Winning His Spurs by G. A. Henty
Chapter XIII. In the Hands of the Saracens.
The English had hoped that after one pitched battle they should be able to advance upon Jerusalem, but they had reckoned without the climate and illness.
Although unconquered in the fray, the Christian army was weakened by its sufferings to such an extent that it was virtually brought to a standstill. Even King Richard, with all his impetuosity, dared not venture to cut adrift from the seashore, and to march direct upon Jerusalem; that city was certainly not to be taken without a long siege, and this could only be undertaken by an army strong enough, not only to carry out so great a task, but to meet and defeat the armies which Saladin would bring up to the rescue, and to keep open the line down to Joppa, by which alone provisions, and the engines necessary for the siege, could be brought up. Hence the war resolved itself into a series of expeditions and detached fights.
The British camp was thoroughly fortified, and thence parties of the knights sallied out and engaged in conflicts with the Saracens, with varying success. On several of these expeditions Cuthbert attended the earl, and behaved with a bravery which showed him well worthy of the honours which he had received.
Upon one occasion the news reached camp that a party of knights, who had gone out to guard a number of footmen cutting forage and bringing it into camp, had been surrounded and had taken refuge in a small town, whose gates they had battered in when they saw the approach of an overwhelming host of the enemy. King Richard himself headed a strong force and advanced to their assistance. Their approach was not seen until within a short distance of the enemy, upon whom the crusaders fell with the force of a thunderbolt, and cleft their way through their lines. After a short pause in the little town, they prepared to again cut their way through, joined by the party who had there been besieged. The task was now however, far more difficult; for the footmen would be unable to keep up with the rapid charge of the knights, and it was necessary not only to clear the way, but to keep it open for their exit. King Richard himself and the greater portion of his knights were to lead the charge; another party were to follow behind the footmen, who were ordered to advance at the greatest speed of which they were capable, while their rearguard by charges upon the enemy, kept them at bay. To this latter party Cuthbert was attached.
The Saracens followed their usual tactics, and this time with great success. Dividing as the king with his knights charged them, they suffered these to pass through with but slight resistance, and then closed in upon their track, while another and still more numerous body fell upon the footmen and their guard. Again and again did the knights charge through the ranks of the Moslems, while the billmen stoutly kept together and resisted the onslaughts of the enemy's cavalry. In spite of their bravery, however, the storm of arrows shot by the desert horsemen thinned their ranks with terrible rapidity. Charging up to the very point of the spears, these wild horsemen fired their arrows into the faces of their foe, and although numbers of them fell beneath the more formidable missiles sent by the English archers, their numbers were so overwhelming that the little band melted away. The small party of knights, too, were rapidly thinned, although performing prodigious deeds of valour. The Saracens when dismounted or wounded still fought on foot, their object being always to stab or hough the horses, and so dismount the riders. King Richard and his force, though making the most desperate efforts to return to the assistance of the rearguard, were baffled by the sturdy resistance of the Saracens, and the position of those in the rear was fast becoming hopeless.
One by one the gallant little band of knights fell, and a sea of turbans closed over the fluttering plumes. Cuthbert, after defending himself with extreme bravery for a long time, was at last separated from the small remainder of his comrades by a rush of the enemy's horse, and when fighting desperately he received a heavy blow at the back of the head from the mace of a huge Nubian soldier, and fell senseless to the ground.
When he recovered his consciousness, the first impression upon his mind was the stillness which had succeeded to the din of battle; the shouts and war-cries of the crusaders, the wild yells of the Moslems, were hushed, and in their place was a quiet chatter in many unknown tongues, and the sound of laughter and feasting. Raising his head and looking round, Cuthbert saw that he and some ten of his comrades were lying together in the midst of a Saracen camp, and that he was a prisoner to the infidels. The sun streamed down with tremendous force upon them; there was no shelter; and though all were wounded and parched with thirst, the Saracens of whom they besought water, pointing to their mouths and making signs of their extreme thirst, laughed in their faces, and signified by a gesture that it was scarcely worth the trouble to drink when they were likely so soon to be put to death.
