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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 14. Lady Ostermore
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 14. Lady Ostermore Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3170

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 14. Lady Ostermore

CHAPTER XIV. LADY OSTERMORE

Lord 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 better and with greater comfort."

"Not to speak of dignity," said Mr. Caryll.

The stiff gown rustled again, this time without stealth. The countess appeared, no whit abashed. Mr. Caryll rose politely.

"You sit with spies to guard your approaches," said she.

"As a precaution against spies," was his lordship's curt answer.

She measured him with a cool eye. "What is't ye hide?" she asked him.

"My shame," he answered readily. Then after a moment's pause, he rose and offered her his seat. "Since you have thrust yourself in where you were not bidden, you may hear and welcome, ma'am," said he. "It may help you to understand what you term my injustice to my son."

"Are these matters wherewith to importune a stranger--a guest?"

"I am proposing to say in your presence what I was about to say in your absence," said he, without answering her question. "Be seated, ma'am."

She sniffed, closed her fan with a clatter, and sat down. Mr. Caryll resumed his long chair, and his lordship took the stool.

"I am told," the latter resumed presently, recapitulating in part for her ladyship's better understanding, "that his Grace of Wharton is intending to reopen the South Sea scandal, as soon as he can find evidence that I was one of those who profited by the company's charter."

"Profited?" she echoed, between scorn and bitter amusement. "Profited, did ye say? I think your dotage is surely upon you--you that have sunk nigh all your fortune and all that you had with me in this thieving venture--d'ye talk of profits?"

"At the commencement I did profit, as did many others. Had I been content with my gains, had I been less of a trusting fool, it had been well. I was dazzled, maybe, by the glare of so much gold. I needed more; and so I lost all. That is evil enough. But there is worse. I may be called upon to make restitution of what I had from the company without paying for it--I may give all that's left me and barely cover the amount, and I may starve and be damned thereafter."

Her ladyship's face was ghastly. Horror stared from her pale eyes. She had known, from the beginning, of that twenty thousand pounds' worth of stock, and she had had--with his lordship--her anxious moments when the disclosures were being made six months ago that had brought the Craggses, Aislabie and a half-dozen others to shame and ruin.

His lordship looked at her a moment. "And if this shipwreck comes, as it now threatens," he continued, "it is my son I shall have to thank for't."

She found voice to ask: "How so?" courage to put the question scornfully. "Is it not rather Rotherby you have to thank that the disclosures did not come six months ago? What was it saved you but the friendship his Grace of Wharton had for Charles?"

"Why, then," stormed his lordship, "did he not see to't that he preserved that friendship? It but needed a behavior of as much decency and honor as Wharton exacts in his associates--and the Lord knows how much that is!" he sneered. "As it is, he has gone even lower than that abandoned scourer; so low that even this rakehell duke must become his enemy for his own credit's sake. He attempts mock-marriages with ladies of quality; and he attempts murder by stabbing through the back a gentleman who has spared his worthless life. Not even the president of the Hell Fire Club can countenance these things, strong stomach though he have for villainy. It is something to have contrived to come so low that even his Grace of Wharton must turn upon him, and swear his ruin. And so that he may ruin him, his grace is determined to ruin me. Now you understand, madam--and you, Mr. Caryll."

Mr. Caryll understood. He understood even more than his lordship meant him to understand; more than his lordship understood, himself. So, too, did her ladyship, if we may judge from the reply she made him.

"You fool," she railed. "You vain, blind, selfish fool! To blame Rotherby for this. Rather should Rotherby, blame you that by your damned dishonesty have set a weapon against him in his enemy's hands."

"Madam!" he roared, empurpling, and coming heavily to his feet. "Do you know who I am?"

"Ay--and what you are, which is something you will never know. God! Was there ever so self-centered a fool? Compassionate me, Heaven!" She rose, too, and turned to Mr. Caryll. "You, sir," she said to him, "you have been dragged into this, I know not why."

She broke off suddenly, looking at him, her eyes a pair of gimlets now for penetration. "Why have you been dragged into it?" she demanded. "What is here? I demand to know. What help does my lord expect from you that he tells you this? Does he--" She paused an instant, a cunning smile breaking over her wrinkled, painted face. "Does he propose to sell himself to the king over the water, and are you a secret agent come to do the buying? Is that the answer to this riddle?"

Mr. Caryll, imperturbable outwardly, but very ill at ease within, smiled and waved the delicate hand that appeared through the heavy ruffle at his wrist. "Madam, indeed--ah--your ladyship goes very fast. You leap so at conclusions for which no grounds can exist. His lordship is so overwrought--as well he may be, alas!--that he cares not before whom he speaks. Is it not plainly so?"

