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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 22. The Hunters
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 22. The Hunters Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2389

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 22. The Hunters

CHAPTER XXII. THE HUNTERS

To the amazement of them all, there entered a tall gentleman in a full-bottomed wig, with a long, pale face, a resolute mouth, and a pair of eyes that were keen, yet kindly. Close upon the heels of the second secretary came Mr. Green. Humphries withdrew, and closed the door.

Mr. Templeton made her ladyship a low bow.

"Madam," said he very gravely, "I offer your ladyship--and you, my lord--my profoundest condolence in the bereavement you have suffered, and my scarcely less profound excuses for this intrusion upon your grief."

Mr. Templeton may or may not have reflected that the grief upon which he deplored his intrusion was none so apparent.

"I had not ventured to do so," he continued, "but that your lordship seemed to invite my presence."

"Invited it, sir?" questioned Rotherby with deference. "I should scarcely have presumed so far as to invite it."

"Not directly, perhaps," returned the second secretary. His was a deep, rich voice, and he spoke with great deliberateness, as if considering well each word before allowing it utterance. "Not directly, perhaps; but in view of your message to Lord Carteret, his lordship has desired me to come in person to inquire into this matter for him, before proceeding farther. This fellow," indicating Green, "brought information from you that a Jacobite--an agent of James Stuart--is being detained here, and that your lordship has a communication to make to the secretary of state."

Rotherby bowed his assent. "All I desired that Mr. Green should do meanwhile," said he, "was to procure a warrant for this man's arrest. My revelations would have followed that. Has he the warrant?"

"Your lordship may not be aware," said Mr. Templeton, with an increased precision of diction, "that of late so many plots have been disclosed and have proved in the end to be no plots at all, that his lordship has resolved to proceed now with the extremest caution. For it is not held desirable by his majesty that publicity should be given to such matters until there can be no doubt that they are susceptible to proof. Talk of them is disturbing to the public quiet, and there is already disturbance enough, as it unfortunately happens. Therefore, it is deemed expedient that we should make quite sure of our ground before proceeding to arrests."

"But this plot is no sham plot," cried Rotherby, with the faintest show of heat, out of patience with the other's deliberateness. "It is a very real danger, as I can prove to his lordship."

"It is for the purpose of ascertaining that fact," resumed the second secretary, entirely unruffled, "for the purpose of ascertaining it before taking any steps that would seem to acknowledge it, that my Lord Carteret has desired me to wait upon you--that you may place me in possession of the circumstances that have come to your knowledge."

Rotherby's countenance betrayed his growing impatience. "Why, for that matter, it has come to my knowledge that a plot is being hatched by the friends of the Stuart, and that a rising is being prepared, the present moment being considered auspicious, while the people's confidence in the government is shaken by the late South Sea Company disaster."

Mr. Templeton wagged his head gently. "That, sir--if you will permit the observation--is the preface of all the disclosures that have lately been made to us. The consolation, sir, for his majesty's friends, has been that in no case did the subsequent matter make that preface good."

"It is in that particular, then, that my disclosures shall differ from those others," said Rotherby, in a tone that caused Mr. Templeton afterwards to describe him as "a damned hot fellow."

"You have evidence?"

"Documentary evidence. A letter from the Pretender himself amongst it."

A becoming gravity overspread Mr. Templeton's clear-cut face. "That would be indeed regrettable," said he. It was plain that whatever the second secretary might display when the plot was disclosed to him, he would display none of that satisfaction upon which Rotherby had counted. "To whom, sir, let me ask, is this letter indited?"

"To my late father," answered his lordship.

Mr. Templeton made an exclamation, whose significance was not quite clear.

"I have discovered it since his death," continued Rotherby. "I was but in time to wrest it from the hands of that spy of the Pretender's, who was in the act of destroying it when I caught him. My devotion to his majesty made my course clear, sir--and I desired Mr. Green to procure a warrant for this traitor's arrest."

"Sir," said Mr. Templeton, regarding him with an eye in which astonishment was blent with admiration, "this is very loyal in you--very loyal under the--ah--peculiar circumstances of the affair. I do not think that his majesty's government, considering to whom this letter was addressed, could have censured you even had you suppressed it. You have conducted yourself, my lord--if I may venture upon a criticism of your lordship's conduct--with a patriotism worthy of the best models of ancient Rome. And I am assured that his majesty's government will not be remiss in signifying appreciation of this very lofty loyalty of yours."

