So I haven't actively written fan fiction in probably four years at this point (although my senior thesis is historical fiction, so really it's socially-accepted fan fiction, but hey), but after a recent production of Richard II, I couldn't help myself. Hal is my biggest fictitious crush of all time. I say this without shame. And listening to the Duke of York's speech in 5.2 where he describes Henry and Richard's victorious and deposed entrance into London (respectively), and then juxtaposing it with 5.3 where Henry makes reference to Hal being in London at the time… My mind got very excited, and I wanted to see what he would do and say if he were present. Add a lot of other writing I'm actually supposed to be doing at the moment, and this brief vignette is what I came up with. Take what you can get, I suppose. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: Definitely not Shakespeare.
"Another draught of sack, Mistress Quickly!"
If I were to try to differentiate one evening in the company of Jack Falstaff from another, it would certainly not be based on whether or not I had heard that phrase pass through his lips. It was early yet, and so the round of drink still made a full circle around the table, which would hardly be the case given another hour or two. I could usually keep pace with him, much as he liked to think that he could drink any youth straight under the table, and certainly someone of my size, who could have fit inside his prodigious waistcoat easily four times and left room for some company from the house's ladies. But Poins and Bardolph would be snoring or ill after four rounds of the house's brew, leaving the great Falstaff himself to order a round for our group and finish each glass, one by one, until I enlisted half the house's staff to help him from his chair and into bed. Thankfully the sun had not yet gone down, for if the stars were up over London, you could be sure that the color in Jack's face would follow suit.
"And will you have the coin to pay for it this time, Sir John?" she asked, though she'd already had the drawer start on the cask. It was almost endearing, the way she called him Sir, as if there were a chance in the heavens that a man like that could end up kneeling before the king. Certainly not if the way his debts were rising up around his ankles was any indication, though he could have learned a thing or two from good King Richard in that respect. Spend more than you can ever hope to have, then flee to Ireland before people notice.
"Let him alone this evening, I'll pay the balance," I said, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a single gold coin to toss to the landlady. She peered at it like I'd handed her a saint's relic: this was a house for copper and bronze, never for gold.
"Come into a windfall, Hal? Some rich relation's died and left you everything he has?"
I laughed - the question wasn't funny, but if I didn't laugh I was more likely to strike something, and that would attract a kind of attention I knew I did not want. "Put your eyes back into your head, Mistress Quickly, it's my last. After this night, my pockets are no better than any of yours."
Falstaff, still in the warm early stages of drunkenness in which he was particularly effusive with his affection, reached around my shoulders and pulled me into his side in a one-armed hug. I felt the steady beating of his heart against my ribs, and his huge hand tousled my hair, which I had been informed by people who cared about such things refused to ever lie flat in the first place, so likely little harm was done. "Aye, Mistress Quickly, surely you've heard the news of our young Hal's disinheritance?"
"Well, it was a matter of time, was it not?" Poins asked, raising his glass in a toast to what he assumed was my father's (entirely justified) expulsion of my (unjustifiably) renegade self from the family grounds. "God alone only knows what you think you're doing, spending your time with us instead of the gentleman you share a name with. Did you know, Doll," he asked, his voice rising in volume as he leaned over to our collective favorite girl of the house, "that our Harry here is none other than the grandson of what was recently John of Gaunt, uncle to his Royal Arsehole King Richard himself?"
If Falstaff had not kept one hand protectively on my shoulder, I would not have been liable for anything I did. Poins, of course, would never understand. How could he be expected to? He was born in London, and unless anything mad happened within the next several decades, he would die in London under similar circumstances. If he hated his family, or they hated him, or the strange and nebulous emotion that swirled between them could neither be called love nor hate but a strange and bitter mixture of the two, well, then, he could stroll out his front door one merry morning in May and never look back, never suffer the evil eyes of people rich and powerful enough to control your destiny constantly looking at the back of your head, wondering what on earth they had done that merited a punishment like having a boy like him for a son. It was September, and not nearly cold enough to merit my shivering even in the drafty and poorly-lit tap room of The Boar's Head, so it plainly did not take a great wave of genius for Falstaff to notice that Poins' words, and not the weather, had sent me trembling. I wished it had not happened - was I so incapable of mastering myself that I could not control anything, but must let every memory and fear and anger pass over my face and through my whole body? But with the masterful touch that I had so come to love during the past year, he laughed and changed the whole atmosphere with a wink and a handful of words.
