The sea hawk, p.26
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.26

           Rafael Sabatini


  He was still pacing there when an hour or so before sunset--some fifteenhours after setting out--they stood before the entrance of a longbottle-necked cove under the shadow of the cliffs of Aquila Point onthe southern coast of the Island of Formentera. He was rendered aware ofthis and roused from his abstraction by the voice of Asad calling to himfrom the poop and commanding him to make the cove.

  Already the wind was failing them, and it became necessary to take tothe oars, as must in any case have happened once they were through thecoves narrow neck in the becalmed lagoon beyond. So Sakr-el-Bahr, in histurn, lifted up his voice, and in answer to his shout came Vigitello andLarocque.

  A blast of Vigitello's whistle brought his own men to heel, and theypassed rapidly along the benches ordering the rowers to make ready,whilst Jasper and a half-dozen Muslim sailors set about furlingthe sails that already were beginning to flap in the shifting andintermittent gusts of the expiring wind. Sakr-el-Bahr gave the word torow, and Vigitello blew a second and longer blast. The oars dipped, theslaves strained and the galeasse ploughed forward, time being kept bya boatswain's mate who squatted on the waist-deck and beat a tomtomrhythmically. Sakr-el-Bahr, standing on the poop-deck, shouted hisorders to the steersmen in their niches on either side of the stern, andskilfully the vessel was manoeuvred through the narrow passage into thecalm lagoon whose depths were crystal clear. Here before coming to rest,Sakr-el-Bahr followed the invariable corsair practice of going about,so as to be ready to leave his moorings and make for the open again at amoment's notice.

  She came at last alongside the rocky buttresses of a gentle slope thatwas utterly deserted by all save a few wild goats browsing near thesummit. There were clumps of broom, thick with golden flower, aboutthe base of the hill. Higher, a few gnarled and aged olive trees rearedtheir grey heads from which the rays of the westering sun struck a glintas of silver.

  Larocque and a couple of sailors went over the bulwarks on the larboardquarter, dropped lightly to the horizontal shafts of the oars, whichwere rigidly poised, and walking out upon them gained the rocks andproceeded to make fast the vessel by ropes fore and aft.

  Sakr-el-Bahr's next task was to set a watch, and he appointed Larocque,sending him to take his station on the summit of the head whence a widerange of view was to be commanded.

  Pacing the poop with Marzak the Basha grew reminiscent of former dayswhen roving the seas as a simple corsair he had used this cove both forpurposes of ambush and concealment. There were, he said, few harboursin all the Mediterranean so admirably suited to the corsairs' purposeas this; it was a haven of refuge in case of peril, and an unrivalledlurking-place in which to lie in wait for the prey. He rememberedonce having lain there with the formidable Dragut-Reis, a fleet of sixgalleys, their presence entirely unsuspected by the Genoese admiral,Doria, who had passed majestically along with three caravels and sevengalleys.

  Marzak, pacing beside his father, listened but half-heartedly to thesereminiscences. His mind was all upon Sakr-el-Bahr, and his suspicionsof that palmetto bale were quickened by the manner in which for thelast two hours he had seen the corsair hovering thoughtfully in itsneighbourhood.

  He broke in suddenly upon his father's memories with an expression ofwhat was in his mind.

  "The thanks to Allah," he said, "that it is thou who command thisexpedition, else might this coves advantages have been neglected."

  "Not so," said Asad. "Sakr-el-Bahr knows them as well as I do. He hasused this vantage point afore-time. It was himself who suggested thatthis would be the very place in which to await this Spanish craft."

  "Yet had he sailed alone I doubt if the Spanish argosy had concerned himgreatly. There are other matters on his mind, O my father. Observe himyonder, all lost in thought. How many hours of this voyage has he spentthus. He is as a man trapped and desperate. There is some fear ranklingin him. Observe him, I say."

  "Allah pardon thee," said his father, shaking his old head and sighingover so much impetuosity of judgment. "Must thy imagination be for everfeeding on thy malice? Yet I blame not thee, but thy Sicilian mother,who has fostered this hostility in thee. Did she not hoodwink me intomaking this unnecessary voyage?"

  "I see thou hast forgot last night and the Frankish slave-girl," saidhis son.

  "Nay, then thou seest wrong. I have not forgot it. But neither have Iforgot that since Allah hath exalted me to be Basha of Algiers, He looksto me to deal in justice. Come, Marzak, set an end to all this. Perhapsto-morrow thou shalt see him in battle, and after such a sight as thatnever again wilt thou dare say evil of him. Come, make thy peace withhim, and let me see better relations betwixt you hereafter."

  And raising his voice he called Sakr-el-Bahr, who immediately turned andcame up the gangway. Marzak stood by in a sulky mood, with no notion ofdoing his father's will by holding out an olive branch to the man whowas like to cheat him of his birthright ere all was done. Yet was it hewho greeted Sakr-el-Bahr when the corsair set foot upon the poop.

