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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 3. The Witness
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 3. The Witness Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3911

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 3. The Witness

CHAPTER III. THE WITNESS

At last the page was found again by Mr. Jenkins. Having found it, he hesitated still a moment, then cleared his throat, and in the manner of one hurling himself forward upon a desperate venture, he began to read.

"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God," he read, and on in a nasal, whining voice, which not only was the very voice you would have expected from such a man, but in accordance, too, with sound clerical convention. The bridal pair stood before him, the groom with a slight flush on his cheeks and a bright glitter in his black eyes, which were not nice to see; the bride with bowed head and bosom heaving as in response to inward tumult.

The cleric came to the end of his exordium, paused a moment, and whether because he gathered confidence, whether because he realized the impressive character of the fresh matter upon which he entered, he proceeded now in a firmer, more sonorous voice: "I require and charge you both as ye will answer on the dreadful day of judgment."

"Ye've forgot something," Mr. Caryll interrupted blandly.

His lordship swung round with an impatient gesture and an impatient snort; the lady, too, looked up suddenly, whilst Mr. Jenkins seemed to fall into an utter panic.

"Wha--what?" he stammered. "What have I forgot?"

"To read the directions, I think."

His lordship scowled darkly upon Mr. Caryll, who heeded him not at all, but watched the lady sideways.

Mr. Jenkins turned first scarlet, then paler than he had been before, and bent his eyes to the book to read in a slightly puzzled voice the italicized words above the period he had embarked upon. "And also speaking unto the persons that shall be married, he shall say:" he read, and looked up inquiry, his faintly-colored, prominent eyes endeavoring to sustain Mr. Caryll's steady glance, but failing miserably.

"'Tis farther back," Mr. Caryll informed him in answer to that mute question; and as the fellow moistened his thumb to turn back the pages, Mr. Caryll saved him the trouble. "It says, I think, that the man should be on your right hand and the woman on your left. Ye seem to have reversed matters, Mr. Jenkins. But perhaps ye're left-handed."

"Stab me!" was Mr. Jenkins' most uncanonical comment. "I vow I am over-flustered. Your lordship is so impatient with me. This gentleman is right. But that I was so flustered. Will you not change places with his lordship, ma'am?"

They changed places, after the viscount had thanked Mr. Caryll shortly and cursed the parson with circumstance and fervor. It was well done on his lordship's part, but the lady did not seem convinced by it. Her face looked whiter, and her eyes had an alarmed, half-suspicious expression.

"We must begin again," said Mr. Jenkins. And he began again.

Mr. Caryll listened and watched, and he began to enjoy himself exceedingly. He had not reckoned upon so rich an entertainment when he had consented to come down to witness this odd ceremony. His sense of humor conquered every other consideration, and the circumstance that Lord Rotherby was his brother, if remembered at all, served but to add a spice to the situation.

Out of sheer deviltry he waited until Mr. Jenkins had labored for a second time through the opening periods. Again he allowed him to get as far as "I charge and require you both-," before again he interrupted him.

"There is something else ye've forgot," said he in that sweet, quiet voice of his.

This was too much for Rotherby. "Damn you!" he swore, turning a livid face upon Mr. Caryll, and failed to observe that at the sound of that harsh oath and at the sight of his furious face, the lady recoiled from him, the suspicion lately in her face turning first to conviction and then to absolute horror.

"I do not think you are civil," said Mr. Caryll critically. "It was in your interests that I spoke."

"Then I'll thank you, in my interests, to hold your tongue!" his lordship stormed.

"In that case," said Mr. Caryll, "I must still speak in the interests of the lady. Since you've desired me to be a witness, I'll do my duty by you both and see you properly wed."

"Now, what the devil may you mean by that?" demanded his lordship, betraying himself more and more at every word.

Mr. Jenkins, in a spasm of terror, sought to pour oil upon these waters. "My lord," he bleated, teeth and eyeballs protruding from his pallid face. "My lord! Perhaps the gentleman is right. Perhaps--Perhaps--" He gulped, and turned to Mr. Caryll. "What is't ye think we have forgot now?" he asked.

"The time of day," Mr. Caryll replied, and watched the puzzled look that came into both their faces.

"Do ye deal in riddles with us?" quoth his lordship. "What have we to do with the time of day?"

"Best ask the parson," suggested Mr. Caryll.

Rotherby swung round again to Jenkins. Jenkins spread his hands in mute bewilderment and distress. Mr. Caryll laughed silently.

"I'll not be married! I'll not be married!"

