The sea hawk, p.25
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.25

           Rafael Sabatini


  His resolve being taken, Asad drew Tsamanni aside and spent some momentsin talk with him, giving him certain instructions for the conduct ofaffairs ashore during his absence. That done, and the wazeer dismissed,the Basha himself gave the order to cast off, an order which there wasno reason to delay, since all was now in readiness.

  The gangway was drawn ashore, the boatswains whistle sounded, and thesteersmen leapt to their niches in the stern, grasping the shafts of thegreat steering-oars. A second blast rang out, and down the gangway-deckcame Vigitello and two of his mates, all three armed with long whipsof bullock-hide, shouting to the slaves to make ready. And then, on thenote of a third blast of Larocque's whistle, the fifty-four poised oarsdipped to the water, two hundred and fifty bodies bent as one, and whenthey heaved themselves upright again the great galeasse shot forward andso set out upon her adventurous voyage. From her mainmast the red flagwith its green crescent was unfurled to the breeze, and from the crowdedmole, and the beach where a long line of spectators had gathered, thereburst a great cry of valediction.

  That breeze blowing stiffly from the desert was Lionel's friend thatday. Without it his career at the oar might have been short indeed. Hewas chained, like the rest, stark naked, save for a loincloth, in theplace nearest the gangway on the first starboard bench abaft the narrowwaist-deck, and ere the galeasse had made the short distance between themole and the island at the end of it, the boatswain's whip had coileditself about his white shoulders to urge him to better exertion thanhe was putting forth. He had screamed under the cruel cut, but none hadheeded him. Lest the punishment should be repeated, he had thrown allhis weight into the next strokes of the oar, until by the time thePenon was reached the sweat was running down his body and his heartwas thudding against his ribs. It was not possible that it could havelasted, and his main agony lay in that he realized it, and saw himselfface to face with horrors inconceivable that must await the exhaustionof his strength. He was not naturally robust, and he had led a soft andpampered life that was very far from equipping him for such a test asthis.

  But as they reached the Penon and felt the full vigour of that warmbreeze, Sakr-el-Bahr, who by Asad's command remained in charge of thenavigation, ordered the unfurling of the enormous lateen sails onmain and foremasts. They ballooned out, swelling to the wind, and thegaleasse surged forward at a speed that was more than doubled. The orderto cease rowing followed, and the slaves were left to return thanks toHeaven for their respite, and to rest in their chains until such time astheir sinews should be required again.

  The vessel's vast prow, which ended in a steel ram and was armed with aculverin on either quarter, was crowded with lounging corsairs, whotook their ease there until the time to engage should be upon them. Theyleaned on the high bulwarks or squatted in groups, talking, laughing,some of them tailoring and repairing garments, others burnishing theirweapons or their armour, and one swarthy youth there was who thrummed agimri and sang a melancholy Shilha love-song to the delight of ascore or so of bloodthirsty ruffians squatting about him in a ring ofvariegated colour.

  The gorgeous poop was fitted with a spacious cabin, to which admissionwas gained by two archways curtained with stout silken tapestries uponwhose deep red ground the crescent was wrought in brilliant green. Abovethe cabin stood the three cressets or stern-lamps, great structures ofgilded iron surmounted each by the orb and crescent. As if to continuethe cabin forward and increase its size, a green awning was erected fromit to shade almost half the poop-deck. Here cushions were thrown, andupon these squatted now Asad-ed-Din with Marzak, whilst Biskaine andsome three or four other officers who had escorted him aboard and whomhe had retained beside him for that voyage, were lounging upon thegilded balustrade at the poop's forward end, immediately above therowers' benches.

  Sakr-el-Bahr alone, a solitary figure, resplendent in caftan and turbanthat were of cloth of silver, leaned upon the bulwarks of the larboardquarter of the poop-deck, and looked moodily back upon the receding cityof Algiers which by now was no more than an agglomeration of white cubespiled up the hillside in the morning sunshine.

  Asad watched him silently awhile from under his beetling brows, thensummoned him. He came at once, and stood respectfully before his prince.

