The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 19

The Mutineers

Later that morning, some time after the galeasse had awakened to life and such languid movement as might be looked for in a waiting crew, Sakr-el-Bahr went to visit Rosamund.

He found her brightened and refreshed by sleep, and he brought her reassuring messages that all was well, encouraging her with hopes which himself he was very far from entertaining. If her reception of him was not expressedly friendly, neither was it unfriendly. She listened to the hopes he expressed of yet effecting her safe deliverance, and whilst she had no thanks to offer him for the efforts he was to exert on her behalf — accepting them as her absolute due, as the inadequate liquidation of the debt that lay between them — yet there was now none of that aloofness amounting almost to scorn which hitherto had marked her bearing towards him.

He came again some hours later, in the afternoon, by when his Nubians were once more at their post. He had no news to bring her beyond the fact that their sentinel on the heights reported a sail to westward, beating up towards the island before the very gentle breeze that was blowing. But the argosy they awaited was not yet in sight, and he confessed that certain proposals which he had made to Asad for landing her in France had been rejected. Still she need have no fear, he added promptly, seeing the sudden alarm that quickened in her eyes. A way would present itself. He was watching, and would miss no chance.

“And if no chance should offer?” she asked him.

“Why then I will make one,” he answered, lightly almost. “I have been making them all my life, and it would be odd if I should have lost the trick of it on my life’s most important occasion.”

This mention of his life led to a question from her.

“How did you contrive the chance that has made you what you are? I mean,” she added quickly, as if fearing that the purport of that question might be misunderstood, “that has enabled you to become a corsair captain.”

“’Tis a long story that,” he said. “I should weary you in the telling of it.”

“No,” she replied, and shook her head, her clear eyes solemnly meeting his clouded glance. “You would not weary me. Chances may be few in which to learn it.”

“And you would learn it?” quoth he, and added, “That you may judge me?”

“Perhaps,” she said, and her eyes fell.

With bowed head he paced the length of the small chamber, and back again. His desire was to do her will in this, which is natural enough — for if it is true that who knows all must perforce forgive all, never could it have been truer than in the case of Sir Oliver Tressilian.

So he told his tale. Pacing there he related it at length, from the days when he had toiled at an oar on one of the galleys of Spain down to that hour in which aboard the Spanish vessel taken under Cape Spartel he had determined upon that voyage to England to present his reckoning to his brother. He told his story simply and without too great a wealth of detail, yet he omitted nothing of all that had gone to place him where he stood. And she, listening, was so profoundly moved that at one moment her eyes glistened with tears which she sought vainly to repress. Yet he, pacing there, absorbed, with head bowed and eyes that never once strayed in her direction, saw none of this.

“And so,” he said, when at last that odd narrative had reached its end, “you know what the forces were that drove me. Another stronger than myself might have resisted and preferred to suffer death. But I was not strong enough. Or perhaps it is that stronger than myself was my desire to punish, to vent the bitter hatred into which my erstwhile love for Lionel was turned.”

“And for me, too — as you have told me,” she added.

“Not so,” he corrected her. “I hated you for your unfaith, and most of all for your having burnt unread the letter that I sent you by the hand of Pitt. In doing that you contributed to the wrongs I was enduring, you destroyed my one chance of establishing my innocence and seeking rehabilitation, you doomed me for life to the ways which I was treading. But I did not then know what ample cause you had to believe me what I seemed. I did not know that it was believed I had fled. Therefore I forgive you freely a deed for which at one time I confess that I hated you, and which spurred me to bear you off when I found you under my hand that night at Arwenack when I went for Lionel.”

“You mean that it was no part of your intent to have done so?” she asked him.

“To carry you off together with him?” he asked. “I swear to God I had not premeditated that. Indeed, it was done because not premeditated, for had I considered it, I do think I should have been proof against any such temptation. It assailed me suddenly when I beheld you there with Lionel, and I succumbed to it. Knowing what I now know I am punished enough, I think.”

