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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER VIII AN EVENING AT RHODES
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Suleiman Ali's advice was carried out. It added considerably to the length of the voyage; but they saw only one doubtful craft. She was lying close inshore under the shadow of the sand hills, and they did not see her until she hoisted her sails and shot out from the land. They were, however, three miles distant from the land at the time, and the wind was blowing from the north; consequently the pirate was dead to leeward. Every sail was set at once on board the trader, and, being a fast sailor, she maintained her position until nightfall. The wind then dropped, and just as the light faded they could see that the vessel behind them had put out her sweeps. The trader kept up her sails until certain that she could be no longer seen; then the canvas was lowered, and the crew took to the boats and towed her due north.
The night was fortunately a dark one, and those watching anxiously from the deck of the trader were unable to discern her pursuer as she passed behind them. As soon as they were well assured that she must have gone on, the boats were got in, the sails hoisted again, and, taking advantage of every light flaw of wind, they proceeded on their course. In the morning the sails of the galley could be seen on the horizon, but the distance was too great for her to take up the pursuit again with any chance of success, and the trader continued her course to Acre without seeing more of her.
As soon as the trader entered the port, the Egyptian captain went on shore, taking with him a copy of the safe conduct and the letter from the grand master to the pasha. Going to the residence of the governor, he handed these to him, saying that he had on board Aga Suleiman Ali, and a knight who was charged to deliver him up on payment of the ransom.
“I have been expecting you,” the governor said. “I have received a letter from the pasha, stating that he had written to the grand master respecting the ransom of the aga, and sending me the amount which Suleiman's son had offered. The young man was not of age when his father was captured, but he is so now, and was therefore able to raise the sum required. I will go down to the port with you myself, hand over the ransom, and welcome Suleiman, whom I know well, back from his captivity.”
The transfer was speedily made; a heavy purse was handed to Gervaise, and Suleiman was a free man.
“Send me word, if you can, when you return to Rhodes,” the latter said, as he bade farewell to the young knight. “I shall be anxious until I hear. Fortune was with us as we sailed hither, but it may desert you on your return. Should aught befall you, tell your captors that if they bring you to me I will pay any ransom that they could, in fairness, require. Should they refuse to do this, send, if possible, a messenger to me, and on receipt of your message I will send a trusty man to purchase your freedom. You have treated me as a friend and an equal, and a friend I shall always remain.”
The vessel was to remain four days in port, to discharge her cargo and take in another, and Suleiman had talked of remaining at Acre until she sailed, but Gervaise protested strongly against this.
“You have your family, from whom you have been so long separated, awaiting your return with anxiety, and I pray you to make no stay on my account. I am well content to remain on board here, and to look at the city which has so often been the theatre of great deeds—which Richard the Lion Heart captured, and which so many of the Hospitallers died to defend. I was charged by the grand master not to land, and indeed I feel myself that it would be an act of folly to do so. There are doubtless many on shore who have relatives and friends now working as slaves among us, and some of these might well seek to avenge them by slaying one of the Order. I feel your kindness, but it would be a pain to me to know that you were lingering here on my account, when you must be longing to embrace your children.”
The four days passed rapidly. Gervaise had, at the suggestion of the governor, laid aside the mantle and insignia of the Order.
“If you do not do so,” he said, “I must place a strong guard of soldiers on board, in order to ensure that the pasha's safeguard is not violated. Sailors are a turbulent race, and were you recognised here they might make a tumult, and slay you before a word of what was going on reached me. In any case I shall place two soldiers on board until you leave the port.”
On the morning of the fifth day the sails were got up, and the vessel sailed out from the port. Fortune again favoured them, and they reached Rhodes without any adventure. Gervaise went at once to the palace, and handed over the purse of gold to the treasurer. He then sent up his name to the grand master, and was immediately conducted to his room.
“I am glad to see you back, Tresham. I have been uneasy about you. Have you fulfilled your mission without adventure?”
“Without any adventure, sir, save that we were once chased by a pirate on our way east, but escaped in the darkness. Save for that, the voyage has been wholly uneventful. I have received the ransom, and handed the purse to your treasurer.”
