Sakr-el-Bahr stood lost in thought after she had gone. Again he weighed her every word and considered precisely how he should meet Asad, and how refuse him, if the Basha’s were indeed such an errand as Fenzileh had heralded.
Thus in silence he remained waiting for Ali or another to summon him to the presence of the Basha. Instead, however, when Ali entered it was actually to announce Asad-ed-Din, who followed immediately upon his heels, having insisted in his impatience upon being conducted straight to the presence of Sakr-el-Bahr.
“The peace of the Prophet upon thee, my son, was the Basha’s greeting.
“And upon thee, my lord.” Sakr-el-Bahr salaamed. “My house is honoured.” With a gesture he dismissed Ali.
“I come to thee a suppliant,” said Asad, advancing.
“A suppliant, thou? No need, my lord. I have no will that is not the echo of thine own.”
The Basha’s questing eyes went beyond him and glowed as they rested upon Rosamund.
“I come in haste,” he said, “like any callow lover, guided by my every instinct to the presence of her I seek — this Frankish pearl, this pen-faced captive of thy latest raid. I was away from the Kasbah when that pig Tsamanni returned thither from the sôk; but when at last I learnt that he had failed to purchase her as I commanded, I could have wept for very grief. I feared at first that some merchant from the Sus might have bought her and departed; but when I heard — blessed be Allah! — that thou wert the buyer, I was comforted again. For thou’lt yield her up to me, my son.”
He spoke with such confidence that Oliver had a difficulty in choosing the words that were to disillusion him. Therefore he stood in hesitancy a moment.
“I will make good thy, loss,” Asad ran on. “Thou shalt have the sixteen hundred philips paid and another five hundred to console thee. Say that will content thee; for I boil with impatience.”
Sakr-el-Bahr smiled grimly. “It is an impatience well known to me, my lord, where she is concerned,” he answered slowly. “I boiled with it myself for five interminable years. To make an end of it I went a distant perilous voyage to England in a captured Frankish vessel. Thou didst not know, O Asad, else thou wouldst. . . . ”
“Bah!” broke in the Basha. “Thou’rt a huckster born. There is none like thee, Sakr-el-Bahr, in any game of wits. Well, well, name thine own price, strike thine own profit out of my impatience and let us have done.”
“My lord,” he said quietly, “it is not the profit that is in question. She is not for sale.”
Asad blinked at him, speechless, and slowly a faint colour crept into his sallow cheeks.
“Not . . . not for sale?” he echoed, faltering in his amazement.
“Not if thou offered me thy Bashalik as the price of her,” was the solemn answer. Then more warmly, in a voice that held a note of intercession —“Ask anything else that is mine,” he continued, “and gladly will I lay it at thy feet in earnest of my loyalty and love for thee.”
“But I want nothing else.” Asad’s tone was impatient, petulant almost. “I want this slave.”
“Then,” replied Oliver, “I cast myself upon thy mercy and beseech thee to turn thine eyes elsewhere.”
Asad scowled upon him. “Dost thou deny me?” he demanded, throwing back his head.
“Alas!” said Sakr-el-Bahr.
There fell a pause. Darker and darker grew the countenance of Asad, fiercer glowed the eyes he bent upon his lieutenant. “I see,” he said at last, with a calm so oddly at variance with his looks as to be sinister. “I see. It seems that there is more truth in Fenzileh than I suspected. So!” He considered the corsair a moment with his sunken smouldering eyes.
Then he addressed him in a tone that vibrated with his suppressed anger. “Bethink thee, Sakr-el-Bahr, of what thou art, of what I have made thee. Bethink thee of all the bounty these hands have lavished on thee. Thou art my own lieutenant, and mayest one day be more. In Algiers there is none above thee save myself. Art, then, so thankless as to deny me the first thing I ask of thee? Truly is it written ‘Ungrateful is Man.’”
