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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 15. Love And Rage
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 15. Love And Rage Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3358

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 15. Love And Rage


Lord Rotherby, descending from that interview with his mother, espied Hortensia crossing the hall below. Forgetting his dignity, he quickened his movements, and took the remainder of the stairs two at a stride. But, then, his lordship was excited and angry, and considerations of dignity did not obtain with him at the time. For that matter, they seldom did.

"Hortensia! Hortensia!" he called to her, and at his call she paused.

Not once during the month that was past--and during which he had, for the most part, kept his room, to all intents a prisoner--had she exchanged so much as a word with him. Thus, not seeing him, she had been able, to an extent, to exclude him from her thoughts, which, naturally enough, were reluctant to entertain him for their guest.

Her calm, as she paused now in acquiescence to his bidding, was such that it almost surprised herself. She had loved him once--or thought so, a little month ago--and at a single blow he had slain that love. Now love so slain has a trick of resurrecting in the guise of hate; and so, she had thought at first had been the case with her. But this moment proved to her now that her love was dead, indeed, since of her erstwhile affection not even a recoil to hate remained. Dislike she may have felt; but it was that cold dislike that breeds a deadly indifference, and seeks no active expression, asking no more than the avoidance of its object.

Her calm, reflected in her face of a beauty almost spiritual, in every steady line of her slight, graceful figure, gave him pause a moment, and his hot glance fell abashed before the chill indifference that met him from those brown eyes.

A man of deeper sensibilities, of keener perceptions, would have bowed and gone his way. But then a man of deeper sensibilities would never have sought this interview that the viscount was now seeking. Therefore, it was but natural that he should recover swiftly from his momentary halt, and step aside to throw open the door of a little room on the right of the hall. Bowing slightly, he invited her to enter.

"Grant me a moment ere I go, Hortensia," he said 'between command and exhortation.

She stood cogitating him an instant, with no outward sign of what might be passing in her mind; then she slightly inclined her head, and went forward as he bade her.

It was a sunny room, gay with light color and dainty furnishings, having long window-doors that opened to the garden. An Aubusson carpet of palest green, with a festoon pattern of pink roses, covered two-thirds of the blocked, polished floor. The empanelled walls were white, with here a gilt mirror, flanked on either side by a girandole in ormolu. A spinet stood open in mid-chamber, and upon it were sheets of music, a few books and a bowl of emerald-green ware, charged now with roses, whose fragrance lay heavy on the air. There were two or three small tables of very dainty, fragile make, and the chairs were in delicately-tinted tapestry illustrating the fables of La Fontaine.

It was an apartment looked upon by Hortensia as her own withdrawing-room, set apart for her own use, and as that the household--her very ladyship included--had ever recognized it.

His lordship closed the door with care. Hortensia took her seat upon the long stool that stood at the spinet, her back to the instrument, and with hands idle in her lap--the same cold reserve upon her countenance-she awaited his communication.

He advanced until he was close beside her, and stood leaning an elbow on the corner of the spinet, a long and not ungraceful figure, with the black curls of his full-bottomed wig falling about his swarthy, big-featured face.

"I have but my farewells to make, Hortensia," said he. "I am leaving Stretton House, to-day, at last."

"I am glad," said she, in a formal, level voice, "that things should have fallen out so as to leave you free to go your ways."

"You are glad," he answered, frowning slightly, and leaning farther towards her. "Ay, and why are you glad? Why? You are glad for Mr. Caryll's sake. Do you deny it?"

She looked up at him quite calm and fearlessly. "I am glad for your own sake, too."

His dark brooding eyes looked deep into hers, which did not falter under his insistent gaze. "Am I to believe you?" he inquired.

"Why not? I do not wish your death."

"Not my death--but my absence?" he sneered. "You wish for that, do you not? You would prefer me gone? My room is better than my company just now? 'Tis what you think, eh?"

"I have not thought of it at all," she answered him with a pitiless frankness.

He laughed, soft and wickedly. "Is it so very hopeless, then? You have not thought of it at all by which you mean that you have not thought of me at all."

"Is't not best so? You have given me no cause to think of you to your advantage. I am therefore kind to exclude you from my thoughts."

"Kind?" he mocked her. "You think it kind to put me from your mind--I who love you, Hortensia!"

She rose upon the instant, her cheeks warming faintly. "My lord," said she, "I think there is no more to be said between us."

"Ah, but there is," he cried. "A deal more yet." And he left his place by the spinet to come and stand immediately before her, barring her passage to the door. "Not only to say farewell was it that I desired to speak with you alone here." His voice softened amazingly. "I want your pardon ere I go. I want you to say that you forgive me the vile thing I would have done, Hortensia." Contrition quivered in his lowered voice. He bent a knee to her, and held out his hand. "I will not rise until you speak my pardon, child."

