The Prince entered the Boar’s Head and went up to Poins’s room. He stuck his head round the door. ‘Ned, come out of that smelly room. Come and have a laugh with me.’ he said.
‘Where have you been, Hal?’ Poins said as they went downstairs.
Hal laughed. ‘With three or four idiots in a crowd of some sixty to eighty drunkards. You know something? I’ve become the sworn blood brother of three barmen and can call them all by their Christian names – Tom, Dick and Francis. They swear by their salvation that though I’m only the Prince of Wales I’m already the king of courtesy and they tell me straight that I’m not stuck-up like Falstaff but a straight sort of guy, one of the lads, a good fellow – for God’s sake, that’s what they call me. When I’m King of England I’ll have the support of all the lads of Eastcheap. They call heavy drinking ‘getting dyed red,’ and when you pause to take a breath while you’re drinking they shout ‘clear your throat,’ and chant ‘drink it down, down, down.’ And the result is that in a quarter of an hour I’ve become such an expert drinker that I will be able to booze with any tinker on his own terms for the rest of my life. I can tell you, Ned, that you’ve lost a lot of street cred by not being with me in this campaign. Anyway, sweet Ned – and to sweeten that name ‘Ned’ I offer you this pennyworth of sugar slapped into my hand a moment ago by a potboy who never said anything other than ‘eight shillings and sixpence’ and ‘you’re welcome’ in his whole life with the high-pitched addition of ‘Coming, coming, sir. Put a pint of wine in the Half-moon room,’ or something like that. But Ned, to pass the time until Falstaff arrives, go and stand in one of those side rooms while I quiz this scrawny potboy as to why he gave me a pennyworth of sugar. Don’t stop calling ‘Francis!’ so that all he’ll say will be ‘Coming!’ Go to that room and I’ll show you an example.’
Poins sat down on a bench. ‘Francis!’ he called.
‘Perfect,’ breathed Hal.
A boy appeared in the doorway. ‘Coming, coming, sir,’ he said. He instructed another boy: ‘Go and check the Pomegranate room, Ralph’
‘Come here, Francis,’ called Hal.
Francis went to him immediately and stood before him. ‘My lord?’
‘How many years are left of your apprenticeship, Francis?’ said Hal.
‘In fact, five years and as much…’
‘Francis!’ It was Poins.
‘Coming, coming, sir.’
‘Five years! My goodness a long time to be clinking tankards. But Francis, are you brave enough to play the coward and show your heels to it – to run away?’
Francis sighed. ‘Oh lord, sir, I’ll swear on all the bibles in England that I could easily…’
‘How old are you, Francis?’
Francis shuffled uneasily, darting looks at the doorway. ‘Let me see. ‘At around Michaelmas I’ll be…’
‘Coming, sir. I beg your pardon, would you excuse me for a moment, my lord?’
‘Yes, but listen, Francis. Regarding the sugar you gave me, it was a pennyworth, wasn’t it?’
‘Oh Lord, two for all I care!’ The boy turned and started for the door.
‘I’ll give you a thousand pounds for it,’ Hal said quickly. ‘Ask me whenever you like and you’ll have it.’
Francis came back as Poins called for him again, this time sounding angry.
‘Coming, coming,’ Francis said, barely audible as he stared at the Prince.
Imitating his high-pitched voice, Hal grinned. ‘Coming, Francis?’ he teased. ‘No Francis, not till tomorrow, Francis, or, Francis, perhaps Thursday or, indeed, Francis, whenever it suits you. But Francis!’
‘Do you want to rob this leather-jacketed, crystal-buttoned, cropped-headed, agate-ringed, woollen-stockinged, worsted-gartered, smooth-tongued, leather-pursed landlord…?
Francis was bewildered. ‘Oh Lord, sir, what do you mean?’
‘Well then,’ the Prince said. ‘Brown ale’s what you’re stuck with. Because, look here, Francis, your white canvas tunic will get dirty.’ He tossed the sugar up in the air and caught it. ‘In Africa, sir, it couldn’t be so expensive.’
‘Francis!’ Poins called.
The Prince frowned. ‘Get on with it!’ he snapped. ‘Can’t you hear them calling you?’
