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HOW THE YELLOW COG FOUGHT THE TWO ROVER GALLEYS.
THE three vessels had been sweeping swiftly westwards, the cog still well
to the front, although the galleys were slowly drawing in upon either quarter.
To the left was a hard skyline unbroken by a sail.
The island already lay like a cloud behind them, while right in front was
St. Alban's Head, with Portland looming mistily in the farthest distance.
Alleyne stood by the tiller, looking backwards, the fresh wind full in
his teeth, the crisp winter air tingling on his face and blowing his yellow
curls from under his bassinet. His
cheeks were flushed and his eyes shining, for the blood of a hundred fighting
Saxon ancestors was beginning to stir in his veins.
"What was that?" he asked, as a hissing, sharp-drawn voice
seemed to whisper in his ear. The
steersman smiled, and pointed with his foot to where a short heavy cross-bow
quarrel stuck quivering in the boards. At
the same instant the man stumbled forward upon his knees, and lay lifeless upon
the deck, a blood-stained feather jutting out from his back. As Alleyne stooped to raise him, the air seemed to be alive
with the sharp zip-zip of the bolts, and he could hear them pattering on the
deck like apples at a tree-shaking.
"Raise two more mantlets by the poop lanthorn," said Sir Nigel
"And another man to the tiller," cried the master-shipman.
"Keep them in play, Aylward, with ten of your men," the knight
continued. "And let ten of Sir
Oliver's bowmen do as much for the Genoese.
I have no mind as yet to show them how much they have to fear from
Ten picked shots under Aylward stood in line across the broad deck, and
it was a lesson to the young squires who had seen nothing of war to note how
orderly and how cool were these old soldiers, how quick the command, and how
prompt the carrying out, ten moving like one.
Their comrades crouched beneath the bulwarks, with many a rough jest and
many a scrap of criticism or advice. "Higher,
Wat, higher!" "Put thy body into it, Will!" "Forget not the
wind, Hal!" So ran the muttered chorus, while high above it rose the sharp
avanging of the strings, the hiss of the shafts, and the short "Draw your
arrow! Nick your arrow! Shoot wholly together!" from the master-bowman.
And now both mangonels were at work from the galleys, but so covered and
protected that, save at the moment of discharge, no glimpse could be caught of
them. A huge brown rock from the
Genoese sang over their heads, and plunged sullenly into the slope of a wave.
Another from the Norman whizzed into the waist, broke the back of a
horse, and crashed its way through the side of the vessel.
Two others, flying together, tore a great gap in the St. Christopher upon
the sail, and brushed three of Sir Oliver's men-at-arms from the forecastle.
The master-shipman looked at the knight with a troubled face.
"They keep their distance from us," said he.
"Our archery is over-good, and they will not close.
What defence can we make against the stones?"
"I think I may trick them," the knight answered cheerfully, and
passed his order to the archers. Instantly
five of them threw up their hands and fell prostrate upon the deck.
One had already been slain by a bolt, so that there were but four upon
"That should give them heart," said Sir Nigel, eyeing the
galleys, which crept along on either side, with a slow, measured swing of their
great oars, the water swirling and foaming under their sharp stems.
"They still hold aloof," cried Hawtayne.
"Then down with two more," shouted their leader.
"That will do. Ma foi! but they come to our lure like chicks to the
fowler. To your arms, men! The pennon behind me, and the squires round the pennon.
Stand fast with the anchors in the waist, and be ready for a cast.
Now blow out the trumpets, and may God's benison be with the honest
As he spoke a roar of voices and a roll of drums came from either galley,
and the water was lashed into spray by the hurried beat of a hundred oars.
Down they swooped, one on the right, one on the left, the sides and
shrouds black with men and bristling with weapons.
In heavy clusters they hung upon the forecastle all ready for a
spring-faces white, faces brown, faces yellow, and faces black, fair Norsemen,
swarthy Italians, fierce rovers from the Levant, and fiery Moors from the
Barbary States, of all hues and countries, and marked solely by the common stamp
of a wild- beast ferocity. Rasping
up on either side, with oars trailing to save them from snapping, they poured in
a living torrent with horrid yell and shrill whoop upon the defenceless
But wilder yet was the cry, and shriller still the scream, when there
rose up from the shadow of those silent bulwarks the long lines of the English
bowmen, and the arrows whizzed in a deadly sleet among the unprepared masses
upon the pirate decks. From the higher sides of the cog the bowmen could shoot
straight down, at a range which was so short as to enable a cloth-yard shaft to
pierce through mail-coats or to transfix a shield, though it were an inch thick
of toughened wood. One moment
Alleyne saw the galley's poop crowded with rushing figures, waving arms,
exultant faces; the next it was a blood-smeared shambles, with bodies piled
three deep upon each other, the living cowering behind the dead to shelter
themselves from that sudden storm-blast of death.
