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Full Online Book HomeShort StoriesWilliam The Atheling; Or, The Wreck Of The "white Ship"
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William The Atheling; Or, The Wreck Of The 'white Ship' Post by :musashi Category :Short Stories Author :Talbot Baines Reed Date :May 2011 Read :3246

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William The Atheling; Or, The Wreck Of The "white Ship"

The eager crowd thronged the little Norman seaport of Barfleur. Knights in armour, gay ladies and merry children mingled in the narrow streets which led down to the bustling harbour, in which lay at anchor a gay fleet of ships, decked with pennons and all the marks of festivity and rejoicing. One man's name was on every lip, and in expectation of that man's arrival this brave company lined the seashore and its approaches. Presently was heard a distant trumpet note, and then a clatter of many horses.

"He comes!" shouted the crowd. "Long live our Duke Henry!" And at the shout there appeared the royal troop, with King Henry of England at its head, followed by his sons and daughter and nobles, amid the plaudits of the loyal crowd.

"All bids fair," said the king to one who was near him, as he rode slowly towards the harbour; "the sea is calm and the wind is propitious; an emblem of the happy peace we have concluded with France, and the prosperous years that he before us."

"Long live Henry of England!" shouted the crowd again. With that the troop reached the sunny harbour.

Here ensued all the bustle and confusion of an embarkation. Baggage and horses and armour were transferred speedily from the shore to shipboard. Henry himself inspected the vessel which was to convey him and his household across the sea, while the loyal Norman crowd pressed round, eager to bid their liege good speed on his voyage.

The afternoon was advancing, and the order had already been given to embark, when, through the crowd which thronged King Henry, there struggled forward a man dressed in sailor guise, who advanced and fell on one knee before his sovereign.

"My liege," said he, "a boon for me!"

"Who art thou?" inquired the king.

"My lord duke, Stephen, my father, served thy father, William of Normandy, all his life. He it was who steered the vessel which carried the duke to the conquest of England. Permit me, my lord, a like honour. See where my `White Ship' waits to receive her captain's noble sovereign."

Henry looked in the direction pointed, and saw the gallant vessel, gleaming like silver with its white poop and oars and sails in the sun; surely as fair a ship as ever crossed the sea.

"Brave son of a brave father," replied the king, "but that my word has been given, and my baggage is already embarked on another's vessel, thy request should not have been in vain. But, to show that I hold thy father's son worthy of his name, see, I entrust to thee my son William, heir to my throne, in all confidence that thou wilt conduct him safely over. Let him go with thee, while I myself do set sail in the vessel I had chosen."

Fitz-Stephen bowed low, and the young Prince William, a lad of eighteen years, stepped forward gaily towards him, and cried--

"Come, comrade! thou shalt find a king's son as good company as his father. In token of which, bid thy brave men feast at my charge with as much to eat and drink as they have a fancy to. Then, when that is done, we will start on our merry voyage."

Almost immediately afterwards King Henry embarked, leaving the Prince William, and two other of his children, Richard and Adela, to follow that same night in the "White Ship."

"Farewell, my father!" shouted the young prince, as the oars of the king's vessel struck the water; "perchance I shall be on the farther side before thee!"

So the king started.

It was late before the merrymakers on board the "White Ship" set their faces seaward. The prince himself had honoured the feast, and bidden every man to fill his cup and drink deep and long. So when about midnight they addressed themselves to the voyage, the rowers splashed wildly with their oars, and the crew pulled at the ropes with unsteady hands.

Far across the calm waters might have been heard the song and the laughter of the two hundred voyagers. In a few hours, thought they, we shall be across, and then will we renew our feast in England.

"Fitz-Stephen!" cried the prince, flushed with wine himself, and in a tone of excitement--"Fitz-Stephen, how far say you is my father's ship before ours?"

"Five leagues," replied the sailor, "or more."

"Then may we not overtake him before the night is past? You know this coast; can we not steer closer in, and so gain on them?"

"My lord," said Fitz-Stephen, "there are many sunken rocks on this coast, which the mariner always avoids by keeping out to sea."

