The sea hawk, p.28
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.28

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XVIII. SHEIK MAT

  Under the inquisitive gaping stare of all about them stood Rosamund andSakr-el-Bahr regarding each other in silence for a little spell afterthe Basha's departure. The very galley-slaves, stirred from theirhabitual lethargy by happenings so curious and unusual, craned theirsinewy necks to peer at them with a flicker of interest in their dull,weary eyes.

  Sakr-el-Bahr's feelings as he considered Rosamunds's white face in thefading light were most oddly conflicting. Dismay at what had befallenand some anxious dread of what must follow were leavened by a certainmeasure of relief.

  He realized that in no case could her concealment have continued long.Eleven mortal hours had she spent in the cramped and almost suffocatingspace of that pannier, in which he had intended to do no more thancarry her aboard. The uneasiness which had been occasioned him by theimpossibility to deliver her from that close confinement when Asad hadannounced his resolve to accompany them upon that voyage, had steadilybeen increasing as hour succeeded hour, and still he found no way torelease her from a situation in which sooner or later, when the limitsof her endurance were reached, her presence must be betrayed. Thisrelease which he could not have contrived had been contrived for himby the suspicions and malice of Marzak. That was the one grain ofconsolation in the present peril--to himself who mattered nothing andto her, who mattered all. Adversity had taught him to prize benefitshowever slight and to confront perils however overwhelming. So he huggedthe present slender benefit, and resolutely braced himself to dealwith the situation as he found it, taking the fullest advantage of thehesitancy which his words had sown in the heart of the Basha. He hugged,too, the thought that as things had fallen out, from being oppressor andoppressed, Rosamund and he were become fellows in misfortune, sharingnow a common peril. He found it a sweet thought to dwell on. Thereforewas it that he faintly smiled as he looked into Rosamund's white,strained face.

  That smile evoked from her the question that had been burdening hermind.

  "What now? What now?" she asked huskily, and held out appealing hands tohim.

  "Now," said he coolly, "let us be thankful that you are delivered fromquarters destructive both to comfort and to dignity. Let me lead you tothose I had prepared for you, which you would have occupied long sincebut for the ill-timed coming of Asad. Come." And he waved an invitinghand towards the gangway leading to the poop.

  She shrank back at that, for there on the poop sat Asad under his awningwith Marzak, Biskaine, and his other officers in attendance.

  "Come," he repeated, "there is naught to fear so that you keep a boldcountenance. For the moment it is Sheik Mat--check to the king."

  "Naught to fear?" she echoed, staring.

  "For the moment, naught," he answered firmly. "Against what the futuremay hold, we must determine. Be sure that fear will not assist ourjudgment."

  She stiffened as if he had charged her unjustly.

  "I do not fear," she assured him, and if her face continued white, hereyes grew steady, her voice was resolute.

  "Then come," he repeated, and she obeyed him instantly now as if toprove the absence of all fear.

  Side by side they passed up the gangway and mounted the steps of thecompanion to the poop, their approach watched by the group that was inpossession of it with glances at once of astonishment and resentment.

  Asad's dark, smouldering eyes were all for the girl. They followed herevery movement as she approached and never for a moment left her to turnupon her companion.

  Outwardly she bore herself with a proud dignity and an unfalteringcomposure under that greedy scrutiny; but inwardly she shrank andwrithed in a shame and humiliation that she could hardly define. In somemeasure Oliver shared her feelings, but blent with anger; and urgedby them he so placed himself at last that he stood between her and theBasha's regard to screen her from it as he would have screened her froma lethal weapon. Upon the poop he paused, and salaamed to Asad.

  "Permit, exalted lord," said he, "that my wife may occupy the quartersI had prepared for her before I knew that thou wouldst honour thisenterprise with thy presence."

  Curtly, contemptuously, Asad waved a consenting hand without vouchsafingto reply in words. Sakr-el-Bahr bowed again, stepped forward, and putaside the heavy red curtain upon which the crescent was wrought ingreen. From within the cabin the golden light of a lamp came out tomerge into the blue-gray twilight, and to set a shimmering radianceabout the white-robed figure of Rosamund.

  Thus for a moment Asad's fierce, devouring eyes observed her, then shepassed within. Sakr-el-Bahr followed, and the screening curtain swungback into its place.

  The small interior was furnished by a divan spread with silken carpets,a low Moorish table in coloured wood mosaics bearing the newly lightedlamp, and a tiny brazier in which aromatic gums were burning andspreading a sweetly pungent perfume for the fumigation of allTrue-Believers.

