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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 12. Sunshine And Shadow
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 12. Sunshine And Shadow Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3003

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 12. Sunshine And Shadow


Mr. Caryll was almost happy.

He reclined on a long chair, supported by pillows cunningly set for him by the deft hands of Leduc, and took his ease and indulged his day-dreams in Lord Ostermore's garden. He sat within the cool, fragrant shade of a privet arbor, interlaced with flowering lilac and laburnum, and he looked out upon the long sweep of emerald lawn and the little patch of ornamental water where the water-lilies gaped their ivory chalices to the morning sun.

He looked thinner, paler and more frail than was his habit, which is not wonderful, considering that he had been four weeks abed while his wound was mending. He was dressed, again by the hands of the incomparable Leduc, in a deshabille of some artistry. A dark-blue dressing-gown of flowered satin fell open at the waist; disclosing sky-blue breeches and pearl-colored stockings, elegant shoes of Spanish leather with red heels and diamond buckles. His chestnut hair had been dressed with as great care as though he were attending a levee, and Leduc had insisted upon placing a small round patch under his left eye, that it might--said Leduc--impart vivacity to a countenance that looked over-wan from his long confinement.

He reclined there, and, as I have said, was almost happy.

The creature of sunshine that was himself at heart, had broken through the heavy clouds that had been obscuring him. An oppressive burden was lifted from his mind and conscience. That sword-thrust through the back a month ago had been guided, he opined, by the hand of a befriending Providence; for although he had, as you see, survived it, it had none the less solved for him that hateful problem he could never have solved for himself, that problem whose solution,--no matter which alternative he had adopted--must have brought him untold misery afterwards.

As it was, during the weeks that he had lain helpless, his life attached to him by but the merest thread, the chance of betraying Lord Ostermore was gone, nor--the circumstances being such as they were--could Sir Richard Everard blame him that he had let it pass.

Thus he knew peace; knew it as only those know it who have sustained unrest and can appreciate relief from it.

Nature had made him a voluptuary, and reclining there in an ease which the languor born of his long illness rendered the more delicious, inhaling the tepid summer air that came to him laden with a most sweet attar from the flowering rose-garden, he realized that with all its cares life may be sweet to live in youth and in the month of June.

He sighed, and smiled pensively at the water-lilies; nor was his happiness entirely and solely the essence of his material ease. This was his third morning out of doors, and on each of the two mornings that were gone Hortensia had borne him company, coming with the charitable intent of lightening his tedium by reading to him, but remaining to talk instead.

The most perfect friendliness had prevailed between them; a camaraderie which Mr. Caryll had been careful not to dispel by any return to such speeches as those which had originally offended but which seemed now mercifully forgotten.

He was awaiting her, and his expectancy heightened for him the glory of the morning, increased the meed of happiness that was his. But there was more besides. Leduc, who stood slightly behind him, fussily, busy about a little table on which were books and cordials, flowers and comfits, a pipe and a tobacco-jar, had just informed him for the first time that during the more dangerous period of his illness Mistress Winthrop had watched by his bedside for many hours together upon many occasions, and once--on the day after he had been wounded, and while his fever was at its height--Leduc, entering suddenly and quietly, had surprised her in tears.

All this was most sweet news to Mr. Caryll. He found that between himself and his half-brother there lay an even deeper debt than he had at first supposed, and already acknowledged. In the delicious contemplation of Hortensia in tears beside him stricken all but to the point of death, he forgot entirely his erstwhile scruples that being nameless he had no name to offer her. In imagination he conjured up the scene. It made, he found, a very pretty picture. He would smoke upon it.

"Leduc, if you were to fill me a pipe of Spanish--"

"Monsieur has smoked one pipe already," Leduc reminded him.

"You are inconsequent, Leduc. It is a sign of advancing age. Repress it. The pipe!" And he flicked impatient fingers.

"Monsieur is forgetting that the doctor--"

"The devil take the doctor," said Mr. Caryll with finality.