"Why, if that be all, I pardon you very readily," she answered, still betraying no emotion.

He frowned. "Too readily!" he cried. "Too readily for sincerity. I will not take it so."

"Indeed, my lord, for a penitent, you are very difficult to please. I pardon you with all my heart."

"You are sincere?" he cried, and sought to take her hands; but she whipped them away and behind her. "You bear me no ill-will?"

She considered him now with a calm, critical gaze, before which he was forced to lower his bold eyes. "Why should I bear you an ill-will?" she asked him.

"For the thing I did--the thing I sought to do."

"I wonder do you know all that you did?" she asked him, musingly. "Shall I tell you, my lord? You cured me of a folly. I had been blind, and you made me see. I had foolishly thought to escape one evil, and you made me realize that I was rushing into a worse. You saved me from myself. You may have made me suffer then; but it was a healing hurt you dealt me. And should I bear you an ill-will for that?"

He had risen from his knee. He stood apart, pondering her from under bent brows with eyes that were full of angry fire.

"I do not think," she ended, "that there needs more between us. I have understood you, sir, since that day at Maidstone--I think we were strangers until then; and perhaps now you may begin to understand me. Fare you well, my lord."

She made shift to go, but he barred her passage now in earnest, his hands clenched beside him in witness of the violence he did himself to keep them there. "Not yet," he said, in a deep, concentrated voice. "Not yet. I did you a wrong, I know. And what you say--cruel as it is--is no more than I deserve. But I desire to make amends. I love you, Hortensia, and desire to make amends."

She smiled wistfully. "'Tis overlate to talk of that."

"Why?" he demanded fiercely, and caught her arms, holding her there before him. "Why is it overlate?"

"Suffer me to go," she commanded, rather than begged, and made to free herself of his grasp.

"I want you to be my wife, Hortensia--my wedded wife."

She looked at him, and laughed; a cold laugh, disdainful, yet not bitter. "You wanted that before, my lord; yet you neglected the opportunity my folly gave you. I thank you--you, after God--for that same neglect."

"Ah, do not say that!" he begged, a very suppliant again. "Do not say that! Child, I love you. Do you understand?"

"Who could fail to understand, after the abundant proof you have afforded me of your sincerity and your devotion?"

"Do you rally me?" he demanded, letting through a flash of the anger that was mounting in him. "Am I so poor a thing that you whet your little wit upon me?"

"My lord, you are paining me. What can you look to gain by this? Suffer me to go."

A moment yet he stood, holding her wrists and looking down into her eyes with a mixture of pleading and ferocity in his. Then he made a sound in his throat, and caught her bodily to him; his arms, laced about her, held her bound and crushed against him. His dark, flushed face hovered above her own.

Fear took her at last. It mounted and grew to horror. "Let me go, my lord," she besought him, her voice trembling. "Oh, let me go!"

"I love you, Hortensia! I need you!" he cried, as if wrung by pain, and then hot upon her brow and cheeks and lips his kisses fell, and shame turned her to fire from head to foot as she fought helplessly within his crushing grasp.

"You dog!" she panted, and writhing harder, wrenched free a hand and arm. Blindly she beat upwards into that evil satyr's face. "You beast! You toad! You coward!"

They fell apart, each panting; she leaning faint against the spinet, her bosom galloping; he muttering oaths decent and other--for in the upward thrusting of her little hand one of its fingers had prodded at an eye, and the pain of it--which had caused him to relax his hold of her--stripped what little veneer remained upon the man's true nature.

"Will you go?" she asked him furiously, outraged by the vileness of his ravings. "Will you go, or must I summon help?"

He stood looking at her, straightening his wig, which had become disarranged in the struggle, and forcing himself to an outward calm. "So," he said. "You scorn me? You will not marry me? You realise the chance, eh? And why? Why?"

"I suppose it is because I am blind to the honor of the alliance," she controlled herself to answer him. "Will you go?"

He did not move. "Yet you loved me once--"

"'Tis a lie!" she blazed. "I thought I did--to my undying shame. No more than that, my lord--as I've a soul to be saved."

"You loved Me," he insisted. "And you would love me still but for this damned Caryll--this French coxcomb, who has crawled into your regard like the slimy, creeping thing he is."

"It sorts well with your ways, my lord, that you could say these things behind his back. You are practiced at stabbing men behind."

The gibe, with all the hurtful, stinging quality that only truth possesses, struck his anger from him, leaving him limp and pale. Then he recovered.

"Do you know who he is--what he is?" he asked. "I will tell you. He's a spy--a damned Jacobite spy, whom a word from me will hang."

Her eyes lashed him with her scorn. "I were a fool did I believe you," was her contemptuous answer.

