THE OPEN space before the gates of the Sôk-el-Abeed was thronged with a motley, jostling, noisy crowd that at every moment was being swelled by the human streams pouring to mingle in it from the debauching labyrinth of narrow, unpaved streets.
There were brown-skinned Berbers in black goat-hair cloaks that were made in one piece with a cowl and decorated by a lozenge of red or orange colour on the back, their shaven heads encased in skull-caps or simply bound in a cord of plaited camel-hair; there were black Saharowi who went almost naked, and stately Arabs who seemed overmuffled in their flowing robes of white with the cowls overshadowing their swarthy, finely featured faces; there were dignified and prosperous-looking Moors in brightly coloured selhams astride of sleek mules that were richly caparisoned; and there were Tagareenes, the banished Moors of Andalusia, most of whom followed the trade of slave-dealers; there were native Jews in sombre black djellabas, and Christian-Jews--so-called because bred in Christian countries, whose garments they still wore; there were Levantine Turks, splendid of dress and arrogant of demeanour, and there were humble Cololies, Kabyles and Biscaries. Here a water-seller, laden with his goatskin vessel, tinkled his little bell; there an orange-hawker, balancing a basket of the golden fruit upon his ragged turban, bawled his wares. There were men on foot and men on mules, men on donkeys and men on slim Arab horses, an ever-shifting medley of colours, all jostling, laughing, cursing in the ardent African sunshine under the blue sky where pigeons circled. In the shadow of the yellow tapia wall squatted a line of whining beggars and cripples soliciting alms; near the gates a little space had been cleared and an audience had gathered in a ring about a Meddah--a beggar-troubadour--who, to the accompaniment of gimbri and gaitah from two acolytes, chanted a doleful ballad in a thin, nasal voice.
Those of the crowd who were patrons of the market held steadily amain, and, leaving their mounts outside, passed through the gates through which there was no admittance for mere idlers and mean folk. Within the vast quadrangular space of bare, dry ground, enclosed by dust-coloured walls, there was more space. The sale of slaves had not yet begun and was not due to begin for another hour, and meanwhile a little trading was being done by those merchants who had obtained the coveted right to set up their booths against the walls; they were vendors of wool, of fruit, of spices, and one or two traded in jewels and trinkets for the adornment of the Faithful.
A well was sunk in the middle of the ground, a considerable octagon with a low parapet in three steps. Upon the nethermost of these sat an aged, bearded Jew in a black djellaba, his head swathed in a coloured kerchief. Upon his knees reposed a broad, shallow black box, divided into compartments, each filled with lesser gems and rare stones, which he was offering for sale; about him stood a little group of young Moors and one or two Turkish officers, with several of whom the old Israelite was haggling at once.
The whole of the northern wall was occupied by a long penthouse, its contents completely masked by curtains of camel-hair; from behind it proceeded a subdued murmur of human voices. These were the pens in which were confined the slaves to be offered for sale that day. Before the curtains, on guard, stood some dozen corsairs with attendant negro slaves.
Beyond and above the wall glistened the white dome of a zowia, flanked by a spear-like minaret and the tall heads of a few date palms whose long leaves hung motionless in the hot air.
Suddenly in the crowd beyond the gates there was a commotion. From one of the streets six colossal Nubians advanced with shouts of----
"Oâk! Oâk! Warda! Way! Make way!"
They were armed with great staves, grasped in their two hands, and with these they broke a path through that motley press, hurling men to right and left and earning a shower of curses in return.
"Balâk! Make way! Way for the Lord Asad-ed-Din, the exalted of Allah! Way!"
The crowd, pressing back, went down upon its knees and grovelled as Asad-ed-Din on a milk-white mule rode forward, escorted by Tsamanni his wazeer and a cloud of black-robed janissaries with flashing scimitars.
The curses that had greeted the violence of his negroes were suddenly silenced; instead, blessings as fervent filled the air.
"May Allah increase thy might! May Allah lengthen thy days! The blessings of our Lord Mahomet upon thee! Allah send thee more victories!" were the benedictions that showered upon him on every hand. He returned them as became a man who was supremely pious and devout.
"The peace of Allah upon the Faithful of the Prophet's House," he would murmur in response from time to time, until at last he had reached the gates. There he bade Tsamanni fling a purse to the crouching beggars-- for is it not written in the Most Perspicuous Book that of alms ye shall bestow what ye can spare, for such as are saved from their own greed shall prosper, and whatever ye give in alms, as seeking the face of Allah shall be doubled unto you?
Submissive to the laws as the meanest of his subjects, Asad dismounted and passed on foot into the sôk. He came to a halt by the well, and, facing the curtained penthouse, he blessed the kneeling crowd and commanded all to rise.
