The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 14

The Sign

From behind her lattice, still breathless from the haste she had made, and with her whelp Marzak at her side, Fenzileh had witnessed that first angry return of the Basha from the house of Sakr-el-Bahr.

She had heard him bawling for Abdul Mohktar, the leader of his janissaries, and she had seen the hasty mustering of a score of these soldiers in the courtyard, where the ruddy light of torches mingled with the white light of the full moon. She had seen them go hurrying away with Asad himself at their head, and she had not known whether to weep or to laugh, whether to fear or to rejoice.

“It is done,” Marzak had cried exultantly. “The dog hath withstood him and so destroyed himself. There will be an end to Sakr-el-Bahr this night.” And he had added: “The praise to Allah!”

But from Fenzileh came no response to his prayer of thanksgiving. True, Sakr-el-Bahr must be destroyed, and by a sword that she herself had forged. Yet was it not inevitable that the stroke which laid him low must wound her on its repercussion? That was the question to which now she sought an answer. For all her eagerness to speed the corsair to his doom, she had paused sufficiently to weigh the consequences to herself; she had not overlooked the circumstance that an inevitable result of this must be Asad’s appropriation of that Frankish slave-girl. But at the time it had seemed to her that even this price was worth paying to remove Sakr-el-Bahr definitely and finally from her son’s path — which shows that, after all, Fenzileh the mother was capable of some self-sacrifice. She comforted herself now with the reflection that the influence, whose waning she feared might be occasioned by the introduction of a rival into Asad’s hareem, would no longer be so vitally necessary to herself and Marzak once Sakr-el-Bahr were removed. The rest mattered none so much to her. Yet it mattered something, and the present state of things left her uneasy, her mind a cockpit of emotions. Her grasp could not encompass all her desires at once, it seemed; and whilst she could gloat over the gratification of one, she must bewail the frustration of another. Yet in the main she felt that she should account herself the gainer.

In this state of mind she had waited, scarce heeding the savagely joyous and entirely selfish babblings of her cub, who cared little what might betide his mother as the price of the removal of that hated rival from his path. For him, at least, there was nothing but profit in the business, no cause for anything but satisfaction; and that satisfaction he voiced with a fine contempt for his mother’s feelings.

Anon they witnessed Asad’s return. They saw the janissaries come swinging into the courtyard and range themselves there whilst the Basha made his appearance, walking slowly, with steps that dragged a little, his head sunk upon his breast, his hands behind him. They waited to see slaves following him, leading or carrying the girl he had gone to fetch. But they waited in vain, intrigued and uneasy.

They heard the harsh voice in which Asad dismissed his followers, and the clang of the closing gate; and they saw him pacing there alone in the moonlight, ever in that attitude of dejection.

What had happened? Had he killed them both? Had the girl resisted him to such an extent that he had lost all patience and in one of those rages begotten of such resistance made an end of her?

Thus did Fenzileh question herself, and since she could not doubt but that Sakr-el-Bahr was slain, she concluded that the rest must be as she conjectured. Yet, the suspense torturing her, she summoned Ayoub and sent him to glean from Abdul Mohktar the tale of what had passed. In his own hatred of Sakr-el-Bahr, Ayoub went willingly enough and hoping for the worst. He returned disappointed, with a tale that sowed dismay in Fenzileh and Marzak.

Fenzileh, however, made a swift recovery. After all, it was the best that could have happened. It should not be difficult to transmute that obvious dejection of Asad’s into resentment, and to fan this into a rage that must end by consuming Sakr-el-Bahr. And so the thing could be accomplished without jeopardy to her own place at Asad’s side. For it was inconceivable that he should now take Rosamund to his hareem. Already the fact that she had been paraded with naked face among the Faithful must in itself have been a difficult obstacle to his pride. But it was utterly impossible that he could so subject his self-respect to his desire as to take to himself a woman who had been the wife of his servant.

Fenzileh saw her way very clearly. It was through Asad’s devoutness — as she herself had advised, though scarcely expecting such rich results as these — that he had been thwarted by Sakr-el-Bahr. That same devoutness must further be played upon now to do the rest.