"Talk not to me of rocks on a night when the sea is calm and the wind so gentle it scarce fills the sails, and the moon so clear we can see a mile before us! What say you, my men? Shall we overtake the king? Fitz-Stephen," he added, "thou earnest a king's son to-night. If thou and thy men can set me on English ground before my father, I will never sail more, as long as I live, save in thy ship."

The sailor yielded, and turned his helm nearer to the coast, and the crew, clamouring loudly with excitement, pulled wildly at the oars, while the prince and the nobles, with song and laughter, made the quiet night to resound. So they went for two hours. Then the prince's sister Adela, Countess of Perche, stepped up to him timidly, and said--

"My brother, what sound is that, like the roar of distant thunder?"

"It is nothing, my sister; go down again and sleep."

"It sounds like the breaking of wares on the rocks."

"How can that be, when the sea is scarcely ruffled?"

"I fear me we run a risk, sailing so close to shore," said the maiden. "I myself heard Fitz-Stephen say that the currents ran strong along this coast of Normandy."

"Be easy, sister; no danger can befall a night like this."

Louder and louder rose the shouting and the revelry. The rowers sang as they rowed. And the knights and nobles, who made merry always when the prince made merry, sang too.

But all the while the maiden, as she lay, heard the roar of the breakers sound nearer and nearer, and was ill at ease, fearing some evil.

"Now, my merry men," shouted the prince, "row hard, for the night is getting on!"

Fitz-Stephen at that instant uttered an exclamation of horror, and wildly flung round his helm. There was a sudden roar ahead, and a gleam of long lines of broken water.

"Pull for your lives!" shouted the captain, "or we shall be on the Ras de Catte!"

It was too late. The treacherous current swept them on to the reef. There was a sudden tossing of the "White Ship," then a great shock as she struck--then a cry of terror from two hundred lips.

King Henry in his vessel, three leagues away, heard that sudden awful cry across the still waters. But little guessed he that it was the death cry of his own beloved children.

Every man on board the "White Ship" was startled by that shock into instant sobriety. The brave Fitz-Stephen left the now useless helm, and rushed to where the prince, entrusted to his care, was clinging to the mast of the fast-filling vessel. With his own hand he cut loose the small boat which she carried, and by sheer force placed William in it, and a few of the crew.

"Row for the shore!" he shouted to the men, waving his hand; "lose not a moment!"

William, stupefied and bewildered, sat motionless and speechless.

The men had already dipped their oars, and the frail boat was already clear of the sinking vessel, when there fell on the prince's ear the piercing shriek of a girl.

Looking behind him, he saw his poor sister clinging to the deck of the doomed ship, and stretching a hand appealingly in the direction of his boat.

In an instant his senses returned to him.

"Put back, men!" he cried, frantically.

"It is certain death!" cried one of the crew.

"Must William the Atheling order a thing twice?" thundered the prince, in a tone so terrible, that the men immediately turned and made for the wreck.

"My sister!" shouted William, as they came under the spot where Adela clung; "throw yourself into my arms!"

She did so; but, alas! at the same moment, fifty more, in the desperation of terror, jumped too, and the little boat, with all that were in her, turned over, and was seen no more.

Then the waters poured over the "White Ship," and with a great plunge that gallant vessel went down.

With her went down all the souls she carried save three. One of these was the brave Fitz-Stephen. Rising to the surface, he saw the two others clinging to a spar. Eagerly he swam towards them.

"Is the prince saved?" he asked.

"We have seen nothing of him," replied they.

"Then woe is me!" exclaimed he, as he turned in the water and sank beneath it.

Of the other two, one only, a butcher, survived to carry the dreadful news to England.

For many days, Henry, impatient for his son's arrival, waited in ignorance of his sad fate.

Then went to him a little child, who, instructed what to say, told him in his own artless way the whole story; and King Henry the First, so they say, after he had heard it, was never seen to smile again.


(The end)
Talbot Baines Reed's short story: William The Atheling; Or, The Wreck Of The "White Ship"

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