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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER X. A PLOT DISCOVERED.
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 The conversation between Gervaise and his fellow slave was interrupted by the arrival at the side of the quay of a party of knights. Silence instantly fell upon the slaves; all straightened themselves up to the oars, and prepared for a start. Among the knights who took their places on the poop Gervaise saw with amusement his friend Ralph. He had no fear of a recognition, for the darkly stained skin and the black hair had so completely altered him that when he had looked at himself in a mirror, after the application of the dye, he was surprised to find that he would not have known it to be his own face. Ralph was in command of the party, which consisted of young knights who had but recently arrived at Rhodes; and as it was the first time he had been appointed as instructor, Gervaise saw that he was greatly pleased at what he rightly regarded as promotion. The galley at once pushed off from the wharf, and rowed out of the port. The work was hard; but as the slaves were not pressed to any extraordinary exertions, Gervaise did not find it excessive. He congratulated himself, however, that the stain was, as he had been assured, indelible, save by time, for after a few minutes' exercise he was bathed in perspiration. As the galley had been taken out only that instruction might be given to the young knights, the work was frequently broken.
Sometimes they went ahead at full speed for a few hundred yards, as if to chase an adversary; then they would swerve aside, the slaves on one side rowing, while those on the other backed, so as to make a rapid turn. Then she lay for a minute or two immovable, and then backed water, or turned to avoid the attack of an imaginary foe. Then for an hour she lay quiet, while the knights, divesting themselves of their mantles and armour, worked one of the guns on the poop, aiming at a floating barrel moored for the purpose a mile out at sea. At eleven o'clock they returned to the port. Bread and water were served out to the slaves, and they were then permitted to lie down and sleep, the galley being moored under the shadow of the wall.
At four o'clock another party of knights came down, and the work was similar to that which had been performed in the morning. At seven o'clock the slaves were taken back to their barracks.
“Well, what do you think of your work?” one of the slaves asked Gervaise, as they ate their evening meal.
“It would not be so bad if it was all like that.”
“No. But I can tell you that when you have to row from sunrise to sunset, with perhaps but one or two pauses for a few minutes, it is a different thing altogether, especially if the galley is carrying despatches, and speed is necessary. Then you get so worn out and exhausted, that you can scarce move an oar through the water, until you are wakened up by a smart as if a red hot iron had been laid across your shoulders. It is terrible work then. The whip cracks every minute across some one's back; you are blinded by exhaustion and rage, and you feel that you would give the world if you could but burst your chain, rush on your taskmasters, and strike, if only one blow, before you are killed.”
“It must be terrible,” Gervaise said. “And do you never get loose, and fall upon them?”
The man shook his head.
“The chains are too strong, and the watch too vigilant,” he said. “Since I came here I have heard tales of crews having freed themselves in the night, and fallen upon the Christians, but for my part I do not believe in them. I have thought, as I suppose every one of us has thought, how such a thing could be done; but as far as I know no one has hit on a plan yet. Now and then men have managed to become possessed of a file, and have, by long and patient work, sawn through a chain, and have, when a galley has been lying near our own shore, sprung overboard and escaped; but for every attempt that succeeds there must be twenty failures, for the chains are frequently examined, and woe be to the man who is found to have been tampering with his. But as to a whole gang getting free at once, it is altogether impossible, unless the key of the pad locks could be stolen from an overseer, or the man bribed into aiding us.”
“And that, I suppose, is impossible?” Gervaise said.
“Certainly, impossible for us who have no money to bribe them with, but easy enough if any one outside, with ample means, were to set about it. These overseers are, many of them, sons of Turkish mothers, and have no sympathy, save that caused by interest, with one parent more than another. Of course, they are brought up Christians, and taught to hold Moslems in abhorrence, but I think many of them, if they had their free choice, would cross to the mainland. Here they have no chance of ever being aught but what they are—overseers of slaves, or small prison officials. They are despised by these haughty knights, and hated by us, while were they to reach the mainland and adopt their mothers' religion, everything would be open to them. All followers of the Prophet have an equal chance, and one may be a soldier today, a bey tomorrow, and a pasha a year hence, if he be brave, or astute, or capable in any way beyond his fellows. Men like these warders would be sure to make their way.
