The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 20

The Messenger

For the rest of the day she kept the cabin, chafing with anxiety to know what was toward and the more racked by it because Sakr-el-Bahr refrained through all those hours from coming to her. At last towards evening, unable longer to contain herself, she went forth again, and as it chanced she did so at an untimely moment.

The sun had set, and the evening prayer was being recited aboard the galeasse, her crew all prostrate. Perceiving this, she drew back again instinctively, and remained screened by the curtain until the prayer was ended. Then putting it aside, but without stepping past the Nubians who were on guard, she saw that on her left Asad-ed-Din, with Marzak, Biskaine, and one or two other officers, was again occupying the divan under the awning. Her eyes sought Sakr-el-Bahr, and presently they beheld him coming up the gangway with his long, swinging stride, in the wake of the boat-swain’s mates who were doling out the meagre evening meal to the slaves.

Suddenly he halted by Lionel, who occupied a seat at the head of his oar immediately next to the gangway. He addressed him harshly in the lingua franca, which Lionel did not understand, and his words rang clearly and were heard — as he intended that they should be — by all upon the poop.

“Well, dog? How does galley-slave fare suit thy tender stomach?”

Lionel looked up at him.

“What are you saying?” he asked in English.

Sakr-el-Bahr bent over him, and his face as all could see was evil and mocking. No doubt he spoke to him in English also, but no more than a murmur reached the straining ears of Rosamund, though from his countenance she had no doubt of the purport of his words. And yet she was far indeed from a correct surmise. The mockery in his countenance was but a mask.

“Take no heed of my looks,” he was saying. “I desire them up yonder to think that I abuse you. Look as a man would who were being abused. Cringe or snarl, but listen. Do you remember once when as lads we swam together from Penarrow to Trefusis Point?”

“What do you mean?” quoth Lionel, and the natural sullenness of his mien was all that Sakr-el-Bahr could have desired.

“I am wondering whether you could still swim as far. If so you might find a more appetizing supper awaiting you at the end — aboard Sir John Killigrew’s ship. You had not heard? The Silver Heron is at anchor in the bay beyond that headland. If I afford you the means, could you swim to her do you think?”

Lionel stared at him in profoundest amazement. “Do you mock me?” he asked at length.

“Why should I mock you on such a matter?”

“Is it not to mock me to suggest a way for my deliverance?”

Sakr-el-Bahr laughed, and he mocked now in earnest. He set his left foot upon the rowers’ stretcher, and leaned forward and down his elbow upon his raised knee so that his face was close to Lionel’s.

“For your deliverance?” said he. “God’s life! Lionel, your mind was ever one that could take in naught but your own self. ’Tis that has made a villain of you. Your deliverance! God’s wounds! Is there none but yourself whose deliverance I might desire? Look you, now I want you to swim to Sir John’s ship and bear him word of the presence here of this galeasse and that Rosamund is aboard it. ’Tis for her that I am concerned, and so little for you that should you chance to be drowned in the attempt my only regret will be that the message was not delivered. Will you undertake that swim? It is your one sole chance short of death itself of escaping from the rower’s bench. Will you go?”

“But how?” demanded Lionel, still mistrusting him.

“Will you go?” his brother insisted.

“Afford me the means and I will,” was the answer.

“Very well.” Sakr-el-Bahr leaned nearer still. “Naturally it will be supposed by all who are watching us that I am goading you to desperation. Act, then, your part. Up, and attempt to strike me. Then when I return the blow — and I shall strike heavily that no make-believe may be suspected — collapse on your oar pretending to swoon. Leave the rest to me. Now,” he added sharply, and on the word rose with a final laugh of derision as if to take his departure.

But Lionel was quick to follow the instructions. He leapt up in his bonds, and reaching out as far as they would permit him, he struck Sakr-el-Bahr heavily upon the face. On his side, too, there was to be no make-believe apparent. That done he sank down with a clank of shackles to the bench again, whilst every one of his fellow-slaves that faced his way looked on with fearful eyes.

Sakr-el-Bahr was seen to reel under the blow, and instantly there was a commotion on board. Biskaine leapt to his feet with a half-cry of astonishment; even Asad’s eyes kindled with interest at so unusual a sight as that of a galley-slave attacking a corsair. Then with a snarl of anger, the snarl of an enraged beast almost, Sakr-el-Bahr’s great arm was swung aloft and his fist descended like a hammer upon Lionel’s head.

Lionel sank forward under the blow, his senses swimming. Sakr-el-Bahr’s arm swung up a second time.

“Thou dog!” he roared, and then checked, perceiving that Lionel appeared to have swooned.

He turned and bellowed for Vigitello and his mates in a voice that was hoarse with passion. Vigitello came at a run, a couple of his men at his heels.

“Unshackle me this carrion, and heave it overboard,” was the harsh order. “Let that serve as an example to the others. Let them learn thus the price of mutiny in their lousy ranks. To it, I say.”

Away sped a man for hammer and chisel. He returned with them at once. Four sharp metallic blows rang out, and Lionel was dragged forth from his place to the gangway-deck. Here he revived, and screamed for mercy as though he were to be drowned in earnest.

Biskaine chuckled under the awning, Asad looked on approvingly, Rosamund drew back, shuddering, choking, and near to fainting from sheer horror.

She saw Lionel borne struggling in the arms of the boatswain’s men to the starboard quarter, and flung over the side with no more compunction or care than had he been so much rubbish. She heard the final scream of terror with which he vanished, the splash of his fall, and then in the ensuing silence the laugh of Sakr-el-Bahr.