It was late in the afternoon before any change was manifest. Then Cuthbert observed a stir in the camp; the men ran to their horses, leapt on their backs, and with wild cries of "Welcome!" started off at full speed. Evidently some personage was about to arrive, and the fate of the prisoners would be solved. A few words were from time to time exchanged between these, each urging the other to keep up his heart and defy the infidel. One or two had succumbed to their wounds during the afternoon, and only six were able to stand erect when summoned to do so by some of their guard, who made signs to them that a great personage was coming. Soon the shouts of the horsemen and other sounds announced that the great chief was near at hand, and the captives gathered from the swelling shouts of the Arabs that the new arrival was Sultan Suleiman--or Saladin, for he was called by both names--surrounded by a body-guard of splendidly-dressed attendants. The emir, who was himself plainly attired, reined up his horse in front of the captives.
"You are English," he said, in the lingua-franca which was the medium of communication between the Eastern and Western peoples in those days. "You are brave warriors, and I hear that before you were taken you slaughtered numbers of my people. They did wrong to capture you and bring you here to be killed. Your cruel king gives no mercy to those who fall into his hands. You must not expect it here, you who without a pretence of right invade my country, slaughter my people, and defeat my armies. The murder of the prisoners of Acre has closed my heart to all mercy. There, your king put 10,000 prisoners to death in cold blood, a month after the capture of the place, because the money at which he had placed their ransom had not arrived. We Arabs do not carry huge masses of gold about with us; and although I could have had it brought from Egypt, I did not think that so brave a monarch as Richard of England could have committed so cruel an action in cold blood. When we are fresh from battle, and our wounds are warm, and our hearts are full of rage and fury, we kill our prisoners; but to do so weeks after a battle is contrary to the laws alike of your religion and of ours. However, it is King Richard who has sealed your doom, not I. You are knights, and I do not insult you with the offer of turning from your religion and joining me. Should one of you wish to save his life on these conditions, I will, however, promise him a place of position and authority among us."
None of the knights moved to accept the offer, but each, as the eye of the emir ran along the line, answered with an imprecation of contempt and hatred. Saladin waved his hand, and one by one the captives were led aside, walking as proudly to their doom as if they had been going to a feast. Each wrung the hand of the one next to him as he turned, and then without a word followed his captors. There was a dull sound heard, and one by one the heads of the knights rolled in the sand.
Cuthbert happened to be last in the line, and as the executioners laid hands upon him and removed his helmet, the eye of the sultan fell upon him, and he almost started at perceiving the extreme youth of his captive. He held his hand aloft to arrest the movements of the executioners, and signalled for Cuthbert to be brought before him again.
"You are but a boy," he said. "All the knights who have hitherto fallen into my hands have been men of strength and power; how is it that I see a mere youth among their ranks, and wearing the golden spurs of knighthood?"
"King Richard himself made me a knight," Cuthbert said proudly, "after having stood across him when his steed had been foully stabbed at the battle of Azotus, and the whole Moslem host were around him."
"Ah!" said the emir, "were you one of the two who, as I have heard, defended the king for some time against all assaults? It were hard indeed to kill so brave a youth. I doubt me not that at present you are as firmly determined to die a Christian knight as those who have gone before you? But time may change you. At any rate for the present your doom is postponed."
He turned to a gorgeously-dressed noble next to him, and said,--
"Your brother, Ben Abin, is Governor of Jerusalem, and the gardens of the palace are fair. Take this youth to him as a present, and set him to work in his gardens. His life I have spared, in all else Ben Abin will be his master."
Cuthbert heard without emotion the words which changed his fate from death to slavery. Many, he knew, who were captured in these wars were carried away as slaves to different parts of Asia, and it did not seem to him that the change was in any way a boon. However, life is dear, and it was but natural that a thought should leap into his heart that soon either the crusaders might force a way into Jerusalem and there rescue him, or that he himself might in some way escape.
The sultan having thus concluded the subject, turned away, and galloped off surrounded by his body-guard.