Lord Rotherby bowed low, in acknowledgment of the compliment. Her ladyship concealed a cynical smile under cover of her fan. Mr. Caryll--standing in the background beside Hortensia's chair--smiled, too, and poor Hortensia, detecting his smile, sought to take comfort in it.

"My son," interposed the countess, "is, I am sure, gratified to hear you so commend his conduct."

Mr. Templeton bowed to her with a great politeness. "I should be a stone, ma'am, did I not signify my--ah--appreciation of it."

"There is a little more to follow, sir," put in Mr. Caryll, in that quiet manner of his. "I think you will find it blunt the edge of his lordship's lofty loyalty--cause it to savor less like the patriotism of Rome, and more like that of Israel."

Mr. Templeton turned upon him a face of cold displeasure. He would have spoken, but that whilst he was seeking words of a becoming gravity, Rotherby forestalled him.

"Sir," he exclaimed, "what I did, I did though my ruin must have followed. I know what this traitor has in mind. He imagines I have a bargain to make. But you must see, sir, that in no sense is it so, for, having already surrendered the facts, it is too late now to attempt to sell them. I am ready to yield up the letters that I have found. No consideration could induce me to do other; and yet, sir, I venture to hope that in return, the government will be pleased to see that I have some claim upon my country's recognition for the signal service I am rendering her--and in rendering which I make a holocaust of my father's honor."

"Surely, surely, sir," murmured Mr. Templeton, but his countenance told of a lessening enthusiasm in his lordship's Roman patriotism. "Lord Carteret, I am sure, would never permit so much--ah--devotion to his majesty to go unrewarded."

"I only ask, sir--and I ask it for the sake of my father's name, which stands in unavoidable danger of being smirched--that no further shame be heaped upon it than that which must result from the horror with which the discovery of this plot will inspire all right-thinking subjects."

Mr. Caryll smiled and nodded. He judged in a detached spirit--a mere spectator at a play--and he was forced to admit to himself that it was subtly done of his brother, and showed an astuteness in this thing, at least, of which he had never supposed him capable.

"There is, sir," Rotherby proceeded, "the matter of my father's dealings with the South Sea Company. He is no longer alive to defend himself from the accusations--from the impeachment which has been levelled against him by our enemy, the Duke of Wharton. Therefore, it might be possible to make it appear as if his dealings were--ah--not--ah--quite such as should befit an upright gentleman. There is that, and there is this greater matter against him. Between the two, I should never again be able to look my fellow-countrymen in the face. Yet this is the more important since the safety of the kingdom is involved; whilst the other is but a personal affair, and trivial by comparison.

"I will beg, sir, that out of consideration for my disclosing this dastardly conspiracy--which I cannot do without disclosing my father's misguided share in it--I will implore, sir, that out of that consideration, Lord Carteret will see fit to dispose that the South Sea Company affair is allowed to be forgotten. It has already been paid for by my father with his life."

Mr. Templeton looked at the young man before him with eyes of real commiseration. He was entirely duped, and in his heart he regretted that for a moment he could have doubted Rotherby's integrity of purpose.

"Sir," he said, "I offer you my sympathy--my profoundest sympathy; and you, my lady.

"As for this South Sea Company affair, well--I am empowered by Lord Carteret to treat only of the other matter, and to issue or not a warrant for the apprehension of the person you are detaining, after I have investigated the grounds upon which his arrest is urged. Nevertheless, sir, I think I can say--indeed, I think I can promise--that in consideration of your readiness to deliver up these letters, and provided their nature is as serious as you represent, and also in consideration of this, your most signal proof of loyalty, Lord Carteret will not wish to increase the load which already you have to bear."

"Oh, sir!" cried Rotherby in the deepest emotion, "I have no words in which to express my thanks."

"Nor I," put in Mr. Caryll, "words in which to express my admiration. A most excellent performance, Rotherby. I had not credited you with so much ability."

Mr. Templeton frowned upon him again. "Ye betray a singular callousness, sir," said he.

