Act I, Scene i - Friends to This Ground
Horatio tried to tell himself it was encroaching night that made him stop in the town of Elsinore, rather than continuing on to the castle it served. There was some truth to that cause; he needed a bed, and to show up on the royal doorstep without warning, expecting hospitality, would be shameful discourtesy.
But the real truth was that he was not ready. Long as the ride from Wittenberg had been, he still had not decided what to say on arrival. How to voice the fears that plagued him. And Elsinore Castle was not welcoming at the best of times; still less with its battlements frowning in darkness.
He found the town caught betwixt mourning and celebration. The King of Denmark had been dead scarce one month; they could not forget so eminent a figure so soon. But his successor -- the King is dead; long live the King -- was, it seemed, preparing to take a bride on the morrow, and such a happy occasion must likewise be honored. And so, with Elsinore Town still draped in funeral black, the people drank to the future health and marital bliss of their sovereigns.
Horatio knew of the King's death; word of that passing had put him on the road from Wittenberg. The marriage, however, caught him by surprise.
It seemed he was not the only one.
"Ain't even cold in his tomb," he heard men mutter over their beers. Oh, they allowed as how it was better for the state; let the new King be joined with the old Queen, and thus bridge the chasm from one reign to the next. With war threatening from Norway, such stability was all the more necessary. But for her to remarry so soon, widowed scarce one month gone . . . and then there was what people did not say, even to the silent ears of their tankards. To marry her dead husband's brother. It was not a thing to make men's hearts lie easy.
Horatio listened to these things, the spoken and the unspoken alike, and worried.
The opening of the door brought fresher air, and two faces he recognized: guardsmen from the castle, dressed in livery, but unarmed and clearly not about royal affairs. Barnardo, that was the taller man, and Marcellus with him. They sat together at an empty table and called for supper. But the way they bent their heads together was not convivial; they looked as skittish as cats.
The serving-maid brought plates of bread and sausage, and beers the men drank as if hoping it would steady their nerves. Horatio wished he were close enough to overhear their conversation -- then was ashamed of that thought. If he wished to know what troubled them, should he not ask? Yet he hesitated to approach. A long ride from Wittenberg, and still he'd settled nothing in his own mind. Unease was all he had, and he did not know whether sharing the unease of other men would calm or worsen his own.
Barnardo finished and left, while Marcellus stayed, looking gloomily into his tankard. On impulse, Horatio rose.
The guardsman recognized him immediately -- an ability that doubtless served him well in his duties. "Horatio, my good sir! I did not know you had returned to Denmark. What brings you from Wittenberg?"
It was a good question. "Word came of the King's death," Horatio said, choosing the safest reply.
He thought it safe, but the draining of blood from Marcellus' skin said otherwise. "Are you well?" Horatio asked, sinking into Barnardo's vacated chair.
Marcellus answered obliquely. "You are an educated man, Horatio. Might I beg a favor of your learning?"
Horatio frowned. The guardsman spoke quietly, his voice tight with unaccustomed tension. "Ask, indeed -- and if my brain can be of use, I'll employ it on your behalf."
"What know you of ghosts?"
The word dried the breath in Horatio's mouth. Marcellus could know nothing of the fears that drove him here; the man could not be speaking to lead him on, in pursuit of some deception. No, he spoke truly, and the unease in Horatio's breast stirred, growing stronger. "What brings that subject to mind?"
Marcellus shifted on his chair, seeming to fold in upon himself. "You will think me mad, but I speak truly. These two nights past, myself and Barnardo, keeping the watch on the castle walls, saw a figure not belonging to this world. A figure, I tell you, that we recognized."
His voice fell to a hush on the final word. Horatio fought the shiver that threatened, and made himself ask. "What face did it bear?"
He knew the answer, even before Marcellus whispered it. "Even that of the late King."
Horatio wet his lips, knowing the other man would see and mark the gesture, yet unable to hold it back. Ghosts. It was a coincidence too close to let his heart rest easy; but Marcellus had questioned him as an educated man, and so he must bring his intellect to bear. Which was the more likely? That the disturbances whispered of in Wittenberg had preceded him to Elsinore, and chosen there to trouble two guardsmen whose only connection to that school was an acquaintance with a few of its students? Or that two men whose task it was to watch through the black hours of night, sick at heart over the recent death of their King and impending marriage of his successor, imagined things that were not there?
With an effort, he bent a smile upon Marcellus. "Do not men's souls go to judgment on their deaths? A court which is not held on the battlements of Elsinore, at least not when last I heard. I think it more likely that you have seen an odd twist of fog, or perhaps some jester who thinks it fine entertainment to play such a charade."
It gave Marcellus heart, but not certainty. "You have not seen this ghost, Horatio. I tell you, it is no twist of fog."
"You asked my judgment on your report, not my own observation," Horatio said unwisely.
The guardsman's eyes lit with inspiration. "I would have them both, if you would humour me so far."
"It has appeared two nights in sequence; it may well come a third."
Of all the ways Horatio hoped to enter Elsinore, this was far from his preferred choice. But he could hardly dash Marcellus' new relief; and it might give him the pretext he needed to approach the prince Hamlet.
"It will not come," Horatio said, hoping it would not. "But I will come to see."