The sea hawk, p.17
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.17

           Rafael Sabatini


  It took no less than forty camels to convey the cargo of that Dutchargosy from the mole to the Kasbah, and the procession--carefullymarshalled by Sakr-el-Bahr, who knew the value of such pageants toimpress the mob--was such as never yet had been seen in the narrowstreets of Algiers upon the return of any corsair. It was full worthyof the greatest Muslim conqueror that sailed the seas, of one who, notcontent to keep to the tideless Mediterranean as had hitherto been therule of his kind, had ventured forth upon the wider ocean.

  Ahead marched a hundred of his rovers in their short caftans of everyconceivable colour, their waists swathed in gaudy scarves, some of whichsupported a very arsenal of assorted cutlery; many wore body armour ofmail and the gleaming spike of a casque thrust up above their turbans.After them, dejected and in chains, came the five score prisonerstaken aboard the Dutchman, urged along by the whips of the corsairs whoflanked them. Then marched another regiment of corsairs, and after thesethe long line of stately, sneering camels, shuffling cumbrously alongand led by shouting Saharowis. After them followed yet more corsairs,and then mounted, on a white Arab jennet, his head swathed in a turbanof cloth of gold, came Sakr-el-Bahr. In the narrower streets, with theirwhite and yellow washed houses, which presented blank windowless wallsbroken here and there by no more than a slit to admit light and air,the spectators huddled themselves fearfully into doorways to avoid beingcrushed to death by the camels, whose burdens bulging on either sideentirely filled those narrow ways. But the more open spaces, such as thestrand on either side of the mole, the square before the sok, and theapproaches of Asad's fortress, were thronged with a motley roaringcrowd. There were stately Moors in flowing robes cheek by jowl withhalf-naked blacks from the Sus and the Draa; lean, enduring Arabs intheir spotless white djellabas rubbed shoulders with Berbers from thehighlands in black camel-hair cloaks; there were Levantine Turks, andJewish refugees from Spain ostentatiously dressed in European garments,tolerated there because bound to the Moor by ties of common sufferingand common exile from that land that once had been their own.

  Under the glaring African sun this amazing crowd stood assembled towelcome Sakr-el-Bahr; and welcome him it did, with such vocal thunderthat an echo of it from the mole reached the very Kasbah on the hilltopto herald his approach.

  By the time, however, that he reached the fortress his procession haddwindled by more than half. At the sok his forces had divided, andhis corsairs, headed by Othmani, had marched the captives away to thebagnio--or banyard, as my Lord Henry calls it--whilst the camels hadcontinued up the hill. Under the great gateway of the Kasbah they paddedinto the vast courtyard to be ranged along two sides of it by theirSaharowi drivers, and there brought clumsily to their knees. Afterthem followed but some two score corsairs as a guard of honour to theirleader. They took their stand upon either side of the gateway afterprofoundly salaaming to Asad-ed-Din. The Basha sat in the shade of anawning enthroned upon a divan, attended by his wazeer Tsamanni and byMarzak, and guarded by a half-dozen janissaries, whose sable garmentsmade an effective background to the green and gold of his jewelledrobes. In his white turban glowed an emerald crescent.

  The Basha's countenance was dark and brooding as he watched the adventof that line of burdened camels. His thoughts were still labouring withthe doubt of Sakr-el-Bahr which Fenzileh's crafty speech and craftierreticence had planted in them. But at sight of the corsair leaderhimself his countenance cleared suddenly, his eyes sparkled, and he roseto his feet to welcome him as a father might welcome a son who had beenthrough perils on a service dear to both.

  Sakr-el-Bahr entered the courtyard on foot, having dismounted atthe gate. Tall and imposing, with his head high and his forked beardthrusting forward, he stalked with great dignity to the foot ofthe divan followed by Ali and a mahogany-faced fellow, turbaned andred-bearded, in whom it needed more than a glance to recognize therascally Jasper Leigh, now in all the panoply of your complete renegado.

  Sakr-el-Bahr went down upon his knees and prostrated himself solemnlybefore his prince.

  "The blessing of Allah and His peace upon thee, my lord," was hisgreeting.

  And Asad, stooping to lift that splendid figure in his arms, gave him awelcome that caused the spying Fenzileh to clench her teeth behind thefretted lattice that concealed her.

  "The praise to Allah and to our Lord Mahomet that thou art returned andin health, my son. Already hath my old heart been gladdened by the newsof thy victories in the service of the Faith."

  Then followed the display of all those riches wrested from the Dutch,and greatly though Asad's expectations had been fed already byOthmani, the sight now spread before his eyes by far exceeded all thoseexpectations.

  In the end all was dismissed to the treasury, and Tsamanni was bidden togo cast up the account of it and mark the share that fell to the portionof those concerned--for in these ventures all were partners, from theBasha himself, who represented the State down to the meanest corsair whohad manned the victorious vessels of the Faith, and each had his shareof the booty, greater or less according to his rank, one twentieth ofthe total falling to Sakr-el-Bahr himself.

