Read chapter Three from Barbary Slave

CHAPTER 3

Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library

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Yuvaz the Armless scurried like a frightened rat beside the white expanse of the garden courtyard wall. His sharp teeth were clamped down hard on a great iron key. Under his plain woolen robe his heart hammered with wild exultation. At last the plans over which he had nursed his pain and his burned arms were bearing fruit.

Beyond that street gate, the key to which he held in his teeth, men were waiting for his words in an eagerness that matched his own. Men had worked with loving care sharpening slim daggers to let the life all the more easily from the body of Yussuf Caramanli. Haste was mixed with that care, for all Tripoli knew that its pasha was readying his ship, the Burak, for a sea voyage. Once the Burak raised its anchor, no man could tell when Yussuf Caramanli would return, or whether those cursed Americanos in the big frigates would kill him on the sea. The pleasure of his pasha’s death was something that the armless one had promised himself for a long time. It would not be prudent to wait much longer.

Yuvaz came to a stop, his turbaned head tilted slightly, to listen to the night sounds floating on the sea wind off the road stead. He heard the faint giggle of harem girls, and the measured tread of a guard on the parapet high above. Somewhere, fingers were plucking out a muted tune. Ordinary sounds, little sounds the palace made on a uneventful night. For a long moment, Yuvaz went on listening.

Reassured, he ran hurriedly along the mud wall to the door that led onto the street. He bent his head, still gripping the key.

Yuvaz knelt down. Working his head sideways, he slid the key into the lock. He felt the pin miss and slip. Frantically he tightened the grip of his teeth and raised his head slightly. Now the bits slid in and took hold.

When the key was securely in the lock, he paused, leaning back on his calves to rest. He gulped in mouthfuls of the cool air, knowing his brow was beaded with nervous sweat. Then he bent his head again, and gripped the large quartrefoil of the key in his teeth. Carefully he twisted his head, and the lock opened. His cheek against the latch lifted it, and door swung open. Yuvaz got to his feet and stood there, Smiling grimly.

“None will suspect Yuvaz the Armless of this treachery! How can a man without arms or hands open a locked door? No, Yuvaz. You are safe.”

He went out into the night, his slippered toe dragging the door shut behind him.

Sinan ibn Ajaj came for Fletcher after the evening mealtime. He pushed his bald head with its dangling topknot through the open door of the little room and flashed white teeth in a wicked grin.

Fletcher lay stretched on the bed, hands behind his neck. On a small ebony table was the platter that had held his meat square and eggs. The big goblet that had been filled with palm wine was empty.

Sinan came into the room, one shaggy eyebrow uplifted. “You’re not one to worry overmuch about the death by red hot pinchers and sharp razor hooks, Americano! Eh, well I Nobody ever said you were a coward.”

“Has the Pasha sold me to Mustafa reis?”

“More than likely. They’re in the audience hall now. Yussuf sent me to bring you there.”

Fletcher swung his legs over the edge of his low bed. It had been a good month, this last, except for the fact that he was a slave. Good food three times a day, and no duty to shackle him down except the task of stalking around after Marlani Chamiprak with a scimitar on his hip.

“All good things come to an end,” he told the Turk.

Sinan watched him with bright eyes. All along he thought this nasrany giant was a madman. Now he knew it. He went to death by torture—slow torture that would take more than a month to kill him, if he knew Mustafa reis—with a grin curving his lips. Grudgingly, Sinan felt admiration dawn in him.

Almost respectfully, he said, “Come with me, Christian.” As they walked side by side down the long gallery and the wide stair beside the harem quarters, Sinan grumbled, “I’m sorry, Stefan. I’ll miss you.” For all that you’re an infidel, by Allah, you’re a man!”

Sinan paused at the arched horseshoe door of the audience hall. His big hand at Fletcher’s shoulder shoved the American into the long room.

Carpets lay thick on the tiled floor. At the far end of the room, on a dais built of marble and covered with Aubusson carpets and Persian rugs, Yussuf Caramanli sat on his cushioned throne, cross-legged. A baldachin of ivory and marble towered overhead, dwarfing the pasha and the corsair captain who stood rigid and proud before him.

