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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 13. The Forlorn Hope
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 13. The Forlorn Hope Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2023

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 13. The Forlorn Hope


Her ladyship stood a moment, leaning upon her cane, her head thrown back, her thin lip curling, and her eyes playing over Mr. Caryll with a look of dislike that she made no attempt to dissemble.

Mr. Caryll found the situation redolent with comedy. He had a quick eye for such matters; so quick an eye that he deplored on the present occasion her ladyship's entire lack of a sense of humor. But for that lamentable shortcoming, she might have enjoyed with him the grotesqueness of her having--she, who disliked him so exceedingly--toiled and anguished, robbed herself of sleep, and hoped and prayed with more fervor, perhaps, than she had ever yet hoped and prayed for anything, that his life might be spared.

Her glance shifted presently from him to Hortensia, who had risen and who stood in deep confusion at having been so found by her ladyship, and in deep agitation still arising from the things he had said and from those which he had been hindered from adding by the coming of the countess.

The explanations that had been interrupted might never be renewed; she felt they never would be; he would account that he had said enough; since he was determined to ask for nothing. And unless the matter were broached again, what chance had she of combatting his foolish scruples; for foolish she accounted them; they were of no weight with her, unless, indeed, to heighten the warm feeling that already she had conceived for him.

Her ladyship moved forward a step or two, her fan going gently to and fro, stirring the barbs of the white plume that formed part of her tall head-dress.

"What were you doing here, child?" she inquired, very coldly.

Mistress Winthrop looked up--a sudden, almost scared glance it was.

"I, madam? Why--I was walking in the garden, and seeing Mr. Caryll here, I came to ask him how he did; to offer to read to him if he would have me."

"And the Maidstone matter not yet cold in its grave!" commented her ladyship sourly. "As I'm a woman, it is monstrous I should be inflicted with the care of you that have no care for yourself."

Hortensia bit her lip, controlling herself bravely, a spot of red in either cheek. Mr. Caryll came promptly to her rescue.

"Your ladyship must confess that Mistress Winthrop has assisted nobly in the care of me, and so, has placed your ladyship in her debt."

"In my debt?" shrilled the countess, eyebrows aloft, head-dress nodding. "And what of yours?"

"In my clumsy way, ma'am, I have already attempted to convey my thanks to her. It might be graceful in your ladyship to follow my example."

Mentally Mr. Caryll observed that it is unwise to rouge so heavily as did Lady Ostermore when prone to anger and to paling under it. The false color looks so very false on such occasions.

Her ladyship struck the ground with her cane. "For what have I to thank her, sir? Will you tell me that, you who seem so very well informed."

"Why, for her part in saving your son's life, ma'am, if you must have it. Heaven knows," he continued in his characteristic, half-bantering manner, under which it was so difficult to catch a glimpse of his real feelings, "I am not one to throw services done in the face of folk, but here have Mistress Winthrop and I been doing our best for your son in this matter; she by so diligently nursing me; I by responding to her nursing--and your ladyship's--and so, recovering from my wound. I do not think that your ladyship shows us a becoming gratitude. It is but natural that we fellow-workers in your ladyship's and Lord Rotherby's interests, should have a word to say to each other on the score of those labors which have made us colleagues."

Her ladyship measured him with a malignant eye. "Are you quite mad, sir?" she asked him.

He shrugged and smiled. "It has been alleged against me on occasion. But I think it was pure spite." Then he waved his hand towards the long seat that stood at the back of the arbor. "Will your ladyship not sit? You will forgive that I urge it in my own interest. They tell me that it is not good for me to stand too long just yet."

It was his hope that she would depart. Not so. "I cry you mercy!" said she acidly, and rustled to the bench. "Be seated, pray." She continued to watch them with her baleful glance. "We have heard fine things from you, sir, of what you have both done for my Lord Rotherby," she gibed, mocking him with the spirit of his half-jest. "Shall I tell you more precisely what 'tis he owes you?"

"Can there be more?" quoth Mr. Caryll, smiling so amiably that he must have disarmed a Gorgon.

Her ladyship ignored him. "He owes it to you both that you have estranged him from his father, set up a breach between them that is never like to be healed. 'Tis what he owes you."

"Does he not owe it, rather, to his abandoned ways?" asked Hortensia, in a calm, clear voice, bravely giving back her ladyship look for look.

"Abandoned ways?" screamed the countess. "Is't you that speak of abandoned ways, ye shameless baggage? Faith, ye may be some judge of them. Ye fooled him into running off with you. 'Twas that began all this. Just as with your airs and simpers, and prettily-played innocences you fooled this other, here, into being your champion."

