The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 23

The Heathen Creed

Sakr-el-Bahr was shut up in a black hole in the forecastle of the Silver Heron to await the dawn and to spend the time in making his soul. No words had passed between him and Sir John since his surrender. With wrists pinioned behind him, he had been hoisted aboard the English ship, and in the waist of her he had stood for a moment face to face with an old acquaintance — our chronicler, Lord Henry Goade. I imagine the florid countenance of the Queen’s Lieutenant wearing a preternaturally grave expression, his eyes forbidding as they rested upon the renegade. I know — from Lord Henry’s own pen — that no word had passed between them during those brief moments before Sakr-el-Bahr was hurried away by his guards to be flung into those dark, cramped quarters reeking of tar and bilge.

For a long hour he lay where he had fallen, believing himself alone; and time and place would no doubt conduce to philosophical reflection upon his condition. I like to think that he found that when all was considered, he had little with which to reproach himself. If he had done evil he had made ample amends. It can scarcely be pretended that he had betrayed those loyal Muslimeen followers of his, or, if it is, at least it must be added that he himself had paid the price of that betrayal. Rosamund was safe, Lionel would meet the justice due to him, and as for himself, being as good as dead already, he was worth little thought. He must have derived some measure of content from the reflection that he was spending his life to the very best advantage. Ruined it had been long since. True, but for his ill-starred expedition of vengeance he might long have continued to wage war as a corsair, might even have risen to the proud Muslim eminence of the Bashalik of Algiers and become a feudatory prince of the Grand Turk. But for one who was born a Christian gentleman that would have been an unworthy way to have ended his days. The present was the better course.

A faint rustle in the impenetrable blackness of his prison turned the current of his thoughts. A rat, he thought, and drew himself to a sitting attitude, and beat his slippered heels upon the ground to drive away the loathly creature. Instead, a voice challenged him out of the gloom.

“Who’s there?”

It startled him for a moment, in his complete assurance that he had been alone.

“Who’s there?” the voice repeated, querulously to add: “What black hell be this? Where am I?”

And now he recognized the voice for Jasper Leigh’s, and marvelled how that latest of his recruits to the ranks of Mohammed should be sharing this prison with him.

“Faith,” said he, “you’re in the forecastle of the Silver Heron; though how you come here is more than I can answer.”

“Who are ye?” the voice asked.

“I have been known in Barbary as Sakr-el-Bahr.”

“Sir Oliver!”

“I suppose that is what they will call me now. It is as well perhaps that I am to be buried at sea, else it might plague these Christian gentlemen what legend to inscribe upon my headstone. But you — how come you hither? My bargain with Sir John was that none should be molested, and I cannot think Sir John would be forsworn.”

“As to that I know nothing, since I did not even know where I was bestowed until ye informed me. I was knocked senseless in the fight, after I had put my bilbo through your comely brother. That is the sum of my knowledge.”

Sir Oliver caught his breath. “What do you say? You killed Lionel?”

“I believe so,” was the cool answer. “At least I sent a couple of feet of steel through him —’twas in the press of the fight when first the English dropped aboard the galley; Master Lionel was in the van — the last place in which I should have looked to see him.”

There fell a long silence. At length Sir Oliver spoke in a small voice.

“Not a doubt but you gave him no more than he was seeking. You are right, Master Leigh; the van was the last place in which to look for him, unless he came deliberately to seek steel that he might escape a rope. Best so, no doubt. Best so! God rest him!”

“Do you believe in God?” asked the sinful skipper on an anxious note.

“No doubt they took you because of that,” Sir Oliver pursued, as if communing with himself. “Being in ignorance perhaps of his deserts, deeming him a saint and martyr, they resolved to avenge him upon you, and dragged you hither for that purpose.” He sighed. “Well, well, Master Leigh, I make no doubt that knowing yourself for a rascal you have all your life been preparing your neck for a noose; so this will come as no surprise to you.”

The skipper stirred uneasily, and groaned. “Lord, how my head aches!” he complained.

“They’ve a sure remedy for that,” Sir Oliver comforted him. “And you’ll swing in better company than you deserve, for I am to be hanged in the morn-ing too. You’ve earned it as fully as have I, Master Leigh. Yet I am sorry for you — sorry you should suffer where I had not so intended.”

Master Leigh sucked in a shuddering breath, and was silent for a while.

Then he repeated an earlier question.

“Do you believe in God, Sir Oliver?”

“There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet,” was the answer, and from his tone Master Leigh could not be sure that he did not mock.

“That’s a heathen creed,” said he in fear and loathing.

“Nay, now; it’s a creed by which men live. They perform as they preach, which is more than can be said of any Christians I have ever met.”

“How can you talk so upon the eve of death?” cried Leigh in protest.

“Faith,” said Sir Oliver, “it’s considered the season of truth above all others.”

“Then ye don’t believe in God?”

“On the contrary, I do.”

“But not in the real God?” the skipper insisted.

“There can be no God but the real God — it matters little what men call Him.”

“Then if ye believe, are ye not afraid?”

“Of what?”

“Of hell, damnation, and eternal fire,” roared the skipper, voicing his own belated terrors.

