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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 7. Father And Son
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 7. Father And Son Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :3301

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 7. Father And Son


Mr. Caryll stayed to dine at Stretton House. Although they had journeyed but from Croydon that morning, he would have preferred to have gone first to his lodging to have made--fastidious as he was--a suitable change in his apparel. But the urgency that his task dictated caused him to waive the point.

He had a half-hour or so to himself after the stormy scene with her ladyship, in which he had played again--though in a lesser degree--the part of savior to Mistress Winthrop, a matter for which the lady had rewarded him, ere withdrawing, with a friendly smile, which caused him to think her disposed to forgive him his yesternight's folly.

In that half-hour he gave himself again very seriously to the contemplation of his position. He had no illusions on the score of Lord Ostermore, and he rated his father no higher than he deserved. But he was just and shrewd in his judgment, and he was forced to confess that he had found this father of his vastly different from the man he had been led to expect. He had looked to find a debauched old rake, a vile creature steeped in vice and wickedness. Instead, he found a weak, easy-natured, commonplace fellow, whose worst sin seemed to be the selfishness that is usually inseparable from those other characteristics. If Ostermore was not a man of the type that inspires strong affection, neither was he of the type that provokes strong dislike. His colorless nature left one indifferent to him.

Mr. Caryll, somewhat to his dismay, found himself inclined to extend the man some sympathy; caught himself upon the verge of pitying him for being burdened with so very unfilial a son and so very cursed a wife. It was one of his cherished beliefs that the evil that men do has a trick of finding them out in this life, and here, he believed, as shrew-ridden husband and despised father, the Earl of Ostermore was being made to expiate that sin of his early years.

Another of Mr. Caryll's philosophies was that, when all is said, man is little of a free agent. His viciousness or sanctity is temperamental; and not the man, but his nature--which is not self-imbued--must bear the responsibility of a man's deeds, be they good or bad.

In the abstract such beliefs are well enough; they are excellent standards by which to judge where other sufferers than ourselves are concerned. But when we ourselves are touched, they are discounted by the measure in which a man's deeds or misdeeds may affect us. And although to an extent this might be the case now with Mr. Caryll, yet, in spite of it, he found himself excusing his father on the score of the man's weakness and stupidity, until he caught himself up with the reflection that this was a disloyalty to Everard, to his training, and to his mother. And yet--he reverted--in such a man as Ostermore, sheer stupidity, a lack of imagination, of insight into things as they really are, a lack of feeling that would disable him from appreciating the extent of any wrong he did, seemed to Mr. Caryll to be extenuating circumstances.

He conceived that he was amazingly dispassionate in his judgment, and he wondered was he right or wrong so to be. Then the thought of his task arose in his mind, and it bathed him in a sweat of horror. Over in France he had allowed himself to be persuaded, and had pledged himself to do this thing. Everard, the relentless, unforgiving fanatic of vengeance, had--as we have seen--trained him to believe that the avenging of his mother's wrongs was the only thing that could justify his own existence. Besides, it had all seemed remote then, and easy as remote things are apt to seem. But now--now that he had met in the flesh this man who was his father--his hesitation was turned to very horror. It was not that he did not conceive, in spite of his odd ideas upon temperament and its responsibilities, that his mother's' wrongs cried out for vengeance, and that the avenging of them would be a righteous, fitting deed; but it was that he conceived that his own was not the hand to do the work of the executioner upon one who--after all--was still his own father. It was hideously unnatural.

He sat in the library, awaiting his lordship and the announcement of dinner. There was a book before him; but his eyes were upon the window, the smooth lawns beyond, all drenched in summer sunshine, and his thoughts were introspective. He looked into his shuddering soul, and saw that he could not--that he would not--do the thing which he was come to do. He would await the coming of Everard, to tell him so. There would be a storm to face, he knew. But sooner that than carry this vile thing through. It was vile--most damnably vile--he now opined.

The decision taken, he rose and crossed to the window. His mind had been in travail; his soul had known the pangs of labor. But now that this strong resolve had been brought forth, an ease and peace were his that seemed to prove to him how right he was, how wrong must aught else have been.

Lord Ostermore came in. He announced that they would be dining alone together. "Her ladyship," he explained, "has gone forth in person to seek Lord Rotherby. She believes that she knows where to find him--in some disreputable haunt, no doubt, whither her ladyship would have been better advised to have sent a servant. But women are wayward cattle--wayward, headstrong cattle! Have you not found them so, Mr. Caryll?"

"I have found that the opinion is common to most husbands," said Mr. Caryll, then added a question touching Mistress Winthrop, and wondered would she not be joining them at table.

"The poor child keeps her chamber," said the earl. "She is overwrought--overwrought! I am afraid her ladyship--" He broke off abruptly, and coughed. "She is overwrought," he repeated in conclusion. "So that we dine alone."

And alone they dined. Ostermore, despite the havoc suffered by his fortunes, kept an excellent table and a clever cook, and Mr. Caryll was glad to discover in his sire this one commendable trait.

The conversation was desultory throughout the repast; but when the cloth was raised and the table cleared of all but the dishes of fruit and the decanters of Oporto, Canary and Madeira, there came a moment of expansion.

