Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

Macbeth—How Birnam Wood Came to Dunsinane

Macduff sailed southward, little knowing the dreadful things that were happening at home, little dreaming that his brave wife was dead, and his castle a ruin.

Through storms and dangers he sailed, until at last he landed safely in England and went to seek Prince Malcolm at the court of Edward the Confessor.

Malcolm received Macduff very kindly, for he was glad to have news of his own land. Macduff told the Prince of all the sorrows and griefs of Scotland, and begged him to come to fight for the crown.

"Do not mistrust me," he said. "Your father found me ever faithful. In spite of the many hardships which I have borne, to you also I have been faithful, and am, and shall be, all my life. If you come to claim the throne, nearly all the lords will support you, and the common people, I know, will joyfully shed their blood for you."

When Malcolm heard these words he was very glad in his heart. He longed to go back to Scotland to claim his crown and throne. But still he was not sure if Macduff was to be trusted. He feared that he had been sent by Macbeth to persuade him to come to Scotland so that he might be betrayed and killed. So Malcolm was silent, wondering if he should go or not, turning it over and over in his mind, while Macduff still urged, and persuaded. I am truly grieved," said Malcolm at last, "to hear of the misery which has come upon Scotland. I love my people and I would like to make them happy, but I am not fit to rule. I am a bad man. I am the most greedy creature upon earth, and if I were King I should try in so many ways to get money and lands that I should put to death the greater part of the Scottish nobles, for pretended faults, in order to take their goods and possessions for myself. So it were well for you that I should not come to be your King. I am ashamed to own it, but I am a thief and a robber."

All this Malcolm said to try Macduff.

Macduff, when he heard it, was very sad, but he answered, "What you tell me grieves me deeply, but when you are King, you will have great wealth; when you are King you will have no lack of gold and silver, or of precious stones, or jewels, or whatever else you may desire. Be brave then. Do your best, come to be our King, and forget your greed and wickedness."

"But," said Malcolm, "that is not all. I am deceitful, I love nothing so much as to betray and deceive. No man can trust my word. I make promises, but I never keep them. I am not fit to be a King." Then Macduff was silent, too sad to speak. After a minute or two he cried out, "Oh unhappy and miserable Scotsmen, alas for us! To be subject to you, our liege lord by right—never! You confess yourself a thief, false, cunning, faithless. What other kind of badness seems to be left but that you should call yourself a traitor. A traitor you are. You shall never be lord over me. Neither shall I be subject to Macbeth. I will rather choose banishment," and bursting into tears Macduff sobbed aloud. Then looking northward he stretched out his hands. "Scotland, farewell for ever!" he cried, and turned to go.

But as Macduff, with downcast head, went slowly away, Malcolm sprang after him, and catching him by the sleeve, cried, "Be of good comfort, Macduff, I have none of these wickednesses. I only said these things to prove whether you were faithful or faithless. Wicked people have so often come to try to betray me into the hands of Macbeth, that I wished to make sure that you were true to me. Now I know that you hate falseness and cunning, even as I do. Forgive me, dear friend. Let us go to Scotland together. You shall not be an exile. No! you shall be first in the kingdom after the King."

Then Macduff, who had been weeping for sorrow, wept for joy, and falling upon his knees clasped Malcolm's feet and kissed them. "If what you say is true, my lord," he cried, "you bring me back from death to life. Oh hasten, hasten, my lord, I implore you to free your people who wait and long for you!"

"If you would keep good men and true from harm,

Men who have fought without one helping arm,

Men on whose necks foes, for three lustres trod,

Help them, in pity for the love of God.

Stay not to think, but up, and fell the foe;

Lighten the burden of thy people's woe.

Gird on thy sword, thy trusty weapons take,

For strong thy limbs and firm thy sturdy make.

Is A Scot the heir of a long royal race,

Good hap advance thee to thy father's place."

Malcolm and Macduff talked long, making plans. At last it was agreed that Macduff should return to Scotland at once, and there secretly gather the people together and make known to them that their true King, Malcolm Canmore, was coming.

As soon as Macduff had gone, Malcolm went to King Edward and told him that he meant to return to Scotland to fight for the crown. And Edward, who had always been kind to Malcolm, gave him leave to take with him any of the English nobles and soldiers who cared to go to help him to win the crown. So Malcolm, taking with him the Earl of Siward and ten thousand English soldiers, set out for Scotland.

It was soon seen that Macduff had spoken the truth, for nearly all the Scottish nobles joined Malcolm, and the common people flocked to his standard in hundreds. But Macbeth did not believe that he could be either defeated or killed, for he remembered what the Weird Sisters had said about Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane. So he shut himself up in his strong castle on Dunsinane hill, and felt quite safe.

Without fighting any great battle, Malcolm marched through Scotland until he came to Birnam wood. There he lay encamped, intending next day to attack the castle of Dunsinane where he knew Macbeth to be.

In the morning the army arose rested and refreshed. Before the march to Dunsinane began, Malcolm ordered every soldier to cut down a bough of whatever tree was near to him and to carry it in his hand. "In this way," he said, "our army will be hidden by the green branches, and Macbeth will be unable to tell what numbers are coming against him."

So each man cut down as large a branch as he could carry, and held it before him as he marched.

A few hours later Macbeth stood on his castle wall looking out towards Birnam wood. Suddenly his face grew pale and he trembled in fear. What was this coming slowly and surely onward? Trees walking? Birnam wood had come to Dunsinane hill. Then all was lost.

Macbeth was really brave, and now that he felt that his last fight had come, he meant to fight it well. So, calling all his soldiers about him, he marched out to meet the enemy.

In the thickest of the fight Macduff and Macbeth met. "Traitor," cried Macbeth, lifting his two handed sword high.

"I am no traitor, but am true to my lawful King," cried Macduff, as he sprang aside to avoid the blow. A minute later Macbeth lay dead upon the ground, slain by Macduff's sharp sword.

So died Macbeth. He had reigned for seventeen years. At first he had been a good and wise King, doing much for the happiness of his people, but in the end he had proved himself a tyrant, and was hated and despised as tyrants ever are. He was killed in 1057 a.d.

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