The sea hawk, p.22
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.22

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XII. THE SUBTLETY OF FENZILEH

  Oliver considered the woman for a long moment as she sat half-crouchingon the divan, her hands locked, her face set and stony, her eyeslowered. He sighed gently and turned away. He paced to the parapet andlooked out upon the city bathed in the white glare of the full risenmoon. There arose thence a hum of sound, dominated, however, by thethrobbing song of a nightingale somewhere in his garden and the croakingof the frogs by the pool in the valley.

  Now that truth had been dragged from its well, and tossed, as it were,into Rosamund's lap, he felt none of the fierce exultation which he hadconceived that such an hour as this must bring him. Rather, indeed, washe saddened and oppressed. To poison the unholy cup of joy which hehad imagined himself draining with such thirsty zest there was thatdiscovery of a measure of justification for her attitude towards him inher conviction that his disappearance was explained by flight.

  He was weighed down by a sense that he had put himself entirely in thewrong; that in his vengeance he had overreached himself; and he foundthe fruits of it, which had seemed so desirably luscious, turning toashes in his mouth.

  Long he stood there, the silence between them entirely unbroken. Then atlength he stirred, turned from the parapet, and paced slowly back untilhe came to stand beside the divan, looking down upon her from his greatheight.

  "At last you have heard the truth," he said. And as she made no answerhe continued: "I am thankful it was surprised out of him before thetorture was applied, else you might have concluded that pain waswringing a false confession from him." He paused, but still she didnot speak; indeed, she made no sign that she had heard him. "That," heconcluded, "was the man whom you preferred to me. Faith, you did notflatter me, as perhaps you may have learnt."

  At last she was moved from her silence, and her voice came dull andhard. "I have learnt how little there is to choose between you," shesaid. "It was to have been expected. I might have known two brotherscould not have been so dissimilar in nature. Oh, I am learning a deal,and swiftly!"

  It was a speech that angered him, that cast out entirely the softer moodthat had been growing in him.

  "You are learning?" he echoed. "What are you learning?"

  "Knowledge of the ways of men."

  His teeth gleamed in his wry smile. "I hope the knowledge will bring youas much bitterness as the knowledge of women--of one woman--has broughtme. To have believed me what you believed me--me whom you conceivedyourself to love!" He felt, perhaps the need to repeat it that he mightkeep the grounds of his grievance well before his mind.

  "If I have a mercy to beg of you it is that you will not shame me withthe reminder."

  "Of your faithlessness?" he asked. "Of your disloyal readiness tobelieve the worst evil of me?"

  "Of my ever having believed that I loved you. That is the thought thatshames me, as nothing else in life could shame me, as not even theslave-market and all the insult to which you have submitted me couldshame me. You taunt me with my readiness to believe evil of you...."

  "I do more than taunt you with it," he broke in, his anger mountingunder the pitiless lash of her scorn. "I lay to your charge the wastedyears of my life, all the evil that has followed out of it, all that Ihave suffered, all that I have lost, all that I am become."

  She looked up at him coldly, astonishingly mistress of herself. "You layall this to my charge?" she asked him.

  "I do." He was very vehement. "Had you not used me as you did, had younot lent a ready ear to lies, that whelp my brother would neverhave gone to such lengths, nor should I ever have afforded him theopportunity."

  She shifted on the cushions of the divan and turned her shoulder to him.

  "All this is very idle," she said coldly. Yet perhaps because she feltthat she had need to justify herself she continued: "If, after all, Iwas so ready to believe evil of you, it is that my instincts musthave warned me of the evil that was ever in you. You have proved tome to-night that it was not you who murdered Peter; but to attain thatproof you have done a deed that is even fouler and more shameful, adeed that reveals to the full the blackness of your heart. Have you notproved yourself a monster of vengeance and impiety?" She rose and facedhim again in her sudden passion. "Are you not--you that were born aCornish Christian gentleman--become a heathen and a robber, a renegadeand a pirate? Have you not sacrificed your very God to your vengefullust?"

  He met her glance fully, never quailing before her denunciation, andwhen she had ended on that note of question he counter-questioned her.

  "And your instincts had forewarned you of all this? God's life, woman!can you invent no better tale than that?" He turned aside as two slavesentered bearing an earthenware vessel. "Here comes your supper. I hopeyour appetite is keener than your logic."

