The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 8

Mother and Son

Early on the morrow — so early that scarce had the Shehad been recited — came Biskaine-el-Borak to the Basha. He had just landed from a galley which had come upon a Spanish fishing boat, aboard of which there was a young Morisco who was being conducted over seas to Algiers. The news of which the fellow was the bearer was of such urgency that for twenty hours without intermission the slaves had toiled at the oars of Biskaine’s vessel — the capitana of his fleet — to bring her swiftly home.

The Morisco had a cousin — a New–Christian like himself, and like himself, it would appear, still a Muslim at heart — who was employed in the Spanish treasury at Malaga. This man had knowledge that a galley was fitting out for sea to convey to Naples the gold destined for the pay of the Spanish troops in garrison there. Through parsimony this treasure-galley was to be afforded no escort, but was under orders to hug the coast of Europe, where she should be safe from all piratical surprise. It was judged that she would be ready to put to sea in a week, and the Morisco had set out at once to bring word of it to his Algerine brethren that they might intercept and capture her.

Asad thanked the young Morisco for his news, bade him be housed and cared for, and promised him a handsome share of the plunder should the treasure-galley be captured. That done he sent for Sakr-el-Bahr, whilst Marzak, who had been present at the interview, went with the tale of it to his mother, and beheld her fling into a passion when he added that it was Sakr-el-Bahr had been summoned that he might be entrusted with this fresh expedition, thus proving that all her crafty innuendoes and insistent warnings had been so much wasted labour.

With Marzak following at her heels, she swept like a fury into the darkened room where Asad took his ease.

“What is this I hear, O my lord?” she cried, in tone and manner more the European shrew than the submissive Eastern slave. “Is Sakr-el-Bahr to go upon this expedition against the treasure-galley of Spain?”

Reclining on his divan he looked her up and down with a languid eye. “Dost know of any better fitted to succeed?” quoth he.

“I know of one whom it is my lord’s duty to prefer to that foreign adventurer. One who is entirely faithful and entirely to be trusted. One who does not attempt to retain for himself a portion of the booty garnered in the name of Islam.”

“Bah!” said Asad. “Wilt thou talk forever of those two slaves? And who may be this paragon of thine?”

“Marzak,” she answered fiercely, flinging out an arm to drag forward her son. “Is he to waste his youth here in softness and idleness? But yesternight that ribald mocked him with his lack of scars. Shall he take scars in the orchard of the Kasbah here? Is he to be content with those that come from the scratch of a bramble, or is he to learn to be a fighter and leader of the Children of the Faith that himself he may follow in the path his father trod?”

“Whether he so follows,” said Asad, “is as the Sultan of Istambul, the Sublime Portal, shall decree. We are but his vicegerents here.”

“But shall the Grand Sultan appoint him to succeed thee if thou hast not equipped him so to do? I cry shame on thee, O father of Marzakl, for that thou art lacking in due pride in thine own son.”

“May Allah give me patience with thee! Have I not said that he is still over young.”

“At his age thyself thou wert upon the seas, serving with the great Ochiali.”

“At his age I was, by the favour of Allah, taller and stronger than is he. I cherish him too dearly to let him go forth and perchance be lost to me before his strength is full grown.”

“Look at him,” she commanded. “He is a man, Asad, and such a son as another might take pride in. Is it not time he girt a scimitar about his waist and trod the poop of one of thy galleys?”

“Indeed, indeed, O my father!” begged Marzak himself.

“What?” barked the old Moor. “And is it so? And wouldst thou go forth then against the Spaniard? What knowledge hast thou that shall equip thee for such a task?”

“What can his knowledge be since his father has never been concerned to school him?” returned Fenzileh. “Dost thou sneer at shortcomings that are the natural fruits of thine own omissions?”

“I will be patient with thee,” said Asad, showing every sign of losing patience. “I will ask thee only if in thy judgment he is in case to win a victory for Islam? Answer me straightly now.”

“Straightly I answer thee that he is not. And, as straightly, I tell thee that it is full time he were. Thy duty is to let him go upon this expedition that he may learn the trade that lies before him.”

Asad considered a moment. Then: “Be it so,” he answered slowly. “Shalt set forth, then, with Sakr-el-Bahr, my son.”

“With Sakr-el-Bahr?” cried Fenzilch aghast.

“I could find him no better preceptor.”

“Shall thy son go forth as the servant of another?”

“As the pupil,” Asad amended. “What else?”

