Crusaders - Alfred J. Church

The Last Crusade

Of my many wanderings some have had such causes as are common among men. I have gone to this place or that in the course of my profession or trade, such as I chanced to be following at the time; or I have discharged some errand that was given to me; or I have been taken—for such a thing has happened to me—against my will. But now and again I have been driven forth, so to speak, from my abode by sheer restlessness of heart. Thus it was, I take it, that some seventeen years after the things last recorded, I took a journey to the island of Sardinia, which place lies some hundreds of miles farther to the west than any that I had visited so far. I found it to be a somewhat rude or even barbarous place, much afflicted with fevers and other diseases, so that I did not want for employment in my old trade of physician.

I took up my abode at a town on the west coast, that bears the name of Neapolis. When I had sojourned there two months there came in sight on a certain day a great fleet of ships, which those who were acquainted with such things declared to be from the land of France. Now Neapolis has an indifferently good harbour, for which, as was manifest, the fleet was bound. It could be seen, so soon as the ships came near enough for such things to be discerned, that each carried a flag bearing a cross. Thereupon I thought to myself, not without some wonderment, "Is there to be yet another Crusade?" Rumours of such a thing had come eastward from time to time, but they had ended in nothing, and it was hard to believe that such a thing could be.

An hour or so after noon the fleet came into harbour, or, I should rather say, so much of it as could be received, for there were near upon a thousand ships, big and little. The rest were anchored or made fast as could best be managed. As for the crowd that came ashore that day, it were best to say little. I have said before that they who wore the cross on their shoulders or their shields did not always bear it in their hearts. Methinks these cross-bearers were the most turbulent, ill-mannered, not to speak of worse things, that I have ever beheld since the days of King Godfrey. But of this enough; who am I, to censure my fellow-sinners? It is more to the purpose to say that I met with one whom I knew, having consorted with him in time past, and this the more constantly because he followed the same occupation as did I.

When we had talked awhile, I asked him this question, "How came you hither? Is there any need that you may supply that you put into the harbour of Neapolis? If you are bound for Palestine, this is but a short stage in your journey." He answered me with something of a smile in his eye, though his mouth was set, "Where could we more conveniently halt than here, for we are bound for Tunis?" "For Tunis?" said I; "but how shall this help you for the taking of Jerusalem?" "That," said he, "you must ask of some one that has more wisdom than I. But this I know, that the King was told, by whom I know not, that the Bey of Tunis desired to be baptized. This, then, is cause sufficient for him. As for them that follow him, who knows? It is commonly reported that Tunis is a very wealthy city, and the report may well be true, for have not the rovers therefrom plundered the coasts of the Inland Sea for many generations? But let these things be. As they say in this land, he who lives will see. Are you minded to come with me? If so, I can find you a place in the King's ship, for it is in that I sail."

When I heard that, I consented without delay, for though I had heard much of King Louis, I had never seen him. So that night I gave my friend the shelter of my lodging; and the next day he took me with him, and commended me to one of the chief officers of the ship, bearing witness to my skill as a physician. On the fourth day we sailed, and came in two days, the wind blowing from the north, to the harbour of Tunis. As for the King, I saw him but once. His valets carried him up on the deck; and to tell the truth, he looked as little fit for doing feats of arms as man could look. But I thought that the sickness which takes many men upon the sea might be the cause. If the King looked for a friendly message from the Bey of Tunis, he was greatly baulked of his hope. The inhabitants did not seek to hinder us from landing, but neither did they make any show of friendship. On the contrary, the city seemed like to one prepared for a siege, with sentinels walking to and fro on the walls, and engines ready for the casting of bolts and stones, and the gates fast closed.

And now there is little more to tell. Scarce had the army landed than there began a most grievous sickness. In truth the place for the camp had been ill chosen, for there was a little stream into which much of the filth of the city was wont to run. From this there came a most evil smell. Many also, for want of good water, would drink of the stream, than which there could be no more deadly thing.

On the very day after he landed from his ship the King fell sick. His physician being disabled by the same malady, I was called in to the King's help; and from the first I saw that, save by a miracle, he could not live. On the fourth day he died, making as good and devout an end as any that I have ever seen. He would know the truth, for he was not one of those who buoy themselves up with false hopes. And when he knew it, then first with the help of the priests that attended him he prepared his soul, and afterwards he gave what time remained to teaching the son who should be king after him how he should best do his duty to God and man.

I heard much from him who had put it in my mind to come from the island of Sardinia concerning King Louis. Never, he told me, was a king more bent on doing justice and judgment. These he maintained with his whole heart and strength, not having any respect of persons, or having regard to his own profit. Though he held bishops and priests in great reverence, being most careful of all the offices of religion, yet he would withstand even these when they seemed to seek that which was not fair and just. He was a lover of peace far beyond the wont of kings, who indeed, for the most part, care but little for it, so that men say in a proverb, "War is the game of kings." Of the poor he was a great and constant favourer. Every day he had a multitude of them fed at his cost in his palace, and sometimes he would serve them himself, and it was his custom on a certain day to wash the feet of poor men. In his eating and drinking he was as temperate as man could be, drinking, for example, but one cup of wine, and that largely mingled with water. In all things wherein great men ofttimes offend he was wholly blameless and beyond reproach. Of all men that I had any knowledge of, whether by sight or by hearing, in this business of the Crusades there was not one who could be so much as named in comparison with King Louis, save King Godfrey only. And between these two there was this difference: King Godfrey was one who put religion among the duties of his life, and gave it its proper share, as he conceived of that share, and was careful not to depart from it. But to King Louis religion was as life itself. It filled, as it were, his whole soul; he judged of all things by it; he hungered and thirsted after it.

And yet of all who bore this cross this man, being, as he was, so much the most faithful to his vow, by far the truest cross-bearer of all, yet failed the most utterly. Of such things I have not the wit to judge; yet this, methinks, is manifest, that the Kingdom of God is not set forward by the power of armies. I do believe that if King Louis, being what he was, a man after God's own heart, had come, not with the sword, but preaching the truth by his life, he had done more for the cause that he had at heart. As it was, he furthered it not at all, so far as I can discern, but rather set it back. That he did not gain for Christendom so much as a single foot of earth is not so much to be lamented, as that he made wider the breach between Christian men and the followers of Mahomet. And this he did, though he was in very truth the most Christ-like of all the men that I have ever seen.