Taking up a flimsy silken veil, she went out to him where he now sat on the divan under the awning, alone there in the tepid-scented summer night. She crept to his side with the soft, graceful, questing movements of a cat, and sat there a moment unheeded almost — such was his abstraction — her head resting lightly against his shoulder.

“Lord of my soul,” she murmured presently, “thou art sorrowing.” Her voice was in itself a soft and soothing caress.

He started, and she caught the gleam of his eyes turned suddenly upon her.

“Who told thee so?” he asked suspiciously.

“My heart,” she answered, her voice melodious as a viol. “Can sorrow burden thine and mine go light?” she wooed him. “Is happiness possible to me when thou art downcast? In there I felt thy melancholy, and thy need of me, and I am come to share thy burden, or to bear it all for thee.” Her arms were raised, and her fingers interlocked themselves upon his shoulder.

He looked down at her, and his expression softened. He needed comfort, and never was she more welcome to him.

Gradually and with infinite skill she drew from him the story of what had happened. When she had gathered it, she loosed her indignation.

“The dog!” she cried. “The faithless, ungrateful hound! Yet have I warned thee against him, O light of my poor eyes, and thou hast scorned me for the warnings uttered by my love. Now at last thou knowest him, and he shall trouble thee no longer. Thou’lt cast him off, reduce him again to the dust from which thy bounty raised him.”

But Asad did not respond. He sat there in a gloomy abstraction, staring straight before him. At last he sighed wearily. He was just, and he had a conscience, as odd a thing as it was awkward in a corsair Basha.

“In what hath befallen,” he answered moodily, “there is naught to justify me in casting aside the stoutest soldier of Islam. My duty to Allah will not suffer it.”

“Yet his duty to thee suffered him to thwart thee, O my lord,” she reminded him very softly.

“In my desires — ay!” he answered, and for a moment his voice quivered with passion. Then he repressed it, and continued more calmly —“Shall my self-seeking overwhelm my duty to the Faith? Shall the matter of a slave-girl urge me to sacrifice the bravest soldier of Islam, the stoutest champion of the Prophet’s law? Shall I bring down upon my head the vengeance of the One by destroying a man who is a scourge of scorpions unto the infidel — and all this that I may gratify my personal anger against him, that I may avenge the thwarting of a petty desire?”

“Dost thou still say, O my life, that Sakr-el-Bahr is the stoutest champion of the Prophet’s law?” she asked him softly, yet on a note of amazement.

“It is not I that say it, but his deeds,” he answered sullenly.

“I know of one deed no True–Believer could have wrought. If proof were needed of his infidelity he hath now afforded it in taking to himself a Nasrani wife. Is it not written in the Book to be Read: ‘Marry not idolatresses’? Is not that the Prophet’s law, and hath he not broken it, offending at once against Allah and against thee, O fountain of my soul?”

Asad frowned. Here was truth indeed, something that he had entirely overlooked. Yet justice compelled him still to defend Sakr-el-Bahr, or else perhaps he but reasoned to prove to himself that the case against the corsair was indeed complete.

“He may have sinned in thoughtlessness,” he suggested.

At that she cried out in admiration of him. “What a fount of mercy and forbearance art thou, O father of Marzak! Thou’rt right as in all things. It was no doubt in thoughtlessness that he offended, but would such thoughtlessness be possible in a True–Believer — in one worthy to be dubbed by thee the champion of the Prophet’s Holy Law?”

It was a shrewd thrust, that pierced the armour of conscience in which he sought to empanoply himself. He sat very thoughtful, scowling darkly at the inky shadow of the wall which the moon was casting. Suddenly he rose.

“By Allah, thou art right!” he cried. “So that he thwarted me and kept that Frankish woman for himself, he cared not how he sinned against the law.”

She glided to her knees and coiled her arms about his waist, looking up at him. “Still art thou ever merciful, ever sparing in adverse judgment. Is that all his fault, O Asad?”

“All?” he questioned, looking down at her. “What more is there?”

“I would there were no more. Yet more there is, to which thy angelic mercy blinds thee. He did worse. Not merely was he reckless of how he sinned against the law, he turned the law to his own base uses and so defiled it.”

“How?” he asked quickly, eagerly almost.

“He employed it as a bulwark behind which to shelter himself and her. Knowing that thou who art the Lion and defender of the Faith wouldst bend obediently to what is written in the Book, he married her to place her beyond thy reach.”