He beckoned Sakr-el-Bahr's officer Ali--who was in charge of the slaves of the corsair's latest raid and announced his will to inspect the captives. At a sign from Ali, the negroes flung aside the camel-hair curtains and let the fierce sunlight beat in upon those pent-up wretches; they were not only the captives taken by Sakr-el-Bahr, but some others who were the result of one or two lesser raids by Biskaine.
Asad beheld a huddle of men and women--though the proportion of women was very small--of all ages, races, and conditions; there were pale fair-haired men from France or the North, olive-skinned Italians and swarthy Spaniards, negroes and half-castes; there were old men, young men and mere children, some handsomely dressed, some almost naked, others hung with rags. In the hopeless dejection of their countenances alone was there any uniformity. But it was not a dejection that could awaken pity in the pious heart of Asad. They were unbelievers who would never look upon the face of God's Prophet, accursed and unworthy of any tenderness from man. For a moment his glance was held by a lovely black-haired Spanish girl, who sat with her locked hands held fast between her knees, in an attitude of intense despair and suffering--the glory of her eyes increased and magnified by the dark brown stains of sleeplessness surrounding them. Leaning on Tsamanni's arm, he stood considering her for a little while; then his glance travelled on. Suddenly he tightened his grasp of Tsamanni's arm and a quick interest leapt into his sallow face.
On the uppermost tier of the pen that he was facing sat a very glory of womanhood, such a woman as he had heard tell existed but the like of which he had never yet beheld. She was tall and graceful as a cypress-tree; her skin was white as milk, her eyes two darkest sapphires, her head of a coppery golden that seemed to glow like metal as the sunlight caught it. She was dressed in a close gown of white, the bodice cut low and revealing the immaculate loveliness of her neck.
Asad-ed-Din turned to Ali. "What pearl is this that hath been cast upon this dung-heap?" he asked.
"She is the woman our lord Sakr-el-Bahr carried off from England." Slowly the Basha's eyes returned to consider her, and insensible though she had deemed herself by now, he saw her cheeks slowly reddening under the cold insult of his steady, insistent glance. The glow heightened her beauty, effacing the weariness which the face had worn.
"Bring her forth," said the Basha shortly.
She was seized by two of the negroes, and to avoid being roughly handled by them she came at once, bracing herself to bear with dignity whatever might await her. A golden-haired young man beside her, his face haggard and stubbled with a beard of some growth, looked up in alarm as she was taken from his side. Then, with a groan, he made as if to clutch her, but a rod fell upon his raised arms and beat them down.
Asad was thoughtful. It was Fenzileh who had bidden him come look at the infidel maid whom Sakr-el-Bahr had risked so much to snatch from England, suggesting that in her he would behold some proof of the bad faith which she was forever urging against the corsair leader. He beheld the woman, but he discovered about her no such signs as Fenzileh had suggested he must find, nor indeed did he look for any. Out of curiosity had he obeyed her prompting. But that and all else were forgotten now in the contemplation of this noble ensample of Northern womanhood, statuesque almost in her terrible restraint.
He put forth a hand to touch her arm, and she drew it back as if his fingers were of fire.
He sighed. "How inscrutable are the ways of Allah, that He should suffer so luscious a fruit to hang from the foul tree of infidelity!"
Tsamanni watching him craftily, a master-sycophant profoundly learned in the art of playing upon his master's moods, made answer:
"Even so perchance that a Faithful of the Prophet's House may pluck it. Verily all things are possible to the One!"
"Yet is it not set down in the Book to be Read that the daughters of the infidel are not for True-Believers?" And again he sighed.
But Tsamanni knowing full well how the Basha would like to be answered, trimmed his reply to that desire.
"Allah is great, and what hath befallen once may well befall again, my lord."
Asad's kindling eyes flashed a glance at his wazeer.
"Thou meanest Fenzileh. But then, by the mercy of Allah, I was rendered the instrument of her enlightenment."
"It may well be written that thou shalt be the same again, my lord," murmured the insidious Tsamanni. There was more stirring in his mind than the mere desire to play the courtier now. 'Twixt Fenzileh and himself there had long been a feud begotten of the jealousy which each inspired in the other where Asad was concerned. Were Fenzileh removed the wazeer's influence must grow and spread to his own profit. It was a thing of which he had often dreamed, but a dream he feared that was never like to be realized, for Asad was ageing, and the fires that had burned so fiercely in his earlier years seemed now to have consumed in him all thought of women. Yet here was one as by a miracle, of a beauty so amazing and so diverse from any that ever yet had feasted the Basha's sight, that plainly she had acted as a charm upon his senses.