"Bah!" he scoffed. "Bring not dry and dusty names like those into our hallowed halls, Master Poins. Why, I should take Hal any day over a hundred thousand John of Gaunts, however many gold crowns they threw at our feet afterwards. And he's dead now, buried in the earth with all his fine airs and riches, and much good may they do him now!"
"Hardly surprising we never got on well," I said, and to my relief I found that my voice had shifted to match the light, bantering tone that Falstaff had shown me. It was like he was a master actor upon the stage, one who had learned each line and motion so carefully that he could execute them with more naturalness than a genuine thought from his own head, and he was taking me through the ropes, teaching me to insinuate and falsify. My grandfather and his hatred meant nothing to me. Anyone could hear as much from the tone of my voice. I almost believed it myself. "I wish you could have seen it, Jack, when he called me to him after the king banished my father. If he was looking for a replacement Henry to take up the banner of chivalry, knighthood, and jolly old England, I don't need to tell you that he was sorely disappointed."
Why had Poins thought to bring my family into this, damn him? Eastcheap was the only place that the ghosts of my father and grandfather were not constantly following me at every turn, reminding me of the failure I had turned out to be. If I could not at least keep this one house sacred, what hope was there for any place in the world to escape the grasping fingertips of Henry Bolingbroke and company? They did not belong here, but I had to grip Falstaff's hand harder than I meant to as I felt myself in front of him, nearly a year ago now though the memory had not faded as I had grown older. No matter how many years had passed, no matter that in just over a year's time I would be considered a man, I always felt like a renegade schoolboy in front of Grandfather, cowering on the marble floor of his hall, waiting for him to send me behind the stables for a beating. Which, naturally, he had not done in this particular instance, for what had I done but respond to his summons, come when he called, and be unapologetically myself? Whatever that meant, under the circumstances.
It was obvious from my current vantage point that from the first bow I made before John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Aquitaine (which, as it happened, had apparently been neither long nor deep enough to cover all his titles), he instantly counted his having sent for me as a mistake. What he had expected to receive, I had no idea. A perfectly polished gentleman, sword on hip and shield on arm, ready to ride forth towards France and bring my shamed and sullied father's reputation home. And, if possible, Father himself, though of secondary importance. But Grandfather knew, and he took no pains to make sure that I did not know that he knew, that my very presence in his house lowered the family's reputation by a factor of at least three bastard children, two mad cousins, and a sister converted to Judaism. Because I did not know how to bow before him? Because my hair would not lie flat? Because I was too tall, too thin, too sharp-tongued, to ever cut a graceful figure in the jousting lists? Because I showed not the least desire to secure a place for myself at court, and would have been infinitely happier had my brother John been permitted to serve the duties of eldest son to a respectable family, leaving me to follow my pleasure and my own choice of friends? Certainly it had nothing to do with my planning to use Doll's favor in the Oxford tournament, or the night I had strung up the Duchess of York's lace underthings to the castle flagpole. If Grandfather had known about those, I would have felt the blows to prove it. But I still felt like an insect under the scrupulous regard of a housekeeper, standing in front of him. I had been measured, and I had been found wanting. He had sent me away with a wearied sigh and a wave of his hand, speaking no more than ten words to me and listening to none of my answers.
He had died not one week after my audience. The people of his household had been careful to say in my earshot that it was the loss of his son and the disappointment of his grandson that had killed him.
And that was only Grandfather. There was not room in the house for the memories of growing up with Henry Bolingbroke, apparent Duke of Lancaster. Nor was there enough liquor for me to think about that at the moment. Damn Poins. Next time I'd bring up his own family circumstances, to see how he appreciated the favor.
