Sunday, July 19, 2009

Chapter 38 : Zokhara

If the reception of the French had been warm, that of Zokhara was delirious. Women waved their veils and threw flowers and several local bands turned out to play Turkish music. The clanging of the cymbals was a strange and exotic to Thorton's ears, but he recognized the martial spirit. Lords and laborers came down to the quay to see with their own eyes the return of the great corsair. Even some Muslim ladies came down in sedan chairs carried on the shoulders of their slaves. The curtains hid them from view, but jeweled fingers drew back the curtains enough to permit the occupants to peek at the scene. 

In spite of the jubilation things were done in naval fashion in Zokhara. The harbormaster came out in his gig, inspected them, assigned them berths and collected his fees; the health inspector came out and permitted them to land at the lazaretto; and each of them bowed and smiled to the great corsair. Tangle received them with a grave majesty that suited his fame while Thorton attended to the business of settling the galiot. Well-wishers came out in rowboats and small lateen-rigged sailboats. Here, as in Correaux, there were reunions and glad cries for men returned as if from the dead. About half the Muslims in the Santa Teresa had come from Zokhara and its environs; their families, lovers, and friends crowded as close as they could get. As in Correaux, there was a great wailing when the news of the death of a loved one had to be given. 

In the midst of all this, bumboats came along side to sell everything from live chickens to alcohol. In spite of Thorton's best efforts a goodly number of each got aboard. However, he did manage to intercept a pair of Zokharan strumpets with bare bellies and kohl-lined eyes. On the other galleys they were not so shy and the women found employment in spite of him. Likewise he found it difficult to hold the men and some of them leaped over the side to the quay or slithered down the starboard side into a boat rowed by friends or brothers. 

Thorton bellowed, "Stand your posts! Stand!" A few did. 

Tangle came to the foot of the outboard stairs and looked up. "Peter Rais. Let them go. We are home."

"But the ship! It needs a standing crew!"

"Ask for volunteers. Some of them will stay. And some of them will come back after they've seen their families."

With a sigh Thorton did as he was bade. In the end, he wound up with a skeleton crew of thirty-two men. Kaashifa came to touch his fez and ask for leave. 

"Be back tomorrow at noon," Thorton told him. 

Foster remained and so did Maynard. "Mr. Foster, I'll have a muster roll and quarter bill made up."

"Aye aye, sir."

Before Thorton could give any other orders, a fine figure of a Turk came along side. He was a well-tanned man of middle height, dressed in a short green coat decorated with curls of red braid on the front and cuffs in the Zouave fashion. A heavy gold chain supported an amulet set with jewels. Beneath the short jacket he wore a white shirt and below that red calf-length Zouave pantaloons with a dropped crotch. They were tied just below the knee with gold garters. White silk stockings went down to black ankle-high boots. His scimitar hung at his side in a jeweled scabbard. Rings weighed down his hands. His beard was long, black, and curly. He was accompanied by an assortment of men who were dressed in a variety of fashions from the European to the Turkish to the tribal. Half of them had visible scars. They looked both rich and dangerous. 

"Salaam. Peace be up on you and yours," the stranger called up to Tangle in Arabic. 

Tangle, looking over the side, replied in the same language. "Salaam, Murad Rais. I hear Allah has been generous to you. Congratulations." From this Thorton learned that the stranger was the man who had supplanted Tangle as the Kapitan Pasha of Zokhara.

Murad spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders. "You were taken in the galleys, and when the Spaniards refused your ransom, we knew that they intended you to die there. In the meantime, duty called. I was pleased to accept the honor of following in your footsteps. Allah is most merciful to return you to us."

The words from both men were as polite and insincere as any words spoken in an English drawing room. 

Tangle smiled and nodded. "Allah has provided for me. I am now the Kapitan Pasha of Tanguel." He touched the insignia on his purple collar. Murad's eyes darted to it. Was that a hint of anger that flashed in his brown eyes?

"Congratulations," he replied flatly. "You must come to the palace and illuminate His Excellency the Dey with the particulars of your escape. He is eager to hear it. As we all are."

Tangle called, "Peter Rais! Join me, please?" 

