Lieutenant Bardolph, a regular at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap, sat staring at his drink. This was the pub frequented by the King in his wild days, a phase of his life that ended with the death of his father and his accession to the throne. Bardolph, a florid-faced heavy drinker, had been one of Prince Hal’s close circle but the young King Harry had turned his back on his friends and had actually publicly rejected the old knight who had been his closest companion – Sir John Falstaff.
It was early morning and Bardolph was thinking about having breakfast. Another of the King’s erstwhile companions entered the tavern and joined him. ‘Greetings, Corporal Nym!’ said Bardolph, smiling his pleasure.
‘Morning, Lieutenant Bardolph,’ his friend responded. He pulled out a chair and sat down.
‘Well’ said Bardolph, ‘are you and Ancient Pistol friends again?’
‘I’m not bothered,’ said Nym. ‘I don’t think about it much but when the time comes it will turn out all right. We’ll see. I dare not fight but I can close my eyes and lash out with my sword.’ He drew his sword and showed it to Bardolph. He had made it himself and it looked very home-made indeed. ‘It’s a simple one, but so what? I can toast cheese on it, and it’s as good as any other sword for fighting, and that’s it.’
‘I’ll buy you both breakfast to make you friends again,’ said Bardolph, ‘and we’ll all three be sworn brothers and go to France like that. Say yes, dear Corporal Nym.’
‘Indeed, I’ll live as long as I live, that’s for sure, and when I can’t live any longer I’ll do whatever,’ said Nym. ‘That’s all I can say. That’s all there is to it.’
‘He definitely married Nell Quickly, and she definitely did you wrong, because you were engaged to her,’ said Bardolph.
Nym shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Whatever happens happens. Men go to sleep. And their throats may be there when they do. And some say that knives have sharp edges. These things happen. We just have to plod on and see what happens. I can’t tell.’
The door opened and Pistol entered with Mistress Quickly, the landlady of the Boar’s Head.
‘Here comes Ancient Pistol and his wife,’ said Bardolph. ‘Take it easy, now, Corporal.’
Ignoring the warning, Nym called out to his rival: ‘Hey, landlord Pistol!’
Pistol’s face reddened. ‘You low-life insect!’ he exclaimed. ‘Don’t call me that. And my Nell will take no lodgers either!’
‘No, indeed,’ said Nell. ‘Not any more because we can’t board and lodge a dozen or fourteen ladies who earn an honest living by their sewing without people thinking we’re running a brothel!’
Nym suddenly drew his sword and looked menacingly at Pistol.
‘Oh dear!’ exclaimed Nell. ‘Holy Lady! If someone doesn’t stop him we’re going to see wilful adultery and murder committed!’
Nym advanced on Pistol. The Ancient drew his sword and the two stood staring at each other with animosity. Bardolph hauled himself up and got between them. ‘Dear Ancient, dear Corporal, lets not have any fighting here.’
Nym spat on the floor. ‘Pish!’ he exclaimed.
‘And pish to you, you hairy mongrel – you big-eared hairy mongrel!’ said Pistol.
‘Dear Corporal Nym, show your bravery and put your sword away,’ said Nell.
Nym pulled a face at her. ‘Push off, will you?’ he said and turned back to his rival, pointing his sword at him. ‘I want you solo!’
‘Solo, you miserable dog? Oh you vile snake!’ Pistol made a rude gesture. ‘Solo to your wonderful face! Solo in your teeth, and in your throat, and in your hateful lungs. Yes, in your guts, by God! And even worse, inside your loathsome mouth. And I would add, solo in your bowels. When Pistol’s cocked a flash of fire will follow!’
‘I’m not a devil!’ said Nym. ‘You can’t conjure me away with spells. I feel like giving you a good bashing. If you get nasty with me, Pistol, I’ll clean you out with my rapier, I’m warning you. Just move and I’ll prick your guts a bit, it’s fair to say, and that’s the sum of it.’
His threats infuriated Pistol, who squared up to him: he shoved his jaw out and roared dramatically: ‘Oh vile braggart, oh damned devilish man: the grave gapes and doting death is near! So die!’ He drew his sword and the two stood facing each other, trembling with anger, the points of their swords almost touching.
