HOW THE THREE COMRADES SEIZED THE FISHING BOAT

“Nay, there is little cause to trouble concerning Sir Oliver,” remarked
the man-at-arms in answer to Geoffrey’s anxious question. “He is safe
and well cared for, though a prisoner in the hands of—whom thinkest
thou?”

“I cannot say.”

“None other than Sir Raoul d’Aulx. ‘Faith, the knight could do naught
else but hold Sir Oliver captive, since ’twas by the orders of the King
of France. Yet Sir Raoul was ever a courteous knight; and moreover,
bearing in mind that once he and Sir Oliver were comrades in arms, and
also that thou, his son, hast rendered good service to Sir Raoul’s wife
and daughter, my master’s condition is not to be deplored, save that he
is under a solemn vow to keep within the boundaries of the Castle
d’Aulx, until the termination of the war or release by our own forces.”

“Aye, we heard that war was declared, Arnold. But why doth King Harry
tarry?”

“That is his concern, young sir. ‘Tis certain that the French expect his
coming, since every available knight and common soldier is being
hastened into Normandy. What would I give to see a troop of English
lances and a few stout companies of English bowmen.”

“Who knows but that thy wish will shortly be gratified?”

“Then it behoves us to hasten towards the sea-coast. From Amiens we
ought to be able to reach Abbeville and seize a craft of sorts that will
bear us to Old England.”

Buoyed up with hope the three comrades pursued their way, but, as luck
would have it, a few leagues from the town of Amiens they encountered
none other than De Chargné himself. The baron was returning from a
hawking expedition, and was attended only by a page who carried a falcon
attached to his wrist by a silver chain.

In ignorance of the identity of the man whose livery they wore, Geoffrey
and Gripwell passed him with heads erect and fearless glances.

“Ho, there! Insolent varlets! Why have ye not louted to me, Bertrand de
Chargné? What manner of men have I in my service that pay not proper
respect to their lord and master? Your names, sirrahs? And I’ll warrant
that my marshal will lay his rod soundly athwart your backs, so that
another time ye will have good cause to remember me.”

Vehemently the French baron poured out this speech, his eyes rolling in
his anger.

“Have at him, Geoffrey,” shouted Gripwell, drawing his sword. “If he
‘scapes us, ’twill be our undoing.”

But even in his hot anger De Chargné scented danger.

[Illustration: “THROW ME YON ROPE!” HE SHOUTED.]

“_Peste!_ Have we wolves in sheep’s clothing?” he exclaimed. “Ride,
Michel, for thy life.”

As the page set spur to his steed the baron did likewise, and both
riders were soon clattering down the dusty highway.

“We have seen something that few men can boast of,” said Gripwell
gleefully. “We have seen the back of a De Chargné. But we must look to
ourselves, for, by St. George, we are like to be in a sorry plight.”

Realizing that ere long the Frenchman would raise an alarm, and that the
countryside would be scoured, the adventurers divested themselves of
their surcoats with the De Chargné device. It was now out of the
question to proceed to Amiens, so taking a by-lane the Englishmen set
off at a rapid pace, keeping the while a sharp look-out for any signs of
pursuit.

Three days later the fugitives, footsore and hungry, came in sight of
the blue waters of the English Channel.

“What village is that I see yonder?” asked Gripwell, addressing a
peasant who was toiling along the road, bent double under the weight of
a huge basket filled with seaweed.

“‘Tis St. Valery-en-Caux, monsieur.”

“_Ma foi_, comrades, we are well out of our way,” remarked the
man-at-arms in order to avoid suspicion. “‘Tis to Abbeville that we
would go.”

“Of a surety thou speakest truly,” assented the peasant. “It lieth far
along the shore, though I have ne’er set foot in the town.”

“This village will serve our purpose,” quoth Gripwell, as the peasant
resumed his way. “We must needs lie hidden till dusk; then, unless I am
much at fault, we can with ease take possession of one of those
fishing-boats I see yonder.”

“Canst manage one of these craft?” asked Oswald anxiously.

“The wind blows fair. E’en though I be not a seaman, I am a man of
parts. By the help of St. George I fear not that the task be beyond me.”

