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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XIV THE CORSAIR FLEET
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 An hour later all was ready for a start. The knights of the langues of France, Germany, and Spain went on board their respective ships, as did the three parties of released captives, with the knights who were to command them, while the rowers took their seats on the benches, shackled with the chains that had recently held the Christians. The wind was from the south, and with sails and oars the prizes were able to keep fairly abreast of the galley. With a few short intervals of rest, the slaves continued their work all night, until, shortly before daybreak, land was seen ahead, and the pilot at once pronounced it to be Cape Carbonara. “A good landfall, Gervaise,” Ralph said. “The pilot has done right well. I suppose you mean to anchor when you get there?”
“Certainly, Ralph. The slaves will have rowed nearly eighteen hours, with only two hours' rest. They must have some hours, at least, of sleep before we go on. As you and I have been up all night, we will turn in also. We will send a boat ashore to try and find out from the natives they may come across whether any vessels, bearing the appearance of Moorish corsairs, have been seen passing up the coast, and also to find out what bays and inlets there are where they would be likely to anchor. Some of the Italian knights had best go with the boat, for though I believe these people speak a different dialect to those of the mainland, they would have more chance of understanding them than any of the others.”
The sun had risen when the little fleet came to an anchor close to the cape. A boat was at once prepared to go ashore, and Gervaise begged Fabricius Caretto, the senior of the rescued Italian knights, to endeavour to find out whether a swift sailing craft of some kind could be hired. If so, he was to secure her on any terms, and come off in her at once to the galley.
Gervaise had already talked the matter over with Ralph, and they agreed that a strongly manned craft of this kind would go faster than any of those they had taken, and that, moreover, it would be a pity to weaken their force by sending one of the prizes away. Having seen them off, Gervaise retired to the cabin and threw himself down for a short sleep, leaving the knights who had been off watch during the night, to see that all went well. In two hours he was roused. A native craft had come alongside with Sir Fabricius Caretto.
“I think she is just the craft for us,” the knight said, as Gervaise came on deck. “She belongs to a large fishing village just round the point to the left. There were several boats there, but the villagers all said that this was the speediest vessel anywhere along the coast. She belongs to two brothers, who, with four men, constitute her regular crew; but I have arranged for twelve others to go in her, in order that they may row her along at a good pace if the wind falls light.”
“Are your companions come off yet?”
“No; but we can hoist a flag for their recall.”
“Do so. I shall be greatly obliged if you will undertake this mission to the seaports. It needs one of name and rank to speak with the nobles and officials authoritatively.”
“I will gladly do so, Sir Gervaise. Give me your instructions, and you can rely upon my carrying them out.”
“I thank you greatly, Sir Fabricius, and shall be glad if you will take with you any two of the knights you may select. I have to write letters for you to deliver to the authorities at Naples, Pisa, and Genoa. I shall write but briefly, and leave you to explain matters more fully. I shall merely say that I have intelligence of the arrival here of a fleet of Moorish corsairs, of whose strength I am ignorant, but that assuredly their intention is to make a raid on the commerce of the coast, and perhaps to land at unprotected places. At Ostia, after warning the authorities to send orders along the coast for the inhabitants to be on their guard, pray them to carry word at once to Rome, and request his Holiness the Pope to order some armed galleys to put to sea as soon as possible. Beg them at Naples and Pisa to do the same thing. But of course it is from Genoa that we must hope for the most assistance.
“In each place you will, if possible, see the syndic himself, and such of his council as can be got quickly together. The moment you have done all you can at Genoa sail for the Island of Madalena, which lies off the northeastern point of the island. There you will either find us, or a boat with a message where to direct your course. I think perhaps it will be best to omit Naples—it will save you fully a day, if not two, to do so. Pray them at Ostia to send off news down the coast, or to request the papal authorities to despatch mounted messengers. 'Tis likely that, at first, at any rate, the corsairs will try the narrower waters to the north. From here to Ostia is nigh two hundred miles, and if the wind is brisk you may arrive there tomorrow afternoon, and start again at night, arriving at Pisa before noon on the following day; while, allowing for four or five hours to ascend the river there, you may be at Genoa next morning.