“I think I can understand,” she murmured gently, as if to comfort him, for quick pain had trembled in his voice.

He tossed back his turbaned head. “To understand is something,” said he. “It is half-way at least to forgiveness. But ere forgiveness can be accepted the evil done must be atoned for to the full.”

“If possible,” said she.

“It must be made possible,” he answered her with heat, and on that he checked abruptly, arrested by a sound of shouting from without.

He recognized the voice of Larocque, who at dawn had returned to his sentinel’s post on the summit of the headland, relieving the man who had replaced him there during the night.

“My lord! My lord!” was the cry, in a voice shaken by excitement, and succeeded by a shouting chorus from the crew.

Sakr-el-Bahr turned swiftly to the entrance, whisked aside the curtain, and stepped out upon the poop. Larocque was in the very act of clambering over the bulwarks amidships, towards the waist-deck where Asad awaited him in company with Marzak and the trusty Biskaine. The prow, on which the corsairs had lounged at ease since yesterday, was now a seething mob of inquisitive babbling men, crowding to the rail and even down the gangway in their eagerness to learn what news it was that brought the sentinel aboard in such excited haste.

From where he stood Sakr-el-Bahr heard Larocque’s loud announcement.

“The ship I sighted at dawn, my lord!”

“Well?” barked Asad.

“She is here — in the bay beneath that headland. She has just dropped anchor.”

“No need for alarm in that,” replied the Basha at once. “Since she has anchored there it is plain that she has no suspicion of our presence. What manner of ship is she?”

“A tall galleon of twenty guns, flying the flag of England.

“Of England!” cried Asad in surprise. “She’ll need be a stout vessel to hazard herself in Spanish waters.”

Sakr-el-Bahr advanced to the rail.

“Does she display no further device?” he asked.

Larocque turned at the question. “Ay,” he answered, “a narrow blue pennant on her mizzen is charged with a white bird — a stork, I think.”

“A stork?” echoed Sakr-el-Bahr thoughtfully. He could call to mind no such English blazon, nor did it seem to him that it could possibly be English. He caught the sound of a quickly indrawn breath behind him. He turned to find Rosamund standing in the entrance, not more than half concealed by the curtain. Her face showed white and eager, her eyes were wide.

“What is’t?” he asked her shortly.

“A stork, he thinks,” she said, as though that were answer enough.

“I’ faith an unlikely bird,” he commented. “The fellow is mistook.”

“Yet not by much, Sir Oliver.”

“How? Not by much?” Intrigued by something in her tone and glance, he stepped quickly up to her, whilst below the chatter of voices increased.

“That which he takes to be a stork is a heron — a white heron, and white is argent in heraldry, is’t not?”

“It is. What then?”

“D’ye not see? That ship will be the Silver Heron.”

He looked at her. “‘S life!” said he, “I reck little whether it be the silver heron or the golden grasshopper. What odds?”

“It is Sir John’s ship — Sir John Killigrew’s,” she explained. “She was all but ready to sail when . . . when you came to Arwenack. He was for the Indies. Instead — don’t you see? — out of love for me he will have come after me upon a forlorn hope of overtaking you ere you could make Barbary.”

“God’s light!” said Sakr-el-Bahr, and fell to musing. Then he raised his head and laughed. “Faith, he’s some days late for that!”

But the jest evoked no response from her. She continued to stare at him with those eager yet timid eyes.

“And yet,” he continued, “he comes opportunely enough. If the breeze that has fetched him is faint, yet surely it blows from Heaven.”

“Were it . . .?” she paused, faltering a moment.

Then, “Were it possible to communicate with him?” she asked, yet with hesitation.

“Possible — ay,” he answered. “Though we must needs devise the means, and that will prove none so easy.”

“And you would do it?” she inquired, an undercurrent of wonder in her question, some recollection of it in her face.

“Why, readily,” he answered, “since no other way presents itself. No doubt ’twill cost some lives,” he added, “but then. . . . ” And he shrugged to complete the sentence.

