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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 18. The Ghost Of The Past
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 18. The Ghost Of The Past Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3620

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 18. The Ghost Of The Past

CHAPTER XVIII. THE GHOST OF THE PAST

Temptation had seized Mr. Caryll in a throttling grip, and for two whole days he kept the house, shunning all company and wrestling with that same Temptation. In the end he took a whimsical resolve, entirely worthy of himself.

He would go to Lord Ostermore formally to ask in marriage the hand of Mistress Winthrop, and he would be entirely frank with the earl, stating his exact condition, but suppressing the names of his parents.

He was greatly taken with the notion. It would create a situation ironical beyond any, grotesque beyond belief; and its development should be stupendously interesting. It attracted him irresistibly. That he should leave it to his own father to say whether a man born as he was born might aspire to marry his father's ward, had in it something that savored of tragi-comedy. It was a pretty problem, that once set could not be left unsolved by a man of Mr. Caryll's temperament. And, indeed, no sooner was the idea conceived than it quickened into a resolve upon which he set out to act.

He bade Leduc call a chair, and, dressed in mourning, but with his habitual care, he had himself carried to Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Engrossed as he was in his own thoughts, he paid little heed to the hum of excitement about the threshold of Stretton House. Within the railed enclosure that fronted the mansion two coaches were drawn up, and a little knot of idlers stood by one of these in busy gossip.

Paying no attention to them, Mr. Caryll mounted the steps, nor noticed the gravity of the porter's countenance as he passed within.

In the hall he found a little flock of servants gathered together, and muttering among themselves like conspirators in a tragedy; and so engrossed that they paid no heed to him as he advanced, nor until he had tapped one of them on the shoulder with his cane--and tapped him a thought peremptorily.

"How now?" said he. "Does no one wait here?"

They fell apart a little, and stood at attention, with something curious in their bearing, one and all.

"My service to his lordship, and say that I desire to speak with him."

They looked at one another in hesitation for a moment; then Humphries, the butler, came forward. "Your honor'll not have heard the news?" said he, a solemn gravity in face and tone.

"News?" quoth Mr. Caryll sharply, intrigued by so much show of mystery. "What news?"

"His lordship is very ill, sir. He had a seizure this morning when they came for him."

"A seizure?" said Mr. Caryll. And then: "When they came for him?" he echoed, struck by something odd in the man's utterance of those five words. "When who came for him?"

"The messengers, sir," replied the butler dejectedly. "Has your honor not heard?" And seeing the blank look on Mr. Caryll's face, he proceeded without waiting for an answer: "His lordship was impeached yesterday by his Grace of Wharton on a matter concerning the South Sea Company, and Lord Carteret--the secretary of state, your honor--sent this morning to arrest him."

"'Sdeath!" ejaculated Mr. Caryll in his surprise, a surprise that was tempered with some dismay. "And he had a seizure, ye say?"

"An apoplexy, your honor. The doctors are with him now; Sir James, himself, is here. They're cupping him--so I hear from Mr. Tom, his lordship's man. I'd ha' thought your honor would ha' heard. 'Tis town talk, they say."

Mr. Caryll would have found it difficult to have said exactly what impression this news made upon him. In the main, however, he feared it left him cold.

"'Tis very regrettable," said he. He fell thoughtful a moment. Then: "Will you send word to Mistress Winthrop that I am here, and would speak with her, Humphries?"

Humphries conducted Mr. Caryll to the little white and gold withdrawing-room that was Hortensia's. There, in the little time that he waited, he revolved the situation as it now stood, and the temptation that had been with him for the past three days rose up now with a greater vigor. Should Lord Ostermore die, Temptation argued, he need no longer hesitate. Hortensia would be as much alone in the world as he was; worse, for life at Stretton House with her ladyship--from which even in the earl's lifetime she had been led to attempt to escape--must be a thing unbearable, and what alternative could he suggest but that she should become his wife?

She came to him presently, white-faced and with startled eyes. As she took his outstretched hands, she attempted a smile. "It is kind in you to come to me at such a time," she said.

"You mistake," said he, "as is but natural. I had not heard what had befallen. I came to ask your hand in marriage of his lordship."

Some faint color tinged her cheeks. "You had decided, then?"

"I had decided that his lordship must decide," he answered.

"And now?"