So Thorton gave the deck to Foster and said, "See that the ship is bedded down in good order, Mr. Foster." He descended the stair. With every step he took he felt Murad Rais' eyes burning into him. Every inch of the purple uniform was inspected, the insignia on his collar was stared at until he felt its shape burned into his neck, and the man's stare did not break until Thorton was standing next to Tangle. 

Murad spoke first. "You always did have naval aspirations, Isam Rais."

Tangle's smile thinned a little. "I like it when things are done shipshape. Allow me to present Peter Rais Thorton, formerly of the English frigate Ajax. Peter Rais is our rescuer. It was by his courage that we were released from our chains."

Thorton gave a little bow. "Peace be upon you," he answered in Arabic. He understood only that part of the conversation that directly concerned him.

"And also upon you," Murad replied automatically. 

"I have made Peter Rais the captain of my galiot Santa Teresa. I believe you already know my brother-in-law, Kasim. Allow me to also present Namin Rais of the Silver Star, Siraaj Rais of the Fortune, and Carlos Rais of the Pearl. They are all Tangueli men." 

The other captains were on their own ships, but Murad Rais looked at their vessels and nodded. Abruptly he turned back to Tangle. "I wouldn't keep him waiting. You know his temper."

Zahid went with them, but Kasim, who had been careful to assert his independence as a corsair, was left behind. Thus did Tangle repay his brother-in-law for the slights committed against him. Murad Rais and his men escorted them, along with a suitable number of marines. They marched in formation and the people in the street waved and cheered as they recognized Isam Rais.

The palace was magnificent. It was even larger and grander than the palace at Tanguel, and it was in excellent condition and well-staffed. They passed through a glassed over courtyard filled with orange trees tended by Spanish slaves. They walked through a hall hung with the trophies of many wars: captured flags and weapons adorned every surface and hung over head. They passed a line of supplicants waiting to enter an office. All the people they met were well-dressed, even the slaves. Thorton realized that with surroundings like this, the ruler of the Sallee Republic had no reason to doubt his nation's puissance. In no way would he see himself as inferior to the hated Spaniards.

At last they arrived in the audience chamber. Thorton didn't know what to do, so he did what Tangle and Zahid did. He got down on his knees and bowed his head to the floor and stayed there. It was a posture humiliating to an ordinary Englishman, but not Thorton. He had made the same posture during prayers. He was submitting himself to the Dey, who was Allah's representative on earth. Even Murad Rais had to prostrate himself. The marines were spared the exercise; they had been left in the first antechamber. 

The vizier told them, "Rise." He was a thin caramel-colored man in a long blue gown that showed only the tips of his shoes beneath. His turban was large and white, his beard was thin, pointed, and grey. His nose was long, his eyes small and blue. 

They stayed on their knees but straightened up. The Arabic was impossible for Thorton to follow, but he gathered that the Dey was displeased with their uniforms and especially with Tangle's title. Zahid did most of the speaking. His tone was earnest and eloquent. Thorton spent his time studying the Dey. 

The ruler of the Sallee Republic was a short man who sat cross-legged on a divan. He had short cropped iron grey hair under a pure white turban. A broach of pearls was attached to the front. His coat was in the Turkish style with a full skirt flared around him in a graceful way. It was black and severely plain, but made of extremely lustrous and expensive fabric with a refined texture. Pearl buttons fastened it. The chest had white facings in a ladder pattern. Thorton picked out the crossed scimitars and three stars of his rank. The insignia were apparently a topic of debate because Tangle pointed to his own and said, 

"One star, Uncle," he replied, using the avuncular title that was the peculiar honor of the ruler of Zokhara. "I have no intention to usurp your authority. I am employed on behalf of the Governor of Tanguel and I have no intention of interfering with the operations of Zokhara."

"Bah. Why does a sleepy little backwater like Tanguel even need a Captain of Corsairs? "

"To unite the corsairs of Tanguel and make war upon the Spaniards. We intend to drive them from our shore."

Now that they were talking plainly instead of showering each other with convoluted Muslim flattery and dissembling, Thorton could follow them.

"Feh. Nonsense. If it could be done, don't you'd think we'd have done it by now? They are stubborn dogs, the infidels."

"We took Tanger on Thursday. Would you like us to give it back?"

The Dey paused. "No." He pressed his lips together and stared at Tangle. Then his glance moved thoughtfully over Thorton and the other captains and Zahid. He stared at them for a very long time. Finally he asked, "Do you think you could take Sebta?"

