The sea hawk, p.27
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.27

           Rafael Sabatini


  For a little while Asad stood at gaze, speechless in his incredulity.Then to revive the anger that for a moment had been whelmed inastonishment came the reflection that he had been duped by Sakr-el-Bahr,duped by the man he trusted most. He had snarled at Fenzileh and scornedMarzak when they had jointly warned him against his lieutenant; if attimes he had been in danger of heeding them, yet sooner or later hehad concluded that they but spoke to vent their malice. And yet it wasproven now that they had been right in their estimate of this traitor,whilst he himself had been a poor, blind dupe, needing Marzak's wit totear the bandage from his eyes.

  Slowly he went down the gangway, followed by Marzak, Biskaine, and theothers. At the point where it joined the waist-deck he paused, and hisdark old eyes smouldered under his beetling brows.

  "So," he snarled. "These are thy goods of price. Thou lying dog, whatwas thine aim in this?"

  Defiantly Sakr-el-Bahr answered him: "She is my wife. It is my right totake her with me where I go." He turned to her, and bade her veil herface, and she immediately obeyed him with fingers that shook a little inher agitation.

  "None questions thy right to that," said Asad. "But being resolved totake her with thee, why not take her openly? Why was she not housed inthe poop-house, as becomes the wife of Sakr-el-Bahr? Why smuggle heraboard in a pannier, and keep her there in secret?"

  "And why," added Marzak, "didst thou lie to me when I questioned theeupon her whereabouts?--telling me she was left behind in thy house inAlgiers?"

  "All this I did," replied Sakr-el-Bahr, with a lofty--almost adisdainful--dignity, "because I feared lest I should be prevented frombearing her away with me," and his bold glance, beating full upon Asad,drew a wave of colour into the gaunt old cheeks.

  "What could have caused that fear?" he asked. "Shall I tell thee?Because no man sailing upon such a voyage as this would have desired thecompany of his new-wedded wife. Because no man would take a wife withhim upon a raid in which there is peril of life and peril of capture."

  "Allah has watched over me his servant in the past," said Sakr-el-Bahr,"and I put my trust in Him."

  It was a specious answer. Such words--laying stress upon the victoriesAllah sent him--had afore-time served to disarm his enemies. But theyserved not now. Instead, they did but fan the flames of Asad's wrath.

  "Blaspheme not," he croaked, and his tall form quivered with rage, hissallow old face grew vulturine. "She was brought thus aboard in secretout of fear that were her presence known thy true purpose too must standrevealed."

  "And whatever that true purpose may have been," put in Marzak, "it wasnot the task entrusted thee of raiding the Spanish treasure-galley."

  "'Tis what I mean, my son," Asad agreed. Then with a commanding gesture:"Wilt thou tell me without further lies what thy purpose was?" he asked.

  "How?" said Sakr-el-Bahr, and he smiled never so faintly. "Hast thou notsaid that this purpose was revealed by what I did? Rather, then, I thinkis it for me to ask thee for some such information. I do assure thee, mylord, that it was no part of my intention to neglect the task entrustedme. But just because I feared lest knowledge of her presence might leadmy enemies to suppose what thou art now supposing, and perhaps persuadethee to forget all that I have done for the glory of Islam, I determinedto bring her secretly aboard.

  "My real aim, since you must know it, was to land her somewhere on thecoast of France, whence she might return to her own land, and her ownpeople. That done, I should have set about intercepting the Spanishgalley, and never fear but that by Allah's favour I should havesucceeded."

  "By the horns of Shaitan," swore Marzak, thrusting himself forward, "heis the very father and mother of lies. Wilt thou explain this desire tobe rid of a wife thou hadst but wed?" he demanded.

  "Ay," growled Asad. "Canst answer that?"

  "Thou shalt hear the truth," said Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "The praise to Allah!" mocked Marzak.

  "But I warn you," the corsair continued, "that to you it will seem lesseasy to believe by much than any falsehood I could invent. Years ago inEngland where I was born I loved this woman and should have taken herto wife. But there were men and circumstances that defamed me to herso that she would not wed me, and I went forth with hatred of her in myheart. Last night the love of her which I believed to be dead and turnedto loathing, proved to be still a living force. Loving her, I came tosee that I had used her unworthily, and I was urged by a desire aboveall others to undo the evil I had done."

  On that he paused, and after an instant's silence Asad laughed angrilyand contemptuously. "Since when has man expressed his love for a womanby putting her from him?" he asked in a voice of scorn that showed theprecise value he set upon such a statement.

  "I warned thee it would seem incredible," said Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "Is it not plain, O my father, that this marriage of his was no morethan a pretence?" cried Marzak.

  "As plain as the light of day," replied Asad. "Thy marriage with thatwoman made an impious mock of the True Faith. It was no marriage. It wasa blasphemous pretence, thine only aim to thwart me, abusing my regardfor the Prophet's Holy Law, and to set her beyond my reach." He turnedto Vigitello, who stood a little behind Sakr-el-Bahr. "Bid thy men putme this traitor into irons," he said.

  "Heaven hath guided thee to a wise decision, O my father!" cried Marzak,his voice jubilant. But his was the only jubilant note that was sounded,his the only voice that was raised.

  "The decision is more like to guide you both to Heaven," repliedSakr-el-Bahr, undaunted. On the instant he had resolved upon his course."Stay!" he said, raising his hand to Vigitello, who, indeed had shown nosign of stirring. He stepped close up to Asad, and what he said did notgo beyond those who stood immediately about the Basha and Rosamund, whostrained her ears that she might lose no word of it.

  "Do not think, Asad," he said, "that I will submit me like a camel toits burden. Consider thy position well. If I but raise my voice to callmy sea-hawks to me, only Allah can tell how many will be left toobey thee. Darest thou put this matter to the test?" he asked, hiscountenance grave and solemn, but entirely fearless, as of a man in whomthere is no doubt of the issue as it concerns himself.

  Asad's eyes glittered dully, his colour faded to a deathly ashenhue. "Thou infamous traitor...." he began in a thick voice, his bodyquivering with anger.

  "Ah no," Sakr-el-Bahr interrupted him. "Were I a traitor it is what Ishould have done already, knowing as I do that in any division of ourforces, numbers will be heavily on my side. Let then my silence provemy unswerving loyalty, Asad. Let it weigh with thee in considering myconduct, nor permit thyself to be swayed by Marzak there, who recksnothing so that he vents his petty hatred of me."

  "Do not heed him, O my father!" cried Marzak. "It cannot be that...."

  "Peace!" growled Asad, somewhat stricken on a sudden.

  And there was peace whilst the Basha stood moodily combing his whitebeard, his glittering eyes sweeping from Oliver to Rosamund and backagain. He was weighing what Sakr-el-Bahr had said. He more than fearedthat it might be no more than true, and he realized that if he were toprovoke a mutiny here he would be putting all to the test, setting allupon a throw in which the dice might well be cogged against him.

  If Sakr-el-Bahr prevailed, he would prevail not merely aboard thisgalley, but throughout Algiers, and Asad would be cast down never torise again. On the other hand, if he bared his scimitar and called uponthe faithful to support him, it might chance that recognizing in him theexalted of Allah to whom their loyalty was due, they would rally tohim. He even thought it might be probable. Yet the stake he put uponthe board was too vast. The game appalled him, whom nothing yet hadappalled, and it scarce needed a muttered caution from Biskaine todetermine him to hold his hand.

  He looked at Sakr-el-Bahr again, his glance now sullen. "I will considerthy words," he announced in a voice that was unsteady. "I would not beunjust, nor steer my course by appearances alone. Allah forbid!"

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