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 One morning towards the end of May, 1480, Sir John Boswell was standing with some other knights on St. Stephen's Hill, near the city, having hurried up as soon as a column of smoke from a bonfire lighted by the lookout there, gave the news that the Turkish fleet was at last in sight. A similar warning had been given a month previously, but the fleet had sailed past the island, being bound for Phineka, which was the rendezvous where Mahomet's great armament was to assemble. There could be but little doubt that the long expected storm was this time about to burst. The fleet now seen approaching numbered a hundred and sixty large ships, besides a great number of small craft, conveying a force variously estimated at from seventy to a hundred thousand men. “'Tis a mighty fleet,” Sir John said; “and the worst of it is that we know there are more to follow; still, I doubt not we shall send them back defeated. Our defences are all complete; our recent peace with Egypt has enabled us to fill up our magazines with provisions of all kinds; the inhabitants of the Island have had ample warning to move into the town, carrying with them everything of value; so the Turks will obtain but little plunder, and will be able to gather no means of subsistence on the island, as every animal has been driven within the walls, and even the unripe corn has been reaped and brought in. However long the siege lasts, we need be in no fear of being reduced to sore straits for food. Look over there. There is a small craft under sail, and it comes not from the direction of Phineka. See! one of the Turkish galleys has separated from the rest and is making off in that direction. It may be that the little craft contains one or two of our comrades who are late in coming to join us.”
“It may well be so, Sir John, for they have been straggling in by twos and threes for the last month.”
“I will get the grand master's leave to put out in one of the galleys,” Sir John said, “for, by the way they are bearing, the Turks will cut the little craft off before she can gain the port.”
He hurried to D'Aubusson, who was standing a short distance apart from the others, gazing at the Turkish fleet. A minute later he was running down the hill to the town, accompanied by three or four other knights; they made direct for the outer port, where two galleys were lying in readiness, leapt on board one of them, which already contained its quota of knights, and at once rowed out of the port. Just as they did so the Turkish galley fired a gun.
“I fear we shall be too late,” Sir John said; “the Turk is gaining fast on the other craft, whatever she may be. There goes another gun. Row your hardest!” he shouted down to the slaves.
The Turkish ship did not fire again; the wind was light, and they were going two feet through the water to every one sailed by the other craft. The galley from Rhodes was still half a mile away when the Turk was close to the boat that was trying to escape. Sir John and the knights chafed as they saw they would be too late.
“I can't make out why the boat did not use her oars,” the former said. “Of course, she could not have kept away from the galley, but if she had rowed it would have made some difference, and we might have been nearly up.”
“I can only see one man on board of her, Sir John,” one of the younger knights said; and two or three others murmured that they were of the same opinion.
“The others must be lying down; she cannot have less than from fifteen to twenty men. The Turk is close alongside. They still hold on. There! She has gone about and escaped the attempt to run her down. Now she is heading for us again! Brave fellows! brave fellows!” Sir John exclaimed, while a cheer broke from those around him; “but they have done for themselves. They must have seen us coming out, and if they had surrendered might have hoped to have been retaken. Their chance of getting quarter was truly not great, for expecting—as the Turks do—to carry off both us and all the inhabitants of the Island, a dozen fishermen would have seemed to them scarcely worth keeping. However, by holding on they have thrown away any chance they may have had. The Turks are alongside; they are leaping down into the little craft. Ah! Two more galleys have just left their fleet, and are heading here.”
“See, Sir John,” one of the knights exclaimed, “there is a single man standing in the bow of that craft: he is facing the Moors alone. See how they crowd there; you can see the weapons flashing in the sun. They have to press past the mast to get at him, and as yet he seems to hold them all at bay.”
“He has chosen his post well, D'Urville. The number of his assailants prevents the archers on the Turkish craft using their bows. Fire those bow guns!” he shouted to the knights forward: “Take steady aim at the galley. It will distract their attention.”
“Nobly done indeed!” one of the other knights shouted. “I have seen him strike down four of the Turks.”
“Row, men, row! 'Tis useless!” Sir John muttered, as he clenched the hilt of his sword. “Useless! A Roland could not long maintain so unequal a fight.”
A groan broke from those around him as suddenly the dark mass of the assailants made a forward move, and the single figure was lost to sight. It was but for an instant; a moment later the crowd separated, and a man was seen to spring overboard.