  They set the vessel, from which a savoury smell proceeded, upon thelittle Moorish table by the divan. On the ground beside it they placeda broad dish of baked earth in which there were a couple of loaves anda red, short-necked amphora of water with a drinking-cup placed over themouth of it to act as a stopper.

  They salaamed profoundly and padded softly out again.

  "Sup," he bade her shortly.

  "I want no supper," she replied, her manner sullen.

  His cold eye played over her. "Henceforth, girl, you will considernot what you want, but what I bid you do. I bid you eat; about it,therefore."

  "I will not."

  "Will not?" he echoed slowly. "Is that a speech from slave to master?Eat, I say."

  "I cannot! I cannot!" she protested.

  "A slave may not live who cannot do her master's bidding."

  "Then kill me," she answered fiercely, leaping up to confront and darehim. "Kill me. You are used to killing, and for that at least I shouldbe grateful."

  "I will kill you if I please," he said in level icy tones. "But not toplease you. You don't yet understand. You are my slave, my thing, myproperty, and I will not suffer you to be damaged save at my own goodpleasure. Therefore, eat, or my Nubians shall whip you to quickenappetite."

  For a moment she stood defiant before him, white and resolute. Thenquite suddenly, as if her will was being bent and crumpled under theinsistent pressure of his own, she drooped and sank down again to thedivan. Slowly, reluctantly she drew the dish nearer. Watching her, helaughed quite silently.

  She paused, appearing to seek for something. Failing to find it shelooked up at him again, between scorn and intercession.

  "Am I to tear the meat with my fingers?" she demanded.

  His eyes gleamed with understanding, or at least with suspicion. But heanswered her quite calmly--"It is against the Prophet's law to defilemeat or bread by the contact of a knife. You must use the hands that Godhas given you."

  "Do you mock me with the Prophet and his laws? What are the Prophet'slaws to me? If eat I must, at least I will not eat like a heathen dog,but in Christian fashion."

  To indulge her, as it seemed, he slowly drew the richly hilted daggerfrom his girdle. "Let that serve you, then," he said; and carelessly hetossed it down beside her.

  With a quick indrawn breath she pounced upon it. "At last," she said,"you give me something for which I can be grateful to you." And on thewords she laid the point of it against her breast.

  Like lightning he had dropped to one knee, and his hand had closed abouther wrist with such a grip that all her arm felt limp and powerless. Hewas smiling into her eyes, his swarthy face close to her own.

  "Did you indeed suppose I trusted you? Did you really think me deceivedby your sudden pretence of yielding? When will you learn that I am not afool? I did it but to test your spirit."

  "Then now you know its temper," she replied. "You know my intention."

  "Forewarned, forearmed," said he.

  She looked at him, with something that would have been mockery but forthe contempt that coloured it too deeply. "Is it so difficult a thing,"she asked, "to snap the thread of life? Are there no ways of dying saveby the knife? You boast yourself my master; that I am you
r slave; that,having bought me in the market-place, I belong to you body and soul. Howidle is that boast. My body you may bind and confine; but my soul.... Bevery sure that you shall be cheated of your bargain. You boast yourselflord of life and death. A lie! Death is all that you can command."

  Quick steps came pattering up the stairs, and before he could answerher, before he had thought of words in which to do so, Ali confrontedhim with the astounding announcement that there was a woman below askingurgently to speak with him.

  "A woman?" he questioned, frowning. "A Nasrani woman, do you mean?"

  "No, my lord. A Muslim," was the still more surprising information.

  "A Muslim woman, here? Impossible!"

  But even as he spoke a dark figure glided like a shadow across thethreshold on to the terrace. She was in black from head to foot,including the veil that shrouded her, a veil of the proportions of amantle, serving to dissemble her very shape.

  Ali swung upon her in a rage. "Did I not bid thee wait below, thoudaughter of shame?" he stormed. "She has followed me up, my lord, tothrust herself in here upon you. Shall I drive her forth?"

  "Let her be," said Sakr-el-Bahr. And he waved Ali away. "Leave us!"

  Something about that black immovable figure arrested his attention andfired his suspicions. Unaccountably almost it brought to his mind thethought of Ayoub-el-Sarnin and the bidding there had been for Rosamundin the sok.

  He stood waiting for his visitor to speak and disclose herself. Sheon her side continued immovable until Ali's footsteps had faded inthe distance. Then, with a boldness entirely characteristic, with therecklessness that betrayed her European origin, intolerant of the Muslimrestraint imposed upon her sex, she did what no True-believing womanwould have done. She tossed back that long black veil and disclosed thepale countenance and languorous eyes of Fenzileh.