"And now it seems we must decide for ourselves if his lordship dies."

Her mind swung to the graver matter. "Sir James has every hope," she said, and added miserably: "I know not which to pray for, his recovery or his death."

"Why that?"

"Because if he survive it may be for worse. The secretary's agent is even now seeking evidence against him among his own papers. He is in the library at this moment, going through his lordship's desk."

Mr. Caryll started. That mention of Ostermore's desk brought vividly before his mind the recollection of the secret drawer wherein the earl had locked away the letter he had received from King James and his own reply, all packed as it was, with treason. If that drawer were discovered, and those papers found, then was Ostermore lost indeed, and did he survive this apoplexy, it would be to surrender his head upon the scaffold.

A moment he considered this, dispassionately. Then it broke upon his mind that were this to happen, Ostermore's blood would indirectly be upon his own head, since for the purpose of betrayal had he sought him out with that letter from the exiled Stuart--which, be it remembered, King James himself had no longer wished delivered.

It turned him cold with horror. He could not remain idle and let matters run their course. He must avert these discoveries if it lay within his power to do so, or else he must submit to a lifetime of remorse should Ostermore survive to be attainted of treason. He had made an end--a definite end--long since of his intention of working Ostermore's ruin; he could not stand by now and see that ruin wrought as a result of the little that already he had done towards encompassing it.

"His papers must be saved," he said shortly. "I'll go to the library at once."

"But the secretary's agent is there already," she repeated.

"'Tis no matter for that," said he, moving towards the door. "His desk contains that which will cost him his head if discovered. I know it," he assured her, and left her cold with fear.

"But, then, you--you?" she cried. "Is it true that you are a Jacobite?"

"True enough," he answered.

"Lord Rotherby knows it," she informed him. "He told me it was so. If--if you interfere in this, it--it may mean your ruin." She came to him swiftly, a great fear written or her winsome face.

"Sh," said he. "I am not concerned to think of that at present. If Lord Ostermore perishes through his connection with the cause, it will mean worse than ruin for me--though not the ruin that you are thinking of."

"But what can you do?"

"That I go to learn."

"I will come with you, then."

He hesitated a moment, looking at her; then he opened the door, and held it for her, following after. He led the way across the hall to the library, and they went in together.

Lord Ostermore's secretaire stood open, and leaning over it, his back towards them was a short, stiffly-built man in a snuff-colored coat. He turned at the sound of the closing door, and revealed the pleasant, chubby face of Mr. Green.

"Ha!" said Mr. Caryll. "Mr. Green again. I declare, sir, ye've the gift of ubiquity."

The spy stood up to regard him, and for all that his voice inclined to sharpness when he spoke, the habitual grin sat like a mask upon the mobile features. "What d'ye seek here?"

"Tis what I was about to ask you--what you are seeking; for that you seek is plain. I thought perhaps I might assist you."

"I nothing doubt you could," answered Mr. Green with a fresh leer, that contained this time something ironic. "I nothing doubt it! But by your leave, I'll pursue my quest without your assistance."

Mr. Caryll continued, nevertheless, to advance towards him, Mistress Hortensia remaining in the background, a quiet spectator, betraying nothing of the anxieties by which she was being racked.

"Ye're mighty curt this morning, Mr. Green," said Mr. Caryll, very airy. "Ye're mighty curt, and ye're entirely wrong so to be. You might find me a very useful friend."

"I've found you so before," said Mr. Green sourly.

"Ye've a nice sense of humor," said Mr. Caryll, head on one side, contemplating the spy with admiration in his glance.

"And a nicer sense of a Jacobite," answered Mr. Green.

"He will have the last word, you perceive," said Mr. Caryll to Hortensia.

"Harkee, Mr. Caryll," quoth Mr. Green, quite grimly now. "I'd ha' laid you by the heels a month or more ago, but for certain friends o' mine who have other ends to serve."

"Sir, what you tell me shocks me. It shakes the very foundations of my faith in human nature. I have esteemed you an honest man, Mr. Green, and it seems--on your own confessing--that ye're no better than a damned rogue who neglects his duty to the state. I've a mind to see Lord Carteret, and tell him the truth of the matter."

"Ye shall have an opportunity before long, ecod!" said Mr. Green. "Good-morning to you! I've work to do." And he turned back to the desk.

