The sea hawk, p.15
The Sea-Hawk, p.15Rafael Sabatini
CHAPTER V. THE LION OF THE FAITH
Asad-ed-Din, the Lion of the Faith, Basha of Algiers, walked in theevening cool in the orchard of the Kasbah upon the heights above thecity, and at his side, stepping daintily, came Fenzileh, his wife, thefirst lady of his hareem, whom eighteen years ago he had carried off inhis mighty arms from that little whitewashed village above the Straitsof Messina which his followers had raided.
She had been a lissom maid of sixteen in those far-off days, the childof humble peasant-folk, and she had gone uncomplaining to the arms ofher swarthy ravisher. To-day, at thirty-four, she was still beautiful,more beautiful indeed than when first she had fired the passion ofAsad-Reis--as he then was, one of the captains of the famous Ali-Basha.There were streaks of red in her heavy black tresses, her skin was ofa soft pearliness that seemed translucent, her eyes were large, of agolden-brown, agleam with sombre fires, her lips were full and sensuous.She was tall and of a shape that in Europe would have been accountedperfect, which is to say that she was a thought too slender for Orientaltaste; she moved along beside her lord with a sinuous, languorous grace,gently stirring her fan of ostrich plumes. She was unveiled; indeed itwas her immodest habit to go naked of face more often than was seemly,which is but the least of the many undesirable infidel ways which hadsurvived her induction into the Faith of Islam--a necessary step beforeAsad, who was devout to the point of bigotry, would consent to make herhis wife. He had found her such a wife as it is certain he could neverhave procured at home; a woman who, not content to be his toy, theplaything of his idle hour, insinuated herself into affairs, demandedand obtained his confidences, and exerted over him much the sameinfluence as the wife of a European prince might exert over her consort.In the years during which he had lain under the spell of her ripeningbeauty he had accepted the situation willingly enough; later, when hewould have curtailed her interferences, it was too late; she had takena firm grip of the reins, and Asad was in no better case than many aEuropean husband--an anomalous and outrageous condition this for a Bashaof the Prophet's House. It was also a dangerous one for Fenzileh; forshould the burden of her at any time become too heavy for her lord therewas a short and easy way by which he could be rid of it. Do not supposeher so foolish as not to have realized this--she realized it fully; buther Sicilian spirit was daring to the point of recklessness; her verydauntlessness which had enabled her to seize a control so unprecedentedin a Muslim wife urged her to maintain it in the face of all risks.
Dauntless was she now, as she paced there in the cool of the orchard,under the pink and white petals of the apricots, the flaming scarlet ofpomegranate blossoms, and through orange-groves where the golden fruitglowed and amid foliage of sombre green. She was at her eternal work ofpoisoning the mind of her lord against Sakr-el-Bahr, and in her maternaljealousy she braved the dangers of such an undertaking, fully aware ofhow dear to the heart of Asad-ed-Din was that absent renegade corsair.It was this very affection of the Basha's for his lieutenant that wasthe fomenter of her own hate of Sakr-el-Bahr, for it was an affectionthat transcended Asad's love for his own son and hers, and it led tothe common rumour that for Sakr-el-Bahr was reserved the high destiny ofsucceeding Asad in the Bashalik.
"I tell thee thou'rt abused by him, O source of my life."
"I hear thee," answered Asad sourly. "And were thine own hearing lessinfirm, woman, thou wouldst have heard me answer thee that thy wordsweigh for naught with me against his deeds. Words may be but a mask uponour thoughts; deeds are ever the expression of them. Bear thou that inmind, O Fenzileh."
"Do I not bear in mind thine every word, O fount of wisdom?" sheprotested, and left him, as she often did, in doubt whether she fawnedor sneered. "And it is his deeds I would have speak for him, not indeedmy poor words and still less his own."
"Then, by the head of Allah, let those same deeds speak, and be thousilent."
The harsh tone of his reproof and the scowl upon his haughty face, gaveher pause for a moment. He turned about.
"Come!" he said. "Soon it will be the hour of prayer." And he paced backtowards the yellow huddle of walls of the Kasbah that overtopped thegreen of that fragrant place.
He was a tall, gaunt man, stooping slightly at the shoulders underthe burden of his years; but his eagle face was masterful, andsome lingering embers of his youth still glowed in his dark eyes.Thoughtfully, with a jewelled hand, he stroked his long white beard;with the other he leaned upon her soft plump arm, more from habit thanfor support, for he was full vigorous still.
