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HOME > Short Stories > A Knight of the White Cross > CHAPTER XXII THE STRUGGLE AT THE BREACH
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 Two hours later Caretto and Gervaise were roused by the arrival of a hundred knights in place of the previous garrison; these bore the news that the pasha had sent in a flag of truce to ask for an armistice until sundown, to enable him to carry off for burial the bodies of those who had fallen in the attack. The request had been willingly granted; but D'Aubusson had at the same time thought it well to send down a strong reinforcement to the garrison to prevent any attempt at treachery on the part of the Turks. “I have seldom heard pleasanter news,” Caretto said; “for just as I fell asleep I was wondering how we were to rid ourselves of the corpses of the infidels. By tomorrow the place would have become unbearable; and though, living, the Turks could not turn us out of the tower, they would when dead speedily have rid the place of us.”
In half an hour a number of Moslem vessels were seen approaching. Caretto did not wish the Turks to imagine that he doubted their good faith, and while directing the main body of knights to remain in concealment near the breach, he placed two on sentry duty on the crest of the ruins, and, with four other knights and Gervaise, went down in complete armour to salute the officer in command of the burying party, as he landed from the boats. The ships anchored a short distance out, and a number of boats rowed from them to the shore. As the Turkish officer landed, Caretto saluted him, and said in Arabic,
“I give you courteous greeting, Sir. When the cannon cease to sound and swords are sheathed, there is no longer animosity between brave men; and no braver than those whose bodies lie stretched there, breathed the air of heaven. If, sir, I and the knights with me do not uncover our heads, it is from no want of respect for the dead, but solely because we dare not stand bareheaded under the fierce rays of the sun.”
The Turk answered with equal courtesy, complimenting the knights on their defence.
“Had I not seen it with my own eyes,” he said, “I should have deemed it altogether impossible that so small a number of men could thus for hours have withstood the attacks of some of the best of the sultan's troops. Tales have come down to us from our fathers of the marvellous prowess of the knights of your Order, and how at Smyrna, at Acre, and elsewhere, they performed such feats of valour that their name is still used by Turkish mothers as a bugbear to frighten their children. But the stories have always seemed to me incredible; now I perceive they were true, and that the present members of the Order in no way fall short of the valour of their predecessors.”
The knights remained with the Turkish commander and some of his officers while the work of collecting and carrying away the dead was performed, the conversation on their side being supported by Caretto and Gervaise. No less than seven hundred bodies were carried down to the boats, besides a great many wounded by the artillery fire. None were, however, found breathing among the great pile of dead at the upper part of the breach, for the axes and double handed swords of the knights had, in most of the cases, cleft through turban and skull.
“This represents but part of our loss,” the Turkish commander said sadly, as the last party came down with their burdens to the boats. “At least as many more must have perished in the sea, either in their endeavours to escape when all was lost, in the destruction of their vessels by fire, by the shot from your batteries, or by being run down by your galleys. Ah, Sir Knight, if it had not been for the appearance of your fire ships, methinks the matter might have ended differently.”
“In that I altogether agree with you,” Caretto said. “We were indeed, well nigh spent, and must have soon succumbed had it not been that the fire ships arrived to our rescue. You have a fair right to claim that the victory would have remained in your hands, had not those craft gone out and snatched it from you.”
Then, with salutes on both sides, the Turks took their places in the boats, and the knights returned to the fort. As soon as darkness came on, a large body of slaves were marched down from the town, and, under the direction of the knights, laboured all night at the mound, removing great quantities of the fallen stones and rubbish in a line halfway up it, and piling them above so as to form a scarp across the mound that would need ladders to ascend. Another party worked at the top of the mound, and there built up a wall eight feet high. The work was completed by daylight, and the knights felt that they were now in a position to resist another attack, should Paleologus again send his troops to the assault.
The night had passed quietly. There was a sound of stir and movement in the Turkish battery, but nothing that would excite the suspicion of a large body of troops being in motion. When it became light it was seen that the Turkish ships had sailed away to their previous anchorage on the other side of the Island, and although at considerable intervals the great cannon hurled their missiles against the fort, it was evident that, for the time at least, the attack was not to be pressed at that point. A fresh body of slaves, however, came down from the town to relieve those who had been all night at work, and the repair of the defences was continued, and with greater neatness and method than had been possible in the darkness.
