The sea hawk, p.24
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.24

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XIV. THE SIGN

  From behind her lattice, still breathless from the haste she had made,and with her whelp Marzak at her side, Fenzileh had witnessed that firstangry return of the Basha from the house of Sakr-el-Bahr.

  She had heard him bawling for Abdul Mohktar, the leader of hisjanissaries, and she had seen the hasty mustering of a score of thesesoldiers in the courtyard, where the ruddy light of torches mingled withthe white light of the full moon. She had seen them go hurrying awaywith Asad himself at their head, and she had not known whether to weepor to laugh, whether to fear or to rejoice.

  "It is done," Marzak had cried exultantly. "The dog hath withstood himand so destroyed himself. There will be an end to Sakr-el-Bahr thisnight." And he had added: "The praise to Allah!"

  But from Fenzileh came no response to his prayer of thanksgiving. True,Sakr-el-Bahr must be destroyed, and by a sword that she herself hadforged. Yet was it not inevitable that the stroke which laid him lowmust wound her on its repercussion? That was the question to which nowshe sought an answer. For all her eagerness to speed the corsair to hisdoom, she had paused sufficiently to weigh the consequences to herself;she had not overlooked the circumstance that an inevitable result ofthis must be Asad's appropriation of that Frankish slave-girl. But atthe time it had seemed to her that even this price was worth paying toremove Sakr-el-Bahr definitely and finally from her son's path--whichshows that, after all, Fenzileh the mother was capable of someself-sacrifice. She comforted herself now with the reflection thatthe influence, whose waning she feared might be occasioned by theintroduction of a rival into Asad's hareem, would no longer be sovitally necessary to herself and Marzak once Sakr-el-Bahr were removed.The rest mattered none so much to her. Yet it mattered something, andthe present state of things left her uneasy, her mind a cockpit ofemotions. Her grasp could not encompass all her desires at once, itseemed; and whilst she could gloat over the gratification of one, shemust bewail the frustration of another. Yet in the main she felt thatshe should account herself the gainer.

  In this state of mind she had waited, scarce heeding the savagely joyousand entirely selfish babblings of her cub, who cared little what mightbetide his mother as the price of the removal of that hated rivalfrom his path. For him, at least, there was nothing but profit in thebusiness, no cause for anything but satisfaction; and that satisfactionhe voiced with a fine contempt for his mother's feelings.

  Anon they witnessed Asad's return. They saw the janissaries comeswinging into the courtyard and range themselves there whilst the Bashamade his appearance, walking slowly, with steps that dragged a little,his head sunk upon his breast, his hands behind him. They waited to seeslaves following him, leading or carrying the girl he had gone to fetch.But they waited in vain, intrigued and uneasy.

  They heard the harsh voice in which Asad dismissed his followers, andthe clang of the closing gate; and they saw him pacing there alone inthe moonlight, ever in that attitude of dejection.

  What had happened? Had he killed them both? Had the girl resisted him tosuch an extent that he had lost all patience and in one of those ragesbegotten of such resistance made an end of her?

  Thus did Fenzileh question herself, and since she could not doubt butthat Sakr-el-Bahr was slain, she concluded that the rest must be as sheconjectured. Yet, the suspense torturing her, she summoned Ayoub andsent him to glean from Abdul Mohktar the tale of what had passed. In hisown hatred of Sakr-el-Bahr, Ayoub went willingly enough and hoping forthe worst. He returned disappointed, with a tale that sowed dismay inFenzileh and Marzak.

  Fenzileh, however, made a swift recovery. After all, it was the bestthat could have happened. It should not be difficult to transmute thatobvious dejection of Asad's into resentment, and to fan this into arage that must end by consuming Sakr-el-Bahr. And so the thing could beaccomplished without jeopardy to her own place at Asad's side. Forit was inconceivable that he should now take Rosamund to his hareem.Already the fact that she had been paraded with naked face among theFaithful must in itself have been a difficult obstacle to his pride. Butit was utterly impossible that he could so subject his self-respect tohis desire as to take to himself a woman who had been the wife of hisservant.

  Fenzileh saw her way very clearly. It was through Asad's devoutness--asshe herself had advised, though scarcely expecting such rich results asthese--that he had been thwarted by Sakr-el-Bahr. That same devoutnessmust further be played upon now to do the rest.