"She is white as the snows upon the Atlas, luscious as the dates of Tafilalt," he murmured fondly, his gleaming eyes considering her what time she stood immovable before him. Suddenly he looked about him, and wheeled upon Tsamanni, his manner swiftly becoming charged with anger.
"Her face has been bared to a thousand eyes and more," he cried.
"Even that has been so before," replied Tsamanni.
And then quite suddenly at their elbow a voice that was naturally soft and musical of accent but now rendered harsh, cut in to ask:
"What woman may this be?"
Startled, both the Basha and his wazeer swung round. Fenzileh, becomingly veiled and hooded, stood before them, escorted by Marzak. A little behind them were the eunuchs and the litter in which, unperceived by Asad, she had been borne thither. Beside the litter stood her wazeer Ayoub-el-Samin.
Asad scowled down upon her, for he had not yet recovered from the resentment she and Marzak had provoked in him. Moreover, that in private she should be lacking in the respect which was his due was evil enough, though he had tolerated it. But that she should make so bold as to thrust in and question him in this peremptory fashion before all the world was more than his dignity could suffer. Never yet had she dared so much nor would she have dared it now but that her sudden anxiety had effaced all caution from her mind. She had seen the look with which Asad had been considering that lovely slave, and not only jealousy but positive fear awoke in her. Her hold upon Asad was growing tenuous. To snap it utterly no more was necessary than that he who of late years had scarce bestowed a thought or glance upon a woman should be taken with the fancy to bring some new recruit to his hareem.
Hence her desperate, reckless courage to stand thus before him now, for although her face was veiled there was hardy arrogance in every line of her figure. Of his scowl she took no slightest heed.
"If this be the slave fetched by Sakr-el-Bahr from England, then rumour has lied to me," she said. "I vow it was scarce worth so long a voyage and the endangering so many valuable Muslim lives to fetch this yellow-faced, long-shanked daughter of perdition into Barbary.
Asad's surprise beat down his anger. He was not subtle.
"Yellow-faced? Long-shanked?" quoth he. Then reading Fenzileh at last, he displayed a slow, crooked smile. "Already have I observed thee to grow hard of hearing, and now thy sight is failing too, it seems. Assuredly thou art growing old." And he looked her over with such an eye of displeasure that she recoiled.
He stepped close up to her. "Too long already hast thou queened it in my hareem with thine infidel, Frankish ways," he muttered, so that none but those immediately about overheard his angry words. "Thou art become a very scandal in the eyes of the Faithful," he added very grimly. "It were well, perhaps, that we amended that."
Abruptly then he turned away, and by a gesture he ordered Ali to return the slave to her place among the others. Leaning on the arm of Tsamanni he took some steps towards the entrance, then halted, and turned again to Fenzileh:
"To thy litter," he bade her peremptorily, rebuking her thus before all, "and get thee to the house as becomes a seemly Muslim woman. Nor ever again let thyself be seen roving the public places afoot."
She obeyed him instantly, without a murmur; and he himself lingered at the gates with Tsamanni until her litter had passed out, escorted by Ayoub and Marzak walking each on one side of it and neither daring to meet the angry eye of the Basha.
Asad looked sourly after that litter, a sneer on his heavy lips.
"As her beauty wanes so her presumption waxes, he growled. "She is growing old, Tsamanni--old and lean and shrewish, and no fit mate for a Member of the Prophet's House. It were perhaps a pleasing thing in the sight of Allah that we replaced her." And then, referring obviously to that other one, his eye turning towards the penthouse the curtains of which were drawn again, he changed his tone.
"Didst thou mark, O Tsamanni, with what a grace she moved?--lithely and nobly as a young gazelle. Verily, so much beauty was never created by the All-Wise to be cast into the Pit."
"May it not have been sent to comfort some True-Believer?" wondered the subtle wazeer. "To Allah all things are possible."
"Why else, indeed?" said Asad. "It was written; and even as none may obtain what is not written, so none may avoid what is. I am resolved. Stay thou here, Tsamanni. Remain for the outcry and purchase her. She shall be taught the True Faith. She shall be saved from the furnace." The command had come, the thing that Tsamanni had so ardently desired.
He licked his lips. "And the price, my lord?" he asked, in a small voice.
"Price?" quoth Asad. "Have I not bid thee purchase her? Bring her to me, though her price be a thousand philips."
"A thousand philips!" echoed Tsamanni amazed. "Allah is great!"
But already Asad had left his side and passed out under the arched gateway, where the grovelling anew at the sight of him.
