The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 21

Moriturus

He departed from her presence with bitterness in his heart, leaving a profound contrition in her own. The sense of this her last injustice to him so overwhelmed her that it became the gauge by which she measured that other earlier wrong he had suffered at her hands. Perhaps her overwrought mind falsified the perspective, exaggerating it until it seemed to her that all the suffering and evil with which this chronicle has been concerned were the direct fruits of her own sin of unfaith.

Since all sincere contrition must of necessity bring forth an ardent desire to atone, so was it now with her. Had he but refrained from departing so abruptly he might have had her on her knees to him suing for pardon for all the wrongs which her thoughts had done him, proclaiming her own utter unworthiness and baseness. But since his righteous resentment had driven him from her presence she could but sit and brood upon it all, considering the words in which to frame her plea for forgiveness when next he should return.

But the hours sped, and there was no sign of him. And then, almost with a shock of dread came the thought that ere long perhaps Sir John Killigrew’s ship would be upon them. In her distraught state of mind she had scarcely pondered that contingency. Now that it occurred to her all her concern was for the result of it to Sir Oliver. Would there be fighting, and would he perhaps perish in that conflict at the hands either of the English or of the corsairs whom for her sake he had betrayed, perhaps without ever hearing her confession of penitence, without speaking those words of forgiveness of which her soul stood in such thirsty need?

It would be towards midnight when unable longer to bear the suspense of it, she rose and softly made her way to the entrance. Very quietly she lifted the curtain, and in the act of stepping forth almost stumbled over a body that lay across the threshold. She drew back with a startled gasp; then stooped to look, and by the faint rays of the lanterns on mainmast and poop-rail she recognized Sir Oliver, and saw that he slept. She never heeded the two Nubians immovable as statues who kept guard. She continued to bend over him, and then gradually and very softly sank down on her knees beside him. There were tears in her eyes — tears wrung from her by a tender emotion of wonder and gratitude at so much fidelity. She did not know that he had slept thus last night. But it was enough for her to find him here now. It moved her oddly, profoundly, that this man whom she had ever mistrusted and misjudged should even when he slept make of his body a barrier for her greater security and protection.

A sob escaped her, and at the sound, so lightly and vigilantly did he take his rest, he came instantly if silently to a sitting attitude; and so they looked into each other’s eyes, his swarthy, bearded hawk face on a level with her white gleaming countenance.

“What is it?” he whispered.

She drew back instantly, taken with sudden panic at that question. Then recovering, and seeking womanlike to evade and dissemble the thing she was come to do, now that the chance of doing it was afforded her —“Do you think,” she faltered, “that Lionel will have reached Sir John’s ship?”

He flashed a glance in the direction of the divan under the awning where the Basha slept. There all was still. Besides, the question had been asked in English. He rose and held out a hand to help her to her feet. Then he signed to her to reenter the poop-house, and followed her within.

“Anxiety keeps you wakeful?” he said, half-question, half-assertion.

“Indeed,” she replied.

“There is scarce the need,” he assured her. “Sir John will not be like to stir until dead of night, that he may make sure of taking us unawares. I have little doubt that Lionel would reach him. It is none so long a swim. Indeed, once outside the cove he could take to the land until he was abreast of the ship. Never doubt he will have done his errand.”

She sat down, her glance avoiding his; but the light falling on her face showed him the traces there of recent tears.

“There will be fighting when Sir John arrives?” she asked him presently.

“Like enough. But what can it avail? We shall be caught — as was said to-day — in just such a trap as that in which Andrea Doria caught Dragut at Jerba, saving that whilst the wily Dragut found a way out for his galleys, here none is possible. Courage, then, for the hour of your deliverance is surely at hand.”

He paused, and then in a softer voice, humbly almost, “It is my prayer,” he added, “that hereafter in a happy future these last few weeks shall come to seem no more than an evil dream to you.”

To that prayer she offered no response. She sat bemused, her brow wrinkled.

“I would it might be done without fighting,” she said presently, and sighed wearily.

“You need have no fear,” he assured her. “I shall take all precautions for you. You shall remain here until all is over and the entrance will be guarded by a few whom I can trust.”

“You mistake me,” she replied, and looked up at him suddenly. “Do you suppose my fears are for myself?” She paused again, and then abruptly asked him, “What will befall you?”

“I thank you for the thought,” he replied gravely. “No doubt I shall meet with my deserts. Let it but come swiftly when it comes.”

“Ah, no, no!” she cried. “Not that!” And rose in her sudden agitation.

“What else remains?” he asked, and smiled. “What better fate could anyone desire me?”

“You shall live to return to England,” she surprised him by exclaiming. “The truth must prevail, and justice be done you.”

He looked at her with so fierce and searching a gaze that she averted her eyes. Then he laughed shortly.

“There’s but one form of justice I can look for in England,” said he. “It is a justice administered in hemp. Believe me, mistress, I am grown too notorious for mercy. Best end it here to-night. Besides,” he added, and his mockery fell from him, his tone became gloomy, “bethink you of my present act of treachery to these men of mine, who, whatever they may be, have followed me into a score of perils and but to-day have shown their love and loyalty to me to be greater than their devotion to the Basha himself. I shall have delivered them to the sword. Could I survive with honour? They may be but poor heathens to you and yours, but to me they are my sea-hawks, my warriors, my faithful gallant followers, and I were a dog indeed did I survive the death to which I have doomed them.”