For a spell she stood there with horror and loathing of that renegade corsair in her soul. Her mind was bewildered and confused. She sought to restore order in it, that she might consider this fresh deed of his, this act of wanton brutality and fratricide. And all that she could gather was the firm conviction that hitherto he had cheated her; he had lied when he swore that his aim was to effect her deliverance. It was not in such a nature to know a gentle mood of penitence for a wrong done. What might be his purpose she could not yet perceive, but that it was an evil one she never doubted, for no purpose of his could be aught but evil. So overwrought was she now that she forgot all Lionel’s sins, and found her heart filled with compassion for him hurled in that brutal fashion to his death.

And then, quite suddenly a shout rang out from the forecastle.

“He is swimming!”

Sakr-el-Bahr had been prepared for the chance of this.

“Where? Where?” he cried, and sprang to the bulwarks.

“Yonder!” A man was pointing. Others had joined him and were peering through the gathering gloom at the moving object that was Lionel’s head and the faintly visible swirl of water about it which indicated that he swam.

“Out to sea!” cried Sakr-el-Bahr. “He’ll not swim far in any case. But we will shorten his road for him.” He snatched a cross-bow from the rack about the mainmast, fitted a shaft to it and took aim.

On the point of loosing the bolt he paused.

“Marzak!” he called. “Here, thou prince of marksmen, is a butt for thee!”

From the poop-deck whence with his father he too was watching the swimmer’s head, which at every moment became more faint in the failing light, Marzak looked with cold disdain upon his challenger, making no reply. A titter ran through the crew.

“Come now,” cried Sakr-el-Bahr. “Take up thy bow!”

“If thou delay much longer,” put in Asad, “he will be beyond thine aim. Already he is scarcely visible.”

“The more difficult a butt, then,” answered Sakr-el-B ahr, who was but delaying to gain time. “The keener test. A hundred philips, Marzak, that thou’lt not hit me that head in three shots, and that I’ll sink him at the first! Wilt take the wager?”

“The unbeliever is for ever peeping forth from thee,” was Marzak’s dignified reply. “Games of chance are forbidden by the Prophet.”

“Make haste, man!” cried Asad. “Already I can scarce discern him. Loose thy quarrel.”

“Pooh,” was the disdainful answer. “A fair mark still for such an eye as mine. I never miss — not even in the dark.”

“Vain boaster,” said Marzak.

“Am I so?” Sakr-el-Bahr loosed his shaft at last into the gloom, and peered after it following its flight, which was wide of the direction of the swimmer’s head. “A hit!” he cried brazenly. “He’s gone!”

“I think I see him still,” said one.

“Thine eyes deceive thee in this light. No man was ever known to swim with an arrow through his brain.”

“Ay,” put in Jasper, who stood behind Sakr-el-Bahr. “He has vanished.”

“’Tis too dark to see,” said Vigitello.

And then Asad turned from the vessel’s side. “Well, well — shot or drowned, he’s gone,” he said, and there the matter ended.

Sakr-el-Bahr replaced the cross-bow in the rack, and came slowly up to the poop.

In the gloom he found himself confronted by Rosamund’s white face between the two dusky countenances of his Nubians. She drew back before him as he approached, and he, intent upon imparting his news to her, followed her within the poop-house, and bade Abiad bring lights.

When these had been kindled they faced each other, and he perceived her profound agitation and guessed the cause of it. Suddenly she broke into speech.

“You beast! You devil!” she panted. “God will punish you! I shall spend my every breath in praying Him to punish you as you deserve. You murderer! You hound! And I like a poor simpleton was heeding your false words. I was believing you sincere in your repentance of the wrong you have done me. But now you have shown me. . . . ”

“How have I hurt you in what I have done to Lionel?” he cut in, a little amazed by so much vehemence.

“Hurt me!” she cried, and on the words grew cold and calm again with very scorn. “I thank God it is beyond your power to hurt me. And I thank you for correcting my foolish misconception of you, my belief in your pitiful pretence that it was your aim to save me. I would not accept salvation at your murderer’s hands. Though, indeed, I shall not be put to it. Rather,” she pursued, a little wildly now in her deep mortification, “are you like to sacrifice me to your own vile ends, whatever they may be. But I shall thwart you, Heaven helping me. Be sure I shall not want courage for that.” And with a shuddering moan she covered her face, and stood swaying there before him.

He looked on with a faint, bitter smile, understanding her mood just as he understood her dark threat of thwarting him.

“I came,” he said quietly, “to bring you the assurance that he has got safely away, and to tell you upon what manner of errand I have sent him.”

Something compelling in his voice, the easy assurance with which he spoke, drew her to stare at him again.

“I mean Lionel, of course,” he said, in answer to her questioning glance. “That scene between us — the blow and the swoon and the rest of it — was all make-believe. So afterwards the shooting. My challenge to Marzak was a ruse to gain time — to avoid shooting until Lionel’s head should have become so dimly visible in the dusk that none could say whether it was still there or not. My shaft went wide of him, as I intended. He is swimming round the head with my message to Sir John Killigrew. He was a strong swimmer in the old days, and should easily reach his goal. That is what I came to tell you.”

For a long spell she continued to stare at him in silence.

“You are speaking the truth?” she asked at last, in a small voice.

He shrugged. “You will have a difficulty in perceiving the object I might serve by falsehood.”

She sat down suddenly upon the divan; it was almost as if she collapsed bereft of strength; and as suddenly she fell to weeping softly.

“And . . . and I believed that you . . . that you. . . . ”

“Just so,” he grimly interrupted. “You always did believe the best of me.”

And on that he turned and went out abruptly.

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