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Harfleur

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Harfleur

Suppose the ambassador from the French comes back...

                                                                          Henry V, Act III 

 

It was the fourth week of the siege.

All the approach to the main gate was trampled and churned. The mud gleamed in the moonlight, its surface newly wet in the last downpour. Around him was the sound of trudging feet, of weary men going about their duties. They were all slimed and streaked with mud.

Past the outer siege-works and trenches went Montjoy the herald, past revetments and breastworks, shattered tree-stumps and the gaping holes torn in the ground by Harfleur's guns. Past the steep bank of Harfleur's river as it went swirling and sucking on its way to the estuary of the Seine.

His guide pointed ahead. 'There's his majesty!' They had been searching this last quarter-hour in the near-dark, asking this man or that, and Montjoy, tired at the end of his second day's ride, heard the words with relief. He peered at the knot of dark figures a score of paces away, clustered in quiet conference. All drab they were; which was the king? Then there was a shifting, and one of them pointed, sweeping his other hand around as if it held battalions, and the pale gleam of moonlight on his hair confirmed who it was: Henry, King of England, whom he had last seen enthroned at his court in Westminster.

The men with him voiced agreement and dispersed, to whatever tasks they had been set. Henry was left alone for the moment, gazing out across the muddy slope, and it seemed to the herald (long used to close observation) that he sighed before bracing himself again.

'Your majesty...' At the lance-corporal's respectful call, Henry turned towards them.

'Yes... Corporal Jenkyn, is it not?'

'Aye, your majesty,' and a salute. 'This gentleman has come in from Rouen this evening. The French herald, sire.'

And Montjoy stepped forward, removed his hat, and bowed, to the exact same degree as he had done months ago in Westminster.

'Well, Herald, what message do you bring me?'

Jenkyn remained where he was. Montjoy was no threat; he had been required to leave his dagger at the guard-post as he came into the camp; it was all the weapon he carried. His tabard was his best guarantee of safety in any event that might arise. So now, unaccompanied, he crossed the few paces of mud to the King; who was himself muddy, his boots caked with it, a streak of it across his cheek. He wore no bright armour, no surcoat with guardant lions and stolen lilies, no plumes or silken cloak.

'Your majesty,' said Montjoy, and bowed again formally.

'Speak your message,' said Henry, all briskness.

'My masters send word,' he touched the breast of his tabard, where in the cote beneath the letter lay, 'that should they not be able to raise the siege in one week's time, they will consider the town lost if you may take it. In that event, they will think it yours.' For how long, they had not said.

'Indeed!' Henry drew a long breath, but his face showed nothing; not elation, nor relief, nor surprise. 'Your masters, you say. Which of them has sent you?'

'His majesty the King, and the Constable.' For the French king was with his court in Rouen, having brought himself with difficulty to the work of defiance; the Dauphin further away still, occupied with the task of assembling an army of noble men. And the Constable, having been wrong-footed by Henry on the opposite bank of the Seine, had withdrawn to Rouen, and since then had made no move other than a raid or two. This message was the consequence of their ambiguous leadership.

And here at Harfleur was Henry, weary, muddy and determined, with a whiff of gunpowder about him. (Had he been inspecting the guns, in person, at this late hour? Apparently so.)

There was another flurry of rain. Henry hunched his shoulders a little, and gave one last glance at the looming walls of Harfleur, black against the backdrop of night. 'Back to my tent,' he said, 'we cannot read your letter here.' He gestured to Montjoy to walk beside him, and they began to descend the slope of the little hillock. The mud sucked under their feet.

'You'll be glad to get under cover too, I'll warrant,' remarked Henry. 'Have you ridden from Rouen today?'

'No, sire.' Montjoy was rather surprised at this; why would a king be interested? He ran through various reasons in his mind, could come up with no grounds for not being honest, and continued, 'No, I set out yesterday only a few hours before dark, and spent the night at Caudebec-en-Caux on the Seine.'

Where is our army? they had asked him there; The Dauphin? The Constable?