"Madam, you insult me!" Hortensia was on her feet, eyes flashing, cheeks aflame.

"I am witness to that," said Lord Ostermore, coming in through the side-entrance.

Mr. Caryll was the only one who had seen him approach. The earl's face that had wont to be so florid, was now pale and careworn, and he seemed to have lost flesh during the past month. He turned to her ladyship.

"Out on you!" he said testily, "to chide the poor child so!"

"Poor child!" sneered her ladyship, eyes raised to heaven to invoke its testimony to this absurdity. "Poor child."

"Let there be an end to it, madam," he said with attempted sternness. "It is unjust and unreasonable in you."

"If it were that--which it is not--it would be but following the example that you set me. What are you but unreasonable and unjust--to treat your son as you are treating him?"

His lordship crimsoned. On the subject of his son he could be angry in earnest, even with her ladyship, as already we have seen.

"I have no son," he declared, "there is a lewd, drunken, bullying profligate who bears my name, and who will be Lord Ostermore some day. I can't strip him of that. But I'll strip him of all else that's mine, God helping me. I beg, my lady, that you'll let me hear no more of this, I beg it. Lord Rotherby leaves my house to-day--now that Mr. Caryll is restored to health. Indeed, he has stayed longer than was necessary. He leaves to-day. He has my orders, and my servants have orders to see that he obeys them. I do not wish to see him again--never. Let him go, and let him be thankful--and be your ladyship thankful, too, since it seems you must have a kindness for him in spite of all he has done to disgrace and discredit us--that he goes not by way of Holborn Hill and Tyburn."

She looked at him, very white from suppressed fury. "I do believe you had been glad had it been so."

"Nay," he answered, "I had been sorry for Mr. Caryll's sake."

"And for his own?"


"Are you a father?" she wondered contemptuously.

"To my eternal shame, ma'am!" he flung back at her. He seemed, indeed, a changed man in more than body since Mr. Caryll's duel with Lord Rotherby. "No more, ma'am--no more!" he cried, seeming suddenly to remember the presence of Mr. Caryll, who sat languidly drawing figures on the ground with the ferrule of his cane. He turned to ask the convalescent how he did. Her ladyship rose to withdraw, and at that moment Leduc made his appearance with a salver, on which was a bowl of soup, a flask of Hock, and a letter. Setting this down in such a manner that the letter was immediately under his master's eyes, he further proceeded to draw Mr. Caryll's attention to it. It was addressed in Sir Richard Everard's hand. Mr. Caryll took it, and slipped it into his pocket. Her ladyship's eyebrows went up.

"Will you not read your letter, Mr. Caryll?" she invited him, with an amazingly sudden change to amiability.

"It will keep, ma'am, to while away an hour that is less pleasantly engaged." And he took the napkin Leduc was proffering.

"You pay your correspondent a poor compliment," said she.

"My correspondent is not one to look for them or need them," he answered lightly, and dipped his spoon in the broth.

"Is she not?" quoth her ladyship.

Mr. Caryll laughed. "So feminine!" said he. "Ha, ha! So very feminine--to assume the sex so readily."

"'Tis an easy assumption when the superscription is writ in a woman's hand."

Mr. Caryll, the picture of amiability, smiled between spoonfuls. "Your ladyship's eyes preserve not only their beauty but a keenness beyond belief."

"How could you have seen it from that distance, Sylvia?" inquired his practical lordship.

"Then again," said her ladyship, ignoring both remarks, "there is the assiduity of this fair writer since Mr. Caryll has been in case to receive letters. Five billets in six days! Deny it if you can, Mr. Caryll."

Her playfulness, so ill-assumed, sat more awkwardly upon her than her usual and more overt malice towards him.

"To what end should I deny it?" he replied, and added in his most ingratiating manner another of his two-edged compliments. "Your ladyship is the model chatelaine. No happening in your household can escape your knowledge. His lordship is greatly to be envied."

"Yet, you see," she cried, appealing to her husband, and even to Hortensia, who sat apart, scarce heeding this trivial matter of which so much was being made, "you see that he evades the point, avoids a direct answer to the question that is raised."

"Since your ladyship perceives it, it were more merciful to spare my invention the labor of fashioning further subterfuges. I am a sick man still, and my wits are far from brisk." He took up the glass of wine Leduc had poured for him.

The countess looked at him again through narrowing eyelids, the playfulness all vanished. "You do yourself injustice, sir, as I am a woman. Your wits want nothing more in briskness." She rose, and looked down upon him engrossed in his broth. "For a dissembler, sir," she pronounced upon him acidly, "I think it would be difficult to meet your match."

