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Asad turned at last to look into that handsome eager face. For a moment he was at a loss; then he had recourse to sophistry. "Am I a coward that I should refuse all ways but sure ones?" he demanded in a withering tone. "Or art thou a coward who can counsel none other?"
"My anxiety is all for thee, 0 my father," Marzak defended himself indignantly. "I doubt if it be safe to sleep, lest he should stir up mutiny in the night."
"Have no fear," replied Asad. "Myself I have set the watch, and the officers are all trustworthy. Biskaine is even now in the forecastle taking the feeling of the men. Soon we shall know precisely where we stand."
"In thy place I would make sure. I would set a term to this danger of mutiny. I would accede to his demands concerning the woman, and settle after-wards with himself."
"Abandon that Frankish pearl?" quoth Asad. Slowly he shook his head. "Nay, nay! She is a garden that shall yield me roses. Together we shall yet taste the sweet sherbet of Kansar, and she shall thank me for having led her into Paradise. Abandon that rosy-limbed loveliness!" He laughed softly on a note of exaltation, whilst in the gloom Marzak frowned, thinking of Fenzileh.
"She is an infidel," his son sternly reminded him, "so forbidden thee by the Prophet. Wilt thou be as blind to that as to thine own peril?" Then his voice gathering vehemence and scorn as he proceeded: "She has gone naked of face through the streets of Algiers; she has been gaped at by the rabble in the sôk; this loveliness of hers has been deflowered by the greedy gaze of Jew and Moor and Turk; galley-slaves and negroes have feasted their eyes upon her unveiled beauty; one of thy captains hath owned her his wife." He laughed. "By Allah, I do not know thee, 0 my father! Is this the woman thou wouldst take for thine own? This the woman for whose possession thou wouldst jeopardize thy life and perhaps the very Bashalik itself!"
Asad clenched his hands until the nails bit into his flesh. Every word his son had uttered had been as a lash to his soul. The truth of it was not to be contested. He was humiliated and shamed. Yet was he not conquered of his madness, nor diverted from his course. Before he could make answer, the tall martial figure of Biskaine came up the companion.
"Well?" the Basha greeted him eagerly, thankful for this chance to turn the subject.
Biskaine was downcast. His news was to be read in his countenance. "The task appointed me was difficult," said he. "I have done my best. Yet I could scarce go about it in such a fashion as to draw definite conclusions. But this I know, my lord, that he will be reckless indeed if he dares to take up arms against thee and challenge thine authority. So much at least I am permitted to conclude."
"No more than that?" asked Asad. "And if I were to take up arms against him, and to seek to settle this matter out of hand?"
Biskaine paused a moment ere replying. "I cannot think but that Allah would vouchsafe thee victory," he said. But his words did not delude the Basha. He recognized them to be no more than those which respect for him dictated to his officer. "Yet," continued Biskaine, "I should judge thee reckless too, my lord, as reckless as I should judge him in the like circumstances."
"I see," said Asad. "The matter stands so balanced that neither of us dare put it to the test."
"Thou hast said it."
"Then is thy course plain to thee!" cried Marzak, eager to renew his arguments. "Accept his terms, and...."
But Asad broke in impatiently. "Every thing in its own hour and each hour is written. I will consider what to do."
Below on the waist-deck Sakr-el-Bahr was pacing with Vigitello, and Vigitello's words to him were of a tenor identical almost with those of Biskaine to the Basha.
"I scarce can judge," said the Italian renegade. "But I do think that it were not wise for either thou or Asad to take the first step against the other."
"Are matters, then, so equal between us?"
"Numbers, I fear," replied Vigitello, "would be in favour of Asad. No truly devout Muslim will stand against the Basha, the representative of the Sublime Portal, to whom loyalty is a question of religion. Yet they are accustomed to obey thee, to leap at thy command, and so Asad himself were rash to put it to the test."
"Ay--a sound argument," said Sakr-el-Bahr. "It is as I had thought."
Upon that he quitted Vigitello, and slowly, thoughtfully, returned to the poop-deck. It was his hope--his only hope now--that Asad might accept the proposal he had made him. As the price of it he was fully prepared for the sacrifice of his own life, which it must entail. But, it was not for him to approach Asad again; to do so would be to argue doubt and anxiety and so to court refusal. He must possess his soul in what patience he could. If Asad persisted in his refusal undeterred by any fear of mutiny, then Sakr-el-Bahr knew not what course remained him to accomplish Rosamund's deliverance. Proceed to stir up mutiny he dared not. It was too desperate a throw. In his own view it offered him no slightest chance of success, and did it fail, then indeed all would be lost, himself destroyed, and Rosamund at the mercy of Asad. He was as one walking along a sword-edge. His only chance of present immunity for himself and Rosamund lay in the confidence that Asad would dare no more than himself to take the initiative in aggression. But that was only for the present, and at any moment Asad might give the word to put about and steer for Barbary again; in no case could that be delayed beyond the plundering of the Spanish argosy. He nourished the faint hope that in that coming fight--if indeed the Spaniards did show fight--some chance might perhaps present itself, some unexpected way out of the present situation.
He spent the night under the stars, stretched across the threshold of the curtained entrance to the poop-house, making thus a barrier of his body whilst he slept, and himself watched over in his turn by his faithful Nubians who remained on guard. He awakened when the first violet tints of dawn were in the east, and quietly dismissing the weary slaves to their rest, he kept watch alone thereafter. Under the awning on the starboard quarter slept the Basha and his son, and near them Biskaine was snoring.
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The Sea-Hawk -by- Rafael Sabatini