"Not by myself, but yes, I think the Sallee rovers can take it," Tangle replied. 

A light started far back in the Dey's eyes. He turned and looked towards the elegant set of triple arched windows with a wistful look. "I would like that very much." He turned back to the guests. "Very well. I acknowledge your rank, provided that your funding comes from Tanguel and you confine yourself to the service of your native province. How they're going to pay for your adventures, I don't know, but that's your problem. Now tell me about Sebta."

Tangle talked. He laid out what they'd learned about the force and layout, then talked about the need for a joint assault. They'd need a large land force and a large naval force. "I think we may have to ask the French to lend us some ships of the line, or else join us for the bombardment. We don't have anything heavy enough to make the assault. Maybe the Sublime Porte will send help when he sees us try it."

The Dey was listening carefully. "The French are our friends, and now the English too. I signed the accord when Achmed brought it to me. However, the French and Spanish are engaged in heavy fighting off the coast of Cataluña. I do not think the French will be able to assist us. We will have to ask the English to prove their friendship."

Zahid was not able to keep still. "And once we have reclaimed all of Sallee for Islam, we can invade Granada!"

The Dey listened to Lord Zahid, then fixed his gaze on Tangle. "Do you think it possible?"

Tangle gave a blunt and unadorned answer. "No."

The Dey snorted. "Dreamer," he said to Zahid. "Haven't we been longing for that ever since Andalusia, the richest and most beautiful province in all the world, fell into the hands of the infidels?"

Thorton cleared his throat. All eyes were on him. His Arabic was not equal to the task, so he spoke Spanish. "I don't believe it possible any time soon, Your Eminence," (he was not sure how to address a Dey) "but I do believe that in time, if you develop the resources of your nation to a sufficient level, it might be possible, my lord."

The Dey looked at the vizier, who translated for him. "You must be Peter Thorton, the renegade. I've heard of you. Go on."

Thorton remained stiff as he continued kneeling there with his weight on his heels. He pressed his hands palms down very firmly against his thighs. "England is not a large country, but it is a prosperous one because of the industry of her people. You do not have industry here. Not much, anyhow. You don't have colonies. You don't have markets abroad. England, France, and Spain do. In the end it all boils down to money. Who can afford to fight? If you do as they have done, then you too will have money. That is my view, sir." The vizier hesitated, but translated.

"That's your idea? That we should become an empire with colonies? I point out to you, we are already part of the Ottoman Empire."

Thorton's jaw worked a little. "It isn't necessary to have colonies, sir. Just to trade with them. The Americans love a smuggler. 'Tis a dangerous business that requires fast ships and brave men, but there is a lot of money in it."

The Dey drummed the fingers of his right hand on his thigh. 

Zahid spoke up. "The Americans have timber and hemp and other things we need. We have things they want, like iron and copper. It would be a profitable trade."

The Dey turned his head to the west. The rest of them saw only a wall, but he saw the great grey Atlantic Ocean and all the riches that lay beyond it. "We'd need a better port on the Atlantic side."

"We are dredging the harbor at Tanguel already, Uncle," Tangle replied.

"The Divan will debate it," the Dey replied.

Tangle remarked, "Don't they always?"

The Dey shrugged. "We are a republic. I am bound to listen to their views. You will have a hard time persuading them."

"Do I need to? You are the Dey. You can command the navy where you will. It is the corsairs that are touchy about their rights."

The Dey snorted at that. "And you and Murad Rais are chief among them. You know our navy is very small. I had to commission you and other corsairs to fight the pirates on our shores. Besides, if we raise a large navy, the Sultan will appropriate it for his own purposes at our expense." 

Tangle said, "It is possible to both serve one's country and make a profit, but there comes a time when a man must stand for something more than money. Nobody goes down in history because he is rich. He goes down in history because he attempted something great. What could be greater than driving the infidel from our own shores? If the Sultan calls for our ships, inform him how you have already put them at his disposal by ejecting the Spaniards from Muslim lands." 

The Dey steepled his fingers before his chin. He studied Tangle long and hard. Finally he said, "Make it so. Drive the Spaniards from our shores. And by Allah, figure out how to pay for it! You know the Divan won't raise taxes. They squeal enough as it is."

Tangle was satisfied. "We'll do it. You'll see."

