The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 16

The Pannier

He was still pacing there when an hour or so before sunset — some fifteen hours after setting out — they stood before the entrance of a long bottle-necked cove under the shadow of the cliffs of Aquila Point on the southern coast of the Island of Formentera. He was rendered aware of this and roused from his abstraction by the voice of Asad calling to him from the poop and commanding him to make the cove.

Already the wind was failing them, and it became necessary to take to the oars, as must in any case have happened once they were through the coves narrow neck in the becalmed lagoon beyond. So Sakr-el-Bahr, in his turn, lifted up his voice, and in answer to his shout came Vigitello and Larocque.

A blast of Vigitello’s whistle brought his own men to heel, and they passed rapidly along the benches ordering the rowers to make ready, whilst Jasper and a half-dozen Muslim sailors set about furling the sails that already were beginning to flap in the shifting and intermittent gusts of the expiring wind. Sakr-el-Bahr gave the word to row, and Vigitello blew a second and longer blast. The oars dipped, the slaves strained and the galeasse ploughed forward, time being kept by a boatswain’s mate who squatted on the waist-deck and beat a tomtom rhythmically. Sakr-el-Bahr, standing on the poop-deck, shouted his orders to the steersmen in their niches on either side of the stern, and skilfully the vessel was manoeuvred through the narrow passage into the calm lagoon whose depths were crystal clear. Here before coming to rest, Sakr-el-Bahr followed the invariable corsair practice of going about, so as to be ready to leave his moorings and make for the open again at a moment’s notice.

She came at last alongside the rocky buttresses of a gentle slope that was utterly deserted by all save a few wild goats browsing near the summit. There were clumps of broom, thick with golden flower, about the base of the hill. Higher, a few gnarled and aged olive trees reared their grey heads from which the rays of the westering sun struck a glint as of silver.

Larocque and a couple of sailors went over the bulwarks on the larboard quarter, dropped lightly to the horizontal shafts of the oars, which were rigidly poised, and walking out upon them gained the rocks and proceeded to make fast the vessel by ropes fore and aft.

Sakr-el-Bahr’s next task was to set a watch, and he appointed Larocque, sending him to take his station on the summit of the head whence a wide range of view was to be commanded.

Pacing the poop with Marzak the Basha grew reminiscent of former days when roving the seas as a simple corsair he had used this cove both for purposes of ambush and concealment. There were, he said, few harbours in all the Mediterranean so admirably suited to the corsairs’ purpose as this; it was a haven of refuge in case of peril, and an unrivalled lurking-place in which to lie in wait for the prey. He remembered once having lain there with the formidable Dragut–Reis, a fleet of six galleys, their presence entirely unsuspected by the Genoese admiral, Doria, who had passed majestically along with three caravels and seven galleys.

Marzak, pacing beside his father, listened but half-heartedly to these reminiscences. His mind was all upon Sakr-el-Bahr, and his suspicions of that palmetto bale were quickened by the manner in which for the last two hours he had seen the corsair hovering thoughtfully in its neighbourhood.

He broke in suddenly upon his father’s memories with an expression of what was in his mind.

“The thanks to Allah,” he said, “that it is thou who command this expedition, else might this coves advantages have been neglected.”

“Not so,” said Asad. “Sakr-el-Bahr knows them as well as I do. He has used this vantage point afore-time. It was himself who suggested that this would be the very place in which to await this Spanish craft.”

“Yet had he sailed alone I doubt if the Spanish argosy had concerned him greatly. There are other matters on his mind, O my father. Observe him yonder, all lost in thought. How many hours of this voyage has he spent thus. He is as a man trapped and desperate. There is some fear rankling in him. Observe him, I say.”

“Allah pardon thee,” said his father, shaking his old head and sighing over so much impetuosity of judgment. “Must thy imagination be for ever feeding on thy malice? Yet I blame not thee, but thy Sicilian mother, who has fostered this hostility in thee. Did she not hoodwink me into making this unnecessary voyage?”

“I see thou hast forgot last night and the Frankish slave-girl,” said his son.

“Nay, then thou seest wrong. I have not forgot it. But neither have I forgot that since Allah hath exalted me to be Basha of Algiers, He looks to me to deal in justice. Come, Marzak, set an end to all this. Perhaps to-morrow thou shalt see him in battle, and after such a sight as that never again wilt thou dare say evil of him. Come, make thy peace with him, and let me see better relations betwixt you hereafter.”

And raising his voice he called Sakr-el-Bahr, who immediately turned and came up the gangway. Marzak stood by in a sulky mood, with no notion of doing his father’s will by holding out an olive branch to the man who was like to cheat him of his birthright ere all was done. Yet was it he who greeted Sakr-el-Bahr when the corsair set foot upon the poop.