Fletcher found his footfalls making loud sounds in the stillness. Under his ribs, his heart thudded so hard he thought it must be reverberating through the long hall, too. He came to a stop, to find Yussuf Caramanli smiling grimly at him.

“Mustafa reis tells me you hit him with your fist this afternoon, nasrany. That was a very foolish thing to do. Especially since Mustafa offers to buy your bondage for double the price I paid Ali ben Sidi.”

Ever since he had been put behind the locked door of his room, Fletcher had been thinking hard. Now he bowed, and smiled a little. “As always, you speak truth, father of wisdom. I did what you say. I hit the captain. But I only acted in defense of the Caramanli name.”

Mustafa reis cursed hotly and swung around on a heel, his dark eyes glowing. Even his perfumed brown beard seemed to writhe in his fury. “The Christian filth lies in his teeth! I said no thing to insult my pasha!”

Fletcher faced the infuriated corsair, willing himself to be calm. “The captain reis did worse than that. He showed his scorn of his lord by spitting on his property.”

A silence fell in the audience hall. Yussuf Caramanli leaned back, and sighed deeply. He turned his arrogant eyes toward the corsair captain. The pasha realized that he had never, liked this stiff-necked Mustafa reis, whose raids on Christian shipping were always so successful and so profitable. Of the fact that jealousy, might enter into his feeling, he took no heed. Concerned only with his pride and his name, Yussuf saw in his arrogance that Mustafa reis might conceivably become a threat to him. More than one corsair captain had elevated himself to the pashaship on the ladder of his sea victories. He himself had won it from his brother Hamet by revolt.

What Yussuf had done to Hamet, Mustafa could do to Yussuf. To allow Mustafa reis this opportunity to flaunt himself in the eyes of his brother captains was not to be thought of. Slowly he said, “The nasrany is a very judge, a kadi of the law. I am ashamed to admit that he teaches me my royalty. A royalty that my captains delight in ignoring. Or worse!”

Mustafa reis breathed heavily. His brown hands opened and closed at his thighs like the talons of a hunting eagle. He burst out harshly, “There has been no thought of disloyalty!”

“You spat upon my property. It is the same as spitting on me!” The pasha allowed the words he spoke to bolster his anger. The more he thought about this thing that had been done, the angrier he became. He leaned forward from the waist and hissed his words.

“Must a slave teach me that my goods are sacred, as I am sacred? Thank Allah that my slave defends my name on the streets of the city I rule. In defending his person, that belongs to me, he defended me! Mustafa reis, you spat on me!”

The corsair captain poised a moment between open defiance and abject submission. Only too well did he know the power of this man who sat high on his throne cushions throwing words at him. The temptation to defy Yussuf Caramanli in his towering rage was little short of suicidal. He had none of his men at his back, while the palace swarmed with the pasha’s guards.

And so, in his humility, Mustafa reis hung his handsome head, so that the silver oil cressets threw their reflections from his shaven skull. “Accept my apology, Yussuf Caramanli! It was without thought that I did this deed. I intended no insult to you and to what belongs to you. On the beard of the Prophet, I swear it!”

The pasha glowered. Mustafa reis was too good a sea captain to punish over hard. In the interests of his he must know magnanimity. He said sullenly, “How can I be sure this will not happen again, and again, until my name is no more than a laughing stock in the market places?” Mustafa reis stood with his head lowered. He said harshly, “I have three chests filled with gold coins that I took from a Portuguese ketch. My slaves will bring the chests to the palace, as proof of my innocence, and of my allegiance.”

The pasha allowed himself to be as generous as his captain. His hand waved, the big emerald on his forefinger glinting with green fire. “I am pleased with Mustafa reis. I accept this evidence of good faith. Forget this vengeance on the infidel. He is only the dirt beneath your slippers. Only the slave who guards the person of my kedin.”

