Oliver considered the woman for a long moment as she sat half-crouching on the divan, her hands locked, her face set and stony, her eyes lowered. He sighed gently and turned away. He paced to the parapet and looked out upon the city bathed in the white glare of the full risen moon. There arose thence a hum of sound, dominated, however, by the throbbing song of a nightingale somewhere in his garden and the croaking of the frogs by the pool in the valley.
Now that truth had been dragged from its well, and tossed, as it were, into Rosamund’s lap, he felt none of the fierce exultation which he had conceived that such an hour as this must bring him. Rather, indeed, was he saddened and oppressed. To poison the unholy cup of joy which he had imagined himself draining with such thirsty zest there was that discovery of a measure of justification for her attitude towards him in her conviction that his disappearance was explained by flight.
He was weighed down by a sense that he had put himself entirely in the wrong; that in his vengeance he had overreached himself; and he found the fruits of it, which had seemed so desirably luscious, turning to ashes in his mouth.
Long he stood there, the silence between them entirely unbroken. Then at length he stirred, turned from the parapet, and paced slowly back until he came to stand beside the divan, looking down upon her from his great height.
“At last you have heard the truth,” he said. And as she made no answer he continued: “I am thankful it was surprised out of him before the torture was applied, else you might have concluded that pain was wringing a false confession from him.” He paused, but still she did not speak; indeed, she made no sign that she had heard him. “That,” he concluded, “was the man whom you preferred to me. Faith, you did not flatter me, as perhaps you may have learnt.”
At last she was moved from her silence, and her voice came dull and hard. “I have learnt how little there is to choose between you,” she said. “It was to have been expected. I might have known two brothers could not have been so dissimilar in nature. Oh, I am learning a deal, and swiftly!”
It was a speech that angered him, that cast out entirely the softer mood that had been growing in him.
“You are learning?” he echoed. “What are you learning?”
“Knowledge of the ways of men.”
His teeth gleamed in his wry smile. “I hope the knowledge will bring you as much bitterness as the knowledge of women — of one woman — has brought me. To have believed me what you believed me — me whom you conceived yourself to love!” He felt, perhaps the need to repeat it that he might keep the grounds of his grievance well before his mind.
“If I have a mercy to beg of you it is that you will not shame me with the reminder.”
“Of your faithlessness?” he asked. “Of your disloyal readiness to believe the worst evil of me?”
“Of my ever having believed that I loved you. That is the thought that shames me, as nothing else in life could shame me, as not even the slave-market and all the insult to which you have submitted me could shame me. You taunt me with my readiness to believe evil of you. . . . ”
“I do more than taunt you with it,” he broke in, his anger mounting under the pitiless lash of her scorn. “I lay to your charge the wasted years of my life, all the evil that has followed out of it, all that I have suffered, all that I have lost, all that I am become.”
She looked up at him coldly, astonishingly mistress of herself. “You lay all this to my charge?” she asked him.
“I do.” He was very vehement. “Had you not used me as you did, had you not lent a ready ear to lies, that whelp my brother would never have gone to such lengths, nor should I ever have afforded him the opportunity.”
She shifted on the cushions of the divan and turned her shoulder to him.
“All this is very idle,” she said coldly. Yet perhaps because she felt that she had need to justify herself she continued: “If, after all, I was so ready to believe evil of you, it is that my instincts must have warned me of the evil that was ever in you. You have proved to me to-night that it was not you who murdered Peter; but to attain that proof you have done a deed that is even fouler and more shameful, a deed that reveals to the full the blackness of your heart. Have you not proved yourself a monster of vengeance and impiety?” She rose and faced him again in her sudden passion. “Are you not — you that were born a Cornish Christian gentleman — become a heathen and a robber, a renegade and a pirate? Have you not sacrificed your very God to your vengeful lust?”
He met her glance fully, never quailing before her denunciation, and when she had ended on that note of question he counter-questioned her.
“And your instincts had forewarned you of all this? God’s life, woman! can you invent no better tale than that?” He turned aside as two slaves entered bearing an earthenware vessel. “Here comes your supper. I hope your appetite is keener than your logic.”