As she listened and gathered from his words the apprehension of a thing that had hitherto escaped her, her eyes grew wide in sudden horror.

“Is that to be the cost of my deliverance?” she asked him fearfully.

“I trust not,” he replied. “I have something in mind that will perhaps avoid it.”

“And save your own life as well?” she asked him quickly.

“Why waste a thought upon so poor a thing? My life was forfeit already. If I go back to Algiers they will assuredly hang me. Asad will see to it, and not all my sea-hawks could save me from my fate.”

She sank down again upon the divan, and sat there rocking her arms in a gesture of hopeless distress.

“I see,” she said. “I see. I am bringing this fate upon you. When you sent Lionel upon that errand you voluntarily offered up your life to restore me to my own people. You had no right to do this without first consulting me. You had no right to suppose I would be a party to such a thing. I will not accept the sacrifice. I will not, Sir Oliver.”

“Indeed, you have no choice, thank God!” he answered her. “But you are astray in your conclusions. It is I alone who have brought this fate upon myself. It is the very proper fruit of my insensate deed. It recoils upon me as all evil must upon him that does it.” He shrugged his shoulders as if to dismiss the matter. Then in a changed voice, a voice singularly timid, soft, and gentle, “it were perhaps too much to ask,” said he, “that you should forgive me all the suffering I have brought you?”

“I think,” she answered him, “that it is for me to beg forgiveness of you.”

“Of me?”

“For my unfaith, which has been the source of all. For my readiness to believe evil of you five years ago, for having burnt unread your letter and the proof of your innocence that accompanied it.”

He smiled upon her very kindly. “I think you said your instinct guided you. Even though I had not done the thing imputed to me, your instinct knew me for evil; and your instinct was right, for evil I am — I must be. These are your own words. But do not think that I mock you with them. I have come to recognize their truth.”

She stretched out her hands to him. “If . . . if I were to say that I have come to realize the falsehood of all that?”

“I should understand it to be the charity which your pitiful heart extends to one in my extremity. Your instinct was not at fault.”

“It was! It was!”

But he was not to be driven out of his conviction. He shook his head, his countenance gloomy. “No man who was not evil could have done by you what I have done, however deep the provocation. I perceive it clearly now — as men in their last hour perceive hidden things.”

“Oh, why are you so set on death?” she cried upon a despairing note.

“I am not,” he answered with a swift resumption of his more habitual manner. “’Tis death that is so set on me. But at least I meet it without fear or regret. I face it as we must all face the inevitable — the gifts from the hands of destiny. And I am heart-ened — gladdened almost — by your sweet forgive-ness.”

She rose suddenly, and came to him. She caught his arm, and standing very close to him, looked up now into his face.

“We have need to forgive each other, you and I, Oliver,” she said. “And since forgiveness effaces all, let . . . let all that has stood between us these last five years be now effaced.”

He caught his breath as he looked down into her white, straining face

“Is it impossible for us to go back five years? Is it impossible for us to go back to where we stood in those old days at Godolphin Court?”

The light that had suddenly been kindled in his face faded slowly, leaving it grey and drawn. His eyes grew clouded with sorrow and despair.

“Who has erred must abide by his error — and so must the generations that come after him. There is no going back ever. The gates of the past are tight-barred against us.”

“Then let us leave them so. Let us turn our backs upon that past, you and I, and let us set out afresh together, and so make amends to each other for what our folly has lost to us in those years.”

He set his hands upon her shoulders, and held her so at arm’s length from him considering her with very tender eyes.

“Sweet lady!” he murmured, and sighed heavily. “God! How happy might we not have been but for that evil chance. . . . ” He checked abruptly. His hands fell from her shoulders to his sides, he half-turned away, brusque now in tone and manner. “I grow maudlin. Your sweet pity has so softened me that I had almost spoke of love; and what have I to do with that? Love belongs to life; love is life; whilst I . . . Moriturus te salutat!”

“Ah, no, no!” She was clinging to him again with shaking hands, her eyes wild.

“It is too late,” he answered her. “There is no bridge can span the pit I have dug myself. I must go down into it as cheerfully as God will let me.”

“Then,” she cried in sudden exaltation, “I will go down with you. At the last, at least, we shall be together.”

“Now here is midsummer frenzy!” he protested, yet there was a tenderness in the very impatience of his accents. He stroked the golden head that lay against his shoulder. “How shall that help me?” he asked her. “Would you embitter my last hour — rob death of all its glory? Nay, Rosamund, you can serve me better far by living. Return to England, and publish there the truth of what you have learnt. Be yours the task of clearing my honour of this stain upon it, proclaiming the truth of what drove me to the infamy of becoming a renegade and a corsair.” He started from her. “Hark! What’s that?”

From without had come a sudden cry, “Afoot! To arms! To arms! Holâ! Balâk! Balâk!”

“It is the hour,” he said, and turning from her suddenly sprang to the entrance and plucked aside the curtain.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sabatini/rafael/sea_hawk/part2.21.html

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