Mustafa reis whispered that he would follow the advice of his pasha, but the veins were swollen in his temples and his eyes glowed with the fury in him. Watching Mustafa, Fletcher knew that his body had been spared unutterable tortures only by the pride of Yussuf Caramanli. As long as Yussuf lived, Fletcher was safe.

When the corsair captain was gone, after a long, hard look at Fletcher, the pasha frowned down at him from his height of cushions. There was puzzlement and curiosity in the stare he directed at the American. It was as if Yussuf Caramanli asked himself how it had come about that this man stood before him now, alive and well.

Curiously he murmured, “Before you entered the audience hall, I had as good as sold you to Mustafa reis. I ask myself, is this my destiny, my kismet, that keeps you safe by my side? You are a sly man. You have sharp wits as well as a strong back. How will you use those wits and that strength? To aid or to harm me?”

Fletcher stood motionless, not quite believing in the luck that had left him stand here with the pasha of Tripoli. By rights, Mustafa reis should be dragging him off now to his own house, into the dungeons where every known form of torture instrument was rumored to be kept always shining. Instead, he was discovering that Yussuf Caramanli was grateful to him.

The pasha said, “I must believe that Allah has sent you to help me. I believe in my fate, my own destiny. Did Allah not side with me against Hamet, when I brought him down from the throne? And believing in my fate, I must also make sure you believe in me and my cause.”

Yussuf Caramanli clapped his hands. Sinan appeared in the doorway. His eyes bulged in his head when he saw Fletcher standing alone before his pasha. He sidled forward, forgetting to bow in his amazement. The loud laughter of Yussuf roused him to his senses.

Summoning Sinan to his feet, Yussuf told him what had happened. “Is he not a very kadi, Sinan? Eh? Heard you ever such an argument? Restore Stefan his scimitar. Then fetch in the slave girls. I’m going to make a present of one of them to the Americano. He’s been virtuous too long in that harem upstairs!”

Yussuf roared his laughter to the vaulted ceiling. His face was flushed with pleasure. Almost childish in his sudden enthusiasms, he could be swayed from hate to affection by a word or a look. Now he was excited as a bridegroom on his wedding night.

He called out to Sinan, “Bring all the slaves, even the ones the kedin bought today in the slave market.”

Fletcher tensed, thinking of the American girl. Yussuf saw the betraying quiver of his muscles and roared. “Ha? One of those new ones took your eye? Eh? Eh? Tell me.”

“An American girl. The girl Mustafa reis wanted to buy.”

“Good, good!” If he could get this man to mate with one of his own kind, he might forge a chain of loyalty in him yet Yussuf Caramanli knew men, and the emotions that men felt for other men. Now that he was convinced the thread of destiny linking Stephen Fletcher to him was for his own good, he became almost maudlin in his desire to please.

“Take the girl, then! And whatever others catch your eye. Nobody can say Yussuf is the least generous of his family!” Marlani Chamiprak came with the girls, in transparent gauze trousers and an orange satin vest, her face dark with anger. Anklets clanked on her feet, and the thick black hair that she wore long over her shoulders, clipped here and there with silver pins, was dancing wildly, in danger of spilling loose. Fury made her walk swiftly, until she was within five feet of Yussuf Caramanli.

“You summoned all my girl slaves? If you need a companion for your bed this night—”

The pasha laughed even more uproariously. His hand waved at Fletcher. “They aren’t for me, but for the nasrany! I’m giving him his choice of women. He has chosen the American girl. Which one is she? Bring her forward, that I may see her myself.”

Marlani Chamiprak went white. She stood rigid, scarcely breathing. The kedin dared display no excess of emotion before the pasha, but Fletcher knew that a riptide of mad jealousy and repressed fury was sweeping through her veins, “You heard the pasha, nasrany,” she choked out. “Tell the girl to come forward. Ask her name.”

Eve Doremus stepped out of the ranks of the new slave girls. She came with an easy stride, as if unaware that there were men here to feast their eyes on the smooth shapeliness of her slender legs, visible through the transparent red silk trousers. The seraglio slave women had done a thorough job with her. Her fingertips were tinted red with henna. Her glossy black hair had been blued by mesmeh and her mouth made fuller by henna paste. A thin veil, a khalak, scarcely hid the thrusting firmness of her pointed breasts.