“Three hours should suffice to gather from the authorities what force they can despatch, and as soon as you have learned this, embark again and sail south. You may reach Madalena in two days. Thus, at the earliest, it must be from six to seven days before you can bring us the news there; if you meet with calms or foul winds you may be well nigh double that time. If at Ostia you can get a faster craft than this, hire it, or take a relay of fresh rowers. I will furnish you with means when I give you the letters.”
In less than half an hour Gervaise was on deck again. The boat had returned with the other Italian knights. An ample store of provisions had been placed on board the Sperondra, both for the crew and for the three knights, and, without a minute's delay, these took their places on board, the great sails were hoisted, and the craft glided rapidly away.
“The villagers spoke truly as to her speed,” Ralph said, as they looked after her. “Even with this light wind, she is running fully six miles an hour, and as, by the look of the sky, there will be more of it soon, she will make the run to Ostia well within the time we calculated.”
Gervaise now questioned the other Italian knights as to what information they had gained.
They said the peasants had told them that several strange craft, using both oars and sails, had been noticed passing northwards, and that so strong was the opinion that these were either Algerines or Tunisians that, for the last three or four days, none of the fishing craft had ventured to put to sea. They were able to tell but little as to the bays along the coastline, which they described as very rugged and precipitous. Five or six little streams ran, they knew, down from the mountains. They thought the most likely places for corsairs to rendezvous would be in a deep indentation north of Cape Bellavista, or behind Cape Comino. If not at these places, they might meet in the great bay at whose entrance stands Tavolara Island, and that beyond, there were several deep inlets on the northeastern coast of the Island. Gervaise had a consultation with Ralph.
“The first thing is to find out where these corsairs have their meeting place, Ralph; and this must be done without their catching sight of the galley or of the prizes, which some of them would be sure to recognise.”
Ralph nodded.
“It is a difficult question, Gervaise. Of course, if we had a boat speedy enough to row away from the corsairs it would be easy enough; but with wind and oars they go so fast that no boat could escape them.”
“That is quite certain, Ralph; and therefore, if it is done by a boat, it must be by one so small and insignificant that they would pay but little attention to it if they caught sight of it. My idea is that we should take our own little boat, which is a fast one, paint it black, to give it the appearance of a fisherman's boat, and hire a couple of good rowers from the village. This, with one knight dressed as a fisherman, should go ahead of us, and explore every inlet where ships could be sheltered. We would follow ten miles behind. When we get near the places where the natives think the fleet is likely to be, the boat must go on at night, while we anchor. In that way they ought to be able to discover the corsairs, while themselves unseen, and to gain some idea of their numbers and the position in which they are anchored, and bring us back news.”
“Shall I go myself, Gervaise?”
“I could not spare you, Ralph. The risk of capture does not seem to me to be great, but there certainly is a risk, and I dare not part with you. It had better be an Italian, because there will doubtless be an opportunity of landing at villages and questioning the inhabitants, therefore we will send Fosco. If there are some eight or ten corsairs gathered in any of these bays the news is sure to travel along the shore, and we may get some tidings in that way. The first thing is to send off to the village again to fetch two young fishermen; they must be active fellows, strong, and possessed of some courage. I will ask da Vinci to go himself and select them. While he is away we will paint our boat black, and make ready for her to start at once; the sooner she is off the better.”
The Italian knight at once undertook the mission, and started for the shore. Fosco, who had been chosen principally because he was light of frame, as well as very shrewd and intelligent, was then called up, and his mission explained to him. He was delighted at having been selected. Gervaise took him down to the cabin, and they consulted the maps with which the galley was furnished.
“You will row on to Muravera; it is some twenty miles from here. You see, the village lies at the mouth of a river. As soon as you arrive there, you will land and find out whether there is any report of Moorish pirates having been seen along the coast. We shall be there this evening, and you will come on board and report. Next day you will get to Lunasei, which is about five miles on this side of Cape Bellavista, and they will certainly know there if the pirates are lying behind the cape. If they are so, you will row back to meet us; if they are not, you will remain there until we come up in the evening. Remember that, should you on either day be seen and chased, and you find they are overtaking you, you will make for the shore, land, and conceal yourselves. We shall keep along near the coast, and as we pass you can come down to the water's edge and signal to us to take you off. Now you had better disguise yourself, so as to be in readiness to start as soon as da Vinci comes off with the men. You will only need to take a small stock of provisions, as each night you can replenish them here.”
