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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XXI THE FORT OF ST. NICHOLAS
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 “Well, you have proved indeed,” Caretto said, when Gervaise finished his story, “that you are worthy of the bestowal of a gage by a fair damsel. I do not think that many knights, however true they might be to the donor, would have suffered months of slavery in order to regain a token, lost by no fault or carelessness of their own; and no lady could have blamed or held them in any way dishonoured by the loss.” “I had a message by the Viscount De Monteuil from Lady Claudia the other day, saying that she trusted I had kept her gage. I can assure you that the six months of slavery were cheaply purchased by the pleasure I felt that I still possessed it; and I was glad, too, to learn that I had not been forgotten by her.”
“Of that you may well assure yourself, Tresham; my commandery is not far from Genoa, and I was frequently with her, but never without her drawing me aside and asking me if I had heard any news of you, and talking over with me the chances there might be of your escape. I can tell you that there are not a few young nobles of Genoa who would give much to be allowed as you are to carry her gage, or wear her colours. You should see her now; you would scarce know her again, so altered and improved is she; there is no fairer face in all Italy.”
“I hope some day to meet her again,” Gervaise replied; “although I own to knowing it were better that I should not do so. Until she gave me her gage I had scarcely noticed her. I have, as you know, no experience of women, and had so much on my mind at the time, what with the fuss they were making about us, and the question of getting the prizes here, that in truth I paid but slight attention to the fair faces of the dames of Genoa. But the gracious and earnest way in which, though scarce more than a child, she gave me her gage, and vowed that no other knight should possess one so long as I lived, struck me so greatly that I own I gave the matter much more thought than was right or becoming in one of our Order. The incident was much more gratifying to me than all the honour paid me by the Republic, and during the long months of my captivity it has recurred to me so frequently that I have in vain endeavoured to chase it from my thoughts, as sinful thus to allow myself constantly to think of any woman. Do not mistake me, Sir Fabricius. I am speaking to you as to a confessor, and just as I have kept her amulet hidden from all, so is the thought of her a secret I would not part with for my life. I do not for a moment deceive myself with the thought that, beyond the fact that her gift has made her feel an interest in me and my fate, she has any sentiment in the matter: probably, indeed, she looks back upon the gift as a foolish act of girlish enthusiasm that led her into making a promise that she now cannot but find unpleasantly binding; for it is but natural that among the young nobles of her own rank and country there must be some whom she would see with pleasure wearing her colours.”
Caretto looked at him with some amusement.
“Were you not bound by your vows as a knight of the Order, how would you feel in the matter?”
“I should feel worse,” Gervaise said, without hesitation. “I have oftentimes thought that over, and I see that it is good for me I am so bound. It does not decrease my chances, for, as I know, there are no chances; but it renders it more easy for me to know that it is so.”
“But why should you say that you have no chances, Tresham?”
“Because it is easy to see that it is so. I am, save for my commandery and prospects in the Order, a penniless young knight, without home or estate, without even a place in my country, and that country not hers. I know that it is not only sinful, but mad, for me to think so frequently of her, but at least I am not mad enough to think that I can either win the heart or aspire to the hand of one who is, you say, so beautiful, and who is, moreover, as I know, the heiress to wide estates.”
“'There was a squire of low degree, Loved the king's daughter of Hungarie,'” Caretto sang, with a laugh. “You are not of low degree, but of noble family, Gervaise. You are not a squire, but a knight, and already a very distinguished one; nor is the young lady, though she be a rich heiress, a king's daughter.”
“At any rate, the squire was not vowed to celibacy. No, no, Sir Fabricius, it is a dream, and a pleasant one; but I know perfectly well that it is but a dream, and one that will do me no harm so long as I ever bear in mind that it is so. Many a knight of the Order before me has borne a lady's gage, and carried it valiantly in many a fight, and has been no less true to his vows for doing so.”
“Upon the contrary, he has been all the better a knight, Gervaise; it is always good for a knight, whether he belongs to the Order or not, to prize one woman above all others, and to try to make himself worthy of his ideal. As to the vow of celibacy, you know that ere now knights have been absolved from their vows, and methinks that, after the service you have rendered to Italy by ridding the sea of those corsairs, his Holiness would make no difficulty in granting any request that you might make him in that or any other direction. I don't know whether you are aware that, after you sailed from here, letters came from Rome as well as from Pisa, Florence, and Naples, expressive of the gratitude felt for the services that you had rendered, and of their admiration for the splendid exploit that you had performed.”
