A lonely night with cold, wet and hunger–John falls over a goat and
is heartened–A friendly ship and rescue–John sails with Captain La
Roche in the Britaine–Learns how to navigate a ship and handle big
guns–La Roche cruises in search of adventure–Falls in with a Venetian
argosy–The Venetian fires a shot and draws blood–A fierce fight in
which the Britaine is finally victorious–John is landed in Piedmont
with a fat purse–He journeys to Gratz and secures an introduction
to the leaders in the Archduke’s army–Gives an exhibition of superb
horsemanship and is appointed ensign in the regiment of Earl Meldritch.
Cold and hungry, wet and weary, John spent what seemed to him to be an
endless night, pacing about to keep his blood in circulation. He dared
not sleep, for that would be to court death, and so he could find no
relief from his gloomy thoughts in the pitchy darkness. Here he was on
an unoccupied island and here he might remain until starvation–but
no, he would not believe that Dame Fortune, who had so often displayed
a kindly disposition towards him, proposed to desert him in this
“My faith!” said John, speaking aloud to hearten himself, whilst
he drew his waistband tighter. “If the good dame knows aught of the
craving of my stomach she will surely hasten her ministrations. Would
I had saved my shoes or e’en my swordbelt! Leather, though not o’er
palatable I ween, will, so I have read, keep life in one’s body for
a spell but one can scarce eat fustian.” Here John’s soliloquy was
suddenly interrupted as he tripped over an object lying in his path.
As he lay upon the ground he heard some animal scampering away in the
darkness. “A goat!” said John, when he had recovered from his surprise.
“Where there is one goat, there are two. And where there are two goats,
there is a she-goat. And where there is a she-goat, there is milk. My
lady,” he continued, rising and making a low bow, “your humble servant
will do himself the honor of calling upon you as soon as decency and
This incident cheered our hero as it relieved his mind of the chief
anxiety that beset it. He had no wish to shirk the accidents and
hardships of life; in fact, he rather enjoyed them, but the thought of
death is naturally repugnant to a robust youth and especially to one
full of ambition and love of action. He was always of a philosophic
turn of mind, and as he reflected on the recent incident the
significance of it caused him to smile.
“In the direst straits,” he thought, “the remedy is at our hand if we
will but find it, though it be by falling over it. What babes we be!
We cry though the pitcher but rock and we cry when the milk is spilt.
Many a man dons mail when swaddling clothes would better befit him.”
With the first streak of dawn, John, now ravenously hungry, began to
look around for the she-goat which he felt confident of finding with
many companions on the islet. He had pursued this quest but a few
minutes when his heart was delighted by the sight of a ship lying
at anchor near this refuge. It had taken shelter behind the island
from the storm of the day before and was now making preparations for
departure, as John could see from where he stood. He hastened down
to the water’s edge and shouted lustily. The wind was fortunately
favorable and at length he attracted the attention of the people on
board. A boat was lowered and our hero, with scarce strength enough
to stand, soon found himself on the deck of a French merchantman. The
master, perceiving his condition, had him taken below, where he was
fed, dressed in dry clothes and left to sleep.
[Illustration: HE HASTENED DOWN TO THE WATER’S EDGE AND SHOUTED LUSTILY]
When John awoke, refreshed after a long rest, the vessel was scudding
along under a brisk breeze and the setting sun proclaimed the close
of another day. Our hero went on deck, blithe and eager for what new
adventures the strange whirligig of life might have in store for him.
The captain, after the fashion of seamen, extended a hearty greeting
and invited John to sup with him. Over the meal the young Englishman
told his story. At its conclusion, Captain La Roche, for such was his
name, rose and shook his guest warmly by the hand.
“Fortune has thrown you in my way,” said the captain, with a genial
smile. “I am from St. Malo and Count Ployer is my dear friend and
patron. For his sake I would do much for you, if your story and bearing
had not drawn me to yourself. You shall be put ashore this night if
that be your wish, but it would please me greatly should you decide
to continue on the voyage with me. I am bound for Alexandria and
thereafter may seek some profitable adventure. In the space of a few
months I shall land you somewhere in Italy–with a fat purse, and I
mistake not. What say you?”
John had always felt a strong desire for the life of the sea, and
in those days the complete soldier was more than half a sailor. The
experience would be profitable and, in any case, the proposition seemed
to hold out a better prospect of eventually reaching Hungary than by
starting penniless to walk across the Continent. Besides, if the truth
be told, John’s recent term of tramping had more than satisfied him
with that mode of travel for awhile. He accepted Captain La Roche’s
offer without hesitation.