As the boy got to the door Hal called him again. So did Poins, and they both continued to call his name, while he stood, frozen, not knowing what to do, until the innkeeper appeared and cuffed him. ‘What are you standing there for when you can hear them calling? Go and attend to the guests in there.’ he said.
Francis left and the landlord spoke to the Prince. ‘My lord, old Sir John and half a dozen others are at the door. Shall I let them in?’
‘Keep them waiting for a while then open the door. Poins!’
Poins came in, laughing. ‘Coming, coming, sir,’ he called in a high-pitched voice.
‘Falstaff and the other thieves are at the door,’ Hal told him. ‘Shall we have some fun?’
‘We’ll be as full of fun as can be, my lad,’ said Poins. ‘But listen, what was all that with the boy? Come on, what’s it about?’
‘Now I’m in the mood for the kind of fun that’s never been known since the time of Mr Adam until this very day.’,
Francis rushed past the door. The Prince winked at Poins. ‘What’s the time, Francis?’ he called after him.
Francis didn’t stop. ‘Coming, coming, sir,’ he answered over his shoulder.
When they had stopped laughing the Prince shook his head. ‘That this fellow could be some woman’s son and yet have a vocabulary of fewer words than a parrot. The whole business of his life is up and down the stairs, his language no more than adding up bills.’ He raised his legs, rested his feet on the table and leant back. ‘I’m not yet like Percy, the Hotspur of the north – the one who kills six or seven dozen Scots before breakfast, washes his hands and says to his wife ‘Curse this quiet life, I want some action!’ ‘Oh my dearest Harry,’ she says ‘how many have you killed today?’ ‘Give my roan horse a drink,’ he replies, then says ‘About fourteen.’ And then, an hour later, ‘not many, not many.’ The Prince sat up. ‘Do me a favour and call Falstaff in. I’ll play the part of Percy and that damned chunk of brawn will play his wife, Dame Mortimer. Drink up! the drunkard says. Call in that piece of meat. Call the fat man in.’
Poins went out and came back a minute later, followed by Falstaff, Gadshill, Bardolph and Peto. Francis came behind them with two large jugs of wine and some tankards.
Poins grinned. ‘Welcome Jack!’ he said warmly. Putting on a mock innocent expression he said: ‘Where have you been?’
‘May all cowards go to hell!’ said Falstaff. ‘That’s my opinion. And with a vengeance, too. And that’s it! Give me a cup of wine, boy. I would rather knit stockings, and mend them, and re-foot them as well than lead this kind of life any longer. To hell with all cowards! Give me a cup of wine, rogue! Is there no honesty anymore?’
Hal shook his head in wonder as he watched the fat knight’s face disappear behind the tankard raised to his lips. ‘Have you ever seen a dish of butter melting in the sun? If you haven’t then just look at that sight,’ he said.
Falstaff drained the tankard, belched and wiped his mouth. ‘You rogue!’ he shouted, shaking his fist at Francis. ‘There’s lime in this wine as well! There’s nothing but dishonesty to be found in anyone! But a coward is worse than a cup of wine with lime in it,’ he said as Francis cowered. ‘A complete coward!’ He slumped into an armchair and sighed. ‘Off you go then, old Jack, die when you’re ready. If manliness, good manliness, hasn’t disappeared off the face of the earth then I’m a baby herring. There are not three men left in England who are unchanged, and one of them is fat and getting old. God help us in the meantime! It’s a bad world, is what I say. I wish I were a weaver, then I could sing some psalms or something. To hell with all cowards, I still say!’
‘What’s that, wool-sack?’ the Prince said. ‘What’s that you’re muttering?’
‘A king’s son!’ Falstaff said contemptuously. ‘If I don’t beat you out of your kingdom with a jester’s wooden sword and drive all your subjects before you like a flock of wild geese, I’ll never grow a beard again. You!’ he sneered. ‘Prince of Wales!’
‘What, you disgusting fat man? What’s the matter?’ said Hal.
‘Aren’t you a coward? Just answer that. And Poins there!’
‘What, you fatguts!’ exclaimed Poins. ‘If you call me a coward I’ll stab you.’ He drew his dagger and pressed its tip against Falstaff’s throat.