  "Does the thought of the coming fight perturb thee, dog of war?" heasked.

  "Am I perturbed, pup of peace?" was the crisp answer.

  "It seems so. Thine aloofness, thine abstractions...."

  "Are signs of perturbation, dost suppose?"

  "Of what else?"

  Sakr-el-Bahr laughed. "Thou'lt tell me next that I am afraid. Yet Ishould counsel thee to wait until thou hast smelt blood and powder, andlearnt precisely what fear is."

  The slight altercation drew the attention of Asad's officers who wereidling there. Biskaine and some three others lounged forward to standbehind the Basha, looking, on in some amusement, which was shared byhim.

  "Indeed, indeed," said Asad, laying a hand upon Marzak's shoulder, "hiscounsel is sound enough. Wait, boy, until thou hast gone beside himaboard the infidel, ere thou judge him easily perturbed."

  Petulantly Marzak shook off that gnarled old hand. "Dost thou, O myfather, join with him in taunting me upon my lack of knowledge. My youthis a sufficient answer. But at least," he added, prompted by a wickednotion suddenly conceived, "at least you cannot taunt me with lack ofaddress with weapons."

  "Give him room," said Sakr-el-Bahr, with ironical good-humour, "and hewill show us prodigies."

  Marzak looked at him with narrowing, gleaming eyes. "Give me across-bow," he retorted, "and I'll show thee how to shoot," was hisamazing boast.

  "Thou'lt show him?" roared Asad. "Thou'lt show him!" And his laugh rangloud and hearty. "Go smear the sun's face with clay, boy."

  "Reserve thy judgment, O my father," begged Marzak, with frosty dignity.

  "Boy, thou'rt mad! Why, Sakr-el-Bahr's quarrel will check a swallow inits flight."

  "That is his boast, belike," replied Marzak.

  "And what may thine be?" quoth Sakr-el-Bahr. "To hit the Island ofFormentera at this distance?"

  "Dost dare to sneer at me?" cried Marzak, ruffling.

  "What daring would that ask?" wondered Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "By Allah, thou shalt learn."

  "In all humility I await the lesson."

  "And thou shalt have it," was the answer viciously delivered. Marzakstrode to the rail. "Ho there! Vigitello! A cross-bow for me, andanother for Sakr-el-Bahr."

  Vigitello sprang to obey him, whilst Asad shook his head and laughedagain.

  "An it were not against the Prophet's law to make a wager...." he wasbeginning, when Marzak interrupted him.

  "Already should I have proposed one."

  "So that," said Sakr-el-Bahr, "thy purse would come to match thine headfor emptiness."

  Marzak looked at him and sneered. Then he snatched from Vigitello'shands one of the cross-bows that he bore and set a shaft to it. And thenat last Sakr-el-Bahr was to learn the malice that was at the root of allthis odd pretence.

  "Look now," said the youth, "there is on that palmetto bale a speck ofpitch scarce larger than the pupil of my eye. Thou'lt need to strain thysight to see it. Observe how my shaft will find it. Cans
t thou bettersuch a shot?"

  His eyes, upon Sakr-el-Bahr's face, watching it closely, observed thepallor by which it was suddenly overspread. But the corsair's recoverywas almost as swift. He laughed, seeming so entirely careless thatMarzak began to doubt whether he had paled indeed or whether his ownimagination had led him to suppose it.

  "Ay, thou'lt choose invisible marks, and wherever the arrow entersthou'lt say 'twas there! An old trick, O Marzak. Go cozen women withit."

  "Then," said Marzak, "we will take instead the slender cord that bindsthe bale." And he levelled his bow. But Sakr-el-Bahr's hand closed uponhis arm in an easy yet paralyzing grip.

  "Wait," he said. "Thou'lt choose another mark for several reasons. Forone, I'll not have thy shaft blundering through my oarsmen and haplykilling one of them. Most of them are slaves specially chosen for theirbrawn, and I cannot spare any. Another reason is that the mark is afoolish one. The distance is not more than ten paces. A childish test,which, maybe, is the reason why thou hast chosen it."

  Marzak lowered his bow and Sakr-el-Bahr released his arm. They looked ateach other, the corsair supremely master of himself and smiling easily,no faintest trace of the terror that was in his soul showing upon hisswarthy bearded countenance or in his hard pale eyes.

  He pointed up the hillside to the nearest olive tree, a hundred pacesdistant. "Yonder," he said, "is a man's mark. Put me a shaft through thelong branch of that first olive."

  Asad and his officers voiced approval.

  "A man's mark, indeed," said the Basha, "so that he be a marksman."

  But Marzak shrugged his shoulders with make-believe contempt. "I knew hewould refuse the mark I set," said he. "As for the olive-branch, it isso large a butt that a child could not miss it at this distance."