  In the courtyard were left none but Asad, Marzak and the janissaries,and Sakr-el-Bahr with Ali and Jasper. It was then that Sakr-el-Bahrpresented his new officer to the Bashal as one upon whom the graceof Allah had descended, a great fighter and a skilled seaman, who hadoffered up his talents and his life to the service of Islam, who hadbeen accepted by Sakr-el-Bahr, and stood now before Asad to be confirmedin his office.

  Marzak interposed petulantly, to exclaim that already were there toomany erstwhile Nasrani dogs in the ranks of the soldiers of the Faith,and that it was unwise to increase their number and presumptuous inSakr-el-Bahr to take so much upon himself.

  Sakr-el-Bahr measured him with an eye in which scorn and surprise werenicely blended.

  "Dost say that it is presumptuous to win a convert to the banner of OurLord Mahomet?" quoth he. "Go read the Most Perspicuous Book and see whatis there enjoined as a duty upon every True-Believer. And bethink thee,O son of Asad, that when thou dost in thy little wisdom cast scorn uponthose whom Allah has blessed and led from the night wherein they dweltinto the bright noontide of Faith, thou dost cast scorn upon me and uponthine own mother, which is but a little matter, and thou dost blasphemethe Blessed name of Allah, which is to tread the ways that lead unto thePit."

  Angry but defeated and silenced, Marzak fell back a step and stoodbiting his lip and glowering upon the corsair, what time Asad nodded hishead and smiled approval.

  "Verily art thou full learned in the True Belief, Sakr-el-Bahr," hesaid. "Thou art the very father of wisdom as of valour." And thereuponhe gave welcome to Master Leigh, whom he hailed to the ranks of theFaithful under the designation of Jasper-Reis.

  That done, the renegade and Ali were both dismissed, as were also thejanissaries, who, quitting their position behind Asad, went to taketheir stand on guard at the gateway. Then the Basha beat his handstogether, and to the slaves who came in answer to his summons he gaveorders to set food, and he bade Sakr-el-Bahr to come sit beside him onthe divan.

  Water was brought that they might wash. That done, the slaves placedbefore them a savoury stew of meat and eggs with olives, limes, andspices.

  Asad broke bread with a reverently pronounced "Bismillah!" and dippedhis fingers into the earthenware bowl, leading the way for Sakr-el-Bahrand Marzak, and as they ate he invited the corsair himself to recite thetale of his adventure.

  When he had done so, and again Asad had praised him in high and lovingterms, Marzak set him a question.

  "Was it to obtain just these two English slaves that thou didstundertake this perilous voyage to that distant land?"

  "That was but a part of my design," was the calm reply. "I went to rovethe seas in the Prophet's service, as the result of my voyage givesproof."

  "Thou didst not know that this Dutch argosy would cross thy path," saidMarzak, in the very words his mother had prompted

  "Did I not?" quoth Sakr-el-Bahr, and he smiled confidently, soconfidently that Asad scarce needed to hear the words that so cunninglygave the lie to the innuendo. "Had I no trust in Allah the All-wise, theAll-knowing?

  "Well answered, by the Koran!" Asad approved him heartily, the moreheartily since it rebutted insinuations which he desired above all tohear rebutted.

  But Marzak did not yet own himself defeated. He had been soundlyschooled by his guileful Sicilian mother.

  "Yet there is something in all this I do not understand," he murmured,with false gentleness.

  "All things are possible to Allah!" said Sakr-el-Bahr, in tones ofincredulity, as if he suggested--not without a suspicion of irony--thatit was incredible there should be anything in all the world that couldelude the penetration of Marzak.

  The youth bowed to him in acknowledgment. "Tell me, O mightySakr-el-Bahr," he begged, "how it came to pass that having reached thosedistant shores thou wert content to take thence but two poor slaves,since with thy followers and the favour of the All-seeing thou mighteasily have taken fifty times that number." And he looked ingenuouslyinto the corsair's swarthy, rugged face, whilst Asad frownedthoughtfully, for the thought was one that had occurred to him already.

  It became necessary that Sakr-el-Bahr should lie to clear himself.Here no high-sounding phrase of Faith would answer. And explanation wasunavoidable, and he was conscious that he could not afford one that didnot go a little lame.

  "Why, as to that," said he, "these prisoners were wrested from thefirst house upon which we came, and their capture occasioned some alarm.Moreover, it was night-time when we landed, and I dared not adventurethe lives of my followers by taking them further from the ship andattacking a village which might have risen to cut off our good retreat."

  The frown remained stamped upon the brow of Asad, as Marzak slylyobserved.

  "Yet Othmani," said he, "urged thee to fall upon a slumbering villageall unconscious of thy presence, and thou didst refuse."

  Asad looked up sharply at that, and Sakr-el-Bahr realized with atightening about the heart something of the undercurrents at workagainst him and all the pains that had been taken to glean informationthat might be used to his undoing.

