Asad-ed-Din, the Lion of the Faith, Basha of Algiers, walked in the evening cool in the orchard of the Kasbah upon the heights above the city, and at his side, stepping daintily, came Fenzileh, his wife, the first lady of his hareem, whom eighteen years ago he had carried off in his mighty arms from that little whitewashed village above the Straits of Messina which his followers had raided.
She had been a lissom maid of sixteen in those far-off days, the child of humble peasant-folk, and she had gone uncomplaining to the arms of her swarthy ravisher. To-day, at thirty-four, she was still beautiful, more beautiful indeed than when first she had fired the passion of Asad-Reis—as he then was, one of the captains of the famous Ali-Basha. There were streaks of red in her heavy black tresses, her skin was of a soft pearliness that seemed translucent, her eyes were large, of a golden-brown, agleam with sombre fires, her lips were full and sensuous. She was tall and of a shape that in Europe would have been accounted perfect, which is to say that she was a thought too slender for Oriental taste; she moved along beside her lord with a sinuous, languorous grace, gently stirring her fan of ostrich plumes. She was unveiled; indeed it was her immodest habit to go naked of face more often than was seemly, which is but the least of the many undesirable infidel ways which had survived her induction into the Faith of Islam—a necessary step before Asad, who was devout to the point of bigotry, would consent to make her his wife. He had found her such a wife as it is certain he could never have procured at home; a woman who, not content to be his toy, the plaything of his idle hour, insinuated herself into affairs, demanded and obtained his confidences, and exerted over him much the same influence as the wife of a European prince might exert over her consort. In the years during which he had lain under the spell of her ripening beauty he had accepted the situation willingly enough; later, when he would have curtailed her interferences, it was too late; she had taken a firm grip of the reins, and Asad was in no better case than many a European husband—an anomalous and outrageous condition this for a Basha of the Prophet's House. It was also a dangerous one for Fenzileh; for should the burden of her at any time become too heavy for her lord there was a short and easy way by which he could be rid of it. Do not suppose her so foolish as not to have realized this—she realized it fully; but her Sicilian spirit was daring to the point of recklessness; her very dauntlessness which had enabled her to seize a control so unprecedented in a Muslim wife urged her to maintain it in the face of all risks.
Dauntless was she now, as she paced there in the cool of the orchard, under the pink and white petals of the apricots, the flaming scarlet of pomegranate blossoms, and through orange-groves where the golden fruit glowed and amid foliage of sombre green. She was at her eternal work of poisoning the mind of her lord against Sakr-el-Bahr, and in her maternal jealousy she braved the dangers of such an undertaking, fully aware of how dear to the heart of Asad-ed-Din was that absent renegade corsair. It was this very affection of the Basha's for his lieutenant that was the fomenter of her own hate of Sakr-el-Bahr, for it was an affection that transcended Asad's love for his own son and hers, and it led to the common rumour that for Sakr-el-Bahr was reserved the high destiny of succeeding Asad in the Bashalik.
"I tell thee thou'rt abused by him, O source of my life."
"I hear thee," answered Asad sourly. "And were thine own hearing less infirm, woman, thou wouldst have heard me answer thee that thy words weigh for naught with me against his deeds. Words may be but a mask upon our thoughts; deeds are ever the expression of them. Bear thou that in mind, O Fenzileh."
"Do I not bear in mind thine every word, O fount of wisdom?" she protested, and left him, as she often did, in doubt whether she fawned or sneered. "And it is his deeds I would have speak for him, not indeed my poor words and still less his own."
"Then, by the head of Allah, let those same deeds speak, and be thou silent."
The harsh tone of his reproof and the scowl upon his haughty face, gave her pause for a moment. He turned about.
"Come!" he said. "Soon it will be the hour of prayer." And he paced back towards the yellow huddle of walls of the Kasbah that overtopped the green of that fragrant place.
He was a tall, gaunt man, stooping slightly at the shoulders under the burden of his years; but his eagle face was masterful, and some lingering embers of his youth still glowed in his dark eyes. Thoughtfully, with a jewelled hand, he stroked his long white beard; with the other he leaned upon her soft plump arm, more from habit than for support, for he was full vigorous still.
High in the blue overhead a lark burst suddenly into song, and from the depths of the orchard came a gentle murmur of doves as if returning thanks for the lessening of the great heat now that the sun was sinking rapidly towards the world's edge and the shadows were lengthening.