“My name is Eve Doremus,” she said dully. “I’m from Boston.”

There was no emotion at all in her voice. It was as if she were dead, Fletcher thought. Then he realized that she was deliberately killing any feeling inside her.

“If you can pay enough money, they’ll hold you for ransom,” he told her gently.

She caught the sympathy in his voice and lifted her eyes. Fletcher swore under his breath. Her little dimpled chin was trembling, and tears hung on her long black lashes. Shame and despair and an agony of spirit lay deep in those eyes. Fletcher writhed inside him at his helplessness.

Harsh laughter cut into their mood suddenly, with the bite of a whiplash. Marlani came striding forward, pointing at the woman. “She sees a fellow American. She thinks he will help her, save her from these terrible pirates. Tell her, Stefan! Tell her she belongs to you. That she is to be your own slave. A slave’s slave, by Allah!”

Fletcher told her haltingly at first, then with anger in his voice as he sensed her revulsion. When he was done speaking, in the stiff military tone that betrayed his background, Eve Doremus stared blankly at him.

“You’re no better than they are, are you?’ she whispered. “A traitor! A renegade!”

Fletcher flushed. Marlani Chamiprak laughed softly, triumphantly. She understood no English, but she knew contempt, in whatever language it was spoken. Back there, short minutes ago, she had been ready to kill this big blond Stefan and this woman he preferred over her. Now, she reasoned, there was a better way.

Marlani said sweetly, “Sinan, find another guard for the harem doors this night. And escort Stephen and his little American slave girl to his room. We’ll have no need of him until tomorrow.”

The keeper of the house nodded and salaamed. With a wave of his hand, he brought Fletcher and Eve Doremus out of the room at his heels. The chief slave, the bash-kalfa who had jurisdiction over the harem women at the palace, clapped his hands and followed with the slave women trailing after him.

Sinan paused in the shadow of a gallery archway. The wind moving in off the sea and past the slender columns of the arches ruffled his gray barracan, and blew a strand of brocade wall drapery across a brass-bound chest of red cedar-wood The chief slave bowed to Sinan and withdrew with his barefoot girls.

Eve Doremus looked curiously at Fletcher, standing white and rigid at her side. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “Tonight I am going to kill myself. Or would you prefer to do it for me?”

“Don’t be a stupid little fool!’ he growled, and took her by an elbow.

As they moved along the corridor behind Sinan, Eve Doremus let her anger grow against this American. Strangely, she was discovering that she had no hate in her for the pasha of Tripoli or for his sea captains. They lived their lives as their forefathers had done. It was this big countryman of hers, who knew better, who seemed to be the cause of her degradation.

Out of the corners of her eyes, she stated at his wide chest and lean waist, naked above the copper-studded leather belt that held his scimitar on scabbard chains. With the typical yellow Moroccan leather papush on his feet, with his body, bronzed from long exposure to the sun in the stone quarries, and his thick yellow hair, long uncut, he made a barbaric figure. She could feel his strength in the fingers that gripped her arm, and sullenly she tried to wrench herself free.

He shook her a little, growling, “Behave yourself. You don’t think I’m here because I want to be, do you? I was a marine lieutenant on the Philadelphia when she ran aground. For a year and a half, I’ve been working in the stone quarries.” He drew a deep breath, then plunged on. “A lucky break put me in these clothes, and hung a scimitar by my side. I have it easy now; I don’t want to go back to those quarries. And don’t flatter yourself that your bodily charms made me pick you to take to the room they’ve given me. I only did it to save you from Yussuf Caramanli, or some kaputan he wants to please!”

At the door of the tiny bedchamber, Fletcher stepped aside to let Eve enter. Sinan glanced at him mockingly for his politeness. To the Turks and Arabs of Tripoli, a woman was only a thing to bring pleasure to a man. Occasionally, some harem favorite lifted herself above the anonymity of the other kedins, to command a share of authority, but mostly, courtesy was shown only to the master of the house. “May Allah bless the night,” Sinan murmured, and closed the door behind them.

