The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 15

The Voyage

His resolve being taken, Asad drew Tsamanni aside and spent some moments in talk with him, giving him certain instructions for the conduct of affairs ashore during his absence. That done, and the wazeer dismissed, the Basha himself gave the order to cast off, an order which there was no reason to delay, since all was now in readiness.

The gangway was drawn ashore, the boatswains whistle sounded, and the steersmen leapt to their niches in the stern, grasping the shafts of the great steering-oars. A second blast rang out, and down the gangway-deck came Vigitello and two of his mates, all three armed with long whips of bullock-hide, shouting to the slaves to make ready. And then, on the note of a third blast of Larocque’s whistle, the fifty-four poised oars dipped to the water, two hundred and fifty bodies bent as one, and when they heaved themselves upright again the great galeasse shot forward and so set out upon her adventurous voyage. From her mainmast the red flag with its green crescent was unfurled to the breeze, and from the crowded mole, and the beach where a long line of spectators had gathered, there burst a great cry of valediction.

That breeze blowing stiffly from the desert was Lionel’s friend that day. Without it his career at the oar might have been short indeed. He was chained, like the rest, stark naked, save for a loincloth, in the place nearest the gangway on the first starboard bench abaft the narrow waist-deck, and ere the galeasse had made the short distance between the mole and the island at the end of it, the boatswain’s whip had coiled itself about his white shoulders to urge him to better exertion than he was putting forth. He had screamed under the cruel cut, but none had heeded him. Lest the punishment should be repeated, he had thrown all his weight into the next strokes of the oar, until by the time the Peñon was reached the sweat was running down his body and his heart was thudding against his ribs. It was not possible that it could have lasted, and his main agony lay in that he realized it, and saw himself face to face with horrors inconceivable that must await the exhaustion of his strength. He was not naturally robust, and he had led a soft and pampered life that was very far from equipping him for such a test as this.

But as they reached the Peñon and felt the full vigour of that warm breeze, Sakr-el-Bahr, who by Asad’s command remained in charge of the navigation, ordered the unfurling of the enormous lateen sails on main and foremasts. They ballooned out, swelling to the wind, and the galeasse surged forward at a speed that was more than doubled. The order to cease rowing followed, and the slaves were left to return thanks to Heaven for their respite, and to rest in their chains until such time as their sinews should be required again.

The vessel’s vast prow, which ended in a steel ram and was armed with a culverin on either quarter, was crowded with lounging corsairs, who took their ease there until the time to engage should be upon them. They leaned on the high bulwarks or squatted in groups, talking, laughing, some of them tailoring and repairing garments, others burnishing their weapons or their armour, and one swarthy youth there was who thrummed a gimri and sang a melancholy Shilha love-song to the delight of a score or so of bloodthirsty ruffians squatting about him in a ring of variegated colour.

The gorgeous poop was fitted with a spacious cabin, to which admission was gained by two archways curtained with stout silken tapestries upon whose deep red ground the crescent was wrought in brilliant green. Above the cabin stood the three cressets or stern-lamps, great structures of gilded iron surmounted each by the orb and crescent. As if to continue the cabin forward and increase its size, a green awning was erected from it to shade almost half the poop-deck. Here cushions were thrown, and upon these squatted now Asad-ed-Din with Marzak, whilst Biskaine and some three or four other officers who had escorted him aboard and whom he had retained beside him for that voyage, were lounging upon the gilded balustrade at the poop’s forward end, immediately above the rowers’ benches.

Sakr-el-Bahr alone, a solitary figure, resplendent in caftan and turban that were of cloth of silver, leaned upon the bulwarks of the larboard quarter of the poop-deck, and looked moodily back upon the receding city of Algiers which by now was no more than an agglomeration of white cubes piled up the hillside in the morning sunshine.

Asad watched him silently awhile from under his beetling brows, then summoned him. He came at once, and stood respectfully before his prince.