“I am glad that your first command has turned out so well. I will see that you do not lack employment; and the fact that you are able to act as interpreter will ensure you a welcome on any galley. At present, however, it is not my intention to send out many cruisers. Every life now is precious, and no amount of spoil that can be brought in will counter balance the loss of those who fall. However, I may find some mission on which you can be employed. I know that you love an active life; and as, for nine months, you have put a rein on your inclinations, and have devoted yourself wholly to study, so that you might be of greater use to the Order, you have a good right to any employment in which your knowledge can be utilised.”
On his arrival at the auberge, Gervaise was very heartily greeted by the younger knights.
“I told you you were born lucky, Gervaise,” Ralph Harcourt said. “There has been more than one wager made that you would be captured; but I, for my part, was confident that your good fortune would not desert you. Still, though not surprised, we are delighted to see you again. Now tell us about your voyage.”
Gervaise gave a brief account of the adventure with the pirate, and then described the visit of the governor to the ship.
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He was courteous and solemn; just the sort of man you would fancy a Turkish governor should be. He looked a little surprised when I accosted him in Turkish, but asked no questions at the time, though I daresay he inquired afterwards of Suleiman how I came to speak the language. The only time he actually said anything was when he requested that I would not wear the mantle of the Order while in port, as sailors were a turbulent race, and it might lead to an attack upon me; and as he was responsible to the pasha that his safe conduct should be respected, it would be necessary, if I declined to follow his advice, to keep a strong body of soldiers on board. As this would have been a horrible nuisance, especially as I wanted to enjoy in quiet the view of the city, with its castle and walls, I acceded at once to his request, which seemed to me a reasonable one. He did send two soldiers on board, but they remained down in the waist, and did not interfere with my pleasure in any way.”
“Next to Jerusalem, how I should like to see Acre!” Ralph Harcourt exclaimed. “It is, of all other cities, the most closely connected with our Order. We helped to win it, and we were the last to defend it. We have heard so much about the fortress, and it has been so often described to me, that I know the situation of every bastion—at least, as it was when we left it, though I know not what changes the Turks may since have made.”
“That I know not, Ralph. Of course, I only saw the seafront, and it was upon the land side that the attack was made. We know that the breaches were all repaired long ago, and it is said that the place is stronger than ever. From the port all was solid and massive. It is indeed a grand and stately fortress. Here we have done all that was possible to make Rhodes impregnable, but nature did nothing for us; there nature has done everything, and the castle looks as if it could defy the assaults of an army, however large. And indeed, it was not wrested from us by force. The knights, when the city walls were stormed and the town filled with their foes fought their way down to the water's edge and embarked there, for they were reduced to a mere handful; and however strong a castle may be, it needs hands to defend it. Still, it well nigh moved me to tears to see the Turkish banner waving over it, and to think how many tens of thousands of Christian soldiers had died in the effort to retain the holy places, and had died in vain.”
“I wonder whether the Turks will ever be forced to relinquish their hold of the holy places?”
“Who can tell, Sir Giles?” the bailiff, who had come up to the group unobserved, said quietly. “Certainly not in our time—not until the Moslem power, which threatens not only us, but all Europe, has crumbled to dust. So long as Acre remains in their power there is no hope. I say not but that by a mighty effort of all Christendom, Palestine might be wrested from the infidels, as it was wrested before; but the past shows us that while men or nations can be stirred to enthusiasm for a time, the fire does not last long, and once again the faithful few would be overwhelmed by the odds that would be brought against them, while Europe looked on impassive, if not indifferent. No, knights; the utmost that can be hoped for, is that the tide of Moslem invasion westward may be stayed. At present we are the bulwark, and as long as the standard of our Order waves over Rhodes so long is Europe safe by sea. But I foresee that this cannot last: the strongest defences, the stoutest hearts, and the bravest of hearts, cannot in the long run prevail against overpowering numbers. As at Acre, we may repel assault after assault, we may cause army after army to betake themselves again to their ships; but, as a rock is overwhelmed by the rising tide, so must Rhodes succumb at last, if left by Europe to bear alone the brunt of Moslem invasion. All that men can do we shall do. As long as it is possible to resist, we shall resist. When further resistance becomes impossible, we shall, I trust, act as we did before.