“Were I a man, O fountain of my soul,” said she, “and had I a son, none but myself should be his preceptor. I should so mould and fashion him that he should be another me. That, O my dear lord, is thy duty to Marzak. Entrust not his training to another and to one whom despite thy love for him I cannot trust. Go forth thyself upon this expedition with Marzak here for thy kayia.”

Asad frowned. “I grow too old,” he said. “I have not been upon the seas these two years past. Who can say that I may not have lost the art of victory. No, no.” He shook his head, and his face grew overcast and softened by wistfulness. “Sakr-el-Bahr commands this time, and if Marzak goes, he goes with him.”

“My lord. . . . ” she began, then checked. A Nubian had entered to announce that Sakr-el-Bahr was come and was awaiting the orders of his lord in the courtyard. Asad rose instantly and for all that Fenzileh, greatly daring as ever, would still have detained him, he shook her off impatiently, and went out.

She watched his departure with anger in those dark lovely eyes of hers, an anger that went near to filming them in tears, and after he had passed out into the glaring sunshine beyond the door, a silence dwelt in the cool darkened chamber — a silence disturbed only by distant trills of silvery laughter from the lesser women of the Basha’s house. The sound jarred her taut nerves. She moved with an oath and beat her hands together. To answer her came a negress, lithe and muscular as a wrestler and naked to the waist; the slave ring in her ear was of massive gold.

“Bid them make an end of that screeching,” she snapped to vent some of her fierce petulance. “Tell them I will have the rods to them if they again disturb me.”

The negress went out, and silence followed, for those other lesser ladies of the Basha’s hareem were more obedient to the commands of Fenzileh than to those of the Basha himself.

Then she drew her son to the fretted lattice commanding the courtyard, a screen from behind which they could see and hear all that passed out yonder. Asad was speaking, informing Sakr-el-Bahr of what he had learnt, and what there was to do.

“How soon canst thou put to sea again?” he ended

“As soon as the service of Allah and thyself require,” was the prompt answer.

“It is well, my son.” Asad laid a hand, affectionately upon the corsair’s shoulder, entirely conquered by this readiness. “Best set out at sunrise to-morrow. Thou’lt need so long to make thee ready for the sea.”

“Then by thy leave I go forthwith to give orders to prepare,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr, for all that he was a little troubled in his mind by this need to depart again so soon.

“What galleys shalt thou take?”

“To capture one galley of Spain? My own galeasse, no more; she will be full equal to such an enterprise, and I shall be the better able, then, to lurk and take cover — a thing which might well prove impossible with a fleet.”

“Ay — thou art wise in thy daring,” Asad approved him. “May Allah prosper thee upon the voyage.”

“Have I thy leave to go?”

“A moment yet. There is my son Marzak. He is approaching manhood, and it is time he entered the service of Allah and the State. It is my desire that he sail as thy lieutenant on this voyage, and that thou be his preceptor even as I was thine of old.”

Now here was something that pleased Sakr-el-Bahr as little as it pleased Marzak. Knowing the bitter enmity borne him by the son of Fenzileh he had every cause to fear trouble if this project of Asad’s were realized.

“As I was thine of old!” he answered with crafty wistfulness. “Wilt thou not put to sea with us to-morrow, O Asad? There is none like thee in all Islam, and what a joy were it not to stand beside thee on the prow as of old when we grapple with the Spaniard.”

Asad considered him. “Dost thou, too, urge this?” quoth he.

“Have others urged it?” The man’s sharp wits, rendered still sharper by his sufferings, were cutting deeply and swiftly into this matter. “They did well, but none could have urged it more fervently than I, for none knows so well as I the joy of battle against the infidel under thy command and the glory of prevailing in thy sight. Come, then, my lord, upon this enterprise, and be thyself thine own son’s preceptor since ’tis the highest honour thou canst bestow upon him.”

Thoughtfully Asad stroked his long white beard, his eagle eyes growing narrow. “Thou temptest me, by Allah!”

“Let me do more. . . . ”

“Nay, more thou canst not. I am old and worn, and I am needed here. Shall an old lion hunt a young gazelle? Peace, peace! The sun has set upon my fighting day. Let the brood of fighters I have raised up keep that which my arm conquered and maintain my name and the glory of the Faith upon the seas.” He leaned upon Sakr-el-Bahr’s shoulder and sighed, his eyes wistfully dreamy. “It were a fond adventure in good truth. But no . . . I am resolved. Go thou and take Marzak with thee, and bring him safely home again.”