"Nay, sir; not callousness. Merely the ease that springs from a tranquil conscience."

Her ladyship glanced across at him, and sneered audibly. "You hear the poisonous traitor, sir. He glories in a tranquil conscience, in spite of this murderous matter to which he stood committed."

Rotherby turned aside to take the letters from the desk. He thrust them into Mr. Templeton's hands. "Here, sir, is a letter from King James to my father, and here is a letter from my father to King James. From their contents, you will gather how far advanced are matters, what devilries are being hatched here in his majesty's dominions."

Mr. Templeton received them, and crossed to the window that he might examine them. His countenance lengthened. Rotherby took his stand beside his mother's chair, both observing Mr. Caryll, who, in his turn, was observing Mr. Templeton, a faint smile playing round the corners of his mouth. Once they saw him stoop and whisper something in Hortensia's ear, and they caught the upward glance of her eyes, half fear, half question.

Mr. Green, by the door, stood turning his hat in his hands, furtively watching everybody, whilst drawing no attention to himself--a matter in which much practice had made him perfect.

At last Templeton turned, folding the letters. "This is very grave, my lord," said he, "and my Lord Carteret will no doubt desire to express in person his gratitude and his deep sense of the service you have done him. I think you may confidently expect to find him as generous as you hope."

He pocketed the letters, and raised a hand to point at Mr. Caryll. "This man?" he inquired laconically.

"Is a spy of King James's. He is the messenger who bore my father that letter from the Pretender, and he would no doubt have carried back the answer had my father lived."

Mr. Templeton drew a paper from his pocket, and crossed to the desk. He sat down, and took up a quill. "You can prove this, of course?" he said, testing the point of his quill upon his thumb-nail.

"Abundantly," was the ready answer. "My mother can bear witness to the fact that 'twas he brought the Pretender's letter, and there is no lack of corroboration. Enough, I think, would be afforded by the assault made by this rogue upon Mr. Green, of which, no doubt, you are already informed, sir. His object--this proved object--was to possess himself of those papers that he might destroy them. I but caught him in time, as my servants can bear witness, as they can also bear witness to the circumstance that we were compelled to force an entrance here, and to use force to him to obtain the letters from him."

Mr. Templeton nodded. "'Tis a clear case, then," said he, and dipped his pen.

"And yet," put in Mr. Caryll, in an indolent, musing voice, "it might be made to look as clear another way."

Mr. Templeton scowled at him. "The opportunity shall be afforded you," said he. "Meanwhile--what is your name?"

Mr. Caryll looked whimsically at the secretary a moment; then flung his bomb. "I am Justin Caryll, Sixth Earl of Ostermore, and your very humble servant, Mr. Secretary."

The effect was ludicrous--from Mr. Caryll's point of view--and yet it was disappointing. Five pairs of dilating eyes confronted him, five gaping mouths. Then her ladyship broke into a laugh.

"The creature's mad--I've long suspected it." And she meant to be taken literally; his many whimsicalities were explained to her at last. He was, indeed, half-witted, as he now proved.

Mr. Templeton, recovering, smote the table angrily. He thought he had good reason to lose his self-control on this occasion, though it was a matter of pride with him that he could always preserve an unruffled calm under the most trying circumstances. "What is your name, sir?" he demanded again.

"You are hard of hearing, sir, I think. I am Lord Ostermore. Set down that name in the warrant if you are determined to be bubbled by that fellow there and made to look foolish afterwards with my Lord Carteret."

Mr. Templeton sat back in his chair, frowning; but more from utter bewilderment now than anger.

"Perhaps," said Mr. Caryll, "if I were to explain, it would help you to see the imposture that is being practiced upon you. As for the allegations that have been made against me--that I am a Jacobite spy and an agent of the Pretender's--" He shrugged, and waved an airy hand. "I scarce think there will remain the need for me to deny them when you have heard the rest."

Rotherby took a step forward, his face purple, his hands clenched. Her ladyship thrust out a bony claw, clutched at his sleeve, and drew him back and into the chair beside her. "Pho! Charles," she said; "give the fool rope, and he'll hang himself, never doubt it--the poor, witless creature."