‘I call you coward? I’ll see you damned before I call you a coward,’ said Falstaff, but as soon as Poins’s dagger was safely in its sheath he drew himself up and smirked. ‘But I would give a thousand pounds to be able to run as fast as you can. Your shoulders are square enough – you don’t mind who sees your back. Is that what you call backing your friends? To hell with such backing, give me a man who’ll face me! Give me a cup of wine. I’m a rogue if I’ve had a drink today.’
‘Oh liar!’ the Prince said. ‘You’ve scarcely wiped your lips since your last drink.’
Falstaff grabbed the tankard from Francis. ‘So what,’ he said. He took a big swig. ‘I still say damn all cowards.’
‘What’s the matter?’ Hal said.
‘What’s the matter? Four of us took a thousand pounds this morning.’
The Prince held his hand out. ‘Where is it, Jack? Where is it?’
‘Where is it? Taken from us. A hundred of them against the poor four of us.’
‘What? A hundred, man?
Falstaff got up and displayed the holes in his jacket. ‘I am a rogue if I wasn’t fighting a dozen of them hand-to-hand for two hours non stop. I’ve escaped only by a miracle. I was stabbed through the jacket eight times, and four times through the britches. My shield was cut through and through and my sword has been so hacked that it resembles a hacksaw. Here’s the evidence.’ He put a hand through one of the holes in his jacket. ‘I’ve never fought better but it was no use. Damn all cowards!’ He pointed to his companions. ‘Ask them. If they speak anything more or less than the truth they are villains and destined for hell.’
‘Speak, gentlemen,’ said Hal. ‘What happened?’
Gadshill said: ‘We four pounced on about a dozen…’
‘At least sixteen, my lord,’ Falstaff interrupted.
‘And tied them up,’ continued Gadshill.
‘No, no, they weren’t tied up,’ said Peto.
‘You rogue!’ exclaimed Falstaff. ‘They were tied up, every one of them, or else I am a Jew – a Hebrew Jew!’
‘As we were sharing out the spoils about six or seven other men jumped on us…’
‘And untied the rest, who joined them,’ said Falstaff.
‘What? You fought them all?’ the Prince said.
‘All? I don’t know what you mean by ‘all’ but if I didn’t fight with fifty of them then I’m a bunch of radish. If there weren’t fifty-two or three attacking poor old Jack then I’m no two-legged creature.’
The Prince recoiled, with a look of shock on his face. ‘Pray God you haven’t murdered any of them!’
‘Too late to pray for that,’ said Falstaff. ‘I drilled two of them. I’m sure I did for two of them, two rogues in buckskin. I tell you what, Hal, if I’m lying spit in my face and call me horse. You know my usual style.’ He got up and began demonstrating with arm movements. ‘Here’s how I stood and this is how I pointed my sword. Four rogues in buckskin came at me….’
‘What, four? Just a moment ago you said two!’
Falstaff shook his head. ‘Four, Hal, I told you four.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Poins. ‘He said four.’
‘These four came close and thrust at me,’ continued Falstaff. ‘All I did was ward off the seven points with my shield, like this.’ He demonstrated.
‘Seven? Why there were only four just now!’
‘In buckskin?’ said Falstaff.
‘Yes, four in buckskin suits,’ said Poins.
‘Seven, by this hilt’ – slapping his sword’s hilt – ‘or else I’m a villain.’
‘Just let him get on with it,’ Hal told Poins quietly. ‘There’ll be more of them soon.’
‘Are you listening, Hal?’ Falstaff said.
‘Yes, and taking careful note, too, Jack.’
‘Do so, because it’s worth listening to. These nine in buckskin I told you about…’
‘Ah, two more already!’
‘Their points having snapped…’
‘Down fell their britches!’
‘… began to retreat, but I followed them closely, then coming in suddenly with foot and hand, dispatched seven of the eleven.’
‘Oh monstrous! Eleven buckskinned men grown out of two!’
Falstaff hadn’t finished. ‘But you can count on the devil,’ he said. ‘Three crafty knaves in Kendal green came up behind me and let fly, because it was so dark, Hal, that you couldn’t see your hand.’
Hal stared at him. He sat up and looked straight at the fat knight. ‘These lies are like the father who begot them,’ he said. ‘As huge as a mountain, obvious, and plain for all to see. Why, you clay-brained guts, you blockheaded fool, you disgusting, obscene, greasy lump of candle fat…’
‘What, are you mad? Are you mad? Isn’t the truth the truth?’
‘Well how could you know these men wore Kendal green when it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand? Come on, give us an answer. What do you say to that?’
‘Come on, your answer, Jack, your answer,’ said Poins.
‘What? Under compulsion? For God’s sake, if I were in a torture chamber or on all the racks in the world I wouldn’t tell you under compulsion. Give you an explanation under compulsion? If explanations were as common as blackberries I wouldn’t give anyone an explanation. Never!’
‘I’m not going to keep silent any longer,’ said Hal. ‘This red-faced coward, this bed-flattener, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh…’
Falstaff’s face was purple. ‘God’s blood, you scarecrow!’ he spluttered. ‘You eel-skin, you dried ox tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish – oh for the breath to be able to utter the things you’re like! You tailor’s yard, you scabbard, you bow-case, you unutterable rigid rapier!’ He ran out of breath and sat back gasping.
‘Well take a couple of breaths and start again,’ Hal said. ‘And when you’ve exhausted yourself with vile comparisons, just listen to this one thing.’
Falstaff opened his mouth to continue but Poins stopped him. ‘Listen Jack!’
Pointing at Poins Hal said: ‘We two watched you four attacking the four travellers and tying them up and taking their money. Take note of how a simple tale will b ring you down. Then we attacked you and, to cut a long story short, separated you from your takings, and we still have them, yes, and can show them to you right here in this house. And, Falstaff, you carried your guts away as nimbly, with as speedy dexterity roaring for mercy, both running and roaring – as any bull-calf I’ve ever heard. What a wretch you are to hack your sword blade, as you have done, and then say it was in fighting. What trick, what device, what bolt-hole, can you now invent to hide yourself from this open and obvious disgrace?’
‘Come on, let’s hear it,’ said Poins. ‘What trick are you going to come up with now?’
Falstaff looked bewildered but that didn’t last long. He slapped his thigh and burst into coarse laughter. ‘By the Lord, I knew you as well as I know your father! Why, listen, gentlemen, was it my place to kill the heir apparent? Is it up to me to attack the true prince? Why, you know I’m as brave as Hercules. But beware of instinct: a lion wouldn’t harm a true prince. Instinct is very important. I was only a coward according to instinct. I’ll think the better of myself – and you – because of that, for the rest of my life: myself as a brave lion, you as a true prince.’ He walked over to Hal and put his hand on his shoulder. Then he turned to Poins, who was staring at him in amused disbelief. ‘But by the Lord, lads, I’m glad you’ve got the money. Hostess, lock the doors! Party tonight, pray tomorrow! Fun, lads, boys, hearts of gold! May you have all the titles of good fellowship. Well? Shall we get on with the entertainment? Shall we put on an impromptu play?’
‘Suits me,’ said Hal, ‘and the plot will be your running away!’
‘Ah, enough of that, Hal, if you love me.’
Before the Prince could respond they were interrupted by the landlady, flustered and breathless. ‘Oh Jesus! My lord Prince!’
‘Yes, my lady hostess,’ Hal said. ‘What do you want to say to me?’
‘Indeed, my lord, there is a nobleman of the court at the door who wants to talk to you. He says he’s come from your father.’
‘Promote him to royalty and send him back to my mother!’ Hal bowed as his friends showed their appreciation.
‘What kind of man is he?’ said Falstaff.
‘An old man,’ the landlady said.
‘What’s respectability doing out of his bed at midnight?’ said Falstaff. ‘Shall I give him his answer?’
‘Please do, Jack.’
Falstaff scrambled to his feet, full of enthusiasm. ‘God help me, I’ll send him packing,’ he said as he scampered away.
‘Now, gentlemen,’ the Prince said, looking round at Falstaff’s unusually quiet satellites. ‘By Mary, you fought fair, Peto, and so did you, Bardolph. You are also lions – you ran away because of your instinct: you wouldn’t touch the true prince, oh no! Shame on you!
‘In fact, I ran when I saw the others running,’ Bardolph said.
‘In fact, then,’ Hal said, ‘how did Falstaff’s sword get to be so hacked?’
‘He hacked it with his dagger, of course, and said he would swear by England that he would make you believe it was done by fighting, and he urged us to do the same.’
