The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 6

The Convert

That tale of Othmani’s being borne anon to Fenzileh by her son was gall and wormwood to her jealous soul. Evil enough to know that Sakr-el-Bahr was returned in spite of the fervent prayers for his foundering which she had addressed both to the God of her forefathers and to the God of her adoption. But that he should have returned in triumph bringing with him heavy spoils that must exalt him further in the affection of Asad and the esteem of the people was bitterness indeed. It left her mute and stricken, bereft even of the power to curse him.

Anon, when her mind recovered from the shock she turned it to the consideration of what at first had seemed a trivial detail in Othmani’s tale as reported by Marzak.

“It is most singularly odd that he should have undertaken that long voyage to England to wrest thence just those two captives; that being there he should not have raided in true corsair fashion and packed his ship with slaves. Most singularly odd!”

They were alone behind the green lattices through which filtered the perfumes of the garden and the throbbing of a nightingale’s voice laden with the tale of its love for the rose. Fenzileh reclined upon a divan that was spread with silken Turkey carpets, and one of her gold-embroidered slippers had dropped from her henna-stained toes. Her lovely arms were raised to support her head, and she stared up at the lamp of many colours that hung from the fretted ceiling.

Marzak paced the length of the chamber back and forth, and there was silence save for the soft swish of his slippers along the floor.

“Well?” she asked him impatiently at last. “Does it not seem odd to thee?”

“Odd, indeed, O my mother,” the youth replied, coming to a halt before her.

“And canst think of naught that was the cause of it?”

“The cause of it?” quoth he, his lovely young face, so closely modelled upon her own, looking blank and vacant.

“Ay, the cause of it,” she cried impatiently. “Canst do naught but stare? Am I the mother of a fool? Wilt thou simper and gape and trifle away thy days whilst that dog-descended Frank tramples thee underfoot, using thee but as a stepping-stone to the power that should be thine own? And that be so, Marzak, I would thou hadst been strangled in my womb.”

He recoiled before the Italian fury of her, was dully resentful even, suspecting that in such words from a woman were she twenty times his mother, there was something dishonouring to his manhood.

“What can I do?” he cried.

“Dost ask me? Art thou not a man to think and act? I tell thee that misbegotten son of a Christian and a Jew will trample thee in the dust. He is greedy as the locust, wily as the serpent, and ferocious as the panther. By Allah! I would I had never borne a son. Rather might men point at me the finger of scorn and call me mother of the wind than that I should have brought forth a man who knows not how to be a man.”

“Show me the way,” he cried. “Set me a task; tell me what to do and thou shalt not find me lacking, O my mother. Until then spare me these insults, or I come no more to thee.”

At this threat that strange woman heaved herself up from her soft couch. She ran to him and flung her arms about his neck, set her cheek against his own. Not eighteen years in the Basha’s hareem had stifled the European mother in her, the passionate Sicilian woman, fierce as a tiger in her maternal love.

“O my child, my lovely boy,” she almost sobbed. “It is my fear for thee that makes me harsh. If I am angry it is but my love that speaks, my rage for thee to see another come usurping the place beside thy father that should be thine. Ah! but we will prevail, sweet son of mine. I shall find a way to return that foreign offal to the dung-heap whence it sprang. Trust me, O Marzak! Sh! Thy father comes. Away! Leave me alone with him.”

She was wise in that, for she knew that alone Asad was more easily controlled by her, since the pride was absent which must compel him to turn and rend her did she speak so before others. Marzak vanished behind the screen of fretted sandalwood that masked one doorway even as Asad loomed in the other.

He came forward smiling, his slender brown fingers combing his long beard, his white djellaba trailing behind him along the ground.

“Thou hast heard, not a doubt, O Fenzileh,” said he. “Art thou answered enough?”

She sank down again upon her cushions and idly considered herself in a steel mirror set in silver.