"'Tis wasted labor," said Mr. Caryll, producing his snuff-box, and tapping it. "You might seek from now till the crack of doom, and not find what ye seek--not though you hack the desk to pieces. It has a secret, Mr. Green. I'll make a bargain with you for that secret."

Mr. Green turned again, and his shrewd, bright eyes scanned more closely that lean face, whose keenness was all dissembled now in an easy, languid smile. "A bargain?" grumbled the spy. "I' faith, then, the secret's worthless."

"Ye think that? Pho! 'Tis not like your usual wit, Mr. Green. The letter that I carried into England, and that you were at such splendid pains to find at Maidstone, is in here." And he tapped the veneered top of the secretaire with his forefinger. "But ye'll not find it without my help. It is concealed as effectively--as effectively as it was upon my person when ye searched me. Now, sir, will ye treat with me? It'll save you a world of labor."

Mr. Green still looked at him. He licked his lips thoughtfully, cat-like. "What terms d'ye make?" he inquired, but his tone was very cold. His busy brain was endeavoring to conjecture what exactly might be Mr. Caryll's object in this frankness which Mr. Green was not fool enough to believe sincere.

"Ah," said Mr. Caryll. "That is more the man I know." He tapped his snuff-box, and in that moment memory rather than inspiration showed him the thing he needed. "Did ye ever see 'The Constant Couple,' Mr. Green?" he inquired.

"'The Constant Couple'?" echoed Mr. Green, and though mystified, he must air his little jest. "I never saw any couple that was constant--leastways, not for long."

"Ha! Ye're a roguish wag! But 'The Constant Couple' I mean is a play."

"Oh, a play! Ay, I mind me I saw it some years ago, when 'twas first acted. But what has that to do with--"

"Ye'll understand in a moment," said Mr. Caryll, with a smile the spy did not relish. "D'ye recall a ruse of Sir Harry Wildairs to rid himself of the company of an intrusive old fool who was not wanted? D'ye remember what 'twas he did?"

Mr. Green, his head slightly on one side, was watching Mr. Caryll very closely, and not without anxiety. "I don't," said he, and dropped a hand to the pocket where a pistol lay, that he might be prepared for emergencies. "What did he do?"

"I'll show you," said Mr. Caryll. "He did this." And with a swift upward movement, he emptied his snuff-box full into the face of Mr. Green.

Mr. Green leapt back, with a scream of pain, hands to his eyes, and quite unconsciously set himself to play to the life the part of the intrusive old fellow in the comedy. Dancing wildly about the room, his eyes smarting and burning so that he could not open them, he bellowed of hell-fire and other hot things of which he was being so intensely reminded.

"'Twill pass," Mr. Caryll consoled him. "A little water, and all will be well with you." He stepped to the door as he spoke, and flung it open. "Ho, there! Who waits?" he called.

Two or three footmen sprang to answer him. He took Mr. Green, still blind and vociferous, by the shoulders, and thrust him into their care. "This gentleman has had a most unfortunate accident. Get him water to wash his eyes--warm water. So! Take him. 'Twill pass, Mr. Green. 'Twill soon pass, I assure you."

He shut the door upon them, locked it, and turned to Hortensia, smiling grimly. Then he crossed quickly to the desk, and Hortensia followed him. He sat down, and pulled out bodily the bottom drawer on the right inside of the upper part of the desk, as he had seen Lord Ostermore do that day, a little over a week ago. He thrust his hand into the opening, and felt along the sides for some moments in vain. He went over the ground again slowly, inch by inch, exerting constant pressure, until he was suddenly rewarded by a click. The small trap disclosed itself. He pulled it up, and took some papers from the recess. He spread them before him. They were the documents he sought--the king's letter to Ostermore, and Ostermore's reply, signed and ready for dispatch. "These must be burnt," he said, "and burnt at once, for that fellow Green may return, or he may send others. Call Humphries. Get a taper from him."

She sped to the door, and did his bidding. Then she returned. She was plainly agitated. "You must go at once," she said, imploringly. "You must return to France without an instant's delay."

"Why, indeed, it would mean my ruin to remain now," he admitted. "And yet--" He held out his hands to her.

"I will follow you," she promised him. "I will follow you as soon as his lordship is recovered, or--or at peace."

"You have well considered, sweetheart?" he asked her, holding her to him, and looking down into her gentle eyes.

