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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 5. Moonshine
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 5. Moonshine Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2577

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 5. Moonshine


My Lord Ostermore, though puzzled, entertained no tormenting anxiety on the score of the search to which Mr. Caryll was to be submitted. He assured himself from that gentleman's confident, easy manner--being a man who always drew from things the inference that was obvious--that either he carried no such letter as my lord expected, or else he had so disposed of it as to baffle search.

So, for the moment, he dismissed the subject from his mind. With Hortensia he entered the parlor across the stone-flagged passage, to which the landlady ushered them, and turned whole-heartedly to the matter of his ward's elopement with his son.

"Hortensia," said he, when they were alone. "You have been foolish; very foolish." He had a trick of repeating himself, conceiving, no doubt, that the commonplace achieves distinction by repetition.

Hortensia sat in an arm-chair by the window, and sighed, looking out over the downs. "Do I not know it?" she cried, and the eyes which were averted from his lordship were charred with tears--tears of hot anger, shame and mortification. "God help all women!" she added bitterly, after a moment, as many another woman under similar and worse circumstances has cried before and since.

A more feeling man might have conceived that this was a moment in which to leave her to herself and her own thoughts, and in that it is possible that a more feeling man had been mistaken. Ostermore, stolid and unimaginative, but not altogether without sympathy for his ward, of whom he was reasonably fond--as fond, no doubt, as it was his capacity to be for any other than himself--approached her and set a plump hand upon the back of her chair.

"What was it drove you to this?"

She turned upon him almost fiercely. "My Lady Ostermore," she answered him.

His lordship frowned, and his eyes shifted uneasily from her face. In his heart he disliked his wife excessively, disliked her because she was the one person in the world who governed him, who rode rough-shod over his feelings and desires; because, perhaps, she was the mother of his unfeeling, detestable son. She may not have been the only person living to despise Lord Ostermore; but she was certainly the only one with the courage to manifest her contempt, and that in no circumscribed terms. And yet, disliking her as he did, returning with interest her contempt of him, he veiled it, and was loyal to his termagant, never suffering himself to utter a complaint of her to others, never suffering others to censure her within his hearing. This loyalty may have had its roots in pride--indeed, no other soil can be assigned to them--a pride that would allow no strangers to pry into the sore places of his being. He frowned now to hear Hortensia's angry mention of her ladyship's name; and if his blue eyes moved uneasily under his beetling brows, it was because the situation irked him. How should he stand as judge between Mistress Winthrop--towards whom, as we have seen, he had a kindness--and his wife, whom he hated, yet towards whom he would not be disloyal?

He wished the subject dropped, since, did he ask the obvious question--in what my Lady Ostermore could have been the cause of Hortensia's flight--he would provoke, he knew, a storm of censure from his wife. Therefore he fell silent.

Hortensia, however, felt that she had said too much not to say more.

"Her ladyship has never failed to make me feel my position--my--my poverty," she pursued. "There is no slight her ladyship has not put upon me, until not even your servants use me with the respect that is due to my father's daughter. And my father," she added, with a reproachful glance, "was your friend, my lord."

He shifted uncomfortably on his feet, deploring now the question with which he had fired the train of feminine complaint. "Pish, pish!" he deprecated, "'tis fancy, child--pure fancy!"

"So her Ladyship would say, did you tax her with it. Yet your lordship knows I am not fanciful in other things. Should I, then, be fanciful in this?"

"But what has her ladyship ever done, child?" he demanded, thinking thus to baffle her--since he was acquainted with the subtlety of her ladyship's methods.

"A thousand things," replied Hortensia hotly, "and yet not one upon which I may fasten. 'Tis thus she works: by words, half-words, looks, sneers, shrugs, and sometimes foul abuse entirely disproportionate to the little cause I may unwittingly have given."

"Her ladyship is a little hot," the earl admitted, "but a good heart; 'tis an excellent heart, Hortensia."

"For hating-ay, my lord."