  Taking up a flimsy silken veil, she went out to him where he now saton the divan under the awning, alone there in the tepid-scented summernight. She crept to his side with the soft, graceful, questingmovements of a cat, and sat there a moment unheeded almost--such was hisabstraction--her head resting lightly against his shoulder.

  "Lord of my soul," she murmured presently, "thou art sorrowing." Hervoice was in itself a soft and soothing caress.

  He started, and she caught the gleam of his eyes turned suddenly uponher.

  "Who told thee so?" he asked suspiciously.

  "My heart," she answered, her voice melodious as a viol. "Can sorrowburden thine and mine go light?" she wooed him. "Is happiness possibleto me when thou art downcast? In there I felt thy melancholy, and thyneed of me, and I am come to share thy burden, or to bear it all forthee." Her arms were raised, and her fingers interlocked themselves uponhis shoulder.

  He looked down at her, and his expression softened. He needed comfort,and never was she more welcome to him.

  Gradually and with infinite skill she drew from him the story of whathad happened. When she had gathered it, she loosed her indignation.

  "The dog!" she cried. "The faithless, ungrateful hound! Yet have Iwarned thee against him, O light of my poor eyes, and thou hast scornedme for the warnings uttered by my love. Now at last thou knowest him,and he shall trouble thee no longer. Thou'lt cast him off, reduce himagain to the dust from which thy bounty raised him."

  But Asad did not respond. He sat there in a gloomy abstraction, staringstraight before him. At last he sighed wearily. He was just, and he hada conscience, as odd a thing as it was awkward in a corsair Basha.

  "In what hath befallen," he answered moodily, "there is naught tojustify me in casting aside the stoutest soldier of Islam. My duty toAllah will not suffer it."

  "Yet his duty to thee suffered him to thwart thee, O my lord," shereminded him very softly.

  "In my desires--ay!" he answered, and for a moment his voice quiveredwith passion. Then he repressed it, and continued more calmly--"Shallmy self-seeking overwhelm my duty to the Faith? Shall the matter ofa slave-girl urge me to sacrifice the bravest soldier of Islam, thestoutest champion of the Prophet's law? Shall I bring down upon myhead the vengeance of the One by destroying a man who is a scourge ofscorpions unto the infidel--and all this that I may gratify my personalanger against him, that I may avenge the thwarting of a petty desire?"

  "Dost thou still say, O my life, that Sakr-el-Bahr is the stoutestchampion of the Prophet's law?" she asked him softly, yet on a note ofamazement.

  "It is not I that say it, but his deeds," he answered sullenly.

  "I know of one deed no True-Believer could have wrought. If proof wereneeded of his infidelity he hath now afforded it in taking to himselfa Nasrani wife. Is it not written in the Book to be Read: 'Marry notidolatresses'? Is not that the Prophet's law, and hath he not brokenit, offending at once against Allah and against thee, O fountain of mysoul?"

  Asad frowned. Here was truth indeed, something that he had entirelyoverlooked. Yet justice compelled him still to defend Sakr-el-Bahr, orelse perhaps he but reasoned to prove to himself that the case againstthe corsair was indeed complete.

  "He may have sinned in thoughtlessness," he suggested.

  At that she cried out in admiration of him. "What a fount of mercyand forbearance art thou, O father of Marzak! Thou'rt right as in allthings. It was no doubt in thoughtlessness that he offended, but wouldsuch thoughtlessness be possible in a True-Believer--in one worthy to bedubbed by t
hee the champion of the Prophet's Holy Law?"

  It was a shrewd thrust, that pierced the armour of conscience in whichhe sought to empanoply himself. He sat very thoughtful, scowling darklyat the inky shadow of the wall which the moon was casting. Suddenly herose.

  "By Allah, thou art right!" he cried. "So that he thwarted me and keptthat Frankish woman for himself, he cared not how he sinned against thelaw."

  She glided to her knees and coiled her arms about his waist, looking upat him. "Still art thou ever merciful, ever sparing in adverse judgment.Is that all his fault, O Asad?"

  "All?" he questioned, looking down at her. "What more is there?"

  "I would there were no more. Yet more there is, to which thy angelicmercy blinds thee. He did worse. Not merely was he reckless of how hesinned against the law, he turned the law to his own base uses and sodefiled it."

  "How?" he asked quickly, eagerly almost.

  "He employed it as a bulwark behind which to shelter himself and her.Knowing that thou who art the Lion and defender of the Faith wouldstbend obediently to what is written in the Book, he married her to placeher beyond thy reach."

