The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 18

Sheik Mat

Under the inquisitive gaping stare of all about them stood Rosamund and Sakr-el-Bahr regarding each other in silence for a little spell after the Basha’s departure. The very galley-slaves, stirred from their habitual lethargy by happenings so curious and unusual, craned their sinewy necks to peer at them with a flicker of interest in their dull, weary eyes.

Sakr-el-Bahr’s feelings as he considered Rosamunds’s white face in the fading light were most oddly conflicting. Dismay at what had befallen and some anxious dread of what must follow were leavened by a certain measure of relief.

He realized that in no case could her concealment have continued long. Eleven mortal hours had she spent in the cramped and almost suffocating space of that pannier, in which he had intended to do no more than carry her aboard. The uneasiness which had been occasioned him by the impossibility to deliver her from that close confinement when Asad had announced his resolve to accompany them upon that voyage, had steadily been increasing as hour succeeded hour, and still he found no way to release her from a situation in which sooner or later, when the limits of her endurance were reached, her presence must be betrayed. This release which he could not have contrived had been contrived for him by the suspicions and malice of Marzak. That was the one grain of consolation in the present peril — to himself who mattered nothing and to her, who mattered all. Adversity had taught him to prize benefits however slight and to confront perils however overwhelming. So he hugged the present slender benefit, and resolutely braced himself to deal with the situation as he found it, taking the fullest advantage of the hesitancy which his words had sown in the heart of the Basha. He hugged, too, the thought that as things had fallen out, from being oppressor and oppressed, Rosamund and he were become fellows in misfortune, sharing now a common peril. He found it a sweet thought to dwell on. Therefore was it that he faintly smiled as he looked into Rosamund’s white, strained face.

That smile evoked from her the question that had been burdening her mind.

“What now? What now?” she asked huskily, and held out appealing hands to him.

“Now,” said he coolly, “let us be thankful that you are delivered from quarters destructive both to comfort and to dignity. Let me lead you to those I had prepared for you, which you would have occupied long since but for the ill-timed coming of Asad. Come.” And he waved an inviting hand towards the gangway leading to the poop.

She shrank back at that, for there on the poop sat Asad under his awning with Marzak, Biskaine, and his other officers in attendance.

“Come,” he repeated, “there is naught to fear so that you keep a bold countenance. For the moment it is Sheik Mat — check to the king.”

“Naught to fear?” she echoed, staring.

“For the moment, naught,” he answered firmly. “Against what the future may hold, we must determine. Be sure that fear will not assist our judgment.”

She stiffened as if he had charged her unjustly.

“I do not fear,” she assured him, and if her face continued white, her eyes grew steady, her voice was resolute.

“Then come,” he repeated, and she obeyed him instantly now as if to prove the absence of all fear.

Side by side they passed up the gangway and mounted the steps of the companion to the poop, their approach watched by the group that was in possession of it with glances at once of astonishment and resentment.

Asad’s dark, smouldering eyes were all for the girl. They followed her every movement as she approached and never for a moment left her to turn upon her companion.

Outwardly she bore herself with a proud dignity and an unfaltering composure under that greedy scrutiny; but inwardly she shrank and writhed in a shame and humiliation that she could hardly define. In some measure Oliver shared her feelings, but blent with anger; and urged by them he so placed himself at last that he stood between her and the Basha’s regard to screen her from it as he would have screened her from a lethal weapon. Upon the poop he paused, and salaamed to Asad.

“Permit, exalted lord,” said he, “that my wife may occupy the quarters I had prepared for her before I knew that thou wouldst honour this enterprise with thy presence.”

Curtly, contemptuously, Asad waved a consenting hand without vouchsafing to reply in words. Sakr-el-Bahr bowed again, stepped forward, and put aside the heavy red curtain upon which the crescent was wrought in green. From within the cabin the golden light of a lamp came out to merge into the blue-gray twilight, and to set a shimmering radiance about the white-robed figure of Rosamund.

Thus for a moment Asad’s fierce, devouring eyes observed her, then she passed within. Sakr-el-Bahr followed, and the screening curtain swung back into its place.

The small interior was furnished by a divan spread with silken carpets, a low Moorish table in coloured wood mosaics bearing the newly lighted lamp, and a tiny brazier in which aromatic gums were burning and spreading a sweetly pungent perfume for the fumigation of all True–Believers.

