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The sea hawk, p.11
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.11

           Rafael Sabatini


  Sakr-el-Bahr, the hawk of the sea, the scourge of the Mediterranean andthe terror of Christian Spain, lay prone on the heights of Cape Spartel.

  Above him on the crest of the cliff ran the dark green line of theorange groves of Araish--the reputed Garden of the Hesperides of theancients, where the golden apples grew. A mile or so to eastward weredotted the huts and tents of a Bedouin encampment on the fertile emeraldpasture-land that spread away, as far as eye could range, towards Ceuta.Nearer, astride of a grey rock an almost naked goatherd, a lithebrown stripling with a cord of camel-hair about his shaven head,intermittently made melancholy and unmelodious sounds upon a reed pipe.From somewhere in the blue vault of heaven overhead came the joyoustrilling of a lark, from below the silken rustling of the tideless sea.

  Sakr-el-Bahr lay prone upon a cloak of woven camel-hair amid luxuriatingfern and samphire, on the very edge of the shelf of cliff to which hehad climbed. On either side of him squatted a negro from the Sus bothnaked of all save white loin-cloths, their muscular bodies glisteninglike ebony in the dazzling sunshine of mid-May. They wielded crude fansfashioned from the yellowing leaves of date palms, and their duty wasto wave these gently to and fro above their lord's head, to give him airand to drive off the flies.

  Sakr-el-Bahr was in the very prime of life, a man of a great lengthof body, with a deep Herculean torso and limbs that advertised a giantstrength. His hawk-nosed face ending in a black forked beard was of aswarthiness accentuated to exaggeration by the snowy white turban woundabout his brow. His eyes, by contrast, were singularly light. He woreover his white shirt a long green tunic of very light silk, woven alongits edges with arabesques in gold; a pair of loose calico breechesreached to his knees; his brown muscular calves were naked, and his feetwere shod in a pair of Moorish shoes of crimson leather, with up-curlingand very pointed toes. He had no weapons other than the heavy-bladedknife with a jewelled hilt that was thrust into his girdle of plaitedleather.

  A yard or two away on his left lay another supine figure, elbows on theground, and hands arched above his brow to shade his eyes, gazing out tosea. He, too, was a tall and powerful man, and when he moved there wasa glint of armour from the chain mail in which his body was cased,and from the steel casque about which he had swathed his green turban.Beside him lay an enormous curved scimitar in a sheath of brown leatherthat was heavy with steel ornaments. His face was handsome, and bearded,but swarthier far than his companion's, and the backs of his long finehands were almost black.

  Sakr-el-Bahr paid little heed to him. Lying there he looked down theslope, clad with stunted cork-trees and evergreen oaks; here and therewas the golden gleam of broom; yonder over a spur of whitish rocksprawled the green and living scarlet of a cactus. Below him about thecaves of Hercules was a space of sea whose clear depths shifted with itsslow movement from the deep green of emerald to all the colours ofthe opal. A little farther off behind a projecting screen of rock thatformed a little haven two enormous masted galleys, each of fifty oars,and a smaller galliot of thirty rode gently on the slight heave of thewater, the vast yellow oars standing out almost horizontally from thesides of each vessel like the pinions of some gigantic bird. That theylurked there either in concealment or in ambush was very plain. Abovethem circled a flock of seagulls noisy and insolent.

  Sakr-el-Bahr looked out to sea across the straits towards Tarifa and thefaint distant European coastline just visible through the limpid summerair. But his glance was not concerned with that hazy horizon; it went nofurther than a fine white-sailed ship that, close-hauled, was beatingup the straits some four miles off. A gentle breeze was blowing fromthe east, and with every foot of canvas spread to catch it she stood asclose to it as was possible. Nearer she came on her larboard tack,and not a doubt but her master would be scanning the hostile Africanlittoral for a sight of those desperate rovers who haunted it and whotook toll of every Christian ship that ventured over-near. Sakr-el-Bahrsmiled to think how little the presence of his galleys could besuspected, how innocent must look the sun-bathed shore of Africa to theChristian skipper's diligently searching spy-glass. And there from hisheight, like the hawk they had dubbed him, poised in the cobalt heavensto plumb down upon his prey, he watched the great white ship and waiteduntil she should come within striking distance.

