The sea hawk, p.23
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.23

           Rafael Sabatini


  Sakr-el-Bahr stood lost in thought after she had gone. Again he weighedher every word and considered precisely how he should meet Asad, and howrefuse him, if the Basha's were indeed such an errand as Fenzileh hadheralded.

  Thus in silence he remained waiting for Ali or another to summon himto the presence of the Basha. Instead, however, when Ali entered itwas actually to announce Asad-ed-Din, who followed immediately upon hisheels, having insisted in his impatience upon being conducted straightto the presence of Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "The peace of the Prophet upon thee, my son, was the Basha's greeting.

  "And upon thee, my lord." Sakr-el-Bahr salaamed. "My house is honoured."With a gesture he dismissed Ali.

  "I come to thee a suppliant," said Asad, advancing.

  "A suppliant, thou? No need, my lord. I have no will that is not theecho of thine own."

  The Basha's questing eyes went beyond him and glowed as they rested uponRosamund.

  "I come in haste," he said, "like any callow lover, guided by my everyinstinct to the presence of her I seek--this Frankish pearl, thispen-faced captive of thy latest raid. I was away from the Kasbah whenthat pig Tsamanni returned thither from the sok; but when at last Ilearnt that he had failed to purchase her as I commanded, I could havewept for very grief. I feared at first that some merchant from theSus might have bought her and departed; but when I heard--blessed beAllah!--that thou wert the buyer, I was comforted again. For thou'ltyield her up to me, my son."

  He spoke with such confidence that Oliver had a difficulty in choosingthe words that were to disillusion him. Therefore he stood in hesitancya moment.

  "I will make good thy, loss," Asad ran on. "Thou shalt have the sixteenhundred philips paid and another five hundred to console thee. Say thatwill content thee; for I boil with impatience."

  Sakr-el-Bahr smiled grimly. "It is an impatience well known to me, mylord, where she is concerned," he answered slowly. "I boiled withit myself for five interminable years. To make an end of it I went adistant perilous voyage to England in a captured Frankish vessel. Thoudidst not know, O Asad, else thou wouldst...."

  "Bah!" broke in the Basha. "Thou'rt a huckster born. There is none likethee, Sakr-el-Bahr, in any game of wits. Well, well, name thine ownprice, strike thine own profit out of my impatience and let us havedone."

  "My lord," he said quietly, "it is not the profit that is in question.She is not for sale."

  Asad blinked at him, speechless, and slowly a faint colour crept intohis sallow cheeks.

  "Not... not for sale?" he echoed, faltering in his amazement.

  "Not if thou offered me thy Bashalik as the price of her," was thesolemn answer. Then more warmly, in a voice that held a note ofintercession--"Ask anything else that is mine," he continued, "andgladly will I lay it at thy feet in earnest of my loyalty and love forthee."

  "But I want nothing else." Asad's tone was impatient, petulant almost."I want this slave."

  "Then," replied Oliver, "I cast myself upon thy mercy and beseech theeto turn thine eyes elsewhere."

  Asad scowled upon him. "Dost thou deny me?" he demanded, throwing backhis head.

  "Alas!" said Sakr-el-Bahr.

  There fell a pause. Darker and darker grew the countenance of Asad,fiercer glowed the eyes he bent upon his lieutenant. "I see," he said atlast, with a calm so oddly at variance with his looks as to be sinister."I see. It seems that there is more truth in Fenzileh than I suspected.So!" He considered the corsair a moment with his sunken smoulderingeyes.

  Then he addressed him in a tone that vibrated with his suppressed anger."Bethink thee, Sakr-el-Bahr, of what thou art, of what I have made thee.Bethink thee of all the bounty these hands have lavished on thee. Thouart my own lieutenant, and mayest one day be more. In Algiers there isnone above thee save myself. Art, then, so thankless as to deny me thefirst thing I ask of thee? Truly is it written 'Ungrateful is Man.'"

  "Didst thou know," began Sakr-el-Bahr, "all that is involved for me inthis...."