"There is no happiness for me apart from you."

Again his scruples took him. "Tell Lord Ostermore--tell him all," he begged her. "Be guided by him. His decision for you will represent the decision of the world."

"What is the world to me? You are the world to me," she cried.

There was a rap upon the door. He put her from him, and went to open. It was Humphries with a lighted taper. He took it, thanked the man with a word, and shut the door in his face, ignoring the fact that the fellow was attempting to tell him something.

He returned to the desk. "Let us make quite sure that this is all," he said, and held the taper so that the light shone into the recess. It seemed empty at first; then, as the light penetrated farther, he saw something that showed white at the back of the cachette. He thrust in his hand, and drew out a small package bound with a ribbon that once might have been green but was faded now to yellow. He set it on the desk, and returned to his search. There was nothing else. The recess was empty. He closed the trap and replaced the drawer. Then he sat down again, the taper at his elbow, Mistress Winthrop looking on, facing him across the top of the secretaire, and he took up the package.

The ribbon came away easily, and some half-dozen sheets fell out and scattered upon the desk. They gave out a curious perfume, half of age, half of some essence with which years ago they had been imbued. Something took Mr. Caryll in the throat, and he could never explain whether it was that perfume or some premonitory emotion, some prophetic apprehension of what he was about to see.

He opened the first of those folded sheets, and found it to be a letter written in French and in an ink that had paled to yellow with the years that were gone since it had been penned. The fine, pointed writing was curiously familiar to Mr. Caryll. He looked at the signature at the bottom of the page. It swam before his eyes--ANTOINETTE-"Celle qui l'adore, Antoinette," he read, and the whole world seemed blotted out for him; all consciousness, his whole being, his every sense, seemed concentrated into his eyes as they gazed upon that relic of a deluded woman's dream.

He did not read. It was not for him to commit the sacrilege of reading what that girl who had been his mother had written thirty years ago to the man she loved--the man who had proved false as hell.

He turned the other letters over; opened them one by one, to make sure that they were of the same nature as the first, and what time he did so he found himself speculating upon the strangeness of Ostermore's having so treasured them. Perhaps he had thrust them into that secret recess, and there forgotten them; 'twas an explanation that sorted better with what Mr. Caryll knew of his father, than the supposition that so dull and practical and self-centered a nature could have been irradiated by a gleam of such tenderness as the hoarding of those letters might have argued.

He continued to turn them over, half-mechanically, forgetful of the urgent need to burn the treasonable documents he had secured, forgetful of everything, even Hortensia's presence. And meantime she watched him in silence, marvelling at this delay, and still more at the gray look that had crept into his face.

"What have you found?" she asked at last.

"A ghost," he answered, and his voice had a strained, metallic ring. He even vented an odd laugh. "A bundle of old love-letters."

"From her ladyship?"

"Her ladyship?" He looked up, an expression on his face which seemed to show that he could not at the moment think who her ladyship might be. Then as the picture of that bedaubed, bedizened and harsh-featured Jezebel arose in his mind to stand beside the sweet girl--image of his mother--as he knew her from the portrait that hung at Maligny--he laughed again. "No, not from her ladyship," said he. "From a woman who loved him years ago." And he turned to the seventh and last of those poor ghosts-the seventh, a fateful number.

He spread it before him; frowned down on it a moment with a sharp hiss of indrawn breath. Then he twisted oddly on his chair, and sat bolt upright, staring straight before him with unseeing eyes. Presently he passed a hand across his brow, and made a queer sound in his throat.

"What is it?" she asked.

But he did not answer; he was staring at the paper again. A while he sat thus; then with swift fevered fingers he took up once more the other letters. He unfolded one, and began to read. A few lines he read, and then--"O God!" he cried, and flung out his arms under stress of 'his emotions. One of them caught the taper that stood upon the desk; and swept it, extinguished, to the floor. He never heeded it, never gave a thought to the purpose for which it had been fetched, a purpose not yet served. He rose. He was white as the dead are white, and she observed that he was trembling. He took up the bundle of old letters, and thrust them into an inside pocket of his coat.

"What are you doing?" she cried, seeking at last to arouse him from the spell under which he appeared to have fallen. "Those letters--"

"I must see Lord Ostermore," he answered wildly, and made for the door, reeling like a drunkard in his walk.

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