Came Fenzileh's voice again, more musical than either, yet laden with words of evil, poison wrapped in honey.
"O my dear lord, thou'rt angered with me now. Woe me! that never may I counsel thee for thine own glory as my heart prompts me, but I must earn thy coldness."
"Abuse not him I love," said the Basha shortly. "I have told thee so full oft already."
She nestled closer to him, and her voice grew softer, more akin to the amorous cooing of the doves. "And do I not love thee, O master of my soul? Is there in all the world a heart more faithful to thee than mine? Is not thy life my life? Have not my days been all devoted to the perfecting of thine happiness? And wilt thou then frown upon me if I fear for thee at the hands of an intruder of yesterday?"
"Fear for me?" he echoed, and laughed jeeringly. "What shouldst thou fear for me from Sakr-el-Bahr?"
"What all believers must ever fear from one who is no true Muslim, from one who makes a mock and travesty of the True Faith that he may gain advancement."
The Basha checked in his stride, and turned upon her angrily.
"May thy tongue rot, thou mother of lies!"
"I am as the dust beneath thy feet, O my sweet lord, yet am I not what thine heedless anger calls me."
"Heedless?" quoth he. "Not heedless but righteous to hear one whom the Prophet guards, who is the very javelin of Islam against the breast of the unbeliever, who carries the scourge of Allah against the infidel Frankish pigs, so maligned by thee! No more, I say! Lest I bid thee make good thy words, and pay the liar's price if thou shouldst fail."
"And should I fear the test?" she countered, nothing daunted. "I tell thee, O father of Marzak, that I should hail it gladly. Why, hear me now. Thou settest store by deeds, not words. Tell me, then, is it the deed of a True-Believer to waste substance upon infidel slaves, to purchase them that he may set them free?"
Asad moved on in silence. That erstwhile habit of Sakr-el-Bahr's was one not easy to condone. It had occasioned him his moments of uneasiness, and more than once had he taxed his lieutenant with the practice ever to receive the same answer, the answer which he now made to Fenzileh. "For every slave that he so manumitted, he brought a dozen into bondage."
"Perforce, else would he be called to account. 'Twas so much dust he flung into the face of true Muslimeen. Those manumissions prove a lingering fondness for the infidel country whence he springs. Is there room for that in the heart of a true member of the Prophet's immortal House? Hast ever known me languish for the Sicilian shore from which in thy might thou wrested me, or have I ever besought of thee the life of a single Sicilian infidel in all these years that I have lived to serve thee? Such longings are betrayed, I say, by such a practice, and such longings could have no place in one who had uprooted infidelity from his heart. And now this voyage of his beyond the seas—risking a vessel that he captured from the arch-enemy of Islam, which is not his to risk but thine in whose name he captured it; and together with it he imperils the lives of two hundred True-Believers. To what end? To bear him overseas, perchance that he may look again upon the unhallowed land that gave him birth. So Biskaine reported. And what if he should founder on the way?"
"Thou at least wouldst be content, thou fount of malice," growled Asad.
"Call me harsh names, O sun that warms me! Am I not thine to use and abuse at thy sweet pleasure? Pour salt upon the heart thou woundest; since it is thy hand I'll never murmur a complaint. But heed me—heed my words; or since words are of no account with thee, then heed his deeds which I am drawing to thy tardy notice. Heed them, I say, as my love bids me even though thou shouldst give me to be whipped or slain for my temerity."
"Woman, thy tongue is like the clapper of a bell with the devil swinging from the rope. What else dost thou impute?"
"Naught else, since thou dost but mock me, withdrawing thy love from thy fond slave."
"The praise to Allah, then," said he. "Come, it is the hour of prayer!"
But he praised Allah too soon. Woman-like, though she protested she had done, she had scarce begun as yet.
"There is thy son, O father of Marzak."
"There is, O mother of Marzak."
"And a man's son should be the partner of his soul. Yet is Marzak passed over for this foreign upstart; yet does this Nasrani of yesterday hold the place in thy heart and at thy side that should be Marzak's."
"Could Marzak fill that place," he asked. "Could that beardless boy lead men as Sakr-el-Bahr leads them, or wield the scimitar against the foes of Islam and increase as Sakr-el-Bahr increases the glory of the Prophet's Holy Law upon the earth?"