Asad considered him a moment solemnly, whilst a furtive malicious smile played over the beautiful countenance of his son.

“Think not, Sakr-el-Bahr,” he said at length, “that I bear thee resentment for what befell last night or that that happening is the sole cause of my present determination. I had a duty — a long-neglected duty — to Marzak, which at last I have undertaken to perform.” He seemed to excuse himself almost, and Marzak misliked both words and tone. Why, he wondered, must this fierce old man, who had made his name a terror throughout Christendom, be ever so soft and yielding where that stalwart and arrogant infidel was concerned?

Sakr-el-Bahr bowed solemnly. “My lord,” he said, “it is not for me to question thy resolves or the thoughts that may have led to them. It suffices me to know thy wishes; they are my law.”

“Are they so?” said Asad tartly. “Thy deeds will scarce bear out thy protestations.” He sighed. “Sorely was I wounded yesternight when thy marriage thwarted me and placed that Frankish maid beyond my reach. Yet I respect this marriage of thine, as all Muslims must — for all that in itself it was unlawful. But there!” he ended with a shrug. “We sail together once again to crush the Spaniard. Let no ill-will on either side o’er-cloud the splendour of our task.”

“Ameen to that, my lord,” said Sakr-el-Bahr devoutly. “I almost feared. . . . ”

“No more!” the Basha interrupted him. “Thou wert never a man to fear anything, which is why I have loved thee as a son.”

But it suited Marzak not at all that the matter should be thus dismissed, that it should conclude upon a note of weakening from his father, upon what indeed amounted to a speech of reconciliation. Before Sakr-el-Bahr could make answer he had cut in to set him a question laden with wicked intent.

“How will thy bride beguile the season of thine absence, O Sakr-el-Bahr?”

“I have lived too little with women to be able to give thee an answer,” said the corsair.

Marzak winced before a reply that seemed to reflect upon himself. But he returned to the attack.

“I compassionate thee that art the slave of duty, driven so soon to abandon the delight of her soft arms. Where hast thou bestowed her, O captain?”

“Where should a Muslim bestow his wife but according to the biddings of the Prophet — in the house?”

Marzak sneered. “Verily, I marvel at thy fortitude in quitting her so soon!”

But Asad caught the sneer, and stared at his son. “What cause is there to marvel in that a true Muslim should sacrifice his inclinations to the service of the Faith?” His tone was a rebuke; but it left Marzak undismayed. The youth sprawled gracefully upon his cushions, one leg tucked under him.

“Place no excess of faith in appearances, O my father!” he said.

“No more!” growled the Basha. “Peace to thy tongue, Marzak, and may Allah the All-knowing smile upon our expedition, lending strength to our arms to smite the infidel to whom the fragrance of the garden is forbidden.”

To this again Sakr-el-Bahr replied “Ameen,” but an uneasiness abode in his heart summoned thither by the questions Marzak had set him. Were they idle words calculated to do no more than plague him, and to keep fresh in Asad’s mind the memory of Rosamund, or were they based upon some actual knowledge?

His fears were to be quickened soon on that same score. He was leaning that afternoon upon the rail, idly observing the doling out of the rations to the slaves, when Marzak came to join him.

For some moments he stood silently beside Sakr-el-Bahr watching Vigitello and his men as they passed from bench to bench serving out biscuits and dried dates to the rowers — but sparingly, for oars move sluggishly when stomachs are too well nourished — and giving each to drink a cup of vinegar and water in which floated a few drops of added oil.

Then he pointed to a large palmetto bale that stood on the waist-deck near the mainmast about which the powder barrels were stacked.

“That pannier,” he said, “seems to me oddly in the way yonder. Were it not better to bestow it in the hold, where it will cease to be an encumbrance in case of action?”