Encouraged by their comrade’s self-reliance the lads took heart. Even
though they were compelled to wait till night, the old soldier was not
idle.

Leaving the two youths snugly sheltered in a field of barley Gripwell
went off on a foraging expedition, returning presently with three large
rye loaves and a bottle of wine.

“How earnest thou by them?” asked Geoffrey in astonishment.

“Thou hadst best not to ask, Master Geoffrey,” replied the man-at-arms
with a sly wink. “‘Tis but an old trick, known to all hardened
campaigners. Food and drink we must have at all costs, and when the
goodwife hath finished gossiping with her neighbour she can discover her
loss with as much good grace as it pleaseth her. Certes! The miracle of
the vanishing loaves of St. Valery will be a subject of discourse for a
long time to come, I trow. But, come now, let us eat.”

When darkness set in the three comrades waited till the last visible
light was extinguished and the village plunged into slumber. Then
cautiously they made their way to the little quay, against which half a
score of strongly-built fishing boats and traders were fastened.

It was now just after high water, and already a steady current was
setting out of the harbour.

“This one will suit our purpose,” whispered Gripwell, pointing to a
stout craft of about thirty feet in length, that lay in the outermost
tier. “Tread softly, for the least sound will betray us.”

Without mishap Geoffrey clambered over the deck of an intervening ship
and gained the planks of the craft Arnold had indicated. She was of good
beam, entirely open amidships, with a deck fore and aft, under which
were two small cuddies for the accommodation of her crew and for the
stowing of gear.

“Cast off yon rope,” whispered Gripwell. “Yarely now, or we shall be
left by the tide; I can touch bottom with an oar.”

Swiftly the two restraining hawsers were unbent, and the boat began to
glide stern foremost towards the open sea.

Seizing an oar Arnold worked with powerful yet silent strokes, till the
craft’s bow was turned seaward. Twice or thrice her keel scraped against
the rocky bed of the stream, but, greatly to the new crew’s relief, the
strong ebb swept her clear, and soon the water began to deepen.

“Hist!” exclaimed Oswald. “Another boat comes this way.”

With beads of sweat standing out on his forehead the man-at-arms peered
through the darkness. The squire was right. A huge unwieldy craft,
propelled by oars, was slowly stemming the tide.

“Take the tiller and keep her so,” exclaimed Arnold, placing Geoffrey’s
hand upon the long, wooden pole. “Say not a word.”

Resuming their oars Oswald and the old soldier urged the boat as swiftly
as they were able, exercising due caution to prevent the sound of their
blades from being heard.

“The _Jean Baptiste_ is abroad late this night,” shouted a gruff voice
as the two craft swept past each other at less than twenty yards’
distance.

Gripwell could not trust himself to speak. Bending over his oar he
grunted something incoherently.

“Heed him not, Simon. He hath been drinking. Old Jacques is ever surly
in his cups. May the blessed Peter see to it that he tears his nets on
the Roches d’Ailly.”

“I’ faith,” exclaimed Gripwell as the boats drew beyond earshot. “‘Twas
a narrow escape. Bear witness, young sirs, how the proverb ‘One man’s
meat is another man’s poison’ can be reversed. But now we are clear of
the land, and the breeze is beginning to make itself felt. Stay where
thou art at the helm, Master Geoffrey—nay, ’twill be best for thy
companion to take the tiller, seeing that he is hurt. Thereupon, I pray
thee, bear a hand with this sail.”

Not without infinite trouble Geoffrey and the man-at-arms succeeded in
hoisting the heavy yard and its huge brown sail. Then, heeling to the
steady breeze, the little craft began to slip quickly through the water.

“That is well,” ejaculated Arnold as he relieved Oswald at the helm.
“Another twelve hours at this speed and we ought to sight the white
cliffs of England.”

“How canst thou make sure of the way?” asked Oswald, doubtful of the old
soldier’s skill in seamanship.

“Mark yon pennon,” replied Gripwell, pointing to a fluttering streamer
at the masthead. “So long as that keeps ahead and the wind holds true,
all will be well. ‘Tis a wide mark from Dover to the Wight, and it
matters little at what part we touch.”

Throughout the short June night the lads remained on deck, dozing at
intervals in spite of their lengthy rest in the rye-field hard by the
village of St. Valery, yet filled with joy at the thought that they were
being borne rapidly homewards.