It was a fine thing for Asad to bid him remain for the sale. But the dalal would part with no slave until the money was forthcoming, and Tsamanni had no considerable sum upon his person. Therefore in the wake of his master he set out forthwith to the Kasbah. It wanted still an hour before the sale would be held and he had time and to spare in which to go and return.
It happened, however, that Tsamanni was malicious, and that the hatred of Fenzileh which so long he had consumed in silence and dissembled under fawning smiles and profound salaams included also her servants. There was none in all the world of whom he entertained a greater contempt than her sleek and greasy eunuch Ayoub-el-Samin of the majestic, rolling gait and fat, supercilious lips.
It was written, too, that in the courtyard of the Kasbah he should stumble upon Ayoub, who indeed had by his mistress's commands been set to watch for the wazeer. The fat fellow rolled forward, his hands supporting his paunch, his little eyes agleam.
"Allah increase thy health, Tsamanni," was his courteous greeting. "Thou bearest news?"
"News? What news?" quoth Tsamanni. "In truth none that will gladden thy mistress."
"Merciful Allah! What now? Doth it concern that Frankish slave-girl?"
Tsamanni smiled, a thing that angered Ayoub, who felt that the ground he trod was becoming insecure; it followed that if his mistress fell from influence he fell with her, and became as the dust upon Tsamanni's slippers.
"By the Koran thou tremblest, Ayoub!" Tsamanni mocked him. "Thy soft fat is all a-quivering; and well it may, for thy days are numbered, O father of nothing."
"Dost deride me, dog?" came the other's voice, shrill now with anger.
"Callest me dog? Thou?" Deliberately Tsamanni spat upon his shadow. "Go tell thy mistress that I am bidden by my lord to buy the Frankish girl. Tell her that my lord will take her to wife, even as he took Fenzileh, that he may lead her into the True Belief and cheat Shaitan of so fair a jewel. Add that I am bidden to buy her though she cost my lord a thousand philips. Bear her that message, O father of wind, and may Allah increase thy paunch!" And he was gone, lithe, active, and mocking.
"May thy sons perish and thy daughters become harlots," roared the eunuch, maddened at once by this evil news and the insult with which it was accompanied.
But Tsamanni only laughed, as he answered him over his shoulder----
"May thy sons be sultans all, Ayoub!"
Quivering still with a rage that entirely obliterated his alarm at what he had learnt, Ayoub rolled into the presence of his mistress with that evil message.
She listened to him in a dumb white fury. Then she fell to reviling her lord and the slave-girl in a breath, and called upon Allah to break their bones and blacken their faces and rot their flesh with all the fervour of one born and bred in the True Faith. When she recovered from that burst of fury it was to sit brooding awhile. At length she sprang up and bade Ayoub see that none lurked to listen about the doorways.
"We must act, Ayoub, and act swiftly, or I am destroyed and with me will be destroyed Marzak, who alone could not stand against his father's face. Sakr-el-Bahr will trample us into the dust." She checked on a sudden thought. "By Allah it may have been a part of his design to have brought hither that white-faced wench. But we must thwart him and we must thwart Asad, or thou art ruined too, Ayoub."
"Thwart him?" quoth her wazeer, gaping at the swift energy of mind and body with which this woman was endowed, the like of which he had never seen in any woman yet. "Thwart him?" he repeated.
"First, Ayoub, to place this Frankish girl beyond his reach."
"That is well thought--but how?"
"How? Can thy wit suggest no way? Hast thou wits at all in that fat head of thine? Thou shalt outbid Tsamanni, or, better still, set someone else to do it for thee, and so buy the girl for me. Then we'll contrive that she shall vanish quietly and quickly before Asad can discover a trace of her."
His face blanched, and the wattles about his jaws were shaking. "And . . . and the cost? Hast thou counted the cost, O Fenzileh? What will happen when Asad gains knowledge of this thing?"
"He shall gain no knowledge of it," she answered him. "Or if he does, the girl being gone beyond recall, he shall submit him to what was written. Trust me to know how to bring him to it."
"Lady, lady!" he cried, and wrung his bunches of fat fingers. "I dare not engage in this!"
"Engage in what? If I bid thee go buy this girl, and give thee the money thou'lt require, what else concerns thee, dog? What else is to be done, a man shall do. Come now, thou shalt have the money, all I have, which is a matter of some fifteen hundred philips, and what is not laid out upon this purchase thou shalt retain for thyself."
He considered an instant, and conceived that she was right. None could blame him for executing the commands she gave him. And there would be profit in it, clearly--ay, and it would be sweet to outbid that dog Tsamanni and send him empty-handed home to face the wrath of his frustrated master. He spread his hands and salaamed in token of complete acquiescence.
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