Mr. Caryll sauntered over to the secretaire, and leaned an elbow on the top of it, facing all in the room.

"I admit, Mr. Secretary," said he, "that I had occasion to assault Mr. Green, to the end that I might possess myself of the papers he was seeking in this desk."

"Why, then--" began Mr. Templeton.

"Patience, sir! I admit so much, but I admit no more. I do not, for instance, admit that the object--the object itself--of my search was such as has been represented."

"What then? What else?" growled Rotherby.

"Ay, sir--what else?" quoth Mr. Templeton.

"Sir," said Mr. Caryll, with a sorrowful shake of, the head, "I have already startled you, it seems, by one statement. I beg that you will prepare yourself to be startled by another." Then he abruptly dropped his languor. "I should think twice, sir," he advised, "before signing that warrant, were I in your place, to do so would be to render yourself the tool of those who are plotting my ruin, and ready to bear false witness that they may accomplish it. I refer," and he waved a hand towards the countess and his brother, "to the late Lord Ostermore's mistress and his natural son, there."

In their utter stupefaction at the unexpectedness and seeming wildness of the statement, neither mother nor son could find a word to say. No more could Mr. Templeton for a moment. Then, suddenly, wrathfully: "What are you saying, sir?" he roared.

"The truth, sir."

"The truth?" echoed the secretary.

"Ay, sir--the truth. Have ye never heard of it?"

Mr. Templeton sat back again. "I begin to think," said he, surveying through narrowing eyes the slender graceful figure before him, "that her ladyship is right that you are mad; unless--unless you are mad of the same madness that beset Ulysses. You remember?"

"Let us have done," cried Rotherby in a burst of anger, leaping to his feet. "Let us have done, I say! Are we to waste the day upon this Tom o' Bedlam? Write him down as Caryll--Justin Caryll--'tis the name he's known by; and let Green see to the rest."

Mr. Templeton made an impatient sound, and poised his pen.

"Ye are not to suppose, sir," Mr. Caryll stayed him, "that I cannot support my statements. I have by me proofs--irrefragable proofs of what I say."

"Proofs?" The word seemed to come from, every member of that little assembly--if we except Mr. Green, whose face was beginning to betray his uneasiness. He was not so ready as the others to believe, that Mr. Caryll was mad. For him, the situation asked some other explanation.

"Ay--proofs," said Mr. Caryll. He had drawn the case from his pocket again. From this he took the birth-certificate, and placed it before Mr. Templeton, "Will you glance at that, sir--to begin, with?--"

Mr. Templeton complied. His face became more and more grave. He looked at Mr. Caryll; then at Rotherby, who was scowling, and at her ladyship, who was breathing hard. His glance returned to Mr. Caryll.

"You are the person designated here?" he inquired.

"As I can abundantly prove," said Mr. Caryll. "I have no lack of friends in London who will bear witness to that much."

"Yet," said Mr. Templeton, frowning, perplexed, "this does not make you what you claim to be. Rather does it show you to be his late lordship's--"

"There's more to come," said Mr. Caryll, and placed another document before the secretary. It was an extract from the register of St. Etienne of Maligny, relating to his mother's death.

"Do you know, sir, in what year this lady went through a ceremony of marriage with my father--the late Lord Ostermore? It was in 1690, I think, as the lady will no doubt confirm."

"To what purpose, this?" quoth Mr. Templeton.

"The purpose will be presently apparent. Observe that date," said Mr. Caryll, and he pointed to the document in Mr. Templeton's hand.

Mr. Templeton read the date aloud--"1692"--and then the name of the deceased--"Antoinette de Beaulieu de Maligny. What of it?" he demanded.

"You will understand that when I show you the paper I took from this desk, the paper that I obtained as a consequence of my violence to Mr. Green. I think you will consider, sir, that if ever the end justified the means, it did so in this case. Here was something very different from the paltry matter of treason that is alleged against me."

And he passed the secretary a third paper.

Over Mr. Templeton's shoulder, Rotherby and his mother, who--drawn by the overpowering excitement that was mastering them--had approached in silence, were examining the document with wide-open, startled eyes, fearing by very instinct, without yet apprehending the true nature of the revelation that was to come.