“The praise to Him who is All-wise and lent me strength to do naught unworthy!” he cried in a great voice, glorifying himself. “I might have slain him to dissolve the impious bond, yet I obeyed what is written.”

“Thy forbearance hath given joy to the angels,” she answered him, “and yet a man was found so base as to trade upon it and upon thy piety, O Asad!”

He shook off her clasp, and strode away from her a prey to agitation. He paced to and fro in the moonlight there, and she, well-content, reclined upon the cushions of the divan, a thing of infinite grace, her gleaming eyes discreetly veiled from him — waiting until her poison should have done its work.

She saw him halt, and fling up his arms, as if apostrophizing Heaven, as if asking a question of the stars that twinkled in the wide-flung nimbus of the moon.

Then at last he paced slowly back to her. He was still undecided. There was truth in what she had said; yet he knew and weighed her hatred of Sakr-el-Bahr, knew how it must urge her to put the worst construction upon any act of his, knew her jealousy for Marzak, and so he mistrusted her arguments and mistrusted himself. Also there was his own love of Sakr-el-Bahr that would insist upon a place in the balance of his judgment. His mind was in turmoil.

“Enough,” he said almost roughly. “I pray that Allah may send me counsel in the night.” And upon that he stalked past her, up the steps, and so into the house.

She followed him. All night she lay at his feet to be ready at the first peep of dawn to buttress a purpose that she feared was still weak, and whilst he slept fitfully, she slept not at all, but lay wide-eyed and watchful.

At the first note of the mueddin’s voice, he leapt from his couch obedient to its summons, and scarce had the last note of it died upon the winds of dawn than he was afoot, beating his hands together to summon slaves and issuing his orders, from which she gathered that he was for the harbour there and then.

“May Allah have inspired thee, O my lord!” she cried. And asked him: “What is thy resolve?”

“I go to seek a sign,” he answered her, and upon that departed, leaving her in a frame of mind that was far from easy.

She summoned Marzak, and bade him accompany his father, breathed swift instructions of what he should do and how do it.

“Thy fate has been placed in thine own hands,” she admonished him. “See that thou grip it firmly now.”

In the courtyard Marzak found his father in the act of mounting a white mule that had been brought him.

He was attended by his wazeer Tsamanni, Biskaine, and some other of his captains. Marzak begged leave to go with him. It was carelessly granted, and they set out, Marzak walking by his father’s stirrup, a little in advance of the others. For a while there was silence between father and son, then the latter spoke.

“It is my prayer, O my father, that thou art resolved to depose the faithless Sakr-el-Bahr from the command of this expedition.”

Asad considered his son with a sombre eye. “Even now the galeasse should be setting out if the argosy is to be intercepted,” he said. “If Sakr-el-Bahr does not command, who shall, in Heaven’s name?”

“Try me, O my father,” cried Marzak.

Asad smiled with grim wistfulness. “Art weary of life, O my son, that thou wouldst go to thy death and take the galeasse to destruction?”

“Thou art less than just, O my father,” Marzak protested.

“Yet more than kind, O my son,” replied Asad, and they went on in silence thereafter, until they came to the mole.

The splendid galeasse was moored alongside, and all about her there was great bustle of preparation for departure. Porters moved up and down the gangway that connected her with the shore, carrying bales of provisions, barrels of water, kegs of gunpowder, and other necessaries for the voyage, and even as Asad and his followers reached the head of that gangway, four negroes were staggering down it under the load of a huge palmetto bale that was slung from staves yoked to their shoulders.

On the poop stood Sakr-el-Bahr with Othmani, Ali, Jasper–Reis, and some other officers. Up and down the gangway paced Larocque and Vigitello, two renegade boatswains, one French and the other Italian, who had sailed with him on every voyage for the past two years. Larocque was superintending the loading of the vessel, bawling his orders for the bestowal of provisions here, of water yonder, and of powder about the mainmast. Vigitello was making a final inspection of the slaves at the oars.

As the palmetto pannier was brought aboard, Larocque shouted to the negroes to set it down by the mainmast. But here Sakr-el-Bahr interfered, bidding them, instead, to bring it up to the stern and place it in the poop-house.

