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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 6. Hortensia's Return
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 6. Hortensia's Return Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :2826

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 6. Hortensia's Return


Mr. Caryll needs explaining as he walks there in the moonlight; that is, if we are at all to understand him--a matter by no means easy, considering that he has confessed he did not understand himself. Did ever man make a sincere declaration of sudden passion as flippantly as he had done, or in terms-better calculated to alienate the regard he sought to win? Did ever man choose his time with less discrimination, or his words with less discretion? Assuredly not. To suppose that Mr. Caryll was unaware of this, would be to suppose him a fool, and that he most certainly was not.

His mood was extremely complex; its analysis, I fear, may baffle us. It must have seemed to you--as it certainly seemed to Mistress Winthrop--that he made a mock of her; that in truth he was the impudent, fleering coxcomb she pronounced him, and nothing more. Not so. Mock he most certainly did; but his mockery was all aimed to strike himself on the recoil--himself and the sentiments which had sprung to being in his soul, and to which--nameless as he was, pledged as he was to a task that would most likely involve his ruin--he conceived that he had no right. He gave expression to his feelings, yet chose for them the expression best calculated to render them barren of all consequence where Mistress Winthrop was concerned. Where another would have hidden those emotions, Mr. Caryll elected to flaunt them half-derisively, that Hortensia might trample them under foot in sheer disgust.

It was, perhaps, the knowledge that did he wait, and come to her as an honest, devout lover, he must in honesty tell her all there was to know of his odd history and of his bastardy, and thus set up between them a barrier insurmountable. Better, he may have thought, to make from the outset a mockery of a passion for which there could be no hope. And so, under that mocking, impertinent exterior, I hope you catch some glimpse of the real, suffering man--the man who boasted that he had the gift of laughter.

He continued a while to pace the dewy lawn after she had left him, and a deep despondency descended upon the spirit of this man who accounted seriousness a folly. Hitherto his rancor against his father had been a theoretical rancor, a thing educated into him by Everard, and accepted by him as we accept a proposition in Euclid that is proved to us. In its way it had been a make-believe rancor, a rancor on principle, for he had been made to see that unless he was inflamed by it, he was not worthy to be his mother's son. Tonight had changed all this. No longer was his grievance sentimental, theoretical or abstract. It was suddenly become real and very bitter. It was no longer a question of the wrong done his mother thirty years ago; it became the question of a wrong done himself in casting him nameless upon the world, a thing of scorn to cruel, unjust humanity. Could Mistress Winthrop have guessed the bitter self-derision with which he had, in apparent levity, offered her his name, she might have felt some pity for him who had no pity for himself.

And so, to-night he felt--as once for a moment Everard had made him feel--that he had a very real wrong of his own to avenge upon his father; and the task before him lost much of the repugnance that it had held for him hitherto.

All this because four hours ago he had looked into the brown depths of Mistress Winthrop's eyes. He sighed, and declaimed a line of Congreve's:

"'Woman is a fair image in a pool; who leaps at it is sunk.'"

The landlord came to bid him in to supper. He excused himself. Sent his lordship word that he was over-tired, and went off to bed.

They met at breakfast, at an early hour upon the morrow, Mistress Winthrop cool and distant; his lordship grumpy and mute; Mr. Caryll airy and talkative as was his habit. They set out soon afterwards. But matters were nowise improved. His lordship dozed in a corner of the carriage, while Mistress Winthrop found more interest in the flowering hedgerows than in Mr. Caryll, ignored him when he talked, and did not answer him when he set questions; till, in the end, he, too, lapsed into silence, and as a solatium for his soreness assured himself by lengthy, wordless arguments that matters were best so.

They entered the outlying parts of London some two hours later, and it still wanted an hour or so to noon when the chaise brought up inside the railings before the earl's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

There came a rush of footmen, a bustle of service, amid which they alighted and entered the splendid residence that was part of the little that remained Lord Ostermore from the wreck his fortunes had suffered on the shoals of the South Sea.

Mr. Caryll paused a moment to dismiss Leduc to the address in Old Palace Yard where he had hired a lodging. That done, he followed his lordship and Hortensia within doors.

From the inner hall a footman ushered him across an ante-chamber to a room on the right, which proved to be the library, and was his lordship's habitual retreat. It was a spacious, pillared chamber, very richly panelled in damask silk, and very richly furnished, having long French windows that opened on a terrace above the garden.

As they entered there came a swift rustle of petticoats at their heels, and Mr. Caryll stood aside, bowing, to give passage to a tall lady who swept by with no more regard for him than had he been one of the house's lackeys. She was, he observed, of middle-age, lean and aquiline-featured, with an exaggerated chin, that ended squarely as boot. Her sallow cheeks were raddled to a hectic color, a monstrous head-dress--like that of some horse in a lord mayor's show--coiffed her, and her dress was a mixture of extravagance and incongruity, the petticoat absurdly hooped.

She swept into the room like a battleship into action, and let fly her first broadside at Mistress Winthrop from the threshold.