“They cannot have gathered much during their service, therefore the offer of a large sum of money would find plenty among them eager to earn it. But, you see, they are but the inferiors. On our voyages on board the galley, the knights inspect our fetters twice a day, and the keys are kept in the commander's cabin. For an hour or two, when we are not on a long passage, the padlocks are unfastened, in order that we may jump over and bathe, and exercise our limbs; but at this time the knights are always on guard, and as we are without arms we are altogether powerless. It is the same thing here. The senior warders, who all belong to the Order, although of an inferior grade, come round, as you have seen, to examine our fetters, and themselves lock and bar the doors. If one or two of these could be corrupted, escape would be easy enough.”
“But is it impossible to do this?” Gervaise asked eagerly. “My father has money, and would I know be ready, if I could communicate with him, to pay a handsome sum, if sure that it would result in my obtaining my freedom.”
The man nodded significantly.
“There may be other means of doing it,” he said. “Perhaps it will not be long before you hear of it. You seem a stout fellow, and full of spirit, but, as yet, anything that may be going on is known but to a few, and will go no further until the time comes that all may be told. I think not so badly of men of our faith as to believe that any one would betray the secret for the sake of obtaining his own freedom and a big reward; but secrets, when known by many, are apt to leak out. A muttered word or two in sleep, or the ravings of one down with fever, might afford ground for suspicion, and torture would soon do the rest. I myself know nothing of the secret, but I do know that there is something going on which, if successful, will give us our freedom. I am content to know no more until the time comes; but there are few, save those engaged in the matter, that know as much as this, and you can see that it is better it should be so. Look at that man opposite; he has been here fifteen years; he seldom speaks; he does his work, but it is as a brute beast—despair has well nigh turned him into one. Think you that if such a man as that were to know that there is hope, he would not be so changed that even the dullest would observe it? I see you are a brisk young fellow, and I say to you, keep up your courage. The time is nearer than you think when you will be free from these accursed shackles.”
Each morning, as he went out to work with his gang, Gervaise saw the servant from the auberge standing near; but he made no sign. He was satisfied that his suspicions had been justified, and that he was not leading this life in vain, but he thought it better to wait until the week passed, and he was taken away to have his colour renewed, than to make a sign that might possibly rouse the suspicions of his comrades. On the eighth morning, when the door of the room was unlocked, the overseer said—“Number 36, you will remain here. You are wanted for other work.”
After the gang had left the prison, the overseer returned.
“I am to take you up to the English auberge. The knight who handed you over to me when you landed, told me that you might be wanted as a servitor; and as it is he who has sent down, it may be that a vacancy has occurred. If so, you are in luck, for the servitors have a vastly better time of it than the galley slaves, and the English auberge has the best reputation in that respect. Come along with me.”
The English auberge was one of the most handsome of the buildings standing in the great street of the Knights. Its architecture was Gothic in its character, and, although the langue was one of the smallest of those represented at Rhodes, it vied with any of them in the splendour of its appointments. Sir John Boswell was standing in the interior courtyard.
“Wait here for a few minutes,” he said to the overseer. “The bailiff will himself question the slave as to his accomplishments; but I fancy he will not be considered of sufficient age for the post that is vacant. However, if this should not be so, I shall no doubt find a post to fit him ere long, for he seems a smart young fellow, and, what is better, a willing one, and bears himself well under his misfortunes.”
Then he motioned to Gervaise to follow him to the bailiff's apartments.
“Well, Sir Gervaise,” Sir John Kendall exclaimed, as the door closed behind him, “have you found aught to justify this cruel penance you have undertaken?”
“As to the penance, Sir John, it has been nothing unsupportable. The exercise is hard enough, but none too hard for one in good health and strength, and, save for the filth of the chamber in which we are shut up at night, and the foul state of the rushes on which we lie, I should have naught to complain of. No, I have as yet heard nothing of a surety—and yet enough to show me that my suspicions were justified, and that there is a plot of some sort on foot,” and he related to the two knights the conversation he had had with the galley slave.
