The sea hawk, p.31
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.31

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XXI. MORITURUS

  He departed from her presence with bitterness in his heart, leaving aprofound contrition in her own. The sense of this her last injustice tohim so overwhelmed her that it became the gauge by which she measuredthat other earlier wrong he had suffered at her hands. Perhaps heroverwrought mind falsified the perspective, exaggerating it until itseemed to her that all the suffering and evil with which this chroniclehas been concerned were the direct fruits of her own sin of unfaith.

  Since all sincere contrition must of necessity bring forth an ardentdesire to atone, so was it now with her. Had he but refrained fromdeparting so abruptly he might have had her on her knees to himsuing for pardon for all the wrongs which her thoughts had done him,proclaiming her own utter unworthiness and baseness. But since hisrighteous resentment had driven him from her presence she could but sitand brood upon it all, considering the words in which to frame her pleafor forgiveness when next he should return.

  But the hours sped, and there was no sign of him. And then, almostwith a shock of dread came the thought that ere long perhaps Sir JohnKilligrew's ship would be upon them. In her distraught state of mind shehad scarcely pondered that contingency. Now that it occurred to herall her concern was for the result of it to Sir Oliver. Would therebe fighting, and would he perhaps perish in that conflict at the handseither of the English or of the corsairs whom for her sake he hadbetrayed, perhaps without ever hearing her confession of penitence,without speaking those words of forgiveness of which her soul stood insuch thirsty need?

  It would be towards midnight when unable longer to bear the suspense ofit, she rose and softly made her way to the entrance. Very quietly shelifted the curtain, and in the act of stepping forth almost stumbledover a body that lay across the threshold. She drew back with a startledgasp; then stooped to look, and by the faint rays of the lanterns onmainmast and poop-rail she recognized Sir Oliver, and saw that he slept.She never heeded the two Nubians immovable as statues who kept guard.She continued to bend over him, and then gradually and very softly sankdown on her knees beside him. There were tears in her eyes--tearswrung from her by a tender emotion of wonder and gratitude at so muchfidelity. She did not know that he had slept thus last night. But itwas enough for her to find him here now. It moved her oddly, profoundly,that this man whom she had ever mistrusted and misjudged should evenwhen he slept make of his body a barrier for her greater security andprotection.

  A sob escaped her, and at the sound, so lightly and vigilantly did hetake his rest, he came instantly if silently to a sitting attitude; andso they looked into each other's eyes, his swarthy, bearded hawk face ona level with her white gleaming countenance.

  "What is it?" he whispered.

  She drew back instantly, taken with sudden panic at that question. Thenrecovering, and seeking womanlike to evade and dissemble the thing shewas come to do, now that the chance of doing it was afforded her--"Doyou think," she faltered, "that Lionel will have reached Sir John'sship?"

  He flashed a glance in the direction of the divan under the awning wherethe Basha slept. There all was still. Besides, the question had beenasked in English. He rose and held out a hand to help her to her feet.Then he signed to her to reenter the poop-house, and followed herwithin.

  "Anxiety keeps you wakeful?" he said, half-question, half-assertion.

  "Indeed," she replied.

  "There is scarce the need," he assured her. "Sir John will not belike to stir until dead of night, that he may make sure of taking usunawares. I have little doubt that Lionel would reach him. It is noneso long a swim. Indeed, once outside the cove he could take to the landuntil he was abreast of the ship. Never doubt he will have done hiserrand."

  She sat down, her glance avoiding his; but the light falling on her faceshowed him the traces there of recent tears.

  "There will be fighting when Sir John arrives?" she asked him presently.

  "Like enough. But what can it avail? We shall be caught--as was saidto-day--in just such a trap as that in which Andrea Doria caught Dragutat Jerba, saving that whilst the wily Dragut found a way out for hisgalleys, here none is possible. Courage, then, for the hour of yourdeliverance is surely at hand."

  He paused, and then in a softer voice, humbly almost, "It is my prayer,"he added, "that hereafter in a happy future these last few weeks shallcome to seem no more than an evil dream to you."

  To that prayer she offered no response. She sat bemused, her browwrinkled.

  "I would it might be done without fighting," she said presently, andsighed wearily.

  "You need have no fear," he assured her. "I shall take all precautionsfor you. You shall remain here until all is over and the entrance willbe guarded by a few whom I can trust."

  "You mistake me," she replied, and looked up at him suddenly. "Do yousuppose my fears are for myself?" She paused again, and then abruptlyasked him, "What will befall you?"

  "I thank you for the thought," he replied gravely. "No doubt I shallmeet with my deserts. Let it but come swiftly when it comes."

  "Ah, no, no!" she cried. "Not that!" And rose in her sudden agitation.

  "What else remains?" he asked, and smiled. "What better fate couldanyone desire me?"

  "You shall live to return to England," she surprised him by exclaiming."The truth must prevail, and justice be done you."

  He looked at her with so fierce and searching a gaze that she avertedher eyes. Then he laughed shortly.

  "There's but one form of justice I can look for in England," said he."It is a justice administered in hemp. Believe me, mistress, I am growntoo notorious for mercy. Best end it here to-night. Besides," he added,and his mockery fell from him, his tone became gloomy, "bethink you ofmy present act of treachery to these men of mine, who, whatever they maybe, have followed me into a score of perils and but to-day have showntheir love and loyalty to me to be greater than their devotion to theBasha himself. I shall have delivered them to the sword. Could I survivewith honour? They may be but poor heathens to you and yours, but to methey are my sea-hawks, my warriors, my faithful gallant followers, and Iwere a dog indeed did I survive the death to which I have doomed them."