“Ah, no, no! Not at that price!” she protested. And how was he to know that all the price she was thinking of was his own life, which she conceived would be forfeited if the assistance of the Silver Heron were invoked?

Before he could return her any answer his attention was diverted. A sullen threatening note had crept into the babble of the crew, and suddenly one or two voices were raised to demand insistently that Asad should put to sea at once and remove his vessel from a neighbourhood become so dangerous. Now, the fault of this was Marzak’s. His was the voice that first had uttered that timid suggestion, and the infection of his panic had spread instantly through the corsair ranks.

Asad, drawn to the full of his gaunt height, turned upon them the eyes that had quelled greater clamours, and raised the voice which in its day had hurled a hundred men straight into the jaws of death without a protest.

“Silence!” he commanded. “I am your lord and need no counsellors save Allah. When I consider the time come, I will give the word to row, but not before. Back to your quarters, then, and peace!”

He disdained to argue with them, to show them what sound reasons there were for remaining in this secret cove and against putting forth into the open. Enough for them that such should be his will. Not for them to question his wisdom and his decisions.

But Asad-ed-Din had lain overlong in Algiers whilst his fleets under Sakr-el-Bahr and Biskaine had scoured the inland sea. The men were no longer accustomed to the goad of his voice, their confidence in his judgment was not built upon the sound basis of past experience. Never yet had he led into battle the men of this crew and brought them forth again in triumph and enriched by spoil.

So now they set their own judgment against his. To them it seemed a recklessness — as, indeed, Marzak had suggested — to linger here, and his mere announcement of his purpose was far from sufficient to dispel their doubts.

The murmurs swelled, not to be overborne by his fierce presence and scowling brow, and suddenly one of the renegades — secretly prompted by the wily Vigitello — raised a shout for the captain whom they knew and trusted.

“Sakr-el-Bahr! Sakr-el-Bahr! Thou’lt not leave us penned in this cove to perish like rats!”

It was as a spark to a train of powder. A score of voices instantly took up the cry; hands were flung out towards Sakr-el-Bahr, where he stood above them and in full view of all, leaning impassive and stern upon the poop-rail, whilst his agile mind weighed the opportunity thus thrust upon him, and considered what profit was to be extracted from it.

Asad fell back a pace in his profound mortification. His face was livid, his eyes blared furiously, his hand flew to the jewelled hilt of his scimitar, yet forbore from drawing the blade. Instead he let loose upon Marzak the venom kindled in his soul by this evidence of how shrunken was his authority.

“Thou fool!” he snarled. “Look on thy craven’s work. See what a devil thou hast raised with thy woman’s counsels. Thou to command a galley! Thou to become a fighter upon the seas! I would that Allah had stricken me dead ere I begat me such a son as thou!”

Marzak recoiled before the fury of words that he feared might be followed by yet worse. He dared make no answer, offer no excuse; in that moment he scarcely dared breathe.

Meanwhile Rosamund in her eagerness had advanced until she stood at Sakr-el-Bahr’s elbow.

“God is helping us!” she said in a voice of fervent gratitude. “This is your opportunity. The men will obey you.”

He looked at her, and smiled faintly upon her eagerness. “Ay, mistress, they will obey me,” he said. But in the few moments that were sped he had taken his resolve. Whilst undoubtedly Asad was right, and the wise course was to lie close in this sheltering cove where the odds of their going unperceived were very heavily in their favour, yet the men’s judgment was not altogether at fault. If they were to put to sea, they might by steering an easterly course pass similarly unperceived, and even should the splash of their oars reach the galleon beyond the headland, yet by the time she had weighed anchor and started in pursuit they would be well away straining every ounce of muscle at the oars, whilst the breeze — a heavy factor in his considerations — was become so feeble that they could laugh at pursuit by a vessel that depended upon wind alone. The only danger, then, was the danger of the galleon’s cannon, and that danger was none so great as from experience Sakr-el-Bahr well knew.