Sakr-el-Bahr experienced a slight tightening at the heart. He knew that Marzak had heard him command that bale to be borne into the poop-cabin, and that anon he had ordered it to be fetched thence when Asad had announced his intention of sailing with him. He realized that this in itself might be a suspicious circumstance; or, rather, knowing what the bale contained, he was too ready to fear suspicion. Nevertheless he turned to Marzak with a smile of some disdain.

“I understood, Marzak, that thou art sailing with us as apprentice.”

“What then?” quoth Marzak.

“Why merely that it might become thee better to be content to observe and learn. Thou’lt soon be telling me how grapnels should be slung, and how an action should be fought.” Then he pointed ahead to what seemed to be no more than a low cloud-bank towards which they were rapidly skimming before that friendly wind. “Yonder,” he said, “are the Balearics. We are making good speed.”

Although he said it without any object other than that of turning the conversation, yet the fact itself was sufficiently remarkable to be worth a comment. Whether rowed by her two hundred and fifty slaves, or sailed under her enormous spread of canvas, there was no swifter vessel upon the Mediterranean than the galeasse of Sakr-el-Bahr. Onward she leapt now with bellying tateens, her well-greased keel slipping through the wind-whipped water at a rate which perhaps could not have been bettered by any ship that sailed.

“If this wind holds we shall be under the Point of Aguila before sunset, which will be something to boast of hereafter,” he promised.

Marzak, however, seemed but indifferently interested; his eyes continued awhile to stray towards that palmetto bale by the mainmast. At length, without another word to Sakr-el-Bahr, he made his way abaft, and flung himself down under the awning, beside his father. Asad sat there in a moody abstraction, already regretting that he should have lent an ear to Fenzileh to the extent of coming upon this voyage, and assured by now that at least there was no cause to mistrust Sakr-el-Bahr. Marsak came to revive that drooping mistrust. But the moment was ill-chosen, and at the first words he uttered on the subject, he was growled into silence by his sire.

“Thou dost but voice thine own malice,” Asad rebuked him. “And I am proven a fool in that I have permitted the malice of others to urge me in this matter. No more, I say.”

Thereupon Marzak fell silent and sulking, his eyes ever following Sakr-el-Bahr, who had descended the three steps from the poop to the gangway and was pacing slowly down between the rowers’ benches.

The corsair was supremely ill at ease, as a man must be who has something to conceal, and who begins to fear that he may have been betrayed. Yet who was there could have betrayed him? But three men aboard that vessel knew his secret — Ali, his lieutenant, Jasper, and the Italian Vigitello. And Sakr-el-Bahr would have staked all his possessions that neither Ali nor Vigitello would have betrayed him, whilst he was fairly confident that in his own interests Jasper also must have kept faith. Yet Marzak’s allusion to that palmetto bale had filled him with an uneasiness that sent him now in quest of his Italian boatswain whom he trusted above all others.

“Vigitello,” said he, “is it possible that I have been betrayed to the Basha?”

Vigitello looked up sharply at the question, then smiled with confidence. They were standing alone by the bulwarks on the waist-deck.

“Touching what we carry yonder?” quoth he, his glance shifting to the bale. “Impossible. If Asad had knowledge he would have betrayed it before we left Algiers, or else he would never have sailed without a stouter bodyguard of his own.

“What need of bodyguard for him?” returned Sakr-el-Bahr. “If it should come to grips between us — as well it may if what I suspect be true — there is no doubt as to the side upon which the corsairs would range themselves.”

“Is there not?” quoth Vigitello, a smile upon his swarthy face. “Be not so sure. These men have most of them followed thee into a score of fights. To them thou art the Basha, their natural leader.”

“Maybe. But their allegiance belongs to Asad-ed-Din, the exalted of Allah. Did it come to a choice between us, their faith would urge them to stand beside him in spite of any past bonds that may have existed between them and me.”