"You mean to say that the old man left you in the world without a penny?" Mistress Quickly, though of infinitely smaller means than my grandfather, could not fathom a world in which parents and children behaved along lines of conduct like these. "The son of his son? If he were alive, Hal, I'd kill him again for you, just to spite him, and see if I wouldn't!"
Her enthusiasm for the murderous task at hand was touching, even though I laughed as hard as Falstaff at the fire spitting from her eyes. Was this the way a mother was supposed to look after her children? My own mother had died when I was eight years old, slightly less than half a lifetime ago, and even before that I had passed my childhood escaping the care of various nurses and schoolmasters. It was a queer thought, that Mistress Quickly and Jack Falstaff were the best substitute mother and father that I had managed to find while being sent from castle to castle and court to court, but the feeling had arisen and I found myself stuck comfortably between the two of them, under the powerful pressure of Falstaff's arm with Mistress Quickly prepared to murder anyone who besmirched my (easily smirch-able) honor in public.
"Save your arms for the French," I laughed, "it was hardly a family decision to leave me a pauper. You might go so far as to call it a royal decree. With my father banished for not having the good common sense to keep his nose down and stop challenging the king's favorite servants to duels to the death, and my grandfather's lands and titles and fortune and even I think his underclothes seized into the royal treasury to pay for the wars, where exactly do you propose I send my petition for a few extra coins a month for drink and lodging? God save the King," I said heartily, raising my glass in a vicious toast and taking a long drink, which burned and soothed all the way down into my stomach.
"God save the King!" A drunkard, from the other side of the room, had apparently been awoken by my invocation of the common man's daily prayer. Uncertain of what to do, he wobbled on his stool and raised his glass to the ceiling, sloshing ale down his arm, then promptly dropped the glass to the floor and fell asleep again.
"Exactly," Falstaff said, with the air of one who knows he is going to say something extremely witty, "the kind of loyalty that good King Richard deserves."
A remark along the lines of a "hear, hear!" might not have been amiss, but something stuck in my throat that prevented me from agreeing with him. I had, I thought, the beer in my stomach warming me to a mood of introspection, no great cause to love the king. Some might say I had a better reason than most to hate him, the man who had banished Father from the country and stripped my dead grandfather of my entire would-be inheritance. And yet, when I tried to muster indignation at my treatment, I was left cold, in a vast white state of indifference. It was nothing to me, I realized, what King Richard said and did, regardless of how it affected my family. Was it as if I missed being under Father's nose every day of my life, unable to say a single word beyond "yes sir" and "no sir" without subjecting myself to an endless lecture on noblesse oblige? Father was many things, but a man one missed when he was away was not one of them. In fact, I rather owed the king a favor for the decision: without the responsibility that would have descended had he made me an orphan, I was now left almost entirely to my own devices, with no dominant patriarch to judge my comings and goings, and no estate to manage or cares to adopt. It was as if, through what he had construed as a punishment for Father being his usual self, Richard had cut me free from a vague and insidious bondage, leaving me free to live in London as if I belonged there.
But the atmosphere of The Boar's Head was not, nor had it ever been, well suited to considering the great questions of life. Doll and Poins had already turned back to their interrupted pastime of bringing the French disease to English soil, while Bardolph quietly made vulgar gestures behind their backs. I made a mental note to warn Doll that unless she wanted her pretty face to turn as red as Bardolph's, she'd do well not to let Poins' cankered wood anywhere near her well-tended forest. Of course, I would not say so in so many words, but I rather thought she would take the friendly advice as it was meant. And if it meant that I did not spend the evening alone myself, well, there were worse possible consequences than that.
This was where I belonged. Here, in the dark and aromatic front room of a public house in Eastcheap, the remains of a glass of beer in my hand, half a conversation about Doll's skill at her profession (the world's oldest) already in progress. To hell with my father's house, or what once was my father's house. Let John and Humphrey and Thomas worry about the state of our finances, or the tending of our lands. Here I was not a disappointment, a misprint on the family coat of arms. Here I was not Henry Monmouth, son of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, ambiguously related to the king and unambiguously a failure in the eyes of men. Here I was Hal. If anyone had attempted to address me otherwise here, I would have beaten them so soundly they would not have been able to stand for weeks.