"God!" shrieked her ladyship, who took in the meaning of this thing before Rotherby had begun to suspect it. "'Tis a forgery!"

"That were idle, when the original entry in the register is to be seen in, the Church of St. Antoine, madam," answered Mr. Caryll. "I rescued that document, together with some letters which my mother wrote my father when first he returned to England--and which are superfluous now--from a secret drawer in that desk, an hour ago."

"But what is it?" inquired Rotherby huskily. "What is it?"

"It is the certificate of the marriage of my father, the late Lord Ostermore, and my mother, Antoinette de Maligny, at the Church of St. Antoine in Paris, in the year 1689." He turned to Mr. Templeton. "You apprehend the matter, sir?" he demanded, and recapitulated. "In 1689 they were married; in 1692 she died; yet in 1690 his lordship went through a form of marriage with Mistress Sylvia Etheridge, there."

Mr. Templeton nodded very gravely, his eyes upon the document before him, that they might avoid meeting at that moment the eyes of the woman whom the world had always known as the Countess of Ostermore.

"Fortunate is it for me," said Mr. Caryll, "that I should have possessed myself of these proofs in time. Does it need more to show how urgent might be the need for my suppression--how little faith can be attached to an accusation levelled against me from such a quarter?"

"By God--" began Rotherby, but his mother clutched his wrist.

"Be still, fool!" she hissed in his ear. She had need to keep her wits about her, to think, to weigh each word that she might utter. An abyss had opened in her path; a false step, and she and her son were irrevocably lost--sent headlong to destruction. Rotherby, already reduced to the last stage of fear, was obedient as he had never been, and fell silent instantly.

Mr. Templeton folded the papers, rose, and proffered them to their owner. "Have you any means of proving that this was the document you sought?" he inquired.

"I can prove that it was the document he found." It was Hortensia who spoke; she had advanced to her lover's side, and she controlled her amazement to bear witness for him. "I was present in this room when he went through that desk, as all in the house know; and I can swear to his having found that paper in it."

Mr. Templeton bowed. "My lord," he said to Caryll, "your contentions appear clear. It is a matter in which I fear I can go no further; nor do I now think that the secretary of state would approve of my issuing a warrant upon such testimony as we have received. The matter is one for Lord Carteret himself."

"I shall do myself the honor of waiting upon his lordship within the hour," said the new Lord Ostermore. "As for the letter which it is alleged I brought from France--from the Pretender,"--he was smiling now, a regretful, deprecatory smile, "it is a fortunate circumstance that, being suspected by that very man Green, who stands yonder, I was subjected, upon my arrival in England, to a thorough search at Maidstone--a search, it goes without saying, that yielded nothing. I was angry at the time, at the indignity I was forced to endure. We little know what the future may hold. And to-day I am thankful to have that evidence to rebut this charge."

"Your lordship is indeed to be congratulated," Mr. Templeton agreed. "You are thus in a position to clear yourself of even a shadow of suspicion."

"You fool!" cried she who until that hour had been Countess of Ostermore, turning fiercely upon Mr. Templeton. "You fool!"

"Madam, this is not seemly," cried the second secretary, with awkward dignity.

"Seemly, idiot?" she stormed at him. "I swear, as I've a soul to be saved, that in spite of all this, I know that man to be a traitor and a Jacobite--that it was the letter from the king he sought, whatever he may pretend to have found."

Mr. Templeton looked at her in sorrow, for all that in her overwrought condition she insulted him. "Madam, you might swear and swear, and yet no one would believe you in the face of the facts that have come to light."

"Do you believe me?" she demanded angrily.

"My beliefs can matter nothing," he compromised, and made her a valedictory bow. "Your servant, ma'am," said he, from force of habit. He nodded to Rotherby, took up his hat and cane, and strode to the door, which Mr. Green had made haste to open for him. From the threshold he bowed to Mr. Caryll. "My lord," said he, "I shall go straight to Lord Carteret. He will stay for you till you come."

"I shall not keep his lordship waiting," answered Caryll, and bowed in his turn.

The second secretary went out. Mr. Green hesitated a moment, then abruptly followed him. The game was ended here; it was played and lost, he saw, and what should such as Mr. Green be doing on the losing side?

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