Captain Gower watched the horseman approach the camp, which had been set up at Picardy near the bridge over the Ternoise. It was his comrade, Captain Fluellen.
‘Hello, Captain Fluellen!’ he exclaimed. ‘Have you come from the bridge?’
‘I assure you,’ said Fluellen,’ ‘there’s been excellent things done at the bridge.’
‘Is the Duke of Exeter safe?’
Fluellen nodded. ‘The Duke of Exeter is as great as Agamemnon, and a man that I love and honour with my soul and my heart and my duty and my life and my living and with all my might. He has not received, God be praised and blessed, any injury at all, but holds the bridge most nobly and with great discipline. There is an Ancient lieutenant there at the bridge. I honestly believe that he is as valiant a man as Mark Antony, and he’s a complete unknown, but I saw him perform the most valiant service.’
‘What’s his name?’ Gower said.
‘I don’t know him.’
‘Well here he is,’ said Fluellen as Pistol appeared, looking for Fluellen.
‘Captain,’ said Pistol, seeing him, ‘a favour, please. The Duke of Exeter values you greatly.’
‘Yes, praise God,’ said Fluellen, ‘and I’ve earned his regard.’
Pistol came closer. ‘Bardolph,’ he began ‘a soldier firm and stout of heart, and of wonderful valour has, by cruel fate and unstable Fortune’s fickle wheel – that blind goddess who stands on a rolling, turning stone…’
‘With respect, Ancient Pistol,’ interrupted Fluellen. ‘Fortune is portrayed wearing a blindfold to signify to you that she is blind. And she’s also painted with a wheel, to signify to you – and this is the moral of it – that she turns and is inconstant with change and variation. And her foot, look you, is fixed on a round stone that rolls and rolls and rolls. To tell you the truth, poets make good use of that. Fortune is an excellent symbol.’
‘Fortune is Bardolph’s enemy, and frowns on him,’ said Pistol, ‘because he has stolen a holy object from a church and has to be hanged. A terrible death! Let the gallows hang a dog – let a man go free – and let no rope suffocate his windpipe. But Exeter has given a sentence of death for an object of little value. So please speak up on his behalf. The Duke will listen to you. Don’t let Bardolph’s life thread be cut by a cheap rope and a terrible slur on his reputation. Speak up for his life, Captain, and I will repay you.’
Fluellen took a deep breath. ‘Ancient Pistol,’ he said, ‘I partly understand what you’re saying…’
‘Well rejoice then!’ exclaimed Pistol.
‘In fact, Ancient,’ said Fluellen, ‘it’s not something to rejoice at. Because, look you, if he were my own brother, I would expect the Duke to stand by his word and execute him. We have to have discipline.’
‘Then die and be damned!’ Pistol exploded. ‘A fig for your friendship!’ He made a rude gesture.
Fluellen nodded. ‘That’s all right.’
‘The poison fig of Spain!’ said Pistol.
‘That’s all right too,’ said Fluellen.
When Fluellen refused to rise to the bait Pistol turned and left them.
‘Why, this is a cheeky two-faced rascal,’ said Gower. ‘I remember him now. He’s a pimp and a thief.’
‘I assure you, he uttered as brave words at the bridge as you’ve ever heard on a summer’s day,’ said Fluellen. ‘But that’s all right. What he said to me is all right, I promise you, for the time being.’
‘Why, he’s a simpleton and a clown, a rogue!’ said Gower. ‘He goes to war now and again so that he can return to London in the boastful guise of a soldier. Fellows like him are word-perfect in the names of all the great commanders. They will recite by rote the action they pretend to have seen – at such and such a castle, at such a breach, at such and such a march: who was shot, who disgraced himself: what terms the enemy insisted on – and this they memorise perfectly, with the language of war, which they make convincing with the use of the latest buzz words. It’s wonderful what a beard cut like the General’s and a scruffy uniform can do among foaming bottles and drunken idiots. But you must learn to recognise the tricks of our times or you may be badly deceived.’
‘I tell you what, Captain Gower,’ said Fluellen. ‘I can see that he’s not the man he pretends to be. If I get the chance I will give him a piece of my mind.’
There was a drumbeat.