  Asad considered him a moment solemnly, whilst a furtive malicious smileplayed over the beautiful countenance of his son.

  "Think not, Sakr-el-Bahr," he said at length, "that I bear theeresentment for what befell last night or that that happening is thesole cause of my present determination. I had a duty--a long-neglectedduty--to Marzak, which at last I have undertaken to perform." He seemedto excuse himself almost, and Marzak misliked both words and tone. Why,he wondered, must this fierce old man, who had made his name a terrorthroughout Christendom, be ever so soft and yielding where that stalwartand arrogant infidel was concerned?

  Sakr-el-Bahr bowed solemnly. "My lord," he said, "it is not for me toquestion thy resolves or the thoughts that may have led to them. Itsuffices me to know thy wishes; they are my law."

  "Are they so?" said Asad tartly. "Thy deeds will scarce bear out thyprotestations." He sighed. "Sorely was I wounded yesternight when thymarriage thwarted me and placed that Frankish maid beyond my reach. YetI respect this marriage of thine, as all Muslims must--for all thatin itself it was unlawful. But there!" he ended with a shrug. "We sailtogether once again to crush the Spaniard. Let no ill-will on eitherside o'er-cloud the splendour of our task."

  "Ameen to that, my lord," said Sakr-el-Bahr devoutly. "I almostfeared...."

  "No more!" the Basha interrupted him. "Thou wert never a man to fearanything, which is why I have loved thee as a son."

  But it suited Marzak not at all that the matter should be thusdismissed, that it should conclude upon a note of weakening from hisfather, upon what indeed amounted to a speech of reconciliation. BeforeSakr-el-Bahr could make answer he had cut in to set him a question ladenwith wicked intent.

  "How will thy bride beguile the season of thine absence, OSakr-el-Bahr?"

  "I have lived too little with women to be able to give thee an answer,"said the corsair.

  Marzak winced before a reply that seemed to reflect upon himself. But hereturned to the attack.

  "I compassionate thee that art the slave of duty, driven so soon toabandon the delight of her soft arms. Where hast thou bestowed her, Ocaptain?"

  "Where should a Muslim bestow his wife but according to the biddings ofthe Prophet--in the house?"

  Marzak sneered. "Verily, I marvel at thy fortitude in quitting her sosoon!"

  But Asad caught the sneer, and stared at his son. "What cause is thereto marvel in that a true Muslim should sacrifice his inclinations tothe service of the Faith?" His tone was a rebuke; but it left Marzakundismayed. The youth sprawled gracefully upon his cushions, one legtucked under him.

  "Place no excess of faith in appearances, O my father!" he said.

  "No more!" growled the Basha. "Peace to thy tongue, Marzak, and mayAllah the All-knowing smile upon our expedition, lending strength toour arms to smite the infidel to whom the fragrance of the garden isforbidden."

  To this again Sakr-el-Bahr replied "Ameen," but an uneasiness abode inhis heart summoned thither by the questions Marzak had set him. Werethey idle words calculated to do no more than plague him, and to keepfresh in Asad's mind the memory of Rosamund, or were they based uponsome actual knowledge?

  His fears were to be quickened soon on that same score. He was leaningthat afternoon upon the rail, idly observing the doling out of therations to the slaves, when Marzak came to join him.

  For some moments he stood silently beside Sakr-el-Bahr watchingVigitello and his men as they passed from bench to bench serving outbiscuits and dried dates to the rowers--but sparingly, for oars movesluggishly when stomachs are too well nourished--and giving each todrink a cup of vinegar and water in which floated a few drops of addedoil.

  Then he pointed to a large palmetto bale that stood on the waist-de
cknear the mainmast about which the powder barrels were stacked.

  "That pannier," he said, "seems to me oddly in the way yonder. Wereit not better to bestow it in the hold, where it will cease to be anencumbrance in case of action?"

