The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 7

Marzak-Ben-Asad

It took no less than forty camels to convey the cargo of that Dutch argosy from the mole to the Kasbah, and the procession — carefully marshalled by Sakr-el-Bahr, who knew the value of such pageants to impress the mob — was such as never yet had been seen in the narrow streets of Algiers upon the return of any corsair. It was full worthy of the greatest Muslim conqueror that sailed the seas, of one who, not content to keep to the tideless Mediterranean as had hitherto been the rule of his kind, had ventured forth upon the wider ocean.

Ahead marched a hundred of his rovers in their short caftans of every conceivable colour, their waists swathed in gaudy scarves, some of which supported a very arsenal of assorted cutlery; many wore body armour of mail and the gleaming spike of a casque thrust up above their turbans. After them, dejected and in chains, came the five score prisoners taken aboard the Dutchman, urged along by the whips of the corsairs who flanked them. Then marched another regiment of corsairs, and after these the long line of stately, sneering camels, shuffling cumbrously along and led by shouting Saharowis. After them followed yet more corsairs, and then mounted, on a white Arab jennet, his head swathed in a turban of cloth of gold, came Sakr-el-Bahr. In the narrower streets, with their white and yellow washed houses, which presented blank windowless walls broken here and there by no more than a slit to admit light and air, the spectators huddled themselves fearfully into doorways to avoid being crushed to death by the camels, whose burdens bulging on either side entirely filled those narrow ways. But the more open spaces, such as the strand on either side of the mole, the square before the sôk, and the approaches of Asad’s fortress, were thronged with a motley roaring crowd. There were stately Moors in flowing robes cheek by jowl with half-naked blacks from the Sus and the Draa; lean, enduring Arabs in their spotless white djellabas rubbed shoulders with Berbers from the highlands in black camel-hair cloaks; there were Levantine Turks, and Jewish refugees from Spain ostentatiously dressed in European garments, tolerated there because bound to the Moor by ties of common suffering and common exile from that land that once had been their own.

Under the glaring African sun this amazing crowd stood assembled to welcome Sakr-el-Bahr; and welcome him it did, with such vocal thunder that an echo of it from the mole reached the very Kasbah on the hilltop to herald his approach.

By the time, however, that he reached the fortress his procession had dwindled by more than half. At the sôk his forces had divided, and his corsairs, headed by Othmani, had marched the captives away to the bagnio — or banyard, as my Lord Henry calls it — whilst the camels had continued up the hill. Under the great gateway of the Kasbah they padded into the vast courtyard to be ranged along two sides of it by their Saharowi drivers, and there brought clumsily to their knees. After them followed but some two score corsairs as a guard of honour to their leader. They took their stand upon either side of the gateway after profoundly salaaming to Asad-ed-Din. The Basha sat in the shade of an awning enthroned upon a divan, attended by his wazeer Tsamanni and by Marzak, and guarded by a half-dozen janissaries, whose sable garments made an effective background to the green and gold of his jewelled robes. In his white turban glowed an emerald crescent.

The Basha’s countenance was dark and brooding as he watched the advent of that line of burdened camels. His thoughts were still labouring with the doubt of Sakr-el-Bahr which Fenzileh’s crafty speech and craftier reticence had planted in them. But at sight of the corsair leader himself his countenance cleared suddenly, his eyes sparkled, and he rose to his feet to welcome him as a father might welcome a son who had been through perils on a service dear to both.

Sakr-el-Bahr entered the courtyard on foot, having dismounted at the gate. Tall and imposing, with his head high and his forked beard thrusting forward, he stalked with great dignity to the foot of the divan followed by Ali and a mahogany-faced fellow, turbaned and red-bearded, in whom it needed more than a glance to recognize the rascally Jasper Leigh, now in all the panoply of your complete renegado.

Sakr-el-Bahr went down upon his knees and prostrated himself solemnly before his prince.

“The blessing of Allah and His peace upon thee, my lord,” was his greeting.

And Asad, stooping to lift that splendid figure in his arms, gave him a welcome that caused the spying Fenzileh to clench her teeth behind the fretted lattice that concealed her.

“The praise to Allah and to our Lord Mahomet that thou art returned and in health, my son. Already hath my old heart been gladdened by the news of thy victories in the service of the Faith.”

Then followed the display of all those riches wrested from the Dutch, and greatly though Asad’s expectations had been fed already by Othmani, the sight now spread before his eyes by far exceeded all those expectations.

In the end all was dismissed to the treasury, and Tsamanni was bidden to go cast up the account of it and mark the share that fell to the portion of those concerned — for in these ventures all were partners, from the Basha himself, who represented the State down to the meanest corsair who had manned the victorious vessels of the Faith, and each had his share of the booty, greater or less according to his rank, one twentieth of the total falling to Sakr-el-Bahr himself.

