Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter X. Pirates.
It was not possible that a matter of this sort could be entirely hushed up. Not many hours passed before rumours were current of events which had taken place, though none knew what those events were.
There were reports that the tire-woman of the Princess Berengaria had in the night discovered that her mistress's couch was unoccupied, that she had found signs of a struggle, and had picked up a dagger on the floor, where it had evidently fallen from the sheath; also it was said, that the princess had returned at daylight escorted by an armed party, and that she was unable to obtain entrance to the palace until one of the ladies of the queen had been fetched down to order the sentries at the gate to allow her to enter.
This was the news which rumour carried through the camp. Few, however, believed it, and none who could have enlightened them opened their lips upon the subject.
It was known, however, that a messenger had come to King Richard early, and that he had at once mounted, and ridden off to the bishop's palace. What had happened there none could say, but there were rumours that his voice had been heard in furious outbursts of passion. He remained there until the afternoon, when he sent for a number of his principal nobles.
When these arrived, they found him standing on a dais in the principal hall of the palace, and he there formally introduced to them the Princess Berengaria as his affianced wife. The ceremony of the marriage, he told them, would shortly take place.
This announcement caused a tremendous stir in both armies. The English, who had never been favourable to the alliance with the French princess, were glad to hear that this was broken off, and were well content that the Princess Berengaria should be their future queen, for her beauty, high spirit, and kindness had won all hearts.
On the part of the French, on the other hand, there was great indignation, and for some time it was feared that the armies would come to open blows.
King Phillip, however, although much angered, was politic enough to deprecate any open outbreak. He knew that a dispute now began, would not only at once put a stop to the Crusade, but that it might lead to more serious consequences at home. The fiery bravery of the English king, backed as it would be by the whole strength of his subjects, might render him a very formidable opponent; and the king felt that private grievances must be laid aside where the good of France was concerned.
Still the coldness between the armies increased, their camps were moved further apart, and during the time that they remained in Sicily, there was but little commerce between the two forces.
As soon as the winter had broken, the French monarch broke up his camp, and in March sailed for the Holy Land.
The English had expected that the marriage ceremony of the king and Princess Berengaria would be celebrated before they left Sicily, but this was not the case. There were high joustings and fetes in honour of the princess, but the marriage was delayed. A fortnight after the French had sailed, the English embarked in the 200 ships, which had been prepared, and sailed also on their way to Acre.
It must not be supposed that the attempted abduction of the Princess Berengaria was unimportant in its results to Cuthbert.
After returning from the palace the king, who had heard from her the details of what had taken place, and the names of her rescuers, sent for the Earl of Evesham. The latter had of course learned from Cuthbert all that had happened, and had expressed his high approval of his conduct, and his gratification at the result.
"I learn, Sir Earl," said King Richard, "that it is to you that I am indebted for the rescue of the princess. She tells me, that suspecting some plot, you placed a guard around the bishop's palace, with a strong body on the shore ready to rescue her from the hands of any who might attempt to take her to sea."
"It is as you say, sire," replied the earl; "but the whole merit of the affair rests upon my page, the lad whom you may remember as having fought with and conquered the French page, and of whose conduct you then approved highly. You may also remember that he escaped by some display of bravery and shrewdness the further attempts to assassinate him, and your Majesty was good enough to make a complaint to King Phillip of the conduct of one of his nobles on that head. It seems that some two months since, the lad in coming through the French camp at night missed his way, and accidentally overheard a few words spoken in a voice which he recognized as that of his enemy. The name of your Majesty being mentioned, he deemed it his duty to listen, and thus discovered that a plot was on foot for carrying off the princess. After consultation with me, we agreed upon the course to be adopted, namely, to place sentries round the bishop's palace and the buildings adjoining, who should follow and bring word should she be taken to another place in town, while a band was placed on the shore in readiness to interfere at once to prevent her being carried away by sea. He undertook the management of all details, having with him a trusty squire who commands my Saxon bowmen."
"For your own part I thank you, my lord," the king said, "and, believe me, you shall not find Richard ungrateful. As to your page, he appears brave and wise beyond his years. Were it not that I think that it would not be good for him, and might attract some envy upon the part of others, I would at once make him a knight. He already has my promise that I will do so on the first occasion when he can show his prowess upon the infidels. Bring him to me to-morrow, when the princess will be here with the Queen of Navarre at a banquet. I would fain thank him before her; and, although I have agreed--at the princess's earnest solicitation--to take no further notice of the matter, and to allow it to pass as if it had not been, yet I cannot forgive the treachery which has been used, and, without letting all know exactly what has occurred, would fain by my reception of your page, let men see that something of great import has happened, of the nature of which I doubt not that rumour will give some notion."