La Roche was the owner, as well as the master, of his vessel, which
he called the _Britaine_, in honor of his native province. It was a
heavily armed ship of two hundred tons burden, carrying a crew of
sixty men. Such a number were not of course needed to manage a ship of
that size. The excuse for their presence was found in the prevalence
of piracy but, as we shall see, their duties were not entirely of a
defensive character. The truth of the matter is that La Roche, like
many another reputable ship-captain of his time, was himself more
than half a pirate. His vessel was a combination of merchantman and
privateer with authority to attack the ships of nations at war with his
country. The condition was very laxly observed, however, and might,
more often than political considerations, governed in such matters.
When the relations of the powers to one another were constantly
changing and a voyage frequently occupied a year, a captain’s safest
course was to treat every foreign sail as an enemy and either to
attack it or to run from it. With a valuable cargo such as La Roche
had on this occasion, the master of a vessel would generally try to
make a peaceful voyage to the port of destination. If a similar cargo
could not be secured for the return voyage, he would try to compensate
himself for the failure by taking a prize.
The voyage to Alexandria was completed without incident of importance.
John improved the opportunity to learn all that he could about
seamanship and the handling of big guns. Before the vessel made port
Captain La Roche pronounced his pupil a very creditable mariner and
almost capable of sailing the ship himself. Having discharged his
cargo, the captain proceeded to the Ionian Sea for the purpose, as he
said, of learning “what ships were in the road,” or, in other words, to
see if there was anything about upon which he could prey.
A few days had been spent in this quest, when a large Venetian argosy
was sighted in the straits of Otranto. Now the Venetians, sinking all
other considerations than those of greed and self-interest, had entered
into a treaty with the Turks. In this fact Captain La Roche might have
found sufficient excuse for attacking the richly laden ship, but a
better was forthcoming. It was one of those great unwieldy craft in
which the merchants of Venice sent cargoes of fabulous worth to all
parts of the world. Its size was more than twice that of the _Britaine_
and its armament at least equal to hers. The latter, however, had all
the advantage in speed and ability to manœuvre–a highly important
quality, as the Spaniards had learnt a few years previously when their
great Armada was destroyed by the comparatively small English ships.
The Venetian, seeing the _Britaine_ lying in his path and realizing
that he would have little chance in flight, endeavored to frighten the
other off with a shot. As luck would have it, the ball took off the
head of a seaman on the deck of the French vessel. This furnished La
Roche with an ample pretext for attacking the argosy. Running across
her bow, he raked her fore and aft, in passing, with his starboard
guns. Putting about, he returned under her stern, but as the high poop
afforded an effective bulwark, less damage was done by his fire. The
Venetian’s mast and rigging were now too badly damaged to permit of
her sailing and the Frenchman, who had so far escaped hurt, determined
to board. He brought his vessel alongside the other and made fast with
the grappling irons. The Venetian had a larger crew than her enemy and
they repulsed the attack of the Frenchmen with determination. Twice the
boarders succeeded in gaining the deck of the larger vessel and each
time they were beaten back after a furious hand to hand combat. Captain
La Roche, with John by his side, led the second of these assaults.
They were the first on the deck, and shoulder to shoulder fought their
way towards the poop where the commander of the argosy stood. They had
almost reached the spot, when La Roche glancing back, saw that they
were cut off from his men, who were retreating to their own vessel. To
return was out of the question. The only hope lay in breaking through
the men who stood between them and the farther side of the ship.
“It is overboard with us lad, if we would not be taken prisoners,” he
cried. “_Gare de là! Gare de devant!_”
The seamen fell back before the fierce charge of the two men whose
swords whistled through the air in sweeping strokes. In less time
than it takes to tell, they had reached the side and had plunged into
the sea. Swimming round the stern of the Venetian, they came upon the
_Britaine_, which had cast off and was preparing to sail away with the
idea that the captain had been killed.
As soon as he regained the deck of his vessel, Captain La Roche
ordered the guns to be reshotted. When this had been done he poured
two broadsides into the argosy with such effect that she was on the
verge of sinking. Once more the Frenchman ranged alongside and sent his
boarders to the attack. This time they met with little resistance, for
half the crew of the injured vessel were engaged in stopping the holes
in her side. The fight had lasted for an hour and a half and when the
Venetian surrendered, twenty of her men lay dead upon the deck and as
many more were wounded. On his side Captain La Roche had lost fifteen
of his crew and eight were incapacitated by sword cuts.