“By St. George!” the bailiff said, “you have indeed been justified in your surmises, and I am glad that I attached sufficient importance to your suspicions to let you undertake this strange enterprise. What think you, Sir John Boswell?”
“I think with you, that Sir Gervaise has fully justified his insistence in this matter, which I own I considered to be hare brained folly. What is to be done next, Sir Gervaise?”
“That is what I have been turning over in my mind. You see, I may have little warning of what is going to take place. I may not hear of it until we are locked up for the night and the affair is on the point of taking place, and it will, of course, be most needful that I shall be able to communicate with you speedily.”
“That, of course, is of vital importance,” the bailiff said. “But how is it to be managed?”
“That is what I cannot exactly see, Sir John. An armed guard remains in our room all night. But, in the first place, he might be himself in the plot, and if not, the slaves would almost certainly overpower him and kill him, as a preliminary to the work of knocking off their chains.”
“Is there a window to the room? At least, of course there is a window, but is it within your reach?”
“There are six small loopholes—one on each side of the door, and two in each of the side walls; they are but four inches across and three feet in length, and there are two crossbars to each; they are four feet from the floor.”
“At any rate, they are large enough for your arm to pass through, Sir Gervaise, and you might drop a strip of cloth out.”
“Certainly I could, Sir John. I could easily hide a piece of white cotton a yard or so long in my clothes, scanty as these are, and could certainly manage, unobserved, to drop it outside the window.”
“Then the rest is for us to contrive, Boswell. We must have some one posted in the yard of the prison, with instructions to go every ten minutes throughout the night to see if a strip of white cotton has been dropped out. When he finds it he must go at once to William Neave, the governor. He is a sturdy Englishman, and there is no fear of his having been bribed to turn traitor; but it were well to take no one into our confidence. I think we cannot do better than employ Ahmet on this business, as he already knows that Sir Gervaise is masquerading there. We will have William Neave up here presently. Tell him that for certain reasons we wish Ahmet to pass the night for the present in the prison, and arrange with him on what excuse we can best bestow him there without exciting suspicion. At any rate, Sir Gervaise, that is our affair.”
He went to a closet and took out a white mantle, tore a strip off the bottom, and gave it to Gervaise.
“It would be best not to keep you here any longer,” he said, “so renew your stain while I speak. As soon as you learn the details of the plot, you will drop this out from the loophole on the right hand side of the door; that is to say, the one on your right, standing inside. If the affair is not to come off at once, it were best for you to proceed as before. Ahmet will be outside when you go out with your gang, and on your nodding to him we will make some excuse to take you away on your return. I say this because if you see that the affair, whatever it is, is not imminent, you might think it better to remain with them longer, so as to learn their plans more fully, instead of having the thing put a stop to at once.”
“I understand, Sir John; but, as I have said, I do not think we should all be told until the blow is ready to be struck, as they would be afraid that some one might inform against them, if time and opportunity were granted them.”
“I think so too, Sir Gervaise. This afternoon we will call upon the grand master, for we have no means of knowing how serious or how extended this plot may be; it may include only the crew of a single galley, and, on the other hand, the whole of the slaves may be implicated in it. It is evident, therefore, that the matter is too serious to be kept any longer from his knowledge.”
Three more days passed. On the third evening, after the allowance of broth and bread had been consumed, and the door was closed and locked upon them for the night, three or four of the galley slaves, after talking eagerly together, beckoned to the others to gather round them at the end of the room farthest from the door. Two of them took up arms full of the bedding, and stuffed it into the side windows. Gervaise saw, in the dim light, a look of intense excitement on the faces of the slaves. It had been vaguely known among them that a plot was in hand, although but few had been admitted into the confidence of the leaders. Hitherto all had feared that it concerned only a small number, but the preparations now made to insure that they should not be overheard, showed that, whatever the plan might be, all were to share in it.
“Thanks be to Allah, the All Powerful,” one of the men began, “my lips are unsealed, an............
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