Nym, Bardolph, Pistol and the boy hung back as the army charged towards the breach in the wall.
‘On, on, on, on, on!’ cried Bardolph as soldiers charged past them. ‘To the breach, to the breach!’
‘Stop, Corporal,’ said Nym, himself stopping and dropping to the ground. ‘This is getting too hot and, speaking personally, I haven’t got nine lives like a cat. The mood is too hot, and that’s the whole tune of it.’
Pistol joined him on the ground. ‘Your expression is apt,’ he said, ‘because there are plenty of tunes here, with bullets coming and going. God’s servants are falling and dying.’ He started singing: ‘And sword and shield in bloody field, will win immortal fame.’
‘I wish I were in an alehouse in London,’ said the boy. ‘I’d swap all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.’
‘And I too,’ said Pistol. ‘If wishes would prevail with me, my purpose would not fail with me, but that’s where I would go.’
‘As surely, but not as purely, as a bird sings on the bough,’ sang the boy.
A Welsh captain, Fluellen, saw the four sitting on the ground and yelled at them: ‘Up to the breach, you dogs! Go, you pieces of shit!’
Pistol sprang to his feet. ‘Be merciful great leader, to us mortals,’ he said. ‘Calm down, subdue your manly anger. Calm down, great captain. My dear fellow, control yourself. Take it easy, sweetheart!’
The others got up too and began walking towards the breach. Nym looked at the Captain over his shoulder. ‘This is a bad mood. Your honour’s in a terrible mood.’
The boy lingered. Young as he was he’d observed these three loudmouths for a long time. He was their servant but even if they all served him they wouldn’t add up to one servant because three such clowns wouldn’t amount to a single man. Take Bardolph, for instance – lily livered and red faced: he could put on fierce looks but wouldn’t fight. As for Pistol, he had a lethal tongue and an idle sword, with which he broke words and kept his weapons unused. And Nym. He’d heard that men of few words are the most effective so he wouldn’t even say his prayers in case he’s thought a coward. But his few bad words were matched by just as few good deeds. He’d never broken anyone’s head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk. They would steal anything and call it trade. Bardolph once stole a lute case, carried it three leagues, and sold it for almost nothing. Nym and Bardolph were sworn brothers in filching, and they stole a fire shovel in Calais. The boy knew by that bit of military service that they would do the dirty work. They’d have him in and out of pockets like gloves or handkerchiefs – which was opposed to his manhood, taking things out of other men’s pockets and putting them into his own. It was a plain pocketing up of wrongs. He had to leave them and find some other employment. He had no stomach for their villainy and therefore he had to throw it all up.
The boy caught Captain Fluellen’s threatening eye and followed his masters. An English officer, Captain Gower, approached the Welshman.
‘Captain Fluellen,’ he said. ‘You must come to the tunnels at once. The Duke of Gloucester wants to talk to you.’
‘To the tunnels?’ Fluellen shook his head. ‘You can tell the Duke that it doesn’t please me to go to the tunnels. Because, look you, the tunnels do not conform to the proper tactics of warfare. The depth is not sufficient. For, look you, you can tell the Duke, look you, the enemy has dug his counter-tunnels four yards beneath them. By Jesus, I think I’ll blow them all up if there’s no better plan.’
‘The Duke of Gloucester, who has been given the responsibility for the siege, is advised by an Irishman, a very brave gentleman indeed,’ said Gower.
‘It’s Captain MacMorris, isn’t it?’
‘I think so,’ said Gower.
‘By Jesus, he’s an ass, if there ever was one,’ said Fluellen. ‘I’ll tell him so to his face. He has no more clue about military matters, look you, about Roman tactics, than a puppy dog has.’
Two officers were walking towards them.
‘Here he comes,’ said Gower as the officers approached. ‘And the Scots captain, Captain Jamy, with him.’
‘Captain Jamy is a wonderfully valorous gentleman,’ said Fluellen, ‘and of great expertise and knowledge of the ancient wars, which I can tell from my knowledge of his tactics. By Jesus, he can defend his position as well as any military man in the world, concerning the tactics in the classical battles of the Romans.’
Captain Jamy’s smile broadened when he saw Fluellen and he put his hand out. ‘I say. Good day, Captain Fluellen,’ he said.
‘Good evening to your worship, good Captain James,’ said Fluellen.
‘Well now, Captain MacMorris,’ said Gower. ‘Have you abandoned the tunnels? Have the pioneers given up?’
‘By Christ now, it’s a bad state of affairs,’ said MacMorris. ‘The job’s stopped and the trumpets have sounded the retreat. I swear by my hand and on my father’s soul, the job’s ruined and it’s been abandoned. I would have blowed up the town, so Christ save me now, in an hour. Oh, it’s a bad business, a bad business. By my hand it’s a bad business.’
‘Captain MacMorris, I beg you now,’ said Fluellen, ‘will you grant me, look you, a few debates with you, as partly touching on or concerning battle tactics – the Roman wars – by way of argument, look you, and friendly discussion? Partly to confirm my opinion and partly for the satisfaction, look you, of my mind. As touching the tactics of military discipline – that’s the point.’
‘That would be very gud, in gud faith, gud captains both, and I’ll give you a run for your money, given the chance. That I will by Mary,’ said Jamy.
MacMorris made an impatient gesture. ‘This is no time for debating, so Christ save me!’ he snapped. ‘It’s a frantic day, what with the weather and the war, and the King, and the dukes. It’s no time for debating! The town is besieged: the trumpets are calling us to the breach as we’re talking and, by Christ, doing nothing! It’s a shame on us all. So God save me, it’s a shame to be standing still, it’s a shame, by my hand. And there are throats to be cut, and work to be done, and we’re doing nothing, so Christ save me now!’
‘By the holy mass,’ said Jamy, ‘before these eyes of mine get to shut tonight I’ll do some gud fighting, or lie in the ground in the attempt. I owe God a death so I’ll pay it as bravely as I can – that will I surely do, that’s the long and short of it. Holy Mary, mother of God, I’d love to have heard you two arguing though.’
‘Captain MacMorris,’ said Fluellen. I think, look you, correct me if I’m wrong, there are not many of your nation…’
MacMorris’ eyes blazed and he exploded. ‘Of my nation! What’s my nation? A villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal. Who said anything about my nation?’
Fluellen stiffened. ‘Look you,’ he said. ‘If you take the matter otherwise than was intended, Captain MacMorris, perhaps I’ll begin to think you’re not treating me with the respect that you should and that you would be wise to do, look you, I being as good a man as yourself, both in the art of war and in the country of my birth… And in other respects.’
‘I don’t know that you’re as good a man as myself,’ retorted MacMorris. ‘So Christ save me I’ll cut off your head!’
Gower came between them. ‘Gentlemen both, you’re insisting on misunderstanding each other.’
‘Ach mon, that’s a terrible fault,’ agreed Jamy.
A trumpet sounded a parley, telling the officers that the town was offering a chance to negotiate. ‘The town is sounding a parley,’ said Gower.
The four officers began moving off. ‘Captain MacMorris,’ said Fluellen, as they went, ‘when there is a more favourable opportunity, look you, I will make bold to tell you that I know my battle strategy. Enough said.’