The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 4

The Intervener

The parson had notions of riding after Sir Oliver, and begged Master Baine to join him. But the Justice looked down his long nose and opined that no good purpose was to be served; that Tressilians were ever wild and bloody men; and that an angry Tressilian was a thing to be avoided. Sir Andrew, who was far from valorous, thought there might be wisdom in the Justice’s words, and remembered that he had troubles enough of his own with a froward wife without taking up the burdens of others. Master Godolphin and Sir Oliver between them, quoth the justice, had got up this storm of theirs. A God’s name let them settle it, and if in the settling they should cut each other’s throats haply the countryside would be well rid of a brace of turbulent fellows. The pedlar deemed them a couple of madmen, whose ways were beyond the understanding of a sober citizen. The others — the fishermen and the rustics — had not the means to follow even had they had the will.

They dispersed to put abroad the news of that short furious quarrel and to prophesy that blood would be let in the adjusting of it. This prognostication the they based entirely upon their knowledge of the short Tressilian way. But it was a matter in which they were entirely wrong. It is true that Sir Oliver went galloping along that road that follows the Penryn river and that he pounded over the bridge in the town of Penryn in Master Godolphin’s wake with murder in his heart. Men who saw him riding wildly thus with the red wheal across his white furious face said that he looked a very devil.

He crossed the bridge at Penryn a half-hour after sunset, as dusk was closing into night, and it may be that the sharp, frosty air had a hand in the cooling of his blood. For as he reached the river’s eastern bank he slackened his breakneck pace, even as he slackened the angry galloping of his thoughts. The memory of that oath he had sworn three months ago to Rosamund smote him like a physical blow. It checked his purpose, and, reflecting this, his pace fell to an amble. He shivered to think how near he had gone to wrecking all the happiness that lay ahead of him. What was a boy’s whiplash, that his resentment of it; should set all his future life in jeopardy? Even though men should call him a coward for submitting to it and leaving the insult unavenged, what should that matter? Moreover, upon the body of him who did so proclaim him he could brand the lie of a charge so foolish. Sir Oliver raised his eyes to the deep sapphire dome of heaven where an odd star was glittering frostily, and thanked God from a swelling heart that he had not overtaken Peter Godolphin whilst his madness was upon him.

A mile or so below Penryn, he turned up the road that ran down to the ferry there, and took his way home over the shoulder of the hill with a slack rein. It was not his usual way. He was wont ever to go round by Trefusis Point that he might take a glimpse at the walls of the house that harboured Rosamund and a glance at the window of her bower. But to-night he thought the shorter road over the hill would be the safer way. If he went by Godolphin Court he might chance to meet Peter again, and his past anger warned him against courting such a meeting, warned him to avoid it lest evil should betide. Indeed, so imperious was the warning, and such were his fears of himself after what had just passed, that he resolved to leave Penarrow on the next day. Whither he would go he did not then determine. He might repair to London, and he might even go upon another cruise — an idea which he had lately dismissed under Rosamund’s earnest intercession. But it was imperative that he should quit the neighbourhood, and place a distance between Peter Godolphin and himself until such time as he might take Rosamund to wife. Eight months or so of exile; but what matter? Better so than that he should be driven into some deed that would compel him to spend his whole lifetime apart from her. He would write, and she would understand and approve when he told her what had passed that day.

The resolve was firmly implanted in him by the time he reached Penarrow, and he felt himself uplifted by it and by the promise it afforded him that thus his future happiness would be assured.

Himself he stabled his horse; for of the two grooms he kept, one had by his leave set out yesterday to spend Christmas in Devon with his parents, the other had taken a chill and had been ordered to bed that very day by Sir Oliver, who was considerate with those that served him. In the dining-room he found supper spread, and a great log fire blazed in the enormous cowled fire-place, diffusing a pleasant warmth through the vast room and flickering ruddily upon the trophies of weapons that adorned the walls, upon the tapestries and the portraits of dead Tressilians. Hearing his step, old Nicholas entered bearing a great candle-branch which he set upon the table.

“You’m late, Sir Oliver,” said the servant, “and Master Lionel bain’t home yet neither.”

Sir Oliver grunted and scowled as he crunched a log and set it sizzling under his wet heel. He thought of Malpas and cursed Lionel’s folly, as, without a word, he loosed his cloak and flung it on an oaken coffer by the wall where already he had cast his hat. Then he sat down, and Nicholas came forward to draw off his boots.

When that was done and the old servant stood up again, Sir Oliver shortly bade him to serve supper.

“Master Lionel cannot be long now,” said he. “And give me to drink, Nick. ’Tis what I most require.”

“I’ve brewed ee a posset o’ canary sack,” announced Nicholas; “there’m no better supping o’ a frosty winter’s night, Sir Oliver.”

He departed to return presently with a black jack that was steaming fragrantly. He found his master still in the same attitude, staring at the fire, and frowning darkly. Sir Oliver’s thoughts were still of his brother and Malpas, and so insistent were they that his own concerns were for the moment quite neglected; he was considering whether it was not his duty, after all, to attempt a word of remonstrance. At length he rose with a sigh and got to table. There he bethought him of his sick groom, and asked Nicholas for news of him. Nicholas reported the fellow to be much as he had been, whereupon Sir Oliver took up a cup and brimmed it with the steaming posset.

“Take him that,” he said. “There’s no better medicine for such an ailment.”

Outside fell a clatter of hooves.

“Here be Master Lionel at last,” said the servant.

“No doubt,” agreed Sir Oliver. “No need to stay for him. Here is all he needs. Carry that to Tom ere it cools.”

It was his object to procure the servant’s absence when Lionel should arrive, resolved as he was to greet him with a sound rating for his folly. Reflection had brought him the assurance that this was become his duty in view of his projected absence from Penarrow; and in his brother’s interest he was determined not to spare him.

He took a deