9. An Important Mission
"We have made an excellent haul," Francois said as, while awaiting the answer to their signal, they looked down the list of names. "Among the gentlemen are several connected with some of the most important Catholic families of Poitou. The more shame to them, for being engaged in so rascally a business; though when the court and the king, Lorraine and the Guises, set the example of persecution, one can scarcely blame the lesser gentry, who wish to ingratiate themselves with the authorities, for doing the same.
"Of the citizens we have got one of the magistrates, and four or five other prominent men; whom I know, by reputation, as having been among the foremost to stir up the people against the Huguenots. These fellows I could hang up with pleasure, and would do so, were it not that we need them to exchange for our friends.
"Then we have got thirty priests. The names of two of them I know as popular preachers who, after the last peace was made, denounced the king and his mother as Ahab and Jezebel, for making terms with us. They, too, were it not for their sacred office, I could string up without having any weight upon my conscience.
"Ah! There is the white flag. Let us ride forward."
The gates remained closed, and they rode up to within a hundred yards of them. In a few minutes several persons made their appearance on the wall over the gateway, and they then advanced to within twenty paces of the gate.
Then one from the wall said:
"I am John De Luc, royal commissioner of this town. This is the reverend bishop of the town. This is the maire, and these the magistrates. To whom am I speaking?"
"I am the Count Francois de Laville," Francois replied; "and I now represent the gentlemen who have come hither, with a large body of troops, to protect those of our faith from persecution and massacre. We arrived too late to save all, but not to punish; as the ruffians of your town have learned, to their cost. Some two or three hundred of them came out to slay, and have been slain.
"The following persons are in our hands," and he read the list of the prisoners. "I now give you notice that unless, within one hour of the present time, all those of the reformed faith whom you have thrown into prison, together with all others who wish to leave, are permitted to issue from this gate, free and unharmed, and carrying with them what portion of their worldly goods they may wish to take, I will hang up the whole of the prisoners in my hands--gentlemen, citizens, and priests--to the trees of that wood, a quarter of a mile away. Let it be understood that the terms are to be carried out to the letter. Proclamation must be made through your streets that all of the reformed faith are free to depart, taking with them their wives and families, and such valuables and goods as they may choose. I shall question those who come out, and if I find that any have been detained against their will, or if the news has not been so proclaimed that all can take advantage of it, I shall not release the prisoners.
"If these terms are not accepted, my officers will first hang the prisoners, then they will ravage the country round; and will then proceed to besiege the city and, when they capture it, take vengeance for the innocent blood that has been shed within its walls. You best know what is the strength of your garrison, and whether you can successfully resist an assault by the troops of the Admiral.
"I will give you ten minutes to deliberate. Unless by the end of that time you accept the conditions offered, it will go hard with those in our hands."
"Impious youth," the bishop, who was in full pontificals, said, "you would never dare to hang priests."
"As the gentlemen of your party have thought it no sin to put to death scores of our ministers, and as I found these most holy persons hounding on a mob to massacre, I shall certainly feel no compunction, whatever, in executing the orders of my leader, to hang them with the other malefactors," Francois replied; "and methinks that you will benefit these holy men more, by advising those with you to agree to the conditions which I offer, than by wasting your breath in controversy with me."
There was a hasty conversation between those on the wall, and it was not long before they came to an agreement. De Luc feared that he should incur the enmity of several powerful families, if he left their relatives for execution. The citizens were equally anxious to save their fellows; and were, moreover, scared at the threat of the neighbourhood being laid waste, and the town attacked, by this unknown force that had appeared before it. They had heard vague rumours of the arrival of the prince and Admiral, with a large force, at La Rochelle; but it might well be that he had turned aside on his journey, at the news of the occurrences at Niort. The bishop was equally anxious to rescue the priests, for he felt that he might be blamed for their death by his ecclesiastical superiors.
Their consultation over, de Luc turned to the Count.
"Do you give me your solemn assurance and word, as a noble of France, that upon our performing our part of the condition, the prisoners in your hands shall be restored unharmed?"