  For all that it was no more than he had expected, yet upon beholdingher--her countenance thus bared to his regard--he recoiled a step.

  "Fenzileh!" he cried. "What madness is this?"

  Having announced herself in that dramatic fashion she composedlyreadjusted her veil so that her countenance should once more be decentlyconcealed.

  "To come here, to my house, and thus!" he protested. "Should this reachthe ears of thy lord, how will it fare with thee and with me? Away,woman, and at once!" he bade her.

  "No need to fear his knowing of this unless, thyself, thou tell him,"she answered. "To thee I need no excuse if thou'lt but remember thatlike thyself I was not born a Muslim."

  "But Algiers is not thy native Sicily, and whatever thou wast born itwere well to remember what thou art become."

  He went on at length to tell her of the precise degree of her folly, butshe cut in, stemming his protestation in full flow.

  "These are idle words that but delay me."

  "To thy purpose then, in Allah's name, that thus thou mayest depart thesooner."

  She came to it straight enough on that uncompromising summons. Shepointed to Rosamund. "It concerns that slave," said she. "I sent mywazeer to the sok to-day with orders to purchase her for me."

  "So I had supposed," he said.

  "But it seems that she caught thy fancy, and the fool suffered himselfto be outbidden."

  "Well?"

  "Thou'lt relinquish her to me at the price she cost thee?" A faint noteof anxiety trembled in her voice.

  "I am anguished to deny thee, O Fenzileh. She is not for sale."

  "Ah, wait," she cried. "The price paid was high--many times higher thanI have ever heard tell was given for a slave, however lovely. Yet Icovet her. 'Tis a whim of mine, and I cannot suffer to be thwarted in mywhims. To gratify this one I will pay three thousand philips."

  He looked at her and wondered what devilries might be stirring in hermind, what evil purpose she desired to serve.

  "Thou'lt pay three thousand philips?" he said slowly. Then bluntly askedher: "Why?"

  "To gratify a whim, to please a fancy."

  "What is the nature of this costly whim?" he insisted.

  "The desire to possess her for my own," she answered evasively.

  "And this desire to possess her, whence is it sprung?" he returned, aspatient as he was relentless.

  "You ask too many questions," she exclaimed with a flash of anger.

  He shrugged and smiled. "You answer too few."

  She set her arms akimbo and faced him squarely. Faintly through her veilhe caught the gleam of her eyes, and he cursed the advantage she had inthat her face was covered from his reading.

  "In a word, Oliver-Reis," said she, "wilt sell her for three thousandphilips?"

  "In a word--no," he answered her.

  "Thou'lt not? Not for three thousand philips?" Her voice was chargedwith surprise, and he wondered was it real or assumed.

  "Not for thirty thousand," answered he. "She is mine, and I'll notrelinquish her. So since I have proclaimed my mind, and since to tarryhere is fraught with peril for us both, I beg thee to depart."

  There fell a little pause, and neither of them noticed the alertinterest stamped upon the white face of Rosamund. Neither of themsuspected her knowledge of French which enabled her to follow most ofwhat was said in the lingua franca they employed.

  Fenzileh drew close to him. "Thou'lt not relinquish her, eh?" she asked,and he was sure she sneered. "Be not so confident. Thou'lt be forced toit, my friend--if not to me, why then, to Asad. He is coming for her,himself, in person."

  "Asad?" he cried, startled now.

  "Asad-ed-Din," she answered, and upon that resumed her pleading. "Come,then! It were surely better to make a good bargain with me than a badone with the Basha."

  He shook his head and planted his feet squarely. "I intend to make nobargain with either of you. This slave is not for sale."

  "Shalt thou dare resist Asad? I tell thee he will take her whether shebe for sale or not."

  "I see," he said, his eyes narrowing. "And the fear of this, then, isthe source of thy whim to acquire her for thyself. Thou art not subtle,O Fenzileh. The consciousness that thine own charms are fading sets theetrembling lest so much loveliness should entirely cast thee from thylord's regard, eh?"

  If he could not see her face, and study there the effect of that thrustof his, at least he observed the quiver that ran through her muffledfigure, he caught the note of anger that throbbed in her reply--"And ifthat were so, what is't to thee?"

  "It may be much or little," he replied thoughtfully.