  "The praise to Him who is All-wise and lent me strength to do naughtunworthy!" he cried in a great voice, glorifying himself. "I might haveslain him to dissolve the impious bond, yet I obeyed what is written."

  "Thy forbearance hath given joy to the angels," she answered him, "andyet a man was found so base as to trade upon it and upon thy piety, OAsad!"

  He shook off her clasp, and strode away from her a prey to agitation. Hepaced to and fro in the moonlight there, and she, well-content, reclinedupon the cushions of the divan, a thing of infinite grace, her gleamingeyes discreetly veiled from him--waiting until her poison should havedone its work.

  She saw him halt, and fling up his arms, as if apostrophizing Heaven, asif asking a question of the stars that twinkled in the wide-flung nimbusof the moon.

  Then at last he paced slowly back to her. He was still undecided. Therewas truth in what she had said; yet he knew and weighed her hatred ofSakr-el-Bahr, knew how it must urge her to put the worst constructionupon any act of his, knew her jealousy for Marzak, and so he mistrustedher arguments and mistrusted himself. Also there was his own loveof Sakr-el-Bahr that would insist upon a place in the balance of hisjudgment. His mind was in turmoil.

  "Enough," he said almost roughly. "I pray that Allah may send me counselin the night." And upon that he stalked past her, up the steps, and sointo the house.

  She followed him. All night she lay at his feet to be ready at the firstpeep of dawn to buttress a purpose that she feared was still weak, andwhilst he slept fitfully, she slept not at all, but lay wide-eyed andwatchful.

  At the first note of the mueddin's voice, he leapt from his couchobedient to its summons, and scarce had the last note of it died uponthe winds of dawn than he was afoot, beating his hands together tosummon slaves and issuing his orders, from which she gathered that hewas for the harbour there and then.

  "May Allah have inspired thee, O my lord!" she cried. And asked him:"What is thy resolve?"

  "I go to seek a sign," he answered her, and upon that departed, leavingher in a frame of mind that was far from easy.

  She summoned Marzak, and bade him accompany his father, breathed swiftinstructions of what he should do and how do it.

  "Thy fate has been placed in thine own hands," she admonished him. "Seethat thou grip it firmly now."

  In the courtyard Marzak found his father in the act of mounting a whitemule that had been brought him.

  He was attended by his wazeer Tsamanni, Biskaine, and some other of hiscaptains. Marzak begged leave to go with him. It was carelessly granted,and they set out, Marzak walking by his father's stirrup, a little inadvance of the others. For a while there was silence between father andson, then the latter spoke.

  "It is my prayer, O my father, that thou art resolved to depose thefaithless Sakr-el-Bahr from the command of this expedition."

  Asad considered his son with a sombre eye. "Even now the galeasseshould be setting out if the argosy is to be intercepted," he said. "IfSakr-el-Bahr does not command, who shall, in Heaven's name?"

  "Try me, O my father," cried Marzak.

  Asad smiled with grim wistfulness. "Art weary of life, O my son, thatthou wouldst go to thy death and take the galeasse to destruction?"

  "Thou art less than just, O my father," Marzak protested.

  "Yet more than kind, O my son," replied Asad, and they went on insilence thereafter, until they came to the mole.

  The splendid galeasse was moored alongside, and all about her there wasgreat bustle of preparation for departure. Porters moved up and down thegangway that connected her with the shore, carrying bales of provisions,barrels of water, kegs of gunpowder, and other necessaries for thevoyage, and even as Asad and his followers reached the head of thatgangway, four negroes were staggering down it under the load of a hugepalmetto bale that was slung from staves yoked to their shoulders.

  On the poop stood Sakr-el-Bahr with Othmani, Ali, Jasper-Reis, and someother officers. Up and down the gangway paced Larocque and Vigitello,two renegade boatswains, one French and the other Italian, who hadsailed with him on every voyage for the past two years. Larocque wassuperintending the loading of the vessel, bawling his orders for thebestowal of provisions here, of water yonder, and of powder about themainmast. Vigitello was making a final inspection of the slaves at theoars.

  As the palmetto pannier was brought aboard, Larocque shouted tothe negroes to set it down by the mainmast. But here Sakr-el-Bahrinterfered, bidding them, instead, to bring it up to the stern and placeit in the poop-house.

