The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 4

The Raid

In the estuary of the River Fal a splendid ship, on the building of which the most cunning engineers had been employed and no money spared, rode proudly at anchor just off Smithick under the very shadow of the heights crowned by the fine house of Arwenack. She was fitting out for a distant voyage and for days the work of bringing stores and munitions aboard had been in progress, so that there was an unwonted bustle about the little forge and the huddle of cottages that went to make up the fishing village, as if in earnest of the great traffic that in future days was to be seen about that spot. For Sir John Killigrew seemed at last to be on the eve of prevailing and of laying there the foundations of the fine port of his dreams.

To this state of things his friendship with Master Lionel Tressilian had contributed not a little. The opposition made to his project by Sir Oliver — and supported, largely at Sir Oliver’s suggestion, by Truro and Helston — had been entirely withdrawn by Lionel; more, indeed Lionel had actually gone so far in the opposite direction as to support Sir John in his representations to Parliament and the Queen. It followed naturally enough that just as Sir Oliver’s opposition of that cherished project had been the seed of the hostility between Arwenack and Penarrow, so Lionel’s support of it became the root of the staunch friendship that sprang up between himself and Sir John.

What Lionel lacked of his brother’s keen intelligence he made up for in cunning. He realized that although at some future time it was possible that Helston and Truro and the Tressilian property there might come to suffer as a consequence of the development of a port so much more advantageously situated, yet that could not be in his own lifetime; and meanwhile he must earn in return Sir John’s support for his suit of Rosamund Godolphin and thus find the Godolphin estates merged with his own. This certain immediate gain was to Master Lionel well worth the other future possible loss.

It must not, however, be supposed that Lionel’s courtship had thenceforward run a smooth and easy course. The mistress of Godolphin Court showed him no favour and it was mainly that she might abstract herself from the importunities of his suit that she had sought and obtained Sir John Killigrew’s permission to accompany the latter’s sister to France when she went there with her husband, who was appointed English ambassador to the Louvre. Sir John’s authority as her guardian had come into force with the decease of her brother.

Master Lionel moped awhile in her absence; but cheered by Sir John’s assurance that in the end he should prevail, he quitted Cornwall in his turn and went forth to see the world. He spent some time in London about the Court, where, however, he seems to have prospered little, and then he crossed to France to pay his devoirs to the lady of his longings.

His constancy, the humility with which he made his suit, the obvious intensity of his devotion, began at last to wear away that gentlewoman’s opposition, as dripping water wears away a stone. Yet she could not bring herself to forget that he was Sir Oliver’s brother — the brother of the man she had loved, and the brother of the man who had killed her own brother. Between them stood, then, two things; the ghost of that old love of hers and the blood of Peter Godolphin.

Of this she reminded Sir John on her return to Cornwall after an absence of some two years, urging these matters as reasons why an alliance between herself and Lionel Tressilian must be impossible.

Sir John did not at all agree with her.

“My dear,” he said, “there is your future to be thought of. You are now of full age and mistress of your own actions. Yet it is not well for a woman and a gentlewoman to dwell alone. As long as I live, or as long as I remain in England, all will be well. You may continue indefinitely your residence here at Arwenack, and you have been wise, I think, in quitting the loneliness of Godolphin Court. Yet consider that that loneliness may be yours again when I am not here.”

“I should prefer that loneliness to the company you would thrust upon me,” she answered him.

“Ungracious speech!” he protested. “Is this your gratitude for that lad’s burning devotion, for his patience, his gentleness, and all the rest!”

“He is Oliver Tressilian’s brother,” she replied.

“And has he not suffered enough for that already? Is there to be no end to the price that he must pay for his brother’s sins? Besides, consider that when all is said they are not even brothers. They are but half-brothers.”

“Yet too closely kin,” she said. “If you must have me wed I beg you’ll find me another husband.”

To this he would answer that expediently considered no husband could be better than the one he had chosen her. He pointed out the contiguity of their two estates, and how fine and advantageous a thing it would be to merge these two into one.

He was persistent, and his persistence was increased when he came to conceive his notion to take the seas again. His conscience would not permit him to heave anchor until he had bestowed her safely in wedlock. Lionel too was persistent, in a quiet, almost self-effacing way that never set a strain upon her patience, and was therefore the more difficult to combat.