"Parfaitement!" answered the smooth Leduc. "Over the bridge we laugh at the saint. Now that we are cured, the devil take the doctor by all means."

A ripple of laughter came to applaud Leduc's excursion into irony. The arbor had another, narrower entrance, on the left. Hortensia had approached this, all unheard on the soft turf, and stood there now, a heavenly apparition in white flimsy garments, head slightly a-tilt, eyes mocking, lips laughing, a heavy curl of her dark hair falling caressingly into the hollow where white neck sprang from whiter shoulder.

"You make too rapid a recovery, sir," said she.

"It comes of learning how well I have been nursed," he answered, making shift to rise, and he laughed inwardly to see the red flush of confusion spread over the milk-white skin, the reproachful shaft her eyes let loose upon Leduc.

She came forward swiftly to check his rising; but he was already on his feet, proud of his return to strength, vain to display it. "Nay," she reproved him. "If you are so headstrong, I shall leave you."

"If you do, ma'am. I vow here, as I am, I hope, a gentleman, that I shall go home to-day, and on foot."

"You would kill yourself," she told him.

"I might kill myself for less, and yet be justified."

She looked her despair of him. "What must I do to make you reasonable?"

"Set me the example by being reasonable yourself, and let there be no more of this wild talk of leaving me the very moment you are come. Leduc, a chair for Mistress Winthrop!" he commanded, as though chairs abounded in a garden nook. But Leduc, the diplomat, had effaced himself.

She laughed at his grand air, and, herself, drew forward the stool that had been Leduc's, and sat down. Satisfied, Mr. Caryll made her a bow, and seated himself sideways on his long chair, so that he faced her. She begged that he would dispose himself more comfortably; but he scorned the very notion.

"Unaided I walked here from the house," he informed her with a boastful air. "I had need to begin to feel my feet again. You are pampering me here, and to pamper an invalid is bad; it keeps him an invalid. Now I am an invalid no longer."

"But the doctor--" she began.

"The doctor, ma'am, is disposed of already," he assured her. "Very definitely disposed of. Ask Leduc. He will tell you."

"Not a doubt of that," she answered. "Leduc talks too much."

"You have a spite against him for the information he gave me on the score of how and by whom I was nursed. So have I. Because he did not tell me before, and because when he told me he would not tell me enough. He has no eyes, this Leduc. He is a dolt, who only sees the half of what happens, and only remembers the half of what he has seen."

"I am sure of it," said she.

He looked surprised an instant. Then he laughed. "I am glad that we agree."

"But you have yet to learn the cause. Had this Leduc used his eyes or his ears to better purpose, he had been able to tell you something of the extent to which I am in your debt."

"Ah?" said he, mystified. Then: "The news will be none the less welcome from your lips, ma'am," said he. "Is it that you are interested in the ravings of delirium, and welcomed the opportunity of observing them at first hand? I hope I raved engagingly, if so be that I did rave. Would it, perchance, be of a lady that I talked in my fevered wanderings?--of a lady pale as a lenten rose, with soft brown eyes, and lips that--"

"Your guesses are all wild," she checked him. "My debt is of a more real kind. It concerns my--my reputation."

"Fan me, ye winds!" he ejaculated.

"Those fine ladies and gentlemen of the town had made my name a by-word," she explained in a low, tense voice, her eyelids lowered. "My foolishness in running off with my Lord Rotherby--that I might at all cost escape the tyranny of my Lady Ostermore" (Mr. Caryll's eyelids flickered suddenly at that explanation)--"had made me a butt and a jest and an object for slander. You remember, yourself, sir, the sneers and oglings, the starings and simperings in the park that day when you made your first attempt to champion my cause, inducing the Lady Mary Deller to come and speak to me."

"Nay, nay--think of these things no more. Gnats will sting; 'tis in their nature. I admit 'tis very vexing at the time; but it soon wears off if the flesh they have stung be healthy. So think no more on't."

