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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Snare - Chapter 3. Lady O'moy
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The Snare - Chapter 3. Lady O'moy Post by :imported_n/a Category :Long Stories Author :Rafael Sabatini Date :May 2012 Read :1481

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The Snare - Chapter 3. Lady O'moy

CHAPTER III. LADY O'MOY

Across the frontier in the northwest was gathering the third army of invasion, some sixty thousand strong, commanded by Marshal Massena, Prince of Esslingen, the most skilful and fortunate of all Napoleon's generals, a leader who, because he had never known defeat, had come to be surnamed by his Emperor "the dear child of Victory."

Wellington, at the head of a British force of little more than one third of the French host, watched and waited, maturing his stupendous strategic plan, which those in whose interests it had been conceived had done so much to thwart. That plan was inspired by and based upon the Emperor's maxim that war should support itself; that an army on the march must not be hampered and immobilised by its commissariat, but that it must draw its supplies from the country it is invading; that it must, in short, live upon that country.

Behind the British army and immediately to the north of Lisbon, in an arc some thirty miles long, following the inflection of the hills from the sea at the mouth of the Zizandre to the broad waters of the Tagus at Alhandra, the lines of Torres Vedras were being constructed under the direction of Colonel Fletcher and this so secretly and with such careful measures as to remain unknown to British and Portuguese alike. Even those employed upon the works knew of nothing save the section upon which they happened to be engaged, and had no conception of the stupendous and impregnable whole that was preparing.

To these lines it was the British commander's plan to effect a slow retreat before the French flood when it should sweep forward, thus luring the enemy onward into a country which he had commanded should be laid relentlessly waste, that there that enemy might fast be starved and afterwards destroyed. To this end had his proclamations gone forth, commanding that all the land lying between the rivers Tagus and Mondego, in short, the whole of the country between Beira and Torres Vedras, should be stripped naked, converted into a desert as stark and empty as the Sahara. Not a head of cattle, not a grain of corn, not a skin of vine, not a flask of oil, not a crumb of anything affording nourishment should be left behind. The very mills were to be rendered useless, bridges were to be broken down, the houses emptied of all property, which the refugees were to carry away with them from the line of invasion.

Such was his terrible demand upon the country for its own salvation. But such, as we have seen, was not war as Principal Souza and some of his adherents understood it. They had not the foresight to perceive the inevitable result of this strategic plan if effectively and thoroughly executed. They did not even realise that the devastation had better be effected by the British in this defensive--and in its results at the same time overwhelmingly offensive--manner than by the French in the course of a conquering onslaught. They did not realise these things partly because they did not enjoy Wellington's full confidence, and in a greater measure because they were blinded by self-interest, because, as O'Moy told Forjas, they placed private considerations above public duty. The northern nobles whose lands must suffer opposed the measure violently; they even opposed the withdrawal of labour from those lands which the Militia Act had rendered necessary. And Antonio de Souza made himself their champion until he was broken by Wellington's ultimatum to the Council. For broken he was. The nation had come to a parting of the ways. It had been brought to the necessity of choosing, and however much the Principal, voicing the outcry of his party, might argue that the British plan was as detestable and ruinous as a French invasion, the nation preferred to place its confidence in the conqueror of Vimeiro and the Douro.

Souza quitted the Government and the capital as had been demanded. But if Wellington hoped that he would quit intriguing, he misjudged his man. He was a fellow of monstrous vanity, pride and self-sufficiency, of the sort than which there is none more dangerous to offend. His wounded pride demanded a salve to be procured at any cost. The wound had been administered by Wellington, and must be returned with interest. So that he ruined Wellington it mattered nothing to Antonio de Souza that he should ruin himself and his own country at the same time. He was like some blinded, ferocious and unreasoning beast, ready, even eager, to sacrifice its own life so that in dying it can destroy its enemy and slake its blood-thirst.

In that mood he passes out of the councils of the Portuguese Government into a brooding and secretly active retirement, of which the fruits shall presently be shown. With his departure the Council of Regency, rudely shaken by the ultimatum which had driven him forth, became more docile and active, and for a season the measures enjoined by the Commander-in-Chief were pursued with some show of earnestness.