  A promontory to eastward made something of a lee that reached out almosta mile from shore. From the watcher's eyrie the line of demarcation wassharply drawn; they could see the point at which the white crests of thewind-whipped wavelets ceased and the water became smoother. Did she butventure as far southward on her present tack, she would be slow to goabout again, and that should be their opportunity. And all unconsciousof the lurking peril she held steadily to her course, until not half amile remained between her and that inauspicious lee.

  Excitement stirred the mail-clad corsair; he kicked his heels in theair, then swung round to the impassive and watchful Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "She will come! She will come!" he cried in the Frankish jargon--thelingua franca of the African littoral.

  "Insh' Allah!" was the laconic answer--"If God will."

  A tense silence fell between them again as the ship drew nearer so thatnow with each forward heave of her they caught a glint of thewhite belly under her black hull. Sakr-el-Bahr shaded his eyes,and concentrated his vision upon the square ensign flying from, hermainmast. He could make out not only the red and yellow quarterings, butthe devices of the castle and the lion.

  "A Spanish ship, Biskaine," he growled to his companion. "It is verywell. The praise to the One!"

  "Will she venture in?" wondered the other.

  "Be sure she will venture," was the confident answer. "She suspectsno danger, and it is not often that our galleys are to be found so farwestward. Aye, there she comes in all her Spanish pride."

  Even as he spoke she reached that line of demarcation. She crossed it,for there was still a moderate breeze on the leeward side of it, intentno doubt upon making the utmost of that southward run.

  "Now!" cried Biskaine--Biskaine-el-Borak was he called from thelightning-like impetuousness in which he was wont to strike. He quiveredwith impatience, like a leashed hound.

  "Not yet," was the calm, restraining answer. "Every inch nearer shoreshe creeps the more certain is her doom. Time enough to sound the chargewhen she goes about. Give me to drink, Abiad," he said to one of hisnegroes, whom in irony he had dubbed "the White."

  The slave turned aside, swept away a litter of ferns and produced anamphora of porous red clay; he removed the palm-leaves from the mouthof it and poured water into a cup. Sakr-el-Bahr drank slowly, his eyesnever leaving the vessel, whose every ratline was clearly defined bynow in the pellucid air. They could see men moving on her decks, and thewatchman stationed in the foremast fighting-top. She was not more thanhalf a mile away when suddenly came the manceuvre to go about.

  Sakr-el-Bahr leapt instantly to his great height and waved a long greenscarf. From one of the galleys behind the screen of rocks a trumpet rangout in immediate answer to that signal; it was followed by the shrillwhistles of the bo'suns, and that again by the splash and creak of oars,as the two larger galleys swept out from their ambush. The long armouredpoops were a-swarm with turbaned corsairs, their weapons gleaming inthe sunshine; a dozen at least were astride of the crosstree of eachmainmast, all armed with bows and arrows, and the ratlines on each sideof the galleys were black with men who swarmed there like locusts readyto envelop and smother their prey.

  The suddenness of the attack flung the Spaniard into confusion. Therewas a frantic stir aboard her, trumpet blasts and shootings and wildscurryings of men hither and thither to the posts to which they wereordered by their too reckless captain. In that confusion her manceuvreto go about went all awry, and precious moments were lost during whichshe stood floundering, with idly flapping sails. In his desperate hastethe captain headed her straight to leeward, thinking that by runningthus before the wind he stood the best chance of avoiding the
trap. Butthere was not wind enough in that sheltered spot to make the attemptsuccessful. The galleys sped straight on at an angle to the directionin which the Spaniard was moving, their yellow dripping oars flashingfuriously, as the bo'suns plied their whips to urge every ounce of sinewin the slaves.