At eight o'clock the bells of St. John's Church gave notice that a solemn service of thanksgiving for the repulse of the enemy was about to be held. Notice had been sent down early to the tower; and all the knights who could be spared, without too greatly weakening the garrison, went up to attend it; the service was conducted with all the pomp and ceremony possible, and after it was over a great procession was formed to proceed to the shrine, where a picture of the Virgin held in special reverence by the Order was placed.
As it wound through the streets in splendid array, the grand master and officials in all their robes of state, the knights in full armour and the mantles of the Order, while the inhabitants in gala costume lined the streets, windows, and housetops, the ladies waving scarves and scattering flowers down on the knights, the roar of great cannon on the south side of the city showed that the Turks had commenced the attack in another quarter. Without pausing, the procession continued its way, and it was not until the service in the chapel had been concluded that any steps were taken to ascertain the direction of the attack. As soon as it was over, the knights hastened to the walls. During the night the Turks had transported their great basilisks, with other large pieces of artillery, from the camp to the rising ground on the south side of the city, and had opened fire against the wall covering the Jews' quarter, and at the same time against the tower of St. Mary on the one hand and the Italian tower on the other.
From other commanding spots huge mortars were hurling great fragments of rock and other missiles broadcast into the town. The portion of the wall selected for the attack showed that the Turks had been well informed by their spies of the weak points of the defence. The wall behind which the Jews' quarter lay, was, to all appearance, of thick and solid masonry; but this was really of great age, having formed part of the original defences of the town, before the Order had established itself there. The masonry, therefore, was ill fitted to resist the huge balls hurled against it by the basilisks. The langue of Provence was in charge of this part of the wall, and, leaving them for the present to bear the brunt of the storm, the grand master sent the knights who could be spared, to assist the inhabitants to erect shelters against the storm of missiles falling in the town.
Sheds with sharply sloping roofs, constructed of solid timber, were built against the inner side of the walls, and beneath these numbers of the inhabitants found refuge. The work was performed with great celerity by the inhabitants, aided by the gangs of slaves, and in two or three days the townspeople were all in shelter, either in these sheds, in the vaults of the churches, or in other strongly constructed buildings.
Among the missiles hurled into the town were balls filled with Greek fire, but the houses being entirely built of stone, no conflagrations of importance were caused by them, as a band of knights was organised specially to watch for these bombs, and whenever one of them was seen to fall, they hurried from their lookout to the spot, with a gang of slaves carrying baskets of earth and buckets of water, and quenched the flames before they had made any great headway.
The roar of the bombardment was almost continuous, and was heard at islands distant from Rhodes, telling the inhabitants how the battle between the Christians and the Moslems was raging.
It was not long before the wall in the front of the Jews' quarter began to crumble, and it was soon evident that it must, ere many days, succumb to the storm of missiles hurled against it. D'Aubusson lost no time in making preparations to avert the danger. He ordered all the houses in rear of the wall to be levelled; a deep semicircular ditch was then dug, and behind this a new wall, constructed of the stones and bricks from the houses destroyed, was built, and backed with an earthen rampart of great thickness and solidity.
The work was carried on with extraordinary rapidity. The grand master himself set the example, and, throwing aside his robes and armour, laboured with pick and shovel like the commonest labourer. This excited the people to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and all classes threw themselves into the task. Knights and slaves, men, women, and children, and even the inmates of the convents and nunneries, aided in the work, and when at last the outer wall fell, and the Turks thought that success was at hand, the pasha saw with astonishment and dismay that entry to the city was still barred by a work as formidable as that which he had destroyed at an enormous expenditure of ammunition. There was now a short breathing time for the besieged; but the depression which the failure of their efforts excited among the Turks, was shortly dispelled by the arrival of a ship, with a despatch from Constantinople, in which the pasha was informed that the sultan himself was about to proceed to Rhodes with a reinforcement of a hundred thousand men, and a fresh park of artillery.
Paleologus had some doubts as to whether the report was true or was merely intended to stimulate him to new efforts for the speedy capture of the place. Knowing well that the grand master was the heart and soul of the defence, and that the failure of the assault was mainly due to his energy and ability, he determined to resort to the weapon so frequently in use in Eastern warfare—that of assassination. To this end he employed two men, one a Dalmatian, the other an Albanian; these presented themselves before the walls as deserters, and as there was no reason for suspecting their tale, they were admitted within the gates, and welcomed as having escaped from enforced service. They soon spread the tale of the speedy coming of the sultan with vast reinforcements, and as the pasha had on the previous day caused salutes to be fired, and other demonstrations to be made, the news was readily credited, and caused the greatest dismay among the defenders.
