The sea hawk, p.32
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.32

           Rafael Sabatini


  Up the gangway between the lines of slumbering slaves came a quickpatter of feet. Ali, who since sunset had been replacing Larocque on theheights, sprang suddenly upon the poop still shouting.

  "Captain! Captain! My lord! Afoot! Up! or we are taken!"

  Throughout the vessel's length came the rustle and stir of waking men. Avoice clamoured somewhere on the forecastle. Then the flap of the awningwas suddenly whisked aside and Asad himself appeared with Marzak at hiselbow.

  From the starboard side as suddenly came Biskaine and Othmani, andfrom the waist Vigitello, Jasper--that latest renegade--and a group ofalarmed corsairs.

  "What now?" quoth the Basha.

  Ali delivered his message breathlessly. "The galleon has weighed anchor.She is moving out of the bay."

  Asad clutched his beard, and scowled. "Now what may that portend? Canknowledge of our presence have reached them?"

  "Why else should she move from her anchorage thus in the dead of night?"said Biskaine.

  "Why else, indeed?" returned Asad, and then he swung upon Oliverstanding there in the entrance of the poop-house. "What sayest thou,Sakr-el-Bahr?" he appealed to him.

  Sakr-el-Bahr stepped forward, shrugging. "What is there to say? What isthere to do?" he asked. "We can but wait. If our presence is known tothem we are finely trapped, and there's an end to all of us this night."

  His voice was cool as ice, contemptuous almost, and whilst it struckanxiety into more than one it awoke terror in Marzak.

  "May thy bones rot, thou ill-omened prophet!" he screamed, and wouldhave added more but that Sakr-el-Bahr silenced him.

  "What is written is written!" said he in a voice of thunder and reproof.

  "Indeed, indeed," Asad agreed, grasping at the fatalist's consolation."If we are ripe for the gardeners hand, the gardener will pluck us."

  Less fatalistic and more practical was the counsel of Biskaine.

  "It were well to act upon the assumption that we are indeed discovered,and make for the open sea while yet there may be time."

  "But that were to make certain what is still doubtful," broke in Marzak,fearful ever. "It were to run to meet the danger."

  "Not so!" cried Asad in a loud, confident voice. "The praise to Allahwho sent us this calm night. There is scarce a breath of wind. We canrow ten leagues while they are sailing one."

  A murmur of quick approval sped through the ranks of officers and men.

  "Let us but win safely from this cove and they will never overtake us,"announced Biskaine.

  "But their guns may," Sakr-el-Bahr quietly reminded them to damp theirconfidence. His own alert mind had already foreseen this one chance ofescaping from the trap, but he had hoped that it would not be quite soobvious to the others.

  "That risk we must take," replied Asad. "We must trust to the night. Tolinger here is to await certain destruction." He swung briskly aboutto issue his orders. "Ali, summon the steersmen. Hasten! Vigitello, setyour whips about the slaves, and rouse them." Then as the shrill whistleof the boatswain rang out and the whips of his mates went hissing andcracking about the shoulders of the already half-awakened slaves, tomingle with all the rest of the stir and bustle aboard the galeasse, theBasha turned once more to Biskaine. "Up thou to the prow," he commanded,"and marshal the men. Bid them stand to their arms lest it should cometo boarding. Go!" Biskaine salaamed and sprang down the companion. Abovethe rumbling din and scurrying toil of preparation rang Asad's voice.

  "Crossbowmen, aloft! Gunners to the carronades! Kindle your linstocks!Put out all lights!"

  An instant later the cressets on the poop-rail were extinguished, as wasthe lantern swinging from the rail, and even the lamp in the poop-housewhich was invaded by one of the Basha's officers for that purpose. Thelantern hanging from the mast alone was spared against emergencies; butit was taken down, placed upon the deck, and muffled.

  Thus was the galeasse plunged into a darkness that for some momentswas black and impenetrable as velvet. Then slowly, as the eyes becameaccustomed to it, this gloom was gradually relieved. Once more men andobjects began to take shape in the faint, steely radiance of the summernight.

