The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 1

The Captive

Sakr-el-Bahr, the hawk of the sea, the scourge of the Mediterranean and the terror of Christian Spain, lay prone on the heights of Cape Spartel.

Above him on the crest of the cliff ran the dark green line of the orange groves of Araish — the reputed Garden of the Hesperides of the ancients, where the golden apples grew. A mile or so to eastward were dotted the huts and tents of a Bedouin encampment on the fertile emerald pasture-land that spread away, as far as eye could range, towards Ceuta. Nearer, astride of a grey rock an almost naked goatherd, a lithe brown stripling with a cord of camel-hair about his shaven head, intermittently made melancholy and unmelodious sounds upon a reed pipe. From somewhere in the blue vault of heaven overhead came the joyous trilling of a lark, from below the silken rustling of the tideless sea.

Sakr-el-Bahr lay prone upon a cloak of woven camel-hair amid luxuriating fern and samphire, on the very edge of the shelf of cliff to which he had climbed. On either side of him squatted a negro from the Sus both naked of all save white loin-cloths, their muscular bodies glistening like ebony in the dazzling sunshine of mid-May. They wielded crude fans fashioned from the yellowing leaves of date palms, and their duty was to wave these gently to and fro above their lord’s head, to give him air and to drive off the flies.

Sakr-el-Bahr was in the very prime of life, a man of a great length of body, with a deep Herculean torso and limbs that advertised a giant strength. His hawk-nosed face ending in a black forked beard was of a swarthiness accentuated to exaggeration by the snowy white turban wound about his brow. His eyes, by contrast, were singularly light. He wore over his white shirt a long green tunic of very light silk, woven along its edges with arabesques in gold; a pair of loose calico breeches reached to his knees; his brown muscular calves were naked, and his feet were shod in a pair of Moorish shoes of crimson leather, with up-curling and very pointed toes. He had no weapons other than the heavy-bladed knife with a jewelled hilt that was thrust into his girdle of plaited leather.

A yard or two away on his left lay another supine figure, elbows on the ground, and hands arched above his brow to shade his eyes, gazing out to sea. He, too, was a tall and powerful man, and when he moved there was a glint of armour from the chain mail in which his body was cased, and from the steel casque about which he had swathed his green turban. Beside him lay an enormous curved scimitar in a sheath of brown leather that was heavy with steel ornaments. His face was handsome, and bearded, but swarthier far than his companion’s, and the backs of his long fine hands were almost black.

Sakr-el-Bahr paid little heed to him. Lying there he looked down the slope, clad with stunted cork-trees and evergreen oaks; here and there was the golden gleam of broom; yonder over a spur of whitish rock sprawled the green and living scarlet of a cactus. Below him about the caves of Hercules was a space of sea whose clear depths shifted with its slow movement from the deep green of emerald to all the colours of the opal. A little farther off behind a projecting screen of rock that formed a little haven two enormous masted galleys, each of fifty oars, and a smaller galliot of thirty rode gently on the slight heave of the water, the vast yellow oars standing out almost horizontally from the sides of each vessel like the pinions of some gigantic bird. That they lurked there either in concealment or in ambush was very plain. Above them circled a flock of seagulls noisy and insolent.

Sakr-el-Bahr looked out to sea across the straits towards Tarifa and the faint distant European coastline just visible through the limpid summer air. But his glance was not concerned with that hazy horizon; it went no further than a fine white-sailed ship that, close-hauled, was beating up the straits some four miles off. A gentle breeze was blowing from the east, and with every foot of canvas spread to catch it she stood as close to it as was possible. Nearer she came on her larboard tack, and not a doubt but her master would be scanning the hostile African littoral for a sight of those desperate rovers who haunted it and who took toll of every Christian ship that ventured over-near. Sakr-el-Bahr smiled to think how little the presence of his galleys could be suspected, how innocent must look the sun-bathed shore of Africa to the Christian skipper’s diligently searching spy-glass. And there from his height, like the hawk they had dubbed him, poised in the cobalt heavens to plumb down upon his prey, he watched the great white ship and waited until she should come within striking distance.

A promontory to eastward made something of a lee that reached out almost a mile from shore. From the watcher’s eyrie the line of demarcation was sharply drawn; they could see the point at which the white crests of the wind-whipped wavelets ceased and the water became smoother. Did she but venture as far southward on her present tack, she would be slow to go about again, and that should be their opportunity. And all unconscious of the lurking peril she held steadily to her course, until not half a mile remained between her and that inauspicious lee.

Excitement stirred the mail-clad corsair; he kicked his heels in the air, then swung round to the impassive and watchful Sakr-el-Bahr.

“She will come! She will come!” he cried in the Frankish jargon — the lingua franca of the African littoral.

“Insh’ Allah!” was the laconic answer —“If God will.”

A tense silence fell between them again as the ship drew nearer so that now with each forward heave of her they caught a glint of the white belly under her black hull. Sakr-el-Bahr shaded his eyes, and concentrated his vision upon the square ensign flying from, her mainmast. He could make out not only the red and yellow quarterings, but the devices of the castle and the lion.

