HOW THE MERCHANTS TRIED CONCLUSIONS WITH LA BARRE

The three lads had little time to spend at Harfleur. That walled town,
had Geoffrey but known, was to play an important part in his career, but
being ignorant of the future he merely gazed at the Norman stronghold
with the curiosity common to those who find themselves in foreign parts
for the first time.

The _Grâce à Dieu_ and the _Brothers_ were moored side by side in the
inner harbour, and advantage was taken of their proximity by Master
Roche and his fellow merchants to pay a visit to the ship that had saved
them from beggary, slavery, or death.

“To Rouen is it, my masters?” exclaimed Roche. “Since that is also my
intention, why not travel in company? It so happens that we have hired a
large boat to ascend the river; an it please you, ye are right welcome
to a passage.”

“‘Twould be well to accept the offer,” replied Arnold Gripwell, turning
to Geoffrey. “‘Tis said that the roads in these parts are none too safe
for travellers, howbeit they be armed. ‘Twill also save the heavy
disbursement that we must otherwise make for the hire of suitable
steeds.”

“Alack-a-day!” groaned Richard Ratclyffe. “Methought I had finished with
the water for some time to come.”

“Little needst thou consider that, Dick,” replied Geoffrey. “The river
is not to be compared with the sea. Here we shall not be troubled by
rough waves.”

“Be not so sure about it,” remarked Gripwell, with a roguish twinkle in
his eye.

“How so?”

“Thou’lt know ere long,” replied the man-at-arms shortly.

Next morning at high-water the _Grâce à Dieu_ warped out into the river
on her return voyage, while the _Brothers_, compelled to wait for cargo
until the return of the English merchants from Rouen, was left in the
charge of her shipmaster and crew.

Just before low tide a “bac” or ferry-boat manned by a crew of Normans
came alongside the _Brothers_. This was the craft in which Geoffrey and
his comrades were to make their sixty-mile voyage to the capital of
Normandy.

The boat was about thirty feet in length, broad of beam, and shallow
draught. With the exception of a small deck for’ard and a slightly
longer one aft, under which a low-roofed cabin provided cramped quarters
at night or in wet weather, the boat was open. Broad thwarts or benches
for the rowers occupied the space amidships, for oars were used except
on rare occasions when the wind was astern, and a square sail could be
set with advantage.

At the second hour of the flood the bac left Harfleur, and under the
steady, powerful strokes of the rowers, made good progress.

Geoffrey could not help noticing the apparently erratic manner in which
the bearded helmsman steered, frequently turning the boat in diverse
way, although the general direction was up stream.

“‘Tis well he doth so,” said Gripwell in answer to the lad’s question.
“Were it not for his skill we should be hard aground on one of the many
sandbanks that lie hereabout.”

At length the voyagers saw that the river was rapidly diminishing in
width, while on either hand low-lying banks were clothed in verdure, for
the hand of the spoiler had as yet left this part of Normandy untouched.

Still maintaining their even, tireless strokes, the rowers stuck to
their task, till the villages of Tancarville and Quillibœuf came in
sight.

“We can go no further with the tide,” exclaimed the Norman helmsman.
“See, the river is even now overcoming the flood.”

“As thou wilt, Gaston,” replied Master Roche; “but, I pray thee, put us
within easy reach of a hostel, since my throat is as dry as a limekiln.”

“The _du Guesclin Arms_ lieth but a bow-shot from the quay at
Quillibœuf,” replied the Norman. “There the cider is of the best, and I
wot Malmsey and sack are to be had, to say nought of the wines of
France.”

“Then, I’ll find my way to the _du Guesclin Arms_” quoth Master Roche,
filled with pleasurable expectation. “Though I be a true Englishman, and
must needs hate the name of yonder hostel, I’ll not quarrel with its
contents. How say you, comrades; will you bear me company?”

Two of the merchants signified their acceptance of his wishes, but the
three lads chose to remain on the quay, watching the endless procession
of strange craft as they dropped down stream.