“Answered?” she echoed lazily, with infinite scorn and a hint of rippling contemptuous laughter running through the word. “Answered indeed. Sakr-el-Bahr risks the lives of two hundred children of Islam and a ship that being taken was become the property of the State upon a voyage to England that has no object but the capturing of two slaves — two slaves, when had his purpose been sincere, it might have been two hundred.”

“Ha! And is that all that thou hast heard?” he asked her mocking in his turn.

“All that signifies,” she replied, still mirroring herself. “I heard as a matter of lesser import that on his return, meeting fortuitously a Frankish ship that chanced to be richly laden, he seized it in thy name.”

“Fortuitously, sayest thou?”

“What else?” She lowered the mirror, and her bold, insolent eyes met his own quite fearlessly. “Thou’lt not tell me that it was any part of his design when he went forth?”

He frowned; his head sank slowly in thought. Observing the advantage gained she thrust it home. “It was a lucky wind that blew that Dutchman into his path, and luckier still her being so richly fraught that he may dazzle thine eyes with the sight of gold and gems, and so blind thee to the real purpose of his voyage.”

“Its real purpose?” he asked dully. “What was its real purpose?” She smiled a smile of infinite knowledge to hide her utter ignorance, her inability to supply even a reason that should wear an air of truth.

“Dost ask me, O perspicuous Asad? Are not thine eyes as sharp, thy wits as keen at least as mine, that what is clear to me should be hidden from thee? Or hath this Sakr-el-Bahr bewitched thee with enchantments of Babyl?”

He strode to her and caught her wrist in a cruelly rough grip of his sinewy old hand.

“His purpose, thou jade! Pour out the foulness of thy mind. Speak!”

She sat up, flushed and defiant.

“I will not speak,” said she.

“Thou wilt not? Now, by the Head of Allah! dost dare to stand before my face and defy me, thy Lord? I’ll have thee whipped, Fenzileh. I have been too tender of thee these many years — so tender that thou hast forgot the rods that await the disobedient wife. Speak then ere thy flesh is bruised or speak thereafter, at thy pleasure.”

“I will not,” she repeated. “Though I be flung to the hooks, not another word will I say of Sakr-el-Bahr. Shall I unveil the truth to be spurned and scorned and dubbed a liar and the mother of lies?” Then abruptly changing she fell to weeping. “O source of my life!” she cried to him, “how cruelly unjust to me thou art!” She was grovelling now, a thing of supplest grace, her lovely arms entwining his knees. “When my love for thee drives me to utter what I see, I earn but thy anger, which is more than I can endure. I swoon beneath the weight of it.”

He flung her off impatiently. “What a weariness is a woman’s tongue!” he cried, and stalked out again, convinced from past experiences that did he linger he would be whelmed in a torrent of words.

But her poison was shrewdly administered, and slowly did its work. It abode in his mind to torture him with the doubts that were its very essence. No reason, however well founded, that she might have urged for Sakr-el-Bahr’s strange conduct could have been half so insidious as her suggestion that there was a reason. It gave him something vague and intangible to consider. Something that he could not repel since it had no substance he could grapple with. Impatiently he awaited the morning and the coming of Sakr-el-Bahr himself, but he no longer awaited it with the ardent whole-hearted eagerness as of a father awaiting the coming of a beloved son.

Sakr-el-Bahr himself paced the poop deck of the carack and watched the lights perish one by one in the little town that straggled up the hillside before him. The moon came up and bathed it in a white hard light, throwing sharp inky shadows of rustling date palm and spearlike minaret, and flinging shafts of silver athwart the peaceful bay.

His wound was healed and he was fully himself once more. Two days ago he had come on deck for the first time since the fight with the Dutchman, and he had spent there the greater portion of the time since then. Once only had he visited his captives. He had risen from his couch to repair straight to the cabin in the poop where Rosamund was confined. He had found her pale and very wistful, but with her courage entirely unbroken. The Godolphins were a stiff-necked race, and Rosamund bore in her frail body the spirit of a man. She looked up when he entered, started a little in surprise to see him at last, for it was the first time he stood before her since he had carried her off from Arwenack some four weeks ago. Then she had averted her eyes, and sat there, elbows on the table, as if carved of wood, as if blind to his presence and deaf to his words.

