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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XVIII A KIND MASTER
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 When the boat reached the shore the Arab handed a long bernouse to Gervaise, signed to him to pull the hood well over his head, and then led the way through the streets until he stopped at a large house, standing in a quiet quarter of the town. He struck on the door with his hand, and it was at once opened by a black slave. “Call Muley,” the Arab said.
The slave hurried away, and returned in a minute with a man somewhat past middle age, and dressed in a style that indicated that he was a trusted servant.
“Muley,” his master said, “I have bought this Christian who has been brought in by Hassan the corsair. He is one of the knights who are the terrors of our coasts, but is, from what I hear, of a kind and humane disposition. I am told that he was a commander of one of their galleys, and though I should not have believed it had I only Hassan's word, I have heard from others that it was so. My wife has long desired to have a Christian slave, and as Allah has blessed my efforts it was but right that I should gratify her, though in truth I do not know what work I shall set him to do at present. Let him first have a bath, and see that he is clad decently, then let him have a good meal. I doubt if he has had one since he was captured. He has been sorely beaten by the corsair, and from no fault of his own, but only because he opposed the man's brutality to a child slave. If any of his wounds need ointment, see that he has it. When all is ready, bring him to the door of my apartments, in order that I may show to my wife that I have gratified her whim.”
Then he motioned to Gervaise to follow Muley, who was the head of his household. Gervaise resisted the impulse to thank his new master, and followed in silence.
He was first taken to a bathroom, furnished with an abundance of hot and cold water. Muley uttered an exclamation as, on Gervaise throwing off his bernouse, he saw that his flesh was a mass of bruises. After filling the bath with hot water, he motioned to Gervaise to get in, and lie there until he returned. It was some time before he came back, bringing a pot of ointment and some bandages. It was only on the body that the wounds needed dressing, for here the blows had fallen on the naked skin. When he had dressed them, Muley went out and returned with some Turkish garments, consisting of a pair of baggy trousers of yellow cotton, a white shirt of the same material, and a sleeveless jacket of blue cloth embroidered with yellow trimming; a pair of yellow slippers completed the costume. Muley now took him into another room, where he set before him a dish of rice with a meat gravy, a large piece of bread, and a wooden spoon.
Gervaise ate the food with a deep feeling of thankfulness for the fate that had thrown him into such good hands. Then, after taking a long draught of water, he rose to his feet and followed Muley into the entrance hall. The latter stopped at a door on the opposite side, knocked at it, and then motioned to Gervaise to take off his slippers. The door was opened by the Arab himself.
“Enter,” he said courteously, and led Gervaise into an apartment where a lady and two girls were sitting on a divan. They were slightly veiled; but, as Gervaise afterwards learnt, Ben Ibyn was not a Moor, but a Berber, a people who do not keep their women in close confinement as do the Moors, but allow them to go abroad freely without being entirely muffled up.
“Khadja,” the merchant said, “this is the Christian slave I purchased today. You have for a long time desired one, but not until now have I found one who would, I thought, satisfy your expectations. What think you of him?”
“He is a noble looking youth truly, Isaac, with his fair, wavy hair, his grey eyes, and white skin; truly, all my neighbours will envy me such a possession. I have often seen Christian slaves before, but they have always been broken down and dejected looking creatures; this one bears himself like a warrior rather than a slave.”
“He is a warrior; he is one of those terrible knights of Rhodes whose very name is a terror to the Turks, and whose galleys are feared even by our boldest corsairs. He must be of approved valour, for he was commander of one of these galleys.”
The girls looked with amazement at Gervaise. They had often heard tales of the capture of ships that had sailed from Tripoli, by the galleys of the Christian knights, and had pictured those fierce warriors as of almost supernatural strength and valour. That this youth, whose upper lip was but shaded with a slight moustache, should be one of them, struck them as being almost incredible.
“He does not look ferocious, father,” one of them said. “He looks pleasant and good tempered, as if he could injure no one.”