At Rouen, he had answered, at Vernon. And there were sighs and some subdued mutters, but nothing had been said openly. And soon after he had left Caudebec-en-Caux this morning the devastation had begun; crops trampled, orchards cut down, houses fired. Every so often he had seen groups of men carrying out the destruction, but had not feared them, for they were the Constable's own troops. Further on, he had encountered English foragers unhindered at their work, and the peasants had said, 'No, they haven't hurt us. Not a woman molested, not so much as a cart stolen.'

He had continued down the Harfleur road in a less than happy mood, wanting to resent and despise the English king but finding it difficult to do so; and at dusk the walls and painted towers had risen before him, and with them, the miasma of the camp.

'And you'll need to take my answer on to the town,' Henry was saying. 'But the gates will not open to you tonight. Well, if you can stand the company of Englishmen, and the very basic accommodation we can offer, we can surely find you a place in one of the tents.'

Montjoy eyed him sidelong; was the King serious, or was that a note of teasing, of self-deprecation, in his voice? He did not know the language or the man well enough to tell.

'I thank you, your majesty.' He could only take the offer at face value. 'If you have a corner for me to sleep in, I would be more than content. My horse is being taken care of at the guard post, for which I am grateful.'

'Then that's settled.' They had left the last of the siege-works behind as they dropped into a little muddy hollow, and now they squelched across its bottom and toiled up the opposite slope.

'You are most generous, sire.'

'You may revise that opinion, Herald, when you see what accommodation we have to offer!' Henry turned up a path that climbed above the murmuring river, leaving it on the right hand, and Montjoy followed in his wake, past a straggle of bushes. It was hard going, climbing up the steep slippery path. At the top of the slope, clustered on the drier ground, he could make out the tents of the English camp, and the sullen glow of its watch-fires.

Suddenly Montjoy lurched, fell, pawed at the ground to save himself, and the ground itself was moving. His world was moving. Wet earth was dropping away under his hands. A sliding rush filled his ears. 'Jesu!' He dug his fingers into clods of soil, and snatched them back as they bent almost to breaking. Tried to brace his feet instead. He slid down, down in the mud towards the river - blows to his shoulder, his hip, his head - and something hauled on his arm and he stopped moving. He panted for long moments, his face in the mud, tasting mud in his mouth, his whole body hammered by his heartbeats.

Clods of earth slid past him, rolled down-slope and slopped into the water below.

A voice just above him. 'You there! Get ladders, ropes!'

The king. And already there were running feet above him, and shouts, on the edge of panic some of them. Montjoy was on the edge of panic himself. But there was a hand under his arm. It must be the king who was holding him.

'Sire! I am sorry!' He tried to lever himself upwards, his feet slipping as they sought purchase in the unstable slope.

'Stay still, Herald!' Henry's voice was ragged. And Montjoy froze, and there were a few moments of silence, save for his own breath and his heartbeats... but those were slowing and steadying now.

'Good,' continued Henry. 'There's a tree-root or something here. It's holding for now.' His voice was strained. He was holding them both. 'Try to creep back up. Slowly.'

Twenty feet below them the river hissed on its way. 'Yes, your majesty.' Henry's arms, his back, must feel as though they were breaking. Montjoy pressed down with knees and elbow, and by slow degrees he crawled upwards.

'Alright?' gasped Henry.

'Yes.'

Henry's laboured breaths quieted as Montjoy took more of his own weight. He crept onwards through rank and clammy mud, his head now level with Henry's waist, the sword-hilt hard against his cheek.

Sword-hilt. And Henry must be wearing mail, too. If he fell into the river -

Henry's voice interrupted this thought. 'Reach up across me. Get hold of the tree-root.'

'If it breaks - '

'Do as I say!'

A slow, careful fumble across Henry's shoulder, up his arm to his wrist - tendons standing out like cords - to the clench of his fist, and Montjoy's hand felt beside it to the tree-root, and clung. Henry exhaled, sharply, in Montjoy's ear as the burden of his weight left him.

And now Montjoy could hear cries above them, and orders being given.

'The path's gone, sire, but we'll be down in a trice!'

'We're safe for now. Don't send any more down on us!' Henry shouted back up.

Another voice, further away... 'Och, there's nothing to make fast to! Get timbers!'