It was the lady who spoke, and those odd words were the first that Mr. Caryll heard from her lips. They made an excellent impression upon him, bearing witness to her good sense and judgment--although belatedly aroused--and informing him, although the pitch was strained just now; that the rich contralto of her voice was full of music. He was a judge of voices, as of much else besides.

"Hoity-toity!" quoth his lordship, between petulance and simulated amusement. "What's all the pother? Hortensia, dear--"

"I'll not be married!" she repeated firmly, her wide brown eyes meeting his in absolute defiance, head thrown back, face pale but fearless.

"I don't believe," ventured Mr. Caryll, "that you could be if you desired it. Leastways not here and now and by this." And he jerked a contemptuous thumb sideways at Mr. Jenkins, toward whom he had turned his shoulder. "Perhaps you have realized it for yourself."

A shudder ran through her; color flooded into her face and out again, leaving it paler than before; yet she maintained a brave front that moved Mr. Caryll profoundly to an even greater admiration of her.

Rotherby, his great jaw set, his hands clenched and eyes blazing, stood irresolute between her and Mr. Caryll. Jenkins, in sheer terror, now sank limply to a chair, whilst Gaskell looked on--a perfect servant--as immovable outwardly and unconcerned as if he had been a piece of furniture. Then his lordship turned again to Caryll.

"You take a deal upon yourself, sir," said he menacingly.

"A deal of what?" wondered Mr. Caryll blandly.

The question nonplussed Rotherby. He swore ferociously. "By God!" he fumed, "I'll have you make good your insinuations. You shall disabuse this lady's mind. You shall--damn you!--or I'll compel you!"

Mr. Caryll smiled very engagingly. The matter was speeding excellently--a comedy the like of which he did not remember to have played a part in since his student days at Oxford, ten years and more ago.

"I had thought," said he, "that the woman who summoned me to be a witness of this--this--ah wedding"--there was a whole volume of criticism in his utterance of the word--"was the landlady of the 'Adam and Eve.' I begin to think that she was this lady's good angel; Fate, clothed, for once, matronly and benign." Then he dropped the easy, bantering manner with a suddenness that was startling. Gallic fire blazed up through British training. "Let us speak plainly, my Lord Rotherby. This marriage is no marriage. It is a mockery and a villainy. And that scoundrel--worthy servant of his master--is no parson; no, not so much as a hedge-parson is he. Madame," he proceeded, turning now to the frightened lady, "you have been grossly abused by these villains."

"Sir!" blazed Rotherby at last, breaking in upon his denunciation, hand clapped to sword. "Do ye dare use such words to me?"

Mr. Jenkins got to his feet, in a slow, foolish fashion. He put out a hand to stay his lordship. The lady, in the background, looked on with wide eyes, very breathless, one hand to her bosom as if to control its heave.

Mr. Caryll proceeded, undismayed, to make good his accusation. He had dropped back into his slightly listless air of thinly veiled persiflage, and he appeared to address the lady, to explain the situation to her, rather than to justify the charge he had made.

"A blind man could have perceived, from the rustling of his prayer book when he fumbled at it, that the contents were strange to him. And observe the volume," he continued, picking it up and flaunting it aloft. "Fire-new; not a thumbmark anywhere; purchased expressly for this foul venture. Is there aught else so clean and fresh about the scurvy thief?"

"You shall moderate your tones, sir--" began his lordship in a snarl.

"He sets you each on the wrong side of him," continued Mr. Caryll, all imperturbable, "lacking even the sense to read the directions which the book contains, and he has no thought for the circumstance that the time of day is uncanonical. Is more needed, madame?"

"So much was not needed," said she, "though I am your debtor, sir."

Her voice was marvelously steady, ice-cold with scorn, a royal anger increasing the glory of her eyes.

Rotherby's hand fell away from his sword. He realized that bluster was not the most convenient weapon here. He addressed Mr. Caryll very haughtily. "You are from France, sir, and something may be excused you. But not quite all. You have used expressions that are not to be offered to a person of my quality. I fear you scarcely apprehend it."

"As well, no doubt, as those who avoid you, sir," answered Mr. Caryll, with cool contempt, his dislike of the man and of the business in which he had found him engaged mounting above every other consideration.

His lordship frowned inquiry. "And who may those be?"

"Most decent folk, I should conceive, if this be an example of your ways."

"By God, sir! You are a thought too pert. We'll mend that presently. I will first convince you of your error, and you, Hortensia."

"It will be interesting," said Mr. Caryll, and meant it.

