Sunday, July 19, 2009
Chapter 39 : Paradise
As soon as Murad Rais went in to the Dey and the door shut, Tangle crowed like a rooster and slung his arm around Thorton's shoulder. "We did it! He's on board! We will drive the Spaniards from our shores and the country will prosper!" He kept his arm companionably around Thorton's shoulder as they exited the chamber and retrieved their swords.
Thorton laughed and blushed. "Don't hang on me, Isam, people will think you're drunk!"
Tangle laughed and let go of him. "You're dining with us tonight, at my wife's house! And I shall get to see my children! I must get their presents!" He swerved down the steps of the palace to head back to the galiot. It wasn't far and he was soon burdened down with his sacks like Saint Nicholas bringing gifts to the poor people of his country.
Thorton followed him but demurred. "I do not want to intrude on your family life."
"Nonsense, Peter. 'Tis no intrusion. Do not argue with me! It is insubordinate. I will command you as your superior officer if you make me." His voice was cheerfully indomitable.
Thorton hung back for a moment. Tangle continued blithely down the road, unaware that the Englishman had fallen behind. From the rear Tangle's broad shoulders and long legs were obvious. The purple uniform looked uncommonly good on him. Thorton felt a surge of lust and fought it down. There would be no more of that for them. Not now that Tangle was home with his family. Where he belonged.
Still, it was not a felony in this country. Maybe he could find someone to warm his bed. That made him a little giddy. He looked with interest at the men they passed, but he could not tell if any of them were looking at him, or if they were just looking at the strange gaudy uniform. Yet Tangle had had male lovers. Maybe he could help.
He hurried to catch up to the corsair, screwed his courage to the sticking point, and asked, "Isam, I wonder if you might do me a favor."
Tangle stopped and faced him. "Whatever you ask, if I can do it, I will. I owe you my life and my freedom, and you have never taken advantage of that."
Thorton licked his lips nervously. "Since you know this city, and you're a man of the world, I wonder if you could help me. I thought you might know a gentleman who, ah, how shall I put this? That might like to meet me. And I him." He blushed terribly to ask it.
Tangle set down the sacks of toys and gifts as if they had suddenly become heavy. He was silent for a long moment. "I love you, Peter, but you've been cool to me ever since Jamila came on board. It pains me to think that you want company but won't accept mine."
"I don't love you. I like you, admire you, enjoy you, even lust for you," Thorton colored brightly as he admitted it, "But not love you. You are a friend, Isam. You have been good to me, and I have learned a lot from you. As strange as it sounds, even when you are angry with me, I am not afraid to speak my mind to you."
"I love you as a friend, too, Peter. But I love you as something more as well. I know that my love is engendered at least in part by the situation, but that does not change the fact that I feel it and you deserve it. I admire you highly. Even when you're stubborn and drive me to distraction. But there is something else about you. Something that completes me."
They stood in the busy street with bullock carts, horsemen, and peddlers going around them. Nearby a demi-galley was raising a cargo net full of supplies to her deck. The naval part of Thorton's mind kept track of all that was going on around him even as he stared into Tangle's eyes. "Yes?"
Tangle rubbed his hands on the skirts of his coat. "You're male. It was not easy for me to marry. I had to learn it. My natural inclination is for my own sex. Yours is too, so I think you know what I mean when I say that I desire your masculinity."
Thorton's heart beat faster. "Yes, I think I do. But still, you are married! And you love her." It was an accusation.
Tangle picked up the sack of presents with a sigh. "Yes, I do. And the children too. I must go home to them. On land, I am a father and husband. But Peter, we will go to sea again."
Thorton's pulse was pounding. "Yes, we will."
"Things will be different then."
"Perhaps they will." Thorton knew himself, he did not think he could withstand the corsair's advances if he pressed his suit on board ship far out of sight of land and wife. "But I would rather have some one of my own. Some one I didn't have to share. Someone to be mine and only mine."
Tangle rubbed a hand over his face. Finally he said, "I think you will like my brother-in-law, Shakil. He is a man like us."