“And yet this morning, daughter, he braved, unarmed, the anger of Hassan the corsair, on the deck of his own ship; and when the pirate called upon his men to seize him he threw one overboard, struck two more on to the deck, and it needed eight men to overpower him.”
“I hope he won't get angry with us!” the younger girl exclaimed. Gervaise could not suppress a laugh, and then, turning to the merchant, said in Turkish, “I must ask your pardon for having concealed from you my knowledge of your tongue. I kept the secret from all on board the corsair, and meant to have done the same here, deeming that if none knew that I spoke the language it would greatly aid me should I ever see an opportunity of making my escape; but, Ben Ibyn, you have behaved so kindly to me that I feel it would not be honourable to keep it a secret from you, and to allow you and the ladies to talk freely before me, thinking that I was altogether ignorant of what you were saying.”
“You have acted well and honourably,” Ben Ibyn said, putting a hand on his shoulder kindly. “We have heard much of the character of the Order, and that though valiant in battle, your knights are courteous and chivalrous, deeming a deceitful action to be unworthy of them, and binding themselves by their vows to succour the distressed and to be pitiful to the weak. We have heard that our wounded are tended by them in your hospitals with as much care as men of their own race and religion, and that in many things the knights were to be admired even by those who were their foes. I see now that these reports were true, and that although, as you say, it might be of advantage to you that none should know you speak Arabic, yet it is from a spirit of honourable courtesy you have now told us that you do so.
“I did not tell you, wife,” he went on, turning to her, “that the reason why he bearded Hassan today was because the corsair brutally struck a little female captive; thus, you see, he, at the risk of his life, and when himself a captive, carried out his vows to protect the defenceless. And now, wife, there is one thing you must know. For some time, at any rate, you must abandon the idea of exciting the envy of your friends by exhibiting your Christian captive to them. As you are aware, the sultan has the choice of any one slave he may select from each batch brought in, and assuredly he would choose this one, did it come to his ears, or to the ears of one of his officers, that a Christian knight had been landed. For this reason Hassan sold him to me for a less sum than he would otherwise have demanded, and we must for some time keep his presence here a secret. My idea is that he shall remain indoors until we move next week into our country house, where he will be comparatively free from observation.”
“Certainly, Isaac. I would not on any account that he should be handed over to the sultan, for he would either be put into the galleys or have to labour in the streets.”
“I will tell Muley to order the other slaves to say nothing outside of the fresh arrival, so for the present there is no fear of its being talked about in the town. Hassan will, for his own sake, keep silent on the matter. I have not yet asked your name,” he went on, turning to Gervaise.
“My name is Gervaise Tresham; but it will be easier for you to call me by my first name only.”
“Then, Gervaise, it were well that you retired to rest at once, for I am sure that you sorely need it.” He touched a bell on the table, and told Muley, when he appeared, to conduct Gervaise to the place where he was to sleep, which was, he had already ordered, apart from the quarters of the other slaves.
“The young fellow is a mass of bruises,” Ben Ibyn said to his wife, when the door closed behind Gervaise. “Hassan beat him so savagely, after they had overpowered and bound him, that he well nigh killed him.”
An exclamation of indignation burst from the wife and daughters.
“Muley has seen to his wounds,” he went on, “and he will doubtless be cured in a few days. And now, wife, that your wish is gratified, and I have purchased a Christian slave for you, may I ask what you are going to do with him?”
“I am sure I do not know,” she said in a tone of perplexity. “I had thought of having him to hand round coffee when my friends call, and perhaps to work in the garden, but I did not think that he would be anything like this.”
“That is no reason why he should not do so,” Ben Ibyn said. “These Christians, I hear, treat their women as if they were superior beings, and feel it no dishonour to wait upon them; I think you cannot do better than carry out your plan. It is certain there is no sort of work that he would prefer to it; therefore, let it be understood that he is to be your own personal attendant, and that when you have no occasion for his services, he will work in the garden. Only do not for the present let any of your friends see him; they would spread the news like wildfire, and in a week every soul in the town would know that you had a good looking Christian slave, and the sultan's officer would be sending for me to ask how I obtained him. We must put a turban on him. Any one who caught a glimpse of that hair of his, however far distant, would know that he was a Frank.”