  After the excitement of that first stir the corsairs went about theirtasks with amazing calm and silence. None thought now of reproaching theBasha or Sakr-el-Bahr with having delayed until the moment of perilto take the course which all of them had demanded should be taken whenfirst they had heard of the neighbourhood of that hostile ship. In linesthree deep they stood ranged along the ample fighting platform of theprow; in the foremost line were the archers, behind them stood theswordsmen, their weapons gleaming lividly in the darkness. They crowdedto the bulwarks of the waist-deck and swarmed upon the rat-lines ofthe mainmast. On the poop three gunners stood to each of the two smallcannon, their faces showing faintly ruddy in the glow of the ignitedmatch.

  Asad stood at the head of the companion, issuing his sharp briefcommands, and Sakr-el-Bahr, behind him, leaning against the timbers ofthe poop-house with Rosamund at his side, observed that the Bashahad studiously avoided entrusting any of this work of preparation tohimself.

  The steersmen climbed to their niches, and the huge steering oarscreaked as they were swung out. Came a short word of command from Asadand a stir ran through the ranks of the slaves, as they threw forwardtheir weight to bring the oars to the level. Thus a moment, then asecond word, the premonitory crack of a whip in the darkness of thegangway, and the tomtom began to beat the time. The slaves heaved,and with a creak and splash of oars the great galeasse skimmed forwardtowards the mouth of the cove.

  Up and down the gangway ran the boatswain's mates, cutting fiercely withtheir whips to urge the slaves to the very utmost effort. The vesselgathered speed. The looming headland slipped by. The mouth of the coveappeared to widen as they approached it. Beyond spread the dark steelymirror of the dead-calm sea.

  Rosamund could scarcely breathe in the intensity of her suspense. Sheset a hand upon the arm of Sakr-el-Bahr.

  "Shall we elude them, after all?" she asked in a trembling whisper.

  "I pray that we may not," he answered, muttering. "But this is thehandiwork I feared. Look!" he added sharply, and pointed.

  They had shot clear to the headland. They were out of the cove, andsuddenly they had a view of the dark bulk of the galleon, studded with ascore of points of light, riding a cable's length away on their larboardquarter.

  "Faster!" cried the voice of Asad. "Row for your lives, you infidelswine! Lay me your whips upon these hides of theirs! Bend me these dogsto their oars, and they'll never overtake us now."

  Whips sang and thudded below them in the waist, to be answered by morethan one groan from the tormented panting slaves, who already werespending every ounce of strength in this cruel effort to elude theirown chance of salvation and release. Faster beat the tomtom marking thedesperate time, and faster in response to it came the creak and dip ofoars and the panting, stertorous breathing of the rowers.

  "Lay on! Lay on!" cried Asad, inexorable. Let them burst theirlungs--they were but infidel lungs!--so that for an hour they butmaintained the present pace.

  "We are drawing away!" cried Marzak in jubilation. "The praise toAllah!"

  And so indeed they were. Visibly the lights of the galleon werereceding. With every inch of canvas spread yet she appeared to bestanding still, so faint was the breeze that stirred. And whilstshe crawled, the galeasse raced as never yet she had raced sinceSakr-el-Bahr had commanded her, for Sakr-el-Bahr had never yet turnedtail upon the foe in whatever strength he found him.

  Suddenly over the water from the galleon came a loud hail. Asad laughed,and in the darkness shook his fist at them, cursing them in the nameof Allah and his Prophet. And then, in answer to that curse of his, thegalleon's side belched fire; the calm of the night was broken by a roarof thunder, and something smote the water ahead of the Muslim vesselwith a resounding thudding splash.

  In fear Rosamund drew closer to Sakr-el-Bahr. But Asad
laughed again.

  "No need to fear their marksmanship," he cried. "They cannot see us.Their own lights dazzle them. On! On!"

  "He is right," said Sakr-el-Bahr. "But the truth is that they will notfire to sink us because they know you to be aboard."

  She looked out to sea again, and beheld those friendly lights fallingfarther and farther astern.