High in the blue overhead a lark burst suddenly into song, and fromthe depths of the orchard came a gentle murmur of doves as if returningthanks for the lessening of the great heat now that the sun was sinkingrapidly towards the world's edge and the shadows were lengthening.
Came Fenzileh's voice again, more musical than either, yet laden withwords of evil, poison wrapped in honey.
"O my dear lord, thou'rt angered with me now. Woe me! that never may Icounsel thee for thine own glory as my heart prompts me, but I must earnthy coldness."
"Abuse not him I love," said the Basha shortly. "I have told thee so fulloft already."
She nestled closer to him, and her voice grew softer, more akin to theamorous cooing of the doves. "And do I not love thee, O master of mysoul? Is there in all the world a heart more faithful to thee thanmine? Is not thy life my life? Have not my days been all devoted to theperfecting of thine happiness? And wilt thou then frown upon me if Ifear for thee at the hands of an intruder of yesterday?"
"Fear for me?" he echoed, and laughed jeeringly. "What shouldst thoufear for me from Sakr-el-Bahr?"
"What all believers must ever fear from one who is no true Muslim, fromone who makes a mock and travesty of the True Faith that he may gainadvancement."
The Basha checked in his stride, and turned upon her angrily.
"May thy tongue rot, thou mother of lies!"
"I am as the dust beneath thy feet, O my sweet lord, yet am I not whatthine heedless anger calls me."
"Heedless?" quoth he. "Not heedless but righteous to hear one whom theProphet guards, who is the very javelin of Islam against the breast ofthe unbeliever, who carries the scourge of Allah against the infidelFrankish pigs, so maligned by thee! No more, I say! Lest I bid thee makegood thy words, and pay the liar's price if thou shouldst fail."
"And should I fear the test?" she countered, nothing daunted. "I tellthee, O father of Marzak, that I should hail it gladly. Why, hear menow. Thou settest store by deeds, not words. Tell me, then, is it thedeed of a True-Believer to waste substance upon infidel slaves, topurchase them that he may set them free?"
Asad moved on in silence. That erstwhile habit of Sakr-el-Bahr's was onenot easy to condone. It had occasioned him his moments of uneasiness,and more than once had he taxed his lieutenant with the practice ever toreceive the same answer, the answer which he now made to Fenzileh. "Forevery slave that he so manumitted, he brought a dozen into bondage."
"Perforce, else would he be called to account. 'Twas so much dusthe flung into the face of true Muslimeen. Those manumissions prove alingering fondness for the infidel country whence he springs. Is thereroom for that in the heart of a true member of the Prophet's immortalHouse? Hast ever known me languish for the Sicilian shore from which inthy might thou wrested me, or have I ever besought of thee the life ofa single Sicilian infidel in all these years that I have lived to servethee? Such longings are betrayed, I say, by such a practice, and suchlongings could have no place in one who had uprooted infidelity from hisheart. And now this voyage of his beyond the seas--risking a vessel thathe captured from the arch-enemy of Islam, which is not his to risk butthine in whose name he captured it; and together with it he imperils thelives of two hundred True-Believers. To what end? To bear him overseas,perchance that he may look again upon the unhallowed land that gave himbirth. So Biskaine reported. And what if he should founder on the way?"
"Thou at least wouldst be content, thou fount of malice," growled Asad.
"Woman, thy tongue is like the clapper of a bell with the devil swingingfrom the rope. What else dost thou impute?"
"Naught else, since thou dost but mock me, withdrawing thy love from thyfond slave."
"The praise to Allah, then," said he. "Come, it is the hour of prayer!"
But he praised Allah too soon. Woman-like, though she protested she haddone, she had scarce begun as yet.
"There is thy son, O father of Marzak."
"There is, O mother of Marzak."
"And a man's son should be the partner of his soul. Yet is Marzak passedover for this foreign upstart; yet does this Nasrani of yesterday holdthe place in thy heart and at thy side that should be Marzak's."
"Could Marzak fill that place," he asked. "Could that beardless boy leadmen as Sakr-el-Bahr leads them, or wield the scimitar against thefoes of Islam and increase as Sakr-el-Bahr increases the glory of theProphet's Holy Law upon the earth?"