  "I neither know nor care," Asad cut in. "Whatever it may be, it shouldbe as naught when set against my will." Then he discarded anger forcajolery. He set a hand upon Sakr-el-Bahr's stalwart shoulder. "Come, myson. I will deal generously with thee out of my love, and I will put thyrefusal from my mind."

  "Be generous, my lord, to the point of forgetting that ever thou didstask me for her."

  "Dost still refuse?" The voice, honeyed an instant ago, rang harshagain. "Take care how far thou strain my patience. Even as I have raisedthee from the dirt, so at a word can I cast thee down again. Even asI broke the shackles that chained thee to the rowers' bench, so can Irivet them on thee anew."

  "All this canst thou do," Sakr-el-Bahr agreed. "And since, knowing it,I still hold to what is doubly mine--by right of capture and ofpurchase--thou mayest conceive how mighty are my reasons. Be merciful,then, Asad...."

  "Must I take her by force in spite of thee?" roared the Basha.

  Sakr-el-Bahr stiffened. He threw back his head and looked the Bashasquarely in the eyes.

  "Whilst I live, not even that mayest thou do," he answered.

  "Disloyal, mutinous dog! Wilt thou resist me--me?"

  "It is my prayer that thou'lt not be so ungenerous and unjust as tocompel thy servant to a course so hateful."

  Asad sneered. "Is that thy last word?" he demanded.

  "Save only that in all things else I am thy slave, O Asad."

  A moment the Basha stood regarding him, his glance baleful. Thendeliberately, as one who has taken his resolve, he strode to the door.On the threshold he paused and turned again. "Wait!" he said, and onthat threatening word departed.

  Sakr-el-Bahr remained a moment where he had stood during the interview,then with a shrug he turned. He met Rosamund's eyes fixed intently uponhim, and invested with a look he could not read. He found himself unableto meet it, and he turned away. It was inevitable that in such a momentthe earlier stab of remorse should be repeated. He had overreachedhimself indeed. Despair settled down upon him, a full consciousness ofthe horrible thing he had done, which seemed now so irrevocable. In hissilent anguish he almost conceived that he had mistaken his feelings forRosamund; that far from hating her as he had supposed, his love for herhad not yet been slain, else surely he should not be tortured now by thethought of her becoming Asad's prey. If he hated her, indeed, as he hadsupposed, he would have surrendered her and gloated.

  He wondered was his present frame of mind purely the result of hisdiscovery that the appearances against him had been stronger far thanhe imagined, so strong as to justify her conviction that he was herbrother's slayer.

  And then her voice, crisp and steady, cut into his torture ofconsideration.

  "Why did you deny him?"

  He swung round again to face her, amazed, horror-stricken.

  "You understood?" he gasped.

  "I understood enough," said she. "This lingua franca is none sodifferent from French." And again she asked--"Why did you deny him?"

  He paced across to her side and stood looking down at her.

  "Do you ask why?"

  "Indeed," she said bitterly, "there is scarce the need perhaps. And yetcan it be that your lust of vengeance is so insatiable that sooner thanwillingly forgo an ounce of it you will lose your head?"

  His face became grim again. "Of course," he sneered, "it would be sothat you'd interpret me."

  "Nay. If I have asked it is because I doubt."

  "Do you realize what it can mean to become the prey of Asad-ed-Din?"

  She shuddered, and her glance fell from his, yet her voice was composedwhen she answered him--"Is it so very much worse than becoming the preyof Oliver-Reis or Sakr-el-Bahr, or whatever they may call you?"

  "If you say that it is all one to you there's an end to my opposinghim," he answered coldly. "You may go to him. If I resisted him--like afool, perhaps--it was for no sake of vengeance upon you. It was becausethe thought of it fills me with horror."
r />   "Then it should fill you with horror of yourself no less," said she.

  His answer startled her.

  "Perhaps it does," he said, scarcely above a murmur. "Perhaps it does."

  She flashed him an upward glance and looked as if she would havespoken. But he went on, suddenly passionate, without giving her timeto interrupt him. "O God! It needed this to show me the vileness of thething I have done. Asad has no such motives as had I. I wanted you thatI might punish you. But he...O God!" he groaned, and for a moment puthis face to his hands.

