Sir Nigel Part 25
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"Enough!" cried Badding. "One is down, and it may be two. Close in, close in, in G.o.d's name, before they rally!"
He and the other bent to their oars; but at the same instant there was a sharp zip in the air and a hard clear sound like a stone striking a wall. Baddlesmere clapped his hand to his head, groaned and fell forward out of the boat, leaving a swirl of blood upon the surface. A moment later the same fierce hiss ended in a loud wooden crash, and a short, thick crossbow-bolt was buried deep in the side of their boat.
"Close in, close in!" roared Badding, tugging at his oar. "Saint George for England! Saint Leonard for Winchelsea! Close in!"
But again that fatal crossbow tw.a.n.ged. Dicon of Rye fell back with a shaft through his shoulder. "G.o.d help me, I can no more!" said he.
Badding seized the oar from his hand; but it was only to sweep the boat's head round and pull her back to the Marie Rose. The attack had failed.
"What now, master-s.h.i.+pman?" cried Nigel. "What has befallen to stop us?
Surely the matter does not end here?"
"Two down out of five," said Badding, "and twelve at the least against us. The odds are too long, little master. Let us at least go back, fill up once more, and raise a mantelet against the bolts, for they have an arbalist which shoots both straight and hard. But what we do we must do quickly, for the darkness falls apace."
Their repulse had been hailed by wild yells of delight from the Frenchmen, who danced with joy and waved their weapons madly over their heads. But before their rejoicings had finished they saw the little boat creeping out once more from the shadow of the Marie Rose, a great wooden screen in her bows to protect her from the arrows. Without a pause she came straight and fast for her enemy. The wounded archer had been put on board, and Aylward would have had his place had Nigel been able to see him upon the deck. The third archer, Hal Masters, had sprung in, and one of the seamen, Wat Finnis of Hythe. With their hearts hardened to conquer or to die, the five ran alongside the Frenchman and sprang upon her deck. At the same instant a great iron weight crashed through the bottom of their skiff, and their feet had hardly left her before she was gone. There was no hope and no escape save victory.
The crossbowman stood under the mast, his terrible weapon at his shoulder, the steel string stretched taut, the heavy bolt s.h.i.+ning upon the nut. One life at least he would claim out of this little band. Just for one instant too long did he dwell upon his aim, s.h.i.+fting from the seaman to c.o.c.k Badding, whose formidable appearance showed him to be the better prize. In that second of time Hal Masters' string tw.a.n.ged and his long arrow sped through the arbalister's throat. He dropped on the deck, with blood and curses pouring from his mouth.
A moment later Nigel's sword and Badding's hammer had each claimed a victim and driven back the rush of a.s.sailants. The five were safe upon the deck, but it was hard for them to keep a footing there. The French seamen, Bretons and Normans, were stout, powerful fellows, armed with axes and swords, fierce fighters and brave men. They swarmed round the little band, attacking them from all sides. Black Simon felled the black-bearded French Captain, and at the same instant was cut over the head and lay with his scalp open upon the deck. The seaman Wat of Hythe was killed by a cras.h.i.+ng blow from an ax. Nigel was struck down, but was up again like a flash, and drove his sword through the man who had felled him.
But Badding, Masters the archer and he had been hustled back to the bulwark and were barely holding their own from minute to minute against the fierce crowd who a.s.sailed them, when an arrow coming apparently from the sea struck the foremost Frenchman to the heart. A moment later a boat dashed up alongside and four more men from the Marie Rose scrambled on to the blood-stained deck. With one fierce rush the remaining Frenchmen were struck down or were seized by their a.s.sailants. Nine prostrate men upon the deck showed how fierce had been the attack, how desperate the resistance.
Badding leaned panting upon his blood-clotted hammer. "By Saint Leonard!" he cried, "I thought that this little master had been the death of us all. G.o.d wot you were but just in time, and how you came I know not. This archer has had a hand in it, by the look of him."
Aylward, still pale from his seasickness and dripping from head to foot with water, had been the first man in the rescue party.
Nigel looked at him in amazement. "I sought you aboard the s.h.i.+p, Aylward, but I could not lay eyes on you," said he.
"It was because I was in the water, fair sir, and by my hilt! it suits my stomach better than being on it," he answered. "When you first set forth I swam behind you, for I saw that the Frenchman's boat hung by a rope, and I thought that while you kept him in play I might gain it.