  "We are drawing steadily away," she groaned. "They will never overtakeus now."

  So feared Sakr-el-Bahr. He more than feared it. He knew that save forsome miraculous rising of the wind it must be as she said. And then outof his despair leapt inspiration--a desperate inspiration, true child ofthat despair of which it was begotten.

  "There is a chance," he said to her. "But it is as a throw of the dicewith life and death for stakes."

  "Then seize it," she bade him instantly. "For though it should goagainst us we shall not be losers."

  "You are prepared for anything?" he asked her.

  "Have I not said that I will go down with you this night? Ah, don'twaste time in words!"

  "Be it so, then," he replied gravely, and moved away a step, thenchecked. "You had best come with me," he said.

  Obediently she complied and followed him, and some there were who staredas these two passed down the gangway, yet none attempted to hinder hermovements. Enough and to spare was there already to engage the thoughtsof all aboard that vessel.

  He thrust a way for her, past the boatswain's mates who stood over theslaves ferociously plying tongues and whips, and so brought her to thewaist. Here he took up the lantern which had been muffled, and asits light once more streamed forth, Asad shouted an order for itsextinction. But Sakr-el-Bahr took no least heed of that command. Hestepped to the mainmast, about which the powder kegs had been stacked.One of these had been broached against its being needed by the gunnerson the poop. The unfastened lid rested loosely atop of it. That lidSakr-el-Bahr knocked over; then he pulled one of the horn sides out ofthe lantern, and held the now half-naked flame immediately above thepowder.

  A cry of alarm went up from some who had watched him. But above that cryrang his sharp command:

  "Cease rowing!"

  The tomtom fell instantly silent, but the slaves took yet anotherstroke.

  "Cease rowing!" he commanded again. "Asad!" he called. "Bid them pause,or I'll blow you all straight into the arms of Shaitan." And he loweredthe lantern until it rested on the very rim of the powder keg.

  At once the rowing ceased. Slaves, corsairs, officers, and Asad himselfstood paralyzed, all at gaze upon that grim figure illumined by thelantern, threatening them with doom. It may have crossed the minds ofsome to throw themselves forthwith upon him; but to arrest them was thedread lest any movement towards him should precipitate the explosionthat must blow them all into the next world.

  At last Asad addressed him, his voice half-choked with rage.

  "May Allah strike thee dead! Art thou djinn-possessed?"

  Marzak, standing at his father's side, set a quarrel to the bow whichhe had snatched up. "Why do you all stand and stare?" he cried. "Cuthim down, one of you!" And even as he spoke he raised his bow. But hisfather checked him, perceiving what must be the inevitable result.

  "If any man takes a step towards me, the lantern goes straight intothe gunpowder," said Sakr-el-Bahr serenely. "And if you shoot me as youintend, Mar-zak, or if any other shoots, the same will happen of itself.Be warned unless you thirst for the Paradise of the Prophet."

  "Sakr-el-Bahr!" cried Asad, and from its erstwhile anger his voicehad now changed to a note of intercession. He stretched out his armsappealingly to the captain whose doom he had already pronounced in hisheart and mind. "Sakr-el-Bahr, I conjure thee by the bread and salt wehave eaten together, return to thy senses, my son."

  "I am in my sense," was the answer, "and being so I have no mind for thefate reserved me in Algiers--by the memory of that same bread and salt.I have no mind to go back with thee to be hanged or sent to toil at anoar again."

  "And if I swear to thee that naught of this shall come to pass?"

  "Thou'lt be forsworn. I would not trust thee now, Asad. For thou artproven a fool, and in all my life I never found good in a fool and nevertrusted one--save once, and he betrayed me. Yesterday I pleadedwith thee, showing thee the wise course, and affording thee thineopportunity. At a slight sacrifice thou mightest have had me and hangedme at thy leisure. 'Twas my own life I offered thee, and for all thatthou knewest it, yet thou knewest not that I knew." He laughed. "See nowwhat manner of fool art thou? Thy greed hath wrought thy ruin. Thy handswere opened to grasp more than they could hold. See now the consequence.It comes yonder in that slowly but surely approaching galleon."

