The sea hawk, p.30
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.30

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XX. THE MESSENGER

  For the rest of the day she kept the cabin, chafing with anxiety to knowwhat was toward and the more racked by it because Sakr-el-Bahr refrainedthrough all those hours from coming to her. At last towards evening,unable longer to contain herself, she went forth again, and as itchanced she did so at an untimely moment.

  The sun had set, and the evening prayer was being recited aboard thegaleasse, her crew all prostrate. Perceiving this, she drew back againinstinctively, and remained screened by the curtain until the prayer wasended. Then putting it aside, but without stepping past the Nubianswho were on guard, she saw that on her left Asad-ed-Din, with Marzak,Biskaine, and one or two other officers, was again occupying the divanunder the awning. Her eyes sought Sakr-el-Bahr, and presently theybeheld him coming up the gangway with his long, swinging stride, in thewake of the boat-swain's mates who were doling out the meagre eveningmeal to the slaves.

  Suddenly he halted by Lionel, who occupied a seat at the head of his oarimmediately next to the gangway. He addressed him harshly in the linguafranca, which Lionel did not understand, and his words rang clearly andwere heard--as he intended that they should be--by all upon the poop.

  "Well, dog? How does galley-slave fare suit thy tender stomach?"

  Lionel looked up at him.

  "What are you saying?" he asked in English.

  Sakr-el-Bahr bent over him, and his face as all could see was evil andmocking. No doubt he spoke to him in English also, but no more thana murmur reached the straining ears of Rosamund, though from hiscountenance she had no doubt of the purport of his words. And yet shewas far indeed from a correct surmise. The mockery in his countenancewas but a mask.

  "Take no heed of my looks," he was saying. "I desire them up yonderto think that I abuse you. Look as a man would who were being abused.Cringe or snarl, but listen. Do you remember once when as lads we swamtogether from Penarrow to Trefusis Point?"

  "What do you mean?" quoth Lionel, and the natural sullenness of his mienwas all that Sakr-el-Bahr could have desired.

  "I am wondering whether you could still swim as far. If so you mightfind a more appetizing supper awaiting you at the end--aboard Sir JohnKilligrew's ship. You had not heard? The Silver Heron is at anchor inthe bay beyond that headland. If I afford you the means, could you swimto her do you think?"

  Lionel stared at him in profoundest amazement. "Do you mock me?" heasked at length.

  "Why should I mock you on such a matter?"

  "Is it not to mock me to suggest a way for my deliverance?"

  Sakr-el-Bahr laughed, and he mocked now in earnest. He set his left footupon the rowers' stretcher, and leaned forward and down his elbow uponhis raised knee so that his face was close to Lionel's.

  "For your deliverance?" said he. "God's life! Lionel, your mind was everone that could take in naught but your own self. 'Tis that has madea villain of you. Your deliverance! God's wounds! Is there none butyourself whose deliverance I might desire? Look you, now I want you toswim to Sir John's ship and bear him word of the presence here ofthis galeasse and that Rosamund is aboard it. 'Tis for her that I amconcerned, and so little for you that should you chance to be drowned inthe attempt my only regret will be that the message was not delivered.Will you undertake that swim? It is your one sole chance short of deathitself of escaping from the rower's bench. Will you go?"

  "But how?" demanded Lionel, still mistrusting him.

  "Will you go?" his brother insisted.

  "Afford me the means and I will," was the answer.

  "Very well." Sakr-el-Bahr leaned nearer still. "Naturally it willbe supposed by all who are watching us that I am goading you todesperation. Act, then, your part. Up, and attempt to strike me. Thenwhen I return the blow--and I shall strike heavily that no make-believemay be suspected--collapse on your oar pretending to swoon. Leave therest to me. Now," he added sharply, and on the word rose with a finallaugh of derision as if to take his departure.

  But Lionel was quick to follow the instructions. He leapt up in hisbonds, and reaching out as far as they would permit him, he struckSakr-el-Bahr heavily upon the face. On his side, too, there was to be nomake-believe apparent. That done he sank down with a clank of shacklesto the bench again, whilst every one of his fellow-slaves that faced hisway looked on with fearful eyes.

  Sakr-el-Bahr was seen to reel under the blow, and instantly there wasa commotion on board. Biskaine leapt to his feet with a half-cry ofastonishment; even Asad's eyes kindled with interest at so unusual asight as that of a galley-slave attacking a corsair. Then with a snarlof anger, the snarl of an enraged beast almost, Sakr-el-Bahr's great armwas swung aloft and his fist descended like a hammer upon Lionel's head.

  Lionel sank forward under the blow, his senses swimming. Sakr-el-Bahr'sarm swung up a second time.

  "Thou dog!" he roared, and then checked, perceiving that Lionel appearedto have swooned.

  He turned and bellowed for Vigitello and his mates in a voice that washoarse with passion. Vigitello came at a run, a couple of his men at hisheels.

  "Unshackle me this carrion, and heave it overboard," was the harshorder. "Let that serve as an example to the others. Let them learn thusthe price of mutiny in their lousy ranks. To it, I say."

  Away sped a man for hammer and chisel. He returned with them at once.Four sharp metallic blows rang out, and Lionel was dragged forth fromhis place to the gangway-deck. Here he revived, and screamed for mercyas though he were to be drowned in earnest.

  Biskaine chuckled under the awning, Asad looked on approvingly, Rosamunddrew back, shuddering, choking, and near to fainting from sheer horror.

  She saw Lionel borne struggling in the arms of the boatswain's men tothe starboard quarter, and flung over the side with no more compunctionor care than had he been so much rubbish. She heard the final scream ofterror with which he vanished, the splash of his fall, and then in theensuing silence the laugh of Sakr-el-Bahr.