"But you do not know what follows. Her ladyship insisted that I should drive with her a week after your hurt, when the doctor first proclaimed you out of danger, and while the town was still all agog with the affair. No doubt her ladyship thought to put a fresh and greater humiliation upon me; you would not be present to blunt the edge of the insult of those creatures' glances. She carried me to Vauxhall, where a fuller scope might be given to the pursuit of my shame and mortification. Instead, what think you happened?"

"Her ladyship, I trust, was disappointed."

"The word is too poor to describe her condition. She broke a fan, beat her black boy and dismissed a footman, that she might vent some of the spleen it moved in her. Never was such respect, never such homage shown to any woman as was shown to me that evening. We were all but mobbed by the very people who had earlier slighted me.

"'Twas all so mysterious that I must seek the explanation of it. And I had it, at length, from his Grace of Wharton, who was at my side for most of the time we walked in the gardens. I asked him frankly to what was this change owing. And he told me, sir."

She looked at him as though no more need be said. But his brows were knit. "He told you, ma'am?" he questioned. "He told you what?"

"What you had done at White's. How to all present and to my Lord Rotherby's own face you had related the true story of what befell at Maidstone--how I had gone thither, an innocent, foolish maid, to be married to a villain, whom, like the silly child I was, I thought I loved; how that villain, taking advantage of my innocence and ignorance, intended to hoodwink me with a mock-marriage.

"That was the story that was on every lip; it had gone round the town like fire; and it says much for the town that what between that and the foul business of the duel, my Lord Rotherby was receiving on every hand the condemnation he deserves, while for me there was once more--and with heavy interest for the lapse from it--the respect which my indiscretion had forfeited, and which would have continued to be denied me but for your noble championing of my cause.

"That, sir, is the extent to which. I am in your debt. Do you think it small? It is so great that I have no words in which to attempt to express my thanks."

Mr. Caryll looked at her a moment with eyes that were very bright. Then he broke into a soft laugh that had a note of slyness.

"In my time," said he, "I have seen many attempts to change an inconvenient topic. Some have been artful; others artless; others utterly clumsy. But this, I think, is the clumsiest of them all. Mistress Winthrop, 'tis not worthy in you."

She looked puzzled, intrigued by his mood.

"Mistress Winthrop," he resumed, with an entire change of voice. "To speak of this trifle is but a subterfuge of yours to prevent me from expressing my deep gratitude for your care of me."

"Indeed, no--" she began.

"Indeed, yes," said he. "How can this compare with what you have done for me? For I have learnt how greatly it is to you, yourself, that I owe my recovery--the saving of my life."

"Ah, but that is not true. It--"

"Let me think so, whether it be true or not," he implored her, eyes between tenderness and whimsicality intent upon her face. "Let me believe it, for the belief has brought me happiness--the greatest happiness, I think, that I have ever known. I can know but one greater, and that--"

He broke off suddenly, and she observed that the hand he had stretched out trembled a moment ere it was abruptly lowered again. It was as a man who had reached forth to grasp something that he craves, and checked his desire upon a sudden thought.

She felt oddly stirred, despite herself, and oddly constrained. It may have been to disguise this that she half turned to the table, saying: "You were about to smoke when I came." And she took up his pipe and tobacco--jar to offer them.

"Ah, but since you've come, I would not dream," he said.

She looked at him. The complete change of topic permitted it. "If I desired you so to do?" she inquired, and added: "I love the fragrance of it."

He raised his brows. "Fragrance?" quoth he. "My Lady Ostermore has another word for it." He took the pipe and jar from her. "'Tis no humoring, this, of a man you imagine sick--no silly chivalry of yours?" he questioned doubtfully. "Did I think that, I'd never smoke another pipe again."

She shook her head, and laughed at his solemnity. "I love the fragrance," she repeated.

"Ah! Why, then, I'll pleasure you," said he, with the air of one conferring favors, and filled his pipe. Presently he spoke again in a musing tone. "In a week or so, I shall be well enough to travel."

"'Tis your intent to travel?" she inquired.