“We might stain his face and hands with walnut juice,” Khadja said, “he would pass as a Nubian. Some of them are tall and strong.”
“A very good thought, wife; it would be an excellent disguise. So shall it be.” He touched the bell again. “Tell Muley I would speak with him. Muley,” he went on, when the steward appeared, “have you said aught to any of the servants touching the Christian?”
“No, my lord; you gave me no instructions about it, and I thought it better to wait until the morning, when I could ask you.”
“You did well. We have determined to stain his skin, and at present he will pass as a Nubian. This will avoid all questions and talk.”
“But, my lord, they will wonder that he cannot speak their tongue.”
“He must pass among them as a mute; but indeed he speaks Arabic as well as we do, Muley.”
The man uttered an exclamation of surprise.
“He had intended to conceal his knowledge,” Ben Ibyn went on, “which would have been politic; but when he found that my intentions were kind, he told us that he knew our tongue, and now revealed his knowledge, as he thought it would be dishonourable to listen to our talk, leaving us under the impression that he could not understand us.”
“Truly these Christians are strange men,” Muley said. “This youth, who has not yet grown the hair on his face, is nevertheless commander of a war galley. He is ready to risk his life on behalf of a slave, and can strike down men with his unarmed hand; he is as gentle in his manner as a woman; and now it seems he can talk Arabic, and although it was in his power to keep this secret he tells it rather than overhear words that are not meant for his ear. Truly they are strange people, the Franks. I will prepare some stain in the morning, my lord, and complete his disguise before any of the others see him.”
The next morning Muley told Gervaise that his master thought that it would be safer and more convenient for him to pass as a dumb Nubian slave. Gervaise thought the plan an excellent one; and he was soon transformed, Muley shaving that part of the hair that would have shown below the turban, and then staining him a deep brownish black, from the waist upwards, together with his feet and his legs up to his knee, and darkening his eyebrows, eyelashes, and moustache.
“Save that your lips lack the thickness, and your nose is straighter than those of Nubians, no one would doubt but that you were one of that race; and this is of little consequence, as many of them are of mixed blood, and, though retaining their dark colour, have features that in their outline resemble those of the Arabs. Now I will take you to Ben Ibyn, so that he may judge whether any further change is required before the servants and slaves see you.”
“That is excellent,” the merchant said, when he had carefully inspected Gervaise, “I should pass you myself without recognizing you. Now you can take him into the servants' quarters, Muley, and tell them that he is a new slave whom I have purchased, and that henceforth it will be his duty to wait upon my wife, to whom I have presented him as her special attendant, and that he will accompany her and my daughters when they go abroad to make their purchases or visit their friends. Give some reason, if you can think of one, why you have bestowed him in a chamber separate from the rest.”
Gervaise at once took up his new duties, and an hour later, carrying a basket, followed them into the town. It was strange to him thus to be walking among the fanatical Moors, who, had they known the damage that he had inflicted upon their galleys, would have torn him in pieces. None gave him, however, more than a passing look. Nubian slaves were no uncommon sight in the town, and in wealthy Moorish families were commonly employed in places of trust, and especially as attendants in the harems. The ladies were now as closely veiled as the Moorish women, it being only in the house that they followed the Berber customs. Gervaise had learnt from Muley that Ben Ibyn was one of the richest merchants in Tripoli, trading direct with Egypt, Syria, and Constantinople, besides carrying on a large trade with the Berber tribes in the interior. He returned to the house with his basket full of provisions, and having handed these over to the cook, he went to the private apartments, as Khadja had requested him to do. Here she and her daughters asked him innumerable questions as to his country and its customs, and then about Rhodes and the Order to which he belonged. Their surprise was great when they heard that the knights were bound to celibacy.
