Red Eve by H. Rider Haggard

“Yes,” he answered, “one of my rowers tells me that they have towed her to an island out at sea, since the stench from her holds was more than could be borne. But how did you know that she lay at this particular quay, Sir Hugh?”

“I thought you said so,” he answered carelessly, adding, to change the subject: “Look, our fray will not lack for spectators,” and he pointed to the thousands who were already gathered upon the great tilting-ground.

“No, no, all Venice will be there, for these people love a show, especially if there be death in it.”

“Mayhap they will see more of him than they wish before all is done,” muttered Grey Dick, pausing from the task of whetting his axe’s edge with a little stone which he carried in his pouch. Then he replaced the axe in its hanger, and, drawing Hugh’s sword from its sheath, began to give some final touches to its razor edge, saying: “Father Sir Andrew Arnold blessed it, which should be enough, but Milan steel is hard and his old battle blade will bite none the worse for an extra sharpening. Go for his throat, master, go for his throat, the mail is always thinnest there.”

“God above us, what a grim man!” exclaimed Sir Geoffrey, and so thought all in that boat and in those around them. At least they looked at Dick askance as he whetted and whetted, and then, plucking out one of the pale hairs from his head, drew it along the edge of the steel, which severed it in twain.

“There! That’ll do,” said Grey Dick cheerfully, as he returned the long sword to its sheath, “and God help this Cattrina, say I, for he comes to his last battle. That is, unless he runs away,” he added after reflection.

Now they landed and were received by heralds blowing trumpets, and conducted through a great multitude of people with much pomp and ceremony to a pavilion which had been pitched for them, where they must arm and make ready.

This then they did, helped or hindered by bowing squires whose language they could not understand.

At length, when it lacked but a quarter to the hour of nine, David Day led Hugh’s horse into the wide entrance of the pavilion, where they examined its armour, bridle, selle and trappings.

“The beast sweats already,” said Hugh, “and so do I, who, to tell truth, dread this heat more than Cattrina’s sword. Pray that they get to the business quickly, or I shall melt like butter on a hot plate.”

Then his lance was given to him, a lance that was sharp and strong. When that had been tested by them both, Hugh mounted the grey and at the agreed signal of a single blast upon a trumpet, walked it slowly from the pavilion, Dick going at his side on foot.

At their coming a shout went up from the assembled thousands, for in truth it seemed, as Sir Geoffrey had said, as though all the folk in Venice were gathered on that place. When they had finished shouting the people began to criticise, finding much in the appearance of this pair that moved their ready wit. Indeed there was little show about them, for Hugh’s plain armour, which lacked all ornament or inlay, was worn with war and travel, and his horse came along as soberly as if it were going out to plough. Nor was there anything fine about the apparel of Grey Dick, who wore a loose chain shirt much out of fashion—it was that which Sir Andrew had given to Hugh—an iron cap with pear-pieces, and leather buskins on his legs. In his hand was his axe, heavy but not over large; at his side hung a great knife, and on his back was the long black bow and a quiver of arrows.

Thus arrayed, taking no heed of the jests and chatter of the multitude, they were led to the front of the bedecked timber stand which they had seen on the previous night. In the centre of this stand, occupying a kind of tribune, sat the Doge Dandolo in state, and with him many nobles and captains, while to right and left the whole length of the course, for the stand was very long, were packed a countless number of the best-born men and women in Venice. These, however, were but a tithe of the spectators, who encircled the Place of Arms in one serried horde which was kept back by a line of soldiers.

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Categories: Haggard, H. Rider