The sea hawk, p.19
The Sea-Hawk, p.19Rafael Sabatini
CHAPTER IX. COMPETITORS
The open space before the gates of the sok-el-Abeed was thronged with amotley, jostling, noisy crowd that at every moment was being swelled bythe human streams pouring to mingle in it from the debauching labyrinthof narrow, unpaved streets.
There were brown-skinned Berbers in black goat-hair cloaks that weremade in one piece with a cowl and decorated by a lozenge of red ororange colour on the back, their shaven heads encased in skull-caps orsimply bound in a cord of plaited camel-hair; there were black Saharowiwho went almost naked, and stately Arabs who seemed overmuffled intheir flowing robes of white with the cowls overshadowing their swarthy,finely featured faces; there were dignified and prosperous-looking Moorsin brightly coloured selhams astride of sleek mules that were richlycaparisoned; and there were Tagareenes, the banished Moors of Andalusia,most of whom followed the trade of slave-dealers; there were native Jewsin sombre black djellabas, and Christian-Jews--so-called because bredin Christian countries, whose garments they still wore; there wereLevantine Turks, splendid of dress and arrogant of demeanour, and therewere humble Cololies, Kabyles and Biscaries. Here a water-seller,laden with his goatskin vessel, tinkled his little bell; there anorange-hawker, balancing a basket of the golden fruit upon his raggedturban, bawled his wares. There were men on foot and men on mules,men on donkeys and men on slim Arab horses, an ever-shifting medley ofcolours, all jostling, laughing, cursing in the ardent African sunshineunder the blue sky where pigeons circled. In the shadow of the yellowtapia wall squatted a line of whining beggars and cripples solicitingalms; near the gates a little space had been cleared and an audiencehad gathered in a ring about a Meddah--a beggar-troubadour--who, to theaccompaniment of gimbri and gaitah from two acolytes, chanted a dolefulballad in a thin, nasal voice.
Those of the crowd who were patrons of the market held steadily amain,and, leaving their mounts outside, passed through the gates throughwhich there was no admittance for mere idlers and mean folk. Within thevast quadrangular space of bare, dry ground, enclosed by dust-colouredwalls, there was more space. The sale of slaves had not yet begun andwas not due to begin for another hour, and meanwhile a little tradingwas being done by those merchants who had obtained the coveted rightto set up their booths against the walls; they were vendors of wool, offruit, of spices, and one or two traded in jewels and trinkets for theadornment of the Faithful.
A well was sunk in the middle of the ground, a considerable octagon witha low parapet in three steps. Upon the nethermost of these sat anaged, bearded Jew in a black djellaba, his head swathed in a colouredkerchief. Upon his knees reposed a broad, shallow black box, dividedinto compartments, each filled with lesser gems and rare stones, whichhe was offering for sale; about him stood a little group of young Moorsand one or two Turkish officers, with several of whom the old Israelitewas haggling at once.
The whole of the northern wall was occupied by a long penthouse, itscontents completely masked by curtains of camel-hair; from behind itproceeded a subdued murmur of human voices. These were the pens in whichwere confined the slaves to be offered for sale that day. Before thecurtains, on guard, stood some dozen corsairs with attendant negroslaves.
Beyond and above the wall glistened the white dome of a zowia, flankedby a spear-like minaret and the tall heads of a few date palms whoselong leaves hung motionless in the hot air.
Suddenly in the crowd beyond the gates there was a commotion. From oneof the streets six colossal Nubians advanced with shouts of--
"Oak! Oak! Warda! Way! Make way!"
They were armed with great staves, grasped in their two hands, and withthese they broke a path through that motley press, hurling men to rightand left and earning a shower of curses in return.
"Balak! Make way! Way for the Lord Asad-ed-Din, the exalted of Allah!Way!"
The crowd, pressing back, went down upon its knees and grovelled asAsad-ed-Din on a milk-white mule rode forward, escorted by Tsamanni hiswazeer and a cloud of black-robed janissaries with flashing scimitars.
The curses that had greeted the violence of his negroes were suddenlysilenced; instead, blessings as fervent filled the air.
"May Allah increase thy might! May Allah lengthen thy days! Theblessings of our Lord Mahomet upon thee! Allah send thee morevictories!" were the benedictions that showered upon him on every hand.He returned them as became a man who was supremely pious and devout.
"The peace of Allah upon the Faithful of the Prophet's House," he wouldmurmur in response from time to time, until at last he had reachedthe gates. There he bade Tsamanni fling a purse to the crouchingbeggars--for is it not written in the Most Perspicuous Book that of almsye shall bestow what ye can spare, for such as are saved from their owngreed shall prosper, and whatever ye give in alms, as seeking the faceof Allah shall be doubled unto you?
Submissive to the laws as the meanest of his subjects, Asad dismountedand passed on foot into the sok. He came to a halt by the well, and,facing the curtained penthouse, he blessed the kneeling crowd andcommanded all to rise.
He beckoned Sakr-el-Bahr's officer Ali--who was in charge of the slavesof the corsair's latest raid and announced his will to inspect thecaptives. At a sign from Ali, the negroes flung aside the camel-haircurtains and let the fierce sunlight beat in upon those pent-upwretches; they were not only the captives taken by Sakr-el-Bahr, butsome others who were the result of one or two lesser raids by Biskaine.
Asad beheld a huddle of men and women--though the proportion of womenwas very small--of all ages, races, and conditions; there were palefair-haired men from France or the North, olive-skinned Italians andswarthy Spaniards, negroes and half-castes; there were old men, youngmen and mere children, some handsomely dressed, some almost naked,others hung with rags. In the hopeless dejection of their countenancesalone was there any uniformity. But it was not a dejection that couldawaken pity in the pious heart of Asad. They were unbelievers who wouldnever look upon the face of God's Prophet, accursed and unworthy ofany tenderness from man. For a moment his glance was held by a lovelyblack-haired Spanish girl, who sat with her locked hands held fastbetween her knees, in an attitude of intense despair and suffering--theglory of her eyes increased and magnified by the dark brown stains ofsleeplessness surrounding them. Leaning on Tsamanni's arm, he stoodconsidering her for a little while; then his glance travelled on.Suddenly he tightened his grasp of Tsamanni's arm and a quick interestleapt into his sallow face.
On the uppermost tier of the pen that he was facing sat a very gloryof womanhood, such a woman as he had heard tell existed but the likeof which he had never yet beheld. She was tall and graceful asa cypress-tree; her skin was white as milk, her eyes two darkestsapphires, her head of a coppery golden that seemed to glow like metalas the sunlight caught it. She was dressed in a close gown of white, thebodice cut low and revealing the immaculate loveliness of her neck.
Asad-ed-Din turned to Ali. "What pearl is this that hath been cast uponthis dung-heap?" he asked.
"She is the woman our lord Sakr-el-Bahr carried off from England."Slowly the Basha's eyes returned to consider her, and insensible thoughshe had deemed herself by now, he saw her cheeks slowly reddening underthe cold insult of his steady, insistent glance. The glow heightened herbeauty, effacing the weariness which the face had worn.
"Bring her forth," said the Basha shortly.
She was seized by two of the negroes, and to avoid being roughly handledby them she came at once, bracing herself to bear with dignity whatevermight await her. A golden-haired young man beside her, his face haggardand stubbled with a beard of some growth, looked up in alarm as she wastaken from his side. Then, with a groan, he made as if to clutch her,but a rod fell upon his raised arms and beat them down.
Asad was thoughtful. It was Fenzileh who had bidden him come look atthe infidel maid whom Sakr-el-Bahr had risked so much to snatch fromEngland, suggesting that in her he would behold some proof of the badfaith which she was forever urging against the corsair leader. He beheldthe woman, but he discove
He put forth a hand to touch her arm, and she drew it back as if hisfingers were of fire.
He sighed. "How inscrutable are the ways of Allah, that He should sufferso luscious a fruit to hang from the foul tree of infidelity!"
Tsamanni watching him craftily, a master-sycophant profoundly learned inthe art of playing upon his master's moods, made answer:
"Even so perchance that a Faithful of the Prophet's House may pluck it.Verily all things are possible to the One!"
"Yet is it not set down in the Book to be Read that the daughters of theinfidel are not for True-Believers?" And again he sighed.
But Tsamanni knowing full well how the Basha would like to be answered,trimmed his reply to that desire.
"Allah is great, and what hath befallen once may well befall again, mylord."
Asad's kindling eyes flashed a glance at his wazeer.
"Thou meanest Fenzileh. But then, by the mercy of Allah, I was renderedthe instrument of her enlightenment."
"It may well be written that thou shalt be the same again, my lord,"murmured the insidious Tsamanni. There was more stirring in his mindthan the mere desire to play the courtier now. 'Twixt Fenzileh andhimself there had long been a feud begotten of the jealousy which eachinspired in the other where Asad was concerned. Were Fenzileh removedthe wazeer's influence must grow and spread to his own profit. It wasa thing of which he had often dreamed, but a dream he feared that wasnever like to be realized, for Asad was ageing, and the fires that hadburned so fiercely in his earlier years seemed now to have consumed inhim all thought of women. Yet here was one as by a miracle, of a beautyso amazing and so diverse from any that ever yet had feasted the Basha'ssight, that plainly she had acted as a charm upon his senses.