"I will depend on it. Now, Peter Rais, I'd like to talk to you. Your friends will wait for you in the antechamber."

Tangle and the others gave him surprised looks, but Thorton had no idea why the Dey was singling him out. Tangle and the other captains bowed and withdrew, not turning their backs until they reached the door and could step out. The vizier, Murad, and Thorton remained. 

"Take a seat, Peter Rais." The Dey indicated a piece of furniture known to the English as an 'ottoman.' It was a small divan the right size for one man only. Thorton settled himself gingerly upon it. He drew his legs up cross-legged. The full skirts of his purple coat fell around the seat. Murad and the Vizier remained standing. "Tell me about England, Peter Rais."

Thorton had no idea what the Dey wanted to know, but he began speaking. The vizier continued translating. "It is a small island country, but very industrious. Her colonies support her, and she supports her navy. If you examine the matter logically, you will realize that there must always be more merchants than privateers, for if there were more privateers than merchants, they would starve for want of prizes. Thus, if there are more merchants than privateers, it stands to reason that the nation prospers more from her merchants than her privateers. The merchants in their turn must have a navy to protect them. One or two frigates can protect a convey of forty sail. Thus we can conclude that it is more profitable for a country to engage in commerce than privateering, even with the expense of keeping a navy. The taxes paid by the merchants will more than outweigh the share of the loot the government receives from privateers."

The Dey's brow darkened like thunder as he stared at Thorton. Murad snorted and said, "You insult us with such remarks."

Thorton stared him down. "I've seen Zokhara and I've seen the harbors of England. The English Admiralty could put your navy in its pocket and count it as loose change. If this state of affairs offends you, you have only yourself to blame. If you want it to be otherwise, then you must enrich your own country through industry and commerce."

Murad stepped forward. His hand went to his side, but all visitors to the Dey were relieved of their weapons before entering his presence. He had no sword to draw. "Why you dog of a renegade!"

"Stand down, Murad." The Dey's voice was flat and hard.

Murad ground his teeth so hard his beard bristled. "Are you going to let him—"

"Yes. Now shut up and let me talk to the man."

Murad's eyes flashed. "He insults the honor of our country, our corsairs, and every man!"

"Whereas you waste my time, which is a far graver insult. You may go." The Dey snapped his fingers and his guards came out from behind the screen to escort Murad Rais from the room.

Murad left in a foul humor. He was barking at Tangle before the door to the antechamber even closed. What happened out there Thorton didn't know, but he didn't think it would be pretty. 

"Do you make a habit of insulting your hosts, Peter Rais?" the Dey asked with some asperity.

Thorton worked to control his own temper. Yet he was gratified that the Dey seemed to want to hear what he had to say. He had to figure out how to say what he needed to say without causing any further friction. Finally he said, "Englishmen often take offense when I tell the truth, sir. My previous experience with Salletines had lead me to believe that they did not need to be dipped in honey to talk."

The Dey steepled his fingers again. He stared at Thorton long and hard. "You're as proud and stubborn as a corsair, Peter Rais. And if I know anything, I know corsairs." He lowered his hands. "Achmed has brought me a great deal of information about the English navy. So I know that what you say is true. By his measurements, the English navy is three times the size of the Spanish navy. Navies are expensive. Very, expensive. You tell me your country pays for your navy with trade and colonies. America is a very large land. It produces silver, gold, timber, grain, and every needful thing in abundance. My country does not. Zokhara contains a quarter million souls. London contains nearly three times that number. Half a dozen cities in England are as big as Zokhara, but Zokhara might as well be a city-state. The hinterland gives us little. It is disheartening to contemplate."

Thorton said nothing. He hadn't been asked a question. The Dey looked to the west again. "My people have long memories, but they do not have foresight. They will not believe you if you talk of such things. I suggest, Peter Rais, that you begin by driving the Spaniards from our shore. Then the Divan will be in a mood to listen to you. If that is the case, I am willing to enact decrees for the support and encouragement of our merchants. I am pestered on one side by corsairs and the other by janissaries. A third to balance them would be most helpful. But that is for the future. For now, go in peace. Please avoid fighting with Murad Rais. I must now pacify him."

Thorton rose from his seat, bowed deeply, and backed out. Murad Rais was summoned back into the Dey's presence. 

No comments:

Post a Comment