Falstaff heaved a great sigh. ‘Bardolph, haven’t I changed for the worse very seriously since our last adventure? Aren’t I losing weight? Aren’t I dwindling away? Look. My skin’s hanging off me like an old woman’s gown. I’m withering like a rotten apple. Well I’ll change that straight away, while I still have the strength. There’ll be nothing of me left soon, and then I won’t have the strength. If I haven’t forgotten what the inside of a church looks like I’m a peppercorn, a clapped-out nag!’ He sighed again.’The inside of a church! Companions – vile companions – have been the unmaking of me.’
Bardolph shook his head sadly. ‘Sir John, you’re too fretful. You’re not going to live much longer.’
Falstaff yawned. ‘Well there it is. Come on, sing me a bawdy song: cheer me up. I was once as virtuous as a gentleman can be expected to be – well virtuous enough. I didn’t swear much; didn’t gamble more than seven times a week; visited a brothel no more than once in a quarter…’ he winked: ‘… of an hour; repaid money I borrowed three or four times; lived well, in moderation. Now I live in chaos completely out of control.’
‘Why, you’re so fat, Sir John, that you’re clearly out of control – out of all compass!’
Falstaff glared at his smirking companion with his inflamed face dotted with pus-ripened boils and red bulbous nose. ‘You fix your face and I’ll fix my life,’ he said. ‘You’re our flagship with its navigating light at the back except with you it’s in the front: you’re the Knight of the Burning Lamp.’
‘My face doesn’t do you any harm, Sir John.’
‘That’s certain! I make as good use of it as many a man does of a death’s-head or a momento mori. I can never look at your face without being reminded of hell-fire and the biblical miser, Dives. There he is in his purple robes, burning, burning. If you were in the slightest bit virtuous I would swear by your face and my oath would be ‘By this fire that’s God’s angel.’ But you’re a lost case altogether and if it weren’t for the light on your face you’d be the son of utter darkness. When you ran up Gad’s Hill during the night to catch my horse, if I didn’t mistake you for a will-o-the-wisp or a stray firework then there’s no value in money. Oh, you’re a perpetual beacon, an everlasting bonfire! You’ve saved me a thousand pounds in lamps and torches, walking with you at night between taverns. But the wine I’ve bought you would have bought me lights for the same price at the most expensive candle-maker’s in Europe. I’ve provided that salamander of yours with fire for thirty-two years. God reward me for it!’
‘God!’ exclaimed Bardolph. ‘I wish my face was in your guts!’
‘God save me!’ roared Falstaff. ‘That would give me heartburn! Well now, Dame Clucker,’… as the landlady came in with a dusting cloth. ‘Have you discovered who picked my pocket yet?’
‘Why, Sir John, what are you getting at, Sir John? Do you think I’ve got thieves in my house? I’ve searched, I’ve questioned – so has my husband – man by man, boy by boy, servant by servant. Not even the tenth of a hair has ever gone missing in my house before.’
‘You’re lying hostess: Bardolph’s been shaved and lost many a hair here, and I’ll swear my pocket was picked. Come off it: you are a woman, be off with you!’
‘Who, me? No, I resent that. God! I’ve never been called that in my house before!’
‘Come on, I know you well enough!’
‘No, Sir John!’ she yelled. ‘You don’t know me, Sir John. I know you, Sir John, you owe me money, Sir John, and now you pick a quarrel to distract me from it. I bought you a dozen shirts.’
‘Sacks! Filthy sacks! I gave them away. To bakers’ wives. They made sieves out of them.’
‘Now, as I’m an honest woman, fine Dutch linen at eight shillings a yard! And you owe me money in addition, Sir John, for your food and booze and money loaned to you. Twenty-four pounds!’
Falstaff pointed at his companion. ‘He had some of it. He can pay.’
The hostess looked dismayed. ‘Him? Alas, he’s poor. He’s got nothing.’
‘What? Poor? Look at his face. What do you call rich? Make coins from his nose, let him make coins from his cheeks. I won’t pay a farthing. What? Do you think I’m a sucker? Can’t I relax in my own inn without having my pocket picked? I’ve lost a signet ring of my grandfather’s worth forty pounds!’
‘O Jesus!’ The hostess had tears in her eyes. ‘I’ve heard the Prince say, I don’t know how many times, that that ring was copper!’
‘What? The Prince is a knave, a sneak! My God, if he were here I’d beat him like a dog if he said that!’ Falstaff got hold of a walking stick that lay on a chair and made beating movements with it until he saw two newcomers entering the inn. They were the Prince and Peto. He swiftly changed his movements to make it seem as though he was miming playing a flute.
The Prince and Peto were dressed for war.
‘What’s this, lad?’ Falstaff said. ‘Is that the way things are? Are we all on the march?’
‘Yes, in twos. Prison fashion,’ said Bardolph.
The hostess looked desperately at the Prince. ‘My lord,’ she said. ‘May I have a word?’
‘Yes, Mistress Quickly? How’s your husband? I’m very fond of him. He’s an honest man.’
‘My dear lord, please listen to me.’
Falstaff came between them and blocked the hostess. ‘Forget about her and listen to me,’ he said.
‘What do you want, Jack?’
‘The other night I fell asleep here, behind the curtain, and had my pocket picked. This house has turned into a brothel – they pick pockets.’