Eve Doremus studied the little room with its rich but simple furniture. From the low bed, she brought her disturbing gaze to Fletcher.

“Maybe I didn’t understand you correctly, down below. I thought you said I was to be your personal slave. That I was to—” Her cheeks were red, Eve Doremus realized. She bit down hard on her lower lip, then forced herself to say, “That I was to sleep with you, if you demanded it.”

“That’s what I said. I had to say it. I’m a slave myself. I do what they tell me to do, or they’ll string me up by by thumbs and whip my back to pulp. Or worse.”

He went and stood by the window, staring out over the white rooftops of the city, his eyes moving from mosque dome to minaret tower, then to the sloping roofs over which rainwater flowed into the large stone cisterns, providing the Tripolines with drinking water.

Savagely then, he told her of his slavery, and of his commission to guard the wife of Yussuf Caramanli like a common eunuch. He flayed himself with his words, letting her see his abasement, his shamed pride. His subservience to these corsairs was a disgrace to his name, and brought dishonor to the marine corps. His fists beat down against the stone window sill.

“But what would you have me do? Fight and die? Is that really better than being alive, with a chance for escape some dark night? Have you ever been so hungry you killed a man because he crushed a rotten melon with his foot so you couldn’t eat it? That’s what I did. I’ve quarried stone until my hands bled, and my back was so painful I almost cried when anyone touched it. Have you ever felt like that? Who are you to judge me? You — some spinster out of New York or Baltimore—“

“Boston,” she whispered, and then he knew that she was crying.

She was at his elbow as he turned. Tears made channels in her cheeks, and she sobbed uncontrollably. As he opened his arms, she fell against him, burying her wet cheeks against his chest. Her arms caught and held him and she shook and trembled so violently that he had to hold her close against him to steady her.

“I’ve never—done what you did,” she sobbed. “I—I am a spinster. A schoolteacher. I never knew what life could be like. Two aunts brought me up, and educated me at South Grammar School.”

She told him about her girlhood in Boston along Sudbury Street, where she had played with other little girls, where she had walked back and forth from School Street. Her Aunt Maddy had been the plump, laughing one, her Aunt Tildy somewhat dour and suspicious—but only, she assured him, because of an unrequited love affair when she had been in her teens. Her father had been a whaling man in Nantucket. Her mother was a Boston girl, an Endicott.

When her mother died, two years after her father’s disappearing on a sailing trip, her aunts took her into their house. Stephen’s scorn dissolved in unfamiliar waves of pity and concern as she spoke.

For three years, she had taught spelling and arithmetic at the Writing School bordering the Boston Common. Then the American consul to Rome and his wife had hired her as a private tutor to their children. She had taken ship at the Long Wharf, on a brigantine called the Boston Lady. Her branch of the Doremus and the Endicott families was not very wealthy, and at the time, the tutoring position had seemed something wonderful. She owned nothing, not even these thin garments that did so little to hide the sheen of her white flesh.

“I don’t even have my pride any more. Or my freedom.” He said wryly, “You’re lucky Mustafa reis didn’t buy you. He doesn’t like Americans.” Her head lifted proudly. “I’d have killed myself!” He grimaced, “I suppose you think I should have killed myself, too, rather than play the eunuch to that pagan woman.”

She smiled tremulously. “How can you think I’d be so presumptuous as to judge you? It was your bad luck to be picked for the slave market, when the Philadelphia ran aground. Besides, I’m a woman. You’re a man, things are different with you. And I am grateful, believe me.”

Her fingers caught his hand and squeezed, and her blue eyes, steady and honest, held his.

Then he told her of his escape plans, and of the Americans who gathered at Nicolo Gritti’s Sign of the Olive Tree. He fostered excitement in her, so that she could share the hope in him. He felt a tenderness toward this girl, a spirit of protectiveness that made him feel like a man again. There was little enough he could do for her, except keep her for his own, safe and secure in his little room.