  For a spell she stood there with horror and loathing of that renegadecorsair in her soul. Her mind was bewildered and confused. She soughtto restore order in it, that she might consider this fresh deed of his,this act of wanton brutality and fratricide. And all that she couldgather was the firm conviction that hitherto he had cheated her; he hadlied when he swore that his aim was to effect her deliverance. It wasnot in such a nature to know a gentle mood of penitence for a wrongdone. What might be his purpose she could not yet perceive, but that itwas an evil one she never doubted, for no purpose of his could be aughtbut evil. So overwrought was she now that she forgot all Lionel's sins,and found her heart filled with compassion for him hurled in that brutalfashion to his death.

  And then, quite suddenly a shout rang out from the forecastle.

  "He is swimming!"

  Sakr-el-Bahr had been prepared for the chance of this.

  "Where? Where?" he cried, and sprang to the bulwarks.

  "Yonder!" A man was pointing. Others had joined him and were peeringthrough the gathering gloom at the moving object that was Lionel's headand the faintly visible swirl of water about it which indicated that heswam.

  "Out to sea!" cried Sakr-el-Bahr. "He'll not swim far in any case. Butwe will shorten his road for him." He snatched a cross-bow from the rackabout the mainmast, fitted a shaft to it and took aim.

  On the point of loosing the bolt he paused.

  "Marzak!" he called. "Here, thou prince of marksmen, is a butt forthee!"

  From the poop-deck whence with his father he too was watching theswimmer's head, which at every moment became more faint in the failinglight, Marzak looked with cold disdain upon his challenger, making noreply. A titter ran through the crew.

  "Come now," cried Sakr-el-Bahr. "Take up thy bow!"

  "If thou delay much longer," put in Asad, "he will be beyond thine aim.Already he is scarcely visible."

  "The more difficult a butt, then," answered Sakr-el-B ahr, who was butdelaying to gain time. "The keener test. A hundred philips, Marzak, thatthou'lt not hit me th
at head in three shots, and that I'll sink him atthe first! Wilt take the wager?"

  "The unbeliever is for ever peeping forth from thee," was Marzak'sdignified reply. "Games of chance are forbidden by the Prophet."

  "Make haste, man!" cried Asad. "Already I can scarce discern him. Loosethy quarrel."

  "Pooh," was the disdainful answer. "A fair mark still for such an eye asmine. I never miss--not even in the dark."

  "Vain boaster," said Marzak.

  "Am I so?" Sakr-el-Bahr loosed his shaft at last into the gloom, andpeered after it following its flight, which was wide of the direction ofthe swimmer's head. "A hit!" he cried brazenly. "He's gone!"

  "I think I see him still," said one.

  "Thine eyes deceive thee in this light. No man was ever known to swimwith an arrow through his brain."

  "Ay," put in Jasper, who stood behind Sakr-el-Bahr. "He has vanished."

  "'Tis too dark to see," said Vigitello.

  And then Asad turned from the vessel's side. "Well, well--shot ordrowned, he's gone," he said, and there the matter ended.

  Sakr-el-Bahr replaced the cross-bow in the rack, and came slowly up tothe poop.

  In the gloom he found himself confronted by Rosamund's white facebetween the two dusky countenances of his Nubians. She drew back beforehim as he approached, and he, intent upon imparting his news to her,followed her within the poop-house, and bade Abiad bring lights.

  When these had been kindled they faced each other, and he perceived herprofound agitation and guessed the cause of it. Suddenly she broke intospeech.

  "You beast! You devil!" she panted. "God will punish you! I shallspend my every breath in praying Him to punish you as you deserve. Youmurderer! You hound! And I like a poor simpleton was heeding your falsewords. I was believing you sincere in your repentance of the wrong youhave done me. But now you have shown me...."

  "How have I hurt you in what I have done to Lionel?" he cut in, a littleamazed by so much vehemence.

  "Hurt me!" she cried, and on the words grew cold and calm again withvery scorn. "I thank God it is beyond your power to hurt me. And I thankyou for correcting my foolish misconception of you, my belief in yourpitiful pretence that it was your aim to save me. I would not acceptsalvation at your murderer's hands. Though, indeed, I shall not beput to it. Rather," she pursued, a little wildly now in her deepmortification, "are you like to sacrifice me to your own vile ends,whatever they may be. But I shall thwart you, Heaven helping me. Besure I shall not want courage for that." And with a shuddering moan shecovered her face, and stood swaying there before him.

  He looked on with a faint, bitter smile, understanding her mood just ashe understood her dark threat of thwarting him.

  "I came," he said quietly, "to bring you the assurance that he has gotsafely away, and to tell you upon what manner of errand I have senthim."

  Something compelling in his voice, the easy assurance with which hespoke, drew her to stare at him again.

  "I mean Lionel, of course," he said, in answer to her questioningglance. "That scene between us--the blow and the swoon and the rest ofit--was all make-believe. So afterwards the shooting. My challenge toMarzak was a ruse to gain time--to avoid shooting until Lionel's headshould have become so dimly visible in the dusk that none could saywhether it was still there or not. My shaft went wide of him, as Iintended. He is swimming round the head with my message to Sir JohnKilligrew. He was a strong swimmer in the old days, and should easilyreach his goal. That is what I came to tell you."

  For a long spell she continued to stare at him in silence.

  "You are speaking the truth?" she asked at last, in a small voice.

  He shrugged. "You will have a difficulty in perceiving the object Imight serve by falsehood."

  She sat down suddenly upon the divan; it was almost as if she collapsedbereft of strength; and as suddenly she fell to weeping softly.

  "And... and I believed that you... that you...."

  "Just so," he grimly interrupted. "You always did believe the best ofme."

  And on that he turned and went out abruptly.

 
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