  Asad had dismounted, and stood with Marzak at his side at the head ofthe gangway when the youth finally begged his father himself to takecommand of this expedition, allowing him to come as his lieutenant andso learn the ways of the sea.

  Asad looked at him curiously, but answered nothing. He went aboard,Marzak and the others following him. It was at this moment thatSakr-el-Bahr first became aware of the Basha's presence, and he cameinstantly forward to do the honours of his galley. If there was a suddenuneasiness in his heart his face was calm and his glance as arrogant andsteady as ever.

  "May the peace of Allah overshadow thee and thy house, O mighty Asad,"was his greeting. "We are on the point of casting off, and I shall sailthe more securely for thy blessing."

  Asad considered him with eyes of wonder. So much effrontery, so muchease after their last scene together seemed to the Basha a thingincredible, unless, indeed, it were accompanied by a conscience entirelyat peace.

  "It has been proposed to me that I shall do more than bless thisexpedition--that I shall command it," he answered, watching Sakr-el-Bahrclosely. He observed the sudden flicker of the corsair's eyes, the onlyoutward sign of his inward dismay.

  "Command it?" echoed Sakr-el-Bahr. "'Twas proposed to thee?" And helaughed lightly as if to dismiss that suggestion.

  That laugh was a tactical error. It spurred Asad. He advanced slowlyalong the vessel's waist-deck to the mainmast--for she was rigged withmain and foremasts. There he halted again to look into the face ofSakr-el-Bahr who stepped along beside him.

  "Why didst thou laugh?" he questioned shortly.

  "Why? At the folly of such a proposal," said Sakr-el-Bahr in haste, toomuch in haste to seek a diplomatic answer.

  Darker grew the Basha's frown. "Folly?" quoth he. "Wherein lies thefolly?"

  Sakr-el-Bahr made haste to cover his mistake. "In the suggestion thatsuch poor quarry as waits us should be worthy thine endeavour, shouldwarrant the Lion of the Faith to unsheathe his mighty claws. Thou," hecontinued with ringing scorn, "thou the inspirer of a hundred gloriousfights in which whole fleets have been engaged, to take the seas upon sotrivial an errand--one galeasse to swoop upon a single galley of Spain!It were unworthy thy great name, beneath the dignity of thy valour!" andby a gesture he contemptuously dismissed the subject.

  But Asad continued to ponder him
with cold eyes, his face inscrutable."Why, here's a change since yesterday!" he said.

  "A change, my lord?"

  "But yesterday in the market-place thyself didst urge me to jointhis expedition and to command it," Asad reminded him, speaking withdeliberate emphasis. "Thyself invoked the memory of the days thatare gone, when, scimitar in hand, we charged side by side aboard theinfidel, and thou didst beseech me to engage again beside thee. Andnow...." He spread his hands, anger gathered in his eyes. "Whence thischange?" he demanded sternly.

  Sakr-el-Bahr hesitated, caught in his own toils. He looked away fromAsad a moment; he had a glimpse of the handsome flushed face of Marzakat his father's elbow, of Biskaine, Tsamanni, and the others all staringat him in amazement, and even of some grimy sunburned faces from therowers' bench on his left that were looking on with dull curiosity.

  He smiled, seeming outwardly to remain entirely unruffled. "Why... it isthat I have come to perceive thy reasons for refusing. For the rest, itis as I say, the quarry is not worthy of the hunter."

  Marzak uttered a soft sneering laugh, as if the true reason of thecorsair's attitude were quite clear to him. He fancied too, and he wasright in this, that Sakr-el-Bahr's odd attitude had accomplished whatpersuasions addressed to Asad-ed-Din might to the end have failed toaccomplish--had afforded him the sign he was come to seek. For it was inthat moment that Asad determined to take command himself.

  "It almost seems," he said slowly, smiling, "as if thou didst not wantme. If so, it is unfortunate; for I have long neglected my duty to myson, and I am resolved at last to repair that error. We accompany theeupon this expedition, Sakr-el-Bahr. Myself I will command it, and Marzakshall be my apprentice in the ways of the sea."

  Sakr-el-Bahr said not another word in protest against that proclaimedresolve. He salaamed, and when he spoke there was almost a note ofgladness in his voice.

  "The praise to Allah, then, since thou'rt determined. It is not for meto urge further the unworthiness of the quarry since I am the gainer bythy resolve."

 
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