A fawning lackey conducted me into the chamber the Duke used for his business affairs. Whilst not as resplendent as his private apartments, it was grand enough. Gaily-coloured banners and tapestries adorned the walls, and the tiled floor was decorated with an intricate mosaic depicting some martial scene or other. My lord of Norfolk sat behind a table covered with a silken cloth bearing the device of the Lion of Mowbray. As ever he was dressed to the latest fashion, in velvet-lined doublet of pearl grey; a well-built fellow in his early thirties, with dark, spade-shaped beard, and somewhat above the medium height. When he was standing up, that was. Sitting down of course he was more or less the same height as everyone else.
At a paper-strewn table alongside sat his secretary, an aged legal knave called Snot, or Snivel, or something of the sort, holding a quill and peering through his spectacles at a paper bearing a scribbled list.
I bowed. ‘My lord.’
‘Come in,’ said Mowbray, ‘and sit down, er …’ He turned to his petty-fogging henchman. ‘See, what was the name again?’
‘Snoddy, my lord.’
Mowbray passed a hand over his face and sighed. ‘No, the name of this fellow, you pathetic old fool.’
‘Ah.’ Snidge consulted his list myopically. ‘Methinks this one must be Pistol, my lord. Ancient Pistol.’
‘Pistol,’ Mowbray repeated. He pointed to the chair opposite. ‘Sit down.’
Slightly nettled to discover that my name had – though no doubt only temporarily – escaped my patron’s memory, my resentment was mingled with relief that his forgetfulness meant it was unlikely to be the matter I had feared.
The Duke snapped his fingers impatiently. ‘The list.’ After brief perusal of the names he shook his head. ‘By our lady,’ he groaned. ‘Is this the best thou couldst do?’
‘Trustworthy men are few and far between, my lord.’
‘So it would seem.’ Mowbray pointed to the paper with ill-concealed irritation. ‘Those two are dead, for a start. And he’s on the run, having been proclaimed a felon this sixmonth.’
‘I’ll cross them off, my lord,’ his henchman assured him hurriedly.
‘A list of those I have considered entrusting with this task, Ancient Pistol,’ the Duke explained. ‘For the present, thou’rt favoured for the appointment.’
‘I am honoured, my lord,’ I replied. ‘Though doubtless there are many other worthy gentlemen amongst your candidates.’
‘Scarcely,’ said Mowbray. ‘For apart from thyself, there now remain but six names, whereof one is virtually senile, another feeble-minded, and a third in gaol. Whilst the remainder’ – once more the Duke drew a deep breath and shook his head – ‘to my certain knowledge, are quite simply no firking use at all.’
‘Ah,’ said I.
‘It struck me that thou mightst perform the task admirably. For I have received excellent reports of thee in some quarters, good Pistol.’
Whilst naturally not surprised, I contented myself with a modest inclination of the head.
‘According to them, thou foiled the treacherous machinations of the Duke of Gloucester virtually single-handed, at imminent peril of thine own life.’ Again I shrugged modestly. ‘Best of all, whilst performing this service to King and country, it seems that thou subtly managed to cloak thine activities under the guise of a boastful and cowardly imbecility, so that no man suspected thy real intent.’
”Tis true, your grace,’ I confessed, ‘that there are those who fail to appreciate the valiant Pistol’s worth.’
‘Evidently,’ he agreed. ‘For it seems that there is a rival school of thought, which holdeth that thou’rt in sooth neither more nor less than what thou appearst: a foul-mouthed, drunken, half-witted lecher.’
‘A monstrous slander, my lord.’ I rose and brandished my sword. ‘Who calls me villain? Breaks my pate across? Plucks off my beard and throws it in my face!’
He shrugged and made to speak again, but I continued.
‘Tweaks me by the nose? Gives me the lie i’th’throat as deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?’
‘Thou’st made thy point, I fancy, Pistol. Anyway I have in mind, faute de mieux, to entrust thee with a mission of the uttermost confidentiality, and no little danger. What sayst thou?’
I extended my arms in an expansive gesture. ‘Danger knows full well that Pistol is more dangerous than he. We are two lions littered in one day, and I the elder and more terrible. And Pistol shall go forth.’
At this moment there occurred an incident which somewhat distracted me from elaborating upon this impressive account of my merits. Indeed it would no exaggeration to say that, momentarily at least, I blenched.
From the door to Mowbray’s private apartments there entered a lady: a statuesque, full-bosomed blonde, the rich scarlet of her silken corsage sparkling with precious stones. In itself this would not normally have disconcerted the gallant Pistol in the slightest, apart from a healthy masculine interest in her neckline. Accustomed as I am to rubbing shoulders with the mighty, it takes more than a buxom beauty to intimidate me, whatever her rank. The problem was rather more complex. For she was known to me.
I had met her in a local tavern some three weeks before, and seeing that she lacked masculine company, had endeavoured to make myself agreeable to her. Matters had proceeded most satisfactorily, and I had had every hope of achieving my ultimate goal, when I was appalled to learn that the object of my affection was none other than the aristocratic Franziska von der Heide, latest mistress of my patron, Thomas Mowbray. That she had not forgotten our little misunderstanding was perfectly evident from the black scowl with which she greeted me. I consoled myself with the reflection that she appeared not to have mentioned it to her paramour, which was hardly surprising, for her own role in the affair would likewise have been difficult to explain.