  She rose slowly, a strange agitation stirring in her, her bosomgalloping. But in his overwrought condition he failed to observe it. Andthen like a ray of hope to illumine his despair came the counsel thatFenzileh had given him, the barrier which she had said that Asad, beinga devout Muslim, would never dare to violate.

  "There is a way," he cried. "There is the way suggested by Fenzilehat the promptings of her malice." An instant he hesitated, his eyesaverted. Then he made his plunge. "You must marry me."

  It was almost as if he had struck her. She recoiled. Instantly suspicionawoke in her; swiftly it drew to a conviction that he had but sought totrick her by a pretended penitence.

  "Marry you!" she echoed.

  "Ay," he insisted. And he set himself to explain to her how if she werehis wife she must be sacred and inviolable to all good Muslimeen, thatnone could set a finger upon her without doing outrage to the Prophet'sholy law, and that, whoever might be so disposed, Asad was not of those,since Asad was perfervidly devout. "Thus only," he ended, "can I placeyou beyond his reach."

  But she was still scornfully reluctant.

  "It is too desperate a remedy even for so desperate an ill," said she,and thus drove him into a frenzy of impatience with her.

  "You must, I say," he insisted, almost angrily. "You must--or elseconsent to be borne this very night to Asad's hareem--and not even ashis wife, but as his slave. Oh, you must trust me for your own sake! Youmust!"

  "Trust you!" she cried, and almost laughed in the intensity of herscorn. "Trust you! How can I trust one who is a renegade and worse?"

  He controlled himself that he might reason with her, that by cold logiche might conquer her consent.

  "You are very unmerciful," he said. "In judging me you leave out ofall account the suffering through which I have gone and what yourselfcontributed to it. Knowing now how falsely I was accused and what otherbitter wrongs I suffered, consider that I was one to whom the man andthe woman I most loved in all this world had proven false. I had lostfaith in man and in God, and if I became a Muslim, a renegade, and acorsair, it was because there was no other gate by which I could escapethe unutterable toil of the oar to which I had been chained." He lookedat her sadly. "Can you find no excuse for me in all that?"

  It moved her a little, for if she maintained a hostile attitude, atleast she put aside her scorn.

  "No wrongs," she told him, almost with sorrow in her voice, "couldjustify you in outraging chivalry, in dishonouring your manhood, inabusing your strength to persecute a woman. Whatever the causes that mayhave led to it, you have fallen too low, sir, to make it possible that Ishould trust you."

  He bowed his head under the rebuke which already he had uttered in hisown heart. It was just and most deserved, and since he recognized itsjustice he found it impossible to resent it.

  "I know," he said. "But I am not asking you to trust me to my profit,but to your own. It is for your sake alone that I implore you to dothis." Upon a sudden inspiration he drew the heavy dagger from hisgirdle and proffered it, hilt foremost. "If you need an earnest of mygood faith," he said, "take this knife with which to-night you attemptedto stab yourself. At the first sign that I am false to my trust, use itas you will--upon me or upon yourself."

  She pondered him in some surprise. Then slowly she put out her hand totake the weapon, as he bade her.

  "Are you not afraid," she asked him, "that I shall use it now, and somake an end?"

  "I am trusting you," he said, "that in return you may trust me. Further,I am arming you against the worst. For if it comes to choice betweendeath and Asad, I shall approve your choice of death. But let me addthat it were foolish to choose death whilst yet there is a chance oflife."

  "What chance?" she asked, with a faint return of her old scorn. "Thechance of life with you?"

  "No," he answered firmly. "If you will trust me, I swear that I willseek to undo the evil I have done. Listen. At dawn my galeasse sets outupon a raid. I will convey you secretly aboard and find a way to landyou in some Christian country--Italy or France--whence you may make yourway home again."

  "But meanwhile," she reminded him, "I shall have become your wife."

  He smiled wistfully. "Do you still fear a trap? Can naught convince youof my sincerity? A Muslim marriage is not binding upon a Christian, andI shall account it no marriage. It will be no more than a pretence toshelter you until we are away."

  "How can I trust your word in that?"

  "How?" He paused, baffled; but only for a moment. "You have the dagger,"he answered pregnantly.

