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After leaving the slaves, Gervaise joined his companions on the poop. They were engaged in an animated discussion as to whether it was advisable to grant indulgences to slaves. The majority approved of the steps Gervaise had taken, but some asserted that these concessions would only lead them to look for more, and would create discontent among the crews of other galleys not so favoured.
"Well, comrades," said Gervaise, "I think that so far I am better qualified than any of you to give an opinion; but it may be that it will fall to the lot of some of you to be a slave in Turkish hands. In that case, I can affirm with certainty, that you will keenly appreciate any alleviation, however small, of your lot. You must remember that the one feeling of the slave is dull despair. Death is the only relief he has to look forward to. Do you think that a man so feeling can do his best, either at an oar or at any other kind of work? I am sure it would not be so in my case. But if you brighten his life a little, and show him that he is not regarded as merely a brute beast, and that you take some interest in him, he will work in a different spirit. Even viewed from a merely monetary point of view it must pay well to render him as content as possible with his lot. You know how great is the mortality among the slaves -- how they pine away and die from no material malady that can be detected, but simply from hopelessness and weariness of life, aided, undoubtedly, in the case of the galley slaves, by sleeping in the damp night air after an exposure all day to the full heat of the sun. This brings an answer to your second objection. Undoubtedly it might cause discontent among the slaves of other galleys when they hear that others are treated better than themselves. But I hope that if, on our return, we bring back all our slaves in good condition and health, the contrast between their appearance and that of the slaves in most other galleys will be so marked that the admiral may consider it would be well to order awnings to be fixed to all the vessels of the Order, and even to grant to all slaves, when away on voyages, the little indulgences I have given them here. The expense would be very trifling, and it would certainly add a great deal to the average life of a slave, and would render him capable of better work. There is another advantage. If the Turks learn that their countrymen in our hands are treated with a certain amount of kindness and consideration, it might lead them to act similarly to those of our Order who may be unfortunate enough to fall into their hands."
"There is a great deal in what you say, Sir Gervaise," one of the knights, who had before taken the opposite point of view, said. "There is no reason why our galley should not be a model one, and though, like enough, the seniors will laugh at our making innovations, D'Aubusson is a reformer, and will certainly support anything that he sees to be beneficial, from whatever quarter it comes."
Supper was now served, and the young knights were well pleased with the entertainment provided for them. It was the principal meal of the day. Their fast was broken by a glass of wine, a manchet of bread, and fruit soon after rising. At eleven o'clock they sat down to a more substantial meal; but in that climate the heat was at that hour considerable, and as there were duties to be performed, there was no sitting long at table. At supper the day's work was over, their appetite was sharpened by the cool evening breeze, and the meal was hearty and prolonged. After it was concluded, several of the knights brought up from below viols and other instruments of music; for the ability to accompany the voice with such an instrument was considered an essential part of the education of a knight.
For some hours the songs and romances, so popular at the time, were sung in the various languages represented on board; then the knights, one by one, went down to their sleeping places, until only the seven knights of the langue of Auvergne, who were to watch the first night, remained on deck. Five of these wrapped themselves in their mantles and lay down on the benches. One of the others descended to the waist, walked along the plank between the lines of sleeping slaves, and took up his place in the bow, while the other paced up and down the poop, the fall of his footsteps being the only sound to break the silence that reigned throughout the ship.
In the morning, as soon as the knights had all taken a plunge in the sea, the oars were got out, and the galley proceeded on her way. Passing through the islands and skirting the southern shore of Greece, she continued her course west. Malta was sighted, but they did not put in there. Pantellaria was passed, and in a fortnight after leaving Rhodes, Cape Bon, at the entrance to the bay of Tunis, was sighted. Until Greece was left behind them, the nights had generally been spent in small ports, where supplies of fresh meat, fish, and fruit, were obtainable. So far no incident had marked the voyage. The weather had continued fine, and they had heard nothing, from ships they had fallen in with, of any Moslem pirates having been seen. A few hours, however, after sighting the coast of Africa, a dark object was seen ahead.