  Of all this Sakr-el-Bahr gathered an impression as, followed by Biskaineand the negroes, he swiftly made his way down from that eyrie thathad served him so well. He sprang from red oak to cork-tree and fromcork-tree to red oak; he leapt from rock to rock, or lowered himselffrom ledge to ledge, gripping a handful of heath or a projecting stone,but all with the speed and nimbleness of an ape. He dropped at last tothe beach, then sped across it at a run, and went bounding along a blackreef until he stood alongside of the galliot which had been left behindby the other Corsair vessels. She awaited him in deep water, the lengthof her oars from the rock, and as he came alongside, these oars werebrought to the horizontal, and held there firmly. He leapt down uponthem, his companions following him, and using them as a gangway, reachedthe bulwarks. He threw a leg over the side, and alighted on a deckedspace between two oars and the two rows of six slaves that were manningeach of them.

  Biskaine followed him and the negroes came last. They were still astrideof the bulwarks when Sakr-el-Bahr gave the word. Up the middlegangway ran a bo'sun and two of his mates cracking their long whips ofbullock-hide. Down went the oars, there was a heave, and they shot outin the wake of the other two to join the fight.

  Sakr-el-Bahr, scimitar in hand, stood on the prow, a little in advanceof the mob of eager babbling corsairs who surrounded him, quivering intheir impatience to be let loose upon the Christian foe. Above, alongthe yardarm and up the ratlines swarmed his bowmen. From the mast-headfloated out his standard, of crimson charged with a green crescent.

  The naked Christian slaves groaned, strained and sweated under theMoslem lash that drove them to the destruction of their Christianbrethren.

  Ahead the battle was already joined. The Spaniard had fired onesingle hasty shot which had gone wide, and now one of the corsair'sgrappling-irons had seized her on the larboard quarter, a withering hailof arrows was pouring down upon her decks from the Muslim crosstrees;up her sides crowded the eager Moors, ever most eager when it was aquestion of tackling the Spanish dogs who had driven them from theirAndalusian Caliphate. Under her quarter sped the other galley to takeher on the starboard side, and even as she went her archers and stingershurled death aboard the galleon.

  It was a short, sharp fight. The Spaniards in confusion from thebeginning, having been taken utterly by surprise, had never been ableto order themselves in a proper manner to receive the onslaught. Still,what could be done they did. They made a gallant stand against thispitiless assailant. But the corsairs charged home as gallantly, utterlyreckless of life, eager to slay in the name of Allah and His Prophetand scarcely less eager to die if it should please the All-pitiful thattheir destinies should be here fulfilled. Up they went, and back fellthe Castilians, outnumbered by at least ten to one.

  When Sakr-el-Bahr's galliot came alongside, that brief encounter was atan end, and one of his corsairs was aloft, hacking from the mainmast thestandard of Spain and the wooden crucifix that was nailed below it.A moment later and to a thundering roar of "Al-hamdolliah!" the greencrescent floated out upon the breeze.

  Sakr-el-Bahr thrust his way through the press in the galleon's waist;his corsairs fell back before him, making way, and as he advanced theyroared his name deliriously and waved their scimitars to acclaim himthis hawk of the sea, as he was named, this most valiant of all theservants of Islam. True he had taken no actual part in the engagement.It had been too brief and he had arrived too late for that. But his hadbeen the daring to conceive an ambush at so remote a western point, andhis the brain that had guided them to this swift sweet victory in thename of Allah the One.

  The decks were slippery with blood, and strewn with wounded and dyingmen, whom already the Muslimeen were heaving overboard--dead and woundedalike when they were Christians, for to what end should they be troubledwith maimed slaves?

  About the mainmast were huddled the surviving Spaniards, weaponless andbroken in courage, a herd of timid, bewildered sheep.

