Up the gangway between the lines of slumbering slaves came a quick patter of feet. Ali, who since sunset had been replacing Larocque on the heights, sprang suddenly upon the poop still shouting.
“Captain! Captain! My lord! Afoot! Up! or we are taken!”
Throughout the vessel’s length came the rustle and stir of waking men. A voice clamoured somewhere on the forecastle. Then the flap of the awning was suddenly whisked aside and Asad himself appeared with Marzak at his elbow.
From the starboard side as suddenly came Biskaine and Othmani, and from the waist Vigitello, Jasper — that latest renegade — and a group of alarmed corsairs.
“What now?” quoth the Basha.
Ali delivered his message breathlessly. “The galleon has weighed anchor. She is moving out of the bay.”
Asad clutched his beard, and scowled. “Now what may that portend? Can knowledge of our presence have reached them?”
“Why else should she move from her anchorage thus in the dead of night?” said Biskaine.
“Why else, indeed?” returned Asad, and then he swung upon Oliver standing there in the entrance of the poop-house. “What sayest thou, Sakr-el-Bahr?” he appealed to him.
Sakr-el-Bahr stepped forward, shrugging. “What is there to say? What is there to do?” he asked. “We can but wait. If our presence is known to them we are finely trapped, and there’s an end to all of us this night.”
His voice was cool as ice, contemptuous almost, and whilst it struck anxiety into more than one it awoke terror in Marzak.
“May thy bones rot, thou ill-omened prophet!” he screamed, and would have added more but that Sakr-el-Bahr silenced him.
“What is written is written!” said he in a voice of thunder and reproof.
“Indeed, indeed,” Asad agreed, grasping at the fatalist’s consolation. “If we are ripe for the gardeners hand, the gardener will pluck us.”
Less fatalistic and more practical was the counsel of Biskaine.
“It were well to act upon the assumption that we are indeed discovered, and make for the open sea while yet there may be time.”
“But that were to make certain what is still doubtful,” broke in Marzak, fearful ever. “It were to run to meet the danger.”
“Not so!” cried Asad in a loud, confident voice. “The praise to Allah who sent us this calm night. There is scarce a breath of wind. We can row ten leagues while they are sailing one.”
A murmur of quick approval sped through the ranks of officers and men.
“Let us but win safely from this cove and they will never overtake us,” announced Biskaine.
“But their guns may,” Sakr-el-Bahr quietly reminded them to damp their confidence. His own alert mind had already foreseen this one chance of escaping from the trap, but he had hoped that it would not be quite so obvious to the others.
“That risk we must take,” replied Asad. “We must trust to the night. To linger here is to await certain destruction.” He swung briskly about to issue his orders. “Ali, summon the steersmen. Hasten! Vigitello, set your whips about the slaves, and rouse them.” Then as the shrill whistle of the boatswain rang out and the whips of his mates went hissing and cracking about the shoulders of the already half-awakened slaves, to mingle with all the rest of the stir and bustle aboard the galeasse, the Basha turned once more to Biskaine. “Up thou to the prow,” he commanded, “and marshal the men. Bid them stand to their arms lest it should come to boarding. Go!” Biskaine salaamed and sprang down the companion. Above the rumbling din and scurrying toil of preparation rang Asad’s voice.
“Crossbowmen, aloft! Gunners to the carronades! Kindle your linstocks! Put out all lights!”
An instant later the cressets on the poop-rail were extinguished, as was the lantern swinging from the rail, and even the lamp in the poop-house which was invaded by one of the Basha’s officers for that purpose. The lantern hanging from the mast alone was spared against emergencies; but it was taken down, placed upon the deck, and muffled.
Thus was the galeasse plunged into a darkness that for some moments was black and impenetrable as velvet. Then slowly, as the eyes became accustomed to it, this gloom was gradually relieved. Once more men and objects began to take shape in the faint, steely radiance of the summer night.