"It is a ship of some sort," Ralph said; "but her masts have gone. It may be that she is a merchantman that has been captured and sacked by the Moorish pirates."
Orders were given to the rowers to quicken their pace, and in little over an hour they were alongside the hull. As soon as the vessels were close enough for those on the poop of the galley to look down on to the deck of the other craft, it was seen that Ralph's suppositions were correct. Two bodies lay stretched upon it. One was crushed under the fallen mast; the other lay huddled up in a heap, a cannon ball having almost torn him asunder. The knights leapt on to the deck as soon as the galley ran alongside. Gervaise made first for the man lying beneath the mast; as he came up to him, the sailor opened his eyes and murmured, "Water!" Gervaise called out to one of the servants to bring water from the galley, and, as soon as it came, poured some between the man's lips, and the knights by their united efforts lifted the mast from across his body. It was evident, however, that he had but a short time to live, and the dew of death was on his face. After a few minutes he rallied a little, and looked gratefully at his rescuers.
"You have been attacked by pirates," Gervaise said. "Was there one galley, or two?"
"Three galleys," the man replied in a faint whisper.
"Do you know where they were from?"
"How long ago?"
"It was about three hours after sunrise when we saw them coming up," the man said, his voice gaining in strength, as some wine they gave him took effect. "It was useless to fight, and I hauled down our flag, but in spite of that one of the pirates fired a broadside, and one of the shot hit the mast and brought it down, and I was crushed under it. They boarded us, took off all the crew as captives, and emptied the hold; I knew that I was done for, and begged them to kill me; but they paid no attention. I know a little of their language, and as I lay there I caught something of what they were saying; they are bound for the Island of Sardinia, where they have a rendezvous, and are to join a great gathering of their consorts. I don't know the name of the place, but it is on the east coast. More water!"
Gervaise knelt to pour some water between his lips, when he gave a sudden cry, a shudder ran through his frame, and he was dead.
"Let us return on board, gentlemen," Gervaise said, rising to his feet. "We can do nothing here."
As soon as he regained the deck of the galley, he signed to Ralph to follow him below.
"Now, Ralph," he said, "this is one of those cases in which we have to decide whether we ought or ought not to be prudent. From what that poor fellow said, the pirates have about five hours' start of us, and as they can have no idea that they are pursued, we can doubtless overtake them before they reach Sardinia. The question is, ought we to pursue them at once, or ought we to coast along until we find Visconti's galley? Three of these Tripoli pirates, crowded as they always are with men, would prove serious opponents, yet we might engage them with a fair hope of victory. But we may be seriously disabled in the fight, and should be, perhaps, unable to carry the news to Genoa that there are many pirate ships gathering on the coast of Sardinia to prey upon their commerce."
"We might be days, or even weeks, before we light upon Visconti's galley, Gervaise, and even when we found it, he might not consider himself justified in leaving the coast where he is stationed. Besides, while we are spending our time looking for him, the pirates will be committing terrible depredations. It must be a big expedition, under some notorious pirate, or they would never venture so far north."
"Then you think that I should be justified in pursuing them alone. It is a fearful responsibility to have to decide."
"I think so, Gervaise. There is no saying what misfortunes might happen if we did not venture to do so."
"Very well then, so be it. But before deciding finally on so grave a matter, I will lay it before the company."
"There is no doubt as to what their decision will be," Ralph said, with a smile.
"Perhaps not, Ralph; but as they will be called upon to risk their lives in a dangerous enterprise, it is as well that they should have a say in the matter."
When they returned on to the poop, there was an expression of eagerness and excitement on the faces of the young knights which showed how anxiously they had been awaiting the result of the conference below. Gervaise stepped on to a bench, and motioned to them to close up round him.
"Comrades," he said, "although the responsibility of whatever course may be taken must rest upon my shoulders, yet I think it but right that, as a general before a battle often calls a council of war to assist him with its advice, so I should lay before you the two courses open to us, and ask your opinion upon them. Sir Ralph Harcourt and I are of one mind in the matter, but as the decision is a grave one we should be loath to act upon it without your concurrence."