“Does the thought of the coming fight perturb thee, dog of war?” he asked.

“Am I perturbed, pup of peace?” was the crisp answer.

“It seems so. Thine aloofness, thine abstractions. . . . ”

“Are signs of perturbation, dost suppose?”

“Of what else?”

Sakr-el-Bahr laughed. “Thou’lt tell me next that I am afraid. Yet I should counsel thee to wait until thou hast smelt blood and powder, and learnt precisely what fear is.”

The slight altercation drew the attention of Asad’s officers who were idling there. Biskaine and some three others lounged forward to stand behind the Basha, looking, on in some amusement, which was shared by him.

“Indeed, indeed,” said Asad, laying a hand upon Marzak’s shoulder, “his counsel is sound enough. Wait, boy, until thou hast gone beside him aboard the infidel, ere thou judge him easily perturbed.”

Petulantly Marzak shook off that gnarled old hand. “Dost thou, O my father, join with him in taunting me upon my lack of knowledge. My youth is a sufficient answer. But at least,” he added, prompted by a wicked notion suddenly conceived, “at least you cannot taunt me with lack of address with weapons.”

“Give him room,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, with ironical good-humour, “and he will show us prodigies.”

Marzak looked at him with narrowing, gleaming eyes. “Give me a cross-bow,” he retorted, “and I’ll show thee how to shoot,” was his amazing boast.

“Thou’lt show him?” roared Asad. “Thou’lt show him!” And his laugh rang loud and hearty. “Go smear the sun’s face with clay, boy.”

“Reserve thy judgment, O my father,” begged Marzak, with frosty dignity.

“Boy, thou’rt mad! Why, Sakr-el-Bahr’s quarrel will check a swallow in its flight.”

“That is his boast, belike,” replied Marzak.

“And what may thine be?” quoth Sakr-el-Bahr. “To hit the Island of Formentera at this distance?”

“Dost dare to sneer at me?” cried Marzak, ruffling.

“What daring would that ask?” wondered Sakr-el-Bahr.

“By Allah, thou shalt learn.”

“In all humility I await the lesson.”

“And thou shalt have it,” was the answer viciously delivered. Marzak strode to the rail. “Ho there! Vigitello! A cross-bow for me, and another for Sakr-el-Bahr.”

Vigitello sprang to obey him, whilst Asad shook his head and laughed again.

“An it were not against the Prophet’s law to make a wager. . . . ” he was beginning, when Marzak interrupted him.

“Already should I have proposed one.”

“So that,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, “thy purse would come to match thine head for emptiness.”

Marzak looked at him and sneered. Then he snatched from Vigitello’s hands one of the cross-bows that he bore and set a shaft to it. And then at last Sakr-el-Bahr was to learn the malice that was at the root of all this odd pretence.

“Look now,” said the youth, “there is on that palmetto bale a speck of pitch scarce larger than the pupil of my eye. Thou’lt need to strain thy sight to see it. Observe how my shaft will find it. Canst thou better such a shot?”

His eyes, upon Sakr-el-Bahr’s face, watching it closely, observed the pallor by which it was suddenly overspread. But the corsair’s recovery was almost as swift. He laughed, seeming so entirely careless that Marzak began to doubt whether he had paled indeed or whether his own imagination had led him to suppose it.

“Ay, thou’lt choose invisible marks, and wherever the arrow enters thou’lt say ’twas there! An old trick, O Marzak. Go cozen women with it.”

“Then,” said Marzak, “we will take instead the slender cord that binds the bale.” And he levelled his bow. But Sakr-el-Bahr’s hand closed upon his arm in an easy yet paralyzing grip.

“Wait,” he said. “Thou’lt choose another mark for several reasons. For one, I’ll not have thy shaft blundering through my oarsmen and haply killing one of them. Most of them are slaves specially chosen for their brawn, and I cannot spare any. Another reason is that the mark is a foolish one. The distance is not more than ten paces. A childish test, which, maybe, is the reason why thou hast chosen it.”

Marzak lowered his bow and Sakr-el-Bahr released his arm. They looked at each other, the corsair supremely master of himself and smiling easily, no faintest trace of the terror that was in his soul showing upon his swarthy bearded countenance or in his hard pale eyes.

He pointed up the hillside to the nearest olive tree, a hundred paces distant. “Yonder,” he said, “is a man’s mark. Put me a shaft through the long branch of that first olive.”

Asad and his officers voiced approval.

“A man’s mark, indeed,” said the Basha, “so that he be a marksman.”

But Marzak shrugged his shoulders with make-believe contempt. “I knew he would refuse the mark I set,” said he. “As for the olive-branch, it is so large a butt that a child could not miss it at this distance.”