“Didst thou know,” began Sakr-el-Bahr, “all that is involved for me in this. . . . ”
“I neither know nor care,” Asad cut in. “Whatever it may be, it should be as naught when set against my will.” Then he discarded anger for cajolery. He set a hand upon Sakr-el-Bahr’s stalwart shoulder. “Come, my son. I will deal generously with thee out of my love, and I will put thy refusal from my mind.”
“Be generous, my lord, to the point of forgetting that ever thou didst ask me for her.”
“Dost still refuse?” The voice, honeyed an instant ago, rang harsh again. “Take care how far thou strain my patience. Even as I have raised thee from the dirt, so at a word can I cast thee down again. Even as I broke the shackles that chained thee to the rowers’ bench, so can I rivet them on thee anew.”
“All this canst thou do,” Sakr-el-Bahr agreed. “And since, knowing it, I still hold to what is doubly mine — by right of capture and of purchase — thou mayest conceive how mighty are my reasons. Be merciful, then, Asad. . . . ”
“Must I take her by force in spite of thee?” roared the Basha.
Sakr-el-Bahr stiffened. He threw back his head and looked the Basha squarely in the eyes.
“Whilst I live, not even that mayest thou do,” he answered.
“Disloyal, mutinous dog! Wilt thou resist me — me?”
“It is my prayer that thou’lt not be so ungenerous and unjust as to compel thy servant to a course so hateful.”
Asad sneered. “Is that thy last word?” he demanded.
“Save only that in all things else I am thy slave, O Asad.”
A moment the Basha stood regarding him, his glance baleful. Then deliberately, as one who has taken his resolve, he strode to the door. On the threshold he paused and turned again. “Wait!” he said, and on that threatening word departed.
Sakr-el-Bahr remained a moment where he had stood during the interview, then with a shrug he turned. He met Rosamund’s eyes fixed intently upon him, and invested with a look he could not read. He found himself unable to meet it, and he turned away. It was inevitable that in such a moment the earlier stab of remorse should be repeated. He had overreached himself indeed. Despair settled down upon him, a full consciousness of the horrible thing he had done, which seemed now so irrevocable. In his silent anguish he almost conceived that he had mistaken his feelings for Rosamund; that far from hating her as he had supposed, his love for her had not yet been slain, else surely he should not be tortured now by the thought of her becoming Asad’s prey. If he hated her, indeed, as he had supposed, he would have surrendered her and gloated.
He wondered was his present frame of mind purely the result of his discovery that the appearances against him had been stronger far than he imagined, so strong as to justify her conviction that he was her brother’s slayer.
And then her voice, crisp and steady, cut into his torture of consideration.
“Why did you deny him?”
He swung round again to face her, amazed, horror-stricken.
“You understood?” he gasped.
“I understood enough,” said she. “This lingua franca is none so different from French.” And again she asked —“Why did you deny him?”
He paced across to her side and stood looking down at her.
“Do you ask why?”
“Indeed,” she said bitterly, “there is scarce the need perhaps. And yet can it be that your lust of vengeance is so insatiable that sooner than willingly forgo an ounce of it you will lose your head?”
His face became grim again. “Of course,” he sneered, “it would be so that you’d interpret me.”
“Nay. If I have asked it is because I doubt.”
“Do you realize what it can mean to become the prey of Asad-ed-Din?”
She shuddered, and her glance fell from his, yet her voice was composed when she answered him —“Is it so very much worse than becoming the prey of Oliver–Reis or Sakr-el-Bahr, or whatever they may call you?”
“If you say that it is all one to you there’s an end to my opposing him,” he answered coldly. “You may go to him. If I resisted him — like a fool, perhaps — it was for no sake of vengeance upon you. It was because the thought of it fills me with horror.”
“Then it should fill you with horror of yourself no less,” said she.
His answer startled her.
“Perhaps it does,” he said, scarcely above a murmur. “Perhaps it does.”
She flashed him an upward glance and looked as if she would have spoken. But he went on, suddenly passionate, without giving her time to interrupt him. “O God! It needed this to show me the vileness of the thing I have done. Asad has no such motives as had I. I wanted you that I might punish you. But he . . . O God!” he groaned, and for a moment put his face to his hands.