In the end she gave way under the pressure of these men’s wills, and did so with the best grace she could summon, resolved to drive from her heart and mind the one real obstacle of which, for very shame, she had made no mention to Sir John. The fact is that in spite of all, her love for Sir Oliver was not dead. It was stricken down, it is true, until she herself failed to recognize it for what it really was. But she caught herself thinking of him frequently and wistfully; she found herself comparing him with his brother; and for all that she had bidden Sir John find her some other husband than Lionel, she knew full well that any suitor brought before her must be submitted to that same comparison to his inevitable undoing. All this she accounted evil in herself. It was in vain that she lashed her mind with the reminder that Sir Oliver was Peter’s murderer. As time went on she found herself actually making excuses for her sometime lover; she would admit that Peter had driven him to the step, that for her sake Sir Oliver had suffered insult upon insult from Peter, until, being but human, the cup of his endurance had overflowed in the end, and weary of submitting to the other’s blows he had risen up in his anger and smitten in his turn.

She would scorn herself for such thoughts as these, yet she could not dismiss them. In act she could be strong — as witness how she had dealt with that letter which Oliver sent her out of Barbary by the hand of Pitt — but her thoughts she could not govern, and her thoughts were full often traitors to her will. There were longings in her heart for Oliver which she could not stifle, and there was ever the hope that he would one day return, although she realized that from such a return she might look for nothing.

When Sir John finally slew the hope of that return he did a wiser thing than he conceived. Never since Oliver’s disappearance had they heard any news of him until Pitt came to Arwenack with that letter and his story. They had heard, as had all the world, of the corsair Sakr-el-Bahr, but they had been far indeed from connecting him with Oliver Tressilian. Now that his identity was established by Pitt’s testimony, it was an easy matter to induce the courts to account him dead and to give Lionel the coveted inheritance.

This to Rosamund was a small matter. But a great one was that Sir Oliver was dead at law, and must be so in fact, should he ever again set foot in England. It extinguished finally that curiously hopeless and almost subconscious hope of hers that one day he would return. Thus it helped her perhaps to face and accept the future which Sir John was resolved to thrust upon her.

Her betrothal was made public, and she proved if not an ardently loving, at least a docile and gentle mistress to Lionel. He was content. He could ask no more in reason at the moment, and he was buoyed up by every lover’s confidence that given opportunity and time he could find the way to awaken a response. And it must be confessed that already during their betrothal he gave some proof of his reason for his confidence. She had been lonely, and he dispelled her loneliness by his complete surrender of himself to her; his restraint and his cautious, almost insidious creeping along a path which a more clumsy fellow would have taken at a dash made companionship possible between them and very sweet to her. Upon this foundation her affection began gradually to rise, and seeing them together and such excellent friends, Sir John congratulated himself upon his wisdom and went about the fitting out of that fine ship of his — the Silver Heron — for the coming voyage.

Thus they came within a week of the wedding, and Sir John all impatience now. The marriage bells were to be his signal for departure; as they fell silent the Silver Heron should spread her wings.

It was the evening of the first of June; the peal of the curfew had faded on the air and lights were being set in the great dining-room at Arwenack where the company was to sup. It was a small party. Just Sir John and Rosamund and Lionel, who had lingered on that day, and Lord Henry Goade — our chronicler — the Queen’s Lieutenant of Cornwall, together with his lady. They were visiting Sir John and they were to remain yet a week his guests at Arwenack that they might grace the coming nuptials.

Above in the house there was great stir of preparation for the departure of Sir John and his ward, the latter into wedlock, the former into unknown seas. In the turret chamber a dozen sempstresses were at work upon the bridal outfit under the directions of that Sally Pentreath who had been no less assiduous in the preparation of swaddling clothes and the like on the eve of Rosamund’s appearance in this world.

At the very hour at which Sir John was leading his company to table Sir Oliver Tressilian was setting foot ashore not a mile away.