  Every word of it sank into the brain of Asad thus tardily to enlightenhim. He wrung his hands in his blended fury and despair. The crew stoodin appalled silence, daring to make no movement that might precipitatetheir end.

  "Name thine own price," cried the Basha at length, "and I swear to theeby the beard of the Prophet it shall be paid thee."

  "I named it yesterday, but it was refused. I offered thee my liberty andmy life if that were needed to gain the liberty of another."

  Had he looked behind him he might have seen the sudden lighting ofRosamund's eyes, the sudden clutch at her bosom, which would haveannounced to him that his utterances were none so cryptic but that shehad understood them.

  "I will make thee rich and honoured, Sakr-el-Bahr," Asad continuedurgently. "Thou shalt be as mine own son. The Bashalik itself shallbe thine when I lay it down, and all men shall do thee honour in themeanwhile as to myself."

  "I am not to be bought, O mighty Asad. I never was. Already wertthou set upon my death. Thou canst command it now, but only upon thecondition that thou share the cup with me. What is written is written.We have sunk some tall ships together in our day, Asad. We'll sinktogether in our turn to-night if that be thy desire."

  "May thou burn for evermore in hell, thou black-hearted traitor!" Asadcursed him, his anger bursting all the bonds he had imposed upon it.

  And then, of a sudden, upon that admission of defeat from their Basha,there arose a great clamour from the crew. Sakr-el-Bahr's sea-hawkscalled upon him, reminding him of their fidelity and love, and askingcould he repay it now by dooming them all thus to destruction.

  "Have faith in me!" he answered them. "I have never led you into aughtbut victory. Be sure that I shall not lead you now into defeat--on thisthe last occasion that we stand together."

  "But the galleon is upon us!" cried Vigitello. And so, indeed, it was,creeping up slowly under that faint breeze, her tall bulk loomed nowabove them, her prow ploughing slowly forward at an acute angle to theprow of the galeasse. Another moment and she was alongside, and with aswing and clank and a yell of victory from the English seamen liningher bulwarks her grappling irons swung down to seize the corsair shipat prow and stern and waist. Scarce had they fastened, than a torrentof men in breast-plates and morions poured over her side, to alightupon the prow of the galeasse, and not even the fear of the lanternheld above the powder barrel could now restrain the corsairs from givingthese hardy boarders the reception they reserved for all infidels. In aninstant the fighting platform on the prow was become a raging, seethinghell of battle luridly illumined by the ruddy glow from the lightsaboard the Silver Heron. Foremost among those who had leapt down hadbeen Lionel and Sir John Killigrew. Foremost among those to receive themhad been Jasper Leigh, who had passed his sword through Lionel's bodyeven as Lionel's feet came to rest upon the deck, and before the battlewas joined.

  A dozen others went down on either side before Sakr-el-Bahr's ringingvoice could quell the fighting, before his command to them to hear himwas obeyed.

  "Hold there!" he had bellowed to his sea-hawks, using the lingua franca."Back, and leave this to me. I will rid you of these foes." Thenin English he had summoned his countrymen also to desist. "Sir JohnKilligrew!" he called in a loud voice. "Hold your hand until you haveheard me! Call your men back and let none
others come aboard! Hold untilyou have heard me, I say, then wreak your will."

  Sir John, perceiving him by the mainmast with Rosamund at his side, andleaping at the most inevitable conclusion that he meant to threatenher life, perhaps to destroy her if they continued their advance, flunghimself before his men, to check them.

  Thus almost as suddenly as it had been joined the combat paused

  "What have you to say, you renegade dog?" Sir John demanded.

  "This, Sir John, that unless you order your men back aboard your ship,and make oath to desist from this encounter, I'll take you straight downto hell with us at once. I'll heave this lantern into the powder here,and we sink and you come down with us held by your own grappling hooks.Obey me and you shall have all that you have come to seek aboard thisvessel. Mistress Rosamund shall be delivered up to you."