"Well, Mistress Tearsheet," Falstaff was saying, and I jerked my attention away from my own thoughts to follow the thread of conversation, "I daresay you've had your share of amorous gentlemen in your days, but it shall surprise you little to learn that in the riotous days of my youth…"
I could not help laughing, so loudly and at such length that if it had been by anyone but me, Falstaff might well have been genuinely offended. "And you expect us to believe, Jack, that an overstuffed capon, a mountain of flesh, a heap of beastliness like you could ever have been anything but a liar and a drunk from your first day on the earth? I am younger than you, but I was not born yesterday."
Falstaff puffed up with indignation - had he gone a few inches farther, he would have pushed me from my chair. "And what does an unripe twig like yourself know about the throes of passion?" he demanded grandly.
"This much," I retorted, feeling the pleasure of the banter between the two of us shake some of the serious gloom from my shoulders, "that the throes of passion do not always need to be eaten with a pint of sack."
"But if they're so much more enjoyable for all parties when consumed so…" Falstaff began, leaving no one in any doubt as to where the conversation would have continued had he been allowed to finish. But he was not. Dialogue had been cut short in Mistress Quickley's establishment for hundreds upon hundreds of reasons. A drunk having reached his ultimate capacity and vomiting all of his insides upon the floor. A brawl breaking out between two men over whose turn it was to pay the bill. Once, a cow, having wandered in through the front door because its owner had not thought to tie it up on its way to market, and who, having somehow managed to ascend the staircase into the sleeping quarters, could not be persuaded to make its way down again. One interruption, however, at least to the best of my knowledge, had never sounded in the Eastcheap hall until this afternoon, and the faces of Falstaff, Doll, and Poins around me led me to believe that I was not the only one taken aback.
A flourish of trumpets, and the cries of voices.
"What in the name of Saint Martin is that sound, then?" Mistress Quickly asked in an enormous dither. The exact dimensions of her dither could be measured with relative accuracy from the number of times she invoked Saint Martin, one of the few saints she could remember by name and one especially close to her heart, being the patron as he was of both innkeepers and drunkards. "Do you reckon there's been an arrest?"
"The day they start announcing arrests in East London with a fanfare of trumpets, you'll never have a moment's unbroken sleep again," I said. Aloud, I was joking, but inside I could feel my heart speeding up. First Poins mentioning Father and Grandfather in the Boar's Head, and now the sound of royal trumpets. Of course they were royal trumpets. I avoided court as much as I possibly could, but even I was obliged from time to time to put in an appearance, if only to avoid the most blatant of treason. More than the rest of my friends, I was not uninitiated to the sound of a herald. The back of my neck felt stiff as I heard the three-note fanfare, as though I should be bowing but could not be sure to whom. Without giving warning, I stood up and shoved my chair back abruptly. The motion was nearly enough to unseat Falstaff, who gave a small grunt as he fought against the inertia of his tottering body.
"Right you are, then, Hal," he said, "might as well go and have a look." This was not merely his agreeing to my movement, and he knew that I knew it. With a sigh, I gave him both my hands, braced my back for the exertion, and heaved. It took the better part of a minute's hard effort (with, I noted, no help from either Poins or Bardolph, who were doubled over in suppressed laughter), but at long last I had gotten Falstaff on his feet. Enough time had been wasted. I was beginning to feel more and more ill, and I couldn't wait longer. Leaving my companions behind, I almost ran to the door and stepped out into the street.
If I hadn't known better, I would have thought that I had stepped out into another world. It had been as any other Thursday when I ducked into the house; when I left it, it had been transformed into a holiday. The tiny street on which Mistress Quickly had built her establishment was thronged with strangers, not only men but also women and children, children of an age far too young to have any business being in the neighborhood I considered home. The crowd had already assembled six deep, and I could hardly see the other side of the street for the waving banners and pennants and young boys sitting on their father's shoulders. The fanfare sounded again, louder this time, and it was as if the crowd had heard confirmation that Jesus Christ himself was returning to the streets of London to assemble the faithful. Falstaff, at last, had appeared at my elbow, out of breath and bemused.