He then repeated the alternatives as he had laid them before Ralph. "Now," he went on, "as you see, there is grave danger, and much risk in the one course; but if successful its advantages are obvious. On the other hand, the second plan is more sure, more prudent, and more in accordance with the instructions I have received. I ask you to let me know frankly your opinion on the subject. If your view agrees with ours, although it will not relieve me from the responsibility of deciding, it will at least, in the event of things turning out badly, be a satisfaction to know that the course had your approval, and that it was your desire, as well as ours, that we should undertake it. First, then, let all who are in favour of following the pirates go to the starboard side of the deck, while those who are in favour of joining Visconti, and laying this serious matter we have discovered before him, move to the larboard side."
There was a rush of the knights to the right, and not one moved to the other side.
"Your decision is the same as ours," Gervaise said. "To the north, then! If there is great peril in the adventure, there is also great honour to be gained."
The knights gave a shout of satisfaction at finding that their choice was also that of the officers.
"Lay her head to the north," Gervaise said to the pilot. Then he went to the end of the poop, and ordered the slaves to row on. "Row a long, steady stroke, such as you can maintain for many hours. We have a long journey before us, and there is need for haste. Now is the time for willing work."
The oars dipped into the water, and the galley was soon moving along at a much faster pace than that at which they had performed the journey from Rhodes. The slaves had not, from their benches, been able to see what had passed on board the dismantled vessel, but from the order and the change of course, they had no doubt that the knights had obtained some clue to the direction taken by the corsairs who had captured and sacked the ship.
"There is but little wind," Gervaise said to Ralph, "and their sails will be of slight use to them; therefore we shall go fully three feet to their two. It is quite possible that we may not catch sight of them, for we cannot tell exactly the course they will take. We shall steer for Cape Carbonara, which is some hundred and thirty miles distant. If we do not see them by the time we get there, we shall be sure that we have passed them on the way, unless, indeed, a strong wind should spring up from the south. However, I hope that we shall catch sight of them before that, for we shall be able from our lookout to discover their masts and sails some eight or ten miles away, while they will not be able to see us until we are within half that distance. They cannot be more than twenty miles away now, for the light breeze will aid them but little, and as they will see no occasion for haste, they will not be rowing at their full power, with so long a passage before them."
Already, indeed, one of the knights had perched himself on the seat at the top of a low mast some fifteen feet above the poop, that served as a lookout.
"You can see nothing yet, I suppose, Cairoli?"
"No; the line of sea is clear all round."
It was indeed some four hours before the knight on the lookout cried that he could make out three dark specks on the horizon. Gervaise at once ascended to the lookout, by the ladder that was fixed against the post.
"They are making to the left of the course we are taking. Turn her head rather more to the west. That will do. They are directly ahead now." He then came down to the deck again. "I would that we had seven or eight more hours of daylight, Ralph, instead of but three at the outside. However, as we know the course they are taking, we are not likely to miss them, for as we shall not be near enough for them to make us out before the sun sets, there will be no chance of their changing it. Do you think they will row all night?"
"I should not think so. If the land were nearer they might keep on until they make it, but as they have had no wind since daylight, they will lie on their oars until morning. You see, at sunset they will still be some eighty miles from Cape Carbonara, and the slaves could not possibly row that distance without rest; so that if we keep on we may take them by surprise."
"That is what I have been thinking, Ralph, but it would be well not to attack them until nearly daybreak. We should capture one galley easily enough; but the others, being ignorant of our force, might make off in different directions, and we might lose both of them. If, on the other hand, we could fall upon them a short time before daylight, we should be able to keep them in sight, and, even if they separated, they would soon come together and continue their course, or, as I hope, when they see that we are alone, bear up and fight us. I think that our best plan will be to row on until it is dark, then give the slaves six hours' rest, and after that go on quietly. If we can make them out, which we may do if they have lights on board, we will stop, and wait until it is the hour to attack them. If we miss them, we will row on to Sardinia and lie up, as we proposed, until they come along."