“No; the grand master has had his hands so full of other matters that doubtless an affair so old escaped his memory. Indeed, he may have forgotten that I sailed before the letters arrived.”
“Do not forget to jog his memory on the subject, for I can tell you that the letters did not come alone, but were each accompanied by presents worthy of the service you rendered. But as to the vows?”
“As to the vows, I feel as I said just now, that I would not free myself of them if I could, for, being bound by them, I can the more easily and pleasantly enjoy my dream. Besides, what should I do if I left the Order without home, country, or means, and with naught to do but to sell my sword to some warlike monarch? Besides, Caretto, I love the Order, and deem it the highest privilege to fight against the Moslems, and to uphold the banner of the Cross.”
“As to that, you could, like De Monteuil and many other knights here, always come out to aid the Order in time of need. As to the vows, I am not foolish enough to suppose that you would ask to be relieved from them, until you had assured yourself that Claudia was also desirous that you should be free.”
“It is absurd,” Gervaise said, almost impatiently. “Do not let us talk any more about it, Caretto, or it will end by turning my head and making me presumptuous enough to imagine that the Lady Claudia, who only saw me for three or four days, and that while she was still but a girl, has been thinking of me seriously since.”
“I do not know Claudia's thoughts,” Caretto remarked drily, “but I do know that last year she refused to listen to at least a score of excellent offers for her hand, including one from a son of the doge himself, and that without any reasonable cause assigned by her, to the great wonderment of all, seeing that she does not appear to have any leaning whatever towards a life in a nunnery. At any rate, if at some future time you should pluck up heart of grace to tell her you love her, and she refuses you, you will at least have the consolation of knowing that you are not the only one, by a long way, whose suit has been rejected. And now as to our affairs here. Methinks that tomorrow that battery will open fire upon us. It seems completed.”
“Yes, I think they are nearly ready,” Gervaise said, turning his mind resolutely from the subject they had been discussing. “From the palace wall I saw, before I came down here, large numbers of men rolling huge stones down towards the church. Our guns were firing steadily; but could they load them ten times as fast as they do, they would hardly be able to stop the work, so numerous are those engaged upon it.”
“Yes we shall soon learn something of the quality of their artillery. The tower is strong enough to resist ordinary guns, but it will soon crumble under the blows of such enormous missiles. Never have I seen or heard in Europe of cannon of such size; but indeed, in this matter the Turks are far ahead of us, and have, ever since cannon were first cast, made them of much larger size than we in Europe have done. However, there is one comfort; they may destroy this fort, but they have still to cross the water, and this under the fire of the guns on the palace walls; when they once land, their great battery must cease firing, and we shall be able to meet them on equal terms in the breach. Fight as hard as they may, I think we can hold our own, especially as reinforcements can come down to us more quickly than they can be brought across the water.”
The next morning, at daybreak, the deep boom of a gun announced to the city that the great battering cannon had begun their work. In the fort the sleeping knights sprang to their feet at the concussion that seemed to shake it to its centre. They would have rushed to the walls, but Caretto at once issued orders that no one should show himself on the battlements unless under special orders.
“There is nothing whatever to be done until the Turks have breached the wall, and are ready to advance to attack us. Every sword will be needed when that hour comes, and each man owes it to the Order to run no useless risk, until the hour when he is required to do his share of the fighting.”
The time required to reload the great cannon was considerable, but at regular intervals they hurled their heavy missiles against the wall, the distance being so short that every ball struck it. After some twenty shots had been fired, Caretto, accompanied by Gervaise, went out by a small gate on the eastern side of the tower, and made their way round by the foot of the wall to see what effect the shots had produced on the solid masonry.
Caretto shook his head.
“It is as I feared,” he said. “No stones ever quarried by man could long resist such tremendous blows. In some places, you see, the stones are starred and cracked, in others the shock seems to have pulverised the spot where it struck; but, worse, still, the whole face of the wall is shaken. There are cracks between the stones, and some of these are partly bulged out and partly driven in. It may take some time before a breach is effected, but sooner or later the wall will surely be demolished.”
“I will go up and make my report to the grand master.”
“Do so, Gervaise. I almost wonder that he has not himself come down to see how the wall is resisting.”