"Codso!" she shrilled. "You have come back! And for what have you come back? Am I to live in the same house with you, you shameless madam--that have no more thought for your reputation than a slut in a smock-race?"

Hortensia raised indignant eyes from out of a face that was very pale. Her lips were tightly pressed--in resolution, thought Mr. Caryll, who was very observant of her--not to answer her ladyship; for Mr. Caryll had little doubt as to the identity of this dragon.

"My love--my dear--" began his lordship, advancing a step, his tone a very salve. Then, seeking to create a diversion, he waved a hand towards Mr. Caryll. "Let me present--"

"Did I speak to you?" she turned to bombard him. "Have you not done harm enough? Had you been aught but a fool--had you respected me as a husband should--you had left well alone and let her go her ways."

"There was my duty to her father, to say aught of--"

"And what of your duty to me?" she blazed, her eyes puckering most malignantly. She reminded Mr. Caryll of nothing so much as a vulture. "Had ye forgotten that? Have ye no thought for decency--no respect for your wife?"

Her strident voice was echoing through the house and drawing a little crowd of gaping servants to the hall. To spare Mistress Winthrop, Mr. Caryll took it upon himself to close the door. The countess turned at the sound.

"Who is this?" she asked, measuring the elegant figure with an evil eye. And Mr. Caryll felt it in his bones that she had done him the honor to dislike him at sight.

"It is a gentleman who--who--" His lordship thought it better, apparently, not to explain the exact circumstances under which he had met the gentleman. He shifted ground. "I was about to present him, my love. It is Mr. Caryll--Mr. Justin Caryll. This, sir, is my Lady Ostermore."

Mr. Caryll made her a profound bow. Her ladyship retorted with a sniff.

"Is it a kinsman of yours, my lord?" and the contempt of the question was laden with a suggestion that smote Mr. Caryll hard. What she implied in wanton offensive mockery was no more than he alone present knew to be the exact and hideous truth.

"Some remote kinsman, I make no doubt," the earl explained. "Until yesterday I had not the honor of his acquaintance. Mr. Caryll is from France."

"Ye'll be a Jacobite, no doubt, then," were her first, uncompromising words to the guest.

Mr. Caryll made her another bow. "If I were, I should make no secret of it with your ladyship," he answered with that irritating suavity in which he clothed his most obvious sarcasms.

Her ladyship opened her eyes a little wider. Here was a tone she was unused to. "And what may your business with his lordship be?"

"His lordship's business, I think," answered Mr. Caryll in a tone of such exquisite politeness and deference that the words seemed purged of all their rudeness.

"Will you answer me so, sir?" she demanded, nevertheless, her voice quivering.

"My love!" interpolated his lordship hurriedly, his florid face aflush. "We are vastly indebted to Mr. Caryll, as you shall learn. It was he who saved Hortensia."

"Saved the drab, did he? And from what, pray?"

"Madam!" It was Hortensia who spoke. She had risen, pale with anger, and she made appeal now to her guardian. "My lord, I'll not remain to be so spoken of. Suffer me to go. That her ladyship should so speak of me to my face--and to a stranger!"

"Stranger!" crowed her ladyship. "Lard! And what d'ye suppose will happen? Are you so nice about a stranger hearing what I may have to say of you--you that will be the talk of the whole lewd town for this fine escapade? And what'll the town say of you?"

"My love!" his lordship sought again to soothe her. "Sylvia, let me implore you! A little moderation! A little charity! Hortensia has been foolish. She confesses so much, herself. Yet, when all is said, 'tis not she is to blame."

"Am I?"

"My love! Was it suggested?"

"I marvel it was not. Indeed, I marvel! Oh, Hortensia is not to blame, the sweet, pure dove! What is she, then?"

"To be pitied, ma'am," said his lordship, stirred to sudden anger, "that she should have lent an ear to your disreputable son."

"My son? My son?" cried her ladyship, her voice more and more strident, her face flushing till the rouge upon it was put to shame, revealed in all its unnatural hideousness. "And is he not your son, my lord?"

"There are moments," he answered hardily, "when I find it difficult to believe."

It was much for him to say, and to her ladyship, of all people. It was pure mutiny. She gasped for air; pumped her brain for words. Meantime, his lordship continued with an eloquence entirely unusual in him and prompted entirely by his strong feelings in the matter of his son. "He is a disgrace to his name! He always has been. When a boy, he was a liar and a thief, and had he had his deserts he had been lodged in Newgate long ago--or worse. Now that he's a man, he's an abandoned profligate, a brawler, a drunkard, a rakehell. So much I have long known him for; but to-day he has shown himself for something even worse. I had thought that my ward, at least, had been sacred from his villainy. That is the last drop. I'll not condone it. Damn me! I can't condone it. I'll disown him. He shall not set foot in house of mine again. Let him keep the company of his Grace of Wharton and his other abandoned friends of the Hell Fire Club; he keeps not mine. He keeps not mine, I say!"