After the excitement of that first stir the corsairs went about their tasks with amazing calm and silence. None thought now of reproaching the Basha or Sakr-el-Bahr with having delayed until the moment of peril to take the course which all of them had demanded should be taken when first they had heard of the neighbourhood of that hostile ship. In lines three deep they stood ranged along the ample fighting platform of the prow; in the foremost line were the archers, behind them stood the swordsmen, their weapons gleaming lividly in the darkness. They crowded to the bulwarks of the waist-deck and swarmed upon the rat-lines of the mainmast. On the poop three gunners stood to each of the two small cannon, their faces showing faintly ruddy in the glow of the ignited match.
Asad stood at the head of the companion, issuing his sharp brief commands, and Sakr-el-Bahr, behind him, leaning against the timbers of the poop-house with Rosamund at his side, observed that the Basha had studiously avoided entrusting any of this work of preparation to himself.
The steersmen climbed to their niches, and the huge steering oars creaked as they were swung out. Came a short word of command from Asad and a stir ran through the ranks of the slaves, as they threw forward their weight to bring the oars to the level. Thus a moment, then a second word, the premonitory crack of a whip in the darkness of the gangway, and the tomtom began to beat the time. The slaves heaved, and with a creak and splash of oars the great galeasse skimmed forward towards the mouth of the cove.
Up and down the gangway ran the boatswain’s mates, cutting fiercely with their whips to urge the slaves to the very utmost effort. The vessel gathered speed. The looming headland slipped by. The mouth of the cove appeared to widen as they approached it. Beyond spread the dark steely mirror of the dead-calm sea.
Rosamund could scarcely breathe in the intensity of her suspense. She set a hand upon the arm of Sakr-el-Bahr.
“Shall we elude them, after all?” she asked in a trembling whisper.
“I pray that we may not,” he answered, muttering. “But this is the handiwork I feared. Look!” he added sharply, and pointed.
They had shot clear to the headland. They were out of the cove, and suddenly they had a view of the dark bulk of the galleon, studded with a score of points of light, riding a cable’s length away on their larboard quarter.
“Faster!” cried the voice of Asad. “Row for your lives, you infidel swine! Lay me your whips upon these hides of theirs! Bend me these dogs to their oars, and they’ll never overtake us now.”
Whips sang and thudded below them in the waist, to be answered by more than one groan from the tormented panting slaves, who already were spending every ounce of strength in this cruel effort to elude their own chance of salvation and release. Faster beat the tomtom marking the desperate time, and faster in response to it came the creak and dip of oars and the panting, stertorous breathing of the rowers.
“Lay on! Lay on!” cried Asad, inexorable. Let them burst their lungs — they were but infidel lungs! — so that for an hour they but maintained the present pace.
“We are drawing away!” cried Marzak in jubilation. “The praise to Allah!”
And so indeed they were. Visibly the lights of the galleon were receding. With every inch of canvas spread yet she appeared to be standing still, so faint was the breeze that stirred. And whilst she crawled, the galeasse raced as never yet she had raced since Sakr-el-Bahr had commanded her, for Sakr-el-Bahr had never yet turned tail upon the foe in whatever strength he found him.
Suddenly over the water from the galleon came a loud hail. Asad laughed, and in the darkness shook his fist at them, cursing them in the name of Allah and his Prophet. And then, in answer to that curse of his, the galleon’s side belched fire; the calm of the night was broken by a roar of thunder, and something smote the water ahead of the Muslim vessel with a resounding thudding splash.
In fear Rosamund drew closer to Sakr-el-Bahr. But Asad laughed again.
“No need to fear their marksmanship,” he cried. “They cannot see us. Their own lights dazzle them. On! On!”
“He is right,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. “But the truth is that they will not fire to sink us because they know you to be aboard.”
She looked out to sea again, and beheld those friendly lights falling farther and farther astern.
“We are drawing steadily away,” she groaned. “They will never overtake us now.”