Out of the shadows in the farther corners rose silently Sakr-el-Bahr’s two Nubian slaves, Abiad and Zal–Zer, to salaam low before him. But for their turbans and loincloths in spotless white their dusky bodies must have remained invisible, shadowy among the shadows.

The captain issued an order briefly, and from a hanging cupboard the slaves took meat and drink and set it upon the low table — a bowl of chicken cooked in rice and olives and prunes, a dish of bread, a melon, and a clay amphora of water. Then at another word from him, each took a naked scimitar and they passed out to place themselves on guard beyond the curtain. This was not an act in which there was menace or defiance, nor could Asad so interpret it. The acknowledged presence of Sakr-el-Balir’s wife in that poop-house, rendered the place the equivalent of his hareem, and a man defends his hareem as he defends his honour; it is a spot sacred to himself which none may violate, and it is fitting that he take proper precaution against any impious attempt to do so.

Rosamund sank down upon the divan, and sat there with bowed head, her hands folded in her lap. Sakr-el-Bahr stood by in silence for a long moment contemplating her.

“Eat,” he bade her at last. “You will need strength and courage, and neither is possible to a fasting body.”

She shook her head. Despite her long fast, food was repellent. Anxiety was thrusting her heart up into her throat to choke her.

“I cannot eat,” she answered him. “To what end? Strength and courage cannot avail me now.”

“Never believe that,” he said. “I have undertaken to deliver you alive from the perils into which I have brought you, and I shall keep my word.”

So resolute was his tone that she looked up at him, and found his bearing equally resolute and confident.

“Surely,” she cried, “all chance of escape is lost to me.”

“Never count it lost whilst I am living,” he replied. She considered him a moment, and there was the faintest smile on her lips.

“Do you think that you will live long now?” she asked him.

“Just as long as God pleases,” he replied quite coolly. “What is written is written. So that I live long enough to deliver you, then . . . why, then, faith I shall have lived long enough.”

Her head sank. She clasped and unclasped the hands in her lap. She shivered slightly.

“I think we are both doomed,” she said in a dull voice. “For if you die, I have your dagger still, remember. I shall not survive you.”

He took a sudden step forward, his eyes gleaming, a faint flush glowing through the tan of his cheeks. Then he checked. Fool! How could he so have misread her meaning even for a moment? Were not its exact limits abundantly plain, even without the words which she added a moment later?

“God will forgive me if I am driven to it — if I choose the easier way of honour; for honour, sir,” she added, clearly for his benefit, “is ever the easier way, believe me.”

“I know,” he replied contritely. “I would to God I had followed it.”

He paused there, as if hoping that his expression of penitence might evoke some answer from her, might spur her to vouchsafe him some word of forgiveness. Seeing that she continued, mute and absorbed, he sighed heavily, and turned to other matters.

“Here you will find all that you can require,” he said. “Should you lack aught you have but to beat your hands together, one or the other of my slaves will come to you. If you address them in French they will understand you. I would I could have brought a woman to minister to you, but that was impossible, as you’ll perceive.” He stepped to the entrance.

“You are leaving me?” she questioned him in sudden alarm.

“Naturally. But be sure that I shall be very near at hand. And meanwhile be no less sure that you have no cause for immediate fear. At least, matters are no worse than when you were in the pannier. Indeed, much better, for some measure of ease and comfort is now possible to you. So be of good heart; eat and rest. God guard you! I shall return soon after sunrise.”

Outside on the poop-deck he found Asad alone now with Marzak under the awning. Night had fallen, the great crescent lanterns on the stern rail were alight and cast a lurid glow along the vessel’s length, picking out the shadowy forms and gleaming faintly on the naked backs of the slaves in their serried ranks along the benches, many of them bowed already in attitudes of uneasy slumber. Another lantern swung from the mainmast, and yet another from the poop-rail for the Basha’s convenience. Overhead the clustering stars glittered in a cloudless sky of deepest purple. The wind had fallen entirely, and the world was wrapped in stillness broken only by the faint rustling break of waves upon the beach at the cove’s end.

Sakr-el-Bahr crossed to Asad’s side, and begged for a word alone with him.

“I am alone,” said the Basha curtly.

“Marzak is nothing, then,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. “I have long suspected it.”

Marzak showed his teeth and growled inarticulately, whilst the Basha, taken aback by the ease reflected in the captain’s careless, mocking words, could but quote a line of the Koran with which Fenzileh of late had often nauseated him.