“If a child could not, then thou shouldst not,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, who had so placed himself that his body was now between Marzak and the palmetto bale. “Let us see thee hit it, O Marzak.” And as he spoke he raised his cross-bow, and scarcely seeming to take aim, he loosed his shaft. It flashed away to be checked, quivering, in the branch he had indicated.

A chorus of applause and admiration greeted the shot, and drew the attention of all the crew to what was toward.

Marzak tightened his lips, realizing how completely he had been outwitted. Willy-nilly he must now shoot at that mark. The choice had been taken out of his hands by Sakr-el-Bahr. He never doubted that he must cover himself with ridicule in the performance, and that there he would be constrained to abandon this pretended match.

“By the Koran,” said Biskaine, “thou’lt need all thy skill to equal such a shot, Marzak.”

“’Twas not the mark I chose,” replied Marzak sullenly.

“Thou wert the challenger, O Marzak,” his father reminded him. “Therefore the choice of mark was his. He chose a man’s mark, and by the beard of Mohammed, he showed us a man’s shot.”

Marzak would have flung the bow from him in that moment, abandoning the method he had chosen to investigate the contents of that suspicious palmetto bale; but he realized that such a course must now cover him with scorn. Slowly he levelled his bow at that distant mark.

“Have a care of the sentinel on the hill-top,” Sakr-el-Bahr admonished him, provoking a titter.

Angrily the youth drew the bow. The cord hummed, and the shaft sped to bury itself in the hill’s flank a dozen yards from the mark.

Since he was the son of the Basha none dared to laugh outright save his father and Sakr-el-Bahr. But there was no suppressing a titter to express the mockery to which the proven braggart must ever be exposed.

Asad looked at him, smiling almost sadly. “See now,” he said, “what comes of boasting thyself against Sakr-el-Bahr.”

“My will was crossed in the matter of a mark,” was the bitter answer. “You angered me and made my aim untrue.”

Sakr-el-Bahr strode away to the starboard bulwarks, deeming the matter at an end. Marzak observed him.

“Yet at that small mark,” he said, “I challenge him again.” As he spoke he fitted a second shaft to his bow. “Behold!” he cried, and took aim.

But swift as thought, Sakr-el-Bahr — heedless now of all consequences — levelled at Marzak the bow which he still held.

“Hold!” he roared. “Loose thy shaft at that bale, and I loose this at thy throat. I never miss!” he added grimly.

There was a startled movement in the ranks of those who stood behind Marzak. In speechless amazement they stared at Sakr-el-Bahr, as he stood there, white-faced, his eyes aflash, his bow drawn taut and ready to launch that death-laden quarrel as he threatened.

Slowly then, smiling with unutterable malice, Marzak lowered his bow. He was satisfied. His true aim was reached. He had drawn his enemy into self-betrayal.

Asad’s was the voice that shattered that hush of consternation.

“Kellamullah!” he bellowed. “What is this? Art thou mad, too, O Sakr-el-Bahr?”

“Ay, mad indeed,” said Marzak; “mad with fear.” And he stepped quickly aside so that the body of Biskaine should shield him from any sudden consequences of his next words. “Ask him what he keeps in that pannier, O my father.”

“Ay, what, in Allah’s name?” demanded the Basha, advancing towards his captain.

Sakr-el-Bahr lowered his bow, master of himself again. His composure was beyond all belief.

“I carry in it goods of price, which I’ll not see riddled to please a pert boy,” he said.

“Goods of price?” echoed Asad, with a snort. “They’ll need to be of price indeed that are valued above the life of my son. Let us see these goods of price.” And to the men upon the waist-deck he shouted, “Open me that pannier.”

Sakr-el-Bahr sprang forward, and laid a hand upon the Basha’s arm.

“Stay, my lord!” he entreated almost fiercely. “Consider that this pannier is my own. That its contents are my property; that none has a right to. . . . ”

“Wouldst babble of rights to me, who am thy lord?” blazed the Basha, now in a towering passion. “Open me that pannier, I say.”

They were quick to his bidding. The ropes were slashed away, and the front of the pannier fell open on its palmetto hinges. There was a half-repressed chorus of amazement from the men. Sakr-el-Bahr stood frozen in horror of what must follow.

“What is it? What have you found?” demanded Asad.

In silence the men swung the bale about, and disclosed to the eyes of those upon the poop-deck the face and form of Rosamund Godolphin. Then Sakr-el-Bahr, rousing himself from his trance of horror, reckless of all but her, flung down the gangway to assist her from the pannier, and thrusting aside those who stood about her, took his stand at her side.

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