So feared Sakr-el-Bahr. He more than feared it. He knew that save for some miraculous rising of the wind it must be as she said. And then out of his despair leapt inspiration — a desperate inspiration, true child of that despair of which it was begotten.
“There is a chance,” he said to her. “But it is as a throw of the dice with life and death for stakes.”
“Then seize it,” she bade him instantly. “For though it should go against us we shall not be losers.”
“You are prepared for anything?” he asked her.
“Have I not said that I will go down with you this night? Ah, don’t waste time in words!”
“Be it so, then,” he replied gravely, and moved away a step, then checked. “You had best come with me,” he said.
Obediently she complied and followed him, and some there were who stared as these two passed down the gangway, yet none attempted to hinder her movements. Enough and to spare was there already to engage the thoughts of all aboard that vessel.
He thrust a way for her, past the boatswain’s mates who stood over the slaves ferociously plying tongues and whips, and so brought her to the waist. Here he took up the lantern which had been muffled, and as its light once more streamed forth, Asad shouted an order for its extinction. But Sakr-el-Bahr took no least heed of that command. He stepped to the mainmast, about which the powder kegs had been stacked. One of these had been broached against its being needed by the gunners on the poop. The unfastened lid rested loosely atop of it. That lid Sakr-el-Bahr knocked over; then he pulled one of the horn sides out of the lantern, and held the now half-naked flame immediately above the powder.
A cry of alarm went up from some who had watched him. But above that cry rang his sharp command:
The tomtom fell instantly silent, but the slaves took yet another stroke.
“Cease rowing!” he commanded again. “Asad!” he called. “Bid them pause, or I’ll blow you all straight into the arms of Shaitan.” And he lowered the lantern until it rested on the very rim of the powder keg.
At once the rowing ceased. Slaves, corsairs, officers, and Asad himself stood paralyzed, all at gaze upon that grim figure illumined by the lantern, threatening them with doom. It may have crossed the minds of some to throw themselves forthwith upon him; but to arrest them was the dread lest any movement towards him should precipitate the explosion that must blow them all into the next world.
At last Asad addressed him, his voice half-choked with rage.
“May Allah strike thee dead! Art thou djinn-possessed?”
Marzak, standing at his father’s side, set a quarrel to the bow which he had snatched up. “Why do you all stand and stare?” he cried. “Cut him down, one of you!” And even as he spoke he raised his bow. But his father checked him, perceiving what must be the inevitable result.
“If any man takes a step towards me, the lantern goes straight into the gunpowder,” said Sakr-el-Bahr serenely. “And if you shoot me as you intend, Mar-zak, or if any other shoots, the same will happen of itself. Be warned unless you thirst for the Paradise of the Prophet.”
“Sakr-el-Bahr!” cried Asad, and from its erstwhile anger his voice had now changed to a note of intercession. He stretched out his arms appealingly to the captain whose doom he had already pronounced in his heart and mind. “Sakr-el-Bahr, I conjure thee by the bread and salt we have eaten together, return to thy senses, my son.”
“I am in my sense,” was the answer, “and being so I have no mind for the fate reserved me in Algiers — by the memory of that same bread and salt. I have no mind to go back with thee to be hanged or sent to toil at an oar again.”
“And if I swear to thee that naught of this shall come to pass?”
“Thou’lt be forsworn. I would not trust thee now, Asad. For thou art proven a fool, and in all my life I never found good in a fool and never trusted one — save once, and he betrayed me. Yesterday I pleaded with thee, showing thee the wise course, and affording thee thine opportunity. At a slight sacrifice thou mightest have had me and hanged me at thy leisure. ’Twas my own life I offered thee, and for all that thou knewest it, yet thou knewest not that I knew.” He laughed. “See now what manner of fool art thou? Thy greed hath wrought thy ruin. Thy hands were opened to grasp more than they could hold. See now the consequence. It comes yonder in that slowly but surely approaching galleon.”