“Yet there were some who murmured when thou wert superseded in the command of this expedition,” Vigitello informed him. “I doubt not that many would be influenced by their faith, but many would stand by thee against the Grand Sultan himself. And do not forget,” he added, instinctively lowering his voice, “that many of us are renegadoes like myself and thee, who would never know a moment’s doubt if it came to a choice of sides. But I hope,” he ended in another tone, “there is no such danger here.”

“And so do I, in all faith,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr, with fervour. “Yet I am uneasy, and I must know where I stand if the worst takes place. Go thou amongst the men, Vigitello, and probe their real feelings, gauge their humour and endeavour to ascertain upon what numbers I may count if I have to declare war upon Asad or if he declares it upon me. Be cautious.”

Vigitello closed one of his black eyes portentously. “Depend upon it,” he said, “I’ll bring you word anon.”

On that they parted, Vigitello to make his way to the prow and there engage in his investigations, Sakr-el-Bahr slowly to retrace his steps to the poop. But at the first bench abaft the gangway he paused, and looked down at the dejected, white-fleshed slave who sat shackled there. He smiled cruelly, his own anxieties forgotten in the savour of vengeance.

“So you have tasted the whip already,” he said in English. “But that is nothing to what is yet to come. You are in luck that there is a wind to-day. It will not always be so. Soon shall you learn what it was that I endured by your contriving.”

Lionel looked up at him with haggard, blood-injected eyes. He wanted to curse his brother, yet was he too overwhelmed by the sense of the fitness of this punishment.

“For myself I care nothing,” he replied.

“But you will, sweet brother,” was the answer. “You will care for yourself most damnably and pity yourself most poignantly. I speak from experience. ’Tis odds you will not live, and that is my chief regret. I would you had my thews to keep you alive in this floating hell.”

“I tell you I care nothing for myself,” Lionel insisted. “What have you done with Rosamund?”

“Will it surprise you to learn that I have played the gentleman and married her?” Oliver mocked him.

“Married her?” his brother gasped, blenching at the very thought. “You hound!”

“Why abuse me? Could I have done more?” And with a laugh he sauntered on, leaving Lionel to writhe there with the torment of his half-knowledge.

An hour later, when the cloudy outline of the Balearic Isles had acquired density and colour, Sakr-el-Bahr and Vigitello met again on the waist-deck, and they exchanged some few words in passing.

“It is difficult to say exactly,” the boatswain murmured, “but from what I gather I think the odds would be very evenly balanced, and it were rash in thee to precipitate a quarrel.”

“I am not like to do so,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr. “I should not be like to do so in any case. I but desired to know how I stand in case a quarrel should be forced upon me.” And he passed on.

Yet his uneasiness was no whit allayed; his difficulties were very far from solved. He had undertaken to carry Rosamund to France or Italy; he had pledged her his word to land her upon one or the other shore, and should he fail, she might even come to conclude that such had never been his real intention. Yet how was he to succeed, now, since Asad was aboard the galeasse? Must he be constrained to carry her back to Algiers as secretly as he had brought her thence, and to keep her there until another opportunity of setting her ashore upon a Christian country should present itself? That was clearly impracticable and fraught with too much risk of detection. Indeed, the risk of detection was very imminent now. At any moment her presence in that pannier might be betrayed. He could think of no way in which to redeem his pledged word. He could but wait and hope, trusting to his luck and to some opportunity which it was impossible to foresee.

And so for a long hour and more he paced there moodily to and fro, his hands clasped behind him, his turbaned head bowed in thought, his heart very heavy within him. He was taken in the toils of the evil web which he had spun; and it seemed very clear to him now that nothing short of his life itself would be demanded as the price of it. That, however, was the least part of his concern. All things had miscarried with him and his life was wrecked. If at the price of it he could ensure safety to Rosamund, that price he would gladly pay. But his dismay and uneasiness all sprang from his inability to discover a way of achieving that most desired of objects even at such a sacrifice. And so he paced on alone and very lonely, waiting and praying for a miracle.

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