On either side the seamen whom Sir Nigel had chosen for the purpose had
cast their anchors over the side of the galleys, so that the three vessels,
locked in an iron grip, lurched heavily forward upon the swell.
And now set in a fell and fierce fight, one of a thousand of which no
chronicler has spoken and no poet sung. Through
all the centuries and over all those southern waters nameless men have fought in
nameless places, their sole monuments a protected coast and an unravaged
Fore and aft the archers had cleared the galleys' decks, but from either
side the rovers had poured down into the waist, where the seamen and bowmen were
pushed back and so mingled with their foes that it was impossible for their
comrades above to draw string to help them.
It was a wild chaos where axe and sword rose and fell, while Englishman,
Norman, and Italian staggered and reeled on a deck which was cumbered with
bodies and slippery with blood. The clang of blows, the cries of the stricken,
the short, deep shout of the islanders, and the fierce whoops of the rovers,
rose together in a deafening tumult, while the breath of the panting men went up
in the wintry air like the smoke from a furnace.
The giant Tete-noire, towering above his fellows and clad from head to
foot in plate of proof, led on his boarders, waving a huge mace in the air, with
which he struck to the deck every man who approached him.
On the other side, Spade-beard, a dwarf in height, but of great breadth
of shoulder and length of arm, had cut a road almost to the mast, with
three-score Genoese men-at- arms close at his heels.
Between these two formidable assailants the seamen were being slowly
wedged more closely together, until they stood back to back under the mast with
the rovers raging upon every side of them.
But help was close at hand. Sir
Oliver Buttesthorn with his men-at-arms had swarmed down from the forecastle,
while Sir Nigel, with his three squires, Black Simon, Aylward, Hordle John, and
a score more, threw themselves from the poop and hurled themselves into the
thickest of the fight. Alleyne, as
in duty bound, kept his eyes fixed ever on his lord and pressed forward close at
his heels. Often had he heard of
Sir Nigel's prowess and skill with all knightly weapons, but all the tales that
had reached his ears fell far short of the real quickness and coolness of the
man. It was as if the devil was in
him, for he sprang here and sprang there, now thrusting and now cutting,
catching blows on his shield, turning them with his blade, stooping under the
swing of an axe, springing over the sweep of a sword, so swift and so erratic
that the man who braced himself for a blow at him might find him six paces off
ere he could bring it down. Three
pirates had fallen before him, and he had wounded Spade-beard in the neck, when
the Norman giant sprang at him from the side with a slashing blow from his
deadly mace. Sir Nigel stooped to
avoid it, and at the same instant turned a thrust from the Genoese swordsman,
but, his foot slipping in a pool of blood, he fell heavily to the ground. Alleyne sprang in front of the Norman, but his sword was
shattered and he himself beaten to the ground by a second blow from the
ponderous weapon. Ere the pirate
chief could repeat it, however, John's iron grip fell upon his wrist, and he
found that for once he was in the hands of a stronger man than himself.
Fiercely he strove to disengage his weapon, but Hordle John bent his arm
slowly back until, with a sharp crack, like a breaking stave, it turned limp in
his grasp, and the mace dropped from the nerveless fingers.
In vain he tried to pluck it up with the other hand.
Back and back still his foeman bent him, until, with a roar of pain and
of fury, the giant clanged his full length upon the boards, while the glimmer of
a knife before the bars of his helmet warned him that short would be his shrift
if he moved.
Cowed and disheartened by the loss of their leader, the Normans had given
back and were now streaming over the bulwarks on to their own galley, dropping a
dozen at a time on to her deck, But the anchor still held them in its crooked
claw, and Sir Oliver with fifty men was hard upon their heels.
Now, too, the archers had room to draw their bows once more, and great
stones from the yard of the cog came thundering and crashing among the flying
rovers. Here and there they rushed
with wild screams and curses, diving under the sail, crouching behind booms,
huddling into corners like rabbits when the ferrets are upon them, as helpless
and as hopeless. They were stern
days, and if the honest soldier, too poor for a ransom, had no prospect of mercy
upon the battle-field, what ruth was there for sea robbers, the enemies of
humankind, taken in the very deed, with proofs of their crimes still swinging
upon their yard-arm.
But the fight had taken a new and a strange turn upon the other side.
Spade-beard and his men had given slowly back, hard pressed by Sir Nigel,
Aylward, Black Simon, and the poop-guard. Foot by foot the Italian had
retreated, his armor running blood at every joint, his shield split, his crest
shorn, his voice fallen away to a mere gasping and croaking.
Yet he faced his foemen with dauntless courage, dashing in, springing
back, sure- footed, steady-handed, with a point which seemed to menace three at
once. Beaten back on to the deck of
his own vessel, and closely followed by a dozen Englishmen, he disengaged
himself from them, ran swiftly down the deck, sprang back into the cog once
more, cut the rope which held the anchor, and was back in an instant among his
crossbow-men. At the same time the
Genoese sailors thrust with their oars against the side of the cog, and a
rapidly widening rift appeared between the two vessels.