He had deemed it wiser not to round Pendennis Point. So in the bay above Swanpool on the western side of that promontory he had dropped anchor as the evening shadows were deepening. He had launched the ship’s two boats, and in these he had conveyed some thirty of his men ashore. Twice had the boats returned, until a hundred of his corsairs stood ranged along that foreign beach. The other hundred he left on guard aboard. He took so great a force upon an expedition for which a quarter of the men would have sufficed so as to ensure by overwhelming numbers the avoidance of all unnecessary violence.

Absolutely unobserved he led them up the slope towards Arwenack through the darkness that had now closed in. To tread his native soil once more went near to drawing tears from him. How familiar was the path he followed with such confidence in the night; how well known each bush and stone by which he went with his silent multitude hard upon his heels. Who could have foretold him such a return as this.

Who could have dreamt when he roamed amain in his youth here with dogs and fowling-piece that he would creep one night over these dunes a renegade Muslim leading a horde of infidels to storm the house of Sir John Killigrew of Arwenack?

Such thoughts begot a weakness in him; but he made a quick recovery when his mind swung to all that he had so unjustly suffered, when he considered all that he came thus to avenge.

First to Arwenack to Sir John and Rosamund to compel them to hear the truth at least, and then away to Penarrow for Master Lionel and the reckoning. Such was the project that warmed him, conquered his weakness and spurred him, relentless, onward and upward to the heights and the fortified house that dominated them.

He found the massive iron-studded gates locked, as was to have been expected at that hour. He knocked, and presently the postern gaped, and a lantern was advanced. Instantly that lantern was dashed aside and Sir Oliver had leapt over the sill into the courtyard. With a hand gripping the porter’s throat to choke all utterance, Sir Oliver heaved him out to his men, who swiftly gagged him.

That done they poured silently through that black gap of the postern into the spacious gateway. On he led them, at a run almost, towards the tall mullioned windows whence a flood of golden light seemed invitingly to beckon them.

With the servants who met them in the hall they dealt in the same swift silent fashion as they had dealt with the gatekeeper, and such was the speed and caution of their movements that Sir John and his company had no suspicion of their presence until the door of the dining-room crashed open before their eyes.

The sight which they beheld was one that for some moments left them mazed and bewildered. Lord Henry tells us how at first he imagined that here was some mummery, some surprise prepared for the bridal couple by Sir John’s tenants or the folk of Smithick and Penycumwick, and he adds that he was encouraged in this belief by the circumstance that not a single weapon gleamed in all that horde of outlandish intruders.

Although they came full armed against any eventualities, yet by their leader’s orders not a blade was bared. What was to do was to be done with their naked hands alone and without bloodshed. Such were the orders of Sakr-el-Bahr, and Sakr-el-Bahr’s were not orders to be disregarded.

Himself he stood forward at the head of that legion of brown-skinned men arrayed in all the colours of the rainbow, their heads swathed in turbans of every hue. He considered the company in grim silence, and the company in amazement considered this turbaned giant with the masterful face that was tanned to the colour of mahogany, the black forked beard, and those singularly light eyes glittering like steel under his black brows.

Thus a little while in silence, then with a sudden gasp Lionel Tressilian sank back in his tall chair as if bereft of strength.

The agate eyes flashed upon him smiling, cruelly.

“I see that you, at least, I recognize me,” said Sakr-el-Bahr in his deep voice. “I was assured I could depend upon the eyes of brotherly love to pierce the change that time and stress have wrought in me.”

Sir John was on his feet, his lean swarthy face flushing darkly, an oath on his lips. Rosamund sat on as if frozen with horror, considering Sir Oliver with dilating eyes, whilst her hands clawed the table before her. They too recognized him now, and realized that here was no mummery. That something sinister was intended Sir John could not for a moment doubt. But of what that something might be he could form no notion. It was the first time that Barbary rovers were seen in England. That famous raid of theirs upon Baltimore in Ireland did not take place until some thirty years after this date.

“Sir Oliver Tressilian!” Killigrew gasped, and “Sir Oliver Tressilian!” echoed Lord Henry Goade, to add “By God!”

“Not Sir Oliver Tressilian, came the answer, but Sakr-el-Bahr, the scourge of the sea, the terror of Christendom, the desperate corsair your lies, cupidity, and false-heartedness have fashioned out of a sometime Cornish gentleman.” He embraced them all in his denunciatory gesture. “Behold me here with my sea-hawks to present a reckoning long overdue.”