“I should not return myself else,” was the answer. “But my trust is in the All-knowing.”

Upon that he departed, dissembling his profound vexation both at the voyage and the company, and went to bid Othmani make ready his great galeasse, equipping it with carronades, three hundred slaves to row it, and three hundred fighting men.

Asad-el-Din returned to that darkened room in the Kasbah overlooking the courtyard, where Fenzileh and Marzak still lingered. He went to tell them that in compliance with the desires of both Marzak should go forth to prove himself upon this expedition.

But where he had left impatience he found thinly veiled wrath

“O sun that warms me,” Fenzileh greeted him, and from long experience he knew that the more endearing were her epithets the more vicious was her mood, “do then my counsels weigh as naught with thee, are they but as the dust upon thy shoes?”

“Less,” said Asad, provoked out of his habitual indulgence of her licences of speech.

“That is the truth, indeed!” she cried, bowing her head, whilst behind her the handsome face of her son was overcast.

“It is,” Asad agreed. “At dawn, Marzak, thou settest forth upon the galeasse of Sakr-el-Bahr to take the seas under his tutelage and to emulate the skill and valour that have rendered him the stoutest bulwark of Islam, the very javelin of Allah.”

But Marzak felt that in this matter his mother was to be supported, whilst his detestation of this adventurer who threatened to usurp the place that should rightly be his own spurred him to mad lengths of daring.

“When I take the seas with that dog-descended Nasrani,” he answered hoarsely, “he shall be where rightly he belongs — at the rowers’ bench.”

“How?” It was a bellow of rage. Upon the word Asad swung to confront his son, and his face, suddenly inflamed, was so cruel and evil in its expression that it terrified that intriguing pair. “By the beard of the Prophet! what words are these to me?” He advanced upon Marzak until Fenzileh in sudden terror stepped between and faced him, like a lioness springing to defend her cub. But the Basha, enraged now by this want of submission in his son, enraged both against that son and the mother who he knew had prompted him, caught her in his sinewy old hands, and flung her furiously aside, so that she stumbled and fell in a panting heap amid the cushions of her divan.

“The curse of Allah upon thee!” he screamed, and Marzak recoiled before him. “Has this presumptuous hellcat who bore thee taught thee to stand before my face, to tell me what thou wilt and wilt not do? By the Koran! too long have I endured her evil foreign ways, and now it seems she has taught thee how to tread them after her and how to beard thy very father! To-morrow thou’lt take the sea with Sakr-el-Bahr, I have said it. Another word and thou’lt go aboard his galeasse even as thou saidst should be the case with him — at the rowers’ bench, to learn submission under the slave master’s whip.”

Terrified, Marzak stood numb and silent, scarcely daring to draw breath. Never in all his life had he seen his father in a rage so royal. Yet it seemed to inspire no fear in Fenzileh, that congenital shrew whose tongue not even the threat of rods or hooks could silence.

“I shall pray Allah to restore sight to thy soul, O father of Marzak,” she panted, “to teach thee to discriminate between those that love thee and the self-seekers that abuse thy trust.”

“How!” he roared at her. “Art not yet done?”

“Nor ever shall be until I am lain dumb in death for having counselled thee out of my great love, O light of these poor eyes of mine.”

“Maintain this tone,” he said, with concentrated anger, “and that will soon befall.”

“I care not so that the sleek mask be plucked from the face of that dog-descended Sakr-el-Bahr. May Allah break his bones! What of those slaves of his — those two from England, O Asad? I am told that one is a woman, tall and of that white beauty which is the gift of Eblis to these Northerners. What is his purpose with her — that he would not show her in the suk as the law prescribes, but comes slinking here to beg thee set aside the law for him? Ha! I talk in vain. I have shown thee graver things to prove his vile disloyalty, and yet thou’lt fawn upon him whilst thy fangs are bared to thine own son.”

He advanced upon her, stooped, caught her by the wrist, and heaved her up.

His face showed grey under its deep tan. His aspect terrified her at last and made an end of her reckless forward courage.

He raised his voice to call.

“Ya anta! Ayoub!”

She gasped, livid in her turn with sudden terror. “My lord, my lord!” she whimpered. “Stream of my life, be not angry! What wilt thou do?”