Asad had dismounted, and stood with Marzak at his side at the head of the gangway when the youth finally begged his father himself to take command of this expedition, allowing him to come as his lieutenant and so learn the ways of the sea.

Asad looked at him curiously, but answered nothing. He went aboard, Marzak and the others following him. It was at this moment that Sakr-el-Bahr first became aware of the Basha’s presence, and he came instantly forward to do the honours of his galley. If there was a sudden uneasiness in his heart his face was calm and his glance as arrogant and steady as ever.

“May the peace of Allah overshadow thee and thy house, O mighty Asad,” was his greeting. “We are on the point of casting off, and I shall sail the more securely for thy blessing.”

Asad considered him with eyes of wonder. So much effrontery, so much ease after their last scene together seemed to the Basha a thing incredible, unless, indeed, it were accompanied by a conscience entirely at peace.

“It has been proposed to me that I shall do more than bless this expedition — that I shall command it,” he answered, watching Sakr-el-Bahr closely. He observed the sudden flicker of the corsair’s eyes, the only outward sign of his inward dismay.

“Command it?” echoed Sakr-el-Bahr. “’Twas proposed to thee?” And he laughed lightly as if to dismiss that suggestion.

That laugh was a tactical error. It spurred Asad. He advanced slowly along the vessel’s waist-deck to the mainmast — for she was rigged with main and foremasts. There he halted again to look into the face of Sakr-el-Bahr who stepped along beside him.

“Why didst thou laugh?” he questioned shortly.

“Why? At the folly of such a proposal,” said Sakr-el-Bahr in haste, too much in haste to seek a diplomatic answer.

Darker grew the Basha’s frown. “Folly?” quoth he. “Wherein lies the folly?”

Sakr-el-Bahr made haste to cover his mistake. “In the suggestion that such poor quarry as waits us should be worthy thine endeavour, should warrant the Lion of the Faith to unsheathe his mighty claws. Thou,” he continued with ringing scorn, “thou the inspirer of a hundred glorious fights in which whole fleets have been engaged, to take the seas upon so trivial an errand — one galeasse to swoop upon a single galley of Spain! It were unworthy thy great name, beneath the dignity of thy valour!” and by a gesture he contemptuously dismissed the subject.

But Asad continued to ponder him with cold eyes, his face inscrutable. “Why, here’s a change since yesterday!” he said.

“A change, my lord?”

“But yesterday in the market-place thyself didst urge me to join this expedition and to command it,” Asad reminded him, speaking with deliberate emphasis. “Thyself invoked the memory of the days that are gone, when, scimitar in hand, we charged side by side aboard the infidel, and thou didst beseech me to engage again beside thee. And now. . . . ” He spread his hands, anger gathered in his eyes. “Whence this change?” he demanded sternly.

Sakr-el-Bahr hesitated, caught in his own toils. He looked away from Asad a moment; he had a glimpse of the handsome flushed face of Marzak at his father’s elbow, of Biskaine, Tsamanni, and the others all staring at him in amazement, and even of some grimy sunburned faces from the rowers’ bench on his left that were looking on with dull curiosity.

He smiled, seeming outwardly to remain entirely unruffled. “Why . . . it is that I have come to perceive thy reasons for refusing. For the rest, it is as I say, the quarry is not worthy of the hunter.”

Marzak uttered a soft sneering laugh, as if the true reason of the corsair’s attitude were quite clear to him. He fancied too, and he was right in this, that Sakr-el-Bahr’s odd attitude had accomplished what persuasions addressed to Asad-ed-Din might to the end have failed to accomplish — had afforded him the sign he was come to seek. For it was in that moment that Asad determined to take command himself.

“It almost seems,” he said slowly, smiling, “as if thou didst not want me. If so, it is unfortunate; for I have long neglected my duty to my son, and I am resolved at last to repair that error. We accompany thee upon this expedition, Sakr-el-Bahr. Myself I will command it, and Marzak shall be my apprentice in the ways of the sea.”

Sakr-el-Bahr said not another word in protest against that proclaimed resolve. He salaamed, and when he spoke there was almost a note of gladness in his voice.

“The praise to Allah, then, since thou’rt determined. It is not for me to urge further the unworthiness of the quarry since I am the gainer by thy resolve.”

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