Gervaise, on reaching the palace, heard that D'Aubusson was at present engaged in examining no less a person than Maitre Georges, the right hand of Paleologus, who had soon after daybreak presented himself before the wall on the other side of the town, declaring that he had left the Turkish service, and craving to be admitted. News had been sent at once to D'Aubusson, who despatched two of the senior knights, with orders to admit him and receive him with all honour. This had been done, and the grand master, with some of his council, were now closeted with the newcomer. Several of the knights were gathered in the courtyard, discussing the event. There was no question that if the renegade came in good faith, his defection would be a serious blow to the assailants, and that his well known skill and experience would greatly benefit the defenders.
“For my part,” Sir John Boswell, who formed one of the detachment which the English langue, as well as all the others, contributed to form the garrison of the palace said, “I would have hung the fellow up by the neck over the gateway, and he should never have set foot within the walls. Think you that a man who has denied his faith and taken service with his enemies is to be trusted, whatever oaths he may take?”
“You must remember, Boswell,” another said, “that hitherto Georges has not fought against Christians, but has served Mahomet in his wars with other infidels. I am not saying a word in defence of his having become a renegade; yet even a renegade may have some sort of heart, and now that he has been called upon to fight against Christians he may well have repented of his faults, and determined to sacrifice his position and prospects rather than aid in the attack on the city.”
“We shall see. As for me, I regard a renegade as the most contemptible of wretches, and have no belief that they have either a heart or conscience.”
When Maitre Georges came out from the palace, laughing and talking with the two knights who had entered with him, it was evident that he was well pleased with his reception by the grand master, who had assigned to him a suite of apartments in the guest house. In reality, however, D'Aubusson had no doubt that his object was a treacherous one, and that, like Demetrius, who had come under the pretence of bringing about a truce, his object was to find out the weak points and to supply the Turks with information. Georges had, in his conversation with him, laid great stress on the strength of the Turkish army, the excellent quality of the troops, and the enormous battering train that had been prepared. But every word he spoke but added to the grand master's suspicions; for if the man considered that the capture of the city was morally certain, it would be simply throwing away his life to enter it as a deserter.
The grand master was, however, too politic to betray any doubt of Georges' sincerity. Were he treated as a traitor, Paleologus might find another agent to do the work. It was, therefore, better to feign a belief in his story, to obtain all the information possible from him, and at the same time to prevent his gaining any knowledge of affairs that would be of the slightest use to the Turks. Instructions were therefore given to the two knights that, while Georges was to be treated with all courtesy, he was to be strictly watched, though in such a manner that he should be in ignorance of it, and that, whenever he turned his steps in the direction of those parts of the defences where fresh works had been recently added and preparations made of which it was desirable the Turks should be kept in ignorance, he was to be met, as if by accident, by one of the knights told off for the purpose, and his steps diverted in another direction.
Georges soon made himself popular among many of the knights, who had no suspicions of his real character. He was a man of exceptional figure, tall, strong, splendidly proportioned, with a handsome face and gallant bearing. He was extremely well informed on all subjects, had travelled widely, had seen many adventures, was full of anecdote, and among the younger knights, therefore, he was soon regarded as a charming companion. His very popularity among them aided D'Aubusson's plans, as Georges was generally the centre of a group of listeners, and so had but few opportunities of getting away quietly to obtain the information he sought. Gervaise delivered his report to the grand master.
“I am free now,” D'Aubusson said, “and will accompany you to St. Nicholas. I have been detained by the coming of this man Georges. He is a clever knave, and, I doubt not, has come as a spy. However, I have taken measures that he shall learn nothing that can harm us. No lives have been lost at the tower, I hope?”
“No, sir; Caretto has forbidden any to show themselves on the walls.”
“He has done well. This is no time for rash exposure, and where there is naught to be gained, it is a grave fault to run risks.”
On arriving at the end of the mole, D'Aubusson, accompanied by Caretto, made an investigation of the effect of the Turks' fire.
“'Tis worse than I expected,” he said. “When we laid out our fortifications the thought that such guns as these would be used against them never entered our minds. Against ordinary artillery the walls would stand a long battering; but it is clear that we shall have to depend more upon our swords than upon our walls for our defence. Fortunately, although the Turks have indeed chosen the spot where our walls are most open to the assaults of their battery, they have to cross the water to attack the breach when it is made, and will have to fight under heavy disadvantage.”
“Tresham was last night saying to me, that it seemed to him it would not be a difficult matter for one who spoke Turkish well, to issue at night on the other side of the town, and to make his way round to the battery, disguised of course as a Turkish............
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