Thus was he reluctantly forced to the conclusion that in the main the wiser policy was to support Asad, and since he was full confident of the obedience of the men he consoled himself with the reflection that a moral victory might be in store for him out of which some surer profit might presently be made.

In answer, then, to those who still called upon him, he leapt down the companion and strode along the gangway to the waist-deck to take his stand at the Basha’s side. Asad watched his approach with angry misgivings; it was with him a foregone conclusion that things being as they were Sakr-el-Bahr would be ranged against him to obtain complete control of these mutineers and to cull the fullest advantage from the situation. Softly and slowly he unsheathed his scimitar, and Sakr-el-Bahr seeing this out of the corner of his eye, yet affected not to see, but stood forward to address the men.

“How now?” he thundered wrathfully. “What shall this mean? Are ye all deaf that ye have not heard the commands of your Basha, the exalted of Allah, that ye dare raise your mutinous voices and say what is your will?”

Sudden and utter silence followed that exhortation. Asad listened in relieved amazement; Rosamund caught her breath in sheer dismay.

What could he mean, then? Had he but fooled and duped her? Were his intentions towards her the very opposite to his protestations? She leant upon the poop-rail straining to catch every syllable of that speech of his in the lingua franca, hoping almost that her indifferent knowledge of it had led her into error on the score of what he had said.

She saw him turn with a gesture of angry command upon Larocque, who stood there by the bulwarks, waiting.

“Back to thy post up yonder, and keep watch upon that vessel’s movements, reporting them to us. We stir not hence until such be our lord Asad’s good pleasure. Away with thee!”

Larocque without a murmur threw a leg over the bulwarks and dropped to the oars, whence he clambered ashore as he had been bidden. And not a single voice was raised in protest.

Sakr-el-Bahr’s dark glance swept the ranks of the corsairs crowding the forecastle.

“Because this pet of the hareem,” he said, immensely daring, indicating Marzak by a contemptuous gesture, “bleats of danger into the ears of men, are ye all to grow timid and foolish as a herd of sheep? By Allah! What are ye? Are ye the fearless sea-hawks that have flown with me, and struck where the talons of my grappling-hooks were flung, or are ye but scavenging crows?”

He was answered by an old rover whom fear had rendered greatly daring.

“We are trapped here as Dragut was trapped at Jerba.”

“Thou liest,” he answered. “Dragut was not trapped, for Dragut found a way out. And against Dragut there was the whole navy of Genoa, whilst against us there is but one single galleon. By the Koran, if she shows fight, have we no teeth? Will it be the first galleon whose decks we have overrun? But if ye prefer a coward’s counsel, ye sons of shame, consider that once we take the open sea our discovery will be assured, and Larocque hath told you that she carries twenty guns. I tell you that if we are to be attacked by her, best be attacked at close quarters, and I tell you that if we lie close and snug in here it is long odds that we shall never be attacked at all. That she has no inkling of our presence is proven, since she has cast anchor round the headland. And consider that if we fly from a danger that doth not exist, and in our flight are so fortunate as not to render real that danger and to court it, we abandon a rich argosy that shall bring profit to us all.”

“But I waste my breath in argument,” he ended abruptly. “You have heard the commands of your lord, Asad-ed-Din, and that should be argument enough. No more of this, then.”

Without so much as waiting to see them disperse from the rail and return to their lounging attitudes about the forecastle, he turned to Asad.

“It might have been well to hang the dog who spoke of Dragut and Jerba,” he said. “But it was never in my nature to be harsh with those who follow me.” And that was all.

Asad from amazement had passed quickly to admiration and a sort of contrition, into which presently there crept a poisonous tinge of jealousy to see Sakr-el-Bahr prevail where he himself alone must utterly have failed. This jealousy spread all-pervadingly, like an oil stain. If he had come to bear ill-will to Sakr-el-Bahr before, that ill-will was turned of a sudden into positive hatred for one in whom he now beheld a usurper of the power and control that should reside in the Basha alone. Assuredly there was no room for both of them in the Bashalik of Algiers.