At length the day dawned. Eagerly Gripwell scanned the horizon, but to
his great satisfaction not a sail broke the sky-line. The low white
cliffs of France, too, had vanished beneath the encircling rim of
trackless sea.

In the growing light the adventurers were able to make a thorough
inspection of the stolen craft. Anxious to husband their scanty stores,
Gripwell hoped to find some kind of provisions on board. Accordingly he
handed the helm to Oswald, and telling Geoffrey to explore the after
cuddy, he clambered forward to investigate the contents of the place
that did duty for the forepeak.

Placing his hands upon the coamings of the little hatch Geoffrey lowered
himself into the dark recesses of the cuddy. Bewildered by the sudden
transition from daylight to almost pitch darkness, he stood upon the
floor, his shoulders bent to save his head from contact with the low
deck-beams, waiting till his eyes became accustomed to the gloom.

An unexpected lurch of the little craft caused him to lose his balance,
and the next instant he was thrown violently against the side of the
cuddy. Struggling to regain his balance Geoffrey thrust out his hands,
and to his utter astonishment his fingers closed upon the throat of a
human being.

Ere the lad could realize his position he was seized in a powerful grip,
and, beyond a strangled shout from his unseen antagonist, the two
silently engaged in a desperate struggle. Interlocked in an unyielding
grip they swayed to and fro, each adversary trying to bend the back of
his antagonist.

Attracted by the scuffling Arnold came running aft. In his haste he had
forgotten to bring his arms, and well it was that this was the case, for
on gaining the hatchway he could only perceive two unrecognizable
struggling forms.

Cold steel would have been equally dangerous to friend or foe. All that
Gripwell could do was to lie full length on the deck, ready with
outstretched arm to aid the English lad the moment he could be sure of
him.

In spite of the obvious disadvantage of being attacked in unfamiliar
surroundings Geoffrey stoutly maintained his own, but the strength and
endurance of his unseen foe seemed inexhaustible. At length the lad
bethought him of a trick taught him by one of the archers of the
garrison of the Castle of Warblington many months agone.

Hitherto he had been striving to force his enemy backwards, but suddenly
he changed his thrusting motion into a lift. In this he was aided by his
antagonist’s own efforts to resist the previous mode of attack, and with
a mighty heave Geoffrey raised his foe from the floor.

With a dull crash the fellow’s skull struck the deck-beams overhead, and
a convulsive twitching of his limbs followed by an unmistakable limpness
showed Geoffrey that he had stunned his adversary.

Breathless and well-nigh exhausted the English lad gained the deck,
where he lay filling his lungs with the pure, salt-laden air.

Meanwhile Arnold had descended the hatchway and unceremoniously dragged
the senseless body of the mysterious occupant of the cuddy into the
light of day.

A cry of surprise burst from Geoffrey’s lips; his late antagonist was a
youth of about his own age.

“‘Tis a Norman fisher-lad,” exclaimed Gripwell. “He must have been
hiding ever since we laid hands on this craft. But, what is to be done
with him?”

“He is my prisoner by the right of conquest,” replied Geoffrey. “‘Tis
not in my mind to do him further scath, for, certes, he hath held his
own as manfully as any Englishman.”

Ere long the young Norman recovered his senses, and finding that he was
being kindly treated and that he was not to be thrown overboard—a common
practice in mediæval days when vanquished shipmen were ruthlessly
jettisoned—he became quite communicative.

He had, it appeared, stolen on board the boat to escape the wrath of his
master, whose enmity he had roused. Overcome by sleep he had slumbered
soundly throughout the night, undisturbed, even by the noise of the
footsteps of Gripwell and his two youthful companions, till he felt
Geoffrey’s fingers at his throat.

“Have no fear,” exclaimed Geoffrey kindly. “We bear thee no ill-will.
But, willy-nilly, thou must come with us to England; then, on my honour,
I vow that thou shalt be given a passage back to France.”

“Sir, I thank thee,” replied the stranger in the patois of the Norman
shore. “But, if ye hope to reach dry land in safety, I pray ye look to
the sail. Already the wind increases, and ere long there will be a
gale.”