‘What did you lose, Jack?’
‘Would you believe it, Hal, three or four bonds worth forty pounds each and a signet ring of my grandfather’s.
‘A trinket. A matter of eightpence,’ Hal said.
‘That’s what I said!’ Mistress Quickly assured him. ‘And I said I heard your Grace say so. And, my lord, he talks very vilely about you, like the foul-mouthed man he is, and he said he would beat you.’
‘What? He didn’t!’
‘There’s neither faith, truth nor womanhood in me otherwise!’
‘There’s no more faith in you than in an old whore!’ retorted Falstaff. ‘No more truth in you than in a fox. And as for womanhood, the village whore is the respectable councillor’s wife compared with you. Get away, you thing, get away.’
‘I’m not ‘a thing’ to thank God for, I’ll have you know!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m an honest man’s wife and, with due respect to your knighthood, you’re a knave to call me that.’
‘With due respect to your womanhood, you’re an animal to deny it.’
‘Tell me what animal, you knave, you!’
‘What animal?’ Falstaff looked up at the ceiling. ‘Why, an otter.’
The Prince had been looking from the one to the other as the comments to’d and fro’d. ‘An otter, Sir John?’ he said now. ‘Why an otter?’
‘Well she’s neither fish nor flesh: a man doesn’t know where to have her.’
‘You’re unfair, saying that,’ she said. ‘You or any man knows where to have me, you knave, you.’
‘That’s the truth, hostess,’ the Prince said. ‘He’s slandering you most seriously.’
‘And he did you, my lord, and said the other day that you owed him a thousand pounds.’
The Prince struck out and punched Falstaff in the stomach. ‘Sirrah! Do I owe you a thousand pounds?’
Falstaff gasped, got his breath back and put his hands up, chuckling nervously. ‘A thousand pounds, Hal? A million: your love is worth a million. You owe me your love.’
‘No, my lord,’ Mistress Quickly said, ‘he called you Jack and said he would beat you.’
Bardolph had pulled his chair closer, enjoying the tight spot his tormentor was in. Falstaff turned to him: ‘Did I, Bardolph?’ he said.
Bardolph nodded slowly. ‘Indeed, Sir John, you did.’
‘Yes,’ said Falstaff. ‘If he said my ring was copper.’
‘I say it’s copper,’ said Hal. ‘Do you dare to be as good as your word now?’
‘Well, Hal, you know that as you are only a man I do dare, but as you’re a prince, I fear you as I fear the roaring of a lion’s offspring.’
‘Why not as the lion himself?’
‘Only the King himself is to be feared as the lion: do you think I’m going to fear you as I fear your father? No. if I did I’d pray to God my belt would break.’
‘Oh if it did, how your guts would fall around your knees! But sirrah, there’s no room for faith, truth nor honesty in that bosom of yours – it’s all filled up with guts and midriff. Accuse an honest woman of picking your pocket? Why, you whoreson, impudent, swollen rascal, if there were anything in your pocket other than tavern bills, notes on brothels, and one poor pennyworth of sugar-candy to give you some energy, if your pocket has been enriched by any other losses than these, I am a villain. And yet you will stand there and tell lies – you won’t keep them in your pocket. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?’
‘Listen to me, Hal. You know that Adam fell from grace while in a state of innocence, so what can poor Jack Falstaff do in these days of villainy? You can see that I have more flesh than other men and therefore more frailty. Are you going to admit that you picked my pocket?’
‘It would appear….’ the Prince began and Falstaff changed the subject abruptly. He turned to the hostess.
‘Hostess, I forgive you,’ he said. ‘Go and get breakfast ready. Love your husband; direct your servants; cherish your guests. You’ll find me amenable to reason. See? I’m all calm.’ Mistress Quickly prepared to protest but he stopped her with a dismissive wave. ‘No, please, go now.’ She left in a huff and Falstaff turned again to the Prince. ‘Now, Hal, to matters of court. Concerning the robbery, lad, what’s the position?’
‘Oh my dear old piece of beef, I always have to be your guardian angel. The money has been paid back.’
‘Oh I don’t like that phrase ‘paid back’ – it’s twice the work.’
‘I’ve made friends with my father and can do anything I like.’
‘Rob the exchequer for a start! And soon!’
‘Yes do, my lord,’ Bardolph chipped in.
‘I’ve got you an infantry regiment, Jack.’
‘I would have preferred the cavalry,’ said Falstaff. ‘Where will I get a good thief? Oh for a good thief of about twenty-two. I’m criminally ill-equipped. Well thank God for these rebels – they’re only offending the virtuous. I honour them, I praise them.’
‘Bardolph!’ the Prince said.
‘Take this letter to Lord John of Lancaster – my brother John, and this one to Lord Westmoreland. Come on, Peto, get the horses, because you and I still have thirty miles to ride before dinner-time.’
When the other two had gone the Prince gave Falstaff his instructions.
‘Jack, meet me at two o’clock tomorrow afternoon at the Temple Hall. I’ll give you your commission and money and an order for their equipment. The country is on fire. Percy stands high, and either we or they must lose.’
When Falstaff was left on his own he sneered. ‘Wonderful words! Brave world!’ he said sarcastically. ‘Hostess, my breakfast, come!’ and as he tucked into his breakfast he wished that he could stay there and conduct the battle from the inn.