“But why should they not marry if they like? Why should they not have wives, children, and homes like other people?” Khadja asked.
“It is that they may devote their whole lives to their work. Their home is the convent at Rhodes, or at one of the commanderies scattered over Europe, where they take charge of the estates of the Order.”
“But why should they not marry then, Gervaise? At Rhodes there might be danger for women and children, but when they return to Europe to take charge of the estates, surely they would do their duty no worse for having wives?”
Gervaise smiled.
“I did not make the rules of the Order, lady, but I have thought myself that although, so long as they are doing military work at the convent, it is well that they should not marry, yet there is no good reason why, when established in commanderies at home, they should not, like other knights and nobles, marry if it so pleases them.”
In the evening the merchant returned from his stores, which were situated down by the port. Soon after he came in he sent for Gervaise. “There is a question I had intended to ask you last night,” he said, “but it escaped me. More than two months since there sailed from this port and others many vessels—not the ships of the State, but corsairs. In all, more than twenty ships started, with the intention of making a great raid upon the coast of Italy. No word has since been received of them, and their friends here are becoming very uneasy, the more so as we hear that neither at Tunis nor Algiers has any news been received. Have you heard at Rhodes of a Moorish fleet having been ravaging the coast of Italy?”
“Have you any friends on board the ships that sailed from here, or any interest in the venture, Ben Ibyn?”
The merchant shook his head. “We Berbers,” he said, “are not like the Moors, and have but little to do with the sea, save by the way of trade. For myself, I regret that these corsair ships are constantly putting out. Were it not for them and their doings we might trade with the ports of France, of Spain, and Italy, and be on good terms with all. There is no reason why, because our faiths are different, we should be constantly fighting. It is true that the Turks threaten Europe, and are even now preparing to capture Rhodes; but this is no question of religion. The Turks are warlike and ambitious; they have conquered Syria, and war with Egypt and Persia; but the Moorish states are small, they have no thought of conquest, and might live peaceably with Europe were it not for the hatred excited against them by the corsairs.”
“In that case I can tell you the truth. Thirteen of those ships were taken into Rhodes as prizes; the other eleven were burnt. Not one of the fleet escaped.”
Exclamations of surprise broke from Ben Ibyn, his wife, and daughters.
“I am astonished, indeed,” the merchant said. “It was reported here that the Genoese galleys were all laid up, and it was thought that they would be able to sweep the seas without opposition, and to bring home vast spoil and many captives, both from the ships they took and from many of the villages and small towns of the coast. How came such a misfortune to happen to them? It will create consternation here when it is known, for although it was not a state enterprise, the sultan himself and almost all the rich Moors embarked money in the fitting out of the ships, and were to have shares in the spoil taken. How happened it that so strong a fleet was all taken or destroyed, without even one vessel being able to get away to carry home the news of the disaster?”
“Fortune was against them,” Gervaise said. “Three ships on their way up were captured by a galley of our Order, and her commander having obtained news of the whereabouts of the spot where the corsairs were to rendezvous, found them all lying together in a small inlet, and launched against them a number of fishing boats fitted out as fire ships. The corsairs, packed closely together, were unable to avoid them, and, as I told you, eleven of their ships were burnt, four were run ashore to avoid the flames, while six, trying to make their way out, were captured by the galley, aided by the three prizes that were taken and which the knights had caused to be manned by Sards.”
“The ways of Allah the All Seeing are wonderful,” the merchant said. “It was indeed a marvellous feat for one galley thus to destroy a great fleet.”
“It was the result of good fortune rather than skill and valour,” Gervaise said.
“Nay, nay; let praise be given where it is due. It was a marvellous feat; and although there is good or bad fortune in every event, such a deed could not have been performed, and would not even have been thought of, save by a great commander. Who was the knight who thus with one galley alone destroyed a strongly manned fleet, from which great things had been looked for?”
Gervaise hesitated. “It was a young knight,” he said, “of but little standing in the Order, and whose name is e............
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