He dropped his spoon into the bowl with a clatter. He looked up, the very picture of amazement and consternation.

"A dissembler, I?" quoth he in earnest protest; then laughed and quoted, adapting,

"'Tis not my talent to conceal my thoughts
Or carry smiles and sunshine in my face
Should discontent sit heavy at my heart."

She looked him over, pursing her lips. "I've often thought you might have been a player," said she contemptuously.

"I'faith," he laughed, "I'd sooner play than toil."

"Ay; but you make a toil of play, sir."

"Compassionate me, ma'am," he implored in the best of humors. "I am but a sick man. Your ladyship's too keen for me."

She moved across to the exit without answering him. "Come, child," she said to Hortensia. "We are tiring Mr. Caryll, I fear. Let us leave him to his letter, ere it sets his pocket afire."

Hortensia rose. Loath though she might be to depart, there was no reason she could urge for lingering.

"Is not your lordship coming?" said she.

"Of course he is," her ladyship commanded. "I need to speak with you yet concerning Rotherby," she informed him.

"Hem!" His lordship coughed. Plainly he was not at his ease. "I will follow soon. Do not stay for me. I have a word to say to Mr. Caryll."

"Will it not keep? What can you have to say to him that is so pressing?"

"But a word--no more."

"Why, then, we'll stay for you," said her ladyship, and threw him into confusion, hopeless dissembler that he was.

"Nay, nay! I beg that you will not."

Her ladyship's brows went up; her eyes narrowed again, and a frown came between them. "You are mighty mysterious," said she, looking from one to the other of the men, and bethinking her that it was not the first time she had found them so; bethinking her, too--jumping, woman-like, to rash conclusions--that in this mystery that linked them might lie the true secret of her husband's aversion to his son and of his oath a month ago to see that same son hang if Mr. Caryll succumbed to the wound he had taken. With some women, to suspect a thing is to believe that thing. Her ladyship was of these. She set too high value upon her acumen, upon the keenness of her instincts.

And if aught were needed to cement her present suspicions, Mr. Caryll himself afforded that cement, by seeming to betray the same eagerness to be alone with his lordship that his lordship was betraying to be alone with him; though, in truth, he no more than desired to lend assistance to the earl out of curiosity to learn what it was his lordship might have to say.

"Indeed," said he, "if you could give his lordship leave, ma'am, for a few moments, I should myself be glad on't."

"Come, Hortensia," said her ladyship shortly, and swept out, Mistress Winthrop following.

In silence they crossed the lawn together. Once only ere they reached the house, her ladyship looked back. "I would I knew what they are plotting," she said through her teeth.

"Plotting?" echoed Hortensia.

"Ay--plotting, simpleton. I said plotting. I mind me 'tis not the first time I have seen them so mysterious together. It began on the day that first Mr. Caryll set foot at Stretton House. There's a deal of mystery about that man--too much for honesty. And then these letters touching which he is so close--one a day--and his French lackey always at hand to pounce upon them the moment they arrive. I wonder what's at bottom on't! I wonder! And I'd give these ears to know," she snapped in conclusion as they went indoors.

In the arbor, meanwhile, his lordship had taken the rustic seat her ladyship had vacated. He sat down heavily, like a man who is weary in body and in mind, like a man who is bearing a load too heavy for his shoulders. Mr. Caryll, watching him, observed all this.

"A glass of Hock?" he suggested, waving his hand towards the flask. "Let me play host to you out of the contents of your own cellar."

His lordship's eye brightened at the suggestion, which confirmed the impression Mr. Caryll had formed that all was far from well with his lordship. Leduc brimmed a glass, and handed it to my lord, who emptied it at a draught. Mr. Caryll waved an impatient hand. "Away with you, Leduc. Go watch the goldfish in the pond. I'll call you if I need you."

After Leduc had departed a silence fell between them, and endured some moments. His lordship was leaning forward, elbows on knees, his face in shadow. At length he sat back, and looked at his companion across the little intervening space.

"I have hesitated to speak to you before, Mr. Caryll, upon the matter that you know of, lest your recovery should not be so far advanced that you might bear the strain and fatigue of conversing upon serious topics. I trust that that cause is now so far removed that I may put aside my scruples."

"Assuredly--I am glad to say--thanks to the great care you have had of me here at Stretton House."

"There is no debt between us on that score," answered his lordship shortly, brusquely almost. "Well, then--" He checked, and looked about him. "We might be approached without hearing any one," he said.

Mr. Caryll smiled, and shook his head. "I am not wont to neglect such details," he observed. "The eyes of Argus were not so vigilant as my Leduc's; and he understands that we are private. He will give us warning should any attempt to approach. Be assured of that, and believe, therefore, that we are more snug here than we should be even in your lordship's closet."