In the courtyard were left none but Asad, Marzak and the janissaries, and Sakr-el-Bahr with Ali and Jasper. It was then that Sakr-el-Bahr presented his new officer to the Bashal as one upon whom the grace of Allah had descended, a great fighter and a skilled seaman, who had offered up his talents and his life to the service of Islam, who had been accepted by Sakr-el-Bahr, and stood now before Asad to be confirmed in his office.

Marzak interposed petulantly, to exclaim that already were there too many erstwhile Nasrani dogs in the ranks of the soldiers of the Faith, and that it was unwise to increase their number and presumptuous in Sakr-el-Bahr to take so much upon himself.

Sakr-el-Bahr measured him with an eye in which scorn and surprise were nicely blended.

“Dost say that it is presumptuous to win a convert to the banner of Our Lord Mahomet?” quoth he. “Go read the Most Perspicuous Book and see what is there enjoined as a duty upon every True–Believer. And bethink thee, O son of Asad, that when thou dost in thy little wisdom cast scorn upon those whom Allah has blessed and led from the night wherein they dwelt into the bright noontide of Faith, thou dost cast scorn upon me and upon thine own mother, which is but a little matter, and thou dost blaspheme the Blessed name of Allah, which is to tread the ways that lead unto the Pit.”

Angry but defeated and silenced, Marzak fell back a step and stood biting his lip and glowering upon the corsair, what time Asad nodded his head and smiled approval.

“Verily art thou full learned in the True Belief, Sakr-el-Bahr,” he said. “Thou art the very father of wisdom as of valour.” And thereupon he gave welcome to Master Leigh, whom he hailed to the ranks of the Faithful under the designation of Jasper–Reis.

That done, the renegade and Ali were both dismissed, as were also the janissaries, who, quitting their position behind Asad, went to take their stand on guard at the gateway. Then the Basha beat his hands together, and to the slaves who came in answer to his summons he gave orders to set food, and he bade Sakr-el-Bahr to come sit beside him on the divan.

Water was brought that they might wash. That done, the slaves placed before them a savoury stew of meat and eggs with olives, limes, and spices.

Asad broke bread with a reverently pronounced “Bismillah!” and dipped his fingers into the earthenware bowl, leading the way for Sakr-el-Bahr and Marzak, and as they ate he invited the corsair himself to recite the tale of his adventure.

When he had done so, and again Asad had praised him in high and loving terms, Marzak set him a question.

“Was it to obtain just these two English slaves that thou didst undertake this perilous voyage to that distant land?”

“That was but a part of my design,” was the calm reply. “I went to rove the seas in the Prophet’s service, as the result of my voyage gives proof.”

“Thou didst not know that this Dutch argosy would cross thy path,” said Marzak, in the very words his mother had prompted him.

“Did I not?” quoth Sakr-el-Bahr, and he smiled confidently, so confidently that Asad scarce needed to hear the words that so cunningly gave the lie to the innuendo. “Had I no trust in Allah the All-wise, the All-knowing?

“Well answered, by the Koran!” Asad approved him heartily, the more heartily since it rebutted insinuations which he desired above all to hear rebutted.

But Marzak did not yet own himself defeated. He had been soundly schooled by his guileful Sicilian mother.

“Yet there is something in all this I do not understand,” he murmured, with false gentleness.

“All things are possible to Allah!” said Sakr-el-Bahr, in tones of incredulity, as if he suggested — not without a suspicion of irony — that it was incredible there should be anything in all the world that could elude the penetration of Marzak.

The youth bowed to him in acknowledgment. “Tell me, O mighty Sakr-el-Bahr,” he begged, “how it came to pass that having reached those distant shores thou wert content to take thence but two poor slaves, since with thy followers and the favour of the All-seeing thou might easily have taken fifty times that number.” And he looked ingenuously into the corsair’s swarthy, rugged face, whilst Asad frowned thoughtfully, for the thought was one that had occurred to him already.

It became necessary that Sakr-el-Bahr should lie to clear himself. Here no high-sounding phrase of Faith would answer. And explanation was unavoidable, and he was conscious that he could not afford one that did not go a little lame.

“Why, as to that,” said he, “these prisoners were wrested from the first house upon which we came, and their capture occasioned some alarm. Moreover, it was night-time when we landed, and I dared not adventure the lives of my followers by taking them further from the ship and attacking a village which might have risen to cut off our good retreat.”

The frown remained stamped upon the brow of Asad, as Marzak slyly observed.

“Yet Othmani,” said he, “urged thee to fall upon a slumbering village all unconscious of thy presence, and thou didst refuse.”

Asad looked up sharply at that, and Sakr-el-Bahr realized with a tightening about the heart something of the undercurrents at work against him and all the pains that had been taken to glean information that might be used to his undoing.