Upon the following day, therefore, Cuthbert to his confusion found himself the centre of the royal circle. The king expressed himself to him in the most gracious manner, patting him on the shoulder, and said that he would be one day one of the best and bravest of his knights. The princess and the Queen of Navarre gave him their hands to kiss; and somewhat overwhelmed, he withdrew from the royal presence, the centre of attention, and, in some minds, of envy.
Cnut too did not pass unrewarded.
His Majesty, finding that Cnut was of gentle Saxon blood, gave him a gold chain in token of his favour, and distributed a heavy purse among the men who had followed him.
When the British fleet, numbering 200 ships, set sail from Sicily, it was a grand and martial sight. From the masts were the colours of England and those of the nobles who commanded; while the pennons of the knights, the bright plumes and mantles, the flash of armour and arms, made the decks alive with light and colour.
The king's ship advanced in the van, and round him were the vessels containing his principal followers. The Queen of Navarre and the Princess Berengaria were with the fleet. Strains of music rose from the waters, and never were the circumstances of war exhibited in a more picturesque form.
For two days the expedition sailed on, and then a change of a sudden and disastrous kind took place.
"What is all this bustle about?" Cuthbert said to Cnut. "The sailors are running up the ladders, and all seems confusion."
"Methinks," said Cnut, "that we are about to have a storm. A few minutes ago scarce a cloud was to be seen; now that bank over there has risen half-way up the sky. The sailors are accustomed to these treacherous seas, and the warnings which we have not noticed have no doubt been clear enough to them." With great rapidity the sails of the fleet came down, and in five minutes its whole aspect was changed; but quickly as the sailors had done their work, the storm was even more rapid in its progress. Some of the ships whose crews were slower or less skilful than the others, were caught by the gale before they could get their sails snug, and the great sheets of white canvas were blown from the bolt ropes as if made of paper, and a blackness which could almost be felt, covered the sea, the only light being that given by the frothing waters. There was no longer any thought of order. Each ship had to shift for herself; and each captain to do his best to save those under his charge, without thought of what might befall the others.
In the ship which carried the Earl of Evesham's contingent, order and discipline prevailed. The earl's voice had been heard at the first puff of wind, shouting to the men to go below, save a few who might be of use to haul at ropes. His standard was lowered, the bright flags removed from the sides of the ship, the shields which were hanging over the bulwarks were hurriedly taken below, and when the gale smote them, the ship was trim, and in readiness to receive it. A few square yards of sail alone were all that the captain had thought it prudent to keep spread, and in a minute from the time she was struck the lofty hulk was tearing along through the waters at a tremendous speed. Four of the best hands were placed at the helm; and here the captain took his post.
The danger was now that in the darkness they might run against one of their consorts. Even in the war of the elements they could hear from time to time crashes as of vessels striking against each other, with shouts and cries. Once or twice from the darkness ships emerged, close on one hand or the other; but the steadiness of the captain in each case saved the ship from collision.
As the storm continued, these glimpses of other vessels became more and more rare, and the ship being a very fast sailer, the captain indulged the hope that he was now clear of the rest of the fleet.
He now attempted to lie-to to the storm, but the wind was too strong. The ships in those days too, were so high out of the water, and offered in themselves such a target to the wind, that it was useless to adopt any other maneuver than to run before it.
For two days and nights the tempest raged.
"What think you," the earl said to the captain, "of our position? Where are we, and where will the course upon which we are running take us?"
"I cannot say with certainty," the captain said, "for the wind has shifted several times. I had hoped to gain the shelter of Rhodes, but a shift of wind bore us away from there, and I much fear that from the direction in which we have been running we must be very nigh on the coast of Africa."
"Pest!" the earl said. "That would indeed be a speedy end to our Crusade. These Moors are pirates and cut-throats to a man; and even should we avoid the risk of being dashed to pieces, we should end our lives as slaves to one of these black infidels."
Three hours later, the captain's prophecies turned out right. Breakers were seen in various points in front, and with the greatest difficulty the vessel was steered through an opening between them; but in another few minutes she struck heavily, one of her masts went over the side, and she lay fast and immovable. Fortunately, the outside bank of sand acted as a sort of breakwater; had she struck upon this, the good ship would have gone to pieces instantly; but although the waves still struck her with considerable force, the captain had good hope that she would not break up. Darkness came on; the tempest seemed to lull. As there was no immediate danger, and all were exhausted by the tossing which they had received during the last forty-eight hours, the crew of the "Rose" slept soundly.
In the morning the sun rose brilliantly, and there was no sign of the great storm which had scattered the fleet of England. The shore was to be seen at a distance of some four miles, It was low and sandy, with lofty mountains in the distance. Far inland a white town with minaret and dome could be seen.
"Know you where we are?" the earl asked.
"As far as I can tell," the captain said, "we have been driven up the bay called the Little Syrtis--a place full of shoals and shallows, and abounding with pirates of the worst kind."
"Think you that the ship has suffered injury?"