She rose slowly, a strange agitation stirring in her, her bosom galloping. But in his overwrought condition he failed to observe it. And then like a ray of hope to illumine his despair came the counsel that Fenzileh had given him, the barrier which she had said that Asad, being a devout Muslim, would never dare to violate.
“There is a way,” he cried. “There is the way suggested by Fenzileh at the promptings of her malice.” An instant he hesitated, his eyes averted. Then he made his plunge. “You must marry me.”
It was almost as if he had struck her. She recoiled. Instantly suspicion awoke in her; swiftly it drew to a conviction that he had but sought to trick her by a pretended penitence.
“Marry you!” she echoed.
“Ay,” he insisted. And he set himself to explain to her how if she were his wife she must be sacred and inviolable to all good Muslimeen, that none could set a finger upon her without doing outrage to the Prophet’s holy law, and that, whoever might be so disposed, Asad was not of those, since Asad was perfervidly devout. “Thus only,” he ended, “can I place you beyond his reach.”
But she was still scornfully reluctant.
“It is too desperate a remedy even for so desperate an ill,” said she, and thus drove him into a frenzy of impatience with her.
“You must, I say,” he insisted, almost angrily. “You must — or else consent to be borne this very night to Asad’s hareem — and not even as his wife, but as his slave. Oh, you must trust me for your own sake! You must!”
“Trust you!” she cried, and almost laughed in the intensity of her scorn. “Trust you! How can I trust one who is a renegade and worse?”
He controlled himself that he might reason with her, that by cold logic he might conquer her consent.
“You are very unmerciful,” he said. “In judging me you leave out of all account the suffering through which I have gone and what yourself contributed to it. Knowing now how falsely I was accused and what other bitter wrongs I suffered, consider that I was one to whom the man and the woman I most loved in all this world had proven false. I had lost faith in man and in God, and if I became a Muslim, a renegade, and a corsair, it was because there was no other gate by which I could escape the unutterable toil of the oar to which I had been chained.” He looked at her sadly. “Can you find no excuse for me in all that?”
It moved her a little, for if she maintained a hostile attitude, at least she put aside her scorn.
“No wrongs,” she told him, almost with sorrow in her voice, “could justify you in outraging chivalry, in dishonouring your manhood, in abusing your strength to persecute a woman. Whatever the causes that may have led to it, you have fallen too low, sir, to make it possible that I should trust you.”
He bowed his head under the rebuke which already he had uttered in his own heart. It was just and most deserved, and since he recognized its justice he found it impossible to resent it.
“I know,” he said. “But I am not asking you to trust me to my profit, but to your own. It is for your sake alone that I implore you to do this.” Upon a sudden inspiration he drew the heavy dagger from his girdle and proffered it, hilt foremost. “If you need an earnest of my good faith,” he said, “take this knife with which to-night you attempted to stab yourself. At the first sign that I am false to my trust, use it as you will — upon me or upon yourself.”
She pondered him in some surprise. Then slowly she put out her hand to take the weapon, as he bade her.
“Are you not afraid,” she asked him, “that I shall use it now, and so make an end?”
“I am trusting you,” he said, “that in return you may trust me. Further, I am arming you against the worst. For if it comes to choice between death and Asad, I shall approve your choice of death. But let me add that it were foolish to choose death whilst yet there is a chance of life.”
“What chance?” she asked, with a faint return of her old scorn. “The chance of life with you?”
“No,” he answered firmly. “If you will trust me, I swear that I will seek to undo the evil I have done. Listen. At dawn my galeasse sets out upon a raid. I will convey you secretly aboard and find a way to land you in some Christian country — Italy or France — whence you may make your way home again.”
“But meanwhile,” she reminded him, “I shall have become your wife.”
He smiled wistfully. “Do you still fear a trap? Can naught convince you of my sincerity? A Muslim marriage is not binding upon a Christian, and I shall account it no marriage. It will be no more than a pretence to shelter you until we are away.”
“How can I trust your word in that?”