Gaston skilfully brought the bac alongside the little quay, and, having
secured her by two long and stout ropes, led the way to the inn, Arnold
Gripwell, Roche, his fellow merchants, and the wearied rowers
accompanying him.

Left to themselves, the three lads sat down in the stern of the boat,
discussing the unwonted sights as the ebb gathered strength. Now a cog,
clumsily yet strongly built, drifted down, with only an occasional dip
of a heavy oar to keep her on her course; then a galley, resplendent
with paint and gilt, bearing a member of the household of King Charles
the Sixth of France. Then a barge, laden with a towering cargo of hay,
jostled with a frail cock-boat crowded with Norman peasants.

All the while the turbid river swirled and eddied, for the heavy rains
had swollen the Seine till it had burst its banks above Rouen and had
flooded miles of fair country ‘twixt that town and the city of Paris.

Presently Gripwell returned, accompanied by the Norman helmsman and his
crew. The latter sat listlessly on their thwarts, while the man-at-arms
beguiled the lads during the hours of waiting with stories of the past
when the English armies overran the greater part of France.

Suddenly Gaston started to his feet; a low distant roar, like the rumble
of summer thunder, caught his well-trained ear.

“_Vite, vite, mes enfants!_” he shouted. “_La barre!_”

Instantly the hitherto inactive rowers were transformed into alert and
energetic seamen. The holding-ropes were cast off, the oars fell betwixt
the thole-pins and the boat, driving her out towards the middle of the
Seine. Yet, notwithstanding the men’s efforts, the craft made no headway
against the stream.

“Why thus?” asked Oswald. “The tide is still against us, and, moreover,
our friends still tarry at the inn.”

“Dost not hear the distant roar?” asked Gripwell. “‘Tis what men in
these parts call the Mascaret or La Barre, though to English ears ‘bore’
sounds more familiar.”

Meanwhile all the other boats that were moored to the bank began to put
off into midstream, their occupants joining in the warning cry.

Geoffrey looked down stream, and a strange and awe-inspiring sight met
his gaze. Stretching from bank to bank came an enormous wave, eight or
more feet in height. Its line was bent into the form of a crescent, the
two shoreward extremities being in advance of the centre, and breaking
furiously along the shore, to the accompaniment of an ever-increasing
roar.

While the Englishmen were looking with considerable apprehension at the
progress of the bore, fully expecting that their craft would be engulfed
in the wall of water, a shout from the bank caused them to glance shore
wards.

Master Roche and his three boon companions had left the inn and were
standing on the quay, unable to understand the cause of their fellow
travellers’ desertion.

“Come back, robbers, come back,” shouted the Southampton man. The
approaching danger was disregarded or unnoticed in his excitement.

Then, espying a small boat hauled up the bank out of harm’s way, the
angry merchants lustily dragged it to the water’s edge.

“_Arrêtez, messieurs, pour l’amour de Notre Dame_,” shouted the Norman
helmsman, waving his free arm frantically by way of warning.

But the thick-headed Englishmen were not to be thwarted in their desire
to regain the bac. The light craft was launched, and the four merchants
awkwardly jumped into it. Fortunately, there were oars in the boat, and
in a measure they were able to keep control over the frail cockleshell.
More than that they could not do, and like a straw the boat was whisked
down stream.

The bore was within two hundred yards ere the merchants realized their
danger. Terror seized them, and in a mad endeavour to escape they did
the worst possible thing—they rowed desperately for the shore.

Nothing could be done to save the inexperienced merchants from the
impending disaster. All the nerve and skill at the Norman’s command was
required to attend to the safety of the bac.

A hurried order, and the boat was turned bows on to the approaching
wave, while the rowers bent and strained at their oars to give the craft
sufficient way to mount the watery wall.

“Hold fast!” cautioned Gripwell to the lads.

The next instant the boat’s bows were lifted high in the air till the
craft seemed to stand on end. With a sickening shudder the bac remained
for a few seconds poised upon a quivering, unstable pivot; then the long
craft slid down the other side of the mountainous wave into
comparatively calm water.