"Nay, plague on't! That's womanish in you. 'Pon honor it is! Womanish!"

"What else would you have a woman? Mannish and raffish, like my Lady Ostermore?"

"I'll not listen to you," he said. "Ye're not just, Hortensia. Ye're heated; heated! I'll not listen to you. Besides, when all is said, what reasons be these for the folly ye've committed?"

"Reasons?" she echoed scornfully. "Reasons and to spare! Her ladyship has made my life so hard, has so shamed and crushed me, put such indignities upon me, that existence grew unbearable under your roof. It could not continue, my lord," she pursued, rising under the sway of her indignation. "It could not continue. I am not of the stuff that goes to making martyrs. I am weak, and--and--as your lordship has said--womanish."

"Indeed, you talk a deal," said his lordship peevishly. But she did not heed the sarcasm.

"Lord Rotherby," she continued, "offered me the means to escape. He urged me to elope with him. His reason was that you would never consent to our marriage; but that if we took the matter into our hands, and were married first, we might depend upon your sanction afterwards; that you had too great a kindness for me to withhold your pardon. I was weak, my lord--womanish," (she threw the word at him again) "and it happened--God help me for a fool!--that I thought I loved Lord Rotherby. And so--and so--"

She sat down again, weakly, miserably, averting her face that she might hide her tears. He was touched, and he even went so far as to show something of his sympathy. He approached her again, and laid a benign hand lightly upon her shoulder.

"But--but--in that case--Oh, the damned villain!--why this mock-parson?"

"Does your lordship not perceive? Must I die of shame? Do you not see?"

"See? No!" He was thoughtful a second; then repeated, "No!"

"I understood," she informed him, a smile--a cruelly bitter smile--lifting and steadying the corner of her lately quivering lip, "when he alluded to your lordship's straitened circumstances. He has no disinheritance to fear because he has no inheritance to look for beyond the entail, of which you cannot disinherit him. My Lord Rotherby sets a high value upon himself. He may--I do not know--he may have been in love with me--though not as I know love, which is all sacrifice, all self-denial. But by his lights he may have cared for me; he must have done, by his lights. Had I been a lady of fortune, not a doubt but he would have made me his wife; as it was, he must aim at a more profitable marriage, and meanwhile, to gratify his love for me--base as it was--he would--he would--O God! I cannot say it. You understand, my lord."

My lord swore strenuously. "There is a punishment for such a crime as this."

"Ay, my lord--and a way to avoid punishment for a gentleman in your son's position, even did I flaunt my shame in some vain endeavor to have justice--a thing he knew I never could have done."

My lord swore again. "He shall be punished," he declared emphatically.

"No doubt. God will see to that," she said, a world of faith in her quivering voice.

My lord's eyes expressed his doubt of divine intervention. He preferred to speak for himself. "I'll disown the dog. He shall not enter my house again. You shall not be reminded of what has happened here. Gad! You were shrewd to have smoked his motives so!" he cried in a burst of admiration for her insight. "Gad, child! Shouldst have been a lawyer! A lawyer!"

"If it had not been for Mr. Caryll--" she began, but to what else she said he lent no ear, being suddenly brought back to his fears at the mention of that gentleman's name.

"Mr. Caryll! Save us! What is keeping him?" he cried. "Can they--can they--"

The door opened, and Mr. Caryll walked in, ushered by the hostess. Both turned to confront him, Hortensia's eyes swollen from her weeping.

"Well?" quoth his lordship. "Did they find nothing?"

Mr. Caryll advanced with the easy, graceful carriage that was one of his main charms, his clothes so skilfully restored by Leduc that none could have guessed the severity of the examination they had undergone.

"Since I am here, and alone, your lordship may conclude such to be the case. Mr. Green is preparing for departure. He is very abject; very chap-fallen. I am almost sorry for Mr. Green. I am by nature sympathetic. I have promised to make my complaint to my Lord Carteret. And so, I trust there is an end to a tiresome matter."