“How?” He paused, baffled; but only for a moment. “You have the dagger,” he answered pregnantly.
She stood considering, her eyes upon the weapon’s lividly gleaming blade. “And this marriage?” she asked. “How is it to take place?”
He explained to her then that by the Muslim law all that was required was a declaration made before a kadi, or his superior, and in the presence of witnesses. He was still at his explanation when from below there came a sound of voices, the tramp of feet, and the flash of torches.
“Here is Asad returning in force,” he cried, and his voice trembled. “Do you consent?”
“But the kadi?” she inquired, and by the question he knew that she was won to his way of saving her.
“I said the kadi or his superior. Asad himself shall be our priest, his followers our witnesses.”
“And if he refuses? He will refuse!” she cried, clasping her hands before her in her excitement.
“I shall not ask him. I shall take him by surprise.”
“It . . . it must anger him. He may avenge himself for what he must deem a trick.”
“Ay,” he answered, wild-eyed. “I have thought of that, too. But it is a risk we must run. If we do not prevail, then —”
“I have the dagger,” she cried fearlessly.
“And for me there will be the rope or the sword,” he answered. “Be calm! They come!”
But the steps that pattered up the stairs were Ali’s. He flung upon the terrace in alarm.
“My lord, my lord! Asad-ed-Din is here in force. He has an armed following with him!”
“There is naught to fear,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, with every show of calm. “All will be well.”
Asad swept up the stairs and out upon that terrace to confront his rebellious lieutenant. After him came a dozen black-robed janissaries with scimitars along which the light of the torches rippled in little runnels as of blood.
The Basha came to a halt before Sakr-el-Bahr, his arms majestically folded, his head thrown back, so that his long white beard jutted forward.
“I am returned,” he said, “to employ force where gentleness will not avail. Yet I pray that Allah may have lighted thee to a wiser frame of mind.”
“He has, indeed, my lord,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr.
“The praise to Him!” exclaimed Asad in a voice that rang with joy. “The girl, then!” And he held out a hand.
Sakr-el-Bahr stepped back to her and took her hand in his as if to lead her forward. Then he spoke the fateful words.
“In Allah’s Holy Name and in His All-seeing eyes, before thee, Asad-ed-Din, and in the presence of these witnesses, I take this woman to be my wife by the merciful law of the Prophet of Allah the All-wise, the All-pitying.”
The words were out and the thing was done before Asad had realized the corsair’s intent. A gasp of dismay escaped him; then his visage grew inflamed, his eyes blazed.
But Sakr-el-Bahr, cool and undaunted before that royal anger, took the scarf that lay about Rosamund’s shoulders, and raising it, flung it over her head, so that her face was covered by it.
“May Allah rot off the hand of him who in contempt of our Lord Mahomet’s holy law may dare to unveil that face, and may Allah bless this union and cast into the pit of Gehenna any who shall attempt to dissolve a bond that is tied in His All-seeing eyes.”
It was formidable. Too formidable for Asad-ed-Din. Behind him his janissaries like hounds in leash stood eagerly awaiting his command. But none came. He stood there breathing heavily, swaying a little, and turning from red to pale in the battle that was being fought within him between rage and vexation on the one hand and his profound piety on the other. And as he yet hesitated perhaps Sakr-el-Bahr assisted his piety to gain the day.
“Now you will understand why I would not yield her, O mighty Asad,” he said. “Thyself hast thou oft and rightly reproached me with my celibacy, reminding me that it is not pleasing in the sight of Allah, that it is unworthy a good Muslim. At last it hath pleased the Prophet to send me such a maid as I could take to wife.”
Asad bowed his head. “What is written is written,” he said in the voice of one who admonished himself. Then he raised his arms aloft. “Allah is All-knowing,” he declared. “His will be done!”
“Ameen,” said Sakr-el-Bahr very solemnly and with a great surge of thankful prayer to his own long-forgotten God.
The Basha stayed yet a moment, as if he would have spoken. Then abruptly he turned and waved a hand to his janissaries. “Away!” was all he said to them, and stalked out in their wake.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54