"What the deuce is this, Hal?" he puffed. "Has the King returned from Ireland, then?"
"God save his Grace!" a woman shouted from beside me, waving her handkerchief with abandon into the air. "God save you, sir!"
"He comes, he comes! Can you see him?" her companion, a young man of about my age, said urgently, craning his neck to see above the crowd.
"Who?" I demanded. "Who is coming?" The unexpected pomp of the assembly annoyed me less than my ignorance as to what it was about. I generally had no desire to be a part of anything relating to royalty, but that did not mean that I enjoyed being the only man in the whole of London who did not know what he was waiting with a crowd of this size to see.
Falstaff saw him before I did.
I could tell that something was amiss from the way he put his hand on my shoulder, attempting to draw me away from the street and back into the house. He had done the same some months ago, when he had heard three drunks in the back of the Boar's Head talking in loud and vulgar voices about what they thought of Father's banishment, and what punishments they would have laid on his head in the king's' place - as a rule, they involved more blood. Something was happening that he did not think I ought to see, and in one of those displays of tenderness that were surprising only in how not uncommon they were, he wanted to spare me the necessity of enduring it, at least now, in full view of half of London. But I had not been known in my childhood as the most patient and accommodating of children, and though I would be eighteen in some months I had not outgrown the stubbornness of needing to know precisely what I shouldn't. Falstaff tried to spare me, but I looked, and I saw.
And while I saw, unable to form a thought on my own, through the distant humming in my ears, I heard the woman beside me give a jubilant cry as the horse entered the street and our view.
"Jesus preserve thee, Bolingbroke! God bless Henry Bolingbroke!"
My God. It was Father.
Not Father as I remembered him, the stern and soberly-dressed man who prowled the halls of Monmouth and Derbyshire with a scowl, nor the soldier in shining mail, bowing on one knee with his hand on his sword before departing to fight for king and country. Father was smiling. I could not, it occurred to me then, remember another occasion on which I had seen him smile.
And well might he smile. He was dressed brightly but simply, head bare (as if he thought himself a man of equal worth to the people whom he rode among, as if he had not had me beaten more times than I could count on one hand for daring to spend an evening with them in earnest and not in policy), upon a black charger that could only have been of royal stock. And he bowed, and he smiled, and he did obeisance with his hands, and I could hear his voice even from the very back of the crowd as he smiled indulgently at a woman who had cried his praises, as he said, "I thank you, gentle madam." All that was missing were the palm fronds and I would have thought myself in the most disillusioned of Jerusalems. What the devil did he think he was playing at? My mind began to work more quickly than I could govern it, thoughts flying in a volley from all sides. He was banished, for more than six more years. The punishment for flouting a royal decree, for treason, was death. And yet here he was, strutting through the streets, through my streets, as though he had just come into an unprecedented inheritance, as though London and all of England was his.
Perhaps I did not see clearly because I did not want to see. In any case, Falstaff again was years quicker to observe and understand than I, while I stood watching my father and trying and failing to make sense of it.
"Come on, Hal," he murmured. "Come back inside. We can talk about…"
I did not hear what he said to me next, and I ceased to feel the pressure of his hand on my shoulder. Because, at that moment, I saw the horse that rode behind Father's, and in the same second I saw its rider. Richard of Bordeaux. Hollow-eyed, gaunter than ever was my grandfather, bare-headed and unkempt, watching his saddle with a steady and sober glance. The horn of which saddle both his wrists were bound to, while the reins were replaced with a lead rope in my father's hand. King Richard of England. Father's prisoner.
"God bless King Henry of England!"
"All hail King Henry!"
