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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XV A SPLENDID EXPLOIT
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 Gervaise was up again at dawn. He was amused at the wonder of the knights, as they came up one by one, at the sight of the little fleet anchored outside them. As soon as it was fairly daylight, he sent off to the three prizes to request all the knights to come on board the galley. When all were assembled there he said, “You are all aware, comrades, that Sir Fabricius Caretto has brought news that the galleys at Genoa are all laid up, and that it will be a fortnight before they can put to sea. Long before that, the corsairs will assuredly be ravaging all the villages and small towns along the coast of Italy, unless we can prevent their doing so. It would be simple madness to try to attack them at sea; of that I feel sure you are all conscious. It would be only throwing away our lives and our galley.” There was a murmur of assent among the knights. They were ready for any encounter in which there was a chance, however faint, of success; but all saw that for a single galley to attack one of the largest corsair fleets that had ever set out, would be nothing short of insanity. Their leader's words, however, seemed to show that he had some plan in his mind by which he hoped to strike a blow at the enemy, and all listened eagerly for what was coming.
“We have heard from our comrade Fosco that their ships lie moored in two lines, side by side in a narrow inlet. He has returned this morning with the news that they are still there. He thinks that three or four more have arrived during the last two days, and it is probable they are waiting for the three we captured to join them. Tonight it is my intention to attack them, but not by rowing in and boarding them, for that would be hopeless. Yesterday Sir Ralph Harcourt went, as you are aware, to fetch provisions. But this was a part only of the object of his trip. He has, as you see, brought back eleven craft with him; these, I may tell you, are laden with combustibles—pitch, oil, straw, and faggots. They will be rowed and towed to the inlet tonight, set on fire, and launched against the pirates.”
An enthusiastic cheer broke from the knights. They saw at once that, lying as the corsairs were, side by side, the destruction of many of them was certain.
“He has also brought fishermen,” Gervaise went on, “two or three of whom will go in each fire ship, having a boat towing behind, in which they will escape as soon as the craft are alongside the galleys. The galley and the three prizes will take their post at the mouth of the inlet. The fire of our guns will add to the confusion among the pirates, and we shall endeavour to fall upon any galleys that may extricate themselves from the mass, and try to make their escape. Sir Ralph has brought back materials for making ninety mantles of the Order, for the Christians on board the three prizes, and thirty fishermen to bring the crew of our galley up to its full strength. The light of the flames will suffice to show the pirates that, as they will believe, four vessels, manned by knights of the Order, are barring the entrance. Many will, we may calculate, jump overboard and swim ashore rather than face us, and we shall be able, at any rate, to capture three or four of their craft, for, as they come out, one by one, we can all close round them; and with nearly fifty knights, ninety released captives, burning for vengeance, and some fifty or sixty fishermen, for those from the fire ships will, of course, join us—we shall make short work of them, and may even hope to entirely destroy their fleet.”
Again a joyous shout rose from the knights. This would indeed be an exploit that all might be proud to share in, and, breaking the ranks in which they had stood while Gervaise addressed them, they crowded round him with exclamations of enthusiasm and devotion.
“Now,” he said, as soon as silence was a little restored, “the knights of the langues on board the prizes will send at once to the coaster on the left of the other two. Sir Ralph will go there now, and supply each with materials for making the mantles for the Christians; he has brought thread, and fish bone needles. You will see that the stuff is cut up into suitable lengths, and handed over to your crews, and that each man makes up his mantle. There can be but little sewing required for these sleeveless gowns, nor need it be carefully done. The great thing is that the white crosses shall be conspicuous. As soon as you have set them to work, you will examine the state of the arms, see how many more are needed to complete the list, and then send off to Sir Ralph, who will furnish as many as are required: the fishermen have brought their own weapons. See that the slaves are all well fed today, and, before evening, inspect well their fetters, so that you may be free from all anxiety as to an attempt by them to escape during the conflict.
“The rest of you will go on board these native craft, and see that the combustibles are fairly distributed among them, the wood and straw soaked with pitch and oil, as also the sails and ropes, and that the decks are well coated; this is a most important duty. Get some torches made also, so that there shall be two on board each craft; these are to be lighted the last thing before we get to the point, and will be thrown down into the straw and faggots in the hold, by the fishermen when they get close to the corsairs. All this can be prepared before our morning meal, and when you assemble here I hope to receive your reports that everything is in readiness. One of the other coasters has some bullocks on board. Sir Ralph will send one to each of the prizes, and one to us. They had better be killed and cut up at once, in order that the crews may have two good meals today of fresh meat. See that the galley slaves have their share.”
No time was lost in carrying out the orders. Ralph, as soon as the cloth, arms, and meat were distributed, went round in a boat to see that the combustibles were properly laid for firing, and everything done to insure that the flames should spread rapidly. The Sards shared in the work, and rations and wine were distributed to them; and when the knights sat down to their meal on board the galley, they were able to report that everything was in perfect readiness, and that the work of sewing the mantles was making good progress.
The day passed slowly to the young knights, all of whom were burning with excitement at the thought of the coming fray. The released Christians were no less exultant at the prospect of taking vengeance for the sufferings they had so long endured, and the scene on board all four ships was most animated.
After talking it over with Ralph, Gervaise told off three more of the knights to each of the prizes, so that there should be ten on board each. This reduced the strength on board the galley to seventeen; but as they would have the assistance of a strong band of Sards they considered this to be ample, under the circumstances. It was arranged that the galley, with one of the prizes, should close with the first corsair that came out, and that the other two prizes should attack the second. After capturing these, they were to assist each other as circumstances might dictate. Gervaise strongly impressed upon the knights in command of each prize that they were not, single handed, to attack a corsair unless one of their consorts was near, and free to give assistance.