Bardolph said: ‘Yes, and to tickle our noses with spear-grass, to make them bleed, and then to smear our clothes with it, and swear it was the blood of honest men. I did what I haven’t done for seven years. I blushed while listening to his monstrous schemes.’
Hal pointed to Bardolph’s features – the bulbous red nose and the cheeks inflamed with pimples and boils. ‘Villain!’ he said. ‘You stole a tankard of wine eighteen years ago and you were caught red-handed and ever since then you’ve had a natural blush. You had this fire, and your sword, on your side, and yet you ran away. Where was your instinct?’
Bardolph jutted his jaw out and thrust his face towards the Prince. ‘My lord, do you see these meteors? Do you see these heavenly bodies?’
‘What do you think they mean?’
‘Diseased livers and empty purses.’
Bardolph shook his head. ‘Choler, my lord, if correctly interpreted.’
‘No,’ Hal said. ‘The hangman’s collar, if correctly interpreted! Here comes lean Jack, here comes bare-bones,’ as Falstaff came back in. ‘Hello there, my dear bag of wind: how long ago was it, Jack, that you last saw your own knee?’
‘My own knee? When I was about your age, Hal, I wasn’t even an eagle’s claw around the waist, I could have crawled through an alderman’s ring. Damn all this sighing and sorrow: it blows a man up like a balloon.’ He waved the Prince silent, cutting off his response with: ‘There’s terrible news going round. Sir John Bracy is here, from your father. You have to go to the court in the morning. That mad fellow of the north – Percy – and the one in Wales who is supposed to have beaten the devil up and cuckolded Lucifer and enslaved him on a Welsh hook. What the hell’s his name?’
‘Owen. Owen. That’s him, and his son-in-law, Mortimer, and old Northumberland, and that agile Scot of Scots, Douglas, who rides up perpendicular hills on horseback…’
The Prince laughed. ‘The one who can shoot a flying sparrow with his pistol at high speed.’
‘You’ve got it!’ roared Falstaff.
‘But he never got the sparrow!’
Falstaff’s laughter ended with his almost choking. He had an alarming coughing fit and when he had recovered he sighed. ‘Well, anyway, that rascal’s made of good stuff: he won’t turn and run.’
‘Oh, what a rascal you are then to praise him for his running speed!’
‘On horseback, you cuckoo!’ Falstaff exclaimed. ‘But on foot he won’t budge a foot!’
‘Yes, Jack.’ The Prince nodded meaningfully. ‘On instinct.’
‘I’ll grant you that. On instinct. Well, he’s there, too, and that fellow, Mordake, and a thousand blue-capped Scots as well. Worcester stole away during the night: your father’s beard has turned white at the news. You can buy land now as cheaply as rotten fish.’
‘Well then,’ Hal said, ‘it’s likely that if it’s a hot June and this war is still going on we’ll be able to buy virgins as you can buy hob-nails – by the hundreds.’
‘En mass, lad, that’s for sure. We’ll do some good business there. But tell me, Hal, aren’t you terrified? As heir apparent, could you imagine three such enemies in the world as that fiend Douglas, that high-spirited Percy, and that devil Glendower? Aren’t you terrified? Doesn’t it make your blood run cold?’
‘Not a jot, I assure you. I’m lacking some of your instinct.’
‘Well, you’re going to be horribly chastised tomorrow when you find yourself in front of your father. Humour me by practicing your reply.’
‘You play my father and question me about my lifestyle.’
‘Shall I? Alright! Falstaff pulled a chair out from a nearby table. ‘This chair will be my throne, this dagger is my sceptre and this cushion,’ – he placed the cushion on his head – ‘will be my crown.’
Hal laughed. ‘Your throne is nothing but a stool; your golden sceptre a fake dagger and your precious golden crown a bald head!’
‘Well, as long as you’ve completely lost all sense of conscience, you’re about to be moved. Give me a cup of wine to make my eyes look red so that I’ll appear to have been crying, because I have to speak with a deep passion, which I will exaggerate.’
The Prince knelt before him. ‘Well here’s my bended knee.’
‘And here’s my speech.’ Falstaff made a dismissing gesture to the others. Stand aside, courtiers.’
The landlady burst into a peal of laughter. ‘Jesus, this is great fun, absolutely great!’ Tears rolled down her cheeks.