  Sir John glowered upon him a moment from the poop, considering. Then--

  "Though not prepared to make terms with you," he announced, "yet I willaccept the conditions you impose, but only provided that I have allindeed that I am come to seek. There is aboard this galley an infamousrenegade hound whom I am bound by my knightly oath to take and hang. He,too, must be delivered up to me. His name was Oliver Tressilian."

  Instantly, unhesitatingly, came the answer--"Him, too, will I surrenderto you upon your sworn oath that you will then depart and do here nofurther hurt."

  Rosamund caught her breath, and clutched Sakr-el-Bahr's arm, the armthat held the lantern.

  "Have a care, mistress," he bade her sharply, "or you will destroy usall."

  "Better that!" she answered him.

  And then Sir John pledged him his word that upon his own surrender andthat of Rosamund he would withdraw nor offer hurt to any there.

  Sakr-el-Bahr turned to his waiting corsairs, and briefly told them whatthe terms he had made.

  He called upon Asad to pledge his word that these terms would berespected, and no blood shed on his behalf, and Asad answered him,voicing the anger of all against him for his betrayal.

  "Since he wants thee that he may hang thee, he may have thee and sospare us the trouble, for 'tis no less than thy treachery deserves fromus."

  "Thus, then, I surrender," he announced to Sir John, and flung thelantern overboard.

  One voice only was raised in his defence, and that voice was Rosamund's.But even that voice failed, conquered by weary nature. This lastblow following upon all that lately she had endured bereft her of allstrength. Half swooning she collapsed against Sakr-el-Bahr even as SirJohn and a handful of his followers leapt down to deliver her and makefast their prisoner.

  The corsairs stood looking on in silence; the loyalty to their greatcaptain, which would have made them spend their last drop of blood inhis defence, was quenched by his own act of treachery which had broughtthe English ship upon them. Yet when they saw him pinioned and hoistedto the deck of the Silver Heron, there was a sudden momentary reactionin their ranks. Scimitars were waved aloft, and cries of menace burstforth. If he had betrayed them, yet he had so contrived that they shouldnot suffer by that betrayal. And that was worthy of the Sakr-el-Bahrthey knew and loved; so worthy that their love and loyalty leaptfull-armed again upon the instant.

  But the voice of Asad called upon them to bear in mind what in theirname he had promised, and since the voice of Asad alone might not havesufficed to quell that sudden spark of revolt, there came down to themthe voice of Sakr-el-Bahr himself issuing his last command.

  "Remember and respect the terms I have made for you! Mektub! May Allahguard and prosper you!"

  A wail was his reply, and with that wail ringing in his ears to assurehim that he did not pass unloved, he was hurried below to prepare himfor his end.

  The ropes of the grapnels were cut, and slowly the galleon passed awayinto the night, leaving the galley to replace what slaves had beenmaimed in the encounter and to head back for Algiers, abandoning theexpedition against the argosy of Spain.

  Under the awning upon the poop Asad now sat like a man who has awakenedfrom an evil dream. He covered his head and wept for one who had beenas a son to him, and whom through his madness he had lost. He cursedall women, and he cursed destiny; but the bitterest curse of all was forhimself.

  In the pale dawn they flung the dead overboard and washed the decks,nor did they notice that a man was missing in token that the Englishcaptain, or else his followers, had not kept strictly to the letter ofthe bond.

  They returned in mourning to Algiers--mourning not for the Spanishargosy which had been allowed to go her ways unmolested, but for thestoutest captain that ever bared his scimitar in the service of Islam.The story of how he came to be delivered up was never clearly told; nonedared clearly tell it, for none who had participated in the deed buttook shame in it thereafter, however clear it might be that Sakr-el-Bahrhad brought it all upon himself. But, at least, it was understood thathe had not fallen in battle, and hence it was assumed that he was stillalive. Upon that presumption there was built up a sort of legend that hewould one day come back; and redeemed captives returning a half-centurylater related how in Algiers to that day the coming of Sakr-el-Bahr wasstill confidently expected and looked for by all true Muslimeen.

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