As a result of all this life at Monsanto became easier, and O'Moy was able to breathe more freely, and to devote more of his time to matters concerning the fortifications which Wellington had left largely in his charge. Then, too, as the weeks passed, the shadow overhanging him with regard to Richard Butler gradually lifted. No further word had there been of the missing lieutenant, and by the end of May both O'Moy and Tremayne had come to the conclusion that he must have fallen into the hands of some of the ferocious mountaineers to whom a soldier--whether his uniform were British or French--was a thing to be done to death.

For his wife's sake O'Moy came thankfully to that conclusion. Under the circumstances it was the best possible termination to the episode. She must be told of her brother's death presently, when evidence of it was forthcoming; she would mourn him passionately, no doubt, for her attachment to him was deep--extraordinarily deep for so shallow a woman--but at least she would be spared the pain and shame she must inevitably have felt had he been taken and, shot.

Meanwhile, however, the lack of news from him, in another sense, would have to be explained to Una sooner or later for a fitful correspondence was maintained between brother and sister--and O'Moy dreaded the moment when this explanation must be made. Lacking invention, he applied to Tremayne for assistance, and Tremayne glumly supplied him with the necessary lie that should meet Lady O'Moy's inquiries when they came.

In the end, however, he was spared the necessity of falsehood. For the truth itself reached Lady O'Moy in an unexpected manner. It came about a month after that day when O'Moy had first received news of the escapade at Tavora. It was a resplendent morning of early June, and the adjutant was detained a few moments from breakfast by the arrival of a mail-bag from headquarters, now established at Vizeu. Leaving Captain Tremayne to deal with it, Sir Terence went down to breakfast, bearing with him only a few letters of a personal character which had reached him from friends on the frontier.

The architecture of the house at Monsanto was of a semiclaustral character; three sides of it enclosed a sheltered luxuriant garden, whilst on the fourth side a connecting corridor, completing the quadrangle, spanned bridgewise the spacious archway through which admittance was gained directly from the parklands that sloped gently to Alcantara. This archway, closed at night by enormous wooden doors, opened wide during the day upon a grassy terrace bounded by a baluster of white marble that gleamed now in the brilliant sunshine. It was O'Moy's practice to breakfast out-of-doors in that genial climate, and during April, before the sun had reached its present intensity, the table had been spread out there upon the terrace. Now, however, it was wiser, even in the early morning, to seek the shade, and breakfast was served within the quadrangle, under a trellis of vine supported in the Portuguese manner by rough-hewn granite columns. It was a delicious spot, cool and fragrant, secluded without being enclosed, since through the broad archway it commanded a view of the Tagus and the hills of Alemtejo.

Here O'Moy found himself impatiently awaited that morning by his wife and her cousin, Sylvia Armytage, more recently arrived from England.

"You are very late," Lady O'Moy greeted him petulantly. Since she spent her life in keeping other people waiting, it naturally fretted her to discover unpunctuality in others.

Her portrait, by Raeburn, which now adorns the National Gallery, had been painted in the previous year. You will have seen it, or at least you will have seen one of its numerous replicas, and you will have remarked its singular, delicate, rose-petal loveliness--the gleaming golden head, the flawless outline of face and feature, the immaculate skin, the dark blue eyes with their look of innocence awakening.

Thus was she now in her artfully simple gown of flowered muslin with its white fichu folded across her neck that was but a shade less white; thus was she, just as Raeburn had painted her, saving, of course, that her expression, matching her words, was petulant.

"I was detained by the arrival of a mail-bag from Vizeu," Sir Terence excused himself, as he took the chair which Mullins, the elderly, pontifical butler, drew out for him. "Ned is attending to it, and will be kept for a few moments yet."

Lady O'Moy's expression quickened. "Are there no letters for me?"

"None, my dear, I believe."

"No word from Dick?" Again there was that note of ever ready petulance. "It is too provoking. He should know that he must make me anxious by his silence. Dick is so thoughtless--so careless of other people's feelings. I shall write to him severely."

The adjutant paused in the act of unfolding his napkin. The prepared explanation trembled on his lips; but its falsehood, repellent to him, was not uttered.

"I should certainly do so, my dear," was all he said, and addressed himself to his breakfast.