They walked the rest of the way to the house. It was a Greek style farmhouse, low, with one story, white walls, and a porch across the front. Smooth Tuscan columns supported the architrave. Double doors let into hallway with a parlor to the left and office to the right. In the office was a thin man dressed in white about Thorton's age. He was working at a drop front secretary desk of French origin, made of birch and decorated with scallop shell carving. He had a simple white cotton cap on his head. He looked up and broke into a broad smile when he saw Tangle. The corsair set his bags down and embraced the man, kissed him on each cheek, then clasped him in a bear hug. At last Tangle made the introductions.
"This is my brother-in-law Shakil bin Nakih and a more honest man you will not find. If you left your virgin sister and a thousand ducats with him, ten years later you would find them both still intact. Shakil, this is Peter Rais Thorton, the man who saved me from the galley." He spoke Spanish for Thorton's benefit.
Shakil was about an inch shorter than Thorton and a good deal thinner. He had a sober demeanor, but he smiled at the effusive introduction. "Peace be upon you, Peter Rais. Thank you for bringing Isam Rais home to us." He bowed deeply with his hand to his forehead.
"I will let you two get acquainted. I have presents for the children. Where are they?" Tangle said.
"In the courtyard. Alexander is digging up the flowerbed again."
Tangle hurried out of the room and into the inner courtyard. A happy, girlish shriek sounded as soon as he was seen. "Baba!"
"Tahirah!" he cried with great delight. His voice came clearly through the open double doors.
They could see him grab the girl who was dressed in pale pink and whirl her around and around while she shrieked at the top of her lungs. A little boy ran up but hung back uncertainly. Tangle put the girl down then grabbed the boy to his bosom. The boy was dressed in thin blue and white stripes. The girl came back and must be hugged too. He wrapped them in his arms and kissed them as he knelt there on the black and white tiles.
A line of three—these must be the triplets—came on next, urged by their mother. One of the three was bigger than the other two and held back sulkily. Tangle let go of the oldest two, who were no more than nine and seven, and held out his arms. "Zaafir! Nakih! Naomi!" The two little ones, who looked exactly alike except one was a boy and one was girl, ran to him. Zaafir sulked a little longer, but at last got jealous of his siblings and flung himself into his father's arms. Tangle kissed them all and hugged them tight.
The last child was a toddler. He held onto his mother's hand and put his thumb in his mouth. He was still in nappies under his blue tunic. He did not know this stranger. Jamila knelt down and encouraged him with soft words. "He is your Baba. I know you don't remember him, but he loves you very much."
Tangle let the triplets loose and held out his arms and called softly, "Alexander." The boy hugged his mother and would not come. Tahirah wrapped herself around her father's back and announced, "My Baba!"
Jamila shushed her. "He's Hamet and Alexander and Zaafir and Naomi and Nakih's Baba too!"
Little Hamet went over to his smallest brother and patted his head. "Baba's nice!" He lead Alexander over, but the baby was still shy.
Tangle knew how to cure that. He opened his bag and pulled out a toy horse and offered it to the child. Curiosity overcame shyness and the baby came forward to receive it.
Nothing would do but for Tahirah to have a present too. She clamored and tugged at her father. "What did you bring me?" So the presents were brought out to the great delight of the children.
Thorton and Shakil stood shoulder to shoulder in the doorway watching. Thorton felt that he was intruding on a very private moment, a moment that did not include him. He turned away.
"Would you like some tea or coffee? You must be tired from your journey. Let me make you comfortable." Shakil's voice was a pleasant tenor.
"Yes, please. A cup of tea would be delightful."
Shakil disappeared for a few minutes, then returned with a teapot on a tray and a pair of cups. He served a cup of crisp black tea to the English guest.
Thorton was not sure how to strike up a conversation. He tried to remember Perry's social lessons from long ago and asked a question. "Are you married?"
Shakil shook his head. "No. Are you?"
"No, and I don't intend to to marry."
"Marriage is a happy state. Even Isam Rais has learned that."
"For some men, it is. But I'm not that kind of man."
Shakil looked at him more thoughtfully. "I'm not either." He glanced out into the courtyard. "I love my nieces and nephews, but I would not make a good father. I am too bookish."
"He seems very fond of them."
It was a stilted, awkward conversation, but Shakil was warming to the topic. He smiled as he added sugar to the tea. "He is a wonderful father. It was quite a change in him. I remember the wild corsair that Jamila set her heart on. I could never be such a man. Or survive being married to such a man. I don't know how Jamila does it."
