She was ready to cast off as soon as the young commander came on board; and he was greeted by loud cheers from her crowded decks.
"She is thronged to the full," said Richard.
The sailing-master stood before him. He was a square-built man, of middle age, with a red face and small, greenish-gray eyes. His beard and hair were closely cropped and stiff; he wore a steel body-coat and headpiece, but his feet were bare. An unpleasant man to look upon was Piers Fleming; and behind him stood one not more than half as old, but of the same pattern, so like he needed not to say that he was the master's son, as well as mate of the Golden Horn.
"The wind is fair, sir," said Fleming. "We go out with the tide, but a fog is coming up the Channel."
"Cast off," said Richard. "Yonder on the height is the prince with his lords and gentlemen, watching the going."
"Aye, aye!" responded Fleming. "He shall see the Golden Horn go out."
She cleared the harbor in gallant style, with her sails full spread, while Richard busied himself among his men. The crew was thirty strong, mostly Englishmen.
"I have but twenty men-at-arms," said Richard to himself at the end of his inspection, "but there are two hundred and more of bowmen, and over a hundred Irish pikemen, besides the Welshmen. What bones those Irish are made with! I will serve out axes among them without delay. Fine chopping should be done by such brawny axemen as they."
"Richard Neville," whispered an eager voice at his elbow, "I pray thee hearken. One of the sailors, a Londoner, understandeth Flemish. He hath heard the captain and his son have speech with one on the pier. There is treason afoot, my Lord. Watch thou, and I will pass the word among the men."
"Tell all," said Richard, with a hot flush on his face; but there was little enough to tell. It could be but a warning, a cause for suspicion and for care.
"Guy the Bow," said Richard, at the end of their brief talk, "seek among the sailors for a true Englishman fit to take the helm if I smite off the head of this Piers Fleming. Let thy man keep near me if a foe appeareth."
Yet stronger blew the south wind, and, as Piers had said, with it came a thick, bluish mist that hid the ships from one another and made it impossible for any landsman on board of them to more than guess in what direction he might be going. It was therefore not thought of by Richard as of any importance that the Golden Horn was speeding full before the wind. She was going northerly, instead of taking a tack toward La Hogue. Right with her blew the mist, and hour after hour went by. Several times hoarse hails were heard and answered, but all were in the hearty voices of loyal Englishmen, and Richard said to one of his men-at-arms:
"We are with the fleet, and all is well."
Most of them had put aside their armor, as being too heavy to wear needlessly during so sultry a day; for it was the 2d of July, 1346, and the summer was a warm one; the bowmen and pikemen also had taken off their heavy buff coats and laid aside their arms.
But among the groups passed some of Richard's Longwood archers, talking low; and all the while, without attracting attention, sheaves of arrows, extra spears, with poleaxes and battle-axes and shields, were being handed up from the store of weapons in the hold.
Piers Fleming was at the helm, and near him stood his son.
"Son Hans," at last muttered the old man, "it can not be long now. Some of the Calais craft are sure to be hereabout. We will lay this tubful of English pirates alongside right speedily, if so be it is a large ship of good strength."
"They will be caught napping," growled Hans. "'Twill be a fine prize, for the hold is packed to tightness."
"Well bloweth the wind," said Piers, "and the Golden Horn hath now no company."
At the forward end of the low waist of the ship stood Richard among his men.
"Ye do know well," he said, "and all must know, that they would show no quarter. Every man fighteth for his life, for who is taken goeth overboard, dead or alive."
"Aye," responded Ben o' Coventry; "'tis a cutthroat business. I think there would be small room for any Frenchman on the Golden Horn, if one should come aboard."
"Room enough in the sea," said the red-haired O'Rourke, who was captain of the Irish; and he turned then to talk to his gigantic kerns in their own tongue. So did a man named David Griffith talk to a throng of broad-shouldered Welshmen who were also on board, armed with short swords, daggers, and spears or darts. Of the latter several bundles now lay amidships.
Back toward the stern strode Richard slowly, and after him, as if they were drifting about without special intention, strolled three rugged-looking seamen from the old port of London.
The waves ran not too high for a gay summer cruise, and the Golden Horn rode them steadily. She was a fast sailer, for all her breadth of beam. Suddenly her course was changed, and her sails swung in a little; for a command from Captain Fleming sent men to haul on the sheets. Just then a long-drawn vibrating whistle had been heard, and it sounded thrice, from the very direction the ship was taking.