"By St. George!" cried Ford, "we are cut off from Sir
"He is lost," gasped Terlake.
"Come, let us spring for it." The two youths jumped with all
their strength to reach the departing galley.
Ford's feet reached the edge of the bulwarks, and his hand clutching a
rope he swung himself on board. Terlake
fell short, crashed in among the oars, and bounded off into the sea. Alleyne,
staggering to the side, was about to hurl himself after him, but Hordle John
dragged him back by the girdle.
"You can scarce stand, lad, far less jump," said he.
"See how the blood rips from your bassinet."
"My place is by the flag," cried Alleyne, vainly struggling to
break from the other's hold.
"Bide here, man. You
would need wings ere you could reach Sir Nigel's side."
The vessels were indeed so far apart now that the Genoese could use the
full sweep of their oars, and draw away rapidly from the cog.
"My God, but it is a noble fight!" shouted big John, clapping
his hands. "They have cleared
the poop, and they spring into the waist. Well
struck, my lord! Well struck,
Aylward! See to Black Simon, how he
storms among the shipmen! But this
Spade- beard is a gallant warrior. He
rallies his men upon the forecastle. He
hath slain an archer. Ha! my lord
is upon him. Look to it, Alleyne! See
to the whirl and glitter of it!"
"By heaven, Sir Nigel is down!" cried the squire.
"Up!" roared John. "It
was but a feint. He bears him back. He drives him to the side.
Ah, by Our Lady, his sword is through him! They cry for mercy. Down
goes the red cross, and up springs Simon with the scarlet roses!"
The death of the Genoese leader did indeed bring the resistance to an
end. Amid a thunder of cheering
from cog and from galleys the forked pennon fluttered upon the forecastle, and
the galley, sweeping round, came slowly back, as the slaves who rowed it learned
the wishes of their new masters.
The two knights had come aboard the cog, and the grapplings having been
thrown off, the three vessels now moved abreast through all the storm and rush
of the fight Alleyne had been aware of the voice of Goodwin Hawtayne, the
master-shipman, with his constant "Hale the bowline!
Veer the sheet!" and strange it was to him to see how swiftly the
blood-stained sailors turned from the strife to the ropes and back.
Now the cog's head was turned Francewards, and the shipman walked the
deck, a peaceful master-mariner once more.
There is sad scath done to the cog, Sir Nigel," said he.
"Here is a hole in the side two ells across, the sail split through
the centre, and the wood as bare as a friar's poll.
In good sooth, I know not what I shall say to Master Witherton when I see
the Itchen once more."
"By St. Paul! it would be a very sorry thing if we suffered you to
be the worse of this day's work," said Sir Nigel.
"You shall take these galleys back with you, and Master Witherton
may sell them. Then from the moneys
he shall take as much as may make good the damage, and the rest he shall keep
until our home- coming, when every man shall have his share.
An image of silver fifteen inches high I have vowed to the Virgin, to be
placed in her chapel within the Priory, for that she was pleased to allow me to
come upon this Spade-beard, who seemed to me from what I have seen of him to be
a very sprightly and valiant gentleman. But how fares it with you,
"It is nothing, my fair lord," said Alleyne, who had now
loosened his bassinet, which was cracked across by the Norman's blow. Even as he
spoke, however, his head swirled round, and he fell to the deck with the blood
gushing from his nose and mouth.
"He will come to anon," said the knight, stooping over him and
passing his fingers through his hair. "I
have lost one very valiant and gentle squire this day. I
can ill afford to lose another. How
many men have fallen?"
"I have pricked off the tally," said Aylward, who had come
aboard with his lord. "There are seven of the Winchester men, eleven seamen,
your squire, young Master Terlake, and nine archers."
"And of the others?"
"They are all dead--save only the Norman knight who stands behind
you. What would you that we should
do with him?"
"He must hang on his own yard," said Sir Nigel.
"It was my vow and must be done."
The pirate leader had stood by the bulwarks, a cord round his arms, and
two stout archers on either side. At
Sir Nigel's words he started violently, and his swarthy features blanched to a
"How, Sir Knight?" he cried in broken English.
"Que ditesvous? To hang, le mort du chien!
"It is my vow," said Sir Nigel shortly.
"From what I hear, you thought little enough of hanging
"Peasants, base roturiers," cried the other.
"It is their fitting death. Mais
Le Seigneur d'Andelys, avec le sang des rois dans ses veins!
Sir Nigel turned upon his heel, while two seamen cast a noose over the
pirate's neck. At the touch of the
cord he snapped the bonds which bound him, dashed one of the archers to the
deck, and seizing the other round the waist sprang with him into the sea.
"By my hilt, he is gone!" cried Aylward, rushing to the side.
"They have sunk together like a stone."
"I am right glad of it," answered Sir Nigel; "for though
it was against my vow to loose him, I deem that he has carried himself like a
very gentle and debonnaire cavalier."
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