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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Skin - Chapter 8. Temptation
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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 8. Temptation Post by :Kim_Birch Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :960

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The Lion's Skin - Chapter 8. Temptation


His lordship ripped away the silk covering of the button with a penknife, and disembowelled it of a small packet, which consisted of a sheet of fine and very closely-folded and tightly-compressed paper. This he spread, cast an eye over, and then looked up at his companion, who was watching him with simulated indolence.

His lordship had paled a little, and there was about the lines of his mouth a look of preternatural gravity. He looked furtively towards the door, his heavy eyebrows lowering.

"I think," he said, "that we shall be more snug in the library. Will you bear me company, Mr. Caryll?"

Mr. Caryll rose instantly. The earl folded the letter, and turned to go. His companion paused to pick up the fragments of the button and slip them into his pocket. He performed the office with a smile on his lips that was half pity, half contempt. It did not seem to him that there would be the least need to betray Lord Ostermore once his lordship was wedded to the Stuart faction. He would not fail to betray himself through some act of thoughtless stupidity such as this.

In the library--the door, and that of the ante-room beyond it, carefully closed--his lordship unlocked a secretaire of walnut, very handsomely inlaid, and, drawing up a chair, he sat down to the perusal of the king's letter. When he had read it through, he remained lost in thought a while. At length he looked up and across towards Mr. Caryll, who was standing by one of the windows.

"You are no doubt a confidential agent, sir," said he. "And you will be fully aware of the contents of this letter that you have brought me."

"Fully, my lord," answered Mr. Caryll, "and I venture to hope that his majesty's promises will overcome any hesitation that you may feel."

"His majesty's promises?" said my lord thoughtfully. "His majesty may never have a chance of fulfilling them."

"Very true, sir. But who gambles must set a stake upon the board. Your lordship has been something of a gamester already, and--or so I gather--with little profit. Here is a chance to play another game that may mend the evil fortunes of the last."

The earl scanned him in surprise. "You are excellent well informed," said he, between surprise and irony.

"My trade demands it. Knowledge is my buckler."

His lordship nodded slowly, and fell very thoughtful, the letter before him, his eyes wandering ever and anon to con again some portion of it. "It is a game in which I stake my head," he muttered presently.

"Has your lordship anything else to stake?" inquired Mr. Caryll.

The earl looked at him again with a gloomy eye, and sighed, but said nothing. Mr. Caryll resumed. "It is for your lordship to declare," he said quite coolly, "whether his majesty has covered your stake. If you think not, it is even possible that he may be induced to improve his offer. Though if you think not, for my own part I consider that you set too high a value on that same head of yours."

Touched in his vanity, Ostermore looked up at him with a sudden frown. "You take a bold tone, sir," said he, "a very bold tone!"

"Boldness is the attribute next to knowledge most essential to my calling," Mr. Caryll reminded him.

His lordship's eye fell before the other's cold glance, and again he lapsed into thoughtfulness, his cheek now upon his hand. Suddenly he looked up again. "Tell me," said he. "Who else is in this thing? Men say that Atterbury is not above suspicion. Is it--"

Mr. Caryll bent forward to tap the king's letter with a rigid forefinger. "When your lordship tells me that you are ready to concert upon embarking your fortunes in this bottom, you shall find me disposed, perhaps, to answer questions concerning others. Meanwhile, our concern is with yourself."

"Dons and the devil!" swore his lordship angrily. "Is this a way to speak to me?" He scowled at the agent. "Tell me, my fine fellow, what would happen if I were to lay this letter you have brought me before the nearest justice?"

"I cannot say for sure," answered Mr. Caryll quietly, "but it is very probable it would help your lordship to the gallows. For if you will give yourself the trouble of reading it again--and more carefully--you will see that it makes acknowledgment of the offer of services you wrote his majesty a month or so ago."

His lordship's eyes dropped to the letter again. He caught his breath in sudden fear.

"Were I your lordship, I should leave the nearest justice to enjoy his dinner in peace," said Mr. Caryll, smiling.

His lordship laughed in a sickly manner. He felt foolish--a rare condition in him, as in most fools. "Well, well," said he gruffly. "The matter needs reflection. It needs reflection."