Anxiously Geoffrey and his comrades looked for their fellow-travellers.
The little skiff, caught broadside on by the billow, had been rolled
over and over, and was floating keel uppermost in the still ruffled
water. Three of its late occupants were clinging to this slender
support, while midway between the upturned boat and the shore the head
of the unfortunate Master Roche was seen bobbing up and down.

The merchant was a good swimmer, and breasted the stream right manfully,
but it was a question whether he would reach the bank ere the arrival of
the second wave, which usually follows the first at a distance of about
two hundred yards.

Quickly Gaston took in the state of affairs. The men clinging to the
water-logged boat must first be rescued, and that quickly.

Ordering his men to pull easily he steered towards the hapless
merchants. Two were quickly hauled in, but the work of rescuing the
third, a heavily-built man, proved a harder task.

Leaning far over the side, the Norman steersman essayed to assist, but
being jolted by one of his excitable fellow-countrymen, he overbalanced
and fell headlong into the river.

Waterman born and bred though he was, Gaston could not swim a stroke.
Raising his hands despairingly above his head and uttering a yell of
terror, he sank, whereupon, without a moment’s hesitation, Geoffrey
unbuckled his sword-belt and took a flying leap after him.

But the lad had not counted the cost of his brave act. The terrified
Norman gripped him round the neck in a vice-like grasp, while during the
one brief moment that the English lad’s head rose above the water he saw
the second wave bearing down upon them.

With irresistible fury the billow overwhelmed both the drowning man and
his would-be rescuer. To Geoffrey it seemed as if he was buried fathoms
deep in the icy-cold water, while his ears were well-nigh bursting under
the pressure of the wave and the bulldog grip of the half-suffocated
Norman.

Just as the lad’s breath and strength were failing his head appeared
above water; at the same time the grasp at his throat relaxed, and he
was able to take in a full, deep draught of life-giving air. With a
sudden jerk he freed himself of the Norman’s grip, and ere the man sank
Geoffrey had him by the hair.

[Illustration: “IT DID NOT TAKE LONG FOR THE ENGLISHMEN TO GRASP THE
SITUATION.”]

But the coldness of the water and the effect of his almost superhuman
efforts were beginning to tell. His strokes became feebler, his chin
sank lower in the water, yet his hold on the Norman was not relaxed.
Then, just as his strength failed, he was dimly conscious of a babel of
English and Norman voices close above him; eager hands grasped him by
the shoulder, and as he and Gaston were dragged into safety he fell
senseless upon the bottom of the boat.

When Geoffrey came to himself the dreaded bore and its attendant dangers
were past. The boat was progressing rapidly with the now favouring
flood-tide. Master Roche and his companions, arrayed in a medley of
borrowed garments, were sheltering from the strong wind in the little
cabin, while Gaston, who had quickly recovered from the effect of his
immersion, was at his customary post at the helm.

Oswald, Richard Ratclyffe, Gripwell, and the English archers were
gathered round the limp body of their brave comrade, and great was their
joy when he revived.

“Thou must needs lie quiet, Master Geoffrey,” exclaimed the old
man-at-arms, as the lad attempted to raise himself on one elbow. “We
need fear no more from the bore, for we are nigh to Villequier, where we
can find shelter and refreshment at _La Dame Dorée_. Certes! What a
story for the folks at Warblington.”

That night, after the bac had been safely moored, Gaston came up to the
inn where Geoffrey was.

“Young sir,” he exclaimed simply, “I thank thee for thy deed this day.
Though I fear ’tis of little use to say it, bear in mind that if I,
Gaston le Noir, can be of service to thee at any time, my dwelling is at
La Broie, hard by the town of Harfleur.”

“‘Twas but a small matter,” replied Geoffrey. “Yet should it come to
pass that I have need of thee, Gaston, I’ll remember La Broie, hard by
the town of Harfleur.”