"I think that will be a very good plan, Gervaise."
Before sunset the three pirate ships could be clearly made out from the deck, but the pilot judged them to be fully ten miles away. Half an hour later the slaves were told to cease rowing. Gervaise had ordered the cooks to prepare them a good meal, and this was at once served, together with a full ration of wine. As soon as they had consumed it, they were told to lie down and sleep, as at one o'clock the galley would be again under way.
The knights' supper was served below, as lights on the poop might be made out, should a lookout be placed by the corsairs in their tops.
"We had better follow the example of the galley slaves," Gervaise said, rising as soon as the meal was finished, "and, with the exception of Spain, who is on watch, turn in to sleep till we are off again. All of you will, of course, don your armour on rising."
At the appointed hour the galley was again under way. There was not a breath of air, and before starting, pieces of cloth were wrapped round the oars at the rowlocks to deaden the sound, which might otherwise have been heard at a considerable distance on so still a night. After an hour and a half's rowing, the knight on the lookout said that he could see a light some distance ahead. The pilot, an experienced old sailor, joined him, and speedily descended to the poop again.
"It is a ship's light," he said. "I should say that it was a lantern on board the ship of the captain of the expedition, and is shown to enable the other two to keep near him. I cannot say how far it is away, for I do not know at what height it hangs above the water; but I should imagine, from the feebleness of the light, that it must be some two miles distant."
As soon as the light had been noticed, the slaves had been ordered to cease rowing, and they were now told that they would not be required again for fully two hours. When the first gleam of dawn appeared in the east they were called to their work again. The lantern was still burning, and, in a quarter of an hour, the knights on the poop were able, in the broadening light, to make out three shadowy forms some two miles ahead of them. They decreased this distance by more than half before they could discern any signs of life or motion on board. Then a sudden stir was apparent; they could hear shouts from one vessel to another, oars were thrust out, and an effort made to get the heads of the ships in the same direction, so as to catch the light breeze that had just sprung up.
The moment he saw that the galley was discovered, Gervaise shouted down to the slaves to row their hardest, and told the pilot to steer for the ship farthest to the east. She was some four or five hundred yards from her nearest consort, and the same distance separated that vessel from the third craft.
"We shall have time to carry her, Ralph, before the others come to her assistance, and they will only arrive one at a time. If we were to lie alongside the middle craft, which is probably that of the chief, as it is she that has the light burning, we might have the other two upon us before we had done with her, for she is evidently the largest, and most likely the strongest handed, of them."
The leader of the pirates evidently saw that there was no chance of evading the fight. A flag was run up to the masthead of his ship, and the three vessels began to endeavour to turn, so as to meet the galley. The operation, however, took some time. In the confusion, orders were misunderstood, and instead of all the slaves on one side rowing whilst those on the other side backed, all order was lost, and long before the craft for which the galley was making had got round, the latter was upon her.
"Shall I ram her, Sir Gervaise?" the pilot asked.
"No; we might damage ourselves; besides, I do not want to sink her. Sheer away the oars on one side!"
The galley carried eight guns -- three on each side of the poop, and two forward; and these had been loaded with small pieces of iron. A few shots had been fired by the pirates, but, owing to the confusion that prevailed on board, the guns were discharged so hurriedly that the shot either flew overhead or passed wide of the galley. Excited as the young knights were, and eager for the fray, a general laugh broke out as the galley swept along by the pirate ship, breaking many of her oars, and hurling all the slaves who manned them backwards off their benches. A moment later the guns poured their iron contents among the pirates who clustered thickly on the forecastle and poop, and as the vessels grated together the knights sprang on board the corsair.