She smiled very sourly. "You are a very master of evasion, sir. But your evasion gives me the answer that I lack--that and his lordship's face. I drew my bow at a venture; yet look, sir, and tell me, has my quarrel missed its mark?"

And, indeed, the sudden fear and consternation written on my lord's face was so plain that all might read it. He was--as Mr. Caryll had remarked on the first occasion that they met--the worst dissembler that ever set hand to a conspiracy. He betrayed himself at every step, if not positively, by incautious words, why then by the utter lack of control he had upon his countenance.

He made now a wild attempt to bluster. "Lies! Lies!" he protested. "Your ladyship's a-dreaming. Should I be making bad worse by plotting at my time of life? Should I? What can King James avail me, indeed?"

"'Tis what I will ask Rotherby to help me to discover," she informed him.

"Rotherby?" he cried. "Would you tell that villain what you suspect? Would you arm him with another weapon for my undoing?"

"Ha!" said she. "You admit so much, then?" And she laughed disdainfully. Then with a sudden sternness, a sudden nobility almost in the motherhood which she put forward--"Rotherby is my son," she said, "and I'll not have my son the victim of your follies as well as of your injustice. We may curb the one and the other yet, my lord."

And she swept out, fan going briskly in one hand, her long ebony cane swinging as briskly in the other.

"O God!" groaned Ostermore, and sat down heavily.

Mr. Caryll helped himself copiously to snuff. "I think," said he, his voice so cool that it had an almost soothing influence, "I think your lordship has now another reason why you should go no further in this matter."

"But if I do not--what other hopes have I? Damn me! I'm a ruined man either way."

"Nay, nay," Mr. Caryll reminded him. "Assuming even that you are correctly informed, and that his Grace of Wharton is determined to move against you, it is not to be depended that he will succeed in collecting such evidence as he must need. At this date much of the evidence that may once have been available will have been dissipated. You are rash to despair so soon."

"There is that," his lordship admitted thoughtfully, a little hopefully, even; "there is that." And with the resilience of his nature--of men who form opinions on slight grounds, and, therefore, are ready to change them upon grounds as slight--"I' faith! I may have been running to meet my trouble. 'Tis but a rumor, after all, that Wharton is for mischief, and--as you say--as like as not there'll be no evidence by now. There was little enough at the time.

"Still, I'll make doubly sure. My letter to King James can do no harm. We'll talk of it again, when you are in case to travel."

It passed through Mr. Caryll's mind at the moment that Lady Ostermore and her son might between them brew such mischief as might seriously hinder him from travelling, and he was very near the truth. For already her ladyship was closeted with Rotherby in her boudoir.

The viscount was dressed for travelling, intent upon withdrawing to the country, for he was well-informed already of the feeling of the town concerning him, and had no mind to brave the slights and cold-shoulderings that would await him did he penetrate to any of the haunts of people of quality and fashion. He stood before his mother now, a tall, lank figure, his black face very gloomy, his sensual lips thrust forward in a sullen pout. She, in a gilt arm-chair before her toilet-table, was telling him the story of what had passed, his father's fear of ruin and disgrace. He swore between his teeth when he heard that the danger threatened from the Duke of Wharton.

"And your father's destitution means our destitution--yours and mine; for his gambling schemes have consumed my portion long since."

He laughed and shrugged. "I marvel I should concern myself," said he. "What can it avail me to save the rags that are left him of his fortune? He's sworn I shall never touch a penny that he may die possessed of."

"But there's the entail," she reminded him. "If restitution is demanded, the Crown will not respect it. 'Twill be another sop to throw the whining curs that were crippled by the bubble, and who threaten to disturb the country if they are not appeased. If Wharton carries out this exposure, we're beggars--utter beggars, that may ask an alms to quiet hunger."

"'Tis Wharton's present hate of me," said he thoughtfully, and swore. "The damned puppy! He'd make a sacrifice of me upon the altar of respectability, just as he made a sacrifice of the South Sea bubblers. What else was the stinking rakehell seeking but to put himself right again in the eyes of a town that was nauseated with him and his excesses? The self-seeking toad that makes virtue his profession--the virtue of others--and profligacy his recreation!" He smote fist into palm. "There's a way to silence him."

"Ah?" she looked up quickly, hopefully.

"A foot or so of steel," Rotherby explained, and struck the hilt of his sword. "I might pick a quarrel with him. 'Twould not be difficult. Come upon him unawares, say, and strike him. That should force a fight."