They set the vessel, from which a savoury smell proceeded, upon the little Moorish table by the divan. On the ground beside it they placed a broad dish of baked earth in which there were a couple of loaves and a red, short-necked amphora of water with a drinking-cup placed over the mouth of it to act as a stopper.
They salaamed profoundly and padded softly out again.
“Sup,” he bade her shortly.
“I want no supper,” she replied, her manner sullen.
His cold eye played over her. “Henceforth, girl, you will consider not what you want, but what I bid you do. I bid you eat; about it, therefore.”
“I will not.”
“Will not?” he echoed slowly. “Is that a speech from slave to master? Eat, I say.”
“I cannot! I cannot!” she protested.
“A slave may not live who cannot do her master’s bidding.”
“Then kill me,” she answered fiercely, leaping up to confront and dare him. “Kill me. You are used to killing, and for that at least I should be grateful.”
“I will kill you if I please,” he said in level icy tones. “But not to please you. You don’t yet understand. You are my slave, my thing, my property, and I will not suffer you to be damaged save at my own good pleasure. Therefore, eat, or my Nubians shall whip you to quicken appetite.”
For a moment she stood defiant before him, white and resolute. Then quite suddenly, as if her will was being bent and crumpled under the insistent pressure of his own, she drooped and sank down again to the divan. Slowly, reluctantly she drew the dish nearer. Watching her, he laughed quite silently.
She paused, appearing to seek for something. Failing to find it she looked up at him again, between scorn and intercession.
“Am I to tear the meat with my fingers?” she demanded.
His eyes gleamed with understanding, or at least with suspicion. But he answered her quite calmly —“It is against the Prophet’s law to defile meat or bread by the contact of a knife. You must use the hands that God has given you.”
“Do you mock me with the Prophet and his laws? What are the Prophet’s laws to me? If eat I must, at least I will not eat like a heathen dog, but in Christian fashion.”
To indulge her, as it seemed, he slowly drew the richly hilted dagger from his girdle. “Let that serve you, then,” he said; and carelessly he tossed it down beside her.
With a quick indrawn breath she pounced upon it. “At last,” she said, “you give me something for which I can be grateful to you.” And on the words she laid the point of it against her breast.
Like lightning he had dropped to one knee, and his hand had closed about her wrist with such a grip that all her arm felt limp and powerless. He was smiling into her eyes, his swarthy face close to her own.
“Did you indeed suppose I trusted you? Did you really think me deceived by your sudden pretence of yielding? When will you learn that I am not a fool? I did it but to test your spirit.”
“Then now you know its temper,” she replied. “You know my intention.”
“Forewarned, forearmed,” said he.
She looked at him, with something that would have been mockery but for the contempt that coloured it too deeply. “Is it so difficult a thing,” she asked, “to snap the thread of life? Are there no ways of dying save by the knife? You boast yourself my master; that I am your slave; that, having bought me in the market-place, I belong to you body and soul. How idle is that boast. My body you may bind and confine; but my soul. . . . Be very sure that you shall be cheated of your bargain. You boast yourself lord of life and death. A lie! Death is all that you can command.”
Quick steps came pattering up the stairs, and before he could answer her, before he had thought of words in which to do so, Ali confronted him with the astounding announcement that there was a woman below asking urgently to speak with him.
“A woman?” he questioned, frowning. “A Nasrani woman, do you mean?”
“No, my lord. A Muslim,” was the still more surprising information.
“A Muslim woman, here? Impossible!”
But even as he spoke a dark figure glided like a shadow across the threshold on to the terrace. She was in black from head to foot, including the veil that shrouded her, a veil of the proportions of a mantle, serving to dissemble her very shape.
Ali swung upon her in a rage. “Did I not bid thee wait below, thou daughter of shame?” he stormed. “She has followed me up, my lord, to thrust herself in here upon you. Shall I drive her forth?”
“Let her be,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. And he waved Ali away. “Leave us!”
Something about that black immovable figure arrested his attention and fired his suspicions. Unaccountably almost it brought to his mind the thought of Ayoub-el-Sarnin and the bidding there had been for Rosamund in the sôk.
He stood waiting for his visitor to speak and disclose herself. She on her side continued immovable until Ali’s footsteps had faded in the distance. Then, with a boldness entirely characteristic, with the recklessness that betrayed her European origin, intolerant of the Muslim restraint imposed upon her sex, she did what no True-believing woman would have done. She tossed back that long black veil and disclosed the pale countenance and languorous eyes of Fenzileh.