The members of the English langue had each been provided with short pieces of rope, and before joining their companions in the fray they lashed the vessels together, side by side. The fight was a very short one. France and Auvergne, led by Ralph Harcourt, boarded at the bow, the other five langues at the poop; and so impetuous was their onset that the pirates, who had still scarce recovered from their surprise at being hastily aroused from sleep to repel the attack of the foe who had so suddenly sprung out from the darkness upon them, offered but a feeble resistance. Many threw themselves overboard, and swam to the ship nearest to them; others were cut down; and the rest flung away their arms, and cried for quarter.
All who did so were, without the loss of a minute's time, thrown down into the hold of their ship, and the hatches secured over them. It had before been arranged that Ralph should take the command of the corsair, having with him France, Auvergne, and Germany. As soon, therefore, as the captives were fastened below, Gervaise called the knights of the other four langues back to the deck of the galley. The lashings were cast off, she was pushed from the side of the prize, and the oars were got out. There was no time to be lost, for the largest of the three pirate ships, which had, directly it was seen that her consort was captured, poured two heavy broadsides into the prize, was now approaching -- rowing but slowly, however, for the third vessel to come up.
She was but a hundred yards away when the galley swept round the bow of the prize and advanced to meet her. As she did so, Ralph discharged the eight guns of the prize, which he had at once reloaded, into the bow of the corsair, the shot raking the crowded deck from end to end. When but a few yards distant, the two bow guns of the galley poured in a shower of missiles, and a moment later she ran alongside the pirate, the poop guns, as before, preparing the way for the boarders. But no sooner had they leapt on deck than they were met by the pirates, headed by their captain.
Gervaise had specially charged the knights not to allow themselves to be carried away by their ardour. "We are sure to be greatly outnumbered, and, when we first spring on board, we must cut our way across the deck, and then form ourselves in a double or treble line across it, and, so fighting, gradually force them before us."
This, in spite of the efforts of the pirates, was accomplished, and, once formed, the corsairs strove in vain to break through the wall of steel. For a time, however, no forward movement could be made, so furious were the attacks upon them, led by the pirate chief. Several times breaches were made in the front rank, but the knights behind each time bore back the assault, and restored the line. The knights had won their way half along the poop when a yell of exultation rose from the corsairs as the third of their vessels rowed up on the other side of the galley, and her crew sprang on board it. Gervaise called the knights of the second line from their places, and ranged them along the bulwark, to prevent the Moors from boarding from the poop of the galley.
Then for a moment he looked round. The prize was creeping up, and was a length or two away, coming up alongside. Its approach was also noticed by the pirates, who, with wild shouts, flung themselves upon their opponents. Gervaise sprang forward to take the place of a young Italian knight, who staggered back, with his helmet cleft by a heavy blow from the keen yataghan of the pirate captain. The corsair, shouting his war cry of "Allah!" sprang with the bound of a wild cat upon Gervaise; his weapon descended on his uplifted guard, and shore right through the stout blade. With a shout of triumph, the corsair raised his arm to repeat the blow; but Gervaise in turn sprang forward, and struck with all his force with the pommel of his sword on the forehead of his opponent. The latter fell as if shot, his weapon dropping from his hand beside him.
Dismayed at the fall of their leader, his followers recoiled for a moment. Another tall pirate sprang forward to take his place, and, shouting to them to follow, was about to throw himself upon Gervaise, when a gun crashed out close alongside. A storm of iron swept away the front line of Moors, and the shout of "St. John!" "St. John!" rose above the din. It was one of the bow guns of the prize, and as she swept along gun after gun poured its contents among the pirates.
"Do you clear the galley, Ralph. We can manage here now," Gervaise said, as Ralph leapt on board. The latter, followed by his party of knights, rushed across the poop, and sprang on to the galley among the pirates, who had been striving in vain to break through the line of defenders. Gervaise called to his party to follow him, and, taking the offensive, fell upon the remnant of the corsairs who still held the forward end of the poop.
The discharge of the cannon at such close quarters had wrought terrible havoc among them, and the pirates, with but slight resistance, turned, and either ran down the ladder or leapt into the water. The knights followed them forward among the benches of the rowers, who cheered loudly in many tongues as they passed them. At the forecastle the Moors made another stand, but the knights forced their way up, and in two minutes all was over.