“Is it so?” demanded Asad, looking from his son to his lieutenant with that lowering look that rendered his face evil and cruel.

Sakr-el-Bahr took a high tone. He met Asad’s glance with an eye of challenge.

“And if it were so my lord?” he demanded.

“I asked thee is it so?”

“Ay, but knowing thy wisdom I disbelieved my ears,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. “Shall it signify what Othmani may have said? Do I take my orders or am I to be guided by Othmani? If so, best set Othmani in my place, give him the command and the responsibility for the lives of the Faithful who fight beside him.” He ended with an indignant snort.

“Thou art over-quick to anger,” Asad reproved him, scowling still

“And by the Head of Allah, who will deny my right to it? Am I to conduct such an enterprise as this from which I am returned laden with spoils that might well be the fruits of a year’s raiding, to be questioned by a beardless stripling as to why I was not guided by Othmani?”

He heaved himself up and stood towering there in the intensity of a passion that was entirely simulated. He must bluster here, and crush down suspicion with whorling periods and broad, fierce gesture.

“To what should Othmani have guided me?” he demanded scornfully. “Could he have guided me to more than I have this day laid at thy feet? What I have done speaks eloquently with its own voice. What he would have had me do might well have ended in disaster. Had it so ended, would the blame of it have fallen upon Othmani? Nay, by Allah! but upon me. And upon me rests then the credit, and let none dare question it without better cause.”

Now these were daring words to address to the tyrant Asad, and still more daring was the tone, the light hard eyes aflash and the sweeping gestures of contempt with which they were delivered. But of his ascendancy over the Basha there was no doubt. And here now was proof of it.

Asad almost cowered before his fury. The scowl faded from his face to be replaced by an expression of dismay.

“Nay, nay, Sakr-el-Bahr, this tone!” he cried.

Sakr-el-Bahr, having slammed the door of conciliation in the face of the Basha, now opened it again. He became instantly submissive.

“Forgive it,” he said. “Blame the devotion of thy servant to thee and to the Faith he serves with little reck to life. In this very expedition was I wounded nigh unto death. The livid scar of it is a dumb witness to my zeal. Where are thy scars, Marzak?”

Marzak quailed before the sudden blaze of that question, and Sakr-el-Bahr laughed softly in contempt.

“Sit,” Asad bade him. “I have been less than just.”

“Thou art the very fount and spring of justice, O my lord, as this thine admission proves,” protested the corsair. He sat down again, folding his legs under him. “I will confess to you that being come so near to England in that cruise of mine I determined to land and seize one who some years ago did injure me, and between whom and me there was a score to settle. I exceeded my intentions in that I carried off two prisoners instead of one. These prisoners,” he ran on, judging that the moment of reaction in Asad’s mind was entirely favourable to the preferment of the request he had to make, “are not in the bagnio with the others. They are still confined aboard the carack I seized.”

“And why is this?” quoth Asad, but without suspicion now.

“Because, my lord, I have a boon to ask in some reward for the service I have rendered.”

“Ask it, my son.”

“Give me leave to keep these captives for myself.”

Asad considered him, frowning again slightly. Despite himself, despite his affection for Sakr-el-Bahr, and his desire to soothe him now that rankling poison of Fenzileh’s infusing was at work again in his mind.

“My leave thou hast,” said he. “But not the law’s, and the law runs that no corsair shall subtract so much as the value of an asper from his booty until the division has been made and his own share allotted him,” was the grave answer.

“The law?” quoth Sakr-el-Bahr. “But thou art the law, exalted lord.”

“Not so, my son. The law is above the Basha, who must himself conform to it so that he be just and worthy of his high office. And the law I have recited thee applies even should the corsair raider be the Basha himself. These slaves of thine must forthwith be sent to the bagnio to join the others that tomorrow all may be sold in the sôk. See it done, Sakr-el-Bahr.”

The corsair would have renewed his pleadings, but that his eye caught the eager white face of Marzak and the gleaming expectant eyes, looking so hopefully for his ruin. He checked, and bowed his head with an assumption of indifference.

“Name thou their price then, and forthwith will I pay it into thy treasury.”

But Asad shook his head. “It is not for me to name their price, but for the buyers,” he replied. “I might set the price too high, and that were unjust to thee, or too low, and that were unjust to others who would acquire them. Deliver them over to the bagnio.”

“It shall be done,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, daring to insist no further and dissembling his chagrin.

Very soon thereafter he departed upon that errand, giving orders, however, that Rosamund and Lionel should be kept apart from the other prisoners until the hour of the sale on the morrow when perforce they must take their place with the rest.

Marzak lingered with his father after Oliver had taken his leave, and presently they were joined there in the courtyard by Fenzileh — this woman who had brought, said many, the Frankish ways of Shaitan into Algiers.

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