My blood, which had been running cold since the first sound of the trumpets, ceased to move. I was no longer alive - I was a puppet whose strings had been cut with the most violent of surprises. Father had returned and deposed King Richard. King Richard no longer. King Henry? Father? Which made me…
"Well," Falstaff said quietly. He could read my thoughts faster even than I could grasp them. "It looks as though I have the honor of addressing the Prince of Wales."
I was going to be ill. The only question was when. Prince of Wales? In the space of under a minute, I had gone from a state of utter liberation and self-possession to the heir apparent of the throne of England. What would become of me, of all of this? At the coronation, did Father expect me to appear and dance a stately pavane with the princess of Anjou, when my last dance had been a hornpipe atop a table with Doll, kicking glasses of beer aside? Was I to serve on the privy council and declare war against Spain and the Emperor, find my marriage arranged to visiting royal dowagers with one leg? And dear God, Father was to be king. In a sudden moment of regression, I found myself cringing beneath the memory of beatings he had issued during my childhood, cowering under threat of some tirade or privation. He was to rule a nation? To think of how he had governed me. He had seized the kingdom the way he had attempted to seize my own freedom - by force and some notion of right that would bear no scrutiny or questioning from other men. England would be at war every third day, because the duke of Orleans had neglected to send Father a cask of his best wine for his birthday.
And if Father's rule sent nothing smaller than horror through me…
What of my own?
"Hal," Falstaff was saying. I heard him, but from a great distance, as though underwater. He again tried to lead me away from the crowd, but I shrugged his hand from my shoulder and took a deep breath, feeling it catch on fear and disbelief as I raised my voice and shouted as loudly as I could manage, the very hint of tears on the words despite my best efforts.
"God save King Richard!"
Richard tightened his grip on the saddle. Where his shoulders had slumped forward, carrying the heavy load of public ridicule, I watched him square them again, in the posture I had always seen him bear, riding from the palace into the fields. He looked up with the enormous dark eyes of Our Lady of Sorrows holding the crucified Christ in her arms, and though I could not understand how he had known where to look in that undifferentiated mass, his eyes met mine without searching. He recognized me in a moment. No doubt he was comparing my face in the street with the last time he had seen me, sixteen months ago at court, on one knee in front of him following my urgent orders to say nothing whatever. I could see the pain there, and the hatred he gave me - he thought I mocked him, as Father might have done. I could not speak to him, not across this distance. But I held his eyes for another moment, then lowered my head in a bow.
You are my king. Please do not do this to me. Please resist this. You are my king.
Father could not read eyes. But Richard could. He nodded, only half a nod, but it was enough. I was understood. In some conception of the universe where such things held any importance (and whether or not there was one, I was beginning to doubt), I was exonerated. And then the conquering black charger had turned the corner, Richard's mare to follow. The crowd hung on their horse's tails like a cloud of flies. As quickly as they had come, they were gone again. My friends and I were alone again.
Inside the Boar's Head, Poins, Bardolph, Doll, and Mistress Quickly hung around our former table like unmoored ships. While in Doll's eyes, I had clearly become twice as attractive an individual as I had been when I got out of bed that morning, the men watched me as though I had sprouted an extra leg, or walked with an aura of some deadly disease. Something should have been said, and probably I was the one to do it, but my voice no longer seemed to be working.
"You've outdone yourself, Hal," Poins said. "From penniless rogue to Prince of Wales. I expect once you're living in the palace you'll be too high and mighty for us common folk, but if you should think of it between balls and banquets, a few crowns my way wouldn't…"
"Let us alone, Poins," Falstaff said sharply. "Bardolph. Doll. All of you. Clear out and let us alone." I had never heard him so serious, nor felt such profound gratitude toward him. Poins began to protest, but one look from the suddenly-steely Jack Falstaff made him fall silent and retreat into a separate room in the house. The silence, once they had gone, was toxic.
"I know, Hal," Falstaff said softly. There was nothing more for him to say, nor anything else I needed to hear more. "I know, my boy."
He wrapped his huge arms around me, and I threw myself against his chest. With my face buried in his shoulder, I held on to Jack Falstaff with the desperation of a drowning man and cried, cried, cried until I had no tears left, until I thought I would break.