Behind them the door opened noiselessly, and her ladyship appeared in cloak and wimple. She paused there, unperceived by either, arrested by the words she had caught, and waiting in the hope of hearing more.

"I must sleep on't, at least," his lordship was continuing. "'Tis too grave a matter to be determined thus in haste."

A faint sound caught the keen ears of Mr. Caryll. He turned with a leisureliness that bore witness to his miraculous self-control. Perceiving the countess, he bowed, and casually put his lordship on his guard.

"Ah!" said he. "Here is her ladyship returned."

Lord Ostermore gasped audibly and swung round in an alarm than which nothing could have betrayed him more effectively. "My--my love!" he cried, stammering, and by his wild haste to conceal the letter that he held, drew her attention to it.

Mr. Caryll stepped between them, his back to his lordship, that he might act as a screen under cover of which to dispose safely of that dangerous document. But he was too late. Her ladyship's quick eyes had flashed to it, and if the distance precluded the possibility of her discovering anything that might be written upon it, she, nevertheless, could see the curious nature of the paper, which was of the flimsiest tissue of a sort extremely uncommon.

"What is't ye hide?" said she, as she came forward. "Why, we are very close, surely! What mischief is't ye hatch, my lord?"'

"Mis--mischief, my love?" He smiled propitiatingly--hating her more than ever in that moment. He had stuffed the letter into an inner pocket of his coat, and but that she had another matter to concern her at the moment she would not have allowed the question she had asked to be so put aside. But this other matter upon her mind touched her very closely.

"Devil take it, whatever it may be! Rotherby is here."

"Rotherby?" His demeanor changed; from conciliating it was of a sudden transformed to indignant. "What makes he here?" he demanded. "Did I not forbid him my house?"

"I brought him," she answered pregnantly.

But for once he was not to be put down. "Then you may take him hence again," said he. "I'll not have him under my roof--under the same roof with that poor child he used so infamously. I'll not suffer it!"

The Gorgon cannot have looked more coldly wicked than her ladyship just then. "Have a care, my lord!" she muttered threateningly. "Oh, have a care, I do beseech you. I am not so to be crossed!"

"Nor am I, ma'am," he rejoined, and then, before more could be said, Mr. Caryll stepped forward to remind them of his presence--which they seemed to stand in danger of forgetting.

"I fear that I intrude, my lord," said he, and bowed in leave-taking. "I shall wait upon your lordship later. Your most devoted. Ma'am, your very humble servant." And he bowed himself out.

In the ante-room he came upon Lord Rotherby, striding to and fro, his brow all furrowed with care. At sight of Mr. Caryll, the viscount's scowl grew blacker. "Oons and the devil!" he cried. "What make you here?"

"That," said Mr. Caryll pleasantly, "is the very question your father is asking her ladyship concerning yourself. Your servant, sir." And airy, graceful, smiling that damnable close smile of his, he was gone, leaving Rotherby very hot and angry.

Outside Mr. Caryll hailed a chair, and had himself carried to his lodging in Old Palace Yard, where Leduc awaited him. As his bearers swung briskly along, Mr. Caryll sat back and gave himself up to thought.

Lord Ostermore interested him vastly. For a moment that day the earl had aroused his anger, as you may have judged from the sudden resolve upon which he had acted when he delivered him that letter, thus embarking at the eleventh hour upon a task which he had already determined to abandon. He knew not now whether to rejoice or deplore that he had acted upon that angry impulse. He knew not, indeed, whether to pity or despise this man who was swayed by no such high motives as must have affected most of those who were faithful to the exiled James. Those motives--motives of chivalry and romanticism in most cases--Lord Ostermore would have despised if he could have understood them; for he was a man of the type that despises all things that are not essentially practical, whose results are not immediately obvious. Being all but ruined by his association with the South Sea Company, he was willing for the sake of profit to turn traitor to the king de facto, even as thirty years ago, actuated by similar motives, he had turned traitor to the king de jure.

What was one to make of such a man, wondered Mr. Caryll. If he were equipped with wit enough to apprehend the baseness of his conduct, he would be easily understood and it would be easy to despise him. But Mr. Caryll perceived that he was dealing with one who never probed into the deeps of anything--himself and his own conduct least of all--and that a deplorable lack of perception, of understanding almost, deprived his lordship of the power to feel as most men feel, to judge as most men judge. And hence was it that Mr. Caryll thought him a subject for pity rather than contempt. Even in that other thirty-year-old matter that so closely touched Mr. Caryll, the latter was sure that the same pitiful shortcomings might be urged in the man's excuse.