An hour later da Vinci came off with two stalwart young fishermen. The little boat had already been painted, and it was lowered at once; Fosco stepped into it, and started.
Two hours later the prizes got up sail, and, accompanied by the galley, coasted quietly along the shore, arriving, late in the afternoon, at Muravera. Fosco at once came on board.
“There is no news here beyond that which we gained this morning, Sir Gervaise,” he said. “Strange ships have certainly been seen sailing north, but they did not approach the coast.”
A similar report was given at Lunasei; there were certainly no corsairs lying behind Cape Bellavista, or news would assuredly have reached the village. At Orosei, next day, the report was the same; there were no strange ships at Cape Comino. They had been warned overnight that the coast beyond the cape was so precipitous, that there would be no villages at which to make inquiries, and arranged with Fosco that the ships should anchor north of the cape, and that he should go on at once to inspect the next bay. If he found ships there, he was to return at once; if not, he was, at daybreak, to land at one of the villages in the bay, and to make inquiries.
No news was brought in by him during the night.
“It is evident the pirates are not in the bay, Gervaise,” Ralph said, as they came on deck at daybreak.
“Yes; and I am glad of it. It is a large bay, and if the Genoese send half a dozen galleys, some of the pirates might still escape, while the next bays are deeper and narrower, and it would be more easy to entrap them all. I have all along thought it most probable that they would rendezvous there. The maps show no villages for many miles round, and they might lie there for weeks without so much as a shepherd getting sight of them from the cliffs. Moreover, it is the nearest point for cutting off ships coming down between Corsica and the mainland, and they can, besides, snap up those proceeding from the south to Marseilles, as these, for the most part, pass between Sardinia and Corsica.”
At eight o'clock the boat was seen coming round the point.
“Any news, Fosco?” Gervaise asked, as it approached the galley.
“None, Sir Gervaise. They have heard nothing of pirates, nor seen anything of them.”
Exclamations of disappointment broke from the knights.
“That makes it all the more likely,” Gervaise said, “that they are lying in one of the inlets to the north. You see, lower down they kept comparatively close to the shore, being careless who might notice them; but as they approached their rendezvous, they would be more careful, and might either pass along at night, or keep far out. If they had not been anxious to conceal their near presence, they would have been likely to put into this bay in search of plunder and captives; for Tempe, one of the largest of the Sardinian towns, lies but a short distance away, and there must be a considerable amount of traffic.”
“There are four or five small craft lying there,” Fosco, who had by this time stepped on board, put in, “and a considerable number of fishing boats. When I came upon the ships in the dark, I thought at first that I had lighted on the pirates, but on letting the boat drift closely by them I soon saw they were not corsair galleys.”
“Shall we get up anchor and go into the bay?” Ralph asked.
“It were safer not to do so, Ralph. Possibly one of the craft lying there might be presently captured by them, and they might learn from her crew of the presence of a galley of the Order there. Therefore I think it best to remain where we are till nightfall, and then to proceed and anchor on the north side of the Island of Madalena, if we can find a sheltered cove where we could not be seen either from the land or by passing ships.”
During the day there was a good deal of discussion among the knights as to whether the corsairs might not already have sailed away. It was evident that if all their ships had arrived, there would be no motive for delay. Three ships they knew would never join them, and others might have been detained, from some cause or another. There could be no doubt that the pirates had already ample force for capturing as many merchant vessels as they might come across. But it might be intended to carry out some more daring project—to sack and burn towns along the coast, carry off the leading people for ransom, and fill the vessels with slaves—the attack being made simultaneously on several unprotected towns. A vast amount of plunder could thus be reaped, together with captives of even greater money value. Were this their plan, they would doubtless delay until all those who had promised to join in the expedition had arrived. The balance of opinion, then, was that the corsairs were still in hiding.
By daybreak next morning they were moored in a sheltered little bay to the north of Madalena, the galley lying inside the prizes, so as to be concealed as much as possible from view of any craft that might happen to pass the mouth of the bay. Fosco started as soon as darkness fell in the evening, and returned early in the morning.
“They are there,” he shouted, as he neared the galley, “hidden in a deep inlet that runs into one of the narrow bays.”
“How many are there of them?”
“Seventeen or eighteen, I could not say which. They are all moored side by side.&rdq............
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