"I do," Francois replied. "I pledge my honour that, as soon as I find that the whole of those of our religion have left the town peaceably, the prisoners shall be permitted to return, unharmed in any way."
"Then we accept the terms. All those of the reformed religion in the town, whether at present in prison or in their homes, who may desire to leave, will be permitted to pass. As soon as you retire, the gate shall be opened."
Francois and his party fell back a quarter of a mile. In a short time, people began to issue in twos and threes from the gate. Many bore heavy bundles on their backs, and were accompanied by women and children, all similarly laden. A few had with them carts, piled up with household goods.
From the first who came, Francois learned that the conditions had been carried out; the proclamation being made in every street, at the sound of the trumpet, that all who held the reformed religion were free to depart, and that they might take with them such goods as they could carry, or take in carts. At first it had been thought that this was but a trap, to get the Huguenots to reveal themselves; but the reports of those who had returned, discomfited, to the town, that there was a great Huguenot force outside, and that many people of consideration had been taken prisoners, gave them courage; and some of the leading citizens went round, to every house where persons suspected of being Huguenots were living, to urge them to leave, telling them that a treaty had been made securing them their safety. Before the hour had passed, more than five hundred men, women, and children had left the town.
As all agreed that no impediment had been placed in their way, but that upon the contrary, every person even suspected as having Huguenot leanings had been urged to go, Francois and Philip felt assured that, at any rate, all who wished to leave had had the opportunity of doing so. They waited ten minutes over the hour; and then, seeing that no more came forth, they ordered the prisoners to be unbound, and allowed to depart for the city.
As the fugitives had come along they were told that the Prince of Conde, with a strong force, had entered La Rochelle; and were advised to make for that city, where they would find safety and welcome. Those, however, who preferred to go to Laville, were assured that they would be welcomed and cared for, there, until an opportunity arose for their being sent, under escort, to La Rochelle. The greater portion decided to make, at once, for the Huguenot city.
"I think, Philip, you had better take forty of the men, to act as a rearguard to these poor people, till you are within sight of La Rochelle. The fellows whom we have let free will tell, on their return to the town, that we are but a small party; and it is possible they may send out parties in pursuit."
"I don't think it is likely. The townspeople have been too roughly handled to care about running any risks. They have no very large body of men-at-arms in the town. Still, if they do pursue, it will be by the road to La Rochelle, for that is the one they will think that most of the fugitives will take.
"Had we not better divide the troop equally, Francois?"
"No, I think not. They will imagine we shall all be going by that road; and that, moreover, some of the other gentlemen of our faith may be coming to meet us, with their retainers. Twenty will be ample for me. Do you take the rest."
Two hours later, Philip saw a cloud of dust rising from the road in his rear. He hurried on with the fugitives in front of him until, half an hour later, they came to a bridge over a stream. This was only wide enough for four horsemen to cross abreast, and here he took up his station.
In a few minutes, a number of horsemen approached. They were riding without order or regularity, intent only on overtaking their prey. Seeing the disorder in which they came, Philip advanced from the bridge, formed up his men in two lines, and then charged at full gallop.
The men-at-arms tried to rein in their horses and form in order but, before they could do so, the Huguenots burst down upon them. The horses of the Catholics, exhausted with the speed at which they had been ridden, were unable to withstand the shock; and they and their riders went down before it. A panic seized those in the rear and, turning quickly, they fled in all directions, leaving some thirty of their number dead on the ground. Philip would not permit his followers to pursue.
"They outnumber us four times," he said; "and if we scatter, they may turn and fall upon us. Our horses have done a long day's work, and deserve rest. We will halt here at the bridge. They are not likely to disturb us, but if they do, we can make a stout resistance here.
"Do you ride on, Jacques, and tell the fugitives that they can press forward as far as they like, and then halt for the night. We will take care that they are not molested, and will ride on and overtake them, in the morning."
The night passed quietly and, late the following evening, the party were in sight of La Rochelle. Philip had intended to turn at this point, where all danger to the fugitives was over, and to start on his journey back. But the hour was late, and he would have found it difficult to obtain food and forage, without pressing the horses. He therefore determined to pass the night at La Rochelle, as he could take the last news, thence, back to Laville.
