Thoughts of Valor
The Yorkshire forest’s usual stillness is broken by unfamiliar noises, those of trumpets and drums, as military alarums summon soldiers, and by violent action, as fast-moving excursions from the king’s army overtake and fight with fleeing rebels.
With his tatterdemalion troops, Sir John Falstaff has at last reached the royal army. And now the paunchy captain stops a weary old gentleman in dented armor whom he finds staggering southward. “What’s your name, sir? Of what condition are you, and of what place,”—rank, “I pray?” he demands, sword drawn and raised.
“I am a knight, sir, and my name is Colevile of the Dale.”
Falstaff glares. “Well, then, Colevile is your name, a knight is your degree—and your place the dale! Cole-vile shall be still your name, a traitor your degree, and the dungeon your place!—a place deep enough so shall you always be the cold and vile of the dale!”
“Are not you Sir John Falstaff?”
“As good a man as he, sir, whoe’er I am! Do ye yield, sir?—or shall I sweat for you? If I do sweat drops, they are the tears of those that love you, and they weep for thy death! Therefore rouse up fear and trembling, and do observance to my mercy!”
Colevile calmly sheathes his sword. “I think you are Sir John Falstaff, and in that thought yield me.” The big knight is well known for his addiction to comforts. The rebel unbuckles and drops his sword, and proffers his knife, haft forward.
Falstaff tucks the weapon under the wide belt encircling his waist. “I have a whole school of tongues”—beef, with mustard—“in this belly of mine, and not a tongue of them all speaks any other word but my name!” grumbles the big knight. “If I had but a belly of any indifference, I were simply the most active fellow in Europe!” he says, tired of trudging. He rubs his massive middle. “My womb, my womb—my womb undoes me!”
He sees a party of noblemen and some troops approaching. “Here comes our general.”
Prince John has been observing as the slower rebels were chased, to forestall their turning to attack. “The heat is past; follow no further now,” he tells the officers. “Call in the powers, good cousin Westmoreland.” The earl bows and goes to deliver the order.
John turns to the knight. “Now, Falstaff, where have you been all this while? When everything is ended, then you come! On my life, these tardy tricks of yours will one time or other break some gallows’ back!”
Says Falstaff, seeming disheartened, “I would be surprised, my lord, should it be but thus. I never knew yet but rebuke and check as the reward of valour.
“Do you think me a swallow, an arrow, or a bullet? Have I, in my poor and old motion, the expedition of thought?
“I have speeded hither within the very extremest inch of possibility!—I have foundered nine score and odd post-horses!—and here, travel-tainted as I am, have in my pure and immaculate valour, taken Sir John Colevile of the Dale, a most furious knight and valorous enemy!
“But what of that?” he says, affecting humility—briefly. “He saw me, and yielded—so I may justly say, with the hook-nosed fellow of Rome,” Julius Caesar, “‘I came, saw, and overcame!’”
Prince John glances at the unarmed knight. “It was more of his courtesy than your deserving.”
“I know not,” says Falstaff, pushing Colevile toward the prince’s men. “Here he is, and here I yield him! And I beseech Your Grace: let it be booked with the rest of this day’s deeds!—or else, by the Lord, I will have it printed in a particular ballad”—one based on an event—“with mine own picture on the top of’t, Colevile kissing my foot!”
His eyes narrow as he warns: “To which course if I be enforcèd, if you do not all show like gilt two-pences”—counterfeit coins—“compared to me, and I in the clear sky of fame do not o’ershine you as much as the full moon doth the cinders of the element”—stars, “which show like pins’ heads to her, believe not the word of the noble!
“Therefore let me have right!—and let desert mount!”
Lancaster regards him. “Thine’s too heavy to mount,” he says dryly.
“Let it shine, then!”
“Thine’s too thick to shine.”
“Let it do something, my good lord, that may do me good,” pleads Falstaff, “and call it what you will!”
The prince turns away. “Is thy name Colevile?”
“It is, my lord.”
“A famous rebel art thou, Colevile!”
“And a famous true subject took him!” insists Falstaff.
“I am, my lord, only as my betters are that led me hither,” says the captive. “Had they been ruled by me, you should have won them dearer than you have!” he adds angrily.
Falstaff scoffs. “I know not how they sold themselves, but thou, like a kind fellow, gavest thyself away, gratis—and I thank thee for thee!”
Lord Westmoreland returns. “Now, have you left pursuit?” asks the prince.
The nobleman nods. “Retreat is made, and execution stayed.”
“Send Colevile to York for present execution with his confederates,” orders the stern prince. “Blunt, lead him hence; and see you guard him sure.” The soldiers follow Sir John Blunt, hauling Colevile away toward their other high-ranking prisoners.