Those who had captured the Christians now stripped off the armour of Cuthbert; then he was mounted on a bare-backed steed, and with four Bedouins, with their long lances, riding beside him, started for Jerusalem. After a day of long and rapid riding, the Arabs stopped suddenly, on the crest of a hill, with a shout of joy, and throwing themselves from their horses, bent with their foreheads to the earth at the sight of their holy city. Cuthbert, as he gazed at the stately walls of Jerusalem, and the noble buildings within, felt bitterly that it was not thus that he had hoped to see the holy city. He had dreamt of arriving before it with his comrades, proud and delighted at their success so far, and confident in their power soon to wrest the town before them from the hands of the Moslems. Instead of this he was a slave--a slave to the infidel, perhaps never more to see a white face, save that of some other unfortunate like himself.
Even now in its fallen state no city is so impressive at first sight as Jerusalem; the walls, magnificent in height and strength, and picturesque in their deep embattlements, rising on the edge of a deep valley. Every building has its name and history. Here is the church built by the first crusaders; there the mighty mosque of Suleiman on the site of the Temple; far away on a projecting ridge the great building known as the Tomb of Moses; on the right beyond the houses rise the towers on the Roman walls; the Pool of Bethsaida lies in the hollow; in the centre are the cupolas of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Among all the fairest cities of the world, there are none which can compare in stately beauty with Jerusalem. Doubtless it was a fairer city in those days, for long centuries of Turkish possession have reduced many of the former stately palaces to ruins. Then, as now, the banner of the Prophet floated over the high places; but whereas at present the population is poor and squalid, the city in those days contained a far large number of inhabitants, irrespective of the great garrison collected for its defence.
The place from which Cuthbert had his first sight of Jerusalem is that from which the best view is to be obtained--the crest of the Mount of Olives. After a minute or two spent in looking at the city, the Arabs with a shout continued their way down into the valley. Crossing this they ascended the steep road to the walls, brandishing their lances and giving yells of triumph; then riding two upon each side of their prisoner, to protect him from any fanatic who might lay a hand upon him, they passed under the gate known as the Gate of Suleiman into the city.
The populace thronged the streets; and the news brought by the horsemen that a considerable portion of the Christian host had been defeated and slain, passed from mouth to mouth, and was received with yells of exultation. Execrations were heaped upon Cuthbert, who rode along with an air as quiet and composed as if he were the centre of an ovation instead of that of an outburst of hatred.
He would, indeed, speedily have been torn from his guards, had not these shouted that he was placed in their hands by Saladin himself for conduct to the governor. As the emir was as sharp and as ruthless with his own people as with the prisoners who fell into his hands, the name acted as a talisman, and Cuthbert and his escort rode forward without molestation until they reached the entrance to the palace.
Dismounting, Cuthbert was now led before the governor himself, a stern and grave-looking man, sitting cross-legged on a divan surrounded by officers and attendants. He heard in silence the account given him by the escort, bowed his head at the commands of Suleiman, and, without addressing a word to Cuthbert, indicated to two attendants that he was to be removed into the interior of the house. Here the young knight was led to a small dungeon-like room; bread and dates with a cruse of water were placed before him; the door was then closed and locked without, and he found himself alone with his thoughts.
No one came near him that night, and he slept as soundly as he would have done in his tent in the midst of the Christian host. He was resolved to give no cause for ill-treatment or complaint to his captors, to work as willingly, as cheerfully, as was in his power, and to seize the first opportunity to make his escape, regardless of any risk of his life which he might incur in doing so.
In the morning the door opened, and a black slave led him into the garden, which was surrounded by a very high and lofty wall. It was large, and full of trees and flowers, and far more beautiful than any garden that Cuthbert had seen in his native land. There were various other slaves at work; and an Arab, who appeared to be the head of the gardeners, at once appointed to Cuthbert the work assigned to him. A guard of Arabs with bow and spear watched the doings of the slaves.
With one glance round, Cuthbert was assured that escape from this garden, at least, was not to be thought of, and that for the present, patience alone was possible. Dismissing all ideas of that kind from his mind, he set to work with a steady attention to his task. He was very fond of flowers, and soon he became so absorbed in his work as almost to forget that he was a slave. It was not laborious--digging, planting, pruning and training the flowers, and giving them copious draughts of water from a large fountain in the centre of the garden.