  Out of the shadows in the farther corners rose silently Sakr-el-Bahr'stwo Nubian slaves, Abiad and Zal-Zer, to salaam low before him. But fortheir turbans and loincloths in spotless white their dusky bodies musthave remained invisible, shadowy among the shadows.

  The captain issued an order briefly, and from a hanging cupboard theslaves took meat and drink and set it upon the low table--a bowl ofchicken cooked in rice and olives and prunes, a dish of bread, a melon,and a clay amphora of water. Then at another word from him, each took anaked scimitar and they passed out to place themselves on guard beyondthe curtain. This was not an act in which there was menace ordefiance, nor could Asad so interpret it. The acknowledged presenceof Sakr-el-Balir's wife in that poop-house, rendered the place theequivalent of his hareem, and a man defends his hareem as he defends hishonour; it is a spot sacred to himself which none may violate, and it isfitting that he take proper precaution against any impious attempt to doso.

  Rosamund sank down upon the divan, and sat there with bowed head, herhands folded in her lap. Sakr-el-Bahr stood by in silence for a longmoment contemplating her.

  "Eat," he bade her at last. "You will need strength and courage, andneither is possible to a fasting body."

  She shook her head. Despite her long fast, food was repellent. Anxietywas thrusting her heart up into her throat to choke her.

  "I cannot eat," she answered him. "To what end? Strength and couragecannot avail me now."

  "Never believe that," he said. "I have undertaken to deliver you alivefrom the perils into which I have brought you, and I shall keep myword."

  So resolute was his tone that she looked up at him, and found hisbearing equally resolute and confident.

  "Surely," she cried, "all chance of escape is lost to me."

  "Never count it lost whilst I am living," he replied. She considered hima moment, and there was the faintest smile on her lips.

  "Do you think that you will live long now?" she asked him.

  "Just as long as God pleases," he replied quite coolly. "What is writtenis written. So that I live long enough to deliver you, then... why,then, faith I shall have lived long enough."

  Her head sank. She clasped and unclasped the hands in her lap. Sheshivered slightly.

  "I think we are both doomed," she said in a dull voice. "For if you die,I have your dagger still, remember. I shall not survive you."

  He took a sudden step forward, his eyes gleaming, a faint flush glowingthrough the tan of his cheeks. Then he checked. Fool! How could he sohave misread her meaning even for a moment? Were not its exact limitsabundantly plain, even without the words which she added a moment later?

  "God will forgive me if I am driven to it--if I choose the easier way ofhonour; for honour, sir," she added, clearly for his benefit, "is everthe easier way, believe me."

  "I know," he replied contritely. "I would to God I had followed it."

  He paused there, as if hoping that his expression of penitence mightevoke some answer from her, might spur her to vouchsafe him some wordof forgiveness. Seeing that she continued, mute and absorbed, he sighedheavily, and turned to oth
er matters.

  "Here you will find all that you can require," he said. "Should you lackaught you have but to beat your hands together, one or the other ofmy slaves will come to you. If you address them in French they willunderstand you. I would I could have brought a woman to minister toyou, but that was impossible, as you'll perceive." He stepped to theentrance.

  "You are leaving me?" she questioned him in sudden alarm.

  "Naturally. But be sure that I shall be very near at hand. And meanwhilebe no less sure that you have no cause for immediate fear. At least,matters are no worse than when you were in the pannier. Indeed, muchbetter, for some measure of ease and comfort is now possible to you. Sobe of good heart; eat and rest. God guard you! I shall return soon aftersunrise."

  Outside on the poop-deck he found Asad alone now with Marzak under theawning. Night had fallen, the great crescent lanterns on the stern railwere alight and cast a lurid glow along the vessel's length, picking outthe shadowy forms and gleaming faintly on the naked backs of the slavesin their serried ranks along the benches, many of them bowed already inattitudes of uneasy slumber. Another lantern swung from the mainmast,and yet another from the poop-rail for the Basha's convenience. Overheadthe clustering stars glittered in a cloudless sky of deepest purple. Thewind had fallen entirely, and the world was wrapped in stillness brokenonly by the faint rustling break of waves upon the beach at the cove'send.

  Sakr-el-Bahr crossed to Asad's side, and begged for a word alone withhim.

  "I am alone," said the Basha curtly.

  "Marzak is nothing, then," said Sakr-el-Bahr. "I have long suspectedit."

  Marzak showed his teeth and growled inarticulately, whilst the Basha,taken aback by the ease reflected in the captain's careless, mockingwords, could but quote a line of the Koran with which Fenzileh of latehad often nauseated him.