The prince is eager to return to London. “And now dispatch we toward the court, my lords. I hear the king my father is sorely sick; our news shall go before us to his majesty—which, cousin, you shall bear to comfort him,” he tells Falstaff, “and we with sober speed will follow you.”
“My lord, I beseech you, give me leave to go through Gloucestershire,” says Falstaff, “and to stand, my good lord, I pray, in your good report when you come to court.”
Prince John and his men head toward their encampment to prepare for the march home. “Fare you well, Falstaff,” he says stiffly. “I, in my condition,”—at the palace, “shall better speak of you than you deserve.”
Falstaff watches him go. I would you had but the wit! ’Twere better than your dukedom!
’Good faith, this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me; a man cannot make him laugh!
But that’s no marvel: he drinks no wine. There’s never one of these demure boys comes to any proof,—who amounts to much, with a play on proof as proportion of alcohol—for thin drink doth over-cool their blood, and, taking many fish-meals,—instead of hearty red meat—they fall into a kind of male green-sickness!—menses. And then when they marry, they beget wenches!
They are generally fools and cowards!—which some of us should be, too, but for inflammation!—by wine, he admits.
A good sherry sack hath a two-fold operation in it. It ascends into the brain, dries there all the foolish and dull and curling vapours which environ it—makes it apprehending!—quick, festive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes!—which delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue—where is their birth—becomes excellent in wit!
The second property of your excellent sherry is the warming of the blood, which, before cold and settled, left the liver white and pale—which is the badge of pusillanimity and cowardice! But the sherry warms it, and makes it course from the inwards to the parts extreme! It illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom’s men to arm! And then the virtual commoners and petty inland spirits all muster to their captain, the heart!—who, great and puffed up with this retinue, dareth any deed of courage!
And this valour comes of sherry! Skill in the weapon is nothing without sack, for that sets it a-work! And learning’s a mere hoard of gold kept by a devil, till sack commences to set it into act and use!
Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant; for the cold blood he did naturally inherit of his father he hath, like lean, sterile and bare land, manured, husbanded and tilled with excellent endeavour by drinking good—and a good store of—fertile sherry, so that he is become very hot and valiant!
If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations, and to addict themselves to sack!
“How now Bardolph,” he says, as the corporal walks up, interrupting his reverie.
“The army is dischargèd all, and gone,” the man tells him; there will be no more commissions or bribes.
“Let them go,” says Falstaff. “I’ll through Gloucestershire—and there will I visit Master Robert Shallow, esquire! I have him already tempering between my finger and my thumb,”—softening, like red wax, “and shortly will I seal with him!”
The errant soldiers and their men will soon pause in the southwestern province, despite Prince John’s command to rush good news to the ailing king in London.
King Henry IV tells his court, meeting in a crowded chamber of the old monastery at Westminster Abbey, “Now, lords, if God doth give successful end to this debate that bleedeth at our doors, we will our youth lead on to higher fields, and draw no swords but what are sanctified!” He intends, once again, to visit the Holy Land; England is almost pacified, and a crusade would being rewards.
“Our navy is addressèd, our power collected, our substitutes in absence well invested, and everything lies level to our wish!”
But Henry is pale and weak; he steadies himself with a hand on each arm of an oak chair as he slowly eases down. “We lack only a little personal strength, and pause us till these rebels, now afoot, come underneath the yoke of government.”
Lord Warwick assures him, “Both of which we doubt not but Your Majesty shall soon enjoy!”
Henry regards one of his four sons. “Humphrey, my son of Gloucester, where is the prince your brother?”
“I think he’s gone to hunt, my lord, at Windsor.”
“And how accompanied?”
“I do not know, my lord.”
“Is not his brother, Thomas of Clarence, with him?”
“No, my good lord; he is in presence here.”
Young Thomas comes forward. “What would my lord and father?”
“Nothing but well to thee, Thomas of Clarence,” says the king. “How chance thou art not with the prince thy brother? He loves thee, and thou dost neglect him!
“Thomas, thou hast a better place in his affection than all thy brothers’. Cherish it, my boy, and thou mayst effect noble offices of mediation after I am dead, between his greatness and thine other brethren. Therefore omit him not: blunt not his love, nor lose the good advantage of his grace by seeming cold or careless of his will—for he is gracious, if he be observèd.
“He hath a tear for pity, and a hand open as day for a melting charity; that notwithstanding, being incensed he’s flint!
“As mercurial as winter, and as sudden as flaws concealèd in a spring day, his temper, therefore, must be well observed: chide him for faults, but do it reverently; when thou perceive his blood inclined to mirth—his mood like a whale aground—then give him line and scope, till his passions confound themselves with working.