‘Hark you,’ said Fluellen, ‘the King is coming, and I have to talk to him about the bridge. God bless Your Majesty!’ he exclaimed, and bowed as the King approached him with a group of exhausted soldiers.
‘Greetings,’ Fluellen,’ said Henry. ‘Have you come from the bridge?’
‘Yes, as it pleases Your Majesty,’ said Fluellen. ‘The Duke of Exeter has very gallantly maintained the bridge. The French have gone off, look you, and there has been gallant and most brave fighting. Indeed, the enemy had possession of the bridge but he was forced to retreat, and the Duke of Exeter is master of the bridge. I can tell Your Majesty, the Duke is a brave man.’
‘How many men have you lost, Fluellen?’ said Henry.
‘The enemy losses have been very great,’ said Fluellen. ‘Very considerable. Indeed, as far as I know the Duke hasn’t lost a single man, except for one, who is going to be executed for robbing a church. One Bardolph, if Your Majesty knows him. His face is all boils and pimples and lumps and inflamed patches, and his lips blow his breath towards his nose and it’s like a coal fire – sometimes blue and sometimes red. But his nose has been executed and his fire is out.’
King Henry gave no sign that Bardolph had been one of the regular companions of his youth. ‘We would like to see all such offenders similarly executed,’ he said. ‘We hereby specifically order that in our marches thoughout the country nothing shall be extorted from the villages: nothing taken unless it’s paid for: none of the French berated or abused with disdainful language. When kindness and cruelty contend for a kingdom the gentler player is the clear winner.’
There was a fanfare and the herald, Montjoy, approached.’
‘You know me by my uniform,’ he said.
‘All right then, I know you,’ said Henry. ‘What do you have to tell me?’
‘My master’s decision.’
‘Let me have it.’
Montjoy unrolled a scroll. ‘This is what my King says: “Tell Harry of England that though we seemed dead we were only sleeping. Discretion is a better soldier than valour. Tell him we could have rebuked him at Harfleur but we thought it better not to lance the injury until it had come to a head. Now we are ready to speak and we speak with the voice of a king. England will regret his folly, recognise his weakness and marvel at our patience. Tell him therefore to think about the ransom, which has to take account of the losses we have incurred, the subjects we have lost, and the disgrace we have digested – which to compensate for with money would be more than a man of his insignificance would be able to afford. His exchequer is too poor to cope with our losses: the population of his kingdom too insignificant to cover the spilling of our blood. As for our disgrace, to have his person kneeling at our feet would be an inadequate and worthless satisfaction. Add defiance to that and tell him in conclusion that he’s betrayed his followers, whose fate is sealed.” That’s what my King and master says. So much for my duty.’
Henry smiled. ‘What’s your name? I know your occupation.’
‘You do your job well,’ said Henry. ‘Go back and tell your king I’m not seeking to confront him at the moment. I would like to march on to Calais without impediment because, to tell you the truth – though it’s not very wise to confess so much to an enemy who is both crafty and better situated – my people have been badly weakened with sickness: my numbers have declined, and those I have are hardly better than the same number of French. When they were healthy, I assure you, Herald, I regarded one pair of English legs as carrying the equivalent of three Frenchmen. But God forgive me for bragging like this – it must be the French air that’s infected me. I must repent. So go and tell your master I am here. My ransom is this frail and worthless body: my army just a weak and sickly personal guard. Yet, God willing, tell him we’ll bring it on even though the King of France himself and a neighbour as powerful as him should stand in our way.’ He handed Montjoy a purse. ‘This is for your trouble, Montjoy. Go and tell your master to think again. If we’re allowed to pass we will: if hindered we’ll discolour your tawny earth with your red blood. And so, Montjoy, goodbye. The summary of our reply is simply this: we’re not looking for a battle as things are but as things are we won’t shirk it. Tell your master that.’
‘I’ll do so,’ said Montjoy. ‘Thanks to Your Highness.’
They watched him go. ‘I hope they won’t challenge us after that,’ said Gloucester.
‘We are in God’s hands, brother, not theirs,’ said Henry. ‘March to the bridge. It will soon be night. Well camp on the other side of the river and give them their marching orders in the morning.’