"That being so, sir--hem! You are receiving letters daily. Do they concern the business of King James?"

"In a measure; or, rather, they are from one concerned in it."

Ostermore's eyes were on the ground again. There fell a pause, Mr. Caryll frowning slightly and full of curiosity as to what might be coming.

"How soon, think you," asked his lordship presently, "you will be in case to travel?"

"In a week, I hope," was the reply.

"Good." The earl nodded thoughtfully. "That may be in time. I pray it may be. 'Tis now the best that we can do. You'll bear a letter for me to the king?"

Mr. Caryll passed a hand across his chin, his face very grave. "Your answer to the letter that I brought you?"

"My answer. My acceptance of his majesty's proposals."

"Ha!" Mr. Caryll seemed to be breathing hard.

"Your letters, sir--the letters that you have been receiving will have told you, perhaps, something of how his majesty's affairs are speeding here?"

"Very little; and from that little I fear that they speed none too well. I would counsel your lordship," he continued slowly--he was thinking as he went--"to wait a while before you burn your boats. From what I gather, matters are in the air just now."

The earl made a gesture, brusque and impatient. "Your information is very scant, then," said he.

Mr. Caryll looked askance at him.

"Pho, sir! While you have been abed, I have been up and doing; up and doing. Matters are being pushed forward rapidly. I have seen Atterbury. He knows my mind. There lately came an agent from the king, it seems, to enjoin the bishop to abandon this conspiracy, telling him that the time was not yet ripe. Atterbury scorns to act upon that order. He will work in the king's interests against the king's own commands even."

"Then, 'tis possible he may work to his own undoing," said Mr. Caryll, to whom this was, after all, no news.

"Nay, nay; you have been sick; you do not know how things have sped in this past month. Atterbury holds, and he is right, I dare swear--he holds that never will there be such another opportunity. The finances of the country are still in chaos, in spite of all Walpole's efforts and fine promises. The South Sea bubble has sapped the confidence in the government of all men of weight. The very Whigs themselves are shaken. 'Tis to King James, England begins to look for salvation from this topsy-turveydom. The tide runs strongly in our favor. Strongly, sir! If we stay for the ebb, we may stay for good; for there may never be another flow within our lifetime."

"Your lordship is grown strangely hot upon this question," said Caryll, very full of wonder.

As he understood Ostermore, the earl was scarcely the sentimentalist to give way to such a passion of loyalty for a weaker side. Yet his lordship had spoken, not with the cold calm of the practical man who seeks advantage, but with all the fervor of the enthusiast.

"Such is my interest," answered his lordship. "Even as the fortunes of the country are beggared by the South Sea Company, so are my own; even as the country must look to King James for its salvation, so must I. At best 'tis but a forlorn hope, I confess; yet 'tis the only hope I see."

Mr. Caryll looked at him, smiled to himself, and nodded. So! All this fire and enthusiasm was about the mending of his personal fortunes--the grubbing of riches for himself. Well, well! It was good matter wasted on a paltry cause. But it sorted excellently with what Mr. Caryll knew of the nature of this father of his. It never could transcend the practical; there was no imagination to carry it beyond those narrow sordid confines, and Mr. Caryll had been a fool to have supposed that any other springs were pushing here. Egotism, egotism, egotism! Its name, he thought, was surely Ostermore. And again, as once before, under the like circumstances, he found more pity than scorn awaking in his heart. The whole wasted, sterile life that lay behind this man; the unhappy, loveless home that stood about him now in his declining years were the fruits he had garnered from that consuming love of self with which the gods had cursed him.

The only ray to illumine the black desert of Ostermore's existence was the affection of his ward, Hortensia Winthrop, because in that one instance he had sunk his egotism a little, sparing a crumb of pity--for once in his life--for the child's orphanhood. Had Ostermore been other than the man he was, his existence must have proved a burden beyond his strength. It was so barren of good deeds, so sterile of affection. Yet encrusted as he was in that egotism of his--like the limpet in its shell--my lord perceived nothing of this, suffered nothing of it, understanding nothing. He was all-sufficient to himself. Giving nothing, he looked for nothing, and sought his happiness--without knowing the quest vain--in what he had. The fear of losing this had now in his declining years cast, at length, a shadow upon his existence.

Mr. Caryll looked at him almost sorrowfully. Then he put by his thoughts, and broke the silence. "All this I had understood when first I sought you out," said he. "Yet your lordship did not seem to realize it quite so keenly. Is it that Atterbury and his friends--?"

