In another part of London, far removed from the comfort and luxury of the royal palace, the Prince of Wales sat in his lodgings, watching his visitor, Sir John Falstaff – flat-out on a day bed – sleeping off his hangover. The Prince lifted a leg and prodded the fat knight with his toe. Falstaff grunted, turned over, spluttered and began snoring. The Prince lifted his leg again and, this time, kicked him hard. The old man opened his eyes. He yawned. ‘What’s up, Hal?’ he said. ‘What’s the time?’
The Prince shook his head. ‘You’re too thick-brained from drinking old sherry and unbuttoning yourself after dinner and sleeping on benches all afternoon to remember to ask what you’d really like to know. What the devil does time mean to you? Unless hours were cups of sherry and minutes chickens and clocks the tongues of pimps and sundials the signs on brothels and the blessed sun itself a pretty slut in a red dress I can’t see why you should be so off-beam as to ask the time!’
Falstaff hauled himself up into a sitting position. ‘You’ve hit the nail on the head, Hal,’ he said. ‘Because we robbers go by the moon and the starlight, not the sun’ – breaking into a popular song – ‘ that wandering knight so fair, and I beg of you, dear chap, when you are king, which’ – bowing his head in mock deference – ‘God save your Grace – or should I say “Majesty”, because you don’t have any grace…’
Pretending to look concerned, Hal said: ‘What? None?’
‘No, on my honour, not as much as one might say before a light snack of egg and butter.’
‘Well, so what?’ Hal stuck his stomach out in imitation of his companion’s. ‘Come on, ‘Don’t go round in circles.’
‘Alright then, dear boy: when you are king don’t al ow those of us who are gentlemen of the night to be called daylight robbers. Let us be Diana’s foresters, yeomen of the shadows, servants of the moon: and let people say we are decent, disciplined men, being governed – like the sea – by our noble and chaste mistress, the moon, under whose influence we steal.
‘Well said!’ The Prince clapped. ‘And it’s logical too, because the fortunes of us men of the moon ebb and flow like the sea, being influenced as the sea is, by the moon. For example, a purse snatched on Monday night with careful planning is spent carelessly on Tuesday morning. It’s got by shouting ‘Drop your weapons,’ and spent by calling, ‘bring in the booze.’ It’s at as low a tide as to be at the foot of the gallows and suddenly, the next minute, right up to the top of the scaffold.’
‘By the lord, you’re right!’ exclaimed Falstaff, and uncomfortable with the subject of criminal hanging, exclaimed: ‘But isn’t the hostess of the tavern a lovely wench?’
‘As sweet as the honey of Hybla, my lecherous old lad, and isn’t a prisoner’s coat a lovely outfit?’
Falstaff wagged a finger at him. ‘Now now, now now, you bad lad,’ he scolded. ‘What? You in a bad mood? What on earth have I got to do with a prisoner’s outfit?’
‘And what the deuce have I got to do with the hostess of the tavern?’ the Prince said.
‘Well you’ve sat down with her lots of times regarding your bills.’
‘Have I ever asked you to pay your share?’
‘No, I’ll give you your due. You’ve paid the lot.’
‘Yes, as always,’ said Hal. ‘As far as my money would stretch, and where it wouldn’t I’ve used my credit.’
‘Yes, and used it so much that if it weren’t here apparent that you are heir apparent…’ Falstaff laughed at his joke and then his face became serious. ‘But tell me dear boy, will there still be gallows standing in England when you are king? And will enterprising spirits be frustrated by that old spoilsport, the law? Don’t hang thieves when you’re king,’ he pleaded.
‘No, you will!’ Hal said.
‘Will I? Wonderful! By God, I’ll make a good judge.’
The Prince laughed. ‘You’ve judged badly already. I meant that you’ll be the one who hangs the thieves and so become an excellent hangman.’
‘Well, Hal, that’s alright. In some ways it suits my temperament just as well as hanging about in court, I can tell you.’
‘To get some suits?’ said Hal.
‘Yes, some suits of clothing, which a hangman is never short of.’ Sir John lay back. ‘Christ,’ he said, ‘I’m as depressed as a tomcat or a captive bear.’
‘Or an old lion or a lover’s lute,’ Hal said.
‘Yes, or the drone of a Lincolnshire bagpipe.’
‘What about a hare or the depression of Moorfields?’
‘You come up with the most unattractive similes and in fact you’re the most comparison-making rascally sweet young prince.’
Neither of them spoke for a moment then Falstaff opened his eyes.
‘But please, Hal,’ he said, ‘don’t trouble me any more with trivialities. ‘I wish to God that you and I knew where one could buy a supply of good reputations. An old Lord of the Council upbraided me in the street about you, sir, but I took no notice of him. And yet he talked very wisely. But I ignored him. But he did talk wisely, and in the street too…’
‘Good: wisdom is crying out in the street all the time and no-one takes any notice.’
‘You’ve got the devil’s ability to misquote scripture and could corrupt a saint!’ cried Falstaff. ‘You’ve done me a lot of harm, Hal. God forgive you for it. Before I knew you, Hal I was innocent, but now, if I’m being honest, I’m little better than one of the wicked. I must give this life up, and I will give it up. By God, if I don’t I’m a villain. I won’t be damned – not for any king’s son in Christendom!’
Hal nodded sadly and got up to leave. At the door he turned and regarded the fat old man, who was pretending to have closed his eyes but was watching him. ‘Where shall we snatch a purse tomorrow, Jack?’ he said.
‘Jesus, wherever you like, lad!’ Falstaff hauled himself into a sitting position again. ‘I’m in. If I fail you hang me from my heels and call me villain.’