Richard stood now on the high after-deck, and a wave of his hand could be seen by his men below. There was little apparent stir among them, but buff coats were quickly donned, bows were strung, sheaves of arrows were cut open and distributed, while the men-at-arms made ready, and the Irish made sure of their grip upon pikes and axes.
"We will speak that ship, my Lord Neville," said Fleming, very respectfully. "I have orders to report all craft we meet at sea."
"Aye, speak to her," said Richard; but he loosened his sword in its sheath, and he knew that Guy the Bow had an arrow on the string.
Loudly came a hail from out of the fog; the speaker was a Frenchman, and hardly had his utterance ceased before it was followed by a tumult of fierce, triumphant cheering on board the strange vessel.
Piers Fleming sent back a hoarse reply, speaking French; and then he turned to Richard.
"She cometh, my lord!" he exclaimed, as if much affrighted. "'Tis one of King Philip's great cruisers. I have bidden them that we surrender."
He was steering straight for the huge vessel which now swept toward them, looking larger through the cloud of vapor; but ere he made reply Richard's sword was drawn.
"Thou art a traitor!" he shouted. "Jack of London, take thou the helm!"
"Never!" cried Fleming. "Resistance were madness! We are almost alongside of her. Ho, Monsieur de Gaines! We surrender!"
Richard's sword flashed like lightning, but even before it fell had sped the arrow of Guy the Bow. The strong hands of the ready English mariner caught the tiller as the traitorous sailing-master fell gasping to the deck. His son Hans had been standing hard by him, pike in hand. He was taken by surprise for a moment, but he made a quick thrust at Richard. There had been deadly peril in that thrust, but that a poleaxe in the hand of an Irishman came down and cleft the traitor to the eyes.
The great French ship came on majestically, but Richard had given careful orders beforehand, and the Golden Horn did not avoid closing with her.
"Let them board us," he had said, and Ben o' Coventry had replied to him: "Aye, my Lord 'o Wartmont, and we will slay as many as we may upon our own decks before we finish upon theirs."
So little thought had the English but that they should win, no matter who came.
Louder and louder now arose the exulting yells and shouts from the swarms of armed men surging to and fro upon the fore and after forts and in the waist of La Belle Calaise, as her grapnels were thrown out to fasten upon the Golden Horn. She was much the taller and larger vessel, and even her tops and rigging were full of men.
Alas for these! Had they been so many squirrels in the trees of Longwood, they could not have dropped faster as the English archers plied their deadly bows. Of the latter, too, some were in the cuplike tops of the Golden Horn, and their shafts were seeking marks among the French knights and men-at-arms. It was a fearful moment, for the boarders were ready as the two ships crashed against each other.
"Steady, men! Stand fast!" shouted Richard. "Let them come on, but slay them as they come! Take the knights first; aim at the armholes. Waste no shaft. St. George for merry England! For the king and for the prince!"
"For the king and for Richard of Wartmont!" shouted Ben o' Coventry.
Twang went his bow as he spoke, and a tall knight in full armor pitched heavily forward upon the deck of the Golden Horn, shouting "St. Denis!" as he fell. His sword had been lifted, and the gray goose shaft had taken him in the armpit. He would strike no more.
The Frenchmen were brave enough, and they did not seem to be dismayed even by the dire carnage which was thinning them out so rapidly. The worst thing against them was that all this was so entirely unexpected. They had counted upon taking the English ship by surprise, aided by the treachery of Piers Fleming and his son. The Golden Horn had been steered by them many a long mile out of her proper course, and the same trick may have been played upon others of King Edward's transports; for he had been compelled to employ sailors of all the nationalities along the Channel and the North Sea, excepting a few that favored the Frenchmen.
The fighting force on La Belle Calaise was not only double the number of that on the Golden Horn, but it contained five times as many men-at-arms. There the advantage ended, however; for the rest of it consisted of a motley mob of all sorts, woefully inferior in arms, discipline, and even in bodily strength to the chosen fighters who were commanded by Richard of Wartmont.
For a few minutes he had kept his post on the high deck at the stern, that he might better see how the fight was going. Then, however, with his score of men in full armor, he went down in the waist, stepping forward to meet the onset of the French knights who dashed in to avenge their fallen leader. He had not been their only commander, evidently, for now in their front there stood a knight whose splendid arms and jeweled crest marked him as a noble of high rank.
"God and St. Denis!" he shouted. "Down with the dogs of England!"
"St. George and King Edward! I am Richard Neville of Wartmont. Who art thou?"
Their swords were crossing as the Frenchman responded, "Antoine, Count de Renly! Down with thee, thou of Wartmont! I will give an account of thee to thy boy Black Prince."