"Whether she has done so or not," the captain said, "I fear greatly that she is fast in the sand, and even the lightening of all her cargo will scarce get her off; but we must try at least."
"It is little time that we shall have to try, Master Captain," Cuthbert, who was standing close, said. "Methinks those two long ships which are putting out from that town will have something to say to that."
"It is too true," the captain said. "Those are the galleys of the Moorish corsairs. They are thirty or forty oars, draw but little water, and will be here like the wind."
"What do you advise?" asked the earl. "The balistas which you have upon the poop can make but a poor resistance to boats that can row around us, and are no doubt furnished with heavy machines. They will quickly perceive that we are aground and defenceless, and will be able to plump their bolts into us until they have knocked the good ship to pieces. However, we will fight to the last. It shall not be said that the Earl of Evesham was taken by infidel dogs and sold as a slave, without striking a blow in his defence."
Cuthbert stood watching the corsairs, which were now rowing towards them at all speed.
"Methinks, my lord," he said, presently, "if I might venture to give an opinion, that we might yet trick the infidel."
"As how, Cuthbert?" the earl said. "Speak out; you know that I have great faith in your sagacity."
"I think, sir," the page said, "that did we send all your men below, leaving only the crew of the vessel on deck, they would take us for a merchant ship which has been wrecked here, and exercise but little care how they approach us. The men on deck might make a show of shooting once or twice with the balistas. The pirates, disdaining such a foe, would row alongside. Once there, we might fasten one or both to our side with grapnels, and then, methinks, that English bill and bow will render us more than a match for Moorish pirates, and one of these craft can scarcely carry more men than we have. I should propose to take one of them by force, and drive the pirates overboard; take possession of, if possible, or beat off, her consort; and then take the most valuable stores from the ship, and make our way as best we can to the north."
"Well thought of!" exclaimed the earl, cordially. "You have indeed imagined a plan which promises well. What think you, captain?"
"I think, my lord," the Genoese said, "that the plan is an excellent one, and promises every success. If your men will all go below, holding their arms in readiness for the signal, mine shall prepare grapnels and ropes, and the first of these craft which comes alongside they will lash so securely to the "Rose" that I warrant me she gets not away."
These preparations were soon made.
The soldiers, who at first had been filled with apprehension at the thought of slavery among the infidels, were now delighted at the prospect of a struggle ending in escape.
The archers prepared their bows and arrows, and stood behind the port-holes in readiness to pour a volley into the enemy; the men-at-arms grasped their pikes and swords; while above, the sailors moved hither and thither as if making preparations for defence, but in reality preparing the grapnels and ropes.
One of the pirates was faster than the other, and soon coming within reach, poured flights of javelins and stones upon the "Rose" from powerful machines, which she carried in her bow.
The crew of the "Rose" replied with their crossbows and arrows from the poop.
The corsair at first did not keep her course direct for the ship, but rowed round her, shooting arrows and casting javelins. Then, apparently satisfied that no great precaution need be observed with a feebly-manned ship in so great a strait as the "Rose," they set up a wild cry of "Allah!" and rowed towards her.
In two minutes the corsair was alongside of the "Rose," and the fierce crew were climbing up her sides. As she came alongside the sailors cast grapnels into her rigging, and fastened her to the "Rose;" and then aloud shout of "Hurrah for England!" was heard; the ports opened, and a volley of arrows was poured upon the astonished corsair; and from the deck above the assailants were thrown back into the galley, and a swarm of heavily armed men leapt down from the ship upon them.
Taken by surprise, and indeed outnumbered, the resistance of the corsairs was but slight. In a close fierce m^l,e like this the light-armed Moors had but little chance with the mail-clad English, whose heavy swords and axes clove their defences at a blow. The fight lasted but three minutes, and then the last of the corsairs was overboard.
The men who rowed the galley had uttered the most piercing cries while this conflict had been raging. They were unable to take any part in it, had they been disposed to do so, for they were all slaves chained to the oars.
Scarcely had the conflict ended when the other galley arrived upon the scene; but seeing what had happened, and that her consort had fallen into the hands of the English, she at once turned her head, and rowed back rapidly to the town from which she had come.
Among the slaves who rowed the galley were many white men, and their cries of joy at their liberation greatly affected those who had thus unexpectedly rescued them. Hammers were soon brought into requisition, the shackles struck off them, and a scene of affecting joy took place. The slaves were of all nationalities, but Italians and Spaniards, French and Greeks, formed the principal part. There was no time, however, to be lost; the arms and munitions of war were hastily removed from the "Rose," together with the most valuable of the stores.
The galley-slaves again took their places, and this time willingly, at the oars, the places of the weakest being supplied by the English, whose want of skill was made up by the alacrity with which they threw their strength into the work; and in an hour from the time that the galley had arrived alongside of the "Rose," her head was turned north, and with sixty oars she was rowing at all speed for the mouth of the bay.