"Ask him," he said, and laughed. He turned and strode to the door. Paused there, sardonic, looking back. "I shall be quits with you, ma'am. Quits! I'll hang this pretty turtle of yours at Tyburn. Tell him so from me."

He wrenched the door open, and went out on that, leaving her cold and sick with dread.

Was it but an idle threat to terrorize her? Was it but that? Her impulse was to seek Mr. Caryll upon the instant that she might ask him and allay her fears. But what right had she? Upon what grounds could she set a question upon so secret a matter? She conceived him raising his brows in that supercilious way of his, and looking her over from head to toe as though seeking a clue to the nature of this quaint thing that asked him questions. She pictured his smile and the jest with which he would set aside her inquiry. She imagined, indeed, just what she believed would happen did she ask him; which was precisely what would not have happened. Imagining thus, she held her peace, and nursed her secret dread. And on the following day, his weakness so far overcome as to leave him no excuse to linger at Stretton House, Mr. Caryll took his departure and returned to his lodging in Old Palace Yard.

One more treasonable interview had he with Lord Ostermore in the library ere he departed. His lordship it was who reopened again the question, to repeat much of what he had said in the arbor on the previous day, and Mr. Caryll replied with much the same arguments in favor of procrastination that he had already employed.

"Wait, at least," he begged, "until I have been abroad a day or two, and felt for myself how the wind Is setting."

"'Tis a prodigiously dangerous document," he declared. "I scarce see the need for so much detail."

"How can it set but one way?"

"'Tis a question I shall be in better case to answer when I have had an opportunity of judging. Meanwhile, be assured I shall not sail for France without advising you. Time enough then to give me your letter should you still be of the same mind."

"Be it so," said the earl. "When all is said, the letter will be safer here, meantime, than in your pocket." And he tapped the secretaire. "But see what I have writ his majesty, and tell me should I alter aught."

He took out a drawer on the right--took it out bodily--then introduced his hand into the opening, running it along the inner side of the desk until, no doubt, he touched a spring; for suddenly a small trap was opened. From this cavity he fished out two documents--one the flimsy tissue on which King James' later was penned; the other on heavier material Lord Ostermore's reply. He spread the latter before him, and handed it to Mr. Caryll, who ran an eye over it.

It was indited with stupid, characteristic incaution; concealment was never once resorted to; everywhere expressions of the frankest were employed, and every line breathed the full measure of his lordship's treason and betrays the existence of a plot.

Mr. Caryll returned it. His countenance was grave.

"I desire his majesty to know how whole-heartedly I belong to him."

"'Twere best destroyed, I think. You can write another when the time comes to dispatch it."

But Ostermore was never one to take sensible advice. "Pooh! 'Twill be safe in here. 'Tis a secret known to none." He dropped it, together with King James' letter, back into the recess, snapped down the trap, and replaced the drawer. Whereupon Mr. Caryll took his leave, promising to advise his lordship of whatever he might glean, and so departed from Stretton House.

My Lord Rotherby, meanwhile, was very diligent in the business upon which he was intent. He had received in his interview with Hortensia an added spur to such action as might be scatheful to Mr. Caryll. His lordship was lodged in Portugal Row, within a stone's throw of his father's house, and there, on that same evening of his moving thither, he had Mr. Green to see him, desiring news.

Mr. Green had little to impart, but strong hope of much to be garnered presently. His little eyes twinkling, his chubby face suffused in smiles, as though it were an excellent jest to be hunting knowledge that should hang a man, the spy assured Lord Rotherby that there was little doubt Mr. Caryll could be implicated as soon as he was about again.

"And that's the reason--after your lordship's own express wishes--why so far I have let Sir Richard Everard be. It may come to trouble for me with my Lord Carteret should it be smoked that I have been silent on the matters within my knowledge. But--"

"Oh, a plague on that!" said his lordship. "You'll be well paid for your services when you've rendered them. And, meanwhile, I understand that not another soul in London--that is, on the side of the government--is aware of Sir Richard's presence in town. So where is your danger?"

"True," said Mr. Green, plump hand caressing plumper chin. "Had it not been so, I should have been forced to apply to the secretary for a warrant before this."

"Then you'll wait," said his lordship, "and you'll act as I may direct you. It will be to your credit in the end. Wait until Caryll has enmeshed himself by frequent visits to Sir Richard's. Then get your warrant--when I give the word--and execute it one fine night when Caryll happens to be closeted with Everard. Whether we can get further evidence against him or not, that circumstance of his being found with the Pretender's agent should go some way towards hanging him. The rest we must supply."

Mr. Green smiled seraphically. "Ecod! I'd give my ears to have the slippery fellow safe. Codso! I would. He bubbled me at Maidstone, and I limped a fortnight from the kick he gave me."

"He shall do a little more kicking--with both feet," said his lordship with unction.

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