‘I see you’ve improved yourself,’ Hal said. ‘From praying to purse-snatching.’
Falstaff put on a pleading expression. ‘Come on, Hal, it’s my job. It’s not a sin to work at one’s job.’
There was a knock at the door and a down-at-heel man came in.
‘Poins!’ cried Falstaff in greeting. He nodded enthusiastically to the Prince. ‘Now we’re going to find out if there’s a robbery planned for Gadshill. Oh, if people were saved by leading a virtuous life, what hole in hell would be hot enough for him? This is the worst villain who ever cried ‘Stand and deliver!’ to an honest man.’
‘Good morning Ned,’ said the Prince.
‘Good morning dear Hal,’ the newcomer said. ‘What’s Monsieur Remorse saying? What’s Sir John Booze-and-Sugar saying? Jack, what’s the state of play between you and the devil for the possession of your soul, which you sold him last Good Friday for a glass of Madeira and a cold chicken leg?’
‘Sir John is keeping his word,’ said Hal. ‘The devil will get his bargain because he has never been a breaker of proverbs: he will give the devil his due.’
‘Then you’re damned for keeping your word to the devil,’ Poins told Falstaff.
‘Either that or damned for cheating the devil,’ Hal said.
‘But my lads, my lads,’ said Poins. ‘ Tomorrow morning, around four o’clock at Gad’s Hill! There’ll be pilgrims going to Canterbury with expensive offerings and traders riding to London with fat purses. I’ve got masks for all of you: you’ve got your own horses. Gadshill is staying in Rochester tonight. I’ve ordered supper for tomorrow night in Eastcheap. We could do it in our sleep. If you’ll go I’ll stuff your purses full of crowns: if you won’t, stay at home and hang yourselves.’
‘Listen here, Yedward,’ Falstaff said, winking at the Prince. ‘If I stay at home and don’t go I’ll hang you for going!’
Poins jabbed him in the belly. ‘You will, will you, fat chops?’
Falstaff retreated and slapped the Prince on the back. ‘Hal, will you join us?’
‘Who? Me? I rob?’ The Prince looked incredulous. ‘Me, A thief? Not I, and that’s final.’
Falstaff shook his head. ‘There’s neither honesty, manhood nor comradeship in you, nor are you of royal stock if you don’t even dare do a ten shilling job,’ he said.
The Prince sighed deeply. ‘Alright then,’ he said. ‘For once in my life I’ll be an idiot.’
‘Now that’s well spoken,’ said Falstaff.
‘So, let what will be be. I’ll stay at home.’
‘By God, I’ll be a traitor then, when you’re king,’ said Falstaff.
‘I don’t care.’
‘Sir John.’ It was Poins. He put a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
‘Please leave the Prince and me alone. I’ll give him such persuasive reasons for this adventure that he’ll go.’
‘Well, God give you the power of persuasion and him the ears to profit by it,’ Falstaff said, ‘so that what say may change his mind and what he hears may be believed. Then the true prince may, just for fun, prove a false thief because it’s about time authority took notice of the evils of our times. Farewel , you’ll find me in Eastcheap.’
‘Farewell, late spring,’ the Prince called after him. ‘Farewell, extended summer!’
Poins watched from the window as Falstaff turned the corner and disappeared. Then he rubbed his hands together. ‘Now, my dear sweet honey lord, ride with us tomorrow. I have a practical joke planned that I can’t manage on my own. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto and Gadshil will rob the men we’ve already arranged to attack but you and I won’t be there. And when they’ve got the booty… if you and I don’t rob them then cut this head from off my shoulders.’ He grinned.
The Prince laughed. ‘But how can we separate ourselves from them as we set off?’
Poins shrugged. ‘Why, we’ll either set off before or after them and assign a meeting place. And we won’t turn up. Then they’ll embark on the adventure without us, and as soon as they’ve done it we’l pounce on them.’
‘Yes but they’ll recognise us by our horses, our clothes, and by so many other things.’
Poins tutted. ‘They won’t see our horses. I’ll tether them to trees in the wood: we’ll change our masks after we leave them: and, sirrah, I’ve got whole cases of buckram outfits to put over our familiar clothes.’
‘Yes, but I’m worried that they’l be too strong for us.’
‘Well, regarding two of them,’ said Poins, ‘I know that they’re as fully fledged cowards as ever ran away, and as for the third, if he fights any longer than he sees the need for, I’ll never wear arms again. The pleasure of this joke will be the outrageous lies that fat rogue will tell us when we meet at supper – how he fought with at least thirty, his strokes, the blows he received, what he went through – and the fun will be in exposing him.’
‘Well, I’ll go with you,’ Hal said. ‘Get everything we need together and meet me tomorrow night in Eastcheap. I’ll sup there. Adieu!’
‘Adieu, my lord.’
After Poins had gone the Prince sat staring at the window. He knew all of his companions for what they were and for the time being would go along with their undisciplined behaviour. He would imitate the sun in this. The sun allowed the unhealthy, infectious clouds to smother his beauty, concealing him from the world so that, when it suited him to be seen unhindered again, having been missed, he would be admired more for breaking through the foul and ugly mists that had seemed to strangle him. If one were on holiday al the year round, leisure would be as tedious as work. But when holidays occur rarely we look forward to them. Nothing was as pleasurable as rare events. So when he threw off this loose living and began to pay back the debt – which he never said he would – how much better he would seem against the misjudgment he’d been subjected to. And like bright metal on a leaden background, his reformation, outshining his faults, would look better and attract more attention than behaviour that had always been good. So he would offend in such a way as to make offending a skill, using it to come out when the world least expected it.