Writing now of what his own eyes beheld, Lord Henry tells us how Sir John leapt to snatch a weapon from the armoured walls; how Sakr-el-Bahr barked out a single word in Arabic, and how at that word a half-dozen of his supple blackamoors sprang upon the knight like greyhounds upon a hare and bore him writhing to the ground.

Lady Henry screamed; her husband does not appear to have done anything, or else modesty keeps him silent on the score of it. Rosamund, white to the lips, continued to look on, whilst Lionel, overcome, covered his face with his hands in sheer horror. One and all of them expected to see some ghastly deed of blood performed there, coldly and callously as the wringing of a capon’s neck. But no such thing took place. The corsairs merely turned Sir John upon his face, dragged his wrists behind him to make them fast, and having performed that duty with a speedy, silent dexterity they abandoned him.

Sakr-el-Bahr watched their performance with those grimly smiling eyes of his. When it was done he spoke again and pointed to Lionel, who leapt up in sudden terror, with a cry that was entirely inarticulate. Lithe brown arms encircled him like a legion of snakes. Powerless, he was lifted in the air and borne swiftly away. For an instant he found himself held face to face with his turbaned brother. Into that pallid terror-stricken human mask the renegade’s eyes stabbed like two daggers. Then deliberately and after the fashion of the Muslim he was become he spat upon it.

“Away!” he growled, and through the press of corsairs that thronged the hall behind him a lane was swiftly opened and Lionel was swallowed up, lost to the view of those within the room.

“What murderous deed do you intend?” cried Sir John indomitably. He had risen and stood grimly dignified in his bonds.

“Will you murder your own brother as you murdered mine?” demanded Rosamund, speaking now for the first time, and rising as she spoke, a faint flush coming to overspread her pallor. She saw him wince; she saw the mocking lustful anger perish in his face, leaving it vacant for a moment. Then it became grim again with a fresh resolve. Her words had altered all the current of his intentions. They fixed in him a dull, fierce rage. They silenced the explanations which he was come to offer, and which he scorned to offer here after that taunt.

“It seems you love that — whelp, that thing that was my brother,” he said, sneering. “I wonder will you love him still when you come to be better acquainted with him? Though, faith, naught would surprise me in a woman and her love. Yet I am curious to see — curious to see.” He laughed. “I have a mind to gratify myself. I will not separate you — not just yet.”

He advanced upon her. “Come thou with me, lady,” he commanded, and held out his hand.

And now Lord Henry seems to have been stirred to futile action.

“At that,” he writes, “I thrust myself between to shield her. ‘Thou dog,’ I cried,‘thou shalt be made to suffer!’

“‘Suffer?’ quoth he, and mocked me with his deep laugh. ‘I have suffered already. ’Tis for that reason I am here.’

“‘And thou shalt suffer again, thou pirate out of hell!’ I warned him. ‘Thou shalt suffer for this outrage as God’s my life!’

“‘Shall I so?’ quoth he, very calm and sinister. ‘And at whose hands, I pray you?’

“‘At mine, sir, I roared, being by now stirred to a great fury.

“‘At thine?’ he sneered. ‘Thou’lt hunt the hawk of the sea? Thou? Thou plump partridge! Away! Hinder me not!”’

And he adds that again Sir Oliver spoke that short Arabic command, whereupon a dozen blackamoors whirled the Queen’s Lieutenant aside and bound him to a chair.

Face to face stood now Sir Oliver with Rosamund — face to face after five long years, and he realized that in every moment of that time the certainty had never departed from him of some such future meeting.

“Come, lady,” he bade her sternly.

A moment she looked at him with hate and loathing in the clear depths of her deep blue eyes. Then swiftly as lightning she snatched a knife from the board and drove it at his heart. But his hand moved as swiftly to seize her wrist, and the knife clattered to the ground, its errand unfulfilled.

A shuddering sob escaped her then to express at once her horror of her own attempt and of the man who held her. That horror mounting until it overpowered her, she sank suddenly against him in a swoon.