"But then, sir?" quoth his lordship. "But then--are you the bearer of no letter?"

Mr. Caryll shot a swift glance over his shoulder at the door. He deliberately winked at the earl. "Did your lordship expect letters?" he inquired. "That was scarcely reason enough to suppose me a courier. There is some mistake, I imagine."

Between the wink and the words his lordship was bewildered.

Mr. Caryll turned to the lady, bowing. Then he waved a hand over the downs. "A fine view," said he airily, and she stared at him. "I shall treasure sweet memories of Maidstone." Her stare grew stonier. Did he mean the landscape or some other matter? His tone was difficult to read--a feature peculiar to his tone.

"Not so shall I, sir," she made answer. "I shall never think of it other than with burning cheeks--unless it be with gratitude to your shrewdness which saved me."

"No more, I beg. It is a matter painful to you to dwell on. Let me exhort you to forget it. I have already done so."

"That is a sweet courtesy in you."

"I am compounded of sweet courtesy," he informed her modestly.

His lordship spoke of departure, renewing his offer to carry Mr. Caryll to town in his chaise. Meanwhile, Mr. Caryll was behaving curiously. He was tiptoeing towards the door, along the wall, where he was out of line with the keyhole. He reached it suddenly, and abruptly pulled it open. There was a squeal, and Mr. Green rolled forward into the room. Mr. Caryll kicked him out again before he could rise, and called Leduc to throw him outside. And that was the last they saw of Mr. Green at Maidstone.

They set out soon afterwards, Mr. Caryll travelling in his lordship's chaise, and Leduc following in his master's.

It was an hour or so after candle-lighting time when they reached Croydon, the country lying all white under a full moon that sailed in a clear, calm sky. His lordship swore that he would go no farther that night. The travelling fatigued him; indeed, for the last few miles of the journey he had been dozing in his corner of the carriage, conversation having long since been abandoned as too great an effort on so bad a road, which shook and jolted them beyond endurance. His lordship's chaise was of an old-fashioned pattern, and the springs far from what might have been desired or expected in a nobleman's conveyance.

They alighted at the "Bells." His lordship bespoke supper, invited Mr. Caryll to join them, and, what time the meal was preparing, went into a noisy doze in the parlor's best chair.

Mistress Winthrop sauntered out into the garden. The calm and fragrance of the night invited her. Alone with her thoughts, she paced the lawn a while, until her solitude was disturbed by the advent of Mr. Caryll. He, too, had need to think, and he had come out into the peace of the night to indulge his need. Seeing her, he made as if to withdraw again; but she perceived him, and called him to her side. He went most readily. Yet when he stood before her in an attitude of courteous deference, she was at a loss what she should say to him, or, rather, what words she should employ. At last, with a half-laugh of nervousness, "I am by nature very inquisitive, sir," she prefaced.

"I had already judged you to be an exceptional woman," Mr. Caryll commented softly.

She mused an instant. "Are you never serious?" she asked him.

"Is it worth while?" he counter-questioned, and, whether intent or accident, he let her see something of himself. "Is it even amusing--to be serious?"

"Is there in life nothing but amusement?"

"Oh, yes--but nothing so vital. I speak with knowledge. The gift of laughter has been my salvation."

"From what, sir?"

"Ah--who shall say that? My history and my rearing have been such that had I bowed before them, I had become the most gloomy, melancholy man that steps this gloomy, melancholy world. By now I might have found existence insupportable, and so--who knows? I might have set a term to it. But I had the wisdom to prefer laughter. Humanity is a delectable spectacle if we but have the gift to observe it in a dispassionate spirit. Such a gift have I cultivated. The squirming of the human worm is interesting to observe, and the practice of observing it has this advantage, that while we observe it we forget to squirm ourselves."

"The bitterness of your words belies their purport."

He shrugged and smiled. "But proves my contention. That I might explain myself, you made me for a moment serious, set me squirming in my turn."