The streets of the town presented a busy aspect. Parties of Huguenot gentlemen and their retainers were constantly arriving, and fugitive villagers had come in from a wide extent of country. Large numbers of men were working at the walls of the town. The harbour was full of small craft. Lines of carts brought in provisions from the surrounding country, and large numbers of oxen, sheep, and goats were being driven in.
"As we shall start for Laville in the morning," Philip said to his men, "it is not worth while to trouble to get quarters; and indeed, I should say, from the appearance of the place, that every house is already crowded from basement to roof. Therefore we will bivouac down by the shore, where I see there are many companies already bestowed."
As soon as they had picketed their horses, a party were sent off, to purchase provisions for the troop and forage for their horses; and when he had seen that the arrangements were complete, Philip told Pierre to follow him, and went up to the castle, where Conde and Coligny, with their families, were lodged. He was greeted warmly by several of the gentlemen who had stopped at the chateau, a few days before.
The story of the fugitives from Niort had already spread through the town, and Philip was eagerly questioned about it. Just as he was about to tell the story, Conde and the Admiral came out, from an inner room, into the large anteroom where they were talking.
"Ah! Here is the young count's cousin, Monsieur Fletcher," the Admiral said. "Now we shall hear about this affair of Niort, of which we have received half a dozen different versions, in the last hour. Is the count himself here?"
"No, sir. He returned to Laville, escorting the fugitives who went thither; while he sent me, with the larger portion of the troop, to protect the passage hither of the main body."
"But it was reported to me that the troop with which you entered was but forty strong. I hear you fought a battle on the way. Did you lose many men there?"
"None, sir. Indeed I am glad to say that, beyond a few trifling wounds, the whole matter has been carried out without any loss to the party that rode from Laville."
"How strong were they altogether, monsieur?"
"Then where did you join the force that, as we hear, cut up the townspeople of Niort as they were massacring our people in the villages round, and afterwards obtained from the town the freedom of those who had been cast into prison, and permission for all Huguenots to leave the town?"
"There was no other force, sir. We had just the sixty men from Laville, commanded by my cousin Francois. When the news arrived of the doings at Niort, there was no time to send round to gather our friends; so we mounted the men-at-arms at the chateau and rode with all speed, and were but just in time. Had we delayed another half hour, to gather a larger force, we should have been too late."
"Tell us all about it," the prince said.
"This seems to have been a gallant and well-managed affair, Admiral."
Philip related the whole circumstances of the affair; how the townspeople had been heavily punished, and the chief men taken as hostages, and the peasants compelled to assist to convey the property of the Huguenots to Laville; also the subsequent negotiations, and the escape of all the Huguenots from Niort; and how the troop under him had smartly repulsed, with the loss of over thirty men, the men-at-arms from the city.
"A gallant enterprise," the prince said. "What think you, Admiral?"
"I think, indeed, that this young gentleman and his cousin, the young Count of Laville, have shown singular prudence and forethought, as well as courage. The matter could not have been better managed, had it been planned by any of our oldest heads. That they should, at the head of their little bodies of men-at-arms, have dispersed the cowardly mob of Niort, is what we may believe that any brave gentleman would have done; but their device of taking the priests and the other leaders as hostages, their boldness in summoning the authorities of Niort, under the threat of hanging the hostages and capturing the town, is indeed most excellent and commendable. I heard that the number of fugitives from Niort was nearly six hundred, and besides these there were, I suppose, those from the villages."
"About two hundred set out from the villages, sir."
"Eight hundred souls. You hear that, gentlemen? Eight hundred souls have been rescued, from torture and death, by the bravery and prudence of these two young gentlemen, who are in years but youths. Let it be a lesson, to us all, of what can be done by men engaged in a good work, and placing their trust in God. There is not one of us but might have felt proud to have been the means of doing so great and good a work, with so small a force; and to have saved eight hundred lives, without the loss of a single one; to say nothing of the sharp lesson given to the city mobs, that the work of massacre may sometimes recoil upon those who undertake it.
"Our good friend De la Noue has, more than once, spoken very highly to the prince and myself respecting the young count, and this young English gentleman; and they certainly have more than borne out his commendations."