He set down the jar, and reached for the tinderbox. "It is time I was returning home," he explained.

"Ah, yes. Your home is in France."

"At Maligny; the sweetest nook in Normandy. 'Twas my mother's birthplace, and 'twas there she died."

"You have felt the loss of her, I make no doubt."

"That might have been the case if I had known her," answered he. "But as it is, I never did. I was but two years old--she, herself, but twenty--when she died."

He pulled at his pipe in silence a moment or two, his face overcast and thoughtful. A shallower woman would have broken in with expressions of regret; Hortensia offered him the nobler sympathy of silence. Moreover, she had felt from his tone that there was more to come; that what he had said was but the preface to some story that he desired her to be acquainted with. And presently, as she expected, he continued.

"She died, Mistress Winthrop, of a broken heart. My father had abandoned her two years and more before she died. In those years of repining--ay, and worse, of actual want--her health was broken so that, poor soul, she died."

"O pitiful!" cried Hortensia, pain in her face.

"Pitiful, indeed--the more pitiful that her death was a source of some slight happiness to those who loved her; the only happiness they could have in her was to know that she was at rest."

"And--and your father?"

"I am coming to him. My mother had a friend--a very noble, lofty-minded gentleman who had loved her with a great and honest love before the profligate who was my father came forward as a suitor. Recognizing in the latter--as he thought in his honest heart--a man in better case to make her happy, this gentleman I speak of went his ways. He came upon her afterwards, broken and abandoned, and he gathered up the poor shards of her shattered life, and sought with tender but unavailing hands to piece them together again. And when she died he vowed to stand my friend and to make up to me for the want I had of parents. 'Tis by his bounty that to-day I am lord of Maligny that was for generations the property of my mother's people. 'Tis by his bounty and loving care that I am what I am, and not what so easily I might have become had the seed sown by my father been allowed to put out shoots."

He paused, as if bethinking himself, and looked at her with a wistful, inquiring smile. "But why plague you," he cried, "with this poor tale of yesterday that will be forgot to-morrow?"

"Nay--ah, nay," she begged, and put out a hand in impulsive sympathy to touch his own, so transparent now in its emaciation. "Tell me; tell me!"

His smile softened. He sighed gently and continued. "This gentleman who adopted me lived for one single purpose, with one single aim in view--to avenge my mother, whom he had loved, upon the man whom she had loved and who had so ill repaid her. He reared me for that purpose, as much, I think, as out of any other feeling. Thirty years have sped, and still the hand of the avenger has not fallen upon my father. It should have fallen a month ago; but I was weak; I hesitated; and then this sword-thrust put me out of all case of doing what I had crossed from France to do."

She looked at him with something of horror in her face. "Were you--were you to have been the instrument?" she inquired. "Were you to have avenged this thing upon your own father?"

He nodded slowly. "'Twas to that end that I was reared," he answered, and put aside his pipe, which had gone out. "The spirit of revenge was educated into me until I came to look upon revenge as the best and holiest of emotions; until I believed that if I failed to wreak it I must be a craven and a dastard. All this seemed so until the moment came to set my hand to the task. And then--" He shrugged.

"And then?" she questioned.

"I couldn't. The full horror of it burst upon me. I saw the thing in its true and hideous proportions, and it revolted me."

"It must have been so," she approved him.

"I told my foster-father; but I met with neither sympathy nor understanding. He renewed his old-time arguments, and again he seemed to prove to me that did I fail I should be false to my duty and to my mother's memory--a weakling, a thing of shame."

"The monster! Oh, the monster! He is an evil man for all that you have said of him."

"Not so. There is no nobler gentleman in all the world. I who know him, know that. It is through the very nobility of it that this warp has come into his nature. Sane in all things else, he is--I see it now, I understand it at last--insane on this one subject. Much brooding has made him mad upon this matter--a fanatic whose gospel is Vengeance, and, like all fanatics, he is harsh and intolerant when resisted on the point of his fanaticism. This is something I have come to realize in these past days, when I lay with naught else to do but ponder.