  "Is it so?" demanded Asad, looking from his son to his lieutenant withthat lowering look that rendered his face evil and cruel.

  Sakr-el-Bahr took a high tone. He met Asad's glance with an eye ofchallenge.

  "And if it were so my lord?" he demanded.

  "I asked thee is it so?"

  "Ay, but knowing thy wisdom I disbelieved my ears," said Sakr-el-Bahr."Shall it signify what Othmani may have said? Do I take my orders or amI to be guided by Othmani? If so, best set Othmani in my place, givehim the command and the responsibility for the lives of the Faithful whofight beside him." He ended with an indignant snort.

  "Thou art over-quick to anger," Asad reproved him, scowling still

  "And by the Head of Allah, who will deny my right to it? Am I to conductsuch an enterprise as this from which I am returned laden with spoilsthat might well be the fruits of a year's raiding, to be questioned by abeardless stripling as to why I was not guided by Othmani?"

  He heaved himself up and stood towering there in the intensity of apassion that was entirely simulated. He must bluster here, and crushdown suspicion with whorling periods and broad, fierce gesture.

  "To what should Othmani have guided me?" he demanded scornfully. "Couldhe have guided me to more than I have this day laid at thy feet? What Ihave done speaks eloquently with its own voice. What he would have hadme do might well have ended in disaster. Had it so ended, would theblame of it have fallen upon Othmani? Nay, by Allah! but upon me. Andupon me rests then the credit, and let none dare question it withoutbetter cause."

  Now these were daring words to address to the tyrant Asad, and stillmore daring was the tone, the light hard eyes aflash and the sweepinggestures of contempt with which they were delivered. But of hisascendancy over the Basha there was no doubt. And here now was proof ofit.

  Asad almost cowered before his fury. The scowl faded from his face to bereplaced by an expression of dismay.

  "Nay, nay, Sakr-el-Bahr, this tone!" he cried.

  Sakr-el-Bahr, having slammed the door of conciliation in the face of theBasha, now opened it again. He became instantly submissive.

  "Forgive it," he said. "Blame the devotion of thy servant to thee andto the Faith he serves with little reck to life. In this very expeditionwas I wounded nigh unto death. The livid scar of it is a dumb witness tomy zeal. Where are thy scars, Marzak?"

  Marzak quailed before the sudden blaze of that question, andSakr-el-Bahr laughed softly in contempt.

  "Sit," Asad bade him. "I have been less than just."

  "Thou art the very fount and spring of justice, O my lord, as this thineadmission proves," protested the corsair. He sat down again, foldinghis legs under him. "I will confess to you that being come so near toEngland in that cruise of mine I determined to land and seize one whosome years ago did injure me, and between whom and me there was a scoreto settle. I exceeded my intentions in that I carried off two prisonersinstead of one. These prisoners," he ran on, judging that the moment ofreaction in Asad's mind was entirely favourable to the preferment of therequest he had to make, "are not in the bagnio with the others. They arestill confined aboard the carack I seized."

  "And why is this?" quoth Asad, but without suspicion now.

  "Because, my lord, I have a boon to ask in some reward for the service Ihave rendered."

  "Ask it, my son."

  "Give me leave to keep these captives for myself."

  Asad considered him, frowning again slightly. Despite himself, despitehis affection for Sakr-el-Bahr, and his desire to soothe him now thatrankling poison of Fenzileh's infusing was at work again in his mind.

  "My leave thou hast," said he. "But not the law's, and the law runsthat no corsair shall subtract so much as the value of an asper from hisbooty until the division has been made and his own share allotted him,"was the grave answer.

  "The law?" quoth Sakr-el-Bahr. "But thou art the law, exalted lord."

  "Not so, my son. The law is above the Basha, who must himself conform toit so that he be just and worthy of his high office. And the law Ihave recited thee applies even should the corsair raider be the Bashahimself. These slaves of thine must forthwith be sent to the bagnio tojoin the others that tomorrow all may be sold in the sok. See it done,Sakr-el-Bahr."

  The corsair would have renewed his pleadings, but that his eye caughtthe eager white face of Marzak and the gleaming expectant eyes, lookingso hopefully for his ruin. He checked, and bowed his head with anassumption of indifference.

  "Name thou their price then, and forthwith will I pay it into thytreasury."

  But Asad shook his head. "It is not for me to name their price, but forthe buyers," he replied. "I might set the price too high, and that wereunjust to thee, or too low, and that were unjust to others who wouldacquire them. Deliver them over to the bagnio."

  "It shall be done," said Sakr-el-Bahr, daring to insist no further anddissembling his chagrin.

  Very soon thereafter he departed upon that errand, giving orders,however, that Rosamund and Lionel should be kept apart from the otherprisoners until the hour of the sale on the morrow when perforce theymust take their place with the rest.

  Marzak lingered with his father after Oliver had taken his leave, andpresently they were joined there in the courtyard by Fenzileh--thiswoman who had brought, said many, the Frankish ways of Shaitan intoAlgiers.

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