"If Sakr-el-Bahr does this, he does it by thy favour, O my lord. Andso might Marzak, young though he be. Sakr-el-Bahr is but what thou hastmade him--no more, no less."
"There art thou wrong, indeed, O mother of error. Sakr-el-Bahr is whatAllah hath made him. He is what Allah wills. He shall become what Allahwills. Hast yet to learn that Allah has bound the fate of each man abouthis neck?"
And then a golden glory suffused the deep sapphire of the sky heraldingthe setting of the sun and made an end of that altercation, conductedby her with a daring as singular as the patience that had endured it. Hequickened his steps in the direction of the courtyard. That golden glowpaled as swiftly as it had spread, and night fell as suddenly as if acurtain had been dropped.
In the purple gloom that followed the white cloisters of the courtyardglowed with a faintly luminous pearliness. Dark forms of slaves stirredas Asad entered from the garden followed by Fenzileh, her head nowveiled in a thin blue silken gauze. She flashed across the quadrangleand vanished through one of the archways, even as the distant voice ofa Mueddin broke plaintively upon the brooding stillness reciting theShehad--
"La illaha, illa Allah! Wa Muhammad er Rasool Allah!"
A slave spread a carpet, a second held a great silver bowl, into whicha third poured water. The Basha, having washed, turned his face towardsMecca, and testified to the unity of Allah, the Compassionate, theMerciful, King of the Day of judgment, whilst the cry of the Mueddinwent echoing over the city from minaret to minaret.
As he rose from his devotions, there came a quick sound of stepswithout, and a sharp summons. Turkish janissaries of the Basha's guard,invisible almost in their flowing black garments, moved to answer thatsummons and challenge those who came.
From the dark vaulted entrance of the courtyard leapt a gleam oflanterns containing tiny clay lamps in which burned a wick that wasnourished by mutton fat. Asad, waiting to learn who came, halted at thefoot of the white glistening steps, whilst from doors and lattices ofthe palace flooded light to suffuse the courtyard and set the marblesshimmering.
A dozen Nubian javelin-men advanced, then ranged themselves aside whilstinto the light stepped the imposing, gorgeously robed figure of Asad'swazeer, Tsamanni. After him came another figure in mail that clankedfaintly and glimmered as he moved.
"Peace and the Prophet's blessings upon thee, O mighty Asad!" was thewazeer's greeting.
"And peace upon thee, Tsamanni," was the answer. "Art the bearer ofnews?"
"Of great and glorious tidings, O exalted one! Sakr-el-Bahr isreturned."
"The praise to Him!" exclaimed the Basha, with uplifted hands; and therewas no mistaking the thrill of his voice.
There fell a soft step behind him and a shadow from the doorway. Heturned. A graceful stripling in turban and caftan of cloth of goldsalaamed to him from the topmast step. And as he came upright and thelight of the lanterns fell full upon his face the astonishingly whitefairness of it was revealed--a woman's face it might have been, sosoftly rounded was it in its beardlessness.
Asad smiled wrily in his white beard, guessing that the boy had beensent by his ever-watchful mother to learn who came and what the tidingsthat they bore.
"Thou hast heard, Marzak?" he said. "Sakr-el-Bahr is returned."
"Victoriously, I hope," the lad lied glibly.
"Victorious beyond aught that was ever known," replied Tsamanni."He sailed at sunset into the harbour, his company aboard two mightyFrankish ships, which are but the lesser part of the great spoil hebrings."
"Allah is great," was the Basha's glad welcome of this answer to thoseinsidious promptings of his Sicilian wife. "Why does he not come inperson with his news?"
"His duty keeps him yet awhile aboard, my lord," replied the wazeer."But he hath sent his kayia Othmani here to tell the tale of it."
"Thrice welcome be thou, Othmani." He beat his hands together, whereatslaves placed cushions for him upon the ground. He sat, and beckonedMarzak to his side. "And now thy tale!"
And Othmani standing forth related how they had voyaged to distantEngland in the ship that Sakr-el-Bahr had captured, through seas that nocorsair yet had ever crossed, and how on their return they had engageda Dutchman that was their superior in strength and numbers; how nonethe less Sakr-el-Bahr had wrested victory by the help of Allah, hisprotector, how he had been dealt a wound that must have slain any butone miraculously preserved for the greater glory of Islam, and of thesurpassing wealth of the booty which at dawn tomorrow should be laid atAsad's feet for his division of it.
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