Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“Who follow us so fast?” asked Hugh.

“Thieves, I think,” answered David, even more nervously than before, adding, “but if so, we are safe from them here.”

“Yes, sure enough,” said Grey Dick, “for I can shoot by moonlight,” and, drawing the black bow from its case, which he threw to the lad to carry, he strung it, after which they saw no more of their pursuers.

Having waited a while, they began to examine the spot where they found themselves, which Day told them was that Place of Arms where they must fight on the morrow. It was large and level, having been used as a drilling ground for generations. Perhaps it measured four hundred yards square, and almost in the centre of it rose a stand of painted timber roofed with canvas, and ornamented with gilded flagstaffs, from which hung banners. On this stand, David said, the Doge and nobles would take their seats to see the fray, for in front of it the charging knights must meet.

They walked up and down the course taking note of everything, and especially of how the sun would shine upon them and the foothold of the soil, which appeared to be formed of fine, trodden sand.

“I ask no better ground to fight on,” said Hugh at length, “though it is strange to think,” he added with a sigh, “that here within a dozen hours or so two men must bid the world farewell.”

“Ay,” answered Dick, who alone seemed untouched by the melancholy of that night. “Here will die the knave with three names and the big fool of a half-bred Swiss, and descend to greet their ancestors in a place that is even hotter than this Venice, with but a sorry tale to tell them. By St. George! I wish it were nine of the clock to-morrow.”

“Brag not, Dick,” said Hugh with a sad smile, “for war is an uncertain game, and who knows which of us will be talking with his ancestors and praying the mercy of his Maker by this time to-morrow night?”

Then, having learned all they could, they walked across the ground to the quay that bordered it on the seaward side. Here, as they guessed from the stone pillars to which ships were made fast, was one of the harbours of Venice, although as it happened none lay at that quay this night. Yet, as they looked they saw one coming in, watched curiously by groups of men gathered on the wall.

“Never knew I vessel make harbour in such a fashion,” exclaimed Dick presently. “See! she sails stern first.”

Hugh studied her and saw that she was a great, decked galley of many oars, such as the Venetians used in trading to the East, high-bowed and pooped. But the strange thing was that none worked these oars, which, although they were lashed, swung to and fro aimlessly, some yet whole and some with their blades broken off and their shafts bundles of jagged splinters. Certain sails were still set on the ship’s mast, in tatters for the most part, though a few remained sound, and it was by these that she moved, for with the moonrise a faint wind had sprung up. Lastly, she showed no light at peak or poop, and no sound of officer’s command or of boatswain’s whistle came from her deck. Only slowly and yet as though of set purpose she drifted in toward the quay.

Those who watched her, sailors such as ever linger about harbours seeking their bread from the waters, though among these were mingled people from the town who had come to this open place to escape the heat, began to talk together affrightedly, but always in the dread whisper that was the voice of this fearful night. Yes, even the hoarse-throated sailormen whispered like a dying woman.

“She’s no ship,” said one, “she’s the wraith of a ship. When I was a lad I saw such a craft in the Indian seas, and afterward we foundered, and I and the cook’s mate alone were saved.”

“Pshaw!” answered another, “she’s a ship right enough. Look at the weed and barnacles on her sides when she heaves. Only where in Christ’s name are her crew?”

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider