune saved the misery of the sight, my actions too late to save her. Hangman no more, that one, but even that cannot mitigate her no more.
I felt the sunlight bask my brow, sensed the men who there stood awaiting my approach, and beyond those men, others, many others. Throngs at my feet, throngs above them, their breathing the only clue to their state of mind, their voices hushed as if they had no breath to express themselves, but the gasps at my approach belied that conclusion. They knew what I carried; they knew and were as horrified as…
I howled, an animal howl, rage and terror, fear and regret, rummaged together, driving the mass before me away, their reaction to my agony as horrified as my own now perpetual state.
Again I howled, railing against this mob that they might presume to share my loss, as if the loss in their lives might be compared in any way to this loss in my arms. This howl drained me, set me down upon the floor, this stage I found myself occupying, as if all of nature was now audience to my misery. Sitting with Cordelia in my lap, my arms, I howled again, a final time, clearing my mind for what I needed to say now that I sat here in their midst. Of a sudden, I knew I must try to make it clear.
“O, you are men of stones:,” I began, my voice hard, my sightless eyes boring holes in their souls, my voice cracking on the stones. I looked back down at fair Cordelia in my arms, seeing nothing, sensing the lifeless form, wanting only the faint stir of bosom sucking breath from the air. “Had I your tongues and eyes,” emphasizing your tongues and eyes because mine suffer both the infirmity of age and cruel use rendering my complement a meager spit to the ocean they represented, begging them to cry for me. Raising my head to take them in again, I slam the message to them “I'd use them so that heaven's vault should crack.” With voice such as yours heaven could not resist my assault; I’d storm and pull her back, this poor Cordelia who even now must trod the gates thereof. But, I have not your voices; lacking their strength and vigor, I cannot storm heaven; so, here lies Cordelia. “She's gone for ever!” I knew that and even a mob as dense as they should have known as well but they didn’t. I heard it in their gasps. “I know when one is dead,” I told them, affronted at their implication I might not recognize death presenting itself to me, “and when one lives; She's dead as earth.” The rustle of heads shaking denial at my words sent a thrill through me. I listened to the crowd, at the men standing around me, seeing nothing, but registering emotion, denial. Am I wrong? Does she live? Could such fortune be possible? “ Lend me a looking-glass;” I bark, words rushing from me in sudden hope, “If that her breath will mist or stain the stone, why, then she lives.” As if I could see could the breath on the mirror. Fool! Well, I may not but these others would, would they not?
The men near me prattled meaningless observations while I sat grasping at heart strings. A feather - from a fan, an arrow, a molting bird, I cared not - I grasped a feather. Lacking a mirror, the feather made do. I worked my fingers to my daughter’s nostrils. Across my fingertips, it moved. The feather moved and I exploded to the rabble so that they could know as well: “This feather stirs” and, then, as if they were too low to comprehend the import of its undulations: “she lives!” Their spirits soared with mine, the elation palpable, the hope a thickness in the air. “If it be so,” I said, still arguing the evidence against the fears and suspicions I yet knew, “It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows that ever I have felt.”
Now, in this moment of unlooked for hope, came a fool to pester at me.
“O my good master!” the fop intrudes. I can bear no distractions: I snap at the fool: “Prithee, away.” Did the man pay attention to such as I? He might but another fop indulged some whim to intercede on his behalf: “'Tis noble Kent, your friend,” this one asserted as if such an identity excuses interruption of my hope for Cordelia. Kent, Gloucester, the devil himself, what care I who seeks to break my concentration?
“A plague upon you; murderers, traitors all!” waving them off but I did not sense their retreat.
The feather was not moving, its stillness informing me of my failure. My first thought was to lay blame on these fools who interrupted: “I might have saved her;” but, in the depths I know that fault lies not with these fools nor even with that rabble behind them. Whoever bears the fault, “now she's gone for ever!” I announce. But, quickly, I deny it to myself, sobbing to her: “Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little.” Almost I think she answers me but whatever words she used did not find their way to my ears. “Ha! What is't thou say'st?” encouraging an encore, bending my ear closer to her lips. Hearing no further sound, I gave in the to the need to explain, knowing - I suppose - that they had not heard what I had heard. “Her voice was ever soft, gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Explanation proffered, I returned to the entreaty, begging with the justification of love: “I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee. “ I say as if vengeance was sufficient bribe for speech.
Another fool to interpret what I say, one who escorted me here. “'Tis true, my lords, he did,” his voice wheedling, almost begging they understand I was not mad. The only delusion I knew was the sound of her voice. It’s absence sent my mind on a tangent, another bribe for Cordelia. If she understood what I did to atone for her loss, maybe then she’d speak. “Did I not, fellow?” I asked with exultation but then I tempered the tale, feeling perhaps that bombast would not sway Cordelia, bring her spirit back to her body, only honesty. “have seen the day, with my good biting falchion I would have made them skip: I am old now,” and older still in spirit, old enow to hold a daughter dead in my arms. “And these same crosses spoil me.”
The party rustled near, my words drew them close as if they had the right to be there. Mayhap, they do though only a father should mourn his daughter thus. Relatives, friends, acquaintances, the rabble beyond, they had no more part in this than to stand and watch how misery had taken me. I asked them, then, to know who gloats at my pain. “Who are you?”
No answer. They did not perceive the added mirth that plays this stage. Well, understate it then. “Mine eyes are not o' the best: I'll tell you straight.” Not o’ the best! Blind! Blind enough to tolerate the sight of fair Cordelia in my arms. Now, an answer came though it did not fit the question.