She moved a little, and he fell into step beside her. A little while there was silence.

Presently--"You find me, no doubt, as amusing as any other of your human worms," said she.

"God forbid!" he answered soberly.

She laughed. "You make an exception in my case, then. That is a subtle flattery!"

"Have I not said that I had judged you to be an exceptional woman?"

"Exceptionally foolish, not a doubt."

"Exceptionally beautiful; exceptionally admirable," he corrected.

"A clumsy compliment, devoid of wit!"

"When we grow truthful, it may be forgiven us if we fall short of wit."

"That were an argument in favor of avoiding truth."

"Were it necessary," said he. "For truth is seldom so intrusive as to need avoiding. But we are straying. There was a score upon which you were inquisitive, you said; from which I take it that you sought knowledge at my hands. Pray seek it; I am a well, of knowledge."

"I desired to know--Nay, but I have asked you already. I desired to know did you deem me a very pitiful little fool?"

They had reached the privet hedge, and turned. They paused now before resuming their walk. He paused, also, before replying. Then:

"I should judge you wise in most things," he answered slowly, critically. "But in the matter to which I owe the blessing of having served you, I do not think you wise. Did you--do you love Lord Rotherby?"

"What if so?"

"After what you have learned, I should account you still less wise."

"You are impertinent, sir," she reproved him.

"Nay, most pertinent. Did you not ask me to sit in judgment upon this matter? And unless you confess to me, how am I to absolve you?"

"I did not crave your absolution. You take too much upon yourself."

"So said Lord Rotherby. You seem to have something in common when all is said."

She bit her lip in chagrin. They paced in silence to the lawn's end, and turned again. Then: "You treat me like a fool," she reproved him.

"How is that possible, when, already I think I love you."

She started from him, and stared at him for a long moment. "You insult me!" she cried angrily, conceiving that she understood his mind. "Do you think that because I may have committed a folly I have forfeited all claim to be respected--that I am a subject for insolent speeches?"

"You are illogical," said Mr. Caryll, the imperturbable. "I have told you that I love you. Should I insult the woman I have said I love?"

"You love me?" She looked at him, her face very white in the white moonlight, her lips parted, a kindling anger in her eyes. "Are you mad?"

"I a'n't sure. There have been moments when I have almost feared it. This is not one of them."

"You wish me to think you serious?" She laughed a thought stridently in her indignation. "I have known you just four hours," said she.

"Precisely the time I think I have loved you."

"You think?" she echoed scornfully. "Oh, you make that reservation! You are not quite sure?"

"Can we be sure of anything?" he deprecated.

"Of some things," she answered icily. "And I am sure of one--that I am beginning to understand you."

"I envy you. Since that is so, help me--of your charity!--to understand myself."

"Then understand yourself for an impudent, fleering coxcomb," she flung at him, and turned to leave him.

"That is not explanation," said Mr. Caryll thoughtfully. "It is mere abuse."

"What else do you deserve?" she asked him over her shoulder. "That you should have dared!" she withered him.

"To love you quite so suddenly?" he inquired, and misquoted: "'Whoever loved at all, that loved not at first sight?' Hortensia!"

"You have not the right to my name, sir."

"Yet I offer you the right to mine," he answered, with humble reproach.

"You shall be punished," she promised him, and in high dudgeon left him.

"Punished? Oh, cruel! Can you then be--

"'Unsoft to him who's smooth to thee?
Tigers and bears, I've heard some say,
For proffered love will love repay."'

But she was gone. He looked up at the moon, and took it into his confidence to reproach it. "'Twas your white face beglamored me," he told it aloud. "See, how execrable a beginning I've made, and, therefore, how excellent!" And he laughed, but entirely without mirth.

He remained pacing in the moonlight, very thoughtful, and, for once, it seemed, not at all amused. His life appeared to be tangling itself beyond unravelling, and his vaunted habit of laughter scarce served at present to show him the way out.

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