Every word of it sank into the brain of Asad thus tardily to enlighten him. He wrung his hands in his blended fury and despair. The crew stood in appalled silence, daring to make no movement that might precipitate their end.
“Name thine own price,” cried the Basha at length, “and I swear to thee by the beard of the Prophet it shall be paid thee.”
“I named it yesterday, but it was refused. I offered thee my liberty and my life if that were needed to gain the liberty of another.”
Had he looked behind him he might have seen the sudden lighting of Rosamund’s eyes, the sudden clutch at her bosom, which would have announced to him that his utterances were none so cryptic but that she had understood them.
“I will make thee rich and honoured, Sakr-el-Bahr,” Asad continued urgently. “Thou shalt be as mine own son. The Bashalik itself shall be thine when I lay it down, and all men shall do thee honour in the meanwhile as to myself.”
“I am not to be bought, O mighty Asad. I never was. Already wert thou set upon my death. Thou canst command it now, but only upon the condition that thou share the cup with me. What is written is written. We have sunk some tall ships together in our day, Asad. We’ll sink together in our turn to-night if that be thy desire.”
“May thou burn for evermore in hell, thou black-hearted traitor!” Asad cursed him, his anger bursting all the bonds he had imposed upon it.
And then, of a sudden, upon that admission of defeat from their Basha, there arose a great clamour from the crew. Sakr-el-Bahr’s sea-hawks called upon him, reminding him of their fidelity and love, and asking could he repay it now by dooming them all thus to destruction.
“Have faith in me!” he answered them. “I have never led you into aught but victory. Be sure that I shall not lead you now into defeat — on this the last occasion that we stand together.”
“But the galleon is upon us!” cried Vigitello. And so, indeed, it was, creeping up slowly under that faint breeze, her tall bulk loomed now above them, her prow ploughing slowly forward at an acute angle to the prow of the galeasse. Another moment and she was alongside, and with a swing and clank and a yell of victory from the English seamen lining her bulwarks her grappling irons swung down to seize the corsair ship at prow and stern and waist. Scarce had they fastened, than a torrent of men in breast-plates and morions poured over her side, to alight upon the prow of the galeasse, and not even the fear of the lantern held above the powder barrel could now restrain the corsairs from giving these hardy boarders the reception they reserved for all infidels. In an instant the fighting platform on the prow was become a raging, seething hell of battle luridly illumined by the ruddy glow from the lights aboard the Silver Heron. Foremost among those who had leapt down had been Lionel and Sir John Killigrew. Foremost among those to receive them had been Jasper Leigh, who had passed his sword through Lionel’s body even as Lionel’s feet came to rest upon the deck, and before the battle was joined.
A dozen others went down on either side before Sakr-el-Bahr’s ringing voice could quell the fighting, before his command to them to hear him was obeyed.
“Hold there!” he had bellowed to his sea-hawks, using the lingua franca. “Back, and leave this to me. I will rid you of these foes.” Then in English he had summoned his countrymen also to desist. “Sir John Killigrew!” he called in a loud voice. “Hold your hand until you have heard me! Call your men back and let none others come aboard! Hold until you have heard me, I say, then wreak your will.”
Sir John, perceiving him by the mainmast with Rosamund at his side, and leaping at the most inevitable conclusion that he meant to threaten her life, perhaps to destroy her if they continued their advance, flung himself before his men, to check them.
Thus almost as suddenly as it had been joined the combat paused
“What have you to say, you renegade dog?” Sir John demanded.
“This, Sir John, that unless you order your men back aboard your ship, and make oath to desist from this encounter, I’ll take you straight down to hell with us at once. I’ll heave this lantern into the powder here, and we sink and you come down with us held by your own grappling hooks. Obey me and you shall have all that you have come to seek aboard this vessel. Mistress Rosamund shall be delivered up to you.”