  Sakr-el-Bahr experienced a slight tightening at the heart. He knew thatMarzak had heard him command that bale to be borne into the poop-cabin,and that anon he had ordered it to be fetched thence when Asad hadannounced his intention of sailing with him. He realized that this initself might be a suspicious circumstance; or, rather, knowing whatthe bale contained, he was too ready to fear suspicion. Nevertheless heturned to Marzak with a smile of some disdain.

  "I understood, Marzak, that thou art sailing with us as apprentice."

  "What then?" quoth Marzak.

  "Why merely that it might become thee better to be content to observeand learn. Thou'lt soon be telling me how grapnels should be slung, andhow an action should be fought." Then he pointed ahead to what seemedto be no more than a low cloud-bank towards which they were rapidlyskimming before that friendly wind. "Yonder," he said, "are theBalearics. We are making good speed."

  Although he said it without any object other than that of turning theconversation, yet the fact itself was sufficiently remarkable to beworth a comment. Whether rowed by her two hundred and fifty slaves, orsailed under her enormous spread of canvas, there was no swifter vesselupon the Mediterranean than the galeasse of Sakr-el-Bahr. Onward sheleapt now with bellying tateens, her well-greased keel slipping throughthe wind-whipped water at a rate which perhaps could not have beenbettered by any ship that sailed.

  "If this wind holds we shall be under the Point of Aguila before sunset,which will be something to boast of hereafter," he promised.

  Marzak, however, seemed but indifferently interested; his eyes continuedawhile to stray towards that palmetto bale by the mainmast. At length,without another word to Sakr-el-Bahr, he made his way abaft, and flunghimself down under the awning, beside his father. Asad sat there in amoody abstraction, already regretting that he should have lent an earto Fenzileh to the extent of coming upon this voyage, and assured by nowthat at least there was no cause to mistrust Sakr-el-Bahr. Marsak cameto revive that drooping mistrust. But the moment was ill-chosen, and atthe first words he uttered on the subject, he was growled into silenceby his sire.

  "Thou dost but voice thine own malice," Asad rebuked him. "And I amproven a fool in that I have permitted the malice of others to urge mein this matter. No more, I say."

  Thereupon Marzak fell silent and sulking, his eyes ever followingSakr-el-Bahr, who had descended the three steps from the poop to thegangway and was pacing slowly down between the rowers' benches.

  The corsair was supremely ill at ease, as a man must be who hassomething to conceal, and who begins to fear that he may have beenbetrayed. Yet who was there could have betrayed him? But three menaboard that vessel knew his secret--Ali, his lieutenant, Jasper, andthe Italian Vigitello. And Sakr-el-Bahr would have staked all hispossessions that neither Ali nor Vigitello would have betrayed him,whilst he was fairly confident that in his own interests Jasper alsomust have kept faith. Yet Marzak's allusion to that palmetto bale hadfilled him with an uneasiness that sent him now in quest of his Italianboatswain whom he trusted above all others.

  "Vigitello," said he, "is it possible that I have been betrayed to theBasha?"

  Vigitello looked up sharply at the question, then smiled withconfidence. They were standing alone by the bulwarks on the waist-deck.

  "Touching what we carry yonder?" quoth he, his glance shifting to thebale. "Impossible. If Asad had knowledge he would have betrayed itbefore we left Algiers, or else he would never have sailed without astouter bodyguard of his own.

  "What need of bodyguard for him?" returned Sakr-el-Bahr. "If itshould come to grips between us--as well it may if what I suspect betrue--there is no doubt as to the side upon which the corsairs wouldrange themselves."

  "Is there not?" quoth Vigitello, a smile upon his swarthy face. "Benot so sure. These men have most of them followed thee into a score offights. To them thou art the Basha, their natural leader."

  "Maybe. But their allegiance belongs to Asad-ed-Din, the exalted ofAllah. Did it come to a choice between us, their faith would urge themto stand beside him in spite of any past bonds that may have existedbetween them and me."