"Now to the aid of our comrades!" Gervaise shouted, as the last of the corsairs was struck down.
Ralph's party had indeed cleared the poop of the galley, but they in vain endeavoured to climb up on to that of the third pirate ship, whose superior height gave a great advantage to its defenders. Gervaise leapt down on to the bow of the galley, followed by the knights, and then ran aft until he could climb into the waist of the pirate. So intent were the corsairs upon defending the poop that they did not see what was going on elsewhere, and Gervaise had obtained a fair footing before he was noticed. Then a number of men ran down and attacked his party. But it was too late, for the whole of the knights had, by this time, leaped on board. Their assailants were forced back, and, pressing close upon them, the knights gained the poop before the main body of the pirates were aware of their coming.
Warned by the shouts and shrieks of their comrades that they had been taken in the rear, the Moslems who were defending the side of the poop wavered for a moment. Ralph took advantage of their hesitation, and sprang on board, his companions pouring in after him. There was a stern and desperate fight. The Moslems fought with the fury of despair, disdaining to ask or accept quarter. A few leapt overboard, preferring death by drowning to that by the swords of the Christians; but the great majority died fighting to the last. A shout of triumph rose from the knights as the last of the Moslems fell.
The first impulse of all of them was to take off their helmets in order to breathe the fresh air, and for a while they all stood panting from their exertions.
"Nobly and gallantly done, comrades!" Gervaise exclaimed. "This is indeed a victory of which we have all a right to be proud. Now, the first thing is to free the slaves of their shackles; there are many white faces among them. Let our langue look after the wounded, while the released captives clear the decks of the bodies of the fallen pirates."
It took an hour's hard work to knock off the chains of the slaves. The greater portion of them were Christians -- Greeks, Italians, Spaniards, and French, who had been captured in various raids by the corsairs; and among them were the crew of the ship that had been overhauled by the galley on the previous day. Besides these, there were a few Moslems who had been sentenced to labour in the galleys for various crimes.
Among the Christians, the joy at their liberation was intense. Some laughed, some cried, others were too overcome to speak coherently. Among the rest were found, to the intense pleasure of their rescuers, three knights of the Order who had for years been missing. They had been taken prisoners on an island at which the galley to which they belonged had touched. Many of the knights had landed, and three of them, all belonging to the langue of Italy, had wandered away from the rest, and had not returned. A search had been made for them, and it was discovered that a struggle had taken place. As there were no marks of blood, it was supposed that they were suddenly pounced upon by a party of hidden marauders, who had been watching them from some hiding place, and had thrown themselves upon the knights before they had had time to draw their swords. Following the trail by bushes broken down, and plants crushed under foot, it was found to lead to a creek on the other side of the island. Here there were signs that a craft had been anchored, as there were the ashes of fires, fragments of food, and other matters, scattered about on the shore. Hours had passed before the knights had been missed, and therefore the craft in which they had been carried off was long out of sight. Letters were written by the grand master to the Pasha of Syria, to the Emperor of Egypt, and to the Bey of Tunis, offering to ransom the knights, but all replied that they were unaware of any such captives having been landed.
An attempt had then been made to ascertain whether they had been carried to Tripoli; but the bey had little authority over the various tribesmen along the coast, and only replied that no such captives had been sold in the city. Thus all hope of ransoming them had died away, and their names were inscribed in the list of those who had fallen into the hands of the infidels, but of whose subsequent fate no clue could be obtained.
All were greatly emaciated, and their faces showed signs of the sufferings they had undergone. The young knights were all familiar with their names, but personally none had known them, for they had been carried off two or three months before Gervaise and Ralph Harcourt had arrived at Rhodes.
All three had struggled desperately to break their chains while the fight was going on, and had, as soon as the contest was decided, risen to their feet and shouted the battle cry of the Order; then, overcome by their emotions, they sank down upon their benches, and remained as if in a stupor until the knights, who had hurried first to them, struck off their fetters. Then the three men grasped each other's hands, while tears streamed down their cheeks.