"What news from headquarters?" Miss Armytage asked him. "Are things going well?"

"Much better now that Principal Souza's influence is at an end. Cotton reports that the destruction of the mills in the Mondego valley is being carried out systematically."

Miss Armytage's dark, thoughtful eyes became wistful.

"Do you know, Terence," she said, "that I am not without some sympathy for the Portuguese resistance to Lord Wellington's decrees. They must bear so terribly hard upon the people. To be compelled with their own hands to destroy their homes and lay waste the lands upon which they have laboured--what could be more cruel?"

"War can never be anything but cruel," he answered gravely. "God help the people over whose lands it sweeps. Devastation is often the least of the horrors marching in its train."

"Why must war be?" she asked him, in intelligent rebellion against that most monstrous and infamous of all human madnesses.

O'Moy proceeded to do his best to explain the unexplainable, and since, himself a professional soldier, he could not take the sane view of his sane young questioner, hot argument ensued between them, to the infinite weariness of Lady O'Moy, who out of self-protection gave herself to the study of the latest fashion plates from London and the consideration of a gown for the ball which the Count of Redondo was giving in the following week.

It was thus in all things, for these cousins represented the two poles of womanhood. Miss Armytage without any of Lady O'Moy's insistent and excessive femininity, was nevertheless feminine to the core. But hers was the Diana type of womanliness. She was tall and of a clean-limbed, supple grace, now emphasised by the riding-habit which she was wearing--for she had been in the saddle during the hour which Lady, O'Moy had consecrated to the rites of toilet and devotions done before her mirror. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, vivacity and intelligence lent her countenance an attraction very different from the allurement of her cousin's delicate loveliness. And because her countenance was a true mirror of her mind, she argued shrewdly now, so shrewdly that she drove O'Moy to entrench himself behind generalisations.

"My dear Sylvia, war is most merciful where it is most merciless," he assured her with the Irish gift for paradox. "At home in the Government itself there are plenty who argue as you argue, and who are wondering when we shall embark for England. That is because they are intellectuals, and war is a thing beyond the understanding of intellectuals. It is not intellect but brute instinct and brute force that will help humanity in such a crisis as the present. Therefore, let me tell you, my child, that a government of intellectual men is the worst possible government for a nation engaged in a war."

This was far from satisfying Miss Armytage. Lord Wellington himself was an intellectual, she objected. Nobody could deny it. There was the work he had done as Irish Secretary, and there was the calculating genius he had displayed at Vimeiro, at Oporto, at Talavera.

And then, observing her husband to be in distress, Lady O'Moy put down her fashion plate and brought up her heavy artillery to relieve him.

"Sylvia, dear," she interpolated, "I wonder that you will for ever be arguing about things you don't understand."

Miss Armytage laughed good-humouredly. She was not easily put out of countenance. "What woman doesn't?" she asked.

"I don't, and I am a woman, surely."

"Ah, but an exceptional woman," her cousin rallied her affectionately, tapping the shapely white arm that protruded from a foam of lace. And Lady O'Moy, to whom words never had any but a literal meaning, set herself to purr precisely as one would have expected. Complacently she discoursed upon the perfection of her own endowments, appealing ever and anon to her husband for confirmation, and O'Moy, who loved her with all the passionate reverence which Nature working inscrutably to her ends so often inspires in just such strong, essentially masculine men for just such fragile and excessively feminine women, afforded this confirmation with all the enthusiasm of sincere conviction.

Thus until Mullins broke in upon them with the announcement of a visit from Count Samoval, an announcement more welcome to Lady O'Moy than to either of her companions.

The Portuguese nobleman was introduced. He had attained to a degree of familiarity in the adjutant's household that permitted of his being received without ceremony there at that breakfast-table spread in the open. He was a slender, handsome, swarthy man of thirty, scrupulously dressed, as graceful and elegant in his movements as a fencing master, which indeed he might have been; for his skill with the foils was, a matter of pride to himself and notoriety to all the world. Nor was it by any means the only skill he might have boasted, for Jeronymo de Samoval was in many things, a very subtle, supple gentleman. His friendship with the O'Moys, now some three months old, had been considerably strengthened of late by the fact that he had unexpectedly become one of the most hostile critics of the Council of Regency as lately constituted, and one of the most ardent supporters of the Wellingtonian policy.

