The sea hawk, p.33
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.33

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XXIII. THE HEATHEN CREED

  Sakr-el-Bahr was shut up in a black hole in the forecastle of the SilverHeron to await the dawn and to spend the time in making his soul. Nowords had passed between him and Sir John since his surrender. Withwrists pinioned behind him, he had been hoisted aboard the English ship,and in the waist of her he had stood for a moment face to face with anold acquaintance--our chronicler, Lord Henry Goade. I imagine the floridcountenance of the Queen's Lieutenant wearing a preternaturally graveexpression, his eyes forbidding as they rested upon the renegade. Iknow--from Lord Henry's own pen--that no word had passed between themduring those brief moments before Sakr-el-Bahr was hurried away by hisguards to be flung into those dark, cramped quarters reeking of tar andbilge.

  For a long hour he lay where he had fallen, believing himself alone; andtime and place would no doubt conduce to philosophical reflectionupon his condition. I like to think that he found that when all wasconsidered, he had little with which to reproach himself. If he had doneevil he had made ample amends. It can scarcely be pretended that he hadbetrayed those loyal Muslimeen followers of his, or, if it is, at leastit must be added that he himself had paid the price of that betrayal.Rosamund was safe, Lionel would meet the justice due to him, and as forhimself, being as good as dead already, he was worth little thought. Hemust have derived some measure of content from the reflection that hewas spending his life to the very best advantage. Ruined it had beenlong since. True, but for his ill-starred expedition of vengeance hemight long have continued to wage war as a corsair, might even haverisen to the proud Muslim eminence of the Bashalik of Algiers andbecome a feudatory prince of the Grand Turk. But for one who was born aChristian gentleman that would have been an unworthy way to have endedhis days. The present was the better course.

  A faint rustle in the impenetrable blackness of his prison turnedthe current of his thoughts. A rat, he thought, and drew himself to asitting attitude, and beat his slippered heels upon the ground to driveaway the loathly creature. Instead, a voice challenged him out of thegloom.

  "Who's there?"

  It startled him for a moment, in his complete assurance that he had beenalone.

  "Who's there?" the voice repeated, querulously to add: "What black hellbe this? Where am I?"

  And now he recognized the voice for Jasper Leigh's, and marvelled howthat latest of his recruits to the ranks of Mohammed should be sharingthis prison with him.

  "Faith," said he, "you're in the forecastle of the Silver Heron; thoughhow you come here is more than I can answer."

  "Who are ye?" the voice asked.

  "I have been known in Barbary as Sakr-el-Bahr."

  "Sir Oliver!"

  "I suppose that is what they will call me now. It is as well perhapsthat I am to be buried at sea, else it might plague these Christiangentlemen what legend to inscribe upon my headstone. But you--how comeyou hither? My bargain with Sir John was that none should be molested,and I cannot think Sir John would be forsworn."

  "As to that I know nothing, since I did not even know where I wasbestowed until ye informed me. I was knocked senseless in the fight,after I had put my bilbo through your comely brother. That is the sum ofmy knowledge."

  Sir Oliver caught his breath. "What do you say? You killed Lionel?"

  "I believe so," was the cool answer. "At least I sent a couple of feetof steel through him--'twas in the press of the fight when first theEnglish dropped aboard the galley; Master Lionel was in the van--thelast place in which I should have looked to see him."

  There fell a long silence. At length Sir Oliver spoke in a small voice.

  "Not a doubt but you gave him no more than he was seeking. You areright, Master Leigh; the van was the last place in which to look forhim, unless he came deliberately to seek steel that he might escape arope. Best so, no doubt. Best so! God rest him!"

  "Do you believe in God?" asked the sinful skipper on an anxious note.

  "No doubt they took you because of that," Sir Oliver pursued, as ifcommuning with himself. "Being in ignorance perhaps of his deserts,deeming him a saint and martyr, they resolved to avenge him upon you,and dragged you hither for that purpose." He sighed. "Well, well, MasterLeigh, I make no doubt that knowing yourself for a rascal you have allyour life been preparing your neck for a noose; so this will come as nosurprise to you."

  The skipper stirred uneasily, and groaned. "Lord, how my head aches!" hecomplained.

  "They've a sure remedy for that," Sir Oliver comforted him. "And you'llswing in better company than you deserve, for I am to be hanged in themorn-ing too. You've earned it as fully as have I, Master Leigh. Yet Iam sorry for you--sorry you should suffer where I had not so intended."

  Master Leigh sucked in a shuddering breath, and was silent for a while.

  Then he repeated an earlier question.

  "Do you believe in God, Sir Oliver?"

  "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet," was the answer,and from his tone Master Leigh could not be sure that he did not mock.

  "That's a heathen creed," said he in fear and loathing.

  "Nay, now; it's a creed by which men live. They perform as they preach,which is more than can be said of any Christians I have ever met."

  "How can you talk so upon the eve of death?" cried Leigh in protest.

  "Faith," said Sir Oliver, "it's considered the season of truth above allothers."

  "Then ye don't believe in God?"

  "On the contrary, I do."

  "But not in the real God?" the skipper insisted.

  "There can be no God but the real God--it matters little what men callHim."

  "Then if ye believe, are ye not afraid?"

  "Of what?"

  "Of hell, damnation, and eternal fire," roared the skipper, voicing hisown belated terrors.