“A man’s son is the partner of his soul. I have no secrets from Marzak. Speak, then, before him, or else be silent and depart.”

“He may be the partner of thy soul, Asad,” replied the corsair with his bold mockery, “but I give thanks to Allah he is not the partner of mine. And what I have to say in some sense concerns my soul.”

“I thank thee,” cut in Marzak, “for the justice of thy words. To be the partner of thy soul were to be an infidel unbelieving dog.”

“Thy tongue, O Marzak, is like thine archery,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.

“Ay — in that it pierces treachery,” was the swift retort.

“Nay — in that it aims at what it cannot hit. Now, Allah, pardon me! Shall I grow angry at such words as thine? Hath not the One proven full oft that he who calls me infidel dog is a liar predestined to the Pit? Are such victories as mine over the fleets of the unbelievers vouchsafed by Allah to an infidel? Foolish blasphemer, teach thy tongue better ways lest the All-wise strike thee dumb.”

“Peace!” growled Asad. “Thine arrogance is out of season.”

“Haply so,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, with a laugh. “And my good sense, too, it seems. Since thou wilt retain beside thee this partner of thy soul, I must speak before him. Have I thy leave to sit?”

Lest such leave should be denied him he dropped forthwith to the vacant place beside Asad and tucked his legs under him.

“Lord,” he said, “there is a rift dividing us who should be united for the glory of Islam.”

“It is of thy making, Sakr-el-Bahr,” was the sullen answer, “and it is for thee to mend it.”

“To that end do I desire thine ear. The cause of this rift is yonder.” And he jerked his thumb backward over his shoulder towards the poop-house. “If we remove that cause, of a surety the rift itself will vanish, and all will be well again between us.”

He knew that never could all be well again between him and Asad. He knew that by virtue of his act of defiance he was irrevocably doomed, that Asad having feared him once, having dreaded his power to stand successfully against his face and overbear his will, would see to it that he never dreaded it again. He knew that if he returned to Algiers there would be a speedy end to him. His only chance of safety lay, indeed, in stirring up mutiny upon the spot and striking swiftly, venturing all upon that desperate throw. And he knew that this was precisely what Asad had cause to fear. Out of this assurance had he conceived his present plan, deeming that if he offered to heal the breach, Asad might pretend to consent so as to weather his present danger, making doubly sure of his vengeance by waiting until they should be home again.

Asad’s gleaming eyes considered him in silence for a moment.

“How remove that cause?” he asked. “Wilt thou atone for the mockery of thy marriage, pronounce her divorced and relinquish her?”

“That were not to remove her,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr. “Consider well, Asad, what is thy duty to the Faith. Consider that upon our unity depends the glory of Islam. Were it not sinful, then, to suffer the intrusion of aught that may mar such unity? Nay, nay, what I propose is that I should be permitted — assisted even — to bear out the project I had formed, as already I have frankly made confession. Let us put to sea again at dawn — or this very night if thou wilt — make for the coast of France, and there set her ashore that she may go back to her own people and we be rid of her disturbing presence. Then we will return — there is time and to spare — and here or elsewhere lurk in wait for this Spanish argosy, seize the booty and sail home in amity to Algiers, this incident, this little cloud in the splendour of our comradeship, behind us and forgotten as though it had never been. Wilt thou, Asad — for the glory of the Prophet’s Law?”

The bait was cunningly presented, so cunningly that not for a moment did Asad or even the malicious Marzak suspect it to be just a bait and no more. It was his own life, become a menace to Asad, that Sakr-el-Bahr was offering him in exchange for the life and liberty of that Frankish slave-girl, but offering it as if unconscious that he did so.

Asad considered, temptation gripping, him. Prudence urged him to accept, so that affecting to heal the dangerous breach that now existed he might carry Sakr-el-Bahr back to Algiers, there, beyond the aid of any friendly mutineers, to have him strangled. It was the course to adopt in such a situation, the wise and sober course by which to ensure the overthrow of one who from an obedient and submissive lieutenant had suddenly shown that it was possible for him to become a serious and dangerous rival.

Sakr-el-Bahr watched the Basha’s averted, gleaming eyes under their furrowed, thoughtful brows, he saw Marzak’s face white, tense and eager in his anxiety that his father should consent. And since his father continued silent, Marzak, unable longer to contain himself, broke into speech.