Meanwhile, behind him at Stretton House, Mr. Caryll had left a scene of strife between Lady Ostermore and her son on one side and Lord Ostermore on the other. Weak and vacillating as he was in most things, it seemed that the earl could be strong in his dislike of his son, and firm in his determination not to condone the infamy of his behavior toward Hortensia Winthrop.

"The fault is yours," Rotherby sought to excuse himself again--employing the old argument, and in an angry, contemptuous tone that was entirely unfilial. "I'd ha' married the girl in earnest, but for your threats to disinherit me."

"You fool!" his father stormed at him, "did you suppose that if I should disinherit you for marrying her, I should be likely to do less for your luring her into a mock marriage? I've done with you! Go your ways for a damned profligate--a scandal to the very name of gentleman. I've done with you!"

And to that the earl adhered in spite of all that Rotherby and his mother could urge. He stamped out of the library with a final command to his son to quit his house and never disgrace it again by his presence. Rotherby looked ruefully at his mother.

"He means it,"' said he. "He never loved me. He was never a father to me."

"Were you ever greatly a son to him?" asked her ladyship.

"As much as he would ha' me be," he answered, his black face very sullen. "Oh, 'sdeath! I am damnably used by him." He paced the chamber, storming. "All this garboil about nothing!", he complained. "Was he never young himself? And when all is said, there's no harm done. The girl's been fetched home again."

"Pshaw! Ye're a fool, Rotherby--a fool, and there's an end on't," said his mother. "I sometimes wonder which is the greater fool--you or your father. And yet he can marvel that you are his son. What do ye think would have happened if you had had your way with that bread-and-butter miss? It had been matter enough to hang you."

"Pooh!" said the viscount, dropping into a chair and staring sullenly at the carpet. Then sullenly he added: "His lordship would have been glad on't--so some one would have been pleased. As it is--"

"As it is, ye'd better find the man Green who was at Maidstone, and stop his mouth with guineas. He is aware of what passed."

"Bah! Green was there on other business." And he told her of the suspicions the messenger entertained against Mr. Caryll.

It set her ladyship thinking. "Why," she said presently, "'twill be that!"

"'Twill be what, ma'am?" asked Rotherby, looking up.

"Why, this fellow Caryll must ha' bubbled the messenger in spite of the search he may have made. I found the popinjay here with your father, the pair as thick as thieves--and your father with a paper in his hand as fine as a cobweb. 'Sdeath! I'll be sworn he's a damned Jacobite."

Rotherby was on his feet in an instant. He remembered suddenly all that he had overheard at Maidstone. "Oho!" he crowed. "What cause have ye to think that?"

"Cause? Why, what I have seen. Besides, I feel it in my bones. My every instinct tells me 'tis so."

"If you should prove right! Oh, if you should prove right! Death! I'd find a way to settle the score of that pert fellow from France, and to dictate terms to his lordship at the same time."

Her ladyship stared at him. "Ye're an unnatural hound, Rotherby. Would ye betray your own father?"

"Betray him? No! But I'll set a term to his plotting. Egad! Has he not lost enough in the South Sea Bubble, without sinking the little that is left in some wild-goose Jacobite plot?"

"How shall it matter to you, since he's sworn to disinherit you?"

"How, madam?" Rotherby laughed cunningly. "I'll prevent the one and the other--and pay off Mr. Caryll at the same time. Three birds with one stone, let me perish!" He reached for his hat. "I must find this fellow Green."

"What will you do?" she asked, a slight anxiety trembling in her voice.

"Stir up his suspicions of Caryll. He'll be ready enough to act after his discomfiture at Maidstone. I'll warrant he's smarting under it. If once we can find cause to lay Caryll by the heels, the fear of the consequences should bring his lordship to his senses. 'Twill be my turn then."

"But you'll do nothing that--that will hurt your father?" she enjoined him, her hand upon his shoulder.

"Trust me," he laughed, and added cynically: "It would hardly sort with my interests to involve him. It will serve me best to frighten him into reason and a sense of his paternal duty."

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