Rotherby turned from him, keeping a tight rein upon his anger; and so much restraint in so tempestuous a man was little short of wonderful. "Hortensia," he said, "this is fool's talk. What object could I seek to serve?" She drew back another step, contempt and loathing in her face. "This man," he continued, flinging a hand toward Jenkins, and checked upon the word. He swung round upon the fellow. "Have you fooled me, knave?" he bawled. "Is it true what this man says of you--that ye're no parson at all?"

Jenkins quailed and shriveled. Here was a move for which he was all unprepared, and knew not how to play to it. On the bridegroom's part it was excellently acted; yet it came too late to be convincing.

"You'll have the license in your pocket, no doubt, my lord," put in Mr. Caryll. "It will help to convince the lady of the honesty of your intentions. It will show her that ye were abused by this thief for the sake of the guinea ye were to pay him."

That was checkmate, and Lord Rotherby realized it. There remained him nothing but violence, and in violence he was exceedingly at home--being a member of the Hell Fire Club and having served in the Bold Bucks under his Grace of Wharton.

"You damned, infernal marplot! You blasted meddler!" he swore, and some other things besides, froth on his lips, the veins of his brow congested. "What affair was this of yours?"

"I thought you desired me for a witness," Mr. Caryll reminded him.

"I did, let me perish!" said Rotherby. "And I wish to the devil I had bit my tongue out first."

"The loss to eloquence had been irreparable," sighed Mr. Caryll, his eyes upon a beam of the ceiling.

Rotherby stared and choked. "Is there no sense in you, you gibbering parrot?" he inquired. "What are you--an actor or a fool?"

"A gentleman, I hope," said Mr. Caryll urbanely. "What are you?"

"I'll learn you," said his lordship, and plucked at his sword.

"I see," said Mr. Caryll in the same quiet voice that thinly veiled his inward laughter--"a bully!"

With more oaths, my lord heaved himself forward. Mr. Caryll was without weapons. He had left his sword above-stairs, not deeming that he would be needing it at a wedding. He never moved hand or foot as Rotherby bore down upon him, but his greenish eyes grew keen and very watchful. He began to wonder had he indulged his amusement overlong, and imperceptibly he adjusted his balance for a spring.

Rotherby stretched out to lunge, murder in his inflamed eyes. "I'll silence you, you--"

There was a swift rustle behind him. His hand--drawn back to thrust--was suddenly caught, and ere he realized it the sword was wrenched from fingers that held it lightly, unprepared for this.

"You dog!" said the lady's voice, strident now with anger and disdain. She had his sword.

He faced about with a horrible oath. Mr. Caryll conceived that he was becoming a thought disgusting.

Hoofs and wheels ground on the cobbles of the yard and came to a halt outside, but went unheeded in the excitement of the moment. Rotherby stood facing her, she facing him, the sword in her hand and a look in her eyes that promised she would use it upon him did he urge her.

A moment thus--of utter, breathless silence. Then, as if her passion mounted and swept all aside, she raised the sword, and using it as a whip, she lashed him with it until at the third blow it rebounded to the table and was snapped. Instinctively his lordship had put up his hands to save his face, and across one of them a red line grew and grew and oozed forth blood which spread to envelop it.

Gaskell advanced with a sharp cry of concern. But Rotherby waved him back, and the gesture shook blood from his hand like raindrops. His face was livid; his eyes were upon the woman he had gone so near betraying with a look that none might read. Jenkins swayed, sickly, against the table, whilst Mr. Caryll observed all with a critical eye and came to the conclusion that she must have loved this villain.

The hilt and stump of sword clattered in the fireplace, whither she hurled it. A moment she caught her face in her hands, and a sob shook her almost fiercely. Then she came past his lordship, across the room to Mr. Caryll, Rotherby making no shift to detain her.

"Take me away, sir! Take me away," she begged him.

Mr. Caryll's gloomy face lightened suddenly. "Your servant, ma'am," said he, and made her a bow. "I think you are very well advised," he added cheerfully and offered her his arm. She took it, and moved a step or two toward the door. It opened at that moment, and a burly, elderly man came in heavily.

The lady halted, a cry escaped her--a cry of pain almost--and she fell to weeping there and then. Mr. Caryll was very mystified.

The newcomer paused at the sight that met him, considered it with a dull blue eye, and, for all that he looked stupid, it seemed he had wit enough to take in the situation.

"So!" said he, with heavy mockery. "I might have spared myself the trouble of coming after you. For it seems that she has found you out in time, you villain!"

Rotherby turned sharply at that voice. He fell back a step, his brow seeming to grow blacker than it had been. "Father!" he exclaimed; but there was little that was filial in the accent.

Mr. Caryll staggered and recovered himself. It had been indeed a staggering shock; for here, of course, was his own father, too.

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