"It is no dream, comrades," one of them said, in a hoarse voice. "We are free again. Let us first return thanks to God for our release, and then we can thank these our brothers."
The three knights knelt at the benches where they had toiled and suffered, and hid their faces in their hands. No sounds came from their lips, but their stifled sobs and the heaving of their naked shoulders, seamed and scarred by the strokes of their taskmasters' whips, told the young knights, who stood unhelmeted and silent around, how deep was their emotion. Then they rose.
"I am Fabricius Caretto," one said; "this is Giacomo Da Vinci; this Pietro Forzi: all knight commanders of the Order, and now for six years prisoners in the hands of these corsairs. Assuredly no one would know us, so changed are we." He looked round inquiringly for a familiar face. "Your commander must surely be a comrade of ours?"
"We know all your names," Gervaise said, coming forward, "though none of us reached the convent until after your capture. I have the honour to command this galley. My name is Gervaise Tresham, and I have for my lieutenant Sir Ralph Harcourt. All of us, glad as we are at the capture we have effected of these three corsairs, are still more pleased that we should have been the means of rescuing three noble knights of our Order from captivity. Now, I pray you first of all to accompany me on board the galley, where we will do all we can to make you forget the sufferings you have gone through. After you have bathed, and reclad yourselves, I will present to you the knights my comrades, amongst whom are seven of your own langue. Three of these I will tell off to see to your comfort, for, as you will understand, I have my hands full indeed at present."
"First, before all things, Sir Knight, let me express to you all our deep gratitude and our admiration of the gallant deed that you have accomplished in thus, single handed, capturing three vessels belonging to the fiercest and most dreaded of the corsairs of Tripoli. God bless you all, sirs" -- and his voice broke again -- "for the deed you have done, and for bringing us out of this living hell!"
Gervaise called to three of the Italian knights, and, followed by them and the released captives, led the way to the galley. Here he left them in charge of their countrymen. "Give them each a draught of old Cyprus, and something to eat," he said aside to one of the knights; "they sorely need refreshment before aught else, for, as you see, they are well nigh dazed with this unlooked for change. I will put out clothes enough for one of them; the others you must supply for the present from your stores. Now I must be off."
There was indeed much to be done. Four of the knights were told off to attend upon the most urgent cases among their own wounded. Only two of their number had been killed outright, but there were four serious cases among the wounded, while eight or ten others had received wounds that required bandaging and attending to. As fast as the slaves' fetters were struck off, food and wine were given to them, together with such garments as could be found at the moment. Then the bodies of the fallen pirates were thrown overboard, while the wounded were attended to, and the released Christians were divided equally between the three prizes. To each of these the knights of one of the langues were told off, the seniors being appointed to the command. There were in all some ninety Christian captives on board the three ships. Thus each vessel had a complement of seven knights and thirty Christians, and to these were added ten of the thirty Moslems found at the oars, and fifteen of the pirates to whom quarter had been given.
It was past noon before all these arrangements had been made, and during the time so occupied, the ships lay idly side by side, drifting slowly before the wind, the sails having been lowered as soon as the struggle was over. Up to this time, the knights had been too busily engaged to think of food, but they were right glad when they were summoned to a meal on board the galley.
Gervaise found the three knights in the cabin, dressed in the usual attire of the Order. They presented a very different appearance, indeed, to that which they wore when he had first seen them. They had bathed, and combed their matted hair, which was alone sufficient to transform them, but the feeling that they were once more free men, and knights of an honoured Order, had done even more to effect the change; and although they looked thin and worn, the martial bearing had come back naturally as they donned their knightly robes and buckled on swords.
"I am glad to see that you are better," Gervaise said, as he went up to greet them. "Twenty years seem to have dropped off your shoulders since this morning."
