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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XVI FESTIVITIES
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 At last the fleet, headed by the galley, to which all the knights had returned, rowed towards the port. A gun flashed out from the fort at its entrance, and at once those from all the other batteries responded; bells pealed out again, and a confused roar of cheering broke from the crowds occupying every spot from which a view of the harbour could be obtained. The ships in the port were all decked with flags, and the front windows and balconies of every house were hung with tapestries and bright curtains. As soon as the galley entered the port, a state barge, flying the flag of the Republic, advanced to meet her from the wharf. As she approached, Ralph gave orders for the oars to be laid in, and the barge was soon alongside. The knights were already ranged along the poop, and, accompanied by Ralph and Caretto, Gervaise moved to the gangway to receive the visitors. At their head was Battista Fragoso, the doge, in his robe of state, and following him were a body of the highest nobles of Genoa, all brilliant in gala costume. “This, my lord duke,” Caretto said, “is Sir Gervaise Tresham, a knight commander of our Order, and the commander of this, their galley. He has before, as you may well believe from his appointment to so honourable a post, highly distinguished himself, but what he has before accomplished is far surpassed by the brilliant action that he has now achieved. He has won a victory that not only reflects the highest honour upon the Order, but is an inestimable service to Italy, and has freed her from a corsair fleet that would have been a scourge to her, both at sea and to the towns and villages along the coast. Not only has he, with the brave knights under his orders, annihilated the corsair fleet, burning eleven of their galleys, and capturing thirteen others, but he has restored to freedom no less than two hundred Christian captives, among them the cavaliers Giacomo da Vinci, Pietro Forzi, and myself.”
“In the name of the Republic, Sir Gervaise Tresham, and I may say in that of all Italy, I thank you most heartily for the splendid service that you have rendered us. It would have seemed to me well nigh incredible that a single galley, even if commanded and manned by the most famous knights of your great Order, should have accomplished so extraordinary a feat. Still more strange is it that it should have been performed by so young a knight, with a crew composed, as Sir Fabricius Caretto has told us, of knights chosen from among the youngest of the Order.”
“You give far more credit to us, your Highness, than we deserve,” Gervaise replied. “Three of the ships were indeed captured in fair fight, but we caught the rest asleep and massed together as to be incapable of successful resistance, and they fell easy victims to the fire ships we launched against them. Any credit that is due to me is shared equally by my subcommander here, Sir Ralph Harcourt, and indeed by every knight of my company.”
“This, doubtless, may be so, Sir Gervaise,” the doge said, with a slight smile, “but it is to the head that plans, rather than to the hand that strikes, that such success as you have achieved is due; and the credit of this night attack is, as the cavalier Caretto tells me, wholly yours, for until you issued your final orders it seemed to him, and to the two good knights his companions, that there was naught to do but to remain in port and watch this corsair fleet sail away to carry out its work of destruction.”
By this time they had reached the poop of the galley. Gervaise now called forward the knights one by one, and presented them to the doge, who expressed to them all the gratitude felt by himself and the whole of the citizens of Genoa for the service they had rendered to the Republic. This ceremony being over, the knights broke up their ranks and conversed for a few minutes with those who had come on board with the doge. The latter then took his place in the barge with his companions, inviting Gervaise and Ralph to accompany him. As the barge left the side of the galley, which followed closely behind her, the guns again thundered out their welcome, and a roar of greeting rose from the inhabitants. On landing, the party waited until the knights had joined them, and then proceeded up the street to the ducal palace, amidst enthusiastic cheering from the crowd that lined the road, occupied the windows and balconies, and even scrambled on the housetops, the ladies waving their handkerchiefs and scarves.
At the palace were assembled all the municipal authorities, and the congratulations given on board were here repeated. After this there was a great banquet, at which Gervaise was placed on the right hand of the doge, who, at the conclusion of the feast, called upon the assembled guests to drink to the health of the knights of St. John, who had saved the commerce and seacoast of Italy from the greatest danger that had menaced them since the days when the Northern rovers had desolated the shores of the Mediterranean. The toast was drunk with enthusiasm, and Gervaise then replied with a few words of thanks for the honour done to himself and his comrades.
The party then left the banqueting hall for the great reception rooms, where the wives and daughters of all the nobles and principal citizens of Genoa were assembled. Most of the young knights, belonging as they did to noble families, and accustomed from childhood to courtly ceremonies and festivities, were quite at home here. Caretto, his two companions, and their six Italian comrades, speedily introduced them, and each was soon surrounded by a group of ladies, anxious to hear from his lips the details of the exploits of the galley.
“But how is it that you are all so young, Sir Ralph?” one of the ladies, to whom Harcourt had been introduced as the second in command, asked him, when he had finished his account of the capture of the galleys. “We heard from those who met you on landing, that all your comrades were young, but we were filled with surprise when you entered the room, for many of them are but lads.”
