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The Crusaders by  Alfred J. Church




[146] SOME ten days after his coming to the camp King Richard was taken with sickness, the same of which I have before written. This was never altogether absent, but it grew worse, as might indeed be looked for, in the heats of summer. The King had arrived some short time before the summer solstice, and he sickened on the day which the Christians celebrate as the Feast of St. Barnabas. I was called to see him, having, as I have said, no small fame as a healer. Never have I seen a sick man more intractable. My medicine he swallowed readily, I may say, even greedily. Had I suffered it, he would have taken it at intervals shorter by far than was ordered by my prescription. Doubtless, he thought that the more a man has of a good [147] thing, the better it is for him. (So indeed many believe, and of other things besides medicine, but wholly without reason.) But in this I hindered him, leaving with those who ministered to him sufficient for one dose only.

He was troubled about many things, about the siege, which, as he justly thought, had already been too much drawn out, about King Philip, whom he loved not nor trusted, about his engines of war, of which the greater part had not yet reached the camp; the ships that bore them having been outsailed by the rest of the fleet. His fever was of the intermittent sort, coming upon him on alternate days. On the days when he was whole, or as nearly whole as a man sick of this ague may ever be, he was busy in the field, causing such engines as he had to be set in convenient places for the assault of the town, and in other cares such as fall to a general. When he was perforce shut in his pavilion by access of the fever, he suffered himself to take no rest. Messengers were coming and going from morning to night with news of the siege—he could never hear enough of the doings of the French king—and there were always near him men skilful in the working and making of engines. This one would show him some new thing pictured upon [148] paper; another would bring with him a little image, so to speak, of an engine, made in wood or iron. Never was a child more occupied with a toy than was King Richard with these things. I am myself no judge of such matters, but I have heard it said by men well acquainted with them, that the King had a marvellous understanding of such contrivances. But these cares were a great hindrance to recovery. So at least I judged, and doubtless it had been thus in the case of most men. But the King was not as others, and, as it seemed to me, he drove away his disease by sheer force of will.

But before this came to pass the besiegers had continued to assail the town with their engines, nor were the Turks, for their part, backward in replying. At this time the greater part of the English engines not having reached the camp, the French king and his men took the chief part in this business. His best machine was one known by the name of the Bad Neighbour, and was set against the east wall of the city, being exactly opposite to the tower which is called the Accursed Tower. Now the Turks, to answer the attack thus made, had set up an engine of equal power, and this was called the Bad Kinsman. The two made war, so to speak, on each other [149] How it fared with the Kinsman  they of the camp knew not, save that from time to time it would be still for the space of two or three hours or more. As for the Neighbour, being more in sight than its enemy, it suffered more. Yet it was restored again and again, and this not in the night time only, but in the day also, when the smiths and others would work at no little danger to their lives. And here I will say that I do admire the courage of these common men with all my heart. 'Tis one thing to ride on a noble steed, clad in armour of proof, and exchange blows with an adversary equally equipped, with many looking on and applauding, and another to work stripped to the waist, as these smiths were compelled to do by the heat of the sun, and to suffer ignoble blows for a poor wage of some two pence by the day. There is, methinks, but an ill division in this world of the good and bad things of life. But to my tale. In the end the Bad Neighbour  did its work to such effect that there were made great breaches in the east wall of the city, and the Accursed Tower was little more than a ruinous heap. Other engines also were busily worked in the same region, of these may be mentioned two, one of which was the possession of the Templars, the other of the [150] Hospitallers. None were better equipped or better served, these two Societies having, I was told, great wealth, and sparing nothing in the hire of workmen, the providing of levers and the like (for these are speedily worn out), and other necessary matters.