"I am another boy, as he is," was the reply from the young lord; for his antagonist was certainly not taller than himself, and they were not badly matched.
All around them the fierce m?l?e went on. Arrows whizzed; the spears of the Welshmen flew; there was hard hammering of sword and axe on helm and shield. One fact came out which men of knightly degree might otherwise have doubted. It was seen that a strong Irishman, with only his buff coat for armor or for weight, could swing a weapon more freely and with better effect than could a brave knight a head shorter, of lighter bones, weighed down by armor of proof and a steel-faced shield. Fierce was the wild Irish war-cry with which these brawny men of Ulster and Connaught rushed forward, and their swinging blows were as the stroke of death. Shields were dashed aside, helmets and mail were cloven through. Slain they were, a number of them; but they had not fallen uselessly – there were not now so many Frenchmen in full armor.
Richard and De Renly were skilled swordsmen, and for a time neither of them seemed able to gain any advantage. The Frenchman was a knight of renown, however, and it angered him to be checked by a mere youngster, a boy, a squire only, from the household of the Black Prince. He lost his temper, and pushed forward rashly, forgetting that he was not now upon firm land. The wind still blew, and the waves were lifting the ships, grinding them one against the other with shocks that were staggering. There was blood upon the deck at the spot where the mailed foot of the count was pressed. He slipped as he struck, and the sword of the English boy smote hard upon his crest.
A rush, another slip, another blow, and De Renly lay upon the deck, with the point of Richard's blade at the bars of his helmet.
"Yield thee, De Renly!" he shouted, "rescue or no rescue. Yield, or thou diest!"
"I yield!" came hoarsely back; "but myself only, not my ship."
"Yield thee!" said Richard, taking away his sword. "We will care for thy boat."
Loudly laughed the O'Rourke at Neville's triumph; and he smote down a man-at-arms right across the fallen De Renly.
"Hout, my Lord of Wartmont!" he shouted. "Thou art a good sword! On, Ulster and Connaught! Ireland forever! Hew them down, ye men of the fens! We have a doughty captain!"
Even in that boast it was shown that some of Richard's men – not those of Longwood – had doubted him on account of his youth, in spite of the tale of his victory over Clod the Club.
The rush of the French boarders was checked, but not repelled, so many they were and so desperate; but they met now another force. A cunning man was Ben o' Coventry, and fit to be a captain; for he had drawn away a number of Welsh and Irish and some bowmen, for whom there was no room in the waist of the ship. He led them to the prow, which was almost bare of men, save a few archers. It had swung away at first, but now it was hugging closely the high forecastle of La Belle Calaise.
"Forward, my men!" he shouted. "It is our turn to board! Slay as ye go!"
They rushed against a cluster of mere sailor-men, half armed, who had been posted there to keep them out of the way. They were hardly soldiers, although they were fierce enough; and they were mere cattle before the rush of Ben o' Coventry and his mighty followers. The Welshmen spared none of them; and soon the French in the deep waist of La Belle Calaise, pressing forward to reinforce their half-defeated boarders, were suddenly startled by a deadly shower of darts and arrows that fell upon them from their own forecastle. Then, as they turned in dismay, they shouted to their comrades upon the Golden Horn:
"Back! back! lest our own ship be lost. The English have boarded us!"
There was a moment of hesitation; and so at that critical moment no help came to the remaining Frenchmen in the waist of the Golden Horn. They were even outnumbered, since all the archers in the wooden forts fore and aft, twanging their deadly bows almost in safety, counted against the bewildered boarders. No more knights came down from La Belle Calaise. The common men were falling like corn before the reaper.
"On!" shouted Richard. "It is our fight now! Short work is good work!"
The O'Rourke yelled something in the old Erse tongue, and his giants followed him as he fought his way to the side of Richard Neville; but David Griffith summoned his remaining Welshmen, and was followed also by two score of Kentish bowmen, as he hastened forward to join Ben o' Coventry and his daring fellows on the forecastle of La Belle Calaise. It was time, for there were good French knights yet left to lead in a desperate attempt to dislodge them. It was, however, as if the deck or roof of that wooden fort, made with bulwarks and barricades to protect it against all enemies of France, had been just as well prepared to be held by an English garrison. Moreover, all manner of weapons had been put there, ready for use; and among these were pikes and lances with which the Welshmen could thrust at the men who tried to climb the ladders from the waist, while the archers shot for dear life, unerringly.
"My Lord Beaumont," shouted one of the French men-at-arms, "all of our boarders on the English ship are down or taken. Not one is left. Here come the Neville and his tigers. God and St. Denis! We are lost!"