He smiled evilly. “Do?” he growled. “What I should have done ten years ago and more. We’ll have the rods to thee.” And again he called, more insistently —“Ayoub!”

“My lord, my lord!” she gasped in shuddering horror now that at last she found him set upon the thing to which so often she had dared him. “Pity! Pity!” She grovelled and embraced his knees. “In the name of the Pitying the Pitiful be merciful upon the excesses to which my love for thee may have driven this poor tongue of mine. O my sweet lord! O father of Marzak!”

Her distress, her beauty, and perhaps, more than either, her unusual humility and submission may have moved him. For even as at that moment Ayoub — the sleek and portly eunuch, who was her wazeer and chamberlain — loomed in the inner doorway, salaaming, he vanished again upon the instant, dismissed by a peremptory wave of the Basha’s hand.

Asad looked down upon her, sneering. “That attitude becomes thee best,” he said. “Continue it in future.” Contemptuously he shook himself free of her grasp, turned and stalked majestically out, wearing his anger like a royal mantle, and leaving behind him two terror-shaken beings, who felt as if they had looked over the very edge of death.

There was a long silence between them. Then at long length Fenzileh rose and crossed to the meshra-biyah — the latticed window-box. She opened it and took from one of its shelves an earthenware jar, placed there so as to receive the slightest breeze. From it she poured water into a little cup and drank greedily. That she could perform this menial service for herself when a mere clapping of hands would have brought slaves to minister to her need betrayed something of her disordered state of mind.

She slammed the inner lattice and turned to Marzak. “And now?” quoth she.

“Now?” said the lad.

“Ay, what now? What are we to do? Are we to lie crushed under his rage until we are ruined indeed? He is bewitched. That jackal has enchanted him, so that he must deem well done all that is done by him. Allah guide us here, Marzak, or thou’lt be trampled into dust by Sakr-el-Bahr.”

Marzak hung his head; slowly he moved to the divan and flung himself down upon its pillows; there he lay prone, his hands cupping his chin, his heels in the air.

“What can I do?” he asked at last.

“That is what I most desire to know. Something must be done, and soon. May his bones rot! If he lives thou art destroyed.”

“Ay,” said Marzak, with sudden vigour and significance. “If he lives!” And he sat up. “Whilst we plan and plot, and our plans and plots come to naught save to provoke the anger of my father, we might be better employed in taking the shorter way.”

She stood in the middle of the chamber, pondering him with gloomy eyes “I too have thought of that,” said she. “I could hire me men to do the thing for a handful of gold. But the risk of it. . . . ”

“Where would be the risk once he is dead?”

“He might pull us down with him, and then what would our profit be in his death? Thy father would avenge him terribly.”

“If it were craftily done we should not be discovered.”

“Not be discovered?” she echoed, and laughed without mirth. “How young and blind thou art, O Marzak! We should be the first to be suspected. I have made no secret of my hate of him, and the people do not love me. They would urge thy father to do justice even were he himself averse to it, which I will not credit would be the case. This Sakr-el-Bahr — may Allah wither him! — is a god in their eyes. Bethink thee of the welcome given him! What Basha returning in triumph was ever greeted by the like? These victories that fortune has vouchsafed him have made them account him divinely favoured and protected. I tell thee, Marzak, that did thy father die to-morrow Sakr-el-Bahr would be proclaimed Basha of Algiers in his stead, and woe betide us then. And Asad-el-Din grows old. True, he does not go forth to fight. He clings to life and may last long. But if he should not, and if Sakr-el-Bahr should still walk the earth when thy father’s destiny is fulfilled, I dare not think what then will be thy fate and mine.”

“May his grave be defiled!” growled Matzak.

“His grave?” said she. “The difficulty is to dig it for him without hurt to ourselves. Shaitan protects the dog.”

“May he make his bed in hell!” said Marzak.

“To curse him will not help us. Up, Marzak, and consider how the thing is to be done.”

Marzak came to his feet, nimble and supple as a greyhound. “Listen now,” he said. “Since I must go this voyage with him, perchance upon the seas on some dark night opportunity may serve me.”

“Wait! Let me consider it. Allah guide me to find some way!” She beat her hands together and bade the slave girl who answered her to summon her wazeer Ayoub, and bid a litter be prepared for her. “We’ll to the sôk, O Marzak, and see these slaves of his. Who knows but that something may be done by means of them! Guile will serve us better than mere strength against that misbegotten son of shame.”

“May his house be destroyed!” said Marzak.

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