“A Spanish ship, Biskaine,” he growled to his companion. “It is very well. The praise to the One!”

“Will she venture in?” wondered the other.

“Be sure she will venture,” was the confident answer. “She suspects no danger, and it is not often that our galleys are to be found so far westward. Aye, there she comes in all her Spanish pride.”

Even as he spoke she reached that line of demarcation. She crossed it, for there was still a moderate breeze on the leeward side of it, intent no doubt upon making the utmost of that southward run.

“Now!” cried Biskaine — Biskaine-el-Borak was he called from the lightning-like impetuousness in which he was wont to strike. He quivered with impatience, like a leashed hound.

“Not yet,” was the calm, restraining answer. “Every inch nearer shore she creeps the more certain is her doom. Time enough to sound the charge when she goes about. Give me to drink, Abiad,” he said to one of his negroes, whom in irony he had dubbed “the White.”

The slave turned aside, swept away a litter of ferns and produced an amphora of porous red clay; he removed the palm-leaves from the mouth of it and poured water into a cup. Sakr-el-Bahr drank slowly, his eyes never leaving the vessel, whose every ratline was clearly defined by now in the pellucid air. They could see men moving on her decks, and the watchman stationed in the foremast fighting-top. She was not more than half a mile away when suddenly came the manceuvre to go about.

Sakr-el-Bahr leapt instantly to his great height and waved a long green scarf. From one of the galleys behind the screen of rocks a trumpet rang out in immediate answer to that signal; it was followed by the shrill whistles of the bo’suns, and that again by the splash and creak of oars, as the two larger galleys swept out from their ambush. The long armoured poops were a-swarm with turbaned corsairs, their weapons gleaming in the sunshine; a dozen at least were astride of the crosstree of each mainmast, all armed with bows and arrows, and the ratlines on each side of the galleys were black with men who swarmed there like locusts ready to envelop and smother their prey.

The suddenness of the attack flung the Spaniard into confusion. There was a frantic stir aboard her, trumpet blasts and shootings and wild scurryings of men hither and thither to the posts to which they were ordered by their too reckless captain. In that confusion her manceuvre to go about went all awry, and precious moments were lost during which she stood floundering, with idly flapping sails. In his desperate haste the captain headed her straight to leeward, thinking that by running thus before the wind he stood the best chance of avoiding the trap. But there was not wind enough in that sheltered spot to make the attempt successful. The galleys sped straight on at an angle to the direction in which the Spaniard was moving, their yellow dripping oars flashing furiously, as the bo’suns plied their whips to urge every ounce of sinew in the slaves.

Of all this Sakr-el-Bahr gathered an impression as, followed by Biskaine and the negroes, he swiftly made his way down from that eyrie that had served him so well. He sprang from red oak to cork-tree and from cork-tree to red oak; he leapt from rock to rock, or lowered himself from ledge to ledge, gripping a handful of heath or a projecting stone, but all with the speed and nimbleness of an ape. He dropped at last to the beach, then sped across it at a run, and went bounding along a black reef until he stood alongside of the galliot which had been left behind by the other Corsair vessels. She awaited him in deep water, the length of her oars from the rock, and as he came alongside, these oars were brought to the horizontal, and held there firmly. He leapt down upon them, his companions following him, and using them as a gangway, reached the bulwarks. He threw a leg over the side, and alighted on a decked space between two oars and the two rows of six slaves that were manning each of them.

Biskaine followed him and the negroes came last. They were still astride of the bulwarks when Sakr-el-Bahr gave the word. Up the middle gangway ran a bo’sun and two of his mates cracking their long whips of bullock-hide. Down went the oars, there was a heave, and they shot out in the wake of the other two to join the fight.

Sakr-el-Bahr, scimitar in hand, stood on the prow, a little in advance of the mob of eager babbling corsairs who surrounded him, quivering in their impatience to be let loose upon the Christian foe. Above, along the yardarm and up the ratlines swarmed his bowmen. From the mast-head floated out his standard, of crimson charged with a green crescent.

The naked Christian slaves groaned, strained and sweated under the Moslem lash that drove them to the destruction of their Christian brethren.

Ahead the battle was already joined. The Spaniard had fired one single hasty shot which had gone wide, and now one of the corsair’s grappling-irons had seized her on the larboard quarter, a withering hail of arrows was pouring down upon her decks from the Muslim crosstrees; up her sides crowded the eager Moors, ever most eager when it was a question of tackling the Spanish dogs who had driven them from their Andalusian Caliphate. Under her quarter sped the other galley to take her on the starboard side, and even as she went her archers and stingers hurled death aboard the galleon.

It was a short, sharp fight. The Spaniards in confusion from the beginning, having been taken utterly by surprise, had never been able to order themselves in a proper manner to receive the onslaught. Still, what could be done they did. They made a gallant stand against this pitiless assailant. But the corsairs charged home as gallantly, utterly reckless of life, eager to slay in the name of Allah and His Prophet and scarcely less eager to die if it should please the All-pitiful that their destinies should be here fulfilled. Up they went, and back fell the Castilians, outnumbered by at least ten to one.