‘Weep not, sweet queen,’ Falstaff said in his most formidable voice. ‘Shedding tears is a vanity.’
‘Oh God!’ the landlady yelled. ‘How does he keep a straight face?’
‘For God’s sake, give comfort to my weeping queen, for tears have stopped the floodgates of her eyes.’
‘Oh Jesus,’ gasped the landlady. ‘He’s as good as any any ham actor I’ve ever seen!’
‘Quiet, dear pint-pot, be quiet my darling air-head!’ Falstaff turned his head slowly and stared at the Prince. ‘Harry,’ he said, ‘I do not only marvel at where you spend your time, but also at the company you keep. For while the more camomile is trodden on the more it improves, youth, on the other hand, becomes more corrupt the more it is abused. That you are my son, I have partly your mother’s word, partly my own opinion, but mainly it’s an evil glint in your eye and a silly-looking droop of your lower lip, which is the image of me. Assuming, then, that you are my son, I’ll come to the point. Why, being my son, are you so criticised? Is such a royal person going to be a prodigal son who goes blackberrying? Unthinkable. Is the son of the King of England a thief who steals purses? That is the question that has to be asked. There is a substance, Harry, which you’ve often heard of, commonly known in England as pitch. This pitch, as ancient writers have recorded, defiles, and so does the company you keep. Harry.’ Falstaff pulled a grimy handkerchief out of his pocket and mopped his cheeks dramatically. ‘I am not speaking to you in drink, but in sorrow, not for the pleasure of it but out of deep emotion not just words but with meaning.’ He paused in a display of deepest sorrow. Then he raised a finger and smiled feebly. ‘And yet, there is a virtuous man whom I have often seen in your company, although I don’t know his name…’
‘What sort of man, may it please your Majesty?’ Hal said.
‘A good-looking man of great presence, in fact, a fine figure of a man. He has an attractive look, a pleasing eye and a truly noble deportment. And I think he’s about fifty, perhaps approaching three score, and I’ve just remembered, his name is Falstaff. If that man is in any way inclined to corruption then he’s deceived me because, Harry, I can see that that he’s virtuous. If the tree is known by its fruit and the fruit known by the tree, then I say emphatically that there is virtue in that Falstaff. Keep with him and banish the rest of them. And tell me now, you unworthy boy, tell me where you have been this last month.’
Hal got up. ‘Is this how a king speaks? You play me and I’ll play my father.’
‘You deposing me?’ Falstaff said. ‘If you can do that even half as solemnly, as majestically, both in word and fact, hang me up by the heels like a baby rabbit or a hare in a poultry shop.’ He got up reluctantly.
Hal sat down with a show of majesty. ‘Well here I am, enthroned.’
Falstaff knelt, slowly and painfully. ‘And here I kneel. Judge, gentlemen.’
The Prince cleared his throat. ‘Now, Harry, where have you come from?’
Adopting a higher tone of voice in mockery of the young prince, Falstaff said: ‘My noble lord, from Eastcheap.’
‘The complaints I’ve had about you are serious.’
‘God’s blood, my lord, it’s all lies!’ Everyone laughed and Falstaff bowed his head towards them, like an actor acknowledging applause. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you a young prince that will make you laugh.’
Hal leant forward and slapped him on the head. ‘Are you swearing, you profane boy? From now on, stay out of my sight. You have been violently removed from grace. A devil haunts you in the form of an old, fat man. A human barrel is your closest friend. Why do you have anything to do with that collection of diseases, that prison cell of bestiality, that blown-up pile of rotten fluids, that stuffed bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree Fair ox with a belly-full of stuffing, that old sinner, that grey-bearded iniquity, that elder delinquent, that reprobate of advanced years? What’s he good for other than to taste wine and drink? What is he skilled in other than carving and eating a chicken? What’s he good at other than deviousness? What’s he clever at apart from villainy? How is he villainous apart from in everything? How is he worthy apart from in nothing?’
Falstaff looked up at the Prince, then affecting an innocent tone, said: ‘I wish your Grace would make himself clear. Who does your Grace mean?’
‘That villainous, abominable corrupter of youth, Falstaff; that old white-bearded Satan.’
Falstaff sighed. ‘My lord, I know the man.’
‘I know you do.’