Nor must I pass over one engine that was commonly known as the Stone Slim of God. This was maintained not by any king or prince or company of knights, but by common contributions. There was a certain priest that took his stand hard by and called upon all that passed to give to the maintenance of the engine, that is to say for the repairing of such damage as might come from accident or continual use, and also for the payment of such as gathered stones for slinging. (This gathering was mostly done by children from the villages near. I have seen many a one lying dead upon the ground, having been slain by discharges from the walls, a most piteous sight.) This priest also was a brave man, for whereas he might have stood in shelter, he chose rather to take his place on the open ground. Nor did this courage miss its reward, for I saw that on a certain day, when he was hindered from the work by some cause, and another came in his room, this man, show- [151] ing that he had fear, received but little. I heard passers-by scoff, saying, "This fellow cares too much for his own skin and too little for the work." All these doings were told to King Richard when he lay sick in his pavilion. I will not say that they troubled him, for how should he not desire the success of the besiegers? Yet it irked him to think that after all the town might be taken without his helping. It comforted him not a little that when the Count of Flanders died he gained possession of a great engine that had been the count's—he purchased it with gold, of which he had more in store than any other in the camp. Also he had caused to be made, and in truth in an incredibly short space of time, two small slings of the most marvellous closeness of aim.

But of the King's siege works the most notable was that which went by the name of the Belfry. It was a tower that could be moved, being, indeed, set upon wheels. For lightness' sake it was built of wood, but was defended against fire by hides wherewith it was covered on all sides, and from top to bottom. This they brought up close to the wall, which it overtopped by some six or seven feet, so that the engines upon it—there were two of these; both of an almost incredible strength—could [152] cast stones and darts into the very heart of the town. 'Twas said—I know not on what authority—that a single bolt from one of these engines—mangonels they called them—slew twelve men in the market-place.

On a certain evening when King Richard was mending apace of his fever one came to his tent—an English knight, Hugh Brown by name—who brought the news that the king of the French had commanded that a general assault should be made on the town the very next day. The King would fain know the cause of this sudden resolve. "Well," said the English knight, it came about, as I understand, in this fashion. The Turks have this day destroyed two engines of King Philip on which he had spent much time and gold." "Aye!" said King Richard, "I know the two; the Cat  and the Mantlet. They are pretty contrivings the both of them, but I set not such store on them as does my brother of France." And here I should say that the Cat  was like to a tent made of hides long and narrow and low upon the ground, with a pointed end as it might be a ploughshare, which could be brought up to the walls by men moving it from within, and so sheltered from the stones and darts of the enemy. As for the Mantlet, it was made [153] in somewhat the same fashion, only it was less in size, nor was it to be brought near to the wall. King Philip loved dearly to sit in it, cross-bow in hand—the French, I noted, like rather the cross-bow, the English the long-bow—and would shoot his bolts at any Turk that might show himself upon the walls."

But to come back to the knight's story. "An hour or so after noon, when the Cat  had been brought close to the wall, and the Mantlet  was in its accustomed place, some fifty yards distant, the Turks made an attack on both at the same moment of time. On to the Cat  they dropped a heavy beam; and when this with its weight had broken in the roof, or I should rather say the back of the Cat, a great quantity of brushwood, and after the brushwood a whole pailful of Greek fire—the machine was over near to the wall, so that these things could be dropped on it from above. At the Mantlet  they aimed bolts from a strong engine which they had newly put in place, and by ill luck broke it through. And verily before the nimblest-tongued priest in the whole realm of England could say a hunting-mass, both were in a blaze."

What the man might mean by the priest and the hunting-mass I knew not then, but heard after, that when a noble will go forth hunting, [154] the service which they call the mass is shortened to the utmost, and the priest that can say it more speedily than his brethren is best esteemed.

"And my brother of France," cried the King, "how fared he?" "He had as narrow an escape with his life," answered the knight, "as ever had Christian king. His mantle, nay his very hair was singed, and as for his cross-bow, he was constrained to leave it behind." "And he gave commands for the assault in his anger?" said the King. "'Tis even so," answered Sir Hugh. "Haply the night will bring counsel," said King Richard, and laughed a little, for he believed in his heart that his brother of France had more craft than courage.