Some of the knights of the Italian and Spanish langues believed the prospect of a successful defence against so enormous a force was absolutely hopeless, and determined to put pressure upon D'Aubusson to treat for surrender before it became too late. They opened negotiations with an Italian named Filelfo, one of D'Aubusson's secretaries, who undertook to lay their opinion before the grand master. D'Aubusson at once summoned the knights concerned in the matter before him. They found him with several members of the council.
“Sir Knights,” he said, “I have heard from my secretary your opinions in the matter of a surrender, and since you are in such terror of the Moslem sultan, you have my full permission to leave the town; and, more than that, I will myself secure your safe departure, which might be imperilled if your comrades or even the inhabitants of the town came to learn that you had advocated surrender; but,” he went on, changing his tone from that of sarcasm to sternness, “if you remain with us, see that the word surrender never again passes your lips, and be assured that, should you continue your intrigues, in that direction, you shall meet with the fate you so justly deserve.”
Overwhelmed by the grand master's accusation and sternness, the Italian and Spanish knights threw themselves on their knees and implored him to grant them an early opportunity of retrieving their fault by battle with the infidel. Feeling that the lesson had been sufficiently severe, and that henceforth there would be no renewal of intrigues for a surrender, D'Aubusson forgave them, and promised them a place in the van when next the Moslems attacked. The incident was not without its advantage, for the two pretended deserters, believing that Filelfo, who had also fallen under the displeasure of the grand master, would be ready to join in the conspiracy against his life, approached him. Filelfo, who was greatly attached to D'Aubusson, saw by their manner that they wished to engage him in some intrigue, and, feigning great resentment and anger at his disgrace, led them on until they divulged the entire plot for D'Aubusson's assassination, and made brilliant offers to him if he would afford them facilities for carrying it out, producing, in proof of their power to do so, a letter of the pasha, authorising them to make such promises in his name.
Filelfo at once divulged the whole plot to D'Aubusson. The two men were immediately arrested, tried by the council, and sentenced to death. They were not, however, formally executed, for the populace, obtaining news of their treachery, broke in upon their guards, and tore them to pieces. Foiled in his attempt on the life of the grand master, the pasha prepared for a renewal of the attack, and it was not long before the knights on the lookout at the church of St. John perceived that the fort of St. Nicholas was again to be the scene of the attack. It was ere long discovered that a large number of men were busy some distance along the shore in building a long structure, that could only be intended for a floating bridge. Among the sailors who had aided in the attack with the fire ships were several men belonging to an English trader in the port. All who had done so had been handsomely rewarded for their conduct, and five of the Englishmen had afterwards gone to the English auberge and had asked to be enrolled for service against the Turks, as they were weary of remaining on board in idleness when there was work to be done. Their offer had been accepted, and they had, in common with all the sailors in the port, laboured at the construction of the inner wall. When that was completed, Sir John Boswell, under whose special charge they had been placed, said to Gervaise, “I think that I cannot do better than send these men down to St. Nicholas. It is probable that now the Turks see that they can do nothing at the new breach, they may try again there. Sailors are accustomed to night watches, and there are many of our knights who are not used to such work, and can be better trusted to defend a breach than to keep a vigilant watch at night. Will you take these men down to Caretto, and tell him that he can sleep soundly if he has a couple of them on watch? One of them, Roger Jervis, who is the mate of their ship, can speak some Italian, and as he is in command of them, Caretto will find no trouble in making them understand him.”
St. Nicholas had now been put into a fair state of defence, as a party had been kept steadily at work there. Gervaise had not been to the tower since the morning after the assault, and saw with satisfaction how much had been done to render it secure. He found that Caretto was fast recovering from his wounds.
“As it seems probable, Sir Fabricius,” he said, after the first greetings to the knight, “that the Turks will favour you with another visit, I have brought you five watchdogs. They are countrymen of mine, and were among those who navigated the fire ships the other day. Sir John Boswell has sent them down; they are, of course, accustomed to keep watch at night. One of them is mate of their vessel, and will be in command of them; he speaks a little Italian, and so will understand any orders you may give him. I have been speaking to him as we came down; he will divide his men into two watches, and will himself be on guard all night. Will you assign them some quiet place where they can sleep in the daytime? They can erect a shelter with a piece of sail cloth and a few bits of board, and they will, of course, be furnished with food.”