After a while, he noticed that her eyes were heavy and that her head was drooping. He turned her from the window, through which they had been watching the stars in the night sky while he talked, and brought her to the bed.

“Lie down,” he smiled. “I’ll sleep on the floor. The rug will feel like a feather bed beside the quarry stones.”

She smiled tremulously, and stretched out on the cushions, her head cradled in a red satin harem pillow, staring up at him trustfully. In her Oriental finery, she seemed tiny and pathetic, like a child playing dress-up. He went and stood over her, bringing woolen barracans from the chest in the west wall, folding them over her against the cold wind coming in from the Mediterranean.

Then he stretched out on the carpets, rolled up in a striped barracan. After a long while, he slept.

Marlani Chamiprak lolled at her ease on the seraglio cushions. Her slim brown arm reached out toward a silver tray filled with sweets. Casually she munched on the tidbit while her mocking smile widened and her yellow eyes grew bright with triumph.

“I was worried a little last night, Stefan. I thought you had chosen the American woman to spite me. I would have been very, very angry with you if that had been the case.”

Fletcher watched her put her fingertips to her mouth and suck the last of the powdered sukkar from them. She stirred her coppery body languidly, and one leg bent outward in a stretching motion. He wondered grimly what queer twist her thoughts were taking this morning, and a dim sense of foreboding came to him.

The kedin smiled sweetly at him. “If you had made love to her, I would have had her tortured to death. Perhaps you knew that?”

“No,” he choked. “I didn’t know it.”

She clapped her hands and laughed, swinging up to sit on the cushions, facing him, her bare feet close together, one slim brown leg exposed up to her rounded hip. “Now you know, Stefan, that I don’t mean for you to have any other woman. It means that you and I can make a trade— the body of the American girl for your own.”

He knew what she meant. If he wanted to protect Eve Doremus by hiding her out in his room, that was fine. It mattered not, a Malban fig to the kedin, as long as he did not touch her. Marlani would conspire in that safety with him, if he would make love to Marlani. It was as simple as that.

She was a desert woman, with a primitive, almost childlike directness. No sense of shame attached itself to her. A more civilized woman would have felt herself scorned, weeks ago, and would have taken vengeance on him. Like an animal, she was patient. Now that patience was to be rewarded. He was ready to fall into her hands like an overripe fruit from its branch.

She regarded him steadily, her ripe red mouth moist and pouting. Mariani Chamiprali savored this moment. It did not seem to her that she had waited long, for she was used to the endless intrigues of the Oriental harems.

Now she stirred and came to her feet. As Fletcher watched, she undid the sash that held her single garment and let it slide from her shoulders. Then she moved behind him and ran her fingers down his scarred back. Fletcher stood rigid. If Yussuf Caramanli found them like this, there would be no argument he could make that would save him. He felt her warm hands moving up over his sloping shoulders, and trembled as her breasts pressed against his back.

She whispered softly, “If you are afraid of the pasha, forget him. He is at Sabratha to examine some new recruits for his ship, and to see to its outfitting. He goes many times to Sabratha and Zliten, these days. He will not be back before morning.”

She moved against him with a soft, crooning sound. She slid around in front of him and slipped her arms under his, clutching his shoulders. Fletcher felt the warmth and softness of her body, the strength of her hands, and looked down at her quivering lips as they parted, sensually, in triumph.

Against his chest she whispered, “Do not move. Remain the statue that you are, for just a little while longer!”

The women of the harem of Turkey and Araby were well trained in the art of exciting the senses, and Marlani Chamiprak had taken to her lessons with an avid thirst for learning, had practiced with a single-minded perfectionism. Suddenly she cried out, and drew back, away from him. “I give you permission, Stefan. Do not be a statue any longer!”

Slowly his hands unbuckled his sword-belt. Gripping the scabbard so that its chains would make no noise, he lowered it to the cushions. He kicked off his slippers. Then, on silent feet, he went to meet her.

barbary slave kevin matthews gardner francis fox ebook paperback novel kurt brugel kindle library