"Courage!" returned Beaumont. "Fight on; we shall overcome them yet!"
But a heavy mace, hurled by a big Cornishman on the forecastle, at that moment smote him on the helm. He fell stunned, while his dismayed comrades shrank back from the storm of English arrows and from the mad rush of Richard and his men-at-arms and the O'Rourke and his Irish axemen.
The French were actually beaten in detail, their greater numbers at no time doing them any good.
In each part of the fight they had had fewer men at the front, and the few that now remained fit to fight seemed to be in a manner surrounded.
"Quarter, if thou wilt surrender!" cried Richard to a knight with closed visor, with whom he was crossing swords.
"Quarter!" came faintly back, "Surrender!" and then he sank upon one knee, for he was wounded by an arrow in the thigh.
"All good knights yield themselves to me!" again shouted Richard in French. "They who hold out are lost!"
More than one of them still fought on in a kind of despair, but others laid down their swords at the feet of Richard. As for any other of the defenders of La Belle Calaise, it was sad to seek them; for the Golden Horn had no man left on board of her save Jack of London at the helm, and the English pikes were everywhere plying mercilessly.
"Leave not one!" shouted the O'Rourke hoarsely to his kerns. "Not one of us had they spared if we had been taken. Let Lord Wartmont care for his gentlemen. They will all pay ransom."
So quickly all was over; and all that was left of the force which that morning had crowded the deck under the brave Monsieur de Gaines was less than half of his brave gentlemen, hardly one of them without a wound.
The Sieur de Beaumont had now recovered his senses; but as he arose and looked around him, he exclaimed:
"Lord Richard of Wartmont, I would thou wouldst show me the mercy to throw me into the sea. How shall I face my king after such a disgrace as this!"
"'Twas not thy fault, brave sir," said Richard courteously. "It is the fortune of war. Say to thy king from me, that thy ship was lost when the Comte de Gaines tumbled so many of his force into the Golden Horn. Thou mayest say that he knew not how ready were we to meet him."
"The traitorous Fleming – " began the count, but Richard interrupted him.
"Not traitor to thee," he said. "He is dead indeed; and his trap caught not us, but thee and thy commander. How art thou now, Sieur de Renly? I thank thee for slipping well, else thy good sword had done thee better service."
Like a true gentleman, the brave youth spoke kindly to them all, and their hurts were cared for. The several ransoms for each knight were agreed upon; but they had now no further need for armor, and they were soon appareled only in clothing of wool and linen, or silk and leather, as the case might be.
As for the ships, they had sustained small injury in the fight. Now that it was over, the grapplings were cast off, and each rode the waves on its own account. It was hard to provide skilled crews for both, but a shift was made by dividing the seamen, and by such selections as could be had from among the soldiery. Jack of London was made the sailing master of the Golden Horn, and a seafaring man from Hull was in like manner put in charge of La Belle Calaise.
There was now no crowding of men upon either ship; but there was much care to be given to so many scores of wounded.
The fog had cleared away, and the Golden Horn, with her prize, could make a pretty straight course for La Hogue, thanks to a change in the wind.
"Art thou hurt at all?" asked Guy the Bow, when he next met his young commander.
"Nay," said Richard, "unless bruises and a sore head may count for hurts. But we have lost a third part of our force, killed or wounded."
"Well that we lost not all, and our own lives," said Guy. "'Twas close work for a while. Glad am I that our Lady of Wartmont is to hear no bad news."
"Aye," said Richard; "and now I will tell thee, thou true man, when I write to her I will bear thee witness that to thee and Ben o' Coventry is it due that she hath not lost her son."
"I would like her to think well of me," said Guy, smiling with pleasure; "but I pray thee speak well to the prince of the O'Rourke and his long-legged kerns, and of David Griffith. They deserve well of the king."
"Trust me for that," said Richard. "And now, ere the dark hour, I must read my mother's letter. Truth to tell, I could not so much as look at it while I was watching that traitor Fleming, and preparing for what I thought might come. I have already thanked all the men and visited my prisoners. Brave ransom will some of them pay."
"And the prize money for us all," added Guy, with a chuckle. "We may be rich when we return from France."
So he went forward, and Richard sat down to his letter, to read the good words his mother sent him, and to dream of Wartmont and of Longwood, and of the old days before the war.
Then there was sleeping, save for those who could not sleep for their hurts or their misfortunes. It was well on in the forenoon of the following day before the Golden Horn and her captive companion sailed gayly in among the forest of masts that had gathered at La Hogue.