“I have but fulfilled the destiny which in His Omniscience He marked out for me,” replied Sir Oliver. “My life hath been as He designed it, since naught may exist or happen save by His Will. Shall I then fear damnation for having been as God fashioned me?”

“’Tis the heathen Muslim creed!” Master Leigh protested.

“’Tis a comforting one,” said Sir Oliver, “and it should comfort such a sinner as thou.”

But Master Leigh refused to be comforted. “Oh!” he groaned miserably. “I would that I did not believe in God!”

“Your disbelief could no more abolish Him than can your fear create Him,” replied Sir Oliver. “But your mood being what it is, were it not best you prayed?”

“Will not you pray with me?” quoth that rascal in his sudden fear of the hereafter.

“I shall do better,” said Sir Oliver at last. “I shall pray for you — to Sir John Killigrew, that your life be spared.”

“Sure he’ll never heed you!” said Master Leigh with a catch in his breath.

“He shall. His honour is concerned in it. The terms of my surrender were that none else aboard the galley should suffer any hurt.”

“But I killed Master Lionel.”

“True — but that was in the scrimmage that preceded my making terms. Sir John pledged me his word, and Sir John will keep to it when I have made it clear to him that honour demands it.”

A great burden was lifted from the skipper’s mind — that great shadow of the fear of death that had overhung him. With it, it is greatly to be feared that his desperate penitence also departed. At least he talked no more of damnation, nor took any further thought for Sir Oliver’s opinions and beliefs concerning the hereafter. He may rightly have supposed that Sir Oliver’s creed was Sir Oliver’s affair, and that should it happen to be wrong he was scarcely himself a qualified person to correct it. As for himself, the making of his soul could wait until another day, when the necessity for it should be more imminent.

Upon that he lay down and attempted to compose himself to sleep, though the pain in his head proved a difficulty. Finding slumber impossible after a while he would have talked again; but by that time his companion’s regular breathing warned him that Sir Oliver had fallen asleep during the silence.

Now this surprised and shocked the skipper. He was utterly at a loss to understand how one who had lived Sir Oliver’s life, been a renegade and a heathen, should be able to sleep tranquilly in the knowledge that at dawn he was to hang. His belated Christian zeal prompted him to rouse the sleeper and to urge him to spend the little time that yet remained him in making his peace with God. Humane compassion on the other hand suggested to him that he had best leave him in the peace of that oblivion. Considering matters he was profoundly touched to reflect that in such a season Sir Oliver could have found room in his mind to think of him and his fate and to undertake to contrive that he should be saved from the rope. He was the more touched when he bethought him of the extent to which he had himself been responsible for all that happened to Sir Oliver. Out of the consideration of heroism, a certain heroism came to be begotten in him, and he fell to pondering how in his turn he might perhaps serve Sir Oliver by a frank confession of all that he knew of the influences that had gone to make Sir Oliver what he was. This resolve uplifted him, and oddly enough it uplifted him all the more when he reflected that perhaps he would be jeopardizing his own neck by the confession upon which he had determined.

So through that endless night he sat, nursing his aching head, and enheartened by the first purpose he had ever conceived of a truly good and altruistic deed. Yet fate it seemed was bent upon frustrating that purpose of his. For when at dawn they came to hale Sir Oliver to his doom, they paid no heed to Jasper Leigh’s demands that he, too, should be taken before Sir John.

“Thee bean’t included in our orders,” said a seaman shortly.

“Maybe not,” retorted Master Leigh, “because Sir John little knows what it is in my power to tell him. Take me before him, I say, that he may hear from me the truth of certain matters ere it be too late.”

“Be still,” the seaman bade him, and struck him heavily across the face, so that he reeled and collapsed into a corner. “Thee turn will come soon. Just now our business be with this other heathen.”

“Naught that you can say would avail,” Sir Oliver assured him quietly. “But I thank you for the thought that marks you for my friend. My hands are bound, Jasper. Were it otherwise I would beg leave to clasp your own. Fare you well!”

Sir Oliver was led out into the golden sunlight which almost blinded him after his long confinement in that dark hole. They were, he gathered, to conduct him to the cabin where a short mockery of a trial was to be held. But in the waist their progress was arrested by an officer, who bade them wait.

Sir Oliver sat down upon a coil of rope, his guard about him, an object of curious inspection to the rude seamen. They thronged the forecastle and the hatchways to stare at this formidable corsair who once had been a Cornish gentleman and who had become a renegade Muslim and a terror to Christianity.

Truth to tell, the sometime Cornish gentleman was difficult to discern in him as he sat there still wearing the caftan of cloth of silver over his white tunic and a turban of the same material swathed about his steel headpiece that ended in a spike. Idly he swung his brown sinewy legs, naked from knee to ankle, with the inscrutable calm of the fatalist upon his swarthy hawk face with its light agate eyes and black forked beard; and those callous seamen who had assembled there to jeer and mock him were stricken silent by the intrepidity and stoicism of his bearing in the face of death.

If the delay chafed him, he gave no outward sign of it. If his hard, light eyes glanced hither and thither it was upon no idle quest. He was seeking Rosamund, hoping for a last sight of her before they launched him upon his last dread voyage.

But Rosamund was not to be seen. She was in the cabin at the time. She had been there for this hour past, and it was to her that the present delay was due.

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