  Sakr-el-Bahr stood forward, his light eyes considering them grimly. Theymust number close upon a hundred, adventurers in the main who had setout from Cadiz in high hope of finding fortune in the Indies. Theirvoyage had been a very brief one; their fate they knew--to toil at theoars of the Muslim galleys, or at best, to be taken to Algiers or Tunisand sold there into the slavery of some wealthy Moor.

  Sakr-el-Bahr's glance scanned them appraisingly, and rested finally onthe captain, who stood slightly in advance, his face livid with rageand grief. He was richly dressed in the Castilian black, and his velvetthimble-shaped hat was heavily plumed and decked by a gold cross.

  Sakr-el-Bahr salaamed ceremoniously to him. "Fortuna de guerra, senorcapitan," said he in fluent Spanish. "What is your name?"

  "I am Don Paulo de Guzman," the man answered, drawing himself erect, andspeaking with conscious pride in himself and manifest contempt of hisinterlocutor.

  "So! A gentleman of family! And well-nourished and sturdy, I shouldjudge. In the sok at Algiers you might fetch two hundred philips. Youshall ransom yourself for five hundred."

  "Por las Entranas de Dios!" swore Don Paulo who, like all pious SpanishCatholics, favoured the oath anatomical. What else he would have addedin his fury is not known, for Sakr-el-Bahr waved him contemptuouslyaway.

  "For your profanity and want of courtesy we will make the ransom athousand philips, then," said he. And to his followers--"Away with him!Let him have courteous entertainment against the coming of his ransom."

  He was borne away cursing.

  Of the others Sakr-el-Bahr made short work. He offered the privilegeof ransoming himself to any who might claim it, and the privilege wasclaimed by three. The rest he consigned to the care of Biskaine, whoacted as his Kayla, or lieutenant. But before doing so he bade theship's bo'sun stand forward, and demanded to know what slaves theremight be on board. There were, he learnt, but a dozen, employedupon menial duties on the ship--three Jews, seven Muslimeen and twoheretics--and they had been driven under the hatches when the perilthreatened.

  By Sakr-el-Bahr's orders these were dragged forth from the blacknessinto which they had been flung. The Muslimeen upon discovering that theyhad fallen into the hands of their own people and that their slavery wasat an end, broke into cries of delight, and fervent praise of Allah thanwhom they swore there was no other God. The three Jews, lithe, stalwartyoung men in black tunics that fell to their knees and black skull-capsupon their curly black locks, smiled ingratiatingly, hoping for the bestsince they were fallen into the hands of people who were nearer akin tothem than Christians and allied to them, at least, by the bond of commonenmity to Spain and common suffering at the hands of Spaniards. The twoheretics stood in stolid apathy, realizing that with them it was but acase of passing from Charybdis to Scylla, and that they had as littleto hope for from heathen as from Christian. One of these was a sturdybowlegged fellow, whose garments were little better than rags; hisweather-beaten face was of the colour of mahogany and his eyes of a darkblue under tufted eyebrows that once had been red--like his hair andbeard--but were now thickly intermingled with grey. He was spotted likea leopard on the hands by enormous dark brown freckles.

  Of the entire dozen he was the only one that drew the attention ofSakr-el-Bahr. He stood despondently before the corsair, with bowed headand his eyes upon the deck, a weary, dejected, spiritless slave whowould as soon die as live. Thus some few moments during which thestalwart Muslim stood regarding him; then as if drawn by that persistentscrutiny he raised his dull, weary eyes. At once they quickened, thedulness passed out of them; they were bright and keen as of old. Hethrust his head forward, staring in his turn; then, in a bewildered wayhe looked about him at the ocean of swarthy faces under turbans of allcolours, and back again at Sakr-el-Bahr.

"God's light!" he said at last, in English, to vent his infiniteamazement. Then reverting to the cynical manner that he had everaffected, and effacing all surprise--

  "Good day to you, Sir Oliver," said he. "I suppose ye'll give yourselfthe pleasure of hanging me."

  "Allah is great!" said Sakr-el-Bahr impassively.

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