“You may say that all of us are but lads, Countess. I am the oldest of the party, and am but little over twenty-two, but few of the others are over nineteen; they are all professed knights of the Order, who, as you doubtless know, come out to Rhodes when only sixteen. Some, of course, do not join until later, but I think that all here entered at the earliest age permitted, and almost all had served in two or three voyages in the galleys before they were appointed to the Santa Barbara. The reason why so young a crew was chosen was that our commander was also young. He had done such exceptional service to the Order that he was appointed to the command of a galley, and he has, as all will allow, well justified the choice. It was because it was deemed inexpedient to place knights many years his senior under his command, and partly, perhaps, to encourage the younger knights, by giving them an exceptional opportunity of distinguishing themselves, that the crew was chosen entirely from their ranks. I was selected as second in command because Gervaise and I had been special friends when we came out from England in the same ship, and had before fought side by side against the Moslems.”
“I see that you wear gilded spurs, Sir Ralph,” another lady said; “you must therefore be a dubbed knight?”
“Yes; I had the good fortune to be knighted by D'Aubusson himself, at the same time that Sir Gervaise was also so honoured. It was for an affair with the Turkish pirates. It was Gervaise who really won the honour, for I had no share in the affair, save that of doing my best in the fight.”
“And who could do more?” the countess queried.
“Gervaise could do more, Countess, as was shown in that attack on the corsairs by means of fire ships. He has a head to plan, and, in the case I speak of, a happy thought of his not only saved the lives of ourselves and Sir John Boswell, but, indirectly, was the means of preventing two of our galleys being captured by the corsairs.”
“Which is Sir Gervaise?” one of the ladies asked.
Ralph smiled.
“Look round the hall, signoras, and see if any of you can pick him out from the rest of us.”
The ladies looked round the hall.
“There are only about twenty here; the rest are in the other rooms. Do not set us to work guessing, if he is not in sight, Sir Ralph.”
“Oh yes, he is in sight. Now do each of you fix on the one you think most accords with your ideas of what a knight, brave in action and wise and prudent in council, would be like.”
The six ladies each fixed on one of the young knights.
“You are all wrong,” said Ralph.
“How can we choose?” the countess said laughingly, “when none of them resemble our ideal hero? Most of them are pleasant and courtly looking youths, but as yet there is scarce a vestige of hair on their faces, and one could not fancy any of them as the destroyer of the fleet of corsairs.”
“Do you see the one speaking to the elderly lady in the recess?”
“Yes; she is the wife of Fragoso. You do not mean to say that that lad is the commander of the galley? Why, he looks the youngest of you all.”
“He is between seventeen and eighteen, and there are several others who are no older. Yes, that is Sir Gervaise, Knight Commander of the Order of St. John.”
“But how can he possibly have served his time as a professed knight?”
“He was one of the grand master's pages, and his time in that service counted just as it would have done had he entered as a professed knight; and at fifteen, therefore, he stood in the same position as those three or four years older than himself. He speaks Turkish as well as our own tongue, and, as I told you, we received the accolade at the hands of the grand master, a year and a half ago. He is now a knight commander, and will assuredly one day occupy one of the highest posts in the Order.”
“You do not speak as if you were jealous, Sir Ralph; and yet methinks it cannot be pleasant for you all to have one younger than yourselves placed at your head.”
“I do not think there is one of us who so feels,” Ralph said earnestly. “In the first place, he has performed excellent service; in the next place, even those who did not know him before, have felt, since we started, that he is a born leader. Then, too, we regard with pride one who has brought credit upon the younger members of the Order. Moreover, we all owe our posts in the galley to the fact that he was chosen for its command. It is a difficult position for him to fill, but he has managed so that, while all obey his orders as cheerfully and willingly as if he were a veteran, when off duty we regard him as one of ourselves.”
“You are a staunch friend, Sir Ralph.”
“I am a staunch friend of Sir Gervaise, Countess, for the more I know of him the more I care for him. He well deserves the promotion and honour that have fallen to his share.”
“Will you bring him across here to us, Sir Ralph? I want to talk to this hero of yours, and I am sure that my daughter is longing to be introduced to him.”
Ralph waited until Gervaise was disengaged, and then brought him across, and, after introducing him, moved away at once, leaving Gervaise to be interrogated by the ladies.
“You must be accustomed to festivities, Sir Gervaise, for we have just heard that you were one of the grand master's pages?”
“I am accustomed to them, signora; but that is not at all the same thing as liking them.”
The reply was given so earnestly that all the ladies smiled.
“Your taste is quite exceptional. Do you mean to say that you would rather be on board your galley than here?”
“It would not be polite,” Gervaise said, with a laugh, “if I were to say that I would infinitely rather be on board; but indeed I have not, like most of my comrades, been brought up in court or castle. Until the day I joined the Order, we led the lives of exiles. My father belonged to the defeated party in England, and, save for a few months when the cause to which he was attached was triumphant, we lived quietly on the estates he had recovered, our life being one of care and anxiety. So, you see, I had no training in gaiety and pleasure. At Rhodes there are state receptions and religious pageants, but a meeting such as this, is, of course, impossible in a convent; and since I was eleven years old I think I have only once spoken to a woman. So you can well understand, signora, that I feel awkward in speech, and I pray you to make allowance for my ignorance of the language of courtesy, such as would naturally be expected in a knight, even though belonging to a religious Order.”
