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- A Knight of the White Cross - 60/72 -
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."
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