— 2.1 —
A carrier — a transporter of goods — carrying a lantern entered the yard of an inn on the London-Canterbury Road and said, “Heigh-ho! If it isn’t four in the morning, I’ll be hanged. The Big Dipper is over the new chimney and still our horses have not been made ready. Groom!”
From inside the inn, the groom in charge of the horses said, “Coming! Coming!”
The first carrier said to a second carrier who was walking toward him, “Please, Tom, give the saddle of Cut, my horse, a few whacks to make it soft, and put some tufts of wool underneath the pommel of the saddle so that the padding makes the horse more comfortable. The poor nag is chafed by the saddle in between the shoulders.”
Tom, the second carrier, said, “The peas and beans used in the horse feed at this inn are as damp as a dog, and that is a quick way to give the poor nags worms. This stable has gone to Hell since Robin Ostler died.”
The first carrier replied, “Poor fellow, he was never happy since the price of oats rose; it was the death of him.”
Tom said, “I think this is the worst inn in all London road when it comes to fleas: I have been bitten so much that my red spots make me look like the red-spotted fish known as a tench.”
“That’s a good comparison,” the first carrier said.
“By God, even though the Christian Kings get the most of everything, no King could surpass the number of flea bites I have received since midnight.”
Tom said, “This inn won’t even give us a chamber pot, and so we pee in the fireplace, and the urine helps the fleas to breed like rabbits.”
The first carrier called, “Groom! Come here! Hurry up, damn it!”
They began to talk about their deliveries.
Tom said, “I have a ham and two roots of ginger that I need to deliver in Charing Cross.”
The first carrier said, “The turkeys in my basket are quite starved — they are thin!”
He yelled for the groom, “Come here! Damn you! Can’t you see me? Can’t you hear me? Taking a drink is good, and so is hitting you on the head. Call me a villain if that is not true. Come here! You have a job to do!”
Gadshill, the highwayman who collected information about people whom he and his friends could rob, walked into the yard of the inn.
“Good morning, carriers,” he said. “What time is it?”
The first carrier was suspicious for good reason: The inn was located in an area noted for robberies. Although he knew that the time was after 4 a.m., he did not want to give this stranger any information that could help him to commit a robbery, especially of the two carriers and their fellow travelers. He worried that this stranger might want information about when they would leave the inn and about where they were traveling.
The first carrier told Gadshill, “I think it is two o’clock.”
“Please lend me your lantern so that I can see my gelding in the stable,” Gadshill said to the first carrier.
The first carrier, afraid that Gadshill would steal the lantern, replied, “No, by God! My mother did not raise me to be a fool.”
Gadshill then said to Tom, the second carrier, “Please lend me your lantern.”
Tom replied, “When would I lend you my lantern? When it’s a cold day in Hell, that’s when — or the day after you are hanged!”
Gadshill asked, “What time do you think that you will arrive in London?”
Tom kept his answer vague: “Time enough to go to bed with a candle, I promise you.”
Tom said to the first carrier, “Come, neighbor Mugs, let’s talk to the gentlemen. They will accompany us.”
Quietly, so that Gadshill would not hear him, Tom added, “They want to travel in a group because they have a valuable load.”
The two carriers departed, and Gadshill called a confederate in the inn to come out and talk to him: “Chamberlain!”
The chamberlain attended to the bedrooms in the inn and therefore was able to overhear conversations and to learn much about the occupants at the inn.
The chamberlain arrived and said, “As a pickpocket would say, ‘I am so close to you that I could put my hand in your pockets.’”
Gadshill replied, “That is as apt as saying, ‘As a chamberlain would say, “I am so close to you that I could put my hand in your pockets.”’ You are very much like a pickpocket except the pickpocket does the actual stealing while you gather the information that leads to the theft.”
“Good morning, Mr. Gadshill,” the chamberlain said. “What I told you last night still holds true. A rich farmer from Kent has with him three hundred marks — a unit of money — in gold. I heard him tell it to one of his companions last night at supper: a kind of revenue officer — someone who is also carrying an abundance of valuables, although I do not know specifically what. They are already awake and have ordered eggs and butter for their breakfast. They will depart soon.”
“They have a date to keep with Saint Nicholas’ clerks, aka highwaymen,” Gadshill said. “Traveling thieves are fortunate that Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of travelers, which I presume includes highwaymen. If these two people don’t keep their date with robbers, I will give you my neck.”
“I don’t want your neck,” the chamberlain said. “Please keep it for the hangman. I know that you worship Saint Nicholas as truly as a false man can.”
“You need not talk to me about a hangman,” Gadshill said. “If I hang, I will be part of a fat pair on the gallows because Sir John will hang with me, and you know that he is not starving. But I will work tonight with other highwaymen you do not know and cannot even dream of, people high in society who will rob for the sport of it, who will give robbers some class, and who, if we run into trouble, will — if only to help themselves — make everything for us all right. I will be accompanied by no footloose vagabonds, no people with long staffs who would pull a man from off his horse to steal sixpence from him, no purple-faced alcoholics with big mustaches. I will be accompanied by people of nobility who experience tranquility because they don’t have to work for a living. I will be accompanied by mayors and great ones. I will be accompanied by people who can keep secrets, who are more likely to hit someone than say ‘Put your hands up!’ and to say ‘Put your hands up!’ than drink and to drink than pray. But I am not speaking entirely the truth. They pray to their country, or rather, they prey on their country. They ride up and down on her, and they walk on her. They treat her as if she were their boots, as well as their source of booty.”
Gadshill exaggerated somewhat: He was expecting Prince Hal and Sir John to be members of his band of robbers, but the others were lowlifes without titles — and Sir John was a lowlife with a title.
“They treat their country as if she were their boots!” the chamberlain said. “Will she protect them from water when they walk on muddy roads?”
“She will, indeed,” Gadshill said. “We have greased our way with bribes and made our boots waterproof. We steal in complete security, as if we were in a castle. It is as if we could walk invisibly, like the folk belief says about people who harvest invisible fern seeds and carry around a bag of them in their pockets.”
“Don’t put your trust in fern seeds,” the chamberlain said. “Put your trust in darkness — it can better make you invisible.”
“Shake hands with me,” Gadshill said. “I promise as a honest man that you shall have a share in the booty because of the information you have given to me.”
“I prefer that you promise as a false thief to give me a share of the booty,” the chamberlain said.
“I am both an honest man and a dishonest thief — just not to the same people,” Gadshill said. “I assume that you are the same. Tell the groom to get my gelding out of the stable. Farewell, you dumb joker.”