‘So I have dainty hands and a tiny waist? I think perhaps I should go and find a midget.’
John Stanley-17th May 1355
Despite his misgivings about his relationship with Piers, or was it William? John began to enjoy himself. The days were filled with visits to the string of towns that clung to high ground along the river.
Each day the Earl went in advance to establish the Prince’s credentials.
The secrecy surrounding these visits left towns unaware that the heir to the English throne approached, let alone passed through, for the group of forty-five riders looked more like a group of pilgrims than an army. Their route took them to towns nominally belonging to Aquitaine but within territories which had been in dispute for over a hundred years. The towns had only been reunited with Aquitaine ten years previously, and predominantly Frankish pockets still existed.
John knew that at every stop the Prince stressed the advantage of rebuilding alliances with Aquitaine and England. Each evening negotiations were accompanied by feasting, entertainment and dancing. Although John attended only one of the evening functions and then only as a servant to Lord James, he gained a healthy respect for the constitution required to be a diplomat. The lords ate and drank more in one night than John normally consumed in a week.
At the approach to Aiguillon, the Earl broke their routine. ‘We’ll practise our skills at crossing a major river,’ he said to Lord James. ‘We will find out how successful all that training was.’ He turned to John. ‘Who was the best swimmer, John?’ John answered without hesitation. ‘Jesse Milton – outstanding.’
‘Good. We will ignore the ferries and cross the Lot using the ancient ford.’
The River Lot joined the Garonne at right angles just below Aiguillon. Water-driven mills dominated both sides of the river and mill races diverted a large proportion of the total flow to the mills. To get to the old ford, which ran between the two races, it was first necessary to cross the nearest mill race by a bridge.
John stared at the ford with apprehension. The water was still rising and despite the diversion through the mill races, the flow of water over the weir was knee high and forceful. John realised why Lord James had placed emphasis on improving their swimming.
Lord James now directed Jess to carry a string across the ford. On several occasions, he struggled to keep his footing, but eventually, he reached the far bank successfully. By pulling on the string, Jess then dragged a substantial rope across the river which he secured to a tree on the far bank. Horses then pulled the rope tight and wound it around a tree on the near bank. It took the combined efforts of three men to tie it off.
The crossing now commenced, with both men and horses using the rope to provide extra stability on the slippery surface. All struggled to keep their footing. When it was John’s turn, his feet momentarily lifted from the weir and he clung to the rope to prevent being washed away. He was soaked to the skin and found it difficult to regain his footing. He looked again at the depth and speed of the flow over the ford. With water levels rising, the crossing would soon be impossible.
‘I think it would be good to make the crossing twice more to perfect our technique,’ Lord James announced; an announcement which was greeted with derisive cheers.
After settling into camp and changing into dry clothes, John and Piers walked up to the town, which was perched on a hill high above the river. They settled at a table outside the largest of the inns surrounding the central square. The square bustled with activity. The young and not so young promenaded around the periphery; the aroma of cooking emanated from a dozen different restaurants; and a group of musicians wandered from restaurant to restaurant, offering to play requests and collecting donations.
Piers ordered two beers from an attractive young waitress. The beers tasted cold and sharp. The waitress stationed herself close by their table, tray tucked underneath her arm, waiting for additional orders.
John decided to practise the elusive skill of praising the best features of a young woman. ‘I have been watching you for half an hour and I think you have nice hands, the daintiest hands I have ever seen.’
The girl laughed out loud. ‘You have been watching me for half an hour and what you have noticed is that I have dainty hands?’ She held out her hand in front of her face, palm facing towards John. ‘You are right of course, but if you want to impress me I think you had better try again.’ She gave him a haughty look. ‘More drinks?’ She walked away carrying a tray of empty glasses above her head, balanced on her dainty hand.
John turned to Piers. ‘Her hands were beautiful. Some people have short fleshy hands.’
‘Yes, but this is more complex than you suspected. You should have said her hands were beautiful, not dainty, an even worse word is nice. It is called damming by faint praise. Women hate it. Also, you have to praise what the girl herself thinks is her best feature. It shows you have good taste.’
John frowned. ‘How on earth can I do that?’
‘You must watch very carefully.’
The girl returned with the next round of drinks remarkably quickly.
John observed that as she placed the drinks on the table she bent over. His eyes narrowed. She had undone the neck of her blouse and showed a little more cleavage. Possibly it was because she had been working hard and the night was warm, he thought. He decided the adjustment emphasised the narrowness of her waist.
John secured eye contact with her and smiled. ‘You have a superb figure; so slim, such a tiny waist.’
The maid stood back, arms akimbo. ‘So I have dainty hands and a tiny waist? I think perhaps I should go and find a midget.’ She tried to look severe but suddenly burst out laughing. First Piers and then John joined in her infectious giggling. As they watched the barmaid leave for a tour of inspection of the other tables, Piers winked at John. ‘She likes you, John.’
John had no opportunity to reply, for just then a violent commotion disturbed the whole square.
A dog barked frantically, followed by tumbling tables and chairs. John couldn’t see anything clearly but heard a solid thump and then whelps of pain. People shifted and a misshapen man with red hair came into view, mercilessly kicking a cowering dog. John stood up to get a clearer view. ‘It’s a puzzle,’ he muttered to Piers. ‘I am reasonably sure that the red-haired man is a tramp I saw in Marmande. It’s strange to see him again.’ John shook his head. ‘It’s almost as though he has been following us.’
The two squires moved forward to get a better view of what was happening.
‘That dog belongs to Madame Genuisse. It is a docile, loving animal,’ shouted someone from the gathering crowd. The whimpering dog circled the red-haired man.
‘It attacked me,’ the man claimed.
Another voice from the gathering crowd. ‘Yes, but why did it attack you?’
The tramp moved forward and kicked the dog again.
The dog wheeled backwards, whimpering.
The leader of the crowd moved forward ahead of the rest. ‘Get out of town. We don’t want the likes of you.’
Suddenly, the tramp pulled a sword and threatened those at the front of the crowd gathered around him before vanishing into the darkness of a side street.
John made as if to pursue the tramp. Piers caught his arm. ‘Whoa! John, it is not our fight, and anyway, we are not armed.’
The crowd adopted the same logic. No one followed the tramp into the shadows.
They returned to the inn only to hear the sound of bolts locking. The proprietor was taking no risks! John saw no sign of the young barmaid. Reluctantly and cautiously, they returned to the camp.
‘A tramp who carries a sword.’ Piers screwed up his face and scratched his head. ‘Very strange.’