"No, no," Ostermore broke in. "Look'ee! I will be frank--quite frank and open with you, Mr. Caryll. Things were bad when first you came to me. Yet not so bad that I was driven to a choice of evils. I had lost heavily. But enough remained to bear me through my time, though Rotherby might have found little enough left after I had gone. While that was so, I hesitated to take a risk. I am an old man. It had been different had I been young with ambitions that craved satisfying. I am an old man; and I desired peace and my comforts. Deeming these assured, I paused ere I risked their loss against the stake which in King James's name you set upon the board. But it happens to-day that these are assured no longer," he ended, his voice breaking almost, his eyes haggard. "They are assured no longer."

"You mean?" inquired Caryll.

"I mean that I am confronted by the danger of beggary, ruin, shame, and the sponging-house, at best."

Mr. Caryll was stirred out of his calm. "My lord!" he cried. "How is this possible? What can have come to pass?"

The earl was silent for a long while. It was as if he pondered how he should answer, or whether he should answer at all. At last, in a low voice, a faint tinge reddening his face, his eyes averted, he explained. It shamed him so to do, yet must he satisfy that craving of weak minds to unburden, to seek relief in confession. "Mine is the case of Craggs, the secretary of state," he said. "And Craggs, you'll remember, shot himself."

"My God," said Mr. Caryll, and opened wide his eyes. "Did you-?" He paused, not knowing what euphemism to supply for the thing his lordship must have done.

His lordship looked up, sneering almost in self-derision. "I did," he answered. "To tell you all--I accepted twenty thousand pounds' worth of South Sea stock when the company was first formed, for which I did not pay other than by lending the scheme the support of my name at a time when such support was needed. I was of the ministry, then, you will remember."

Mr. Caryll considered him again, and wondered a moment at the confession, till he understood by intuition that the matter and its consequences were so deeply preying upon the man's mind that he could not refrain from giving vent to his fears.

"And now you know," his lordship added, "why my hopes are all in King James. Ruin stares me in the face. Ruin and shame. This forlorn Stuart hope is the only hope remaining me. Therefore, am I eager to embrace it. I have made all plain to you. You should understand now."

"Yet not quite all. You did this thing. But the inspection of the company's books is past. The danger of discovery, at least, is averted. Or is it that your conscience compels you to make restitution?"

His lordship stared and gaped. "Do you suppose me mad?" he inquired, quite seriously. "Pho! Others were overlooked at the time. We did not all go the way of Craggs and Aislabie and their fellow-sufferers. Stanhope was assailed afterward, though he was innocent. That filthy fellow, the Duke of Wharton, from being an empty fop turned himself on a sudden into a Crown attorney to prosecute the peculators. It was an easy road to fame for him, and the fool had a gift of eloquence. Stanhope's death is on his conscience--or would be if he had one. That was six months ago. When he discovered his error in the case of Stanhope and saw the fatal consequences it had, he ceased his dirty lawyer's work. But he had good grounds upon which to suspect others as highly placed as Stanhope, and had he followed his suspicions he might have turned them into certainties and discovered evidence. As it was, he let the matter lie, content with the execution he had done, and the esteem into which he had so suddenly hoisted himself--the damned profligate!"

Mr. Caryll let pass, as typical, the ludicrous want of logic in Ostermore's strictures of his Grace of Wharton, and the application by him to the duke of opprobrious terms that were no whit less applicable to himself.

"Then, that being so, what cause for these alarms some six months later?"

"Because," answered his lordship in a sudden burst of passion that brought him to his feet, empurpled his face and swelled the veins of his forehead, "because I am cursed with the filthiest fellow in England for my son."

He said it with the air of one who throws a flood of light where darkness has been hitherto, who supplies the key that must resolve at a turn a whole situation. But Mr. Caryll blinked foolishly.

"My wits are very dull, I fear," said he. "I still cannot understand."

"Then I'll make it all clear to you," said his lordship.

Leduc appeared at the arbor entrance.

"What now?" asked Mr. Caryll.

"Her ladyship is approaching, sir," answered Leduc the vigilant.

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CHAPTER XIV. LADY OSTERMORELord Ostermore and Mr. Caryll looked across the lawn towards the house, but failed to see any sign of her ladyship's approach. Mr. Caryll raised questioning eyes to his servant's stolid face, and in that moment caught the faintest rustle of a gown behind the arbor. He half-turned to my lord, and nodded slightly in the direction of the sound, a smile twisting his lips. With a gesture he dismissed Leduc, who returned to the neighborhood of the pond. His lordship frowned, angered by the interruption. Then: "If your ladyship will come inside," said he, "you will hear

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