The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 3

Homeward Bound

In the cabin of the captured Spaniard, Jasper Leigh found himself that evening face to face with Sakr-el-Bahr, haled thither by the corsair’s gigantic Nubians.

Sakr-el-Bahr had not yet pronounced his intentions concerning the piratical little skipper, and Master Leigh, full conscious that he was a villain, feared the worst, and had spent some miserable hours in the fore-castle awaiting a doom which he accounted foregone.

“Our positions have changed, Master Leigh, since last we talked in a ship’s cabin,” was the renegade’s inscrutable greeting.

“Indeed,” Master Leigh agreed. “But I hope ye’ll remember that on that occasion I was your friend.”

“At a price,” Sakr-el-Bahr reminded him. “And at a price you may find me your friend to-day.”

The rascally skipper’s heart leapt with hope.

“Name it, Sir Oliver,” he answered eagerly. “And so that it ties within my wretched power I swear I’ll never boggle at it. I’ve had enough of slavery,” he ran on in a plaintive whine. “Five years of it, and four of them spent aboard the galleys of Spain, and no day in all of them but that I prayed for death. Did you but know what I ha’ suffered.”

“Never was suffering more merited, never punishment more fitting, never justice more poetic,” said Sakr-el-Bahr in a voice that made the skipper’s blood run cold. “You would have sold me, a man who did you no hurt, indeed a man who once befriended you — you would have sold me into slavery for a matter of two hundred pounds. . . . ”

“Nay, nay,” cried the other fearfully, “as God’s my witness, ’twas never part of my intent. Ye’ll never ha’ forgot the words I spoke to you, the offer that I made to carry you back home again.”

“Ay, at a price, ’tis true,” Sakr-el-Bahr repeated. “And it is fortunate for you that you are to-day in a position to pay a price that should postpone your dirty neck’s acquaintance with a rope. I need a navigator,” he added in explanation, “and what five years ago you would have done for two hundred pounds, you shall do to-day for your life. How say you: will you navigate this ship for me?”

“Sir,” cried Jasper Leigh, who could scarce believe that this was all that was required of him, “I’ll sail it to hell at your bidding.”

“I am not for Spain this voyage,” answered Sakr-el-Bahr. “You shall sail me precisely as you would have done five years ago, back to the mouth of the Fal, and set me ashore there. Is that agreed?”

“Ay, and gladly,” replied Master Leigh without a second’s pause.

“The conditions are that you shall have your life and your liberty,” Sakr-el-Bahr explained. “But do not suppose that arrived in England you are to be permitted to depart. You must sail us back again, though once you have done that I shall find a way to send you home if you so desire it, and perhaps there will be some measure of reward for you if you serve me faithfully throughout. Follow the habits of a lifetime by playing me false and there’s an end to you. You shall have for constant bodyguard these two lilies of the desert,” and he pointed to the colossal Nubians who stood there invisible almost in the shadow but for the flash of teeth and eyeballs. “They shall watch over you, and see that no harm befalls you so long as you are honest with me, and they shall strangle you at the first sign of treachery. You may go. You have the freedom of the ship, but you are not to leave it here or elsewhere save at my express command.”

Jasper Leigh stumbled out counting himself fortunate beyond his expectations or deserts, and the Nubians followed him and hung behind him ever after like some vast twin shadow.

To Sakr-el-Bahr entered now Biskaine with a report of the prize captured. Beyond the prisoners, however, and the actual vessel, which had suffered nothing in the fight, the cargo was of no account. Outward bound as she was it was not to be expected that any treasures would be discovered in her hold. They found great store of armaments and powder and a little money; but naught else that was worthy of the corsairs’ attention.

Sakr-el-Bahr briefly issued his surprising orders.

“Thou’lt set the captives aboard one of the galleys, Biskaine, and thyself convey them to Algiers, there to be sold. All else thou’lt leave aboard here, and two hundred picked corsairs to go a voyage with me overseas, men that will act as mariners and fighters.”

“Art thou, then, not returning to Algiers, O Sakr-el-Bahr?”

“Not yet. I am for a longer voyage. Convey my service to Asad-ed-Din, whom Allah guard and cherish, and tell him to look for me in some six weeks time.”

This sudden resolve of Oliver–Reis created no little excitement aboard the galleys. The corsairs knew nothing of navigation upon the open seas, none of them had ever been beyond the Mediterranean, few of them indeed had ever voyaged as far west as Cape Spartel, and it is doubtful if they would have followed any other leader into the perils of the open Atlantic. But Sakr-el-Bahr, the child of Fortune, the protected of Allah, had never yet led them to aught but victory, and he had but to call them to heel and they would troop after him whithersoever he should think well to go. So now there was little trouble in finding the two hundred Muslimeen he desired for his fighting crew. Rather was the difficulty to keep the number of those eager for the adventure within the bounds he had indicated.

You are not to suppose that in all this Sir Oliver was acting upon any preconcerted plan. Whilst he had lain on the heights watching that fine ship beating up against the wind it had come to him that with such a vessel under him it were a fond adventure to sail to England, to descend upon that Cornish coast abruptly as a thunderbolt, and present the reckoning to his craven dastard of a brother. He had toyed with the fancy, dreamily almost as men build their castles in Spain. Then in the heat of conflict it had entirely escaped his mind, to return in the shape of a resolve when he came to find himself face to face with Jasper Leigh.

The skipper and the ship conjointly provided him with all the means to realize that dream he had dreamt. There was none to oppose his will, no reason not to indulge his cruel fancy. Perhaps, too, he might see Rosamund again, might compel her to hear the truth from him. And there was Sir John Killigrew. He had never been able to determine whether Sir John had been his friend or his foe in the past; but since it was Sir John who had been instrumental in setting up Lionel in Sir Oliver’s place — by inducing the courts to presume Sir Oliver’s death on the score that being a renegade he must be accounted dead at law — and since it was Sir John who was contriving this wedding between Lionel and Rosamund, why, Sir John, too, should be paid a visit and should be informed of the precise nature of the thing he did.

With the forces at his disposal in those days of his absolute lordship of life and death along the African littoral, to conceive was with Oliver–Reis no more than the prelude to execution. The habit of swift realization of his every wish had grown with him, and that habit guided now his course.

He made his preparations quickly, and on the morrow the Spanish carack — lately labelled Nuestra Senora de las Llagas, but with that label carefully effaced from her quarter — trimmed her sails and stood out for the open Atlantic, navigated by Captain Jasper Leigh. The three galleys under the command of Biskaine-el-Borak crept slowly eastward and homeward to Algiers, hugging the coast, as was the corsair habit. The wind favoured Oliver so well that within ten days of rounding Cape St. Vincent he had his first glimpse of the Lizard.

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