For all that it was no more than he had expected, yet upon beholding her — her countenance thus bared to his regard — he recoiled a step.
“Fenzileh!” he cried. “What madness is this?”
Having announced herself in that dramatic fashion she composedly readjusted her veil so that her countenance should once more be decently concealed.
“To come here, to my house, and thus!” he protested. “Should this reach the ears of thy lord, how will it fare with thee and with me? Away, woman, and at once!” he bade her.
“No need to fear his knowing of this unless, thyself, thou tell him,” she answered. “To thee I need no excuse if thou’lt but remember that like thyself I was not born a Muslim.”
“But Algiers is not thy native Sicily, and whatever thou wast born it were well to remember what thou art become.”
He went on at length to tell her of the precise degree of her folly, but she cut in, stemming his protestation in full flow.
“These are idle words that but delay me.”
“To thy purpose then, in Allah’s name, that thus thou mayest depart the sooner.”
She came to it straight enough on that uncompromising summons. She pointed to Rosamund. “It concerns that slave,” said she. “I sent my wazeer to the sôk to-day with orders to purchase her for me.”
“So I had supposed,” he said.
“But it seems that she caught thy fancy, and the fool suffered himself to be outbidden.”
“Thou’lt relinquish her to me at the price she cost thee?” A faint note of anxiety trembled in her voice.
“I am anguished to deny thee, O Fenzileh. She is not for sale.”
“Ah, wait,” she cried. “The price paid was high — many times higher than I have ever heard tell was given for a slave, however lovely. Yet I covet her. ’Tis a whim of mine, and I cannot suffer to be thwarted in my whims. To gratify this one I will pay three thousand philips.”
He looked at her and wondered what devilries might be stirring in her mind, what evil purpose she desired to serve.
“Thou’lt pay three thousand philips?” he said slowly. Then bluntly asked her: “Why?”
“To gratify a whim, to please a fancy.”
“What is the nature of this costly whim?” he insisted.
“The desire to possess her for my own,” she answered evasively.
“And this desire to possess her, whence is it sprung?” he returned, as patient as he was relentless.
“You ask too many questions,” she exclaimed with a flash of anger.
He shrugged and smiled. “You answer too few.”
She set her arms akimbo and faced him squarely. Faintly through her veil he caught the gleam of her eyes, and he cursed the advantage she had in that her face was covered from his reading.
“In a word, Oliver–Reis,” said she, “wilt sell her for three thousand philips?”
“In a word — no,” he answered her.
“Thou’lt not? Not for three thousand philips?” Her voice was charged with surprise, and he wondered was it real or assumed.
“Not for thirty thousand,” answered he. “She is mine, and I’ll not relinquish her. So since I have proclaimed my mind, and since to tarry here is fraught with peril for us both, I beg thee to depart.”
There fell a little pause, and neither of them noticed the alert interest stamped upon the white face of Rosamund. Neither of them suspected her knowledge of French which enabled her to follow most of what was said in the lingua franca they employed.
Fenzileh drew close to him. “Thou’lt not relinquish her, eh?” she asked, and he was sure she sneered. “Be not so confident. Thou’lt be forced to it, my friend — if not to me, why then, to Asad. He is coming for her, himself, in person.”
“Asad?” he cried, startled now.
“Asad-ed-Din,” she answered, and upon that resumed her pleading. “Come, then! It were surely better to make a good bargain with me than a bad one with the Basha.”
He shook his head and planted his feet squarely. “I intend to make no bargain with either of you. This slave is not for sale.”
“Shalt thou dare resist Asad? I tell thee he will take her whether she be for sale or not.”
“I see,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “And the fear of this, then, is the source of thy whim to acquire her for thyself. Thou art not subtle, O Fenzileh. The consciousness that thine own charms are fading sets thee trembling lest so much loveliness should entirely cast thee from thy lord’s regard, eh?”
If he could not see her face, and study there the effect of that thrust of his, at least he observed the quiver that ran through her muffled figure, he caught the note of anger that throbbed in her reply —“And if that were so, what is’t to thee?”
“It may be much or little,” he replied thoughtfully.