"And more than that," the prince put in, "I myself in no small degree owe my life to them; for when I was pinned down by my horse, at Saint Denis, they were among the foremost of those who rushed to my rescue. Busy as I was, I had time to mark well how stoutly and valiantly they fought.
"Moreover, Monsieur D'Arblay has spoken to me in the highest terms of both of them, but especially of Monsieur Fletcher; who, as he declared, saved his life and that of the Count de Laville, by obtaining their release from the dungeons of Toulouse, by some such device as that he has used at Niort.
"And now, gentlemen, supper is served. Let us go in at once. We must have already tried the patience of our good hosts, who are doing their best to entertain us right royally; and whom I hope to relieve of part of the burden, in a very few days.
"Monsieur Fletcher, you shall sit between the Admiral and myself; for you have told us your story but briefly, and afterwards I would fain question you farther, as to that affair at Toulouse."
The two nobles, indeed, inquired very minutely into all the incidents of the fight. By closely questioning him, they learned that the idea of forcing the peasants to lend their horses and carts, to convey the Huguenot villagers' goods to Laville, was his own, and occurred to him just as he was about to start from the first village he entered.
"The success of military operations," the Admiral said, "depends greatly upon details. It is one thing to lay out a general plan; another to think, amid the bustle and excitement of action, of the details upon which success so largely depends; and your thought of making the men, who were about to join in the slaughter of their fellow villagers, the means of conveying their goods and chattels to a place of safety, is one that shows that your head is cool, and able to think and plan in moments when most men would be carried away by the excitement of the occasion. I am pleased with you, sir; and shall feel that, if I have any matter on hand demanding discretion and prudence, as well as bravery, I can, in spite of your years, confidently intrust you with it.
"Are you thinking of returning tomorrow to Laville?"
"I was intending to do so, sir. It may be that the people of Niort may endeavour to revenge the stroke that we have dealt them, and the forty men with me are necessary for the defence of the chateau."
"I do not think there is any fear of an attack from Niort," the Admiral said. "They will know, well enough, that our people are flocking here from all parts; and will be thinking of defence, rather than of attack, knowing that, while we are almost within striking distance, the royal army is not in a condition, as yet, to march from Paris.
"Where are you resting for the night?"
"My troops are down by the shore, sir. Seeing how full the town was, I thought it was not worth while to look for quarters; and intended to sleep down there among them, in readiness for an early start."
"Then, after supper, I would that you go down to them, and tell them not to be surprised if you do not join them till morning. Then return hither for the night. It may be that we may want to speak to you again."
Late in the evening a page came to Philip and, saying that the prince wished to speak with him, conducted him to a small apartment, where he found Conde and the Admiral.
"We have a mission with which we would intrust you, if you are willing to undertake it," the Admiral said. "It is a dangerous one, and demands prudence and resource, as well as courage. It seems to the prince and myself that you possess these qualities; and your youth may enable you to carry out the mission, perhaps, more easily than another would do.
"It is no less than to carry a letter, from the prince and myself, to the Queen of Navarre. She is at present at Nerac. Agents of Catharine have been trying to persuade her to go with her son to Paris; but fortunately, she discovered that there was a plot to seize her, and the young prince her son, at the same time that we were to be entrapped in Burgundy. De Lossy, who was charged with the mission of seizing her at Tarbes, was fortunately taken ill; and she has made her way safely up to Nerac.
"All Guyenne swarms with her enemies. D'Escars and four thousand Catholics lie scattered along from Perigueux to Bordeaux, and other bands lie between Perigueux and Tulle. If once past those dangers, her course is barred at Angouleme, Cognac, and Saintes.
"I want her to know that I will meet her on the Charente. I do not say that I shall be able to take those three towns, but I will besiege them; and she will find me outside one of them, if I cannot get inside. It is all important that she should know this, so that she may judge whither to direct her course, when once safely across the river Dronne and out of Guyenne.