“There is naught to make allowance for,” the countess said gently. “Women can appreciate simple truth, and are not, as men seem to think, always yearning for compliments. Those who are most proficient in turning phrases are not often among those foremost in battle, or wisest in council, and I can tell you that we women value deeds far higher than words. Sir Fabricius Caretto is a cousin of mine, and has this afternoon been speaking so highly of you to me and my young daughter here, that I am glad indeed to make your acquaintance. How long do you intend to stay in Genoa?”
“No longer than it will take me to engage men to carry the prizes to Rhodes. I am afraid that sounds rude,” he broke off, as he noticed a smile on the faces of the ladies.
“Not rude,” said the countess; “though most knights would have put it differently, and said that their duty compelled them to leave as soon as the prizes could be manned. But it comes to the same thing. Of course, you will remain the guest of the doge as long as you are here; otherwise, it would have given us the greatest pleasure to have entertained you. My cousin is, of course, staying with us, and you see we all feel a very deep obligation to you. He has been so long a slave among the Moors, that we had almost come to hope death had freed him from his fetters; so you may imagine our pleasure when he arrived here so suddenly ten days ago. We were expecting that he would remain with us for some time, but he says that he must first go back to Rhodes, after which he will ask for leave, and return here. We have a banquet tomorrow evening to celebrate his return, and earnestly hoped that you would be present, but, since you say that you do not care for such gaieties, we shall, if you prefer it, be glad if you will come to join us at our family meal at twelve.”
“Thank you, countess, I should very greatly prefer it, and it will give me real pleasure to come.”
“Your friend, Sir Ralph Harcourt, has been telling us how you have destroyed the corsair fleet that has been so alarming us. He, too, is an Englishman, though he speaks Italian well.”
“Yes, he speaks it a great deal better than I do,” Gervaise said. “He is a dear friend of mine, and it is, indeed, chiefly owing to his support and influence that I have been able to manage so pleasantly and well in the command of a body of young knights, most of whom are my seniors.”
“He tells us that you speak Turkish?”
“Yes; I thought that it would be very useful, and spent nearly a year in acquiring it, the bailiff of my langue being kind enough to relieve me of all other duties. I was fortunate enough to find in one of the servants of the auberge a well educated and widely informed Turk, who was a very pleasant companion, as well as an excellent instructor, and I learnt much from him besides his language. The knowledge of Turkish has already proved to me most useful, and was indeed the means by which I obtained both my commandery and my appointment as captain of the galley.”
“Perhaps you will tell us the story tomorrow; that is, if it is too long to tell us now?”
“It is indeed much too long; but if it will interest you I shall be glad to recount it tomorrow.”
The next day Gervaise went to the palace of the Countess Da Forli. She was a widow with no children, except Claudia, the young daughter who had accompanied her to the fete the evening before. Caretto, and four or five relations of the family, were the only guests beside himself. It was a quiet and sociable meal, and served with less ceremony than usual, as the countess wished to place Gervaise as much as possible at his ease. During the meal but little was said about the affair with the pirates, Caretto telling them some of his experiences as a captive.
“It is well, Claudia,” he said, laughing, “that you did not see me at the time I was rescued, for I was such a scarecrow that you would never have been able to regard me with due and proper respect afterwards. I was so thin that my bones almost came through my skin.”
“You are thin enough now, cousin,” the girl said.
“I have gained so much weight during the last ten days that I begin to fear that I shall, ere long, get too fat to buckle on my armour. But, bad as the thinness was, it was nothing to the dirt. Moreover, I was coming near to losing my voice. There was nothing for us to talk about in our misery, and often days passed without a word being exchanged between Da Vinci, Forzi, and myself. Do you know I felt almost more thankful for the bath and perfumes than I did for my liberty. I was able at once to enjoy the comfort of the one, while it was some time before I could really assure myself that my slavery was over, and that I was a free man again.”
“And now, Sir Gervaise,” the countess said, when the meal was over, “it is your turn. Claudia is longing to hear your story, and to know how you came to be in command of a galley.”
“And I am almost as anxious,” Caretto said. “I did not like to ask the question on board the galley, and have been looking forward to learning it when I got to Rhodes. I did, indeed, ask the two knights who accompanied me on my mission here, but they would only tell me that every one knew you had performed some very great service to the Order, and that it concerned some intended rising among the slaves, the details being known to only a few, who had been, they understood, told that it was not to be repeated.”
“It was a very simple matter,” Gervaise said, “and although the grand master and council were pleased to take a very favourable view of it, it was, in fact, a question of luck, just as was the surprise of the corsairs. There is really no secret about it—at least, except in Rhodes: there it was thought best not to speak of it, because the fact that the attempt among the slaves was almost successful, might, if generally known, encou............
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