“If fortune brag of two she loved and hated, one of them we behold. “
Oh, fie upon the man! I asked for name and receive his pity. He beheld me as one who fortune hates? Bah. “This is a dull sight.” Answer the question, man. I thought to myself. Then, suddenly, I knew his voice: “Are you not Kent?” Finally, the man responded “The same, your servant Kent:” My wits were not gone, the voice matched memory.
“ Where is your servant Caius? “ he asked and, for a trice, I was sent into confusion. Why worry Caius? What had he to play in this poor scene? My chest seemed wrapped tight with the cord of Caius’ memory or the presence of Cordelia in my arms or the lack of sight or a thousand other trials that could have happened and might well yet. What difference Caius? Perhaps, poor Caius sought to serve me still. I’d try: “He's a good fellow, I can tell you that; he'll strike, and quickly too:” More quickly than your good eyes can see because: “ he's dead and rotten. “
Most astounding, Kent’s reply. Most astounding yet more true than I could credit. The rabble beyond nodded their concurrence as Kent said: “No, my good lord; I am the very man,--“
Oh, what, I screamed in my mind, has that to do with this? Was he playing to the mob? What purpose to turn attention from Cordelia in my arms? No, I would not let him treat her so. I tried to put this surprising Kent aside. “I'll see that straight” but he kept his tale intruding on my grief.
“That, from your first of difference and decay, have follow'd your sad steps.”
Well, then, I thought, if you followed me every step, every pain, every outrageous fortune, every insult; if you bore with me what fortune bestowed, then you are friend and true companion. “You are welcome hither.”
Welcome, though quiet attendance would have suited more. The grip on my chest grew stronger, threatening my ability to hold Cordelia and that I must do. Still he rattled on, still the crowd nodded agreement, shared curses and insults, shared tears and sobs at what he told;
“Nor no man else:” he said, his telling not the herald’s call but the nanny’s bedtime voice: “all's cheerless, dark, and deadly.“ He had the right of that. “Your eldest daughters have fordone themselves, and desperately are dead. “
They’ve been so to me for time enow; Kent’s matching their physical state to my well known emotional state begged comment. They were and are desperately dead. “Ay, so I think.” And back to Cordelia my thoughts returned. I sent a hand to feel her face, search for sign, seek some comfort unaware that those closest continued conversation.
“He knows not what he says and vain it is that we present us to him,” I heard but did not listen to Albany say. Behind, another bystander, Edgar I think, agreed: “Very bootless.”
Another standing away from us, interrupts the conversation with news: “Edmund is dead, my lord,” news that pleases the crowd, their murmurs surging like the tide at myself but I was no longer so much on the stage. The pain in my chest began to cripple my thoughts. Still I sought for news of Cordelia’s life, my fingers tracing her eyes, her nose, her mouth. Albany must have sensed a bit of my circumstance. He tried to ease my pain as I had tried to bribe Cordelia. To the interruption he said “That's but a trifle here,’ but to the others, Kent, Edgar, the rabble, he made his bribe: “You lords and noble friends, know our intent.
What comfort to this great decay may come shall be applied: for us we will resign, during the life of this old majesty, To him our absolute power: you, to your rights:with boot, and such addition as your honours have more than merited. All friends shall taste the wages of their virtue, and all foes the cup of their deservings” He must have been watching me for now he stopped and pointed: “. O, see, see!”
No, he did not comprehend. Or he was a fool but I did not conceive Albany as fool. He did not comprehend. He offered me a throne and I must gasp aghast: “And my poor fool is hang'd:” I a throne and she a casket. Could they not watch my fingers search her face, her chest,. Must I cry again “No, no,” and then confirm with mouth what fingers know from touch: “no life?” This seemed as unfair to her as it was to me; I thought to apply logic to the game, bring her back through argument, plead again with reasoned thought: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” She did not answer my debate leaving me to gasp for enow breath to acknowledge to fair Cordelia: “Thou'lt come no more,” to which I added the eternity that now applied: “Never, never, never,” and then to this terrible audience I screamed it: “never, never.” But the effort took more than I had, perspiration pouring from my temples, constriction stifling my breath. The collar too tight? I have no hands available to remedy this. I asked whoever stood close: “Pray you, undo this button:” and then “thank you, sir,” when he had done it. But still, my breath was hard, my brow wet, my arms weak and all I could do was mourn for Cordelia – or was I mourning for myself? “O, o, o, o”
But, now in mourning, now at last it all came true. I could see Cordelia though my sight be gone. Had fortune relented? Was Cordelia to be spared? She lay there in my arms, her body moving, breathing, her eyes on mine, her smile lighting the paleness of her face with a brilliance I had never seen. Joy filled me as if to take my breath away. Aloud, to share the wonder with all the crowd, I look and gesture to fair Cordelia’s face: “Do you see this?” They are looking but they do not see as I do. The fools, now when there is finally ought to see, they look for answers in the faces of the friends. Idiots! “ Look on her, look, her lips, Look there, look there!”
Then, it didn’t matter. The matter passed. .
Edgar was the first to state the fact: “He faints, my lord, my lord!” Kent knew at once. “Break, heart; I prithee, break!” It happened as he begged so that Edgar looked for his ghost: “Look up, my lord,” he encouraged but Kent would have none of it; “Vex not his ghost; o, let him pass! he hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.“ Stooping to the body, Edgar felt the old man’s throat seeking the pulse accustomed to that place. Finding none, to the crowd he announced: “He is gone, indeed.” Then, Kent put the finish to it: “The wonder is, he hath endured so long: he but usurp'd his life.”