"I dare not send a written despatch for, were it to fall into the hands of the Catholics, they would at once strengthen the garrisons of the town on the Charente; and would keep so keen a watch, in that direction, that it would be impossible for the queen to pass. I will give you a ring, a gift from the queen herself, in token that you are my messenger, and that she can place every confidence in you.
"I will leave to you the choice of how you will proceed. You can take some of your men-at-arms with you, and try to make your way through with a sudden dash; but as the bridges and fords will be strongly watched, I think that it will be much wiser for you to go in disguise, either with or without a companion. Certainty is of more importance than speed. I found a communication here, sent by the queen before she started to the authorities of the town, saying that she should try to make her way to them; and she knew that the prince and myself would also come here, if we found our personal safety menaced in Burgundy. She foresaw that her difficulties would be great; and requested that, if we arrived here, we would send her word as to our movements, in order that she might accommodate hers to them.
"I have chosen you for several reasons, one being, as I have told you, that I see you are quick at forming a judgment, and cool in danger. The second is that you will not be known to any of the enemy whom you may meet on your way. Most of the Huguenots here come from the neighbouring provinces, and would almost certainly be recognized, by Catholics from the same neighbourhood. Of course you understand that, if suspicion should fall upon you of being a messenger from this place, you will have but a short shrift."
"I am quite ready to do my best, sir, to carry out your mission. Personally I would rather ride fast, with half a dozen men-at-arms; but doubtless, as you say, the other would be the surest way. I will take with me my servant, who is shrewd and full of resources and, being a native of these parts, could pass as a countryman anywhere. My horses and my four men I will leave here, until my return. The troop will, of course, start in the morning for Laville."
"We have another destination for them," the prince said. "A messenger rode yesterday to Laville, to bid the young count start, the day after tomorrow, with every man he can raise, to join me before Niort; for which place I set out, tomorrow at midday. Of course we had no idea that he had already come to blows with that city; but we resolved to make its capture our first enterprise, seeing that it blocks the principal road from Paris hither, and is indeed a natural outpost of La Rochelle. Niort taken, we shall push on and capture Parthenay, which still further blocks the road, and whose possession will keep a door open for our friends from Brittany, Normandy, and the north. When those places are secured and garrisoned, we can then set about clearing out the Catholics from the towns to the south."
"Very well, sir. Then I will give orders to them that they are to accompany your force tomorrow, and join the count before Niort."
"Here is a large map of the country you will have to traverse. You had best take it into the next room, and study it carefully; especially the course and direction of the rivers, and the points of crossing. It would be shorter, perhaps, if you could have gone by boat south to Arcachon and thence made your way to Nerac; but there are wide dunes to be crossed, and pine forests to be traversed, where a stranger might well die of hunger and thirst. The people, too, are wild and savage, and look upon strangers with great suspicion; and would probably have no compunction in cutting your throat. Moreover, the Catholics have a flotilla at the mouth of the Gironde, and there would be difficulty and danger in passing.
"You will, of course, make all speed that you can. I shall presently see some of the council of the town and, if they tell me that a boat can take you down the coast as far as the Seudre, some ten miles north of the mouth of the Gironde, you will avoid the difficulty of crossing the Boutonne at Saint Jean d'Angely, and the Charente at Saintes or Cognac. It would save you a quarter of your journey. I expect them shortly, so that by the time you have studied the map, I shall be able to tell you more."
An hour later, Philip was again summoned. To his surprise, he found Maitre Bertram with the prince.
"Our good friend here tells me that he is already acquainted with you, Monsieur Fletcher. He will house you for tonight, and at daybreak put you on board a small coasting vessel, which will carry you down to the mouth of the Seudre. He will also procure for you whatever disguises you may require, for yourself and your attendant.
"He has relations with traders in many of the towns. Some of these are openly of our faith, others are time servers, or are not yet sufficiently convinced to dare persecution and death for its sake. He will give you the names of some of these; and you may, at a push, be able to find shelter with them, obtain a guide, or receive other assistance.
"Here is the ring. Hide it carefully on the way for, were you searched, a ring of this value would be considered a proof that you were not what you seemed.
"You quite understand my message. I pray the queen to trust to no promises but, using all care to avoid those who would stop her, to come north as speedily as possible, before the toils close round her; and you will assure her that she will find me on the Charente, and that I shall have either taken Cognac, or be occupied in besieging it."