  "A man's son is the partner of his soul. I have no secrets from Marzak.Speak, then, before him, or else be silent and depart."

  "He may be the partner of thy soul, Asad," replied the corsair with hisbold mockery, "but I give thanks to Allah he is not the partner of mine.And what I have to say in some sense concerns my soul."

  "I thank thee," cut in Marzak, "for the justice of thy words. To be thepartner of thy soul were to be an infidel unbelieving dog."

  "Thy tongue, O Marzak, is like thine archery," said Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "Ay--in that it pierces treachery," was the swift retort.

  "Nay--in that it aims at what it cannot hit. Now, Allah, pardon me!Shall I grow angry at such words as thine? Hath not the One proven fulloft that he who calls me infidel dog is a liar predestined to the Pit?Are such victories as mine over the fleets of the unbelievers vouchsafedby Allah to an infidel? Foolish blasphemer, teach thy tongue better wayslest the All-wise strike thee dumb."

  "Peace!" growled Asad. "Thine arrogance is out of season."

  "Haply so," said Sakr-el-Bahr, with a laugh. "And my good sense, too,it seems. Since thou wilt retain beside thee this partner of thy soul, Imust speak before him. Have I thy leave to sit?"

  Lest such leave should be denied him he dropped forthwith to the vacantplace beside Asad and tucked his legs under him.

  "Lord," he said, "there is a rift dividing us who should be united forthe glory of Islam."

  "It is of thy making, Sakr-el-Bahr," was the sullen answer, "and it isfor thee to mend it."

  "To that end do I desire thine ear. The cause of this rift is yonder."And he jerked his thumb backward over his shoulder towards thepoop-house. "If we remove that cause, of a surety the rift itself willvanish, and all will be well again between us."

  He knew that never could all be well again between him and Asad. He knewthat by virtue of his act of defiance he was irrevocably doomed,that Asad having feared him once, having dreaded his power to standsuccessfully against his face and overbear his will, would see to itthat he never dreaded it again. He knew that if he returned to Algiersthere would be a speedy end to him. His only chance of safety lay,indeed, in stirring up mutiny upon the spot and striking swiftly,venturing all upon that desperate throw. And he knew that this wasprecisely what Asad had cause to fear. Out of this assurance had heconceived his present plan, deeming that if he offered to heal thebreach, Asad might pretend to consent so as to weather his presentdanger, making doubly sure of his vengeance by waiting until they shouldbe home again.

  Asad's gleaming eyes considered him in silence for a moment.

  "How remove that cause?" he asked. "Wilt thou atone for the mockery ofthy marriage, pronounce her divorced and relinquish her?"

  "That were not to remove her," replied Sakr-el-Bahr. "Consider well,Asad, what is thy duty to the Faith. Consider that upon our unitydepends the glory of Islam. Were it not sinful, then, to suffer theintrusion of aught that may mar such unity? Nay, nay, what I propose isthat I should be permitted--assisted even--to bear out the project Ihad formed, as already I have frankly made confession. Let us put to seaagain at dawn--or this very night if thou wilt--make for the coast ofFrance, and there set her ashore that she may go back to her own peopleand we be rid of her disturbing presence. Then we will return--there istime and to spare--and here or elsewhere lurk in wait for this Spanishargosy, seize the booty and sail home in amity to Algiers, thisincident, this little cloud in the splendour of our comradeship, behindus and forgotten as though it had never been. Wilt thou, Asad--for theglory of the Prophet's Law?"

  The bait was cunningly presented, so cunningly that not for a moment didAsad or even the malicious Marzak suspect it to be just a bait and nomore. It was his own life, become a menace to Asad, that Sakr-el-Bahrwas offering him in exchange for the life and liberty of that Frankishslave-girl, but offering it as if unconscious that he did so.

  Asad considered, temptation gripping, him. Prudence urged him to accept,so that affecting to heal the dangerous breach that now existed hemight carry Sakr-el-Bahr back to Algiers, there, beyond the aid of anyfriendly mutineers, to have him strangled. It was the course to adoptin such a situation, the wise and sober course by which to ensure theoverthrow of one who from an obedient and submissive lieutenant hadsuddenly shown that it was possible for him to become a serious anddangerous rival.

  Sakr-el-Bahr watched the Basha's averted, gleaming eyes under theirfurrowed, thoughtful brows, he saw Marzak's face white, tense and eagerin his anxiety that his father should consent. And since his fathercontinued silent, Marzak, unable longer to contain himself, broke intospeech.