Instinctively his arms went round her, and a moment he held her thus, recalling the last occasion on which she had lain against his breast, on an evening five years and more ago under the grey wall of Godolphin Court above the river. What prophet could have told him that when next he so held her the conditions would be these? It was all grotesque and incredible, like the fantastic dream of some sick mind. But it was all true, and she was in his arms again.

He shifted his grip to her waist, heaved her to his mighty shoulder, as though she were a sack of grain, and swung about, his business at Arwenack accomplished — indeed, more of it accomplished than had been his intent, and also something less.

“Away, away!” he cried to his rovers, and away they sped as fleetly and silently as they had come, no man raising now so much as a voice to hinder them.

Through the hall and across the courtyard flowed that human tide; out into the open and along the crest of the hill it surged, then away down the slope towards the beach where their boats awaited them. Sakr-el-Bahr ran as lightly as though the swooning woman he bore were no more than a cloak he had flung across his shoulder. Ahead of him went a half-dozen of his fellows carrying his gagged and pinioned brother.

Once only before they dipped from the heights of Arwenack did Oliver check. He paused to look across the dark shimmering water to the woods that screened the house of Penarrow from his view. It had been part of his purpose to visit it, as we know. But the necessity had now been removed, and he was conscious of a pang of disappointment, of a hunger to look again upon his home. But to shift the current of his thoughts just then came two of his officers — Othmani and Ali, who had been muttering one with the other. As they overtook him, Othmani set now a hand upon his arm, and pointed down towards the twinkling lights of Smithick and Penycumwick.

“My lord,” he cried, “there will be lads and maidens there should fetch fat prices in the sôk-el-Abeed.”

“No doubt,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, scarce heeding him, heeding indeed little in this world but his longings to look upon Penarrow.

“Why, then, my lord, shall I take fifty True–Believers and make a raid upon them? It were an easy task, all unsuspicious as they must be of our presence.”

Sakr-el-Bahr came out of his musings. “Othmani,” said he, “art a fool, the very father of fools, else wouldst thou have come to know by now that those who once were of my own race, those of the land from which I am sprung, are sacred to me. Here we take no slave but these we have. On, then, in the name of Allah!”

But Othmani was not yet silenced. “And is our perilous voyage across these unknown seas into this far heathen land to be rewarded by no more than just these two captives? Is that a raid worthy of Sakr-el-Bahr?”

“Leave Sakr-el-Bahr to judge,” was the curt answer.

“But reflect, my lord: there is another who will judge. How shall our Basha, the glorious Asad-ed-Din, welcome thy return with such poor spoils as these? What questions will he set thee, and what account shalt thou render him for having imperilled the lives of all these True–Believers upon the seas for so little profit?”

“He shall ask me what he pleases, and I shall answer what I please and as Allah prompts me. On, I say!”

And on they went, Sakr-el-Bahr conscious now of little but the warmth of that body upon his shoulder, and knowing not, so tumultuous were his emotions, whether it fired him to love or hate.

They gained the beach; they reached the ship whose very presence had continued unsuspected. The breeze was fresh and they stood away at once. By sunrise there was no more sign of them than there had been at sunset, there was no more clue to the way they had taken than to the way they had come. It was as if they had dropped from the skies in the night upon that Cornish coast, and but for the mark of their swift, silent passage, but for the absence of Rosamund and Lionel Tressilian, the thing must have been accounted no more than a dream of those few who had witnessed it.

Aboard the carack, Sakr-el-Bahr bestowed Rosamund in the cabin over the quarter, taking the precaution to lock the door that led to the stern-gallery. Lionel he ordered to be dropped into a dark hole under the hatchway, there to lie and meditate upon the retribution that had overtaken him until such time as his brother should have determined upon his fate — for this was a matter upon which the renegade was still undecided.

Himself he lay under the stars that night and thought of many things. One of these things, which plays some part in the story, though it is probable that it played but a slight one in his thoughts, was begotten of the words Othmani had used. What, indeed, would be Asad’s welcome of him on his return if he sailed into Algiers with nothing more to show for that long voyage and the imperilling of the lives of two hundred True–Believers than just those two captives whom he intended, moreover, to retain for himself? What capital would not be made out of that circumstance by his enemies in Algiers and by Asad’s Sicilian wife who hated him with all the bitterness of a hatred that had its roots in the fertile soil of jealousy?