When Sakr-el-Bahr’s galliot came alongside, that brief encounter was at an end, and one of his corsairs was aloft, hacking from the mainmast the standard of Spain and the wooden crucifix that was nailed below it. A moment later and to a thundering roar of “Al-hamdolliah!” the green crescent floated out upon the breeze.

Sakr-el-Bahr thrust his way through the press in the galleon’s waist; his corsairs fell back before him, making way, and as he advanced they roared his name deliriously and waved their scimitars to acclaim him this hawk of the sea, as he was named, this most valiant of all the servants of Islam. True he had taken no actual part in the engagement. It had been too brief and he had arrived too late for that. But his had been the daring to conceive an ambush at so remote a western point, and his the brain that had guided them to this swift sweet victory in the name of Allah the One.

The decks were slippery with blood, and strewn with wounded and dying men, whom already the Muslimeen were heaving overboard — dead and wounded alike when they were Christians, for to what end should they be troubled with maimed slaves?

About the mainmast were huddled the surviving Spaniards, weaponless and broken in courage, a herd of timid, bewildered sheep.

Sakr-el-Bahr stood forward, his light eyes considering them grimly. They must number close upon a hundred, adventurers in the main who had set out from Cadiz in high hope of finding fortune in the Indies. Their voyage had been a very brief one; their fate they knew — to toil at the oars of the Muslim galleys, or at best, to be taken to Algiers or Tunis and sold there into the slavery of some wealthy Moor.

Sakr-el-Bahr’s glance scanned them appraisingly, and rested finally on the captain, who stood slightly in advance, his face livid with rage and grief. He was richly dressed in the Castilian black, and his velvet thimble-shaped hat was heavily plumed and decked by a gold cross.

Sakr-el-Bahr salaamed ceremoniously to him. “Fortuna de guerra, senor capitan,” said he in fluent Spanish. “What is your name?”

“I am Don Paulo de Guzman,” the man answered, drawing himself erect, and speaking with conscious pride in himself and manifest contempt of his interlocutor.

“So! A gentleman of family! And well-nourished and sturdy, I should judge. In the sôk at Algiers you might fetch two hundred philips. You shall ransom yourself for five hundred.”

“Por las Entranas de Dios!” swore Don Paulo who, like all pious Spanish Catholics, favoured the oath anatomical. What else he would have added in his fury is not known, for Sakr-el-Bahr waved him contemptuously away.

“For your profanity and want of courtesy we will make the ransom a thousand philips, then,” said he. And to his followers —“Away with him! Let him have courteous entertainment against the coming of his ransom.”

He was borne away cursing.

Of the others Sakr-el-Bahr made short work. He offered the privilege of ransoming himself to any who might claim it, and the privilege was claimed by three. The rest he consigned to the care of Biskaine, who acted as his Kayla, or lieutenant. But before doing so he bade the ship’s bo’sun stand forward, and demanded to know what slaves there might be on board. There were, he learnt, but a dozen, employed upon menial duties on the ship — three Jews, seven Muslimeen and two heretics — and they had been driven under the hatches when the peril threatened.

By Sakr-el-Bahr’s orders these were dragged forth from the blackness into which they had been flung. The Muslimeen upon discovering that they had fallen into the hands of their own people and that their slavery was at an end, broke into cries of delight, and fervent praise of Allah than whom they swore there was no other God. The three Jews, lithe, stalwart young men in black tunics that fell to their knees and black skull-caps upon their curly black locks, smiled ingratiatingly, hoping for the best since they were fallen into the hands of people who were nearer akin to them than Christians and allied to them, at least, by the bond of common enmity to Spain and common suffering at the hands of Spaniards. The two heretics stood in stolid apathy, realizing that with them it was but a case of passing from Charybdis to Scylla, and that they had as little to hope for from heathen as from Christian. One of these was a sturdy bowlegged fellow, whose garments were little better than rags; his weather-beaten face was of the colour of mahogany and his eyes of a dark blue under tufted eyebrows that once had been red — like his hair and beard — but were now thickly intermingled with grey. He was spotted like a leopard on the hands by enormous dark brown freckles.

Of the entire dozen he was the only one that drew the attention of Sakr-el-Bahr. He stood despondently before the corsair, with bowed head and his eyes upon the deck, a weary, dejected, spiritless slave who would as soon die as live. Thus some few moments during which the stalwart Muslim stood regarding him; then as if drawn by that persistent scrutiny he raised his dull, weary eyes. At once they quickened, the dulness passed out of them; they were bright and keen as of old. He thrust his head forward, staring in his turn; then, in a bewildered way he looked about him at the ocean of swarthy faces under turbans of all colours, and back again at Sakr-el-Bahr.

“God’s light!” he said at last, in English, to vent his infinite amazement. Then reverting to the cynical manner that he had ever affected, and effacing all surprise —

“Good day to you, Sir Oliver,” said he. “I suppose ye’ll give yourself the pleasure of hanging me.”

“Allah is great!” said Sakr-el-Bahr impassively.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29