Her ladyship swallowed hard. From red that she had been, she was now ashen under her rouge. "And, is this wanton baggage to keep mine? Is she to disgrace a household that has grown too nice to contain your son?"

"My lord! Oh, my lord, give me leave to go," Hortensia entreated.

"Ay, go," sneered her ladyship. "Go! You had best go--back to him. What for did ye leave him? Did ye dream there could be aught to return to?"

Hortensia turned to her guardian again appealingly. But her ladyship bore down upon her, incensed by this ignoring; she caught the girl's wrist in her claw-like hand. "Answer me, you drab! What for did you return? What is to be done with you now that y' are soiled goods? Where shall we find a husband for you?"

"I do not want a husband, madam," answered Hortensia.

"Will ye lead apes in hell, then? Bah! 'Tis not what ye want, my fine madam; 'tis what we can get you; and where shall we find you a husband now?"

Her eye fell upon Mr. Caryll, standing by one of the windows, a look of profound disgust overplaying the usually immobile face. "Perhaps the gentleman from France--the gentleman who saved you," she sneered, "will propose to take the office."

"With all my heart, ma'am," Mr. Caryll startled them and himself by answering. Then, perceiving that he had spoken too much upon impulse--given utterance to what was passing in his mind--"I but mention it to show your ladyship how mistaken are your conclusions," he added.

The countess loosed her hold of Hortensia's wrist in her amazement, and looked the gentleman from France up and down in a mighty scornful manner. "Codso!" she swore, "I may take it, then, that your saving her--as ye call it--was no accident."

"Indeed it was, ma'am--and a most fortunate accident for your son."

"For my son? As how?"

"It saved him from hanging, ma'am," Mr. Caryll informed her, and gave her something other than the baiting of Hortensia to occupy her mind.

"Hang?" she gasped. "Are you speaking of Lord Rotherby?"

"Ay, of Lord Rotherby--and not a word more than is true," put in the earl. "Do you know--but you do not--the extent of your precious son's villainy? At Maidstone, where I overtook them--at the Adam and Eve--he had a make-believe parson, and he was luring this poor child into a mock-marriage."

Her ladyship stared. "Mock-marriage?" she echoed. "Marriage? La!" And again she vented her unpleasant laugh. "Did she insist on that, the prude? Y' amaze me!"

"Surely, my love, you do not apprehend. Had Lord Rotherby's parson not been detected and unmasked by Mr. Caryll, here--"

"Would you ha' me believe she did not know the fellow was no parson?"

"Oh!" cried Hortensia. "Your ladyship has a very wicked soul. May God forgive you!"

"And who is to forgive you?" snapped the countess.

"I need no forgiveness, for I have done no wrong. A folly, I confess to. I was mad to have heeded such a villain."

Her ladyship gathered forces for a fresh assault. But Mr. Caryll anticipated it. It was no doubt a great impertinence in him; but he saw Hortensia's urgent need, and he felt, moreover, that not even Lord Ostermore would resent his crossing swords a moment with her ladyship.

"You would do well, ma'am, to remember," said he, in his singularly precise voice, "that Lord Rotherby even now--and as things have fallen out--is by no means quit of all danger."

She looked at this smooth gentleman, and his words burned themselves into her brain. She quivered with mingling fear and anger.

"Wha'--what is't ye mean?" quoth she.

"That even at this hour, if the matter were put about, his lordship might be brought to account for it, and it might fare very ill with him. The law of England deals heavily with an offense such as Lord Rotherby's, and the attempt at a mock-marriage, of which there is no lack of evidence, would so aggravate the crime of abduction, if he were informed against, that it might go very hard with him."

Her jaw fell. She caught more than an admonition in his words. It almost seemed to her that he was threatening.

"Who--who is to inform?" she asked point-blank, her tone a challenge; and yet the odd change in it from its recent aggressiveness was almost ludicrous.

"Ah--who?" said Mr. Caryll, raising his eyes and fetching a sigh. "It would appear that a messenger from the Secretary of State--on another matter--was at the Adam and Eve at the time with two of his catchpolls, and he was a witness of the whole affair. Then again," and he waved a hand doorwards, "servants are servants. I make no doubt they are listening, and your ladyship's voice has scarce been controlled. You can never say when a servant may cease to be a servant, and become an active enemy."

"Damn the servants!" she swore, dismissing them from consideration. "Who is this messenger of the secretary's? Who is he?"

"He was named Green. 'Tis all I know."

"And where may he be found?"

"I cannot say."

She turned to Lord Ostermore. "Where is Rotherby?" she inquired. She was a thought breathless.

"I do not know," said he, in a voice that signified how little he cared.

"He must be found. This fellow's silence must be bought. I'll not have my son disgraced, and gaoled, perhaps. He must be found."

Her alarm was very real now. She moved towards the door, then paused, and turned again. "Meantime, let your lordship consider what dispositions you are to make for this wretched girt who is the cause of all this garboil."

And she swept out, slamming the door violently after her.

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