Therefore the words of commendation which had been rising to his lips froze there now that Sakr-el-Bahr and he stood face to face. In silence he considered his lieutenant through narrowing evil eyes, whose message none but a fool could have misunderstood.

Sakr-el-Bahr was not a fool, and he did not misunderstand it for a moment. He felt a tightening at the heart, and ill-will sprang to life within him responding to the call of that ill-will. Almost he repented him that he had not availed himself of that moment of weakness and mutiny on the part of the crew to attempt the entire superseding of the Basha.

The conciliatory words he had in mind to speak he now suppressed. To that venomous glance he opposed his ever ready mockery. He turned to Biskaine.

“Withdraw,” he curtly bade him, “and take that stout sea-warrior with thee.” And he indicated Marzak.

Biskaine turned to the Basha. “Is it thy wish, my lord?” he asked.

Asad nodded in silence, and motioned him away together with the cowed Marzak.

“My lord,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, when they were alone, “yesterday I made thee a proposal for the healing of this breach between us, and it was refused. But now had I been the traitor and mutineer thou hast dubbed me I could have taken full advantage of the humour of my corsairs. Had I done that it need no longer have been mine to propose or to sue. Instead it would have been mine to dictate. Since I have given thee such crowning proof of my loyalty, it is my hope and trust that I may be restored to the place I had lost in thy confidence, and that this being so thou wilt accede now to that proposal of mine concerning the Frankish woman yonder.”

It was unfortunate perhaps that she should have been standing there unveiled upon the poop within the range of Asad’s glance; for the sight of her it may have been that overcame his momentary hesitation and stifled the caution which prompted him to accede. He considered her a moment, and a faint colour kindled in his cheeks which anger had made livid.

“It is not for thee, Sakr-el-Bahr,” he answered at length, “to make me proposals. To dare it, proves thee far removed indeed from the loyalty thy lips profess. Thou knowest my will concerning her. Once hast thou thwarted and defied me, misusing to that end the Prophet’s Holy Law. Continue a barrier in my path and it shall be at thy peril.” His voice was raised and it shook with anger.

“Not so loud,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, his eyes gleaming with a response of anger. “For should my men overhear these threats of thine I will not answer for what may follow. I oppose thee at my peril sayest thou. Be it so, then.” He smiled grimly. “It is war between us, Asad, since thou hast chosen it. Remember hereafter when the consequences come to overwhelm thee that the choice was thine.”

“Thou mutinous, treacherous son of a dog!” blazed Asad.

Sakr-el-Bahr turned on his heel. “Pursue the path of an old man’s folly,” he said over his shoulder, “and see whither it will lead thee.”

Upon that he strode away up the gangway to the poop, leaving the Basha alone with his anger and some slight fear evoked by that last bold menace. But notwithstanding that he menaced boldly the heart of Sakr-el-Bahr was surcharged with anxiety. He had conceived a plan; but between the conception and its execution he realized that much ill might lie.

“Mistress,” he addressed Rosamund as he stepped upon the poop. “You are not wise to show yourself so openly.”

To his amazement she met him with a hostile glance.

“Not wise?” said she, her countenance scornful. “You mean that I may see more than was intended for me. What game do you play here, sir, that you tell me one thing and show me by your actions that you desire another?”

He did not need to ask her what she meant. At once he perceived how she had misread the scene she had witnessed.

“I’ll but remind you,” he said very gravely, “that once before you did me a wrong by over-hasty judgment, as has been proven to you.”

It overthrew some of her confidence. “But then. . . . ” she began.

“I do but ask you to save your judgment for the end. If I live I shall deliver you. Meanwhile I beg that you will keep your cabin. It does not help me that you be seen.”

She looked at him, a prayer for explanation trembling on her lips. But before the calm command of his tone and glance she slowly lowered her head and withdrew beyond the curtain.

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