La Roche could not spare a prize crew to man the argosy even had he
been willing to face the enquiry that must have followed taking her
into port. Therefore he first secured his prisoners and then proceeded
to transfer as much as possible of the cargo of the Venetian to his own
ship. This task occupied twenty-four hours, and when the _Britaine_
had been filled, there remained upon her prize at least as much as
had been taken out of her. With this handsome remainder the Frenchman
abandoned her and her crew to their fate, which was probably to be
rifled by the very next ship that chanced along. The spoils consisted
of silks, velvets, and other rich stuffs, jewels, works of art, and
a considerable quantity of money. John’s share of the prize amounted
to five hundred sequins and a box of jewels, in all worth about
twenty-five hundred dollars–a much larger sum in those days than in
these. Shortly after this affair Captain La Roche landed our hero in
Piedmont, with “a fat purse” as he had promised.
John had now accomplished one more step in his project of engaging in
the campaign against the Turks and was at last within easy distance of
his goal. Had he been of a mercenary disposition his experience with
Captain La Roche might have induced him to attach himself permanently
to the person of that gallant sailor, but during all his life John
Smith displayed a disregard for money, except in so far as it was
necessary to the attainment of some important end. Therefore it was
with no reluctance that he turned his back on the sea and set forward
for Gratz where the Archduke maintained his headquarters. On the way he
had the opportunity to see many Italian cities and passed through Rome,
but he did not linger unnecessarily on the road.
At Gratz John had the good fortune to fall in with a countryman who
enjoyed some acquaintance with the leaders in the Christian army.
This gentleman presented the young adventurer to Lord Ebersberg,
Baron Kissel, the Earl of Meldritch and other generals attached to
the Imperial forces. These officers were attracted by the young man’s
soldierly bearing and impressed by the persistent manner in which he
had pursued his project and the pains he had been at to reach the
seat of war. They were, however, very busy with preparations for the
campaign and would likely enough have forgotten so humble an individual
as John Smith but for a fortunate incident that, although trivial in
itself, had an important influence upon our hero’s future career.
One day as he was passing by a large mansion on the outskirts of the
city, John was attracted to a crowd which had gathered round two
footmen who were with difficulty holding a plunging horse. It was
a magnificent Barbary steed with coal black silky coat, but it was
apparent at a glance that the animal had not been broken in, if,
indeed, it had ever had a saddle upon its back. John had hardly reached
the spot when the Earl of Meldritch and a companion came out of the
house and approached. The Earl displayed annoyance when he saw the
wild creature plunging and lashing out with its hind feet. He had, it
appeared from his remarks, bought the beast without seeing it and was
thoroughly disgusted with his bargain.
“It is a fit charger for Beelzebub, if, indeed, it be not the fiend
incarnate,” he cried. “I would not trust myself upon the back of such a
beast for all the wealth of the Indies.”
Hearing this John stepped up to the nobleman and said with a respectful
“If it please your lordship, I should like well to try conclusions with
“You would ride it!” cried the Earl in amazement.
“With your lordship’s consent I would essay to do as much,” replied
Permission having been granted, a saddle was sent for. In the meantime
our hero stroked the horse’s head as well as he could for its prancing,
whilst he spoke to it in a low caressing tone of voice. The animal
seemed to yield somewhat to the influence of this treatment, for it
grew quieter, but the saddle was not put on without great difficulty.
John sprang into the seat, at the same time ordering the grooms to let
go. Immediately the horse began to act as though possessed. It stood
upright upon its hind feet. It tried to stand upon its head. It leapt
here and there. It spun around like a cockchafer on a pin. It darted
forward and suddenly stopped. In short, it tried all the tricks with
which a horse endeavors to throw its rider. But John had not learnt
riding from one of the best horsemen in England for nothing. He sat
his saddle easily through all the animal’s antics and when its fury
began to abate he urged it forward at full speed and dashed over the
neighboring plain and out of sight.
It was an hour later when John rode up to Earl Meldritch’s residence.
The nobleman came out to meet him and was surprised to see that he
managed the now-subdued steed without difficulty. He rode it back and
forth, made it turn this way and that, start and stop at will, and, in
fact, had it under almost perfect control. The Earl did not attempt
to disguise his admiration. On the contrary, he then and there made
our hero a present of the black charger and gave him an appointment as
ensign in his own regiment of cavalry.
John was now attached to the Imperial army in an honorable capacity,
and in the course of his duties he made the better acquaintance of
some of the higher officers. This was the case in particular with
Lord Ebersberg, who found that the young Englishman had made a study
of those branches of tactics in which he himself was most interested.
These two had many discussions and on one occasion John imparted to the
general some ideas of signalling which he had gathered from the pages
of Polybius. This particular conversation had an important bearing on
the issue of a great battle at a later date.