"She is white as the snows upon the Atlas, luscious as the dates ofTafilalt," he murmured fondly, his gleaming eyes considering her whattime she stood immovable before him. Suddenly he looked about him, andwheeled upon Tsamanni, his manner swiftly becoming charged with anger.
"Her face has been bared to a thousand eyes and more," he cried.
"Even that has been so before," replied Tsamanni.
And then quite suddenly at their elbow a voice that was naturally softand musical of accent but now rendered harsh, cut in to ask:
"What woman may this be?"
Startled, both the Basha and his wazeer swung round. Fenzileh,becomingly veiled and hooded, stood before them, escorted by Marzak. Alittle behind them were the eunuchs and the litter in which, unperceivedby Asad, she had been borne thither. Beside the litter stood her wazeerAyoub-el-Samin.
Asad scowled down upon her, for he had not yet recovered from theresentment she and Marzak had provoked in him. Moreover, that in privateshe should be lacking in the respect which was his due was evil enough,though he had tolerated it. But that she should make so bold as tothrust in and question him in this peremptory fashion before all theworld was more than his dignity could suffer. Never yet had she daredso much nor would she have dared it now but that her sudden anxiety hadeffaced all caution from her mind. She had seen the look with whichAsad had been considering that lovely slave, and not only jealousy butpositive fear awoke in her. Her hold upon Asad was growing tenuous. Tosnap it utterly no more was necessary than that he who of late years hadscarce bestowed a thought or glance upon a woman should be taken withthe fancy to bring some new recruit to his hareem.
Hence her desperate, reckless courage to stand thus before him now, foralthough her face was veiled there was hardy arrogance in every line ofher figure. Of his scowl she took no slightest heed.
"If this be the slave fetched by Sakr-el-Bahr from England, then rumourhas lied to me," she said. "I vow it was scarce worth so long avoyage and the endangering so many valuable Muslim lives to fetch thisyellow-faced, long-shanked daughter of perdition into Barbary."
Asad's surprise beat down his anger. He was not subtle.
"Yellow-faced? Long-shanked?" quoth he. Then reading Fenzileh at last,he displayed a slow, crooked smile. "Already have I observed theeto grow hard of hearing, and now thy sight is failing too, it seems.Assuredly thou art growing old." And he looked her over with such an eyeof displeasure that she recoiled.
He stepped close up to her. "Too long already hast thou queened it in myhareem with thine infidel, Frankish ways," he muttered, so that none butthose immediately about overheard his angry words. "Thou art become avery scandal in the eyes of the Faithful," he added very grimly. "Itwere well, perhaps, that we amended that."
Abruptly then he turned away, and by a gesture he ordered Ali to returnthe slave to her place among the others. Leaning on the arm of Tsamannihe took some steps towards the entrance, then halted, and turned againto Fenzileh:
"To thy litter," he bade her peremptorily, rebuking her thus before all,"and get thee to the house as becomes a seemly Muslim woman. Nor everagain let thyself be seen roving the public places afoot."
She obeyed him instantly, without a murmur; and he himself lingered atthe gates with Tsamanni until her litter had passed out, escorted byAyoub and Marzak walking each on one side of it and neither daring tomeet the angry eye of the Basha.
Asad looked sourly after that litter, a sneer on his heavy lips.
"As her beauty wanes so her presumption waxes," he growled. "She isgrowing old, Tsamanni--old and lean and shrewish, and no fit mate for aMember of the Prophet's House. It were perhaps a pleasing thing in thesight of Allah that we replaced her." And then, referring obviously tothat other one, his eye turning towards the penthouse the curtains ofwhich were drawn again, he changed his tone.
"Didst thou mark, O Tsamanni, with what a grace she moved?--lithely andnobly as a young gazelle. Verily, so much beauty was never created bythe All-Wise to be cast into the Pit."
"May it not have been sent to comfort some True-Believer?" wondered thesubtle wazeer. "To Allah all things are possible."
"Why else, indeed?" said Asad. "It was written; and even as none mayobtain what is not written, so none may avoid what is. I am resolved.Stay thou here, Tsamanni. Remain for the outcry and purchase her. Sheshall be taught the True Faith. She shall be saved from the furnace."The command had come, the thing that Tsamanni had so ardently desired.
He licked his lips. "And the price, my lord?" he asked, in a smallvoice.
"Price?" quoth Asad. "Have I not bid thee purchase her? Bring her to me,though her price be a thousand philips."
"A thousand philips!" echoed Tsamanni amazed. "Allah is great!"
But already Asad had left his side and passed out under the archedgateay, where the grovelling anew at the sight of him.