“Indeed, it should be much,” she answered quickly, breathlessly. “Have I not ever been thy friend? Have I not ever urged thy valour on my lord’s notice and wrought like a true friend for thine advancement, Sakr-el-Bahr?”
He laughed outright. “Hast thou so?” quoth he.
“Laugh as thou wilt, but it is true,” she insisted. “Lose me and thy most valuable ally is lost — one who has the ear and favour of her lord. For look, Sakr-el-Bahr, it is what would befall if another came to fill my place, another who might poison Asad’s mind with lies against thee — for surely she cannot love thee, this Frankish girl whom thou hast torn from her home!”
“Be not concerned for that,” he answered lightly, his wits striving in vain to plumb the depths and discover the nature of her purpose. “This slave of mine shall never usurp thy place beside Asad.”
“O fool, Asad will take her whether she be for sale or not.”
He looked down upon her, head on one side and arms akimbo. “If he can take her from me, the more easily can he take her from thee. No doubt thou hast considered that, and in some dark Sicilian way considered too how to provide against it. But the cost — hast thou counted that? What will Asad say to thee when he learns how thou hast thwarted him?”
“What do I care for that?” she cried in sudden fury, her gestures becoming a little wild. “She will be at the bottom of the harbour by then with a stone about her neck. He may have me whipped. No doubt he will. But ’twill end there. He will require me to console him for his loss, and so all will be well again.”
At last he had drawn her, pumped her dry, as he imagined. Indeed, indeed, he thought, he had been right to say she was not subtle. He had been a fool to have permitted himself to be intrigued by so shallow, so obvious a purpose. He shrugged and turned away from her.
“Depart in peace, O Fenzileh,” he said. “I yield her to none — be his name Asad or Shaitan.”
His tone was final, and her answer seemed to accept at last his determination. Yet she was very quick with that answer; so quick that he might have suspected it to be preconceived.
“Then it is surely thine intent to wed her.” No voice could have been more innocent and guileless than was hers now. “If so,” she went on, “it were best done quickly, for marriage is the only barrier Asad will not overthrow. He is devout, and out of his deep reverence for the Prophet’s law he would be sure to respect such a bond as that. But be very sure that he will respect nothing short of it.”
Yet notwithstanding her innocence and assumed simplicity — because of it, perhaps — he read her as if she had been an open book; it no longer mattered that her face was veiled.
“And thy purpose would be equally well served, eh?” he questioned her, sly in his turn.
“Equally,” she admitted.
“Say ‘better,’ Fenzileh,” he rejoined. “I said thou art not subtle. By the Koran, I lied. Thou art subtle as the serpent. Yet I see whither thou art gliding. Were I to be guided by thine advice a twofold purpose would be served. First, I should place her beyond Asad’s reach, and second, I should be embroiled with him for having done so. What could more completely satisfy thy wishes?”
“Thou dost me wrong,” she protested. “I have ever been thy friend. I would that. . . . ” She broke off suddenly to listen. The stillness of the night was broken by cries from the direction of the Bab-el-Oueb. She ran swiftly to the parapet whence the gate was to be seen and leaned far out.
“Look, look!” she cried, and there was a tremor of fear in her voice. “It is he — Asad-ed-Din.”
Sakr-el-Bahr crossed to her side and in a glare of torches saw a body of men coming forth from the black archway of the gate.
“It almost seems as if, departing from thy usual custom, thou hast spoken truth, O Fenzileh.”
She faced him, and he suspected the venomous glance darted at him through her veil. Yet her voice when she spoke was cold. “In a moment thou’lt have no single doubt of it. But what of me?” The question was added in a quickening tone. “He must not find me here. He would kill me, I think.”
“I am sure he would,” Sakr-el-Bahr agreed. “Yet muffled thus, who should recognize thee? Away, then, ere he comes. Take cover in the courtyard until he shall have passed. Didst thou come alone?”
“Should I trust anyone with the knowledge that I had visited thee?” she asked, and he admired the strong Sicilian spirit in her that not all these years in the Basha’s hareem had sufficed to extinguish.
She moved quickly to the door, to pause again on the threshold.
“Thou’lt not relinquish her? Thou’lt not.”
“Be at ease,” he answered her, on so resolved a note that she departed satisfied.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59