"We are not the same men, Sir Gervaise. We were slaves, and are now free. We were Christian dogs; now we are Christian knights. We were subject to scoffs and blows; now, thank God, we have swords to strike with, and though as yet our arms may not have regained their full strength, we could at least bear a share in a fray. Our comrades have been telling us somewhat of how this wonderful thing has come about, and have been explaining what at first filled us with surprise, that a galley should be manned solely by young knights, of whom their commander is one of the youngest. We can testify, at least, that had the grand master been himself in command, and his crew composed of veteran knights, he could have done no better."
"We were fortunate in taking them so much by surprise that the first of their ships fell into our hands before her consorts could come to her assistance; and her guns did us good service in our struggle with the others."
"The matter was well arranged, as well as gallantly fought," one of the other knights said. "Had you first fallen foul of the chief's galley, it would have gone hard with you, for his crew were so strong that you could scarce have overcome them before the other two vessels came up to his assistance."
"Now let us to our meal," Gervaise said.
The three knights were placed at the head of the table by him, and it was pleasant to see how they enjoyed their food.
"I can scarce persuade myself that I am not dreaming," Caretto said. "Sometimes, when lying at night, wet through with the damp air, I have wondered to myself whether I could ever have lived thus, and whether I should ever exchange my hard bread and water for what seemed to me fabulous luxuries, though at the time one had taken them as a matter of course. You cannot tell how strange it feels to me to come back to the old life again."
"You will soon be accustomed to it," Gervaise said, with a smile, "and then you will look upon your captivity as a dream, just as you then regarded your past life."
"I suppose, Sir Gervaise," Pietro Forzi said, "that you will sail direct for Rhodes with your prizes?"
"No indeed," Gervaise replied. "At the same time that we learned, from a dying man left on board the ship the pirates captured yesterday, of the course they had taken, and were so enabled to follow them, we also learned that they were on their way to join a corsair fleet that was collecting at some point on the eastern side of Sardinia, with the intention of sweeping the coast of Italy. It was this, rather than the capture of these three vessels, that induced us to disobey the general instructions we had been given to cruise along the northern coast of Africa, and determined us to push north to give warning along the coast from Naples to Genoa of the danger that threatened, and, if possible, to enable Genoa to fit out her galleys to encounter the corsairs. That duty has still to be fulfilled, though I fear that Genoa will be able to do little, for of late she has been engaged in a long civil struggle between her great families, and has taken but a small part in maritime affairs. However, we can at least warn her, as well as Naples, Pisa, and other towns, and may possibly find some opportunity for ourselves striking another blow against the pirates."
"If so, certainly we shall be glad to accompany you, if you will allow us to serve under you; for nothing would please us so much as the opportunity of paying off a small share of the vengeance we owe them. But of course, if you would rather, we will sail for Rhodes in the prizes."
"I am not thinking of sending them to Rhodes at present," Gervaise said. "It seems to me that we may be able, in some way, to utilise them to advantage. They have their sails, and rowers for the oars. There will be, in each, besides seven knights of the Order, thirty men who, like yourselves, must feel willing to strike a blow at their late oppressors. I need hardly say that I shall be glad indeed to have the company and aid of three such well known knights of the Order, and would, could I do so, gladly resign my command into your experienced hands. But this I cannot do, and, anticipating that you would be willing to join us in this expedition, I have been thinking how I could best utilise your aid. I have thought that, if you would accept the positions, I would appoint one of you to each of the prizes, to act, not as its commander, but as the leader of the band of released captives. Most of them are sailors, of course, and with them you could work the guns and give effective aid to the little party of knights in any actual fight."
The three knights all exclaimed that they would gladly accept the posts he offered them.
"The idea is a capital one, Sir Gervaise; and, as long as it does not come to close fighting, the three ships should be able to render efficient aid to your galley in any encounter. They will be, at any rate, a match for their own number of pirate ships," Caretto said.
As soon as the meal concluded, the Moslem captives were questioned one by one as to the rendezvous at which the pirate fleet was to assemble; all, however, protested that the place was known only to the three commanders, all of whom had fallen in the fight.
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