"If I fail, sir, it shall be from no lack of prudence on my part; and I hope to prove myself worthy of the high honour that the prince and yourself have done me, in selecting me for the mission."
"Farewell then," the Admiral said. "I trust that, in ten days' time, I shall meet you at Cognac. I have arranged with Maitre Bertram, who will furnish you with the funds necessary for your expedition."
Philip bowed deeply to the two nobles, and retired with the merchant. He had directed Pierre to remain among the lackeys at the foot of the grand staircase, as he would be required presently; and as he passed through, he beckoned to him to follow.
"You have seen my horses comfortably stabled, Pierre?"
"It was done an hour since, monsieur."
"And my four men understand that they are to remain here, in charge of them, until I return?"
"Yes, sir. Their own horses are also bestowed here, and mine."
"Very well. We sleep tonight at Maitre Bertram's."
"I am right glad to hear it, sir; for truly this castle is full from the top to the bottom, and I love not to sleep in a crowd."
"You still have Pierre with you?" the merchant said.
"Yes, and he has turned out an excellent servant. It was a fortunate day, for me, when I insisted on taking him in spite of your warning. He is a merry varlet, and yet knows when to joke, and when to hold his peace. He is an excellent forager--"
"Ah! That I warrant he is," Maitre Bertram put in;
"--And can cook a dinner or a supper with any man in the army. I would not part with him on any consideration."
"A fellow of that sort, Master Fletcher, is sure to turn out either a rogue or a handy fellow. I am glad to hear that he has proved the latter.
"Here we are at the house. At ordinary times we should all be abed and asleep at this hour, but the place is turned upside down since the prince and the Admiral arrived; for every citizen has taken in as many men as his house will hold. I have four gentlemen and twenty of their retainers lodging here; but I will take you to my own den, where we can talk undisturbed; for there is much to say and to arrange, as to this expedition of yours, in which there is more peril than I should like to encounter. However, that is your affair. You have undertaken it, and there is nought for me to do, save to try and make it as successful as possible.
"You have already been studying the map, I hear, and know something of the route. I have a good map myself, and we will follow the way together upon it. It would be as well to see whether your rascal knows anything of the country. In some of his wanderings, he may have gone south."
"I will question him," Philip said and, reopening the door of the room, he told Pierre, whom he had bidden follow him upstairs, to enter.
"I am going down into Gascony, Pierre. It matters not, at present, upon what venture. I am going to start tomorrow at daylight, in a craft of Maitre Bertram's, which will land me ten miles this side the mouth of the Gironde; by which, as you will see, I avoid having to cross the Charente, where the bridges are all in the hands of the Catholics. I am going in disguise, and I propose taking you with me."
"It is all one to me, sir. Where you go, I am ready to follow you. I have been at Bordeaux, but no farther south.
"I don't know whether you think that three would be too many. Your men are all Gascons, and one or other of them might know the part of the country you wish to travel."
"I had not thought of it," Philip said; "but the idea is a good one. It would depend greatly upon our disguises."
"Do you travel as a man-at-arms, or as a countryman, or a pedlar, or maybe as a priest, sir?"
"Not as a priest, assuredly," Philip laughed. "I am too young for that."
"Too young to be in full orders, but not too young to be a theological student: one going from a theological seminary, at Bordeaux, to be initiated at Perigueux, or further south to Agen."
Philip shook his head.
"I should be found out by the first priest who questioned me."
"Then, sir, we might go with sacks of ware on our backs, as travelling pedlars; or, on the other hand, we might be on our way to take service under the Catholic leaders. If so, we might carry steel caps and swords, which methinks would suit you better than either a priest's cowl or a pedlar's pack.
"In that case there might well be three of us, or even four. Two of your men-at-arms would go as old soldiers, and you and I as young relations of theirs, anxious to turn our hands to soldiering. Once in Gascony, their dialect would help us rarely, and our story should pass without difficulty; and even on the way it would not be without its use, for the story that they have been living near La Rochelle but, owing to the concourse of Huguenots, could no longer stay there; and were therefore making south to see, in the first place, their friends at home; and then to take service, under some Catholic lord, would sound likely enough."