To the expressions of regret — and they were sincere, for already he repented him his unpremeditated act so far as she was concerned — she returned no slightest answer, gave no sign indeed that she heard a word of it. Baffled, he stood gnawing his lip a moment, and gradually, unreasonably perhaps, anger welled up from his heart. He turned and went out again. Next he had visited his brother, to consider in silence a moment the haggard, wild-eyed, unshorn wretch who shrank and cowered before him in the consciousness of guilt. At last he returned to the deck, and there, as I have said, he spent the greater portion of the last three days of that strange voyage, reclining for the most part in the sun and gathering strength from its ardour.

To-night as he paced under the moon a stealthy shadow crept up the companion to call him gently by his English name —

“Sir Oliver!”

He started as if a ghost had suddenly leapt up to greet him. It was Jasper Leigh who hailed him thus.

“Come up,” he said. And when the fellow stood before him on the poop —“I have told you already that here is no Sir Oliver. I am Oliver–Reis or Sakr-el-Bahr, as you please, one of the Faithful of the Prophet’s House. And now what is your will?”

“Have I not served you faithfully and well?” quoth Captain Leigh.

“Who has denied it?”

“None. But neither has any acknowledged it. When you lay wounded below it had been an easy thing for me to ha’ played the traitor. I might ha’ sailed these ships into the mouth of Tagus. I might so by God!”

“You’ld have been carved in pieces on the spot,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.

“I might have hugged the land and run the risk of capture and then claimed my liberation from captivity.”

“And found yourself back on the galleys of his Catholic Majesty. But there! I grant that you have dealt loyally by me. You have kept your part of the bond. I shall keep mine, never doubt it.”

“I do not. But your part of the bond was to send me home again.”

“Well?”

“The hell of it is that I know not where to find a home, I know not where home may be after all these years. If ye send me forth, I shall become a wanderer of no account.”

“What else am I to do with you?”

“Faith now I am as full weary of Christians and Christendom as you was yourself when the Muslims took the galley on which you toiled. I am a man of parts, Sir Ol–Sakr-el-Bahr. No better navigator ever sailed a ship from an English port, and I ha’ seen a mort o’ fighting and know the art of it upon the sea. Can ye make naught of me here?”

“You would become a renegade like me?” His tone was bitter.

“I ha’ been thinking that ‘renegade’ is a word that depends upon which side you’re on. I’d prefer to say that I’ve a wish to be converted to the faith of Mahound.”

“Converted to the faith of piracy and plunder and robbery upon the seas is what you mean,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.

“Nay, now. To that I should need no converting, for all that I were afore,” Captain Leigh admitted frankly. “I ask but to sail under another flag than the Jolly Roger.”

“You’ll need to abjure strong drink,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.

“There be compensations,” said Master Leigh.

Sakr-el-Bahr considered. The rogue’s appeal smote a responsive chord in his heart. It would be good to have a man of his own race beside him, even though it were but such a rascal as this.

“Be it as you will,” he said at last. “You deserve to be hanged in spite of what promises I made you. But no matter for that. So that you become a Muslim I will take you to serve beside me, one of my own lieutenants to begin with, and so long as you are loyal to me, Jasper, all will be well. But at the first sign of faithlessness, a rope and the yard-arm, my friend, and an airy dance into hell for you.”

The rascally skipper stooped in his emotion, caught up Sakr-el-Bahr’s hand and bore it to his lips. “It is agreed,” he said. “Ye have shown me mercy who have little deserved it from you. Never fear for my loyalty. My life belongs to you, and worthless thing though it may be, ye may do with it as ye please.”

Despite himself Sakr-el-Bahr tightened his grip upon the rogue’s hand, and Jasper shuffled off and down the companion again, touched to the heart for once in his rough villainous life by a clemency that he knew to be undeserved, but which he swore should be deserved ere all was done.

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