“We must run no risk of a reverse,” he said. “We are certain of destroying many of their vessels and of breaking up their fleet, and it is far better that a few should escape than that we should run the risk of losing ten of our number, to say nothing of those we have rescued from captivity. In the excitement of the fight this order must be strictly borne in mind. Our victory must be marred by no misfortune brought on by headstrong rashness. The corsairs are bound to be very strongly manned, and ten knights, even aided by such assistance as they may get from the Christians, might find themselves altogether over matched against a crowd of desperate men.”
As soon as it was dusk the anchors were drawn up, and the fleet got under way. They proceeded but slowly, for the wind was light, and the fishing boats moved heavily through the water. There was, however, no occasion for speed, for Gervaise did not wish to commence the attack until past midnight. The guns had all been loaded before starting, and a pile of ammunition was placed near each. Presently the wind nearly died out, and the galley and prizes then took the coasters and fishing craft in tow. It was nearly one o'clock when they got within half a mile of the inlet. The tow ropes were then thrown off, the fishermen got out sweeps, and the galley led the way, the fire ships followed in a body, and the three prizes brought up the rear. The oars had all been muffled, and slowly they made their way, until Fosco, who was standing next to Gervaise on board the galley, said that the point just ahead marked the entrance to the inlet. They then stopped rowing until the fire ships were all close up.
These were, as had previously been arranged, in two lines. Five fishing boats, each manned by four men and having its small boat in tow behind it, formed the first line; the three coasters, each with six men at the oars, and the three other fishing boats, formed the second. The torches were now lighted. Ralph took his place in the centre boat of the first line; Gervaise went on board one of the coasters, and the order was given to the men to row. What wind there was was favourable, blowing from the northwest, and therefore right into the inlet. Scarcely had the first boats reached the entrance when a shout was heard.
“Row, men, your hardest now!” Ralph shouted; the Sards bent to their oars, and the five boats advanced rapidly towards the corsairs. As they did so, a babel of shouts and cries rose from the dark mass of ships, which swelled into a tumult of alarm as on Ralph's order, “Throw your torches into the straw!” a flash of flame leapt up from each boat. Five more strokes, and they were alongside the two outside ships. As they crashed heavily into them, the men leapt from their seats and sprang over into the small boats, threw off the painters, and rowed astern, opening on either hand to allow the second line of fire ships to pass. These, by Gervaise's directions, divided, and three bore along on either side of the corsairs, and then ran in among them, throwing grapnels to fasten the fire ships alongside. Then, as the flames sprang up from the holds, the crews betook themselves to their boats, and rowed out of the inlet.
By the time they reached the galley and prizes, the eleven fire ships were a mass of flame, which was spreading to the corsairs. Lying packed together as these were, the confusion was terrible. Numbers of men endeavoured to push off the fire ships, but it was too late; others tried to extricate their galleys from the mass, throwing off the hawsers, and striving with hand and oar to push their vessels out of the line. As soon as the boats were alongside the galley, the guns of the four vessels opened fire with grape into the crowded ships, now lit up by the flames as clearly as at noontide, while the battle cry of the Order sounded high above the din.
“Nothing can save the ships near this end of the line,” Ralph said, “but some of those behind may make their way out between the others and the rocks. I can see that some of them there are lowering their yards and sails to prevent their catching fire as they pass.”
The knights distributed among the guns worked them incessantly, directing their fire chiefly against the outside ships, so as to hinder the crews in their endeavours to arrest the progress of the flames; but they were soon able to fire impartially into the mass. As the heat of the flames drove the pirates back, scores of men leapt overboard, and made for the shore. Presently, two or three ships were seen making their way along the narrow line of water on either side of the flaming group in front. As the first advanced, the galley and one of the prizes rowed a short distance forward to meet it. Its deck was crowded with men, among whom a discharge of the cannon from both ships created terrible slaughter.
A moment afterwards they closed with it, one on either side, and the knights, the released captives, and the Sards, sprang down on to its deck. The fight lasted but a minute. Appalled by the disaster that had befallen them, by the terrible effect of the broadsides, poured in at a few yards' distance, and by the sight of so many of the dreaded warriors of the Cross, some of the corsairs threw down their arms and flung themselves on the deck or into the hold, crying for quarter; those who resisted fell either under the swords of the knights, the vengeful axes of the late captives, or the pikes of the Sards; but the great bulk, leaping from the bow or stern, swam ashore.
“Back to your ships!” Gervaise shouted, the moment resistance ceased. “Leave her floating here; she will help to block the way.”
Six vessels alone managed to make their escape from the blazing mass of ships, and all of these were captured almost as easily as the first had been. As soon as it seemed that all the remainder were involved in the flames, boats were lowered and sent on board the prizes to take possession. Save for the wounded on the decks, they were entirely deserted by their crews, as those who had run below, as soon as they found that their captors had left the vessels, dropped into the water, and made their way, either by swimming or with the assistance of oars, to the shore. There remained only the slaves, chained to their benches. A few of these had been killed by the broadsides; but the guns had been aimed at the poops and forecastles, where the corsairs were clustered together, and consequently the number of galley slaves who had fallen was comparatively small.
In none of the galleys was the proportion of Christians anything like so large as that in the three prizes first taken, the greater portion being men of inland tribes who had been captured in warfare, or malefactors who, instead of being executed, had been sold to the corsairs. Nevertheless, in the six galleys some seventy Christians were found, and at once freed. It was terrible to think that in the galleys that had been destroyed a large number of Christians must have perished in the flames, and Gervaise expressed bitter regret that he had not considered that his attack by fire ships must necessarily involve the loss of so many Christian lives.
“It can't be helped,” Ralph said, a............
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