  "I have but fulfilled the destiny which in His Omniscience He marked outfor me," replied Sir Oliver. "My life hath been as He designed it, sincenaught may exist or happen save by His Will. Shall I then fear damnationfor having been as God fashioned me?"

  "'Tis the heathen Muslim creed!" Master Leigh protested.

  "'Tis a comforting one," said Sir Oliver, "and it should comfort such asinner as thou."

  But Master Leigh refused to be comforted. "Oh!" he groaned miserably. "Iwould that I did not believe in God!"

  "Your disbelief could no more abolish Him than can your fear createHim," replied Sir Oliver. "But your mood being what it is, were it notbest you prayed?"

  "Will not you pray with me?" quoth that rascal in his sudden fear of thehereafter.

  "I shall do better," said Sir Oliver at last. "I shall pray for you--toSir John Killigrew, that your life be spared."

  "Sure he'll never heed you!" said Master Leigh with a catch in hisbreath.

  "He shall. His honour is concerned in it. The terms of my surrender werethat none else aboard the galley should suffer any hurt."

  "But I killed Master Lionel."

  "True--but that was in the scrimmage that preceded my making terms. SirJohn pledged me his word, and Sir John will keep to it when I have madeit clear to him that honour demands it."

  A great burden was lifted from the skipper's mind--that great shadow ofthe fear of death that had overhung him. With it, it is greatly to befeared that his desperate penitence also departed. At least he talkedno more of damnation, nor took any further thought for Sir Oliver'sopinions and beliefs concerning the hereafter. He may rightly havesupposed that Sir Oliver's creed was Sir Oliver's affair, and thatshould it happen to be wrong he was scarcely himself a qualified personto correct it. As for himself, the making of his soul could wait untilanother day, when the necessity for it should be more imminent.

  Upon that he lay down and attempted to compose himself to sleep, thoughthe pain in his head proved a difficulty. Finding slumber impossibleafter a while he would have talked again; but by that time hiscompanion's regular breathing warned him that Sir Oliver had fallenasleep during the silence.

  Now this surprise
d and shocked the skipper. He was utterly at a loss tounderstand how one who had lived Sir Oliver's life, been a renegade anda heathen, should be able to sleep tranquilly in the knowledge that atdawn he was to hang. His belated Christian zeal prompted him to rousethe sleeper and to urge him to spend the little time that yet remainedhim in making his peace with God. Humane compassion on the otherhand suggested to him that he had best leave him in the peace of thatoblivion. Considering matters he was profoundly touched to reflect thatin such a season Sir Oliver could have found room in his mind to thinkof him and his fate and to undertake to contrive that he should be savedfrom the rope. He was the more touched when he bethought him of theextent to which he had himself been responsible for all that happened toSir Oliver. Out of the consideration of heroism, a certain heroism cameto be begotten in him, and he fell to pondering how in his turn he mightperhaps serve Sir Oliver by a frank confession of all that he knewof the influences that had gone to make Sir Oliver what he was. Thisresolve uplifted him, and oddly enough it uplifted him all the more whenhe reflected that perhaps he would be jeopardizing his own neck by theconfession upon which he had determined.

  So through that endless night he sat, nursing his aching head, andenheartened by the first purpose he had ever conceived of a truly goodand altruistic deed. Yet fate it seemed was bent upon frustrating thatpurpose of his. For when at dawn they came to hale Sir Oliver to hisdoom, they paid no heed to Jasper Leigh's demands that he, too, shouldbe taken before Sir John.

  "Thee bean't included in our orders," said a seaman shortly.

  "Maybe not," retorted Master Leigh, "because Sir John little knows whatit is in my power to tell him. Take me before him, I say, that he mayhear from me the truth of certain matters ere it be too late."

  "Be still," the seaman bade him, and struck him heavily across the face,so that he reeled and collapsed into a corner. "Thee turn will comesoon. Just now our business be with this other heathen."

  "Naught that you can say would avail," Sir Oliver assured him quietly."But I thank you for the thought that marks you for my friend. My handsare bound, Jasper. Were it otherwise I would beg leave to clasp yourown. Fare you well!"

  Sir Oliver was led out into the golden sunlight which almost blinded himafter his long confinement in that dark hole. They were, he gathered,to conduct him to the cabin where a short mockery of a trial was to beheld. But in the waist their progress was arrested by an officer, whobade them wait.

  Sir Oliver sat down upon a coil of rope, his guard about him, an objectof curious inspection to the rude seamen. They thronged the forecastleand the hatchways to stare at this formidable corsair who once had beena Cornish gentleman and who had become a renegade Muslim and a terror toChristianity.

  Truth to tell, the sometime Cornish gentleman was difficult to discernin him as he sat there still wearing the caftan of cloth of silver overhis white tunic and a turban of the same material swathed about hissteel headpiece that ended in a spike. Idly he swung his brown sinewylegs, naked from knee to ankle, with the inscrutable calm of thefatalist upon his swarthy hawk face with its light agate eyes and blackforked beard; and those callous seamen who had assembled there to jeerand mock him were stricken silent by the intrepidity and stoicism of hisbearing in the face of death.

  If the delay chafed him, he gave no outward sign of it. If his hard,light eyes glanced hither and thither it was upon no idle quest. He wasseeking Rosamund, hoping for a last sight of her before they launchedhim upon his last dread voyage.

  But Rosamund was not to be seen. She was in the cabin at the time. Shehad been there for this hour past, and it was to her that the presentdelay was due.

 
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