Sir John glowered upon him a moment from the poop, considering. Then —
“Though not prepared to make terms with you,” he announced, “yet I will accept the conditions you impose, but only provided that I have all indeed that I am come to seek. There is aboard this galley an infamous renegade hound whom I am bound by my knightly oath to take and hang. He, too, must be delivered up to me. His name was Oliver Tressilian.”
Instantly, unhesitatingly, came the answer —“Him, too, will I surrender to you upon your sworn oath that you will then depart and do here no further hurt.”
Rosamund caught her breath, and clutched Sakr-el-Bahr’s arm, the arm that held the lantern.
“Have a care, mistress,” he bade her sharply, “or you will destroy us all.”
“Better that!” she answered him.
And then Sir John pledged him his word that upon his own surrender and that of Rosamund he would withdraw nor offer hurt to any there.
Sakr-el-Bahr turned to his waiting corsairs, and briefly told them what the terms he had made.
He called upon Asad to pledge his word that these terms would be respected, and no blood shed on his behalf, and Asad answered him, voicing the anger of all against him for his betrayal.
“Since he wants thee that he may hang thee, he may have thee and so spare us the trouble, for ’tis no less than thy treachery deserves from us.”
“Thus, then, I surrender,” he announced to Sir John, and flung the lantern overboard.
One voice only was raised in his defence, and that voice was Rosamund’s. But even that voice failed, conquered by weary nature. This last blow following upon all that lately she had endured bereft her of all strength. Half swooning she collapsed against Sakr-el-Bahr even as Sir John and a handful of his followers leapt down to deliver her and make fast their prisoner.
The corsairs stood looking on in silence; the loyalty to their great captain, which would have made them spend their last drop of blood in his defence, was quenched by his own act of treachery which had brought the English ship upon them. Yet when they saw him pinioned and hoisted to the deck of the Silver Heron, there was a sudden momentary reaction in their ranks. Scimitars were waved aloft, and cries of menace burst forth. If he had betrayed them, yet he had so contrived that they should not suffer by that betrayal. And that was worthy of the Sakr-el-Bahr they knew and loved; so worthy that their love and loyalty leapt full-armed again upon the instant.
But the voice of Asad called upon them to bear in mind what in their name he had promised, and since the voice of Asad alone might not have sufficed to quell that sudden spark of revolt, there came down to them the voice of Sakr-el-Bahr himself issuing his last command.
“Remember and respect the terms I have made for you! Mektub! May Allah guard and prosper you!”
A wail was his reply, and with that wail ringing in his ears to assure him that he did not pass unloved, he was hurried below to prepare him for his end.
The ropes of the grapnels were cut, and slowly the galleon passed away into the night, leaving the galley to replace what slaves had been maimed in the encounter and to head back for Algiers, abandoning the expedition against the argosy of Spain.
Under the awning upon the poop Asad now sat like a man who has awakened from an evil dream. He covered his head and wept for one who had been as a son to him, and whom through his madness he had lost. He cursed all women, and he cursed destiny; but the bitterest curse of all was for himself.
In the pale dawn they flung the dead overboard and washed the decks, nor did they notice that a man was missing in token that the English captain, or else his followers, had not kept strictly to the letter of the bond.
They returned in mourning to Algiers — mourning not for the Spanish argosy which had been allowed to go her ways unmolested, but for the stoutest captain that ever bared his scimitar in the service of Islam. The story of how he came to be delivered up was never clearly told; none dared clearly tell it, for none who had participated in the deed but took shame in it thereafter, however clear it might be that Sakr-el-Bahr had brought it all upon himself. But, at least, it was understood that he had not fallen in battle, and hence it was assumed that he was still alive. Upon that presumption there was built up a sort of legend that he would one day come back; and redeemed captives returning a half-century later related how in Algiers to that day the coming of Sakr-el-Bahr was still confidently expected and looked for by all true Muslimeen.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54