  "If a child could not, then thou shouldst not," said Sakr-el-Bahr,who had so placed himself that his body was now between Marzak and thepalmetto bale. "Let us see thee hit it, O Marzak." And as he spoke heraised his cross-bow, and scarcely seeming to take aim, he loosed hisshaft. It flashed away to be checked, quivering, in the branch he hadindicated.

  A chorus of applause and admiration greeted the shot, and drew theattention of all the crew to what was toward.

  Marzak tightened his lips, realizing how completely he had beenoutwitted. Willy-nilly he must now shoot at that mark. The choice hadbeen taken out of his hands by Sakr-el-Bahr. He never doubted that hemust cover himself with ridicule in the performance, and that there hewould be constrained to abandon this pretended match.

  "By the Koran," said Biskaine, "thou'lt need all thy skill to equal sucha shot, Marzak."

  "'Twas not the mark I chose," replied Marzak sullenly.

  "Thou wert the challenger, O Marzak," his father reminded him. "Thereforethe choice of mark was his. He chose a man's mark, and by the beard ofMohammed, he showed us a man's shot."

  Marzak would have flung the bow from him in that moment, abandoningthe method he had chosen to investigate the contents of that suspiciouspalmetto bale; but he realized that such a course must now cover himwith scorn. Slowly he levelled his bow at that distant mark.

  "Have a care of the sentinel on the hill-top," Sakr-el-Bahr admonishedhim, provoking a titter.

  Angrily the youth drew the bow. The cord hummed, and the shaft sped tobury itself in the hill's flank a dozen yards from the mark.

  Since he was the son of the Basha none dared to laugh outright savehis father and Sakr-el-Bahr. But there was no suppressing a titter toexpress the mockery to which the proven braggart must ever be exposed.

  Asad looked at him, smiling almost sadly. "See now," he said, "whatcomes of boasting thyself against Sakr-el-Bahr."

  "My will was crossed in the matter of a mark," was the bitter answer."You angered me and made my aim untrue."

  Sakr-el-Bahr strode away to the starboard bulwarks, deeming the matterat an end. Marzak observed him.

  "Yet at that small mark," he said, "I challenge him again." As he spokehe fitted a second shaft to his bow. "Behold!" he cried, and took aim.

  But swift as thought, Sakr-el-Bahr--heedless now of allconsequences--levelled at Marzak the bow which he still held.

  "Hold!" he roared. "Loose thy shaft at that bale, and I loose this atthy throat. I never miss!" he added grimly.

  There was a startled movement in the ranks of those who stood behindMarzak. In speechless amazement they stared at Sakr-el-Bahr, as he stoodthere, white-faced, his eyes aflash, his bow drawn taut and ready tolaunch that death-laden quarrel as he threatened.

  Slowly then, smiling with unutterable malice, Marzak lowered his bow.He was satisfied. His true aim was reached. He had drawn his enemy intoself-betrayal.

  Asad's was the voice that shattered that hush of consternation.

  "Kellamullah!" he bellowed. "What is this? Art thou mad, too, OSakr-el-Bahr?"

  "Ay, mad indeed," said Marzak; "mad with fear." And he stepped quicklyaside so that the body of Biskaine should shield him from any suddenconsequences of his next words. "Ask him what he keeps in that pannier,O my father."

  "Ay, what, in Allah's name?" demanded the Basha, advancing towards hiscaptain.

  Sakr-el-Bahr lowered his bow, master of himself again. His composure wasbeyond all belief.

  "I carry in it goods of price, which I'll not see riddled to please apert boy," he said.

  "Goods of price?" echoed Asad, with a snort. "They'll need to be ofprice indeed that are valued above the life of my son. Let us see thesegoods of price." And to the men upon the waist-deck he shouted, "Open methat pannier."

  Sakr-el-Bahr sprang forward, and laid a hand upon the Basha's arm.

  "Stay, my lord!" he entreated almost fiercely. "Consider that thispannier is my own. That its contents are my property; that none has aright to...."

  "Wouldst babble of rights to me, who am thy lord?" blazed the Basha, nowin a towering passion. "Open me that pannier, I say."

  They were quick to his bidding. The ropes were slashed away, and thefront of the pannier fell open on its palmetto hinges. There was ahalf-repressed chorus of amazement from the men. Sakr-el-Bahr stoodfrozen in horror of what must follow.

  "What is it? What have you found?" demanded Asad.

  In silence the men swung the bale about, and disclosed to the eyes ofthose upon the poop-deck the face and form of Rosamund Godolphin. ThenSakr-el-Bahr, rousing himself from his trance of horror, reckless ofall but her, flung down the gangway to assist her from the pannier, andthrusting aside those who stood about her, took his stand at her side.

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