“They will riddle him with their spears when he comes up; we shall have nothing to do but to avenge him. To your stations, comrades! It is our turn now, and we have no time to lose, for the other two Turks will be up in twenty minutes, and I had orders not to fight if it could be avoided: but we must take this fellow.”
Five minutes later the galley ran alongside the Turk, to which those who had captured the boat had already hastily returned. The ships discharged their guns into each other, and then, as the galley ran alongside, the knights tried to leap on board of her. They were opposed by a dense mass of Turks, for in addition to her usual crew the Moslem was crowded with troops. For three or four minutes the knights tried, but in vain, to get a footing on board; then Sir John shouted to them to forbear, and gave orders to the rowers at once to push off. A cloud of arrows swept across the poop as they did so; but for the most part these fell harmless from the armour of the knights. For a time the cannon on both sides continued to fire, but as the Christians increased their distance it gradually ceased.
They had gone but a hundred yards from the Turk when a head appeared over the stern railing of the poop, and a figure swung itself on to the deck. The man was attired in Turkish garments, but his head was bare, and the exclamation, “A Christian!” broke from the knights.
The man strode up to Sir John Boswell.
“You used to say you would make matters even with me some day, Sir John, and you have more than kept your word.”
Sir John fell back a pace in astonishment, and then with a shout, “By St. George, it is Tresham!” threw his arms round Gervaise's neck, while the knights thronged round with exclamations of satisfaction.
“And it was you whom we saw keep the Turks at bay for three good minutes single handed,” Sir John said, holding Gervaise at arm's length to gaze into his face. “Truly it seemed well nigh impossible that any one who was like to be on that craft could have performed so doughty a deed. And how did you escape?”
“It was simple enough,” Gervaise replied. “As soon as I dived I turned and swam along under the boat and came up by the stern, and then held on by the rudder, sheltered from their sight. I saw that the galley would be up in five minutes, and had no fear of their wasting time to look for me. Directly you came alongside her I dived again, and rose under your stern. I did not think that you would be able to take her, for all their craft are crowded with troops; so I contented myself with holding on until you were out of reach of their arrows, and then I climbed up.”
“I am delighted to see you again, Gervaise. I was feeling very sore at the moment, and I know the others felt the same, at being obliged to sheer off without making a capture; but the grand master's orders were strict. We noted your craft pursued by the Turks, and I asked leave to take out a galley to cut her off. He said, 'Take one, Sir John, but do not adventure an attack against the Turk unless she is likely to fall an easy prize to you. Her capture would be of little benefit to us, and would be dearly purchased at the cost of a knight's life. Therefore, as soon as we engaged her, and I found that she was full of troops and could not be captured without heavy loss, and that two of her consorts might arrive before we accomplished it, it was plainly my duty to abandon the attempt, although, you may guess, it went sorely against the grain to give the order, especially as I knew that a host would be looking on from St. Stephen's Hill. However, your rescue more than makes up for our failure; and thankful indeed am I that I made the suggestion that we should put out to save that little craft, though I thought it contained but a few fishermen or some coasting sailors, who had, in ignorance that the Turks were at hand, tried to enter Rhodes. One of those looking on with me did, indeed, suggest that she might have on board a knight or two coming to join us, but I did not give the matter a second thought.”
“And how go things, Sir John? And how are old friends?”
“Ralph Harcourt and, I think, all your comrades in the Santa Barbara, except the three who fell by your side when you were captured, are well, and at present on the Island, as, for the last two years, none have been allowed to depart. As to other matters, they go not so well as one could wish. The commanderies have not responded to our call for aid as they should have done. For this, however, they are not altogether to blame, for we have been so often threatened with attack, and have so frequently applied for aid in money or men, that they must have begun to doubt whether the danger was really imminent. In other respects we are well prepared. We have obtained large stores of provisions from Egypt, and shall have no ground for uneasiness on that score. The defences have been greatly strengthened, and no one fears that we shall not be able to beat off an attack. We have destroyed the principal buildings outside the walls, though it would have been better could we have gone much further in this direction. And now let us have your adventures and escape.”
“'Tis a long story, Sir John, and I must pray you to let me defer it for a time. In the first place, I have two or three wounds that I shall be glad to have bandaged.”
“Why did you not say so at once?” Sir John exclaimed. “In those dark clothes, soaked with water as they are, I did not see the bloodstains; but I ought to have looked for them, for surely no one could have gone through that fight—altogether unprotected with armour too—without being wounded. Come below, and we will attend to them.”