I had reached it when you were driven back, so I hid behind it in the water and said my prayers as I have not said them for many a day. Then you came again, and no one had an eye for me, so I clambered into it, cut the rope, took the oars which I found there and brought her back for more men."
"By Saint Paul! you have acted very wisely and well," said Nigel, "and I think that of all of us it is you who have won most honor this day. But of all these men dead and alive I see none who resembles that Red Ferret whom my Lord Chandos has described and who has worked such despite upon us in the past: It would indeed be an evil chance if he has in spite of all our pains made his way to France in some other boat."
"That we shall soon find out," said Badding. "Come with me and we will search the s.h.i.+p from truck to keel ere he escapes us."
There was a scuttle at the base of the mast which led down into the body of the vessel, and the Englishmen were approaching this when a strange sight brought them to a stand. A round brazen head had appeared in the square dark opening. An instant afterward a pair of s.h.i.+ning shoulders followed. Then slowly the whole figure of a man in complete plate-armor emerged on the deck. In his gauntleted hand he carried a heavy steel mace. With this uplifted he moved toward his enemies, silent save for the ponderous clank of his footfall. It was an inhuman, machine-like figure, menacing and terrible, devoid of all expression, slow-moving, inexorable and awesome.
A sudden wave of terror pa.s.sed over the English seamen. One of them tried to pa.s.s and get behind the brazen man, but he was pinned against the side by a quick movement and his brains dashed out by a smas.h.i.+ng blow from the heavy mace. Wild panic seized the others, and they rushed back to the boat. Aylward strung an arrow, but his bowstring was damp and the shaft rang loudly upon the s.h.i.+ning breast-plate and glanced off into the sea. Masters struck the brazen head with a sword, but the blade snapped without injuring the helmet, and an instant later the bowman was stretched senseless on the deck. The seamen shrank from this terrible silent creature and huddled in the stern, all the fight gone out of them.
Again he raised his mace and was advancing on the helpless crowd where the brave were enc.u.mbered and hampered by the weaklings, when Nigel shook himself clear and bounded forward into the open, his sword in his hand and a smile of welcome upon his lips.
The sun had set, and one long mauve gash across the western Channel was closing swiftly into the dull grays of early night. Above, a few stars began to faintly twinkle; yet the twilight was still bright enough for an observer to see every detail of the scene: the Marie Rose, dipping and rising on the long rollers astern; the broad French boat with its white deck blotched with blood and littered with bodies; the group of men in the stern, some trying to advance and some seeking to escape--all a confused, disorderly, struggling rabble.
Then betwixt them and the mast the two figures: the armed s.h.i.+ning man of metal, with hand upraised, watchful, silent, motionless, and Nigel, bareheaded and crouching, with quick foot, eager eyes and fearless happy face, moving this way and that, in and out, his sword flas.h.i.+ng like a gleam of light as he sought at all points for some opening in the brazen sh.e.l.l before him.
It was clear to the man in armor that if he could but pen his antagonist in a corner he would beat him down without fail. But it was not to be done. The unhampered man had the advantage of speed. With a few quick steps he could always glide to either side and escape the clumsy rush.
Aylward and Badding had sprung out to Nigel's a.s.sistance; but he shouted to them to stand back, with such authority and anger in his voice that their weapons dropped to their sides. With staring eyes and set features they stood watching that unequal fight.
Once it seemed that all was over with the Squire, for in springing back from his enemy he tripped over one of the bodies which strewed the deck and fell flat upon his back, but with a swift wriggle he escaped the heavy blow which thundered down upon him, and springing to his feet he bit deeply into the Frenchman's helmet with a sweeping cut in return.
Again the mace fell, and this time Nigel had not quite cleared himself.
His sword was beaten down and the blow fell partly upon his left shoulder. He staggered, and once more the iron club whirled upward to dash him to the ground.
Quick as a flash it pa.s.sed through his mind that he could not leap beyond its reach. But he might get within it. In an instant he had dropped his sword, and springing in he had seized the brazen man round the waist. The mace was shortened and the handle jobbed down once upon the bare flaxen head. Then, with a sonorous clang, and a yell of delight from the spectators, Nigel with one mighty wrench tore his enemy from the deck and hurled him down upon his back. His own head was whirling and he felt that his senses were slipping away, but already his hunting-knife was out and pointing through the slit in the brazen helmet.
"Give yourself up, fair sir!" said he.
"Never to fishermen and to archers! I am a gentleman of coat-armor. Kill me!"
"I also am a gentleman of coat-armor. I promise you quarter."