"I don't know that we can contrive a better scheme than that, Maitre Bertram. What do you think?"
"It promises well," the trader agreed.
"Do you know what part of Gascony these men come from, Pierre?"
"They come from near Dax."
"That matters little," Philip said, "seeing that it is only to the south of Guyenne that we are bound. Still, they will probably have traversed the province often; and in any case there should be no trouble in finding our way, seeing that Agen lies on the Garonne, and we shall only have to keep near the river, all the way from the point where we are landed. Our great difficulty will be in crossing the Dordogne, the Dronne, and the Lot, all of which we are likely to find guarded."
"If you can manage to cross the Garonne here, near Langon," the merchant said, placing his finger on the map, "you would avoid the two last rivers and, by keeping west of Bazas, you would be able to reach Nerac without difficulty. You have to cross somewhere, and it might be as easy there as at Agen."
"That is so," Philip agreed. "At any rate, we will try there first.
"I don't know which of the men I had best take with me. They are all shrewd fellows, as Gascons generally are, so I don't know how to make my choice."
"I don't think there is much difference, sir," Pierre said. "I have seen enough of them to know, at least, that they are all honest fellows."
"I would let them decide the matter for themselves," Philip said. "Some might like to go, and some to stay behind. If I chose two, the others might consider themselves slighted.
"Do you know where they have bestowed themselves, Pierre?"
"Down in the stables with the horses, sir. I could pretty well put my hand on them, in the dark."
"Well, go and fetch them hither, then. Say nothing about the business on which they are required."
In a quarter of an hour Pierre returned, with the four men. Philip explained to them, briefly, that he wanted two of them to journey with him, on a mission of some danger, through Guyenne.
"I have sent for you all," he said, "in order that you might arrange among yourselves which two shall go. Therefore do you settle the matter, and if you cannot agree, then cast lots and leave it to fortune. Only, as you are two sets of brothers, these had best either go or stay together; therefore if you cast lots do it not singly, but two against two."
"We may as well do it at once, Monsieur Philip," Eustace said. "I know, beforehand, that we would all choose to follow you; therefore if you will put two papers into my steel cap, one with my name, and one with Jacques', Pierre shall draw. If he takes out the one with my name, then I and Henri will go with you. If he draws Jacques, then he and Roger shall go."
This was done, and Jacques and Roger won.
"You will have plenty to do, while we are away," Philip said to Eustace. "There will be seven horses to look after, including my chargers."
"How long are you likely to be away, sir?"
"I may return in ten days. I may be away three weeks. Should any evil chance befall us, you will take the horses over to Laville and hand them over to my cousin; who will, I am sure, gladly take you and Henri into his service.
"As we leave here at daybreak, you, Jacques, and your brother Roger had better wrap yourselves up in your cloaks, and lie down in the hall below. I would that we could, in the morning, procure clothes for you, older and more worn than those you have on. You are going as men who have formerly served; but have since been living in a village, tilling the land, just as you were when you first joined me."
"Then we have the very clothes ready to hand," Jacques said. "When we joined you, we left ours with a friend in the town, to hold for us. There is no saying how long military service may last and, as our clothes were serviceable, we laid them by. We can go round and get them, the first thing in the morning; leaving these we wear in his care, until we return."
"That will do well; but you must be up early, for it is important we should make our start as soon as possible."
"I also have my old clothes held in keeping for me, by one who worked in the stable with me," Pierre said. "A man who is going to the war can always find others ready to take charge of whatever he may leave behind, knowing full well that the chances are that he will never return to claim them."
"That simplifies matters," Maitre Bertram said. "There remains only your dress, Monsieur Philip; and I shall have no difficulty in getting, from my own knaves, a doublet, cloak, and other things to suit you. I have plenty of steel caps and swords, in my warehouse."
"You had best leave your breast pieces here," Philip said to the men. "The number of those who carry them is small, and it will be enough to have steel caps and swords. We are going to walk fast and far, and the less weight we carry, the better."