Thorton smiled and took his teacup. "He's an overwhelming personality. I like him, but sometimes I feel invisible next to him."
Shakil nodded vigorously. "I know exactly what you mean! I am a quiet person. Everyone says I'm shy, but I'm not. I just don't have much to say, unless you're a scholar. Do you like books?"
"I do. And I am learning to read Arabic. Salaam."
"Salaam. I am glad to hear it. Arabic is a wonderful language. Are you reading the Qur'an?"
"I am trying to, but I know very little. I find it hard to pronounce."
Shakil smiled warmly. "I would be delighted to help you study."
Thorton's heart did a slow roll. He smiled back goofily. "I'd like that."
Shakil blushed and added sugar to his own cup of tea. "Maybe you could come tomorrow afternoon, then stay for supper."
Thorton's heart soared. This man was much more too his liking. He was gentle and pleasant, not overbearing like the corsair. "I have a lot to learn. Isam Rais teaches me, but he distracts me, too."
"Yes, I understand that. I felt much the same when I first met him. Now I am used to it, but still, he has been gone such a long time, I had grown accustomed to the quiet." Another girlish shriek sounded from the courtyard, followed by a bubbling stream of laughter. "Although it is impossible for a house with children to ever be truly quiet," he said humorously.
Thorton paused, then said, "I hesitate to bring up business, but there is the matter of the Sea Leopard. Lord Zahid said he'd buy it for him, but Kasim Rais won't sell it. Do you know anything about that?"
"Yes. I keep the family's accounts. I know exactly how much Kasim owes each investor. I was already at work on the figures when you arrived. It must be done quietly, or Kasim will be angry and try to block the sale. Murad Rais will be the difficult one, but Lord Zahid might be able to handle that one."
"I want Isam to have his ship back," Thorton said.
"So do I." Then his mouth curled into a smile. "So you're in love with him?"
Thorton blushed crimson. "I didn't say that."
Shakil didn't laugh, but his mouth quirked. "I was in love with him for two years when Jamila first married him. I survived. You will too."
Thorton was shocked. "You mean, you—"
"Sh. No, I didn't. I was terrified of him. Besides, I would never do anything to hurt my sister."
"I have nothing to get over," Thorton replied with dignity. "I have been very firm with him. I told him that I will not accept a married man as a lover." His eyes strayed to the window where he could see Tangle galloping by with one of the children on his shoulders. Shakil just smiled. Thorton sighed as he saw he was caught mooning. "I mean it. What was between us is over." He drank tea. "I must be fickle. It wasn't that long ago I was in love with Roger Perry."
"Who is Roger Perry?"
So Thorton told him the whole long story, starting with that rainy morning in London. It took a long time to tell. He was surprised to find it late in the afternoon before he was done. Shakil listened to it all. His hazel eyes were sympathetic, and he either laughed or shook his head at the appropriate moments. He put in a sympathetic word from time to time, asked a few questions, and stared intently into Thorton's eyes when he was speaking. What a delight to unburden his soul to such a good listener! No judgment, no fear of the law or court martial, no shame, no disapproval. By the time he had finished his story, he was in love with Shakil. When he took Shakil's hand in his, Shakil let him.
Thorton whispered, "I want to call on you. Not just to learn Arabic. To court you." He was blushing brightly. "Will you let me?"
Shakil blushed just as brightly. "I will."
Thorton slipped off the divan and knelt before him on the carpet. "I promise that you are the only one that I will ever look at. I will be true to you."
Shakil leaned forward and brushed a soft kiss across his brow. "You must prove it to me!"
Thorton lifted Shakil's hands and kissed them one by one. "I will have to go to sea again, but I will write. Will you give me a memento to remember you by?"
Shakil replied, "I know a silhouette cutter. We can have our pictures cut."
Thorton beamed. "Perfect! Would you like to see my ship?"
Thorton was deliriously happy. It had been a long strange journey from England, but he had found his place in the world. He had found a religion he could believe in and become a captain fighting for a worthy cause. On top of that, he had met a man on whom he could fix all his affectations without any of the complications of his previous infatuations. If that wasn't Paradise, nothing was.