"Tusk, fool! He's all empanoplied in virtue where you are concerned. He'd use the matter of your affair with Caryll as a reason not to meet you, whatever you might do, and he'd set his grooms to punish any indignity you might put upon him."

"He durst not."

"Pooh! The town would all approve him in it since your running Caryll through the back. What a fool you were, Charles."

He turned away, hanging his head, full conscious, and with no little bitterness, of how great had been his folly.

"Salvation may lie for you in the same source that has brought you to the present pass--this man Caryll," said the countess presently. "I suspect him more than ever of being a Jacobite agent."

"I know him to be such."

"You know it?"

"All but; and Green is assured of it, too." He proceeded to tell her what he knew. "Ever since Green met Caryll at Maidstone has he suspected him, yet but that I kept him to the task he would have abandoned it. He's in my pay now as much as in Lord Carteret's, and if he can run Caryll to earth he receives his wages from both sides."

"Well--well? What has he discovered? Anything?"

"A little. This Caryll frequented regularly the house of one Everard, who came to town a week after Caryll's own arrival. This Everard--Sir Richard Everard is known to be a Jacobite. He is the Pretender's Paris agent. They would have laid him by the heels before, but that by precipitancy they feared to ruin their chances of discovering the business that may have brought him over. They are giving him rope at present. Meanwhile, by my cursed folly, Caryll's visits to him were interrupted. But there has been correspondence between them."

"I know," said her ladyship. "A letter was delivered him just now. I tried to smoke him concerning it. But he's too astute."

"Astute or not," replied her son, "once he leaves Stretton House it should not be long ere he betrays himself and gives us cause to lay him by the heels. But how will that help us?"

"Do you ask how? Why, if there is a plot, and we can discover it, we might make terms with the secretary of state to avoid any disclosure Wharton may intend concerning the South Sea matter."

"But that would be to discover my father for a Jacobite! What advantage should we derive from that? 'Twould be as bad as t'other matter."

"Let me die, but ye're a slow-witted clod, Charles. D'ye think we can find no way to disclose the plot and Mr. Caryll--and Everard, too, if you choose--without including your father? My lord is timidly cautious, and you may depend he'll not have put himself in their hands to any extent just yet."

The viscount paced the chamber slowly in long strides, head bent in thought, hands clasped behind him. "It will need consideration," said he. "But it may serve, and I can count upon Green. He is satisfied that Caryll befooled him at Maidstone, and that he kept the papers he carried despite the thoroughness of Green's investigations. Moreover, he was handled with some roughness by Caryll. For that and the other matter he asks redress--thirsts for it. He's a very willing tool, as I have found."

"Then see that you use him adroitly to your work," said his mother. "Best not leave town at present, Charles."

"Why, no," said he. "I'll find me a lodging somewhere at hand, since my fond sire is determined I shall pollute no longer the sacrosanctity of his dwelling. Perhaps when I have pulled him out of this quicksand, he will deign to mitigate the bitterness of his feelings for me. Though, faith, I find life endurable without the affection he should have consecrated to me."

"Ay," she said, looking up at him. "You are his son; too much his son, I fear. 'Tis why he dislikes you so intensely. He sees in you the faults to which he is blind in himself."

"Sweet mother!" said his lordship, bowing.

She scowled at him. She could deal in irony herself--and loved to--but she detested to have it dealt to her.

He bowed again; gained the door, and would have passed out but that she detained him.

"'Tis a pity, on some scores, to dispose so utterly of this Caryll," she said. "The pestilent coxcomb has his uses, and his uses, like adversity's, are sweet."

He paused to question her with his eyes.

"He might have made a husband for Hortensia, and rid me of the company of that white-faced changeling."

"Might he so?" quoth the viscount, face and voice, expressionless.

"They were made for each other," her ladyship opined.

"Were they so?"

"Ay--were they. And faith they've discovered it. I would you had seen the turtles in the arbor an hour ago, when I surprised them."

His lordship attempted a smile, but achieved nothing more than a wry face and a change of color. His mother's eyes, observing these signs, grew on a sudden startled.

"Why, fool," quoth she, "do you hold there still? Art not yet cured of that folly?"

"What folly, ma'am?"

"This folly that already has cost you so much. 'Sdeath! As I'm a woman, if you'd so much feeling for the girl, I marvel ye did not marry her honestly and in earnest when the chance was yours."

The pallor of his face increased. He clenched his hands. "I marvel myself that I did not," he answered passionately--and went out, slamming the door after him, and leaving her ladyship agape and angry.

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