This may have spurred him in the cool dawn to a very daring and desperate enterprise which Destiny sent his way in the shape of a tall-masted Dutchman homeward bound. He gave chase, for all that he was full conscious that the battle he invited was one of which his corsairs had no experience, and one upon which they must have hesitated to venture with another leader than himself. But the star of Sakr-el-Bahr was a star that never led to aught but victory, and their belief in him, the very javelin of Allah, overcame any doubts that may have been begotten of finding themselves upon an unfamiliar craft and on a rolling, unfamiliar sea.

This fight is given in great detail by my Lord Henry from the particulars afforded him by Jasper Leigh. But it differs in no great particular from other sea-fights, and it is none of my purpose to surfeit you with such recitals. Enough to say that it was stern and fierce, entailing great loss to both combatants; that cannon played little part in it, for knowing the quality of his men Sakr-el-Bahr made haste to run in and grapple. He prevailed of course as he must ever pre-vail by the very force of his personality and the might of his example. He was the first to leap aboard the Dutchman, clad in mail and whirling his great scimitar, and his men poured after him shouting his name and that of Allah in a breath.

Such was ever his fury in an engagement that it infected and inspired his followers. It did so now, and the shrewd Dutchmen came to perceive that this heathen horde was as a body to which he supplied the brain and soul. They attacked him fiercely in groups, intent at all costs upon cutting him down, convinced almost by instinct that were he felled the victory would easily be theirs. And in the end they succeeded. A Dutch pike broke some links of his mail and dealt him a flesh wound which went unheeded by him in his fury; a Dutch rapier found the breach thus made in his de-fences, and went through it to stretch him bleeding upon the deck. Yet he staggered up, knowing as full as did they that if he succumbed then all was lost. Armed now with a short axe which he had found under his hand when he went down, he hacked a way to the bulwarks, set his back against the timbers, and hoarse of voice, ghastly of face, spattered with the blood of his wound he urged on his men until the victory was theirs — and this was fortunately soon. And then, as if he had been sustained by no more than the very force of his will, he sank down in a heap among the dead and wounded huddled against the vessel’s bulwarks.

Grief-stricken his corsairs bore him back aboard the carack. Were he to die then was their victory a barren one indeed. They laid him on a couch prepared for him amidships on the main deck, where the vessel’s pitching was least discomfiting. A Moorish surgeon came to tend him, and pronounced his hurt a grievous one, but not so grievous as to close the gates of hope.

This pronouncement gave the corsairs all the assurance they required. It could not be that the Gardener could already pluck so fragrant a fruit from Allah’s garden. The Pitiful must spare Sakr-el-Bahr to continue the glory of Islam.

Yet they were come to the straits of Gibraltar before his fever abated and he recovered complete consciousness, to learn of the final issue of that hazardous fight into which he had led those children of the Prophet.

The Dutchman, Othmani informed him, was following in their wake, with Ali and some others aboard her, steering ever in the wake of the carack which continued to be navigated by the Nasrani dog, Jasper Leigh. When Sakr-el-Bahr learnt the value of the capture, when he was informed that in addition to a hundred able-bodied men under the hatches, to be sold as slaves in the sôk-el-Abeed, there was a cargo of gold and silver, pearls, amber, spices, and ivory, and such lesser matters as gorgeous silken fabrics, rich beyond anything that had ever been seen upon the seas at any one time, he felt that the blood he had shed had not been wasted.

Let him sail safely into Algiers with these two ships both captured in the name of Allah and his Prophet, one of them an argosy so richly fraught, a floating treasure-house, and he need have little fear of what his enemies and the crafty evil Sicilian woman might have wrought against him in his absence.

Then he made inquiry touching his two English captives, to be informed that Othmani had taken charge of them, and that he had continued the treatment meted out to them by Sakr-el-Bahr himself when first they were brought aboard.

He was satisfied, and fell into a gentle healing sleep, whilst, on the decks above, his followers rendered thanks to Allah the Pitying the Pitiful, the Master of the Day of Judgment, who Alone is All–Wise, All–Knowing.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sabatini/rafael/sea_hawk/part2.4.html

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