Mr. Caryll was leaning back in his chair, fingering the stem of his wine-glass, watching the play of sunlight through the ruddy amber of the wine, and considering the extraordinarily odd position of a man sitting at table, by the merest chance, almost, with a father who was not aware that he had begotten him. A question from his lordship came to stir him partially from the reverie into which he was beginning to lapse.

"Do you look to make a long sojourn in England, Mr. Caryll?"

"It will depend," was the vague and half-unconscious answer, "upon the success of the matter I am come to transact."

There ensued a brief pause, during which Mr. Caryll fell again into his abstraction.

"Where do you dwell when in France, sir?" inquired my lord, as if to make polite conversation.

Mr. Caryll lulled by his musings into carelessness, answered truthfully, "At Maligny, in Normandy."

The next moment there was a tinkle of breaking glass, and Mr. Caryll realized his indiscretion and turned cold.

Lord Ostermore, who had been in the act of raising his glass, fetched it down again so suddenly that the stem broke in his fingers, and the mahogany was flooded with the liquor. A servant hastened forward, and set a fresh glass for his lordship. That done, Ostermore signed to the man to withdraw. The fellow went, closing the door, and leaving those two alone.

The pause had been sufficient to enable Mr. Caryll to recover, and for all that his pulses throbbed more quickly than their habit, outwardly he maintained his lazily indifferent pose, as if entirely unconscious that what he had said had occasioned his father the least disturbance.

"You--you dwelt at Maligny?" said his lordship, the usual high color all vanished from his face. And again: "You dwelt at Maligny, and--and--your name is Caryll."

Mr. Caryll looked up quickly, as if suddenly aware that his lordship was expressing surprise. "Why, yes," said he. "What is there odd in that?"

"How does it happen that you come to live there? Are you at all connected with the family of Maligny? On your mother's side, perhaps?"

Mr. Caryll took up his wine-glass. "I take it," said he easily, "that there was some such family at some time. But it is clear it must have fallen upon evil days." He sipped at his wine. "There are none left now," he explained, as he set down his glass. "The last of them died, I believe, in England." His eyes turned full upon the earl, but their glance seemed entirely idle. "It was in consequence of that that my father was enabled to purchase the estate."

Mr. Caryll accounted it no lie that he suppressed the fact that the father to whom he referred was but his father by adoption.

Relief spread instantly upon Lord Ostermore's countenance. Clearly, he saw, here was pure coincidence, and nothing more. Indeed, what else should there have been? What was it that he had feared? He did not know. Still he accounted it an odd matter, and said so.

"What is odd?" inquired Mr. Caryll. "Does it happen that your lordship was acquainted at any time with that vanished family?"

"I was, sir--slightly acquainted--at one time with one or two of its members. 'Tis that that is odd. You see, sir, my name, too, happens to be Caryll."

"True--yet I see nothing so oddly coincident in the matter, particularly if your acquaintance with these Malignys was but slight."

"Indeed, you are right. You are right. There is no such great coincidence, when all is said. The name reminded me of a--a folly of my youth. 'Twas that that made impression."

"A folly?" quoth Mr. Caryll, his eyebrows raised.

"Ay, a folly--a folly that went near undoing me, for had it come to my father's ears, he had broke me without mercy. He was a hard man, my father; a puritan in his ideas."

"A greater than your lordship?" inquired Mr. Caryll blandly, masking the rage that seethed in him.

His lordship laughed. "Ye're a wag, Mr. Caryll--a damned wag!" Then reverting to the matter that was uppermost in his mind. "'Tis a fact, though--'pon honor. My father would ha' broke me. Luckily she died."

"Who died?" asked Mr. Caryll, with a show of interest.

"The girl. Did I not tell you there was a girl? 'Twas she was the folly--Antoinette de Maligny. But she died--most opportunely, egad! 'Twas a very damned mercy that she did. It--cut the--the--what d'ye call it--knot?"

"The Gordian knot?" suggested Mr. Caryll.

"Ay--the Gordian knot. Had she lived and had my father smoked the affair--Gad! he would ha' broke me; he would so!" he repeated, and emptied his glass.

Mr. Caryll, white to the lips, sat very still a moment. Then he did a curious thing; did it with a curious suddenness. He took a knife from the table, and hacked off the lowest button from his coat. This he pushed across the board to his father.

"To turn to other matters," said he; "there is the letter you were expecting from abroad."

"Eh? What?" Lord Ostermore took up the button. It was of silk, interwoven with gold thread. He turned it over in his fingers, looking at it with a heavy eye, and then at his guest. "Eh? Letter?" he muttered, puzzled.

"If your lordship will cut that open, you will see what his majesty has to propose." He mentioned the king in a voice charged with suggestion, so that no doubt could linger on the score of the king he meant.

"Gad!" cried his lordship. "Gad! 'Twas thus ye bubbled Mr. Green? Shrewd, on my soul. And you are the messenger, then?"

"I am the messenger," answered Mr. Caryll coldly.

"And why did you not say so before?"

For the fraction of a second Mr. Caryll hesitated. Then: "Because I did not judge that the time was come," said he.

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