He bowed with supremest grace to the ladies, ventured to kiss the fair, smooth hand of his hostess, undeterred by the frosty stare of O'Moy's blue eyes whose approval of all men was in inverse proportion to their approval of his wife--and finally proffered her the armful of early roses that he brought.

"These poor roses of Portugal to their sister from England," said his softly caressing tenor voice.

"Ye're a poet," said O'Moy tartly.

"Having found Castalia here," said, the Count, "shall I not drink its limpid waters?"

"Not, I hope, while there's an agreeable vintage of Port on the table. A morning whet, Samoval?" O'Moy invited him, taking up the decanter.

"Two fingers, then--no more. It is not my custom in the morning. But here--to drink your lady's health, and yours, Miss Armytage." With a graceful flourish of his glass he pledged them both and sipped delicately, then took the chair that O'Moy was proffering.

"Good news, I hear, General. Antonio de Souza's removal from the Government is already bearing fruit. The mills in the valley of the Mondego are being effectively destroyed at last."

"Ye're very well informed," grunted O'Moy, who himself had but received the news. "As well informed, indeed, as I am myself." There was a note almost of suspicion in the words, and he was vexed that matters which it was desirable be kept screened as much as possible from general knowledge should so soon be put abroad.

"Naturally, and with reason," was the answer, delivered with a rueful smile. "Am I not interested? Is not some of my property in question?" Samoval sighed. "But I bow to the necessities of war. At least it cannot be said of me, as was said of those whose interests Souza represented, that I put private considerations above public duty--that is the phrase, I think. The individual must suffer that the nation may triumph. A Roman maxim, my dear General."

"And a British one," said O'Moy, to whom Britain was a second Rome.

"Oh, admitted," replied the amiable Samoval. "You proved it by your uncompromising firmness in the affair of Tavora."

"What was that?" inquired Miss Armytage.

"Have you not heard?" cried Samoval in astonishment.

"Of course not," snapped O'Moy, who had broken into a cold perspiration. "Hardly a subject for the ladies, Count."

Rebuked for his intention, Samoval submitted instantly.

"Perhaps not; perhaps not," he agreed, as if dismissing it, whereupon O'Moy recovered from his momentary breathlessness. "But in your own interests, my dear General, I trust there will be no weakening when this Lieutenant Butler is caught, and--"

"Who?"

Sharp and stridently came that single word from her ladyship.

Desperately O'Moy sought to defend the breach.

"Nothing to do with Dick, my dear. A fellow named Philip Butler, who--"

But the too-well-informed Samoval corrected him. "Not Philip, General--Richard Butler. I had the name but yesterday from Forjas."

In the scared hush that followed the Count perceived that he had stumbled headlong into a mystery. He saw Lady O'Moy's face turn whiter and whiter, saw her sapphire eyes dilating as they regarded him.

"Richard Butler!" she echoed. "What of Richard Butler? Tell me. Tell me at once."

Hesitating before such signs of distress, Samoval looked at O'Moy, to meet a dejected scowl.

Lady O'Moy turned to her husband. "What is it?" she demanded. "You know something about Dick and you are keeping it from me. Dick is in trouble?"

"He is," O'Moy admitted. "In great trouble."

"What has he done? You spoke of an affair at Evora or Tavora, which is not to be mentioned before ladies. I demand to know." Her affection and anxiety for her brother invested her for a moment with a certain dignity, lent her a force that was but rarely displayed by her.

Seeing the men stricken speechless, Samoval from bewildered astonishment, O'Moy from distress, she jumped to the conclusion, after what had been said, that motives of modesty accounted for their silence.

"Leave us, Sylvia, please," she said. "Forgive me, dear. But you see they will not mention these things while you are present." She made a piteous little figure as she stood trembling there, her fingers tearing in agitation at one of Samoval's roses.

She waited until the obedient and discreet Miss Armytage had passed from view into the wing that contained the adjutant's private quarters, then sinking limp and nerveless to her chair:

"Now," she bade them, "please tell me."

And O'Moy, with a sigh of regret for the lie so laboriously concocted which would never now be uttered, delivered himself huskily of the hideous truth.

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