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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 23. The Lion
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 23. The Lion Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :646

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 23. The Lion

CHAPTER XXIII. THE LION

The game was played and lost. All realized it, and none so keenly as Hortensia, who found it in her gentle heart to pity the woman who had never shown her a kindness.

She set a hand upon her lover's arm. "What will you do, Justin?" she inquired in tones that seemed to plead for mercy for those others; for she had not paused to think--as another might have thought--that there was no mercy he could show them.

Rotherby and his mother stood hand in hand; it was the woman who had clutched at her son for comfort and support in this bitter hour of retribution, this hour of the recoil upon themselves of all the evil they had plotted.

Mr. Caryll considered them a moment, his face a mask, his mind entirely detached. They interested him profoundly. This subjugation of two natures that in themselves were arrogant and cruel was a process very engrossing to observe. He tried to conjecture what they felt, what thoughts they might be harboring. And it seemed to him that a sort of paralysis had fallen on their wits. They were stunned under the shock of the blow he had dealt them. Anon there would be railings and to spare--against him, against themselves, against the dead man above stairs, against Fate, and more besides. For the present there was this horrid, almost vacuous calm.

Presently the woman stirred. Instinct--the instinct of the stricken beast to creep to hiding--moved her, while reason was still bound in lethargy. She moved to step, drawing at her son's hand. "Come, Charles," she said, in a low, hoarse voice. "Come!"

The touch and the speech awakened him to life. "No!" he cried harshly, and shook his hand free of hers. "It ends not thus."

He looked almost as he would fling himself upon his brother, his figure erect now, defiant and menacing; his face ashen, his eyes wild. "It ends not thus!" he repeated, and his voice rang sinister.

"No," Mr. Caryll agreed quietly. "It ends not thus."

He looked sadly from son to mother. "It had not even begun thus, but that you would have it so. You would have it. I sought to move you to mercy. I reminded you, my brother, of the tie that bound us, and I would have turned you from fratricide, I would have saved you from the crime you meditated--for it was a crime."

"Fratricide!" exclaimed Rotherby, and laughed angrily. "Fratricide!" It was as if he threatened it.

But Mr. Caryll continued to regard him sorrowfully. From his soul he pitied him; pitied them both--not because of their condition, but because of the soullessness behind it all. To him it was truly tragic, tragic beyond anything that he had ever known.

"You said some fine things, sir, to Mr. Templeton of your regard for your father's memory," said Mr. Caryll. "You expressed some lofty sentiments of filial piety, which almost sounded true--which sounded true, indeed, to Mr. Templeton. It was out of interest for your father that you pleaded for the suppression of his dealings with the South Sea Company; not for a moment did you consider yourself or the profit you should make from such suppression."

"Why this?" demanded the mother fiercely. "Do you rally us? Do you turn the sword in the wound now that you have us at your mercy--now that we are fallen?"

"From what are you fallen?" Mr. Caryll inquired. "Ah, but let that pass. I do not rally, madam. Mockery is far indeed from my intention." He turned again to Rotherby. "Lord Ostermore was a father to you, which he never was to me--knew not that he was. The sentiments you so beautifully expressed to Mr. Templeton are the sentiments that actuate me now, though I shall make no attempt to express them. It is not that my heart stirs much where my Lord Ostermore is concerned. And yet, for the sake of the name that is mine now, I shall leave England as I came--Mr. Justin Caryll, neither more nor less.

"In the eyes of the world there is no slur upon my mother's name, because her history--her supposed history--was unknown. See that none ever falls on it, else shall you find me pitiless indeed. See that none ever falls on it, or I shall return and drive home the lesson that, like Antinous, you've learnt--that 'twixt the cup and lip much ill may grow'--and turn you, naked upon a contemptuous world. Needs more be said? You understand, I think."

Rotherby understood nothing. But his mother's keener wits began to perceive a glimmer of the truth. "Do you mean that--that we are to--to remain in the station that we believed our own?"

"What else?"

She stared at him. Here was a generosity so weak, it seemed to her, as almost to provoke her scorn. "You will leave your brother in possession of the title and what else there may be?"

"You think me generous, madam," said he. "Do not misapprehend me. I am not. I covet neither the title nor estates of Ostermore. Their possession would be a thorn in my flesh, a thorn of bitter memory. That is one reason why you should not think me generous, though it is not the reason why I cede them. I would have you understand me on this, perhaps the last time, that we may meet.

"Lord Ostermore, my father, married you, madam, in good faith."

She interrupted harshly. "What is't you say?" she almost screamed, quivering with rage at the very thought of what her dead lord had done.

