Falstaff called a halt on a road near Coventry. Most of his starving, ragged men dropped to the ground, exhausted. He gave his companion his instructions.
‘Bardolph, go ahead of us to Coventry, and fill a bottle of wine for me. Our army will march on and we’ll make it to Sutton Coldfield tonight.’
‘Will you give me some money, captain?’
‘Use your own money.’
‘Another bottle.’ Bardolph calculated. ‘That brings it to ten pounds.’
‘Well if it does keep it for your pains. If it comes to two hundred take it all. I’ll answer for it. Tell my lieutenant, Peto, to meet me outside the town.’
‘I will captain. Farewell.’ Bardolph saluted and ambled off.
Falstaff slumped down and leant against a tree trunk. He regarded his troops. If he wasn’t ashamed of his soldiers, then he was a pickled herring. He knew he had taken outrageous advantage of his position. He had pressed a hundred and fifty soldiers into service, and for that the treasury had paid him over three hundred pounds. He had recruited only well-healed property owners and gentleman farmer’s sons. He had kept his eyes open for men who were engaged and already almost married. He had found a whole supply of pampered cowards who would rather hear the devil than an army on the march; who feared the sound of gunfire more than a wounded bird or a maimed duck might. He had recruited only the soft-hearted, who each had as much courage as could fit on a pin head, and bribed him to discharge them. So now his regiment was composed of flag carriers, corporals, lieutenants, and wretches as ragged as Lazarus in those paintings where the dogs are licking the sores on his body. He had men who had never been soldiers: servants sacked for their dishonesty; youngest sons with no inheritance; runaway apprentice bar-hands; out of work stable boys – scabs on a calm and peaceful world. They were ten times more ragged than an old, tattered flag, and they were the kind of men he had drafted to replace the ones who bought their way out. You’d think he’d had a hundred and fifty degenerates who’d just come from swine herding, who ate scraps and rubbish. A mad fellow saw them on the march and told him that it looked as though he’d unloaded all the gallows and recruited the dead bodies. No one had ever seen such a group of scarecrows. He wasn’t going to march through Coventry with them tonight, and that was flat. They marched with their legs wide apart, as though they had chains on their ankles and that seemed right since he had got most of them out of jails. There was only a shirt and a half among the whole group, and the half-shirt was really just two handkerchiefs sewn together and thrown over the shoulders like a cape without sleeves. And the whole shirt, to tell the truth, was stolen from an innkeeper in St. Alban’s, or maybe that drunken innkeeper in Daventry. But that didn’t matter. They’d be able to steal plenty of clothing from washing lines as they went.
Westmoreland had sent his army on to Shrewsbury and he and the Prince were travelling together. They halted a short way away and, seeing Falstaff’s men, looked for him and found him asleep under the tree.
‘Hey, swollen Jack!’ the Prince shouted in his ear. ‘What’s up, quilt?’
‘What, Hal, you mad boy!’ Falstaff struggled to his feet. ‘What the devil are you doing in Warwickshire? And Lord Westmoreland, I beg your pardon. I thought your honour was already at Shrewsbury.’
‘You’re right, Sir John,’ Westmoreland said. ‘I’m overdue there, and so are you. But my army’s there already. I can tell you that the King is waiting for us, so we must march all night.’
‘Tut. Don’t worry about me. I’m as alert as a cat stealing cream.’
‘Stealing cream is an apt metaphor,’ said Hal. ‘You’ve stolen so much that it’s turned you into butter. But tell me, Jack, whose fellows are those?’
‘Mine, Hal, mine.’
‘I’ve never seen such pitiful-looking wretches.’
‘Tut, tut: they’re good enough to be tossed by pikes. Cannon fodder, cannon fodder – they’ll fill a pit as well as better men would. They’re just men, just men.’
‘Yes, Sir John,’ Westmoreland said. ‘But I think they look very poor and spare – too much like beggars.’
Falstaff laughed. ‘Well, I don’t know where they got their poverty, but as for their spareness – I can tell you, they didn’t learn that from me.’
‘You can say that again,’ the Prince said. ‘Unless you think layers of fat over your ribs make you spare. But hurry up, sirrah: Percy is already at the battlefield.’
He walked away, followed by Westmoreland.
‘What, has the King already made camp?’ Falstaff called after them.
‘He has, Sir John,’ Westmoreland called back. ‘I’m afraid we may be too late.’
Falstaff gazed at their backs. As far as he was concerned a hungry guest would arrive early at a feast, and a reluctant soldier would arrive late at a battle.
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