“Also order me some wine and food, Sir John; I have touched nothing save water for twenty-four hours, and before that fasted somewhat strictly.”
By the time Gervaise's wounds, which were not severe, had been bandaged, and he had eaten a hasty meal, the galley was alongside the mole, between the two harbours.
He was provided with some clothes, and went with Sir John straight to the English auberge, where the knight insisted that he should at once lie down.
“I will report your return to D'Aubusson, and will tell him it is by my orders that you are resting. Your wounds are not very deep, but you must have lost a good deal of blood, and were you to exert yourself now, and be pestered with questions, it would probably bring on an attack of fever. There is nothing to do at present, for it must be some days before they can land and bring up their guns.”
Gervaise obeyed the orders not unwillingly, for he felt that he was really weak, and was greatly worn out by want of sleep. Sir John Kendall, at Boswell's request, issued orders that he was on no account whatever to be disturbed, and that no one was to enter his room unless he sounded the bell placed by the bedside. Gervaise indeed, falling off to sleep a few minutes after he had lain down, did not awake until the following morning. Having no idea that he had slept more than two or three hours, he sounded the bell in order to inquire whether Ralph had returned to the auberge. He was surprised to find his friend had just risen, and that he himself had been asleep some eighteen hours!
A few minutes later Ralph hurried into the room.
“Thank God that you are back again, Gervaise!” he said, as he grasped the hand of his friend. “I did not return until late in the evening, having been at work with a large body of slaves at the fortifications; and you may guess what joy I felt at the news. You are changed a good deal.”
“I don't suppose you will think so at the end of a day or two, Ralph. I lost a good deal of blood yesterday, and have been on short rations; but I shall very soon pick up again.”
“They will bring you some broth and wine directly, Gervaise. Early as it is, the grand master has already sent down to inquire as to your health.”
“I will reply in person as soon as I have had a meal and dressed.”
“And I suppose we must all wait to hear what you have been doing until you return, Gervaise?”
“I suppose so, Ralph. Of course it is a long story; but I must tell you at once that there is nothing very exciting in it, and that it differed little from that of others who have been prisoners among the Moors, save that I was strangely fortunate, and suffered no hardships whatever. And now I want to ask you about clothes. Have my things been sold, or are they still in the store?”
“No; the question was raised but a short time since. It was mooted, by the way, by that old enemy of yours, Robert Rivers, who returned here some three months ago with a batch of knights from the English commanderies. Sir John Boswell answered him roundly, I can tell you, and said that they should be kept, were it for another fifty years, for that he would wager his life that you would sooner or later make your escape.”
“I am sorry that fellow has returned, Ralph. Has he got a commandery yet?”
“No; I believe that Sir John Kendall sent home so bad a report of him, that even the great influence of his family has not sufficed to obtain his appointment, and that he has been merely the assistant at one of the smaller manors. Sir John Boswell told me in confidence that he understood that Rivers did not at first volunteer to come out in response to the appeal of the grand master, but that the grand prior informed him that unless he took this opportunity of retrieving his character, he might give up all hope of ever obtaining advancement. Ah, here is your breakfast.”
An hour later Gervaise presented himself at the palace, clothed in the suit of armour that had been given to him by Genoa. Although he was engaged with several members of the council at the time, the grand master ordered him to be at once admitted as soon as he heard that he was in attendance.
“Welcome back, Sir Gervaise Tresham,” he said warmly, as he entered. “We all rejoice greatly at your return, and I consider it a happy omen for the success of our defence that so brave and distinguished a knight should at the last moment have arrived to take a share in it.”
The others present all shook Gervaise cordially by the hand, and congratulated him on his return.
“You must dine with me this evening,” D'Aubusson went on, “and tell us the story of your captivity and escape. At present, as you may suppose, we have too many matters on hand to spare time for aught that is not pressing and important. You will need a few days' rest before you are fit for active service, and by that time we will settle as to what post will best suit you.”
Twice that day had Gervaise to recount his adventures, the first time to Sir John Kendall and the knights of his auberge, the second to the grand master. Most of the leading members of the Order were assembled at the palace, and, among others, he was introduced to the Viscount de Monteuil, the elder brother of D'Aubusson, one of the most famous leaders of the day. He had brought with him a considerable body of retainers, and, although not a member of the Order, had offered his services in defence of the town. The council had gratefully accepted the offer, and had unanimously named him Commander of the Forces. Many other knights and soldiers had come from different parts of Europe, animated alike by the desire to aid in the defence of Christendom ag............
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