“I shall be very glad to have them, for I am always restless at night, lest those on watch should close their eyes. You see, they have quite made up their minds that this fort will not be attacked again, and so are less inclined to be vigilant than they would be, did they think that an attack was impending.”
Now that there was reason to believe that St. Nicholas might again be attacked, Gervaise was frequently there with orders or inquiries from the grand master. A number of vessels in the harbour were fitted up as fire ships, so as to be in readiness when the attack came. He was about to start early one morning when he saw Roger Jervis coming up with a heavy anchor on his shoulder.
“Why, what are you bringing that up here for?” he asked. “Have you been diving; for I see your clothes are dripping with water?”
“Ay, ay, sir, I have been in the water, and that Italian commander told me to come straight up here to tell the grand master all about the story; and right glad am I to have met you, for I should have made but a poor fist of it alone; I don't know more of their lingo than just to talk a few words of it.”
“Then you had better tell me the story before I take you in.”
“Well, it was like this, Sir Knight: I had Hudson and Jeffreys posted upon the wall, and I thought I would take a turn down on the rocks, for it was a dark night, and you can see much farther when you are by the edge of the water than you can when you are at the masthead. I sat there for an hour, and was thinking that it was about time to go up and turn out the other watch, when I saw something dark upon the water. It wasn't a ship, that was certain, and if it was a boat there wasn't any one in it; but it was too dark to make quite sure what it was. I watched it for a time, though I did not think much of the thing, taking it for a boat that had got adrift, or maybe a barrel from one of the Turkish ships. Presently I made out that it was a good bit nearer than when I first saw it.
“That puzzled me. There is no tide to speak of in these seas, and there was no wind moving about. I could make out now that it was a boat, though a very small one, but certainly there was no one rowing it. It looked a very strange craft, and as I saw by the way it was bearing that it would come ashore about five or six fathoms from where I was sitting, I slid quietly off the rock, put my sword down by me handy for action, and waited. Presently the boat came up alongside the rock, and a fellow stood up from behind the stern. I was glad to see him, for I had begun to think that there was witchcraft in the thing moving along by itself, but I can tell you I was savage with myself for not having guessed there was a man swimming behind and pushing it on.
“He stooped over the boat, and took something heavy out; then he felt about among the rocks under the water, and then laid the thing down there, and seemed to me to be settling it firm. I had half a mind to jump up and let fly at him, but then I thought it would be better to let him finish what he was doing, and go off with the idea that no one had seen him. So I kept hid until he started again. He waded a short way before he had to swim, and I could see that as he went he was paying out a rope over the stern. It was clear enough now what he had been up to: he had been fixing an anchor. What he did it for, or what use it could be to him, I could not say, but it was certain that he would not take all that trouble, with the chance of being knocked on the head, for nothing; so I waited for a bit till he had got out of sight, and over to the other side of the port.
“Then I got up and felt about, and, chancing to get my foot under the rope, went right over into the water. After that you may guess I was not long in finding the anchor. I unknotted the rope from it and carried it ashore; then it struck me that the Turks might take it into their heads to give a pull on it in the morning, and if they did; they would find out that their game, whatever it was, had been found out; so I got hold of a stone of about twenty pound weight, and fastened the rope's end round it. That was enough to prevent the rope getting slack and make them think that it was still fast to the anchor; but, of course, if they pulled hard on it it would come home directly. I went and reported the matter the first thing this morning to the governor. He seemed to think that it was important, and told me to bring the anchor up to the grand master, who would get one of the English knights to find out all about it; for he could not make out much of what I said.”
“It is very important,” Gervaise said, “and you behaved very wisely in the matter, and have rendered a great service by your discovery. I will take you in at once to the grand master.”
Still bearing the anchor, the sailor followed Gervaise into an apartment where D'Aubusson was taking council with some of the senior knights.
“Pardon my interrupting your Highness,” Gervaise said; “but the matter is so important that I knew you would listen to it, however occupied you were.” And he then repeated the narrative of the sailor's discovery.
“This is indeed of the highest importance,” D'Aubusson said, “and the knowledge that it gives us may enable us to defeat an attempt, that might otherwise have proved our ruin. You see, knights, it solves the question that we were just discussing. We agreed that this long floating bridge that they have been constructing, was intended to enable them to cross the outer port and again attack St. Nicholas; and yet it seemed to us that even by night our batteries............
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