It was a fine thing for Asad to bid him remain for the sale. But thedalal would part with no slave until the money was forthcoming, andTsamanni had no considerable sum upon his person. Therefore in the wakeof his master he set out forthwith to the Kasbah. It wanted still anhour before the sale would be held and he had time and to spare in whichto go and return.
It happened, however, that Tsamanni was malicious, and that the hatredof Fenzileh which so long he had consumed in silence and dissembledunder fawning smiles and profound salaams included also her servants.There was none in all the world of whom he entertained a greatercontempt than her sleek and greasy eunuch Ayoub-el-Samin of themajestic, rolling gait and fat, supercilious lips.
It was written, too, that in the courtyard of the Kasbah he shouldstumble upon Ayoub, who indeed had by his mistress's commands beenset to watch for the wazeer. The fat fellow rolled forward, his handssupporting his paunch, his little eyes agleam.
"Allah increase thy health, Tsamanni," was his courteous greeting. "Thoubearest news?"
"News? What news?" quoth Tsamanni. "In truth none that will gladden thymistress."
Tsamanni smiled, a thing that angered Ayoub, who felt that the ground hetrod was becoming insecure; it followed that if his mistress fell frominfluence he fell with her, and became as the dust upon Tsamanni'sslippers.
"By the Koran thou tremblest, Ayoub!" Tsamanni mocked him. "Thy soft fatis all a-quivering; and well it may, for thy days are numbered, O fatherof nothing."
"Dost deride me, dog?" came the other's voice, shrill now with anger.
"Callest me dog? Thou?" Deliberately Tsamanni spat upon his shadow. "Gotell thy mistress that I am bidden by my lord to buy the Frankish girl.Tell her that my lord will take her to wife, even as he took Fenzileh,that he may lead her into the True Belief and cheat Shaitan of so faira jewel. Add that I am bidden to buy her though she cost my lord athousand philips. Bear her that message, O father of wind, and may Allahincrease thy paunch!" And he was gone, lithe, active, and mocking.
"May thy sons perish and thy daughters become harlots," roared theeunuch, maddened at once by this evil news and the insult with which itwas accompanied.
But Tsamanni only laughed, as he answered him over his shoulder--
"May thy sons be sultans all, Ayoub!"
Quivering still with a rage that entirely obliterated his alarm at whathe had learnt, Ayoub rolled into the presence of his mistress with thatevil message.
She listened to him in a dumb white fury. Then she fell to revilingher lord and the slave-girl in a breath, and called upon Allah to breaktheir bones and blacken their faces and rot their flesh with all thefervour of one born and bred in the True Faith. When she recovered fromthat burst of fury it was to sit brooding awhile. At length she sprangup and bade Ayoub see that none lurked to listen about the doorways.
"We must act, Ayoub, and act swiftly, or I am destroyed and with mewill be destroyed Marzak, who alone could not stand against his father'sface. Sakr-el-Bahr will trample us into the dust." She checked on asudden thought. "By Allah it may have been a part of his design to havebrought hither that white-faced wench. But we must thwart him and wemust thwart Asad, or thou art ruined too, Ayoub."
"Thwart him?" quoth her wazeer, gaping at the swift energy of mind andbody with which this woman was endowed, the like of which he had neverseen in any woman yet. "Thwart him?" he repeated.
"First, Ayoub, to place this Frankish girl beyond his reach."
"That is well thought--but how?"
"How? Can thy wit suggest no way? Hast thou wits at all in that fat headof thine? Thou shalt outbid Tsamanni, or, better still, set someone elseto do it for thee, and so buy the girl for me. Then we'll contrive thatshe shall vanish quietly and quickly before Asad can discover a trace ofher."
His face blanched, and the wattles about his jaws were shaking. "And...and the cost? Hast thou counted the cost, O Fenzileh? What will happenwhen Asad gains knowledge of this thing?"
"He shall gain no knowledge of it," she answered him. "Or if he does,the girl being gone beyond recall, he shall submit him to what waswritten. Trust me to know how to bring him to it."
"Lady, lady!" he cried, and wrung his bunches of fat fingers. "I darenot engage in this!"
"Engage in what? If I bid thee go buy this girl, and give thee the moneythou'lt require, what else concerns thee, dog? What else is to be done,a man shall do. Come now, thou shalt have the money, all I have, whichis a matter of some fifteen hundred philips, and what is not laid outupon this purchase thou shalt retain for thyself."
He considered an instant, and conceived that she was right. None couldblame him for executing the commands she gave him. And there would beprofit in it, clearly--ay, and it would be sweet to outbid that dogTsamanni and send him empty-handed home to face the wrath of hisfrustrated master. He spread his hands and salaamed in token of completeacquiescence.
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