“Learn that, Thomas, and thou shalt prove a shelter to thy friends, and a hoop of gold to bind thy brothers in, so united that the vessel of their blood—though mingled with venomous suggestion, as force perforce the age will pour it in—shall never leak, though ill do work as strong as aconitum”—a powerful poison—“or rash gunpowder!”
“I shall observe him with all care and love,” the young nobleman promises.
“Why art thou not at Windsor with him, Thomas?”
The brothers exchange glances. “He is not there today,” says Thomas. “He dines in London.”
“And how accompanied?” asks the king. “Canst thou tell that?”
“With Poins, and other of his continual followers.”
Henry is clearly perturbed. “Most subject is the richest soil to weeds!—and he, the noble image of my youth, is overspread with them! Therefore my grief stretches itself beyond the hour of death! The blood weeps from my heart when I do shape in forms imaginary the unguided days and rotten times that you shall look upon when I am sleeping with my ancestors!
“For when his headstrong riot hath no curb, when rage and hot blood are his counsellors, when means and lavish manners meet together, oh, with what wings shall his affections fly from confronting perils, and toward opposèd delay!”
“My gracious lord, you look beyond him quite!” protests Lord Warwick. “The prince but studies his companions! As with a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language ’tis needful that the most immodest words be looked upon and learned—which once attained, Your Highness knows, come to no further use but to be known and hated!
“So, like gross terms, the prince will, in the perfectness of time, cast off his followers, and their memory shall be as a pattern, or live as a measure by which his grace must weigh the lives of others—turning past evils into advantages!”
Henry is not convinced. “’Tis seldom when the bee doth leave her comb in dead carrion.” He sees a lord approaching. “Who’s here? Westmoreland?”
That nobleman bows. “Health to my sovereign, and new happiness added to that which I am to deliver!” He leans forward as a surrogate and gently lifts the feeble king’s hand. “Prince John your son doth kiss Your Grace’s hand!
“Mowbray, the Bishop Scroop, Hastings and all are brought to the correction of your law! There is not now a rebel’s sword unsheathèd; and Peace puts forth her olive everywhere!”
He offers the king a document. “The manner how this action hath been borne, here at more leisure may Your Highness read, with every course in its particular.”
Henry rises and reaches happily for the paper. “Oh, Westmoreland, thou art a summer bird which even in the haunch of winter sings the lifting up of day!” Another nobleman comes toward him. “Look, here’s more news….”
“From enemies may heaven keep Your Majesty!” says Lord Harcourt, bowing. “And, when they stand against you, may they fall as those that I am come to tell you of!
“The Earl Northumberland and Lord Bancroft, with a great power of English, and of Scots, are by the sheriff of Yorkshire overthrown!” He proffers a leather pouch. “The manner and true order of the fight, this packet, please it you, contains at large.”
Henry accepts the letters—but suddenly winces and staggers back, catching himself at the heavy chair. “But wherefore should these good news make me sick?” he moans, blinking. “Will Fortune never come with both hands full, but write her fair words ever in foulest letters? She either gives an appetite and no food—such are the poor, in health—or else a feast, and takes away the hunger—such are the rich, that have abundance but enjoy it not!
“I should rejoice now at this happy news; but now my sight fails, and my brain is giddy!
“Oh, me!” he gasps, falling back onto the seat. “Come near me!—now I am much ill!”
Prince Humphrey hurries to him. “Comfort, Your Majesty!”
“O my royal father!” cries Thomas, reaching the king’s side, and catching him as he sags and faints.
Westmoreland kneels. “My sovereign lord, cheer yourself! Look up!”
“Be patient, princes,” advises Warwick. “You do know these fits are with his highness very ordinary.” He motions them back. “Stand from him. Give him air; he’ll straight be well.”
Thomas is closest, hands supporting his father’s crowned head. “No, no, he cannot long hold back these pangs!” he says. “The incessant care and labour of his mind hath worn the wall that should confine it in so thin that life looks through, and will break out!”
Prince Humphrey frowns; the monarch’s illness is also politically problematic. “The people are my worry—for they do observe unfathered heirs, and loathly births in Nature when the seasons change their manner—as if the year had found some months asleep, and leaped them over!”
Thomas looks up at him, nodding. “The river hath thrice flowed with no ebb between,” he notes, of the Thames’ peculiar three days of continual rising, “and the old folk, time’s doting chronicles, say it did so a little time before that when our great-grandsire, Edward,”—King Edward III, “sickened and died!”
“Speak lower, princes,” urges Warwick, “for the king recovers….”
But Humphrey shakes his head sadly. “This apoplexy will certainly be his end.”
The king stirs. “I pray you, take me up, and bear me hence into some other chamber.”
Attendants lift the chair, carrying him in it, still clutching his news. “Softly, pray,” he groans.