  "Yet there were some who murmured when thou wert superseded in thecommand of this expedition," Vigitello informed him. "I doubt not thatmany would be influenced by their faith, but many would stand bythee against the Grand Sultan himself. And do not forget," he added,instinctively lowering his voice, "that many of us are renegadoes likemyself and thee, who would never know a moment's doubt if it came toa choice of sides. But I hope," he ended in another tone, "there is nosuch danger here."

  "And so do I, in all faith," replied Sakr-el-Bahr, with fervour. "YetI am uneasy, and I must know where I stand if the worst takes place. Gothou amongst the men, Vigitello, and probe their real feelings, gaugetheir humour and endeavour to ascertain upon what numbers I may countif I have to declare war upon Asad or if he declares it upon me. Becautious."

  Vigitello closed one of his black eyes portentously. "Depend upon it,"he said, "I'll bring you word anon."

  On that they parted, Vigitello to make his way to the prow and thereengage in his investigations, Sakr-el-Bahr slowly to retrace his stepsto the poop. But at the first bench abaft the gangway he paused, andlooked down at the dejected, white-fleshed slave who sat shackledthere. He smiled cruelly, his own anxieties forgotten in the savour ofvengeance.

  "So you have tasted the whip already," he said in English. "But thatis nothing to what is yet to come. You are in luck that there is a windto-day. It will not always be so. Soon shall you learn what it was thatI endured by your contriving."

  Lionel looked up at him with haggard, blood-injected eyes. He wantedto curse his brother, yet was he too overwhelmed by the sense of thefitness of this punishment.

  "For myself I care nothing," he replied.

  "But you will, sweet brother," was the answer. "You will care foryourself most damnably and pity yourself most poignantly. I speak fromexperience. 'Tis odds you will not live, and that is my chief regret. Iwould you had my thews to keep you alive in this floating hell."

  "I tell you I care nothing for myself," Lionel insisted. "What have youdone with Rosamund?"

  "Will it surprise you to learn that I have played the gentleman andmarried her?" Oliver mocked him.

  "Married her?" his brother gasped, blenching at the very thought. "Youhound!"

  "Why abuse me? Could I have done more?" And with a laugh hesauntered on, leaving Lionel to writhe there with the torment of hishalf-knowledge.

  An hour later, when the cloudy outline of the Balearic Isles hadacquired density and colour, Sakr-el-Bahr and Vigitello met again on thewaist-deck, and they exchanged some few words in passing.

  "It is difficult to say exactly," the boatswain murmured, "but from whatI gather I think the odds would be very evenly balanced, and it wererash in thee to precipitate a quarrel."

  "I am not like to do so," replied Sakr-el-Bahr. "I should not be like todo so in any case. I but desired to know how I stand in case a quarrelshould be forced upon me." And he passed on.

  Yet his uneasiness was no whit allayed; his difficulties were very farfrom solved. He had undertaken to carry Rosamund to France or Italy; hehad pledged her his word to land her upon one or the other shore, andshould he fail, she might even come to conclude that such had neverbeen his real intention. Yet how was he to succeed, now, since Asad wasaboard the galeasse? Must he be constrained to carry her back to Algiersas secretly as he had brought her thence, and to keep her there untilanother opportunity of setting her ashore upon a Christian countryshould present itself? That was clearly impracticable and fraught withtoo much risk of detection. Indeed, the risk of detection was veryimminent now. At any moment her presence in that pannier might bebetrayed. He could think of no way in which to redeem h
is pledged word.He could but wait and hope, trusting to his luck and to some opportunitywhich it was impossible to foresee.

  And so for a long hour and more he paced there moodily to and fro, hishands clasped behind him, his turbaned head bowed in thought, his heartvery heavy within him. He was taken in the toils of the evil web whichhe had spun; and it seemed very clear to him now that nothing short ofhis life itself would be demanded as the price of it. That, however, wasthe least part of his concern. All things had miscarried with him andhis life was wrecked. If at the price of it he could ensure safety toRosamund, that price he would gladly pay. But his dismay and uneasinessall sprang from his inability to discover a way of achieving that mostdesired of objects even at such a sacrifice. And so he paced on aloneand very lonely, waiting and praying for a miracle.

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