Chills surged through Montjoy's body, and he began to shake. It wasn't fear. He hoped Henry realised it wasn't fear. No, Henry was shaking too.

A series of heavy thumps above. There was a little trickle of earth close by. They both tensed, turning just their heads to peer through the dark; but there was no sign of a further mud-slide.

'You've got a good hold?'

'Yes, sire.'

'Alright,' said Henry again, but did not loose his hold.

The strained body under his shifted just slightly. Henry was finding better purchase for himself. Montjoy dug his knee into the earth to take more of their weight. Henry was weighed down by his sword, his mail -

'If need be, sire, let me fall!' Unthinkable that a king should risk himself for a herald.

'Yes, yes, of course I will!' A derisive note in Henry's voice now, and Montjoy's breath caught on a laugh at the sheer unexpectedness of it. Sprawled in the mud together, hanging above a steep and dangerous slope over swirling waters, their faces inches apart, they grinned light-headedly at each other. In fact Henry was chuckling silently, his chest heaving in little gasps under Montjoy's outstretched arm.

There was a flurry of voices above them, and movement high up on Montjoy's left. They both peered upwards. There was a slim figure moving carefully down towards them, on a rope no doubt. They both tensed, but there was no slide of earth, no sudden descent into the waiting river. The man reached their level, and picked his way, delicately as a spider, across to them.

'Your majesty. God be praised,' he said.

'Cousin!' Henry greeted him with brittle cheer. 'What kept you?'

It must be the Duke of York; Montjoy remembered the man's lithe frame from Henry's court.

'The whole slope's moved,sire. We had to drive in stakes to one side - ' that explained the thumps they had heard - 'and rig ropes.' He was making another rope fast about Henry as he spoke. 'There, you're secure now. Pull!' he called up into the dark.

'Wait!' Henry's order followed hard on his cry. 'The Herald.'

'I'll be safe here, sire,' said Montjoy instantly. There was a fierce ache in his arm and shoulder, but he could hold on for a while longer.

Henry ignored him. 'Another rope!' he called, and York made an impatient noise, hastily stifled.

The coiled rope slapped down onto the mud a few feet away, starting another small slide. Henry, secure himself now, resumed his grip on Montjoy's arm. York muttered under his breath. But nothing happened, and York reached out and dragged the rope towards them. With haste he made it fast around Montjoy, and Henry loosed his hold, and called up, 'Are you ready to pull?'

'Aye!'

'Then pull!'

The slack went out of the ropes, and the three of them scrambled a little apart. And then it was a matter of half-swarming, half being dragged, back up the slope, with wet earth sliding away under his knees and elbows, the smell of mud all around him and the constant pull of the rope going up past his face a much-needed reassurance.

A ragged cheer. 'Your majesty!' Henry was safe.

Montjoy crawled on upwards.

'Good work, Jamy, my friends! Henry's voice, cheerful and reassuring, a little above him and to his right.

A further scatter of voices. 'My lord Duke!'

A hand landed on Montjoy's shoulder, startling him, and hauled.

'I thank you!' he gasped, and scrambled to his feet, assisted by a big bearded man, a Scot by the look of his garments.

'We must get away,' York was a few feet away to his right, and he almost pushed the King ahead of him, up-slope and to firmer ground. Dimly Montjoy could see another group of men up there among a small thicket of stakes, most of them leaning on heavy mallets, and they too, cheered as he did so. Henry, however, cast a glance behind him and saw that everyone was ready to follow before starting up and away from the earth-slide.

Once on level ground, they all got rid of their ropes, leaving them for the men to clear up. 'To my tent, my friends, I hope there's some wine heating!' and a boy went ahead at the double, vanishing into the darkness.

Talk drifted back to Montjoy; suddenly very weary, he toiled on behind because there was nothing else he could do. He heard York ask something, though he could not quite make out the words, but the King's reply was clear and decisive; 'No, he did not.'

Someone dropped back beside him; Jamy, the big Scot. 'It's not far to go, sir; take my arm if you need to.'

'I thank you.' He felt a little more welcome among them.

