After King Kenneth iii. died, several other kings reigned, of whom there is not much to tell. At last a king called Duncan came to the throne. He was so kind and gentle that he was called Duncan the Gracious.
He was too kind and gentle for those rough times. The beginning of Duncan's reign was quiet and peaceful, but when the people saw how kind he was, and how little he punished evil-doers, they grew unruly and rebellious, thinking they might do as they wished, because of the weak rule of this mild King.
Some of the people rose in rebellion under a leader called Macdowald, and Duncan, who did not like fighting, hardly knew what to do. But he had a cousin called Macbeth who was a great and powerful man, very fierce and stern, and a splendid soldier.
Macbeth was impatient of the King's softness. He was eager to fight, so Duncan gave the command of his army to this cousin and to another noble called Banquo.
When the rebels heard that Macbeth was coming against them, they were so afraid that many of them left their leader Macdowald. Some of them stole away to hide. Others joined Macbeth. Macdowald was left with very few soldiers, but he was obliged to fight, for he could not escape from Macbeth. In the battle which followed, the rebels were utterly defeated and their leader was killed.
No sooner had Macbeth put down this rebellion than the Danes once more invaded Scotland. But he defeated them too, and they fled away, promising never again to return.
One day, soon after the war with the Danes, Macbeth was walking over a lonely moor with Banquo, when they were met by three old women. These three old women were very ugly and dreadful to look upon. They were called the Weird Sisters and were supposed to be witches. Nowadays no one believes in witches, but in those far-off times every one did.
These three old women stopped in front of Macbeth, and pointing at him with their skinny fingers, spoke.
"Hail, Macbeth! hail to thee! Thane of Glamis," said the first.
"Hail, Macbeth! hail to thee! Thane of Cawdor," said the second.
"Hail, Macbeth! hail to thee! King of Scotland," said the third.
Both Macbeth and Banquo were very much astonished, and wondered what this might mean, for Macbeth was certainly not King of Scotland, nor was he either Thane of Glamis or Cawdor.
Thane was an old Scottish title meaning very much the same as the Saxon title earl which came to be used later.
"You say fine things to Macbeth," said Banquo, when the old women had ceased speaking; "have you nothing to say to me?"
"Yes," said the first witch, "we promise greater things to you than to him. He indeed shall be King of Scotland, but his end shall be unhappy. His children shall not follow him on the throne. You shall never reign, but your children shall sit upon the throne of Scotland for many generations."
Then the old women vanished, leaving Macbeth and Banquo full of astonishment.
They were still wondering what it all might mean when a horseman came spurring towards them. When he came near he threw himself from his horse and kneeling at Macbeth's feet, "Hail, Macbeth," he cried, "thy father Sinell is dead, and thou art Thane of Glamis."
What the first Weird Sister had said had come true.
More full of astonishment than ever, Macbeth went on his way. But he had gone very little farther when a second messenger came hurrying towards him.
"Hail, Thane of Cawdor," cried this second messenger, kneeling at his feet.
"Why do you call me that?" asked Macbeth. "The Thane of Cawdor is alive. I have no right to the title."
"He who was the Thane of Cawdor is alive," said the messenger, "but because he has rebelled against the King his thaneship has been taken from him. The King has made you Thane in his place as a reward for all your great deeds."
What the second Weird Sister had said had come true.
Now that two things had come true, Macbeth began to think more and more of what the Weird Sisters had said, and he longed for the third thing to come true too. But unless Duncan should die there seemed no hope of that. Macbeth despised Duncan because of his gentleness, and he wished he would die. Sometimes the wicked thought came to him that he would kill Duncan. Yet he could not quite make up his mind to do the evil deed.
Macbeth had a wife, who was a very proud and beautiful lady. She longed to be queen, and when she heard of what the Weird Sisters had said she kept urging Macbeth to murder Duncan and make himself King.
But Macbeth could not so easily forget that King Duncan was his cousin, that he had always loved and trusted him, that he had made him general of his army and Thane of Cawdor and had heaped upon him many honours and rewards. So when Lady Macbeth tried to make her husband murder the King, he reminded her of all this.
But Lady Macbeth cared for none of these things. She hated Duncan and all his family, because his grandfather had killed her brother. She longed to avenge his death, and she longed to be queen. She kept on telling Macbeth that he was weak and cowardly not to murder Duncan. So at last Macbeth listened to his wife, and giving way to his own evil wishes and to her persuasions, he killed the good King Duncan.