The Prince waited with Peto on the highway at Gad’s Hil , and there Poins was at last.
‘Come on. Hide, hide,’ Poins said as he joined them. ‘I’ve nicked Falstaff’s horse and he’s fretting like a man in a velvet collar.’
‘Stay out of sight!’ the Prince said and they all dived into the shrubbery.
They heard Falstaff’s voice before they saw him. ‘Poins!’ he called. ‘Poins, hang you! Poins!’
Hal stepped out on to the highway. ‘Quiet, you fat-bellied rascal,’ he said. ‘What a racket you’re making!’
‘Where’s Poins, Hal?’ said Falstaff. ‘He’s walked up to the top of the hill,’ said Hal. ‘I’l go and look for him.’
Falstaff was left alone and he sat down, puffing. It was just his luck to be out robbing with that thief, Poins. The rascal had taken his horse and tied him God knew where! If he walked even just another four feet he would be completely out of breath. He would die a peaceful death only if he didn’t get himself hanged for killing that rogue. He had sworn to give him up hourly for the last twenty-two years, but he was bewitched by the rogue’s company. He’d be hanged if the rascal hadn’t enchanted him with potions. ‘Poins!’ he shouted. Hal! Damn you both! Bardolph! Peto!’ He would rather starve than go another foot to steal. And if they would be able to blame him if he turned honest and abandoned the rogues then he was the biggest idiot who ever chewed with one tooth. Eight yards of uneven ground was like walking seventy miles to him and the stony-hearted villains knew it too. It was a damnable thing when thieves couldn’t trust each other.
He heard a whistle from the bushes beside the road.
‘Whew!’ he exclaimed with relief. ‘To hell with you all! Give me my horse – give me my horse and be hanged!’
The Prince stepped out from behind the bushes. ‘Be quiet, you fat guts!’ he said. ‘Lie down – put your ear close to the ground and see if you can hear the footsteps of travellers.’
‘Have you got a crane to lift me up again once I’m down?’ said Falstaff. ‘God, I’ll not carry my bulk so far away again for all the money in your father’s treasury. What the hel do you mean by framing me like that?’
Hal laughed. ‘You lie,’ he said. You’re not framed – you’re unframed!’ He gave him such a kick in the behind that the fat knight tottered and fell.
He sniffed and rubbed his bruises. ‘I beg of you, good Prince Hal,’ he said. ‘Help me find my horse, dear king’s son.’
‘Get lost, you rogue!’ Hal exclaimed. ‘Do you think I’m your groomsman?’
‘Go and hang yourself in your own ceremonial garters!’ retorted Falstaff. ‘If I’m arrested I’ll become an informer in this matter. And if I don’t commission songs about you, sung to lewd tunes, may a jug of wine be my poison. Just when the exploit is so advanced and already started too. I hate it!’
A voice came out of the darkness: ‘Stand!’
Falstaff, terrified, forced himself up to his knees. ‘I’m trying’ he gasped.
Poins, who had stayed in the bushes with Peto, watching the encounter between the Prince and the fat knight, came out now. ‘Oh, he’s one of us, he said. ‘I recognise his voice.’ He and Peto joined the other three.
The newcomer was Gadshill and Bardolph fol owed close behind him.
‘What’s the latest, Bardolph? said Poins.
‘Put your masks on, put them on,’ said Bardolph. ‘There’s some king’s money coming down the hill, on it’s way to the treasury.’
‘You’re lying, you rogue!’ exclaimed Falstaff. ‘It’s going to the King’s Tavern!’
‘There’s enough to make us all rich, though,’ said Gadshill.
‘To hang us all!’ said Falstaff.
‘Gentlemen,’ the Prince cut in, ‘you four will confront them in the narrow lane. Ned Poins and I will wait lower down. If they escape from your ambush they’ll run into us.’
‘How many of them are there? said Peto.
‘About eight or ten,’ Gadshill said.
‘My God! Falstaff was trembling. Won’t they rob us?’
Hal sneered. ‘What? Are you a coward, Sir John Paunch?’
‘Well I’m not exactly your grandfather, John of Gaunt, but still not a coward, Hal.’
‘Well we’ll put that to the test,’ Hal said.
‘Jack – sirrah -‘ Poins said, your horse is standing behind the hedge: when you need him you’ll find him there. Goodbye, and stand firm.’
Falstaff smiled at the thought of getting his horse back. He was hanged if he felt like hitting Poins now.
The Prince whispered in Poins’ ear: ‘Ned, where are our disguises?’
‘Nearby,’ whispered Poins. ‘Come with me.’
They left and Falstaff positioned himself behind the other two. ‘Now, gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Good luck to us all. Everyone to his position.’
Voices could be heard as the travellers approached: ‘Come neighbour,’ said one. ‘The boy can lead our horses down the hill. Let’s go on foot for a while and stretch our legs.’
The robbers were suddenly in their path. At the shout of ‘Stand!’ the travellers cowered in terror. Jesus bless us!’ cried one, crossing himself.
From behind the other two Falstaff shouted fiercely: ‘Strike! Bring ’em down! Cut the villains’ throats! Ah, you whoreson caterpillars: fat knaves: they hate us youngsters! Mow ’em down! Fleece ’em.’
The travellers were on their knees. ‘Oh, we’ve had it!’ moaned one. ‘All of us and our loved ones, forever!’
Falstaff, seeing the wretchedness of the two travellers, came out from behind his companions and stood before their cowering victims. ‘Be hanged, you fat-bellied villains!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’ve had it, have you? No, you stuffed wallets, I only wish you had all your wealth here with you. Come on, fatties, come on! What, you good-for-nothings! Young fellows like us have to make a living. Oh, so you’re magistrates, are you?’ The three pounced on the travellers, searched them and took their purses then tied them up. ‘We’ll ‘magistrate you!’ concluded Falstaff as the robbers ran off towards where Hal and Poins waited.
‘The thieves have tied the honest men up,’ the Prince said. ‘You and I can rob the thieves now and go merrily off to London. It would be a talking point for a week, laughter for a month and a good joke that would last forever.’
‘Get under cover,’ said Poins. ‘I hear them coming.’
They could hear Falstaff’s voice, full of confidence now: ‘Come, gentlemen. Let’s share it out and then ride off before daylight. If the Prince and Poins aren’t two utter cowards, there’s no justice anywhere. There’s no more courage in that Poins than in a wild duck!’
As they crouched on the ground, dividing the loot they were attacked by the Prince and Poins, in their masks. ‘Your money!’ the Prince demanded.
‘Villains,’ exclaimed Poins.
They sprang up, made a feeble attempt at defending their loot but their courage failed when they felt the superiority of their attackers and they ran off.
‘That was easy!’ Hal exclaimed. ‘Now, on to our horses. The thieves are all scattered and so terrified that they won’t dare regroup. Each mistakes the other for a watchman! Off you go, dear Ned.’ He laughed. ‘Falstaff is sweating so much that he lards the ground as he goes. If I weren’t laughing so much I’d feel sorry for him.’
Poins was laughing too. ‘How the fat rogue roared!’ he said as they set off.
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