“We were driven from Palestine, only to fortify ourselves at Rhodes. If we are driven from Rhodes, we shall, I feel assured, find a home elsewhere, and again commence our labours. The nearer we are to Europe the more hope there is that Christendom will aid us, for they will more generally understand that our defeat would mean the laying open of the shores of the Mediterranean, from Turkey to Gibraltar, to the invasion of the Moslems. However, comrades, this is all in the future. Our share is but in the present, and I trust the flag of the Order will float over Rhodes as long, at least, as the lifetime of the youngest of us, and that we may bequeath the duty of upholding the Cross untarnished to those who come after us; and we can then leave the issue in God's hands.”
All listened respectfully to the words of their leader, although his opinion fell like cold water upon the fiery zeal and high hopes of his hearers. The possibility of their losing Rhodes had never once entered into the minds of the majority of them. It was likely that ere long they might be called upon to stand a siege, but, acquainted as they were with the strength of the place—its deep and seemingly impassable moat, its massive walls, and protecting towers and bastions—it had seemed to them that Rhodes was capable of withstanding all assaults, however numerous the foe, however oft repeated the invasion. The bailiff was, as all knew, a man of dauntless courage, of wide experience and great judgment, and that he should believe that Rhodes would, although not in their time, inevitably fall, brought home to them for the first time the fact that their fortress was but an outpost of Europe, and one placed so distant from it that Christendom, in the hour of peril, might be unable to furnish them with aid. As the bailiff walked away, there was silence for a short time, and then Sir Giles Trevor said cheerfully, “Well, if it lasts our time we need not trouble our heads as to what will take place afterwards. As the bailiff says, our duty is with the present, and as we all mean to drive the Turks back when they come, I do not see that there is any occasion for us to take it to heart, even if it be fated that the Moslems shall one day walk over our tombs. If Christendom chooses to be supine, let Christendom suffer, say I. At any rate, I am not going to weep for what may take place after I am turned into dust.”
“That sounds all very well, Sir Giles,” Ralph Harcourt said, “and I have no argument to advance against it, though I am sure there is much to be said; but if the bailiff, or the chaplain, or indeed any of the elders, had heard you say so, I have no doubt you would have had a fitting reply.”
Sir Giles tossed his head mockingly. “I shall fight neither better nor worse, friend Harcourt, because it may be that someday the Moslems are, as the bailiff seems to think, destined to lord it here. I have only promised and vowed to do my best against the Moslems, and that vow only holds good as long as I am in the flesh; beyond that I have no concern. But what are we staying here for, wasting our time? It is the hour for those of us who are going, to be starting for the ball given by Signor Succhi; as he is one of the richest merchants in the town, it will be a gay one, and there is no lack of fair faces in Rhodes. It is a grievous pity that our elders all set their will against even the younger members of the community joining in a dance. It was not one of the things I swore to give up. However, here in Rhodes there is no flying in the face of rules.”
Three or four of the other young knights were also going.
“What are you thinking of doing, Gervaise?” Harcourt asked.
“I have nothing particular to do, Ralph, except that, first of all, I must write a letter to Suleiman Ali and hand it to the bailiff, praying him to send it off by the first vessel that may put in here on her way to Acre. If I do not do it now it may be neglected, and I promised to write directly I got here. I will not be half an hour, and after that I shall be ready to do anything you like.”
In less than that time, indeed, he rejoined Ralph. “Now what shall we do with ourselves? What do you say to a stroll through the streets? I am never tired of that.”
“I like better to go by way of the roofs, Gervaise. The streets are badly lit, and although they are busy enough in some quarters, they are so narrow that one gets jostled and pushed. On the terraces everything is quiet. You have plenty of light and music, and it is pleasant to see families sitting together and enjoying themselves; and if one is disposed for a cup of wine or of cool sherbet, they are delighted to give it, for they all are pleased when one of us joins a group. I have quite a number of acquaintances I have made in this way while you have been working away at your Turkish.”
“Very well,” Gervaise said. “If such is your fancy, Ralph, let us take one of the paths across the roofs. I might walk there twenty years by myself without making an acquaintance, and I do not pledge myself to join in these intimacies of yours. However, I shall be quite content to amuse myself by looking on at the scene in general, while you are paying your visits and drinking your sherbet.”
“There are plenty of fair girls among the Rhodians,” Ralph said, with a smile; “and though we are pledged to celibacy we are in no way bound to abstain from admiration.”
Gervaise laughed.
“Admire as much as you like, Ralph, but do not expect me to do so. I hav............
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