For a little while Asad stood at gaze, speechless in his incredulity. Then to revive the anger that for a moment had been whelmed in astonishment came the reflection that he had been duped by Sakr-el-Bahr, duped by the man he trusted most. He had snarled at Fenzileh and scorned Marzak when they had jointly warned him against his lieutenant; if at times he had been in danger of heeding them, yet sooner or later he had concluded that they but spoke to vent their malice. And yet it was proven now that they had been right in their estimate of this traitor, whilst he himself had been a poor, blind dupe, needing Marzak’s wit to tear the bandage from his eyes.
Slowly he went down the gangway, followed by Marzak, Biskaine, and the others. At the point where it joined the waist-deck he paused, and his dark old eyes smouldered under his beetling brows.
“So,” he snarled. “These are thy goods of price. Thou lying dog, what was thine aim in this?”
Defiantly Sakr-el-Bahr answered him: “She is my wife. It is my right to take her with me where I go.” He turned to her, and bade her veil her face, and she immediately obeyed him with fingers that shook a little in her agitation.
“None questions thy right to that,” said Asad. “But being resolved to take her with thee, why not take her openly? Why was she not housed in the poop-house, as becomes the wife of Sakr-el-Bahr? Why smuggle her aboard in a pannier, and keep her there in secret?”
“And why,” added Marzak, “didst thou lie to me when I questioned thee upon her whereabouts? — telling me she was left behind in thy house in Algiers?”
“All this I did,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr, with a lofty — almost a disdainful — dignity, “because I feared lest I should be prevented from bearing her away with me,” and his bold glance, beating full upon Asad, drew a wave of colour into the gaunt old cheeks.
“What could have caused that fear?” he asked. “Shall I tell thee? Because no man sailing upon such a voyage as this would have desired the company of his new-wedded wife. Because no man would take a wife with him upon a raid in which there is peril of life and peril of capture.”
“Allah has watched over me his servant in the past,” said Sakr-el-Bahr, “and I put my trust in Him.”
It was a specious answer. Such words — laying stress upon the victories Allah sent him — had afore-time served to disarm his enemies. But they served not now. Instead, they did but fan the flames of Asad’s wrath.
“Blaspheme not,” he croaked, and his tall form quivered with rage, his sallow old face grew vulturine. “She was brought thus aboard in secret out of fear that were her presence known thy true purpose too must stand revealed.”
“And whatever that true purpose may have been,” put in Marzak, “it was not the task entrusted thee of raiding the Spanish treasure-galley.”
“’Tis what I mean, my son,” Asad agreed. Then with a commanding gesture: “Wilt thou tell me without further lies what thy purpose was?” he asked.
“How?” said Sakr-el-Bahr, and he smiled never so faintly. “Hast thou not said that this purpose was revealed by what I did? Rather, then, I think is it for me to ask thee for some such information. I do assure thee, my lord, that it was no part of my intention to neglect the task entrusted me. But just because I feared lest knowledge of her presence might lead my enemies to suppose what thou art now supposing, and perhaps persuade thee to forget all that I have done for the glory of Islam, I determined to bring her secretly aboard.
“My real aim, since you must know it, was to land her somewhere on the coast of France, whence she might return to her own land, and her own people. That done, I should have set about intercepting the Spanish galley, and never fear but that by Allah’s favour I should have succeeded.”
“By the horns of Shaitan,” swore Marzak, thrusting himself forward, “he is the very father and mother of lies. Wilt thou explain this desire to be rid of a wife thou hadst but wed?” he demanded.
“Ay,” growled Asad. “Canst answer that?”
“Thou shalt hear the truth,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.
“The praise to Allah!” mocked Marzak.
“But I warn you,” the corsair continued, “that to you it will seem less easy to believe by much than any falsehood I could invent. Years ago in England where I was born I loved this woman and should have taken her to wife. But there were men and circumstances that defamed me to her so that she would not wed me, and I went forth with hatred of her in my heart. Last night the love of her which I believed to be dead and turned to loathing, proved to be still a living force. Loving her, I came to see that I had used her unworthily, and I was urged by a desire above all others to undo the evil I had done.”
On that he paused, and after an instant’s silence Asad laughed angrily and contemptuously. “Since when has man expressed his love for a woman by putting her from him?” he asked in a voice of scorn that showed the precise value he set upon such a statement.
“I warned thee it would seem incredible,” said Sakr-el-Bahr.
“Is it not plain, O my father, that this marriage of his was no more than a pretence?” cried Marzak.
“As plain as the light of day,” replied Asad. “Thy marriage with that woman made an impious mock of the True Faith. It was no marriage. It was a blasphemous pretence, thine only aim to thwart me, abusing my regard for the Prophet’s Holy Law, and to set her beyond my reach.” He turned to Vigitello, who stood a little behind Sakr-el-Bahr. “Bid thy men put me this traitor into irons,” he said.
“Heaven hath guided thee to a wise decision, O my father!” cried Marzak, his voice jubilant. But his was the only jubilant note that was sounded, his the only voice that was raised.
“The decision is more like to guide you both to Heaven,” replied Sakr-el-Bahr, undaunted. On the instant he had resolved upon his course. “Stay!” he said, raising his hand to Vigitello, who, indeed had shown no sign of stirring. He stepped close up to Asad, and what he said did not go beyond those who stood immediately about the Basha and Rosamund, who strained her ears that she might lose no word of it.
“Do not think, Asad,” he said, “that I will submit me like a camel to its burden. Consider thy position well. If I but raise my voice to call my sea-hawks to me, only Allah can tell how many will be left to obey thee. Darest thou put this matter to the test?” he asked, his countenance grave and solemn, but entirely fearless, as of a man in whom there is no doubt of the issue as it concerns himself.
Asad’s eyes glittered dully, his colour faded to a deathly ashen hue. “Thou infamous traitor. . . . ” he began in a thick voice, his body quivering with anger.
“Ah no,” Sakr-el-Bahr interrupted him. “Were I a traitor it is what I should have done already, knowing as I do that in any division of our forces, numbers will be heavily on my side. Let then my silence prove my unswerving loyalty, Asad. Let it weigh with thee in considering my conduct, nor permit thyself to be swayed by Marzak there, who recks nothing so that he vents his petty hatred of me.”
“Do not heed him, O my father!” cried Marzak. “It cannot be that. . . . ”
“Peace!” growled Asad, somewhat stricken on a sudden.
And there was peace whilst the Basha stood moodily combing his white beard, his glittering eyes sweeping from Oliver to Rosamund and back again. He was weighing what Sakr-el-Bahr had said. He more than feared that it might be no more than true, and he realized that if he were to provoke a mutiny here he would be putting all to the test, setting all upon a throw in which the dice might well be cogged against him.
If Sakr-el-Bahr prevailed, he would prevail not merely aboard this galley, but throughout Algiers, and Asad would be cast down never to rise again. On the other hand, if he bared his scimitar and called upon the faithful to support him, it might chance that recognizing in him the exalted of Allah to whom their loyalty was due, they would rally to him. He even thought it might be probable. Yet the stake he put upon the board was too vast. The game appalled him, whom nothing yet had appalled, and it scarce needed a muttered caution from Biskaine to determine him to hold his hand.
He looked at Sakr-el-Bahr again, his glance now sullen. “I will consider thy words,” he announced in a voice that was unsteady. “I would not be unjust, nor steer my course by appearances alone. Allah forbid!”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12