  "He is wise, O my father!" was his crafty appeal. "The glory of Islamabove all else! Let him have his way in this, and let the infidel womango. Thus shall all be well between us and Sakr-el-Bahr!" He laid such astress upon these words that it was obvious he desired them to convey asecond meaning.

  Asad heard and understood that Marzak, too, perceived what was here todo; tighter upon him became temptation's grip; but tighter, too, becamethe grip of a temptation of another sort. Before his fierce eyes therearose a vision of a tall stately maiden with softly rounded bosom, avision so white and lovely that it enslaved him. And so he found himselftorn two ways at once. On the one hand, if he relinquished the woman, hecould make sure of his vengeance upon Sakr-el-Bahr, could make sure ofremoving that rebel from his path. On the other hand, if he determinedto hold fast to his desires and to be ruled by them, he must be preparedto risk a mutiny aboard the galeasse, prepared for battle and perhapsfor defeat. It was a stake such as no sane Basha would have consented toset upon the board. But since his eyes had again rested upon Rosamund,Asad was no longer sane. His thwarted desires of yesterday were thedespots of his wits.

  He leaned forward now, looking deep into the eyes of Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "Since for thyself thou dost not want her, why dost thou thwart me?"he asked, and his voice trembled with suppressed passion. "So long as Ideemed thee honest in taking her to wife I respected that bond asbecame a good Muslim; but since 'tis manifest that it was no more thana pretence, a mockery to serve some purpose hostile to myself, adesecration of the Prophet's H
oly Law, I, before whom this blasphemousmarriage was performed, do pronounce it to be no marriage. There is noneed for thee to divorce her. She is no longer thine. She is for anyMuslim who can take her."

  Sakr-el-Bahr laughed unpleasantly. "Such a Muslim," he announced, "willbe nearer my sword than the Paradise of Mahomet." And on the words hestood up, as if in token of his readiness.

  Asad rose with him in a bound of a vigour such as might scarce have beenlooked for in a man of his years.

  "Dost threaten?" he cried, his eyes aflash.

  "Threaten?" sneered Sakr-el-Bahr. "I prophesy." And on that he turned,and stalked away down the gangway to the vessel's waist. There was nopurpose in his going other than his perceiving that here argument wereworse than useless, and that the wiser course were to withdraw at once,avoiding it and allowing his veiled threat to work upon the Basha'smind.

  Quivering with rage Asad watched his departure. On the point ofcommanding him to return, he checked, fearing lest in his present moodSakr-el-Bahr should flout his authority and under the eyes of all refusehim the obedience due. He knew that it is not good to command where weare not sure of being obeyed or of being able to enforce obedience, thatan authority once successfully flouted is in itself half-shattered.

  Whilst still he hesitated, Marzak, who had also risen, caught him by thearm and poured into his ear hot, urgent arguments enjoining him to yieldto Sakr-el-Bahr's demand.

  "It is the sure way," he cried insistently. "Shall all be jeopardizedfor the sake of that whey-faced daughter of perdition? In the name ofShaitan, let us be rid of her; set her ashore as he demands, as theprice of peace between us and him, and in the security of that peace lethim be strangled when we come again to our moorings in Algiers. It isthe sure way--the sure way!"

  Asad turned at last to look into that handsome eager face. For a momenthe was at a loss; then he had recourse to sophistry. "Am I a cowardthat I should refuse all ways but sure ones?" he demanded in a witheringtone. "Or art thou a coward who can counsel none other?"

  "My anxiety is all for thee, O my father," Marzak defended himselfindignantly. "I doubt if it be safe to sleep, lest he should stir upmutiny in the night."

  "Have no fear," replied Asad. "Myself I have set the watch, and theofficers are all trustworthy. Biskaine is even now in the forecastletaking the feeling of the men. Soon we shall know precisely where westand."

  "In thy place I would make sure. I would set a term to this danger ofmutiny. I would accede to his demands concerning the woman, and settleafter-wards with himself."

  "Abandon that Frankish pearl?" quoth Asad. Slowly he shook his head."Nay, nay! She is a garden that shall yield me roses. Together we shallyet taste the sweet sherbet of Kansar, and she shall thank me for havingled her into Paradise. Abandon that rosy-limbed loveliness!" He laughedsoftly on a note of exaltation, whilst in the gloom Marzak frowned,thinking of Fenzileh.