  "Indeed, it should be much," she answered quickly, breathlessly. "Have Inot ever been thy friend? Have I not ever urged thy valour on mylord's notice and wrought like a true friend for thine advancement,Sakr-el-Bahr?"

  He laughed outright. "Hast thou so?" quoth he.

  "Laugh as thou wilt, but it is true," she insisted. "Lose me and thymost valuable ally is lost--one who has the ear and favour of her lord.For look, Sakr-el-Bahr, it is what would befall if another came tofill my place, another who might poison Asad's mind with lies againstthee--for surely she cannot love thee, this Frankish girl whom thou hasttorn from her home!"

  "Be not concerned for that," he answered lightly, his wits striving invain to plumb the depths and discover the nature of her purpose. "Thisslave of mine shall never usurp thy place beside Asad."

  "O fool, Asad will take her whether she be for sale or not."

  He looked down upon her, head on one side and arms akimbo. "If he cantake her from me, the more easily can he take her from thee. No doubtthou hast considered that, and in some dark Sicilian way considered toohow to provide against it. But the cost--hast thou counted that? Whatwill Asad say to thee when he learns how thou hast thwarted him?"

  "What do I care for that?" she cried in sudden fury, her gesturesbecoming a little wild. "She will be at the bottom of the harbour bythen with a stone about her neck. He may have me whipped. No doubt hewill. But 'twill end there. He will require me to console him for hisloss, and so all will be well again."

  At last he had drawn her, pumped her dry
, as he imagined. Indeed,indeed, he thought, he had been right to say she was not subtle. He hadbeen a fool to have permitted himself to be intrigued by so shallow, soobvious a purpose. He shrugged and turned away from her.

  "Depart in peace, O Fenzileh," he said. "I yield her to none--be hisname Asad or Shaitan."

  His tone was final, and her answer seemed to accept at last hisdetermination. Yet she was very quick with that answer; so quick that hemight have suspected it to be preconceived.

  "Then it is surely thine intent to wed her." No voice could have beenmore innocent and guileless than was hers now. "If so," she went on, "itwere best done quickly, for marriage is the only barrier Asad will notoverthrow. He is devout, and out of his deep reverence for the Prophet'slaw he would be sure to respect such a bond as that. But be very surethat he will respect nothing short of it."

  Yet notwithstanding her innocence and assumed simplicity--because ofit, perhaps--he read her as if she had been an open book; it no longermattered that her face was veiled.

  "And thy purpose would be equally well served, eh?" he questioned her,sly in his turn.

  "Equally," she admitted.

  "Say 'better,' Fenzileh," he rejoined. "I said thou art not subtle. Bythe Koran, I lied. Thou art subtle as the serpent. Yet I see whitherthou art gliding. Were I to be guided by thine advice a twofold purposewould be served. First, I should place her beyond Asad's reach, andsecond, I should be embroiled with him for having done so. What couldmore completely satisfy thy wishes?"

  "Thou dost me wrong," she protested. "I have ever been thy friend. Iwould that...." She broke off suddenly to listen. The stillness of thenight was broken by cries from the direction of the Bab-el-Oueb. Sheran swiftly to the parapet whence the gate was to be seen and leaned farout.

  "Look, look!" she cried, and there was a tremor of fear in her voice."It is he--Asad-ed-Din."

  Sakr-el-Bahr crossed to her side and in a glare of torches saw a body ofmen coming forth from the black archway of the gate.

  "It almost seems as if, departing from thy usual custom, thou hastspoken truth, O Fenzileh."

  She faced him, and he suspected the venomous glance darted at himthrough her veil. Yet her voice when she spoke was cold. "In a momentthou'lt have no single doubt of it. But what of me?" The question wasadded in a quickening tone. "He must not find me here. He would kill me,I think."

  "I am sure he would," Sakr-el-Bahr agreed. "Yet muffled thus, who shouldrecognize thee? Away, then, ere he comes. Take cover in the courtyarduntil he shall have passed. Didst thou come alone?"

  "Should I trust anyone with the knowledge that I had visited thee?" sheasked, and he admired the strong Sicilian spirit in her that not allthese years in the Basha's hareem had sufficed to extinguish.

  She moved quickly to the door, to pause again on the threshold.

  "Thou'lt not relinquish her? Thou'lt not."

  "Be at ease," he answered her, on so resolved a note that she departedsatisfied.

 
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