"Then, sir, I surrender myself to you."
The dagger tinkled down upon the deck. Seamen and archers ran forward, to find Nigel half senseless upon his face. They drew him off, and a few deft blows struck off the helmet of his enemy. A head, sharp-featured, freckled and foxy-red, disclosed itself beneath it. Nigel raised himself on his elbow for an instant.
"You are the Red Ferret?" said he.
"So my enemies call me," said the Frenchman, with a smile. "I rejoice, sir, that I have fallen to so valiant and honorable a gentleman."
"I thank you, fair sir," said Nigel feebly. "I also rejoice that I have encountered so debonair a person, and I shall ever bear in mind the pleasure which I have had from our meeting."
So saying, he laid his bleeding head upon his enemy's brazen front and sank into a dead faint.
XV. HOW THE RED FERRET CAME TO COSFORD
The old chronicler in his "Gestes du Sieur Nigel" has bewailed his broken narrative, which rose from the fact that out of thirty-one years of warfare no less than seven were spent by his hero at one time or another in the recovery from his wounds or from those illnesses which arose from privation and fatigue. Here at the very threshold of his career, on the eve of a great enterprise, this very fate befell him.
Stretched upon a couch in a low-roofed and ill-furnished chamber, which looks down from under the machicolated corner turret upon the inner court of the Castle of Calais, he lay half-unconscious and impotent, while great deeds were doing under his window. Wounded in three places, and with his head splintered by the sharp pommel of the Ferret's mace, he hovered betwixt life and death, his shattered body drawing him downward, his youthful spirit plucking him up.
As in some strange dream he was aware of that deed of arms within the courtyard below. Dimly it came back to his memory afterwards the sudden startled shout, the crash of metal, the slamming of great gates, the roar of many voices, the clang, clang, clang, as of fifty l.u.s.ty smiths upon their anvils, and then at last the dwindling of the hubbub, the low groans and sudden shrill cries to the saints, the measured murmur of many voices, the heavy clanking of armored feet.
Sometime in that fell struggle he must have drawn his weakened body as far as the narrow window, and hanging to the iron bars have looked down on the wild scene beneath him. In the red glare of torches held from windows and from roof he saw the rush and swirl of men below, the ruddy light s.h.i.+ning back from glowing bra.s.s and gleaming steel. As a wild vision it came to him afterward, the beauty and the splendor, the flying lambrequins, the jeweled crests, the blazonry and richness of surcoat and of s.h.i.+eld, where sable and gules, argent and vair, in every pattern of saltire, bend or chevron, glowed beneath him like a drift of many-colored blossoms, tossing, sinking, stooping into shadow, springing into light. There glared the blood-red gules of Chandos, and he saw the tall figure of his master, a thunderbolt of war, raging in the van. There too were the three black chevrons on the golden s.h.i.+eld which marked the n.o.ble Manny. That strong swordsman must surely be the royal Edward himself, since only he and the black-armored swift-footed youth at his side were marked by no symbol of heraldry. "Manny! Manny!
George for England!" rose the deep-throated bay, and ever the gallant counter-cry: "A Chargny! A Chargny! Saint Denis for France!" thundered amid the clash and thudding of the battle.
Such was the vague whirling memory still lingering in Nigel's mind when at last the mists cleared away from it and he found himself weak but clear on the low couch in the corner turret. Beside him, crus.h.i.+ng lavender betwixt his rough fingers and strewing it over floor and sheets, was Aylward the archer. His longbow leaned at the foot of the bed, and his steel cap was balanced on the top of it, while he himself, sitting in his s.h.i.+rt sleeves, fanned off the flies and scattered the fragrant herbs over his helpless master.
"By my hilt!" he cried with a sudden shout, every tooth in his head gleaming with joy, "I thank the Virgin and all the saints for this blessed sight! I had not dared to go back to Tilford had I lost you.
Three weeks have you lain there and babbled like a babe, but now I see in your eyes that you are your own man again."
"I have indeed had some small hurt," said Nigel feebly; "but it is shame and sorrow that I should lie here if there is work for my hands. Whither go you, archer?"
"To tell the good Sir John that you are mending."
"Nay, bide with me a little longer, Aylward. I can call to mind all that has pa.s.sed. There was a bickering of small boats, was there not, and I chanced upon a most worthy person and exchanged handstrokes with him? He was my prisoner, was he not?"
"He was, fair sir."
Sir Nigel Part 25
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Sir Nigel Part 25 summary
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