“He is wise, O my father!” was his crafty appeal. “The glory of Islam above all else! Let him have his way in this, and let the infidel woman go. Thus shall all be well between us and Sakr-el-Bahr!” He laid such a stress upon these words that it was obvious he desired them to convey a second meaning.

Asad heard and understood that Marzak, too, perceived what was here to do; tighter upon him became temptation’s grip; but tighter, too, became the grip of a temptation of another sort. Before his fierce eyes there arose a vision of a tall stately maiden with softly rounded bosom, a vision so white and lovely that it enslaved him. And so he found himself torn two ways at once. On the one hand, if he relinquished the woman, he could make sure of his vengeance upon Sakr-el-Bahr, could make sure of removing that rebel from his path. On the other hand, if he determined to hold fast to his desires and to be ruled by them, he must be prepared to risk a mutiny aboard the galeasse, prepared for battle and perhaps for defeat. It was a stake such as no sane Basha would have consented to set upon the board. But since his eyes had again rested upon Rosamund, Asad was no longer sane. His thwarted desires of yesterday were the despots of his wits.

He leaned forward now, looking deep into the eyes of Sakr-el-Bahr.

“Since for thyself thou dost not want her, why dost thou thwart me?” he asked, and his voice trembled with suppressed passion. “So long as I deemed thee honest in taking her to wife I respected that bond as became a good Muslim; but since ’tis manifest that it was no more than a pretence, a mockery to serve some purpose hostile to myself, a desecration of the Prophet’s Holy Law, I, before whom this blasphemous marriage was performed, do pronounce it to be no marriage. There is no need for thee to divorce her. She is no longer thine. She is for any Muslim who can take her.”

Sakr-el-Bahr laughed unpleasantly. “Such a Muslim,” he announced, “will be nearer my sword than the Paradise of Mahomet.” And on the words he stood up, as if in token of his readiness.

Asad rose with him in a bound of a vigour such as might scarce have been looked for in a man of his years.

“Dost threaten?” he cried, his eyes aflash.

“Threaten?” sneered Sakr-el-Bahr. “I prophesy.” And on that he turned, and stalked away down the gangway to the vessel’s waist. There was no purpose in his going other than his perceiving that here argument were worse than useless, and that the wiser course were to withdraw at once, avoiding it and allowing his veiled threat to work upon the Basha’s mind.

Quivering with rage Asad watched his departure. On the point of commanding him to return, he checked, fearing lest in his present mood Sakr-el-Bahr should flout his authority and under the eyes of all refuse him the obedience due. He knew that it is not good to command where we are not sure of being obeyed or of being able to enforce obedience, that an authority once successfully flouted is in itself half-shattered.

Whilst still he hesitated, Marzak, who had also risen, caught him by the arm and poured into his ear hot, urgent arguments enjoining him to yield to Sakr-el-Bahr’s demand.

“It is the sure way,” he cried insistently. “Shall all be jeopardized for the sake of that whey-faced daughter of perdition? In the name of Shaitan, let us be rid of her; set her ashore as he demands, as the price of peace between us and him, and in the security of that peace let him be strangled when we come again to our moorings in Algiers. It is the sure way — the sure way!”

Asad turned at last to look into that handsome eager face. For a moment he was at a loss; then he had recourse to sophistry. “Am I a coward that I should refuse all ways but sure ones?” he demanded in a withering tone. “Or art thou a coward who can counsel none other?”

“My anxiety is all for thee, O my father,” Marzak defended himself indignantly. “I doubt if it be safe to sleep, lest he should stir up mutiny in the night.”

“Have no fear,” replied Asad. “Myself I have set the watch, and the officers are all trustworthy. Biskaine is even now in the forecastle taking the feeling of the men. Soon we shall know precisely where we stand.”

“In thy place I would make sure. I would set a term to this danger of mutiny. I would accede to his demands concerning the woman, and settle after-wards with himself.”

“Abandon that Frankish pearl?” quoth Asad. Slowly he shook his head. “Nay, nay! She is a garden that shall yield me roses. Together we shall yet taste the sweet sherbet of Kansar, and she shall thank me for having led her into Paradise. Abandon that rosy-limbed loveliness!” He laughed softly on a note of exaltation, whilst in the gloom Marzak frowned, thinking of Fenzileh.