  She stood considering, her eyes upon the weapon's lividly gleamingblade. "And this marriage?" she asked. "How is it to take place?"

  He explained to her then that by the Muslim law all that was requiredwas a declaration made before a kadi, or his superior, and in thepresence of witnesses. He was still at his explanation when from belowthere came a sound of voices, the tramp of feet, and the flash oftorches.

  "Here is Asad returning in force," he cried, and his voice trembled. "Doyou consent?"

  "But the kadi?" she inquired, and by the question he knew that she waswon to his way of saving her.

  "I said the kadi or his superior. Asad himself shall be our priest, hisfollowers our witnesses."

  "And if he refuses? He will refuse!" she cried, clasping her handsbefore her in her excitement.

  "I shall not ask him. I shall take him by surprise."

  "It... it must anger him. He may avenge himself for what he must deem atrick."

  "Ay," he answered, wild-eyed. "I have thought of that, too. But it is arisk we must run. If we do not prevail, then--"

  "I have the dagger," she cried fearlessly.

  "And for me there will be the rope or the sword," he answered. "Be calm!They come!"

  But the steps that pattered up the stairs were Ali's. He flung upon theterrace in alarm.

  "My lord, my lord! Asad-ed-Din is here in force. He has an armedfollowing with him!"

  "There is naught to fear," said Sakr-el-Bahr, with every show of calm."All will be well."

  Asad swept up the stairs and out upon that terrace to confront hisrebellious lieutenant. After him came a dozen black-robed janissarieswith scimitars along which the light of the torches rippled in littlerunnels as of blood.

  The Basha came to a halt before Sakr-el-Bahr, his arms majesticallyfolded, his head thrown back, so that his long white beard juttedforward.

  "I am returned," he said, "to employ force where gentleness will notavail. Yet I pray that Allah may have lighted thee to a wiser frame ofmind."

  "He has, indeed, my lord," replied Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "The praise to Him!" exclaimed Asad in a voice that rang with joy. "Thegirl, then!" And he held out a hand.

  Sakr-el-Bahr stepped back to her and took her hand in his as if to leadher forward. Then he spoke the fateful words.

  "In Allah's Holy Name and in His All-seeing eyes, before thee,Asad-ed-Din, and in the presence of these witnesses, I take this womanto be my wife by the merciful law of the Prophet of Allah the All-wise,the All-pitying."

  The words were out and the thing was done before Asad had realized thecorsair's intent. A gasp of dismay escaped him; then his visage grewinflamed, his eyes blazed.

  But Sakr-el-Bahr, cool and undaunted before that royal anger, took thescarf that lay about Rosamund's shoulders, and raising it, flung it overher head, so that her face was covered by it.

  "May Allah rot off the hand of him who
in contempt of our Lord Mahomet'sholy law may dare to unveil that face, and may Allah bless this unionand cast into the pit of Gehenna any who shall attempt to dissolve abond that is tied in His All-seeing eyes."

  It was formidable. Too formidable for Asad-ed-Din. Behind him hisjanissaries like hounds in leash stood eagerly awaiting his command.But none came. He stood there breathing heavily, swaying a little, andturning from red to pale in the battle that was being fought within himbetween rage and vexation on the one hand and his profound piety on theother. And as he yet hesitated perhaps Sakr-el-Bahr assisted his pietyto gain the day.

  "Now you will understand why I would not yield her, O mighty Asad," hesaid. "Thyself hast thou oft and rightly reproached me with my celibacy,reminding me that it is not pleasing in the sight of Allah, that it isunworthy a good Muslim. At last it hath pleased the Prophet to send mesuch a maid as I could take to wife."

  Asad bowed his head. "What is written is written," he said in the voiceof one who admonished himself. Then he raised his arms aloft. "Allah isAll-knowing," he declared. "His will be done!"

  "Ameen," said Sakr-el-Bahr very solemnly and with a great surge ofthankful prayer to his own long-forgotten God.

  The Basha stayed yet a moment, as if he would have spoken. Then abruptlyhe turned and waved a hand to his janissaries. "Away!" was all he saidto them, and stalked out in their wake.

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