  "She is an infidel," his son sternly reminded him, "so forbidden thee bythe Prophet. Wilt thou be as blind to that as to thine own peril?" Thenhis voice gathering vehemence and scorn as he proceeded: "She has gonenaked of face through the streets of Algiers; she has been gaped at bythe rabble in the sok; this loveliness of hers has been deflowered bythe greedy gaze of Jew and Moor and Turk; galley-slaves and negroes havefeasted their eyes upon her unveiled beauty; one of thy captains hathowned her his wife." He laughed. "By Allah, I do not know thee, O myfather! Is this the woman thou wouldst take for thine own? This thewoman for whose possession thou wouldst jeopardize thy life and perhapsthe very Bashalik itself!"

  Asad clenched his hands until the nails bit into his flesh. Every wordhis son had uttered had been as a lash to his soul. The truth of itwas not to be contested. He was humiliated and shamed. Yet was he notconquered of his madness, nor diverted from his course. Before he couldmake answer, the tall martial figure of Biskaine came up the companion.

  "Well?" the Basha greeted him eagerly, thankful for this chance to turnthe subject.

  Biskaine was downcast. His news was to be read in his countenance. "Thetask appointed me was difficult," said he. "I have done my best. YetI could scarce go about it in such a fashion as to draw definiteconclusions. But this I know, my lord, that he will be reckless indeedif he dares to take up arms against thee and challenge thine authority.So much at least I am permitted to conclude."

  "No more than that?" asked Asad. "And if I were to take up arms againsthim, and to seek to settle this matter out of hand?"

  Biskaine paused a moment ere replying. "I cannot think but that Allahwould vouchsafe thee victory," he said. But his words did not delude theBasha. He recognized them to be no more than those which respect for himdictated to his officer. "Yet," continued Biskaine, "I should judge theereckless too, my lord, as reckless as I should judge him in the likecircumstances."

  "I see," said Asad. "The matter stands so balanced that neither of usdare put it to the test."

  "Thou hast said it."

  "Then is thy course plain to thee!" cried Marzak, eager to renew hisarguments. "Accept his terms, and...."

  But Asad broke in impatiently. "Every thing in its own hour and eachhour is written. I will consider what to do."

  Below on the waist-deck Sakr-el-Bahr was pacing with Vigitello, andVigitello's words to him were of a tenor identical almost with those ofBiskaine to the Basha.

  "I scarce can judge," said the Italian renegade. "But I do think that itwere not wise for either thou or Asad to take the first step against theother."

  "Are matters, then, so equal between us?"

  "Numbers, I fear," replied Vigitello, "would be in favour of Asad. Notruly devout Muslim will stand against the Basha, the representative ofthe Sublime Portal, to whom loyalty is a question of religion. Yet theyare accustomed to obey thee, to leap at thy command, and so Asad himselfwere rash to put it to the test."

  "Ay--a sound argument," said Sakr-el-Bahr. "It is as I had thought."

  Upon that he quitted Vigitello, and slowly, thoughtfully, returnedto the poop-deck. It was his hope--his only hope now--that Asad mightaccept the proposal he had made him. As the price of it he was fullyprepared for the sacrifice of his own life, which it must entail. But,it was not for him to approach Asad again; to do so would be to arguedoubt and anxiety and so to court refusal. He must possess his soul inwhat patience he could. If Asad persisted in his refusal undeterred byany fear of mutiny, then Sakr-el-Bahr knew not what course remained himto accomplish Rosamund's deliverance. Proceed to stir up mutiny he darednot. It was too desperate a throw. In his own view it offered him noslightest chance of success, and did it fail, then indeed all would belost, himself destroyed, and Rosamund at the mercy of Asad. He was asone walking along a sword-edge. His only chance of present immunity forhimself and Rosamund lay in the confidence that Asad would dare no morethan himself to take the initiative in aggression. But that was only forthe present, and at any moment Asad might give the word to put aboutand steer for Barbary again; in no case could that be delayed beyond theplundering of the Spanish argosy. He nourished the faint hope that inthat coming fight--if indeed the Spaniards did show fight--some chancemight perhaps present itself, some unexpected way out of the presentsituation.

  He spent the night under the stars, stretched across the threshold ofthe curtained entrance to the poop-house, making thus a barrier ofhis body whilst he slept, and himself watched over in his turn by hisfaithful Nubians who remained on guard. He awakened when the firstviolet tints of dawn were in the east, and quietly dismissing the wearyslaves to their rest, he kept watch alone thereafter. Under the awningon the starboard quarter slept the Basha and his son, and near themBiskaine was snoring.

 
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