Bardolph sprang up. ‘Listen, listen! Listen to me!’ He drew his sword and held it up. ‘Whoever strikes first, I’ll run him through up to the hilt, as I am a soldier.’
Pistol was relieved at this intervention. ‘That’s a promise of considerable power – enough to make anger subside,’ he said. They both sheathed their swords. Pistol put his hand out. ‘Give me your fist,’ he said. ‘Your paw – give it to me. You’re brave-hearted.’
Nym ignored the outstretched hand. ‘I’m going to cut your throat one of these days,’ he growled. ‘No joking: that’s the sum of it.’
‘Thoat-cutting?’ yelled Pistol, his dramatic display of anger returning. ‘So that’s what you’re up to? I defy you again!’ He put his finger up in a rude gesture. ‘Oh lying dog. You’re hoping to have my wife? No! Go to the hospital and from the pox ward bring out the leprous whore with Cressida’s disease – Doll Tearsheet is her name – and marry her. I have, and will keep, the former Quickly because the one and only…’ He paused. ‘That’s all. Get lost.’
Before Nym could react a boy came running in. He was the young servant of Sir John Falstaff, the old knight who had been the Prince’s constant companion. The fat old rogue had spent the time since King Harry had humiliated him feeling sorry for himself, pining for all the benefits he had hoped to receive but which were now lost to him.
The boy was breathless. ‘Landlord Pistol, you must come to my master,’ he panted. ‘and you too, Hostess. He’s very sick and has taken to his bed.’ He glanced at the concerned Bardolph and, making reference to his red bulbous nose, said: ‘Bardolph, come and put your nose between his sheets and warm him up. I’m telling you, he’s very ill.’
Bardolph stretched out and boxed the boy’s ears. ‘Get away, you rogue!’
Nell shook her head sadly. ‘I swear he’ll be food for the crows one of these days,’ she said. She clicked her tongue. ‘The King has broken his heart. Dear husband, go home at once.’ She followed the boy.
Bardolph sat down. ‘Come now,’ he said. ‘Shall I make you two friends? We all have to go to France together: why the devil are we keeping knives to cut one another’s throats?’
Pistol nodded and looked meaningfully at Nym. ‘Let oceans flood and devils howl for food,’ he said.
‘You going to pay me the eight shillings I won from you at betting?’ said Nym.
Pistol sneered. ‘The wretch that pays is a loser.’
Nym held his hand out, palm upwards. ‘I’ll have it now. That’s the sum of it.’
‘We’ll settle it, then, as men should,’ said Pistol, and he drew his sword again. So did Nym.
And Bardolph too. ‘By this sword,’ he barked. ‘I’ll kill the one that makes the first thrust! By this sword I will!’
Pistol, again relieved, shrugged. ‘ “Sword” is an oath and oaths must be respected,’ he said, and put his sword away again.
Nym didn’t move. He pointed his sword threateningly at Pistol.
‘Corporal Nym,’ said Bardolph, ‘if you will be friends, be friends. ‘If you won’t, well then be enemies with me too. Please put your sword away.’
Nym looked along his sword’s blade at Pistol. ‘Am I going to get my eight shillings I won from you at betting?’
‘I’ll give you six shillings cash,’ said Pistol. ‘And I’ll also give you booze. And friendship and brotherhood. I’ll live for Nym and Nym will live for me. Isn’t that fair? Because I’ll be the camp caterer and profits will accrue. Give me your hand.’
‘Will I get my six shillings?’
‘In cash, in full.’
‘Well then, that’s the sum of it.’ Nym sheathed his sword.
Nell Quickly came running in. ‘As you are all mothers’ sons, come quickly to Sir John!’ she said. ‘Ah, poor soul, he’s got such bad pneumonia. It’s too terrible to behold. Dear gentlemen, please come to him.’ She rushed out again.
‘The King has treated him shabbily,’ said Nym. ‘That’s the sum of it.’
Pistol agreed. ‘Nym, you’ve spoken the truth. His heart is broken and shattered.’
‘The King is a good king,’ said Nym. ‘But be that as it may: he has some strange ways.’
‘Let’s go and offer our condolences to the knight,’ said Pistol. He put an arm about the shoulders of each of his friends. ‘We’ll survive, my lambs,’ he said.