‘But if I were to say that I know of more harm in him than there is in myself I would be going too far. That he is old, the more’s the pity – his white hairs are evidence of that. But that he is – excuse my language – a pimp, I utterly deny. If wine and sugar are faults, then God have mercy on the wicked! If to be old and fun-loving is a sin then many an old innkeeper I know are damned. If to be fat is to be hated then Pharaoh’s lean cows are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but as for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind, Jack Falstaff, loyal Jack Falstaff, brave Jack Falstaff, and all the more brave for being old, don’t banish him from your Harry’s company, don’t banish him from your Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack and you banish all the world.’
The Prince stared at him. He didn’t waver. ‘I do,’ he said softly. ‘I will.’
There was a loud banging. The hostess and Francis darted to the door, followed by Bardolph who came back almost immediately.
‘Oh my lord, my lord,’ he wailed. The sheriff is at the door with a huge watch!’
‘Out of here, you rogue!’ cried Falstaff. ‘I’ve still got a lot to say on behalf of that Falstaff fellow.’
The hostess came running in. ‘Oh Jesus! My lord, my lord!’
‘It’s all happening tonight!’ the Prince exclaimed. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘The sheriff and all the watch are at the door: they’re here to search the house. Shall I let them in?’
Falstaff’s face expressed his concern. ‘Listen, Hal. Don’t call a piece of solid gold counterfeit. You’re pure gold yourself although you don’t look it.’
‘And you’re a natural coward,’ the Prince said. ‘And without instinct.’
‘I deny that charge!’ the old man said. ‘If you don’t let the sheriff in, fine. If you do, let him come in. If I don’t become the hangman’s cart as well as any other man, to hell with my bringing up! As far as I’m concerned I’m as good a man as any who’s strangled by a noose.’
‘Go and hide behind the curtain,’ Hal said. ‘The rest of you go upstairs. Now, gentlemen, for an innocent face and a clear conscience.’
‘Both of which I have had,’ said Falstaff, ‘but they’re out of date so I’ll hide.’ He scurried to the long curtains.
The others – all except Peto – went upstairs.
‘Call the sheriff in,’ said Hal. He sat back and waited calmly for the sheriff, whop cam in, followed by an attendant.
‘Now, Master Sheriff,’ he said, when the officer was standing before him. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘First, my apologies, my lord.’ the sheriff said. ‘A hue and cry has followed certain men to this inn.’
‘One of them is well known, my gracious lord. A gross, fat man.’
‘As fat as butter!’ the attendant said.
‘I can assure you the man is not here,’ said Hal. ‘Because I’ve personally employed him. And, Sheriff, I give you my word that I will send him to answer to you or any other man for whatever charges there may be against him by dinner time tomorrow. So let me ask you, now, to leave this house.’
‘I will, my lord. Two gentlemen have lost three hundred pounds in this robbery.’
‘That may well be the case. If he has robbed these men he will be answerable. And so, goodbye.’
‘Good night, my noble lord.’
‘I think it’s good morning,’ isn’t it?
‘Indeed, my lord, I think it’s two o’clock.’
He and his attendant left.
‘The fat rascal is as obvious as St Paul’s. Go and get him.’ The Prince told Peto.
‘Falstaff!’ There was no reply and Peto went to the curtains and looked behind them. ‘Fast asleep behind the curtain,’ he said. ‘And snorting like a horse!’
‘Just listen to that snoring!’ said Hal. ‘Search his pockets.’
Peto returned with a sheet of paper.
‘What have you found?’
‘Nothing but papers, my lord.’
‘Let’s see what they are. Read them.’
Peto began reading it: it was a food bill.
‘Item: a chicken two shillings and tuppence.
Item: sauce fourpence
Item: wine, two gallons five shillings and eightpence
Item: anchovies and wine after supper two shillings and sixpence
Item: bread halfpenny.’
‘Outrageous!’ exclaimed Hal. ‘Only a halfpenny worth of bread to this unbelievable amount of wine? Keep whatever else there is hidden, we’ll read it at a more convenient time. Let him sleep there till daylight: I’ll go to the court in the morning. We all have to go off to war: I’ll make sure you get a good commission. I’ll get this fat rogue an infantry troop. I’m sure that twelve score paces will kill him. The money will be repaid with interest. Come to me early in the morning. And so, good morning, Peto.’
‘Good morning, my dear lord.’