Henry's tent was one of a group just beyond the crest of the hill; wide, of dun-coloured canvas, and hung with several lanterns. And there was a brazier, with the wine heating on it. A dozen or so men crowded into it, Henry thanking each one by name, or with a clap on the shoulder.

Then he looked down ruefully at himself, all smeared with mud and soaked from head to toe, and said, 'I must be out of these clothes! You too, York, Herald, or we'll catch our deaths. Simon, see to it,' and a servant, a small, neat man, went through into an inner chamber of the tent and there was the sound of chests being opened. Someone was passing round cups of hot wine; they drank a toast and, that done, the press of men inside the tent lessened, until only Henry and York, Jamy (the king's bodyguard, perhaps?) Montjoy and a couple of guards were left.

'Well, Herald,' said Henry. 'We cannot let you go into Harfleur as you are.' For Montjoy too was smeared with mud, and the lilies on his tabard were all but indistinguishable. He had been trying to avoid touching anything or anyone. 'So we'll clean you up, and send you on your way in the morning, if that would be agreeable.'

'I have no change of clothes,' admitted Montjoy, dispirited.

'No matter; we can lend you something for tonight, and Simon will get your things clean by morning.'

Simon was in for a hard task, thought Montjoy, but - 'Your majesty is most kind.' And... whose clothes was he to wear in the meantime? Henry's? Something curled deep in his belly at the thought.

'It's a king's duty to be hospitable, after all,' said Henry, and he went through into the inner chamber, and his voice murmured, and the indispensable Simon came back with a night-shirt in his hands.

'You're to sleep on one of the pallets here, Sir Herald,' he said, indicating a small stack of them against the wall of the tent, 'and I'll have your clothes ready in the morning.'

Jamy dragged out two pallets, and arranged them on the floor, with a couple of blankets for each. Simon went outside for a few moments, to another tent perhaps, and came back with a little bench, a basin of water and a towel for Montjoy's use. With a sigh of relief, he tugged off his boots, washed his face and hands, peeled off his clammy garments, and pulled the nightshirt over his head; plain, but clean, fresh linen, such a pleasure! And as he folded his soiled clothes to give to Simon, his fingers encountered a letter in the breast of his cote; the message from Rouen, damp and crumpled but mercifully whole. How could he have forgotten it?

'Simon, I must give this to the King!' he said, and the man nodded and went through to Henry again, and Montjoy had but a moment to consider how this must look, a herald summoning an enemy king.

Henry came back out into the main room, cleaned up, rather damp about the hair, and wearing a nightshirt himself. 'Well, how is my guest doing?' He looked ridiculously young and cherubic; Montjoy almost smiled.

'Very well, sire. But I have been remiss, for which I am sorry; I have not delivered this yet.' He picked the letter up and offered it with a formality at odds with the informality of their dress.

Henry looked at it ruefully. 'I had forgotten it too. Herald, trusty messenger, I thank you.' He took it from Montjoy's hand.

'And I thank you, your majesty. For saving me this evening.' There had been no chance to say it before. The words were hardly adequate, but he spoke them with all the sincerity he felt.

'You are most welcome.' They looked at each other for a quiet moment in the warm lantern-light, both of them barefoot and in nightshirts, and smiled faintly, remembering those crowded few minutes in the mud as they'd crawled and scrambled and held on to each other, high above the waiting river. 'Now sleep, Herald! and sleep well, if you can.' And Henry gestured at the pallet, and turned and went back into his own chamber, taking the letter with him.

York, and Simon with the pile of Montjoy's clothes, had already left the tent. Jamy blew out all but one of the lanterns, and stretched out on his own pallet, close by the entrance to the inner chamber. The two guards had stools on either side of the main door of the tent. Montjoy lay down, and rolled himself in his blankets, and tried to settle. There was a sudden drumming of rain on the canvas roof above him; outside he could hear footsteps as more sentries passed to and fro, and the occasional quiet murmur of voices.

In the camp of the English, owing his life, perhaps, to their king, and wearing his very garment, the herald of the French slept better than he had expected. Though even as he dreamed, he was not surprised that he revisited, over and again, the sensations of falling, of turmoil; of solid ground shifting under his feet.

FIN