  As she listened and gathered from his words the apprehension of a thingthat had hitherto escaped her, her eyes grew wide in sudden horror.

  "Is that to be the cost of my deliverance?" she asked him fearfully.

  "I trust not," he replied. "I have something in mind that will perhapsavoid it."

  "And save your own life as well?" she asked him quickly.

  "Why waste a thought upon so poor a thing? My life was forfeit already.If I go back to Algiers they will assuredly hang me. Asad will see toit, and not all my sea-hawks could save me from my fate."

  She sank down again upon the divan, and sat there rocking her arms in agesture of hopeless distress.

  "I see," she said. "I see. I am bringing this fate upon you. When yousent Lionel upon that errand you voluntarily offered up your life torestore me to my own people. You had no right to do this without firstconsulting me. You had no right to suppose I would be a party to such athing. I will not accept the sacrifice. I will not, Sir Oliver."

  "Indeed, you have no choice, thank God!" he answered her. "But you areastray in your conclusions. It is I alone who have brought this fateupon myself. It is the very proper fruit of my insensate deed. Itrecoils upon me as all evil must upon him that does it." He shrugged hisshoulders as if to dismiss the matter. Then in a changed voice, a voicesingularly timid, soft, and gentle, "it were perhaps too much to ask,"said he, "that you should forgive me all the suffering I have broughtyou?"

  "I think," she answered him, "that it is for me to beg forgiveness ofyou."

  "Of me?"

  "For my unfaith, which has been the source of all. For my readiness tobelieve evil of you five years ago, for having burnt unread your letterand the proof of your innocence that accompanied it."

  He smiled upon her very kindly. "I think you said your instinct guidedyou. Even though I had not don
e the thing imputed to me, your instinctknew me for evil; and your instinct was right, for evil I am--I must be.These are your own words. But do not think that I mock you with them. Ihave come to recognize their truth."

  She stretched out her hands to him. "If... if I were to say that I havecome to realize the falsehood of all that?"

  "I should understand it to be the charity which your pitiful heartextends to one in my extremity. Your instinct was not at fault."

  "It was! It was!"

  But he was not to be driven out of his conviction. He shook his head,his countenance gloomy. "No man who was not evil could have done by youwhat I have done, however deep the provocation. I perceive it clearlynow--as men in their last hour perceive hidden things."

  "Oh, why are you so set on death?" she cried upon a despairing note.

  "I am not," he answered with a swift resumption of his more habitualmanner. "'Tis death that is so set on me. But at least I meet it withoutfear or regret. I face it as we must all face the inevitable--the giftsfrom the hands of destiny. And I am heart-ened--gladdened almost--byyour sweet forgive-ness."

  She rose suddenly, and came to him. She caught his arm, and standingvery close to him, looked up now into his face.

  "We have need to forgive each other, you and I, Oliver," she said. "Andsince forgiveness effaces all, let... let all that has stood between usthese last five years be now effaced."

  He caught his breath as he looked down into her white, straining face

  "Is it impossible for us to go back five years? Is it impossible for usto go back to where we stood in those old days at Godolphin Court?"

  The light that had suddenly been kindled in his face faded slowly,leaving it grey and drawn. His eyes grew clouded with sorrow anddespair.

  "Who has erred must abide by his error--and so must the generations thatcome after him. There is no going back ever. The gates of the past aretight-barred against us."

  "Then let us leave them so. Let us turn our backs upon that past, youand I, and let us set out afresh together, and so make amends to eachother for what our folly has lost to us in those years."

  He set his hands upon her shoulders, and held her so at arm's lengthfrom him considering her with very tender eyes.

  "Sweet lady!" he murmured, and sighed heavily. "God! How happy mightwe not have been but for that evil chance...." He checked abruptly. Hishands fell from her shoulders to his sides, he half-turned away, brusquenow in tone and manner. "I grow maudlin. Your sweet pity has so softenedme that I had almost spoke of love; and what have I to do with that?Love belongs to life; love is life; whilst I... Moriturus te salutat!"

  "Ah, no, no!" She was clinging to him again with shaking hands, her eyeswild.

  "It is too late," he answered her. "There is no bridge can span the pitI have dug myself. I must go down into it as cheerfully as God will letme."

  "Then," she cried in sudden exaltation, "I will go down with you. At thelast, at least, we shall be together."

  "Now here is midsummer frenzy!" he protested, yet there was a tendernessin the very impatience of his accents. He stroked the golden head thatlay against his shoulder. "How shall that help me?" he asked her. "Wouldyou embitter my last hour--rob death of all its glory? Nay, Rosamund,you can serve me better far by living. Return to England, and publishthere the truth of what you have learnt. Be yours the task of clearingmy honour of this stain upon it, proclaiming the truth of what droveme to the infamy of becoming a renegade and a corsair." He started fromher. "Hark! What's that?"

  From without had come a sudden cry, "Afoot! To arms! To arms! Hola!Balak! Balak!"

  "It is the hour," he said, and turning from her suddenly sprang to theentrance and plucked aside the curtain.

 
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