The slaves were not permitted to exchange a word with each other. At the end of the day's work they were marched off to separate chambers, or, as they might be called, dungeons. Their food consisted of water, dried dates, and bread, and they had little to complain of in this respect; indeed, the slaves in the gardens of the governor's house at Jerusalem enjoyed an exceptionally favoured existence. The governor himself was absorbed in the cares of the city. The head gardener happened to be a man of unusual humanity, and it was really in his hands that the comfort of the prisoners was placed.
Sometimes in the course of the day, veiled ladies would issue in groups from the palace, attended by black slaves with drawn scimitars. They passed without unveiling across the point where the slaves were at work, and all were forbidden on pain of death to look up, or even to approach the konak or pavilion, where the ladies threw aside their veils, and enjoyed the scent and sight of the flowers, the splash of murmuring waters, and the strains of music touched by skilful hands.
Although Cuthbert wondered in his heart what these strange wrapped-up figures might look like when the veils were thrown back, he certainly did not care enough about the matter to run any risk of drawing the anger of his guards upon himself by raising his eyes towards them; nor did he ever glance up at the palace, which was also interdicted to the slaves. From the lattice casements during the day the strains of music and merry laughter often came down to the captives; but this, if anything, only added to the bitterness of their position, by reminding them that they were shut off for life from ever hearing the laughter of the loved ones they had left behind.
For upwards of a month Cuthbert remained steadily at work, and during that time no possible plan of escape had occurred to him, and he had indeed resigned himself to wait, either until, as he hoped, the city would be taken by the Christians, or until he himself might be removed from his present post and sent into the country, where, although his lot would doubtless be far harder, some chance of escape might open before him.
One night, long after slumber had fallen upon the city, Cuthbert was startled by hearing his door open. Rising to his feet, he saw a black slave, and an old woman beside him. The latter spoke first in the lingua-franca,--
"My mistress, the wife of the governor, has sent me to ask your story. How is it that, although but a youth, you are already a knight? How is it that you come to be a slave to our people? The sultan himself sent you to her lord. She would fain hear through me how it has happened. She is the kindest of ladies, and the sight of your youth has touched her heart."
With thanks to the unknown lady who had felt an interest in him, Cuthbert briefly related the events which had led to his captivity. The old woman placed on the ground a basket containing some choice fruit and white bread, and then departed with the negro as quietly as she had come, leaving Cuthbert greatly pleased at what had taken place.
"Doubtless," he said to himself, "I shall hear again; and it may be that through the pity of this lady some means of escape may open to me."
Although for some little time no such prospect appeared, yet the visits of the old woman, which were frequently repeated, were of interest to him, and seemed to form a link between him and the world.
After coming regularly every night for a week, she bade the young knight follow her, holding her finger to her lips in sign that caution must be observed. Passing through several passages, he was at length led into a room where a lady of some forty years of age, surrounded by several slaves and younger women, was sitting. Cuthbert felt no scruple in making a deep obeisance to her; the respect shown to women in the days of chivalry was very great, and Cuthbert in bowing almost to the ground before the lady who was really his mistress, did not feel that he was humiliating himself.
"Young slave," she said, "your story has interested us. We have frequently watched from the windows, and have seen how willingly and patiently you have worked; and it seems strange indeed that one so young should have performed such feats of bravery as to win the honour of knighthood from the hand of that greatest of warriors, Richard of England. What is it, we would fain learn from your lips, that stirs up the heart of the Christian world that they should launch their armies against us, who wish but to be left alone, and who have no grudge against them? This city is as holy to us as it is to you; and as we live around it, and all the country for thousands of miles is ours, is it likely that we should allow it to be wrested from us by strangers from a distance?"
This was spoken in some Eastern language of which Cuthbert understood no word, but its purport was translated to him by the old woman who had hitherto acted as his mistress's messenger.
Cuthbert reported the circumstances of the fight at Azotus and endeavoured to explain the feelings which had given rise to the Crusade. He then, at the orders of the lady, related the incidents of his voyage out, and something of his life at home, which was more interesting even than the tale of his adventures to his hearers, as to them the home-life of these fierce Christian warriors was entirely unknown.
After an audience of two hours Cuthbert was conducted back to his cell, his mistress assuring him of her good-will, and promising to do all in her power to make his captivity as light as possible.