Nevertheless King Philip was as good as his word, for that by sunrise on the day following the Christian army was ready to make the attack. It was divided into two parts, of which the one was set to guard the trenches and the siege works, for it was the custom of the Turks both to defend themselves and to attack their adversaries at the same time, and the other was to win its way into the town, whether by undermining the walls or by climbing over them at those places where breaches had been made. At the trenches [155] there was as fierce a fight as ever has been seen on this earth. 'Tis not so often as one who is strange to such matters might imagine that enemies meet man to man in actual conflict. Many times the one line or the other is broken by a discharge of arrows or stones, or gives way because it has not such confidence in its own strength as will make it hold its place. But on this day when the French king sought to take the town of Acre 'twas a close fight from beginning to end. The Turks came on with swords, daggers, battle-axes, and clubs set with iron spikes. There was not a man among them that carried a bow; they were bent one and all on coming to close quarters with their adversaries. Of a truth these Turks, though I love them not, are as valiant fighters as a man may see in any nation under the sun. But for all their valour they had no advantage that day in this battle at the trenches. They were more open to blows, the Christians having a shelter of some sort, especially such as had charge of the siege works. In the end, after some three hours of fighting, they retreated, but without haste or disorder, nor did their adversaries care to pursue them. But the other part of the besiegers did not [156] fare so well. They approached, indeed, close to the walls, though not a few fell by the way, pierced by arrows from the archers on the walls, or struck down by bolts and stones from the artillery; but scale them they could not. And the breaches when they were seen near at hand did not appear—so one that was foremost in the assault told me afterwards—so easy of access as they had seemed to be from a distance. The likeliest place for an assault was where the French king's men had come up to the walls by a passage that they had dug under the ground, and had hollowed out under the wall itself a pit which they filled with brushwood. To this brushwood they set fire, burning the timbers by which the walls were held up. It was not wholly of stone, but was made in parts of clay and rubbish enclosed in a framework of timber. The framework burnt, the earth fell, it is true, in heaps; but these same heaps were lofty and needed much art in climbing. So steep were they for the most part that even here ladders were needed as if for the scaling of an upright wall. So far as I could hear, one man only of all that were in the assault mounted to the top. This was one Alberic, who was marshal to the French king. He, seeing that his countrymen held back [157] somewhat, a thing not to be wondered at seeing how hot an affair it was, cried with a loud voice, "To-day I will either die, or, God willing, will enter Acre." So saying, he climbed by a ladder to the top of the wall, but no man followed him, as surely some might have done. (It was commonly said in the camp that the Count Albert of Montserrat who was with him held back at the last moment.) Be that as it may, it is certain that he stood alone, and that having slain many Turks, he fell covered with wounds.

It must not be forgotten that a scaling-ladder was broken by the weight of the men that were crowded upon it, who, but for this chance, might have won their way to the top of the wall and, maybe, into the town itself. But I have noted, having had much experience in such matters, that such mischances either do not befall the very bravest soldiers, or, befalling them, are retrieved in some way or other. And here it must be told that King Philip or his chief counsellors, for jealousy of the English, did not suffer them to take a chief part in the assault. Now the English, I hold, having seen them many times, have a certain stubborn valour that is not to be matched elsewhere. 'Tis said by [158] their enemies that they are of so slow a wit that they do not perceive when they are beaten, and still hold their ground when, according to all reason, they ought to retreat. This slowness of wit is, in my judgment, often profitable in war, for I have seen it more than once change defeat into victory. As to King Richard, when he heard of the things that came to pass—he slept late that morning, and knew not of the assault till it was over—he said, "My brother of France is, methinks, too greedy of gain and glory; if he had been willing to ask our help, he had done better." He sorrowed for the brave men, fellow-soldiers of the Cross with him, who had fallen to no purpose. Nevertheless, in his secret heart, he was not ill-pleased that the French king had not taken the town of Acre.

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