"In all things else he sees as deep and clear as any man; in this his vision is distorted. He has looked at nothing else for thirty years; can you wonder that his sight is blurred?"

"He is to be pitied then," she said, "deeply to be pitied."

"True. And because I pitied him, because I valued his regard-however mistaken he might be--above all else, I was hesitating again--this time between my duty to myself and my duty to him. I was so hesitating--though I scarce can doubt which had prevailed in the end--when came this sword-thrust so very opportunely to put me out of case of doing one thing or the other."

"But now that you are well again?" she asked.

"Now that I am well again--I thank Heaven that it will be too late. The opportunity that was ours is lost. His--my father should now be beyond our power."

There ensued a spell of silence. He sat with eyes averted from her face--those eyes which she had never known other than whimsical and mocking, now full of gloom and pain--riveted upon the glare of sunshine on the pond out yonder. A great sympathy welled up from her heart for this man whom she was still far from understanding, and who, nevertheless--because of it, perhaps, for there is much fascination in that which puzzles--was already growing very dear to her. The story he had told her drew her infinitely closer to him, softening her heart for him even more perhaps than it had already been softened when she had seen him--as she had thought--upon the point of dying. A wonder flitted through her mind as to why he had told her; then another question surged. She gave it tongue.

"You have told me so much, Mr. Caryll," she said, "that I am emboldened to ask something more." His eyes invited her to put her question. "Your--your father? Was he related to Lord Ostermore?"

Not a muscle of his face moved. "Why that?" he asked.

"Because your name is Caryll," said she.

"My name?" he laughed softly and bitterly. "My name?" He reached for an ebony cane that stood beside his chair. "I had thought you understood." He heaved himself to his feet, and she forgot to caution him against exertion. "I have no right to any name," he told her. "My father was a man too full of worldly affairs to think of trifles. And so it befell that before he went his ways he forgot to marry the poor lady who was my mother. I might take what name I chose. I chose Caryll. But you will understand, Mistress Winthrop," and he looked her fully in the face, attempting in vain to dissemble the agony in his eyes--he who a little while ago had been almost happy--"that if ever it should happen that I should come to love a woman who is worthy of being loved, I who am nameless have no name to offer her."

Revelation illumined her mind as in a flash. She looked at him.

"Was--was that what you meant, that day we thought you dying, when you said to me--for it was to me you spoke, to me alone--that it was better so?"

He inclined his head. "That is what I meant," he answered.

Her lids drooped; her cheeks were very white, and he remarked the swift, agitated surge of her bosom, the fingers that were plucking at one another in her lap. Without looking up, she spoke again. "If you had the love to offer, what would the rest matter? What is a name that it should weigh so much?"

"Heyday!" He sighed, and smiled very wistfully. "You are young, child. In time you will understand what place the world assigns to such men as I. It is a place I could ask no woman to share. Such as I am, could I speak of love to any woman?"

"Yet you spoke of love once to me," she reminded him, scarcely above her breath, and stabbed him with the recollection.

"In an hour of moonshine, an hour of madness, when I was a reckless fool that must give tongue to every impulse. You reproved me then in just the terms my case deserved. Hortensia," he bent towards her, leaning on his cane, "'tis very sweet and merciful in you to recall it without reproach. Recall it no more, save to think with scorn of the fleering coxcomb who was so lost to the respect that is due to so sweet a lady. I have told you so much of myself to-day that you may."

"Decidedly," came a shrill, ironical voice from the arbor's entrance, "I may congratulate you, sir, upon the prodigious strides of your recovery."

Mr. Caryll straightened himself from his stooping posture, turned and made Lady Ostermore a bow, his whole manner changed again to that which was habitual to him. "And no less decidedly, my lady," said he with a tight-lipped smile, "may I congratulate your ladyship's son upon that happy circumstance, which is--as I have learned--so greatly due to the steps your ladyship took--for which I shall be ever grateful--to ensure that I should be made whole again."

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