“She is an infidel,” his son sternly reminded him, “so forbidden thee by the Prophet. Wilt thou be as blind to that as to thine own peril?” Then his voice gathering vehemence and scorn as he proceeded: “She has gone naked of face through the streets of Algiers; she has been gaped at by the rabble in the sôk; this loveliness of hers has been deflowered by the greedy gaze of Jew and Moor and Turk; galley-slaves and negroes have feasted their eyes upon her unveiled beauty; one of thy captains hath owned her his wife.” He laughed. “By Allah, I do not know thee, O my father! Is this the woman thou wouldst take for thine own? This the woman for whose possession thou wouldst jeopardize thy life and perhaps the very Bashalik itself!”

Asad clenched his hands until the nails bit into his flesh. Every word his son had uttered had been as a lash to his soul. The truth of it was not to be contested. He was humiliated and shamed. Yet was he not conquered of his madness, nor diverted from his course. Before he could make answer, the tall martial figure of Biskaine came up the companion.

“Well?” the Basha greeted him eagerly, thankful for this chance to turn the subject.

Biskaine was downcast. His news was to be read in his countenance. “The task appointed me was difficult,” said he. “I have done my best. Yet I could scarce go about it in such a fashion as to draw definite conclusions. But this I know, my lord, that he will be reckless indeed if he dares to take up arms against thee and challenge thine authority. So much at least I am permitted to conclude.”

“No more than that?” asked Asad. “And if I were to take up arms against him, and to seek to settle this matter out of hand?”

Biskaine paused a moment ere replying. “I cannot think but that Allah would vouchsafe thee victory,” he said. But his words did not delude the Basha. He recognized them to be no more than those which respect for him dictated to his officer. “Yet,” continued Biskaine, “I should judge thee reckless too, my lord, as reckless as I should judge him in the like circumstances.”

“I see,” said Asad. “The matter stands so balanced that neither of us dare put it to the test.”

“Thou hast said it.”

“Then is thy course plain to thee!” cried Marzak, eager to renew his arguments. “Accept his terms, and. . . . ”

But Asad broke in impatiently. “Every thing in its own hour and each hour is written. I will consider what to do.”

Below on the waist-deck Sakr-el-Bahr was pacing with Vigitello, and Vigitello’s words to him were of a tenor identical almost with those of Biskaine to the Basha.

“I scarce can judge,” said the Italian renegade. “But I do think that it were not wise for either thou or Asad to take the first step against the other.”

“Are matters, then, so equal between us?”

“Numbers, I fear,” replied Vigitello, “would be in favour of Asad. No truly devout Muslim will stand against the Basha, the representative of the Sublime Portal, to whom loyalty is a question of religion. Yet they are accustomed to obey thee, to leap at thy command, and so Asad himself were rash to put it to the test.”

“Ay — a sound argument,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. “It is as I had thought.”

Upon that he quitted Vigitello, and slowly, thoughtfully, returned to the poop-deck. It was his hope — his only hope now — that Asad might accept the proposal he had made him. As the price of it he was fully prepared for the sacrifice of his own life, which it must entail. But, it was not for him to approach Asad again; to do so would be to argue doubt and anxiety and so to court refusal. He must possess his soul in what patience he could. If Asad persisted in his refusal undeterred by any fear of mutiny, then Sakr-el-Bahr knew not what course remained him to accomplish Rosamund’s deliverance. Proceed to stir up mutiny he dared not. It was too desperate a throw. In his own view it offered him no slightest chance of success, and did it fail, then indeed all would be lost, himself destroyed, and Rosamund at the mercy of Asad. He was as one walking along a sword-edge. His only chance of present immunity for himself and Rosamund lay in the confidence that Asad would dare no more than himself to take the initiative in aggression. But that was only for the present, and at any moment Asad might give the word to put about and steer for Barbary again; in no case could that be delayed beyond the plundering of the Spanish argosy. He nourished the faint hope that in that coming fight — if indeed the Spaniards did show fight — some chance might perhaps present itself, some unexpected way out of the present situation.

He spent the night under the stars, stretched across the threshold of the curtained entrance to the poop-house, making thus a barrier of his body whilst he slept, and himself watched over in his turn by his faithful Nubians who remained on guard. He awakened when the first violet tints of dawn were in the east, and quietly dismissing the weary slaves to their rest, he kept watch alone thereafter. Under the awning on the starboard quarter slept the Basha and his son, and near them Biskaine was snoring.

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