"If Sakr-el-Bahr does this, he does it by thy favour, O my lord. And so might Marzak, young though he be. Sakr-el-Bahr is but what thou hast made him—no more, no less."
"There art thou wrong, indeed, O mother of error. Sakr-el-Bahr is what Allah hath made him. He is what Allah wills. He shall become what Allah wills. Hast yet to learn that Allah has bound the fate of each man about his neck?"
And then a golden glory suffused the deep sapphire of the sky heralding the setting of the sun and made an end of that altercation, conducted by her with a daring as singular as the patience that had endured it. He quickened his steps in the direction of the courtyard. That golden glow paled as swiftly as it had spread, and night fell as suddenly as if a curtain had been dropped.
In the purple gloom that followed the white cloisters of the courtyard glowed with a faintly luminous pearliness. Dark forms of slaves stirred as Asad entered from the garden followed by Fenzileh, her head now veiled in a thin blue silken gauze. She flashed across the quadrangle and vanished through one of the archways, even as the distant voice of a Mueddin broke plaintively upon the brooding stillness reciting the Shehad—
"La illaha, illa Allah! Wa Muhammad er Rasool Allah!"
A slave spread a carpet, a second held a great silver bowl, into which a third poured water. The Basha, having washed, turned his face towards Mecca, and testified to the unity of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, King of the Day of judgment, whilst the cry of the Mueddin went echoing over the city from minaret to minaret.
As he rose from his devotions, there came a quick sound of steps without, and a sharp summons. Turkish janissaries of the Basha's guard, invisible almost in their flowing black garments, moved to answer that summons and challenge those who came.
From the dark vaulted entrance of the courtyard leapt a gleam of lanterns containing tiny clay lamps in which burned a wick that was nourished by mutton fat. Asad, waiting to learn who came, halted at the foot of the white glistening steps, whilst from doors and lattices of the palace flooded light to suffuse the courtyard and set the marbles shimmering.
A dozen Nubian javelin-men advanced, then ranged themselves aside whilst into the light stepped the imposing, gorgeously robed figure of Asad's wazeer, Tsamanni. After him came another figure in mail that clanked faintly and glimmered as he moved.
"Peace and the Prophet's blessings upon thee, O mighty Asad!" was the wazeer's greeting.
"And peace upon thee, Tsamanni," was the answer. "Art the bearer of news?"
"Of great and glorious tidings, O exalted one! Sakr-el-Bahr is returned."
"The praise to Him!" exclaimed the Basha, with uplifted hands; and there was no mistaking the thrill of his voice.
There fell a soft step behind him and a shadow from the doorway. He turned. A graceful stripling in turban and caftan of cloth of gold salaamed to him from the topmast step. And as he came upright and the light of the lanterns fell full upon his face the astonishingly white fairness of it was revealed—a woman's face it might have been, so softly rounded was it in its beardlessness.
Asad smiled wrily in his white beard, guessing that the boy had been sent by his ever-watchful mother to learn who came and what the tidings that they bore.
"Thou hast heard, Marzak?" he said. "Sakr-el-Bahr is returned."
"Victoriously, I hope," the lad lied glibly.
"Victorious beyond aught that was ever known," replied Tsamanni. "He sailed at sunset into the harbour, his company aboard two mighty Frankish ships, which are but the lesser part of the great spoil he brings."
"Allah is great," was the Basha's glad welcome of this answer to those insidious promptings of his Sicilian wife. "Why does he not come in person with his news?"
"His duty keeps him yet awhile aboard, my lord," replied the wazeer. "But he hath sent his kayia Othmani here to tell the tale of it."
"Thrice welcome be thou, Othmani." He beat his hands together, whereat slaves placed cushions for him upon the ground. He sat, and beckoned Marzak to his side. "And now thy tale!"
And Othmani standing forth related how they had voyaged to distant England in the ship that Sakr-el-Bahr had captured, through seas that no corsair yet had ever crossed, and how on their return they had engaged a Dutchman that was their superior in strength and numbers; how none the less Sakr-el-Bahr had wrested victory by the help of Allah, his protector, how he had been dealt a wound that must have slain any but one miraculously preserved for the greater glory of Islam, and of the surpassing wealth of the booty which at dawn tomorrow should be laid at Asad's feet for his division of it.