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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 ............
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