"He married you in good faith," Mr. Caryll repeated quietly, impressively. "I will make it plain to you. He married you believing that the girl-wife he had left in France was dead. For fear it should come to his father's knowledge, he kept that marriage secret from all. He durst not own his marriage to his father."

"He was not--as you may have appreciated in the years you lived with him--a man of any profound feeling for others. For himself he had a prodigiously profound feeling, as you may also have gathered. That marriage in France was troublesome. He had come to look upon it as one of his youth's follies--as he, himself, described it to me in this house, little knowing to whom he spoke. When he received the false news of her death--for he did receive such news from the very cousin who crossed from France to avenge her, believing her dead himself--he rejoiced at his near escape from the consequences of his folly. Nor was he ever disabused of his error. For she had ceased to write to him by then. And so he married you, madam, in good faith. That is the argument I shall use with my Lord Carteret to make him understand that respect for my father's memory urges me to depart in silence--save for what I must have said to escape the impeachment with which you threatened me."

"Lord Carteret is a man of the world. He will understand the far-reaching disturbance that must result from the disclosure of the truth of this affair. He will pledge Mr. Templeton to silence, and the truth, madam, will never be disclosed. That, I think, is all, madam."

"By God, sir," cried Rotherby, "that's damned handsome of you!"

"You epitomize it beautifully," said Mr. Caryll, with a reversion to his habitual manner.

His mother, however, had no words at all. She advanced a step towards Mr. Caryll, put out her hands, and then--portent of portents!--two tears were seen to trickle down her cheeks, playing havoc, ploughing furrows in the paint that overlaid them.

Mr. Caryll stepped forward quickly. The sight of those tears, springing from that dried-up heart--withered by God alone knew what blight--washing their way down those poor bedaubed cheeks, moved him to a keener pity than anything he had ever looked upon. He took her hands, and pressed them a moment, giving way for once to an impulse he could not master.

She would have kissed his own in the abasement and gratitude of the moment. But he restrained her.

"No more, your ladyship," said he, and by thus giving her once more the title she had worn, he seemed to reinstate her in the station from which in self-defence he had pulled her down. "Promise that you'll bear no witness against me should so much be needed, and I'll cry quits with you. Without your testimony, they cannot hurt me, even though they were disposed to do so, which is scarcely likely."

"Sir--sir--" she faltered brokenly. "Could you--could you suppose--"

"Indeed, no. So no more, ma'am. You do but harass yourself. Fare you well, my lady. If I may trespass for a few moments longer upon the hospitality of Stretton House, I'll be your debtor."

"The house--and all--is yours, sir," she reminded him.

"There's but one thing in it that I'll carry off with me," said he. He held the door for her.

She looked into his face a moment. "God keep you!" said she, with a surprising fervor in one not over-fluent at her prayers. "God reward you for showing this mercy to an old woman--who does not deserve so much."

"Fare you well, madam," he said again, bowing gravely. "And fare you well, Lord Ostermore," he added to her son.

His brother looked at him a moment; seemed on the point of speaking, and then--taking his cue, no doubt, from his mother's attitude--he held out his hand.

Mr. Caryll took it, shook it, and let it go. After all, he bethought him, the man was his brother. And if his bearing was not altogether cordial, it was, at least, a clement imitation of cordiality.

He closed the door upon them, and sighed supreme relief. He turned to face Hortensia, and a smile broke like sunshine upon his face, and dispelled the serious gloom of his expression. She sprang towards him.

"Come now, thou chattel, that I am resolved to carry with me from my father's house," said he.

She checked in her approach. "'Tis not in such words that I'll be wooed," said she.

"A fig for words!" he cried. "Art wooed and won. Confess it."

"You want nothing for self-esteem," she informed him gravely.

"One thing, Hortensia," he amended. "One thing I want--I lack--to esteem myself greater than any king that rules."

"I like that better," she laughed, and suddenly she was in tears. "Oh, why do you mock, and make-believe that your heart is on your lips and nowhere else?" she asked him. "Is it your aim to be accounted trifling and shallow--you who can do such things as you have done but now? Oh, it was noble! You made me very proud."

"Proud?" he echoed. "Ah! Then it must be that you are resolved to take this impudent, fleering coxcomb for a husband," he said, rallying her with the words she had flung at him that night in the moonlit Croydon garden.

"How I was mistook in you!" quoth she.

He made philosophy. "'Tis ever those in whom we are mistook that are best worth knowing," he informed her. "The man or woman whom you can read at sight, is read and done with."

"Yet you were not mistook in me," said she.

"I was," he answered, "for I deemed you woman."

"What other have you found me?" she inquired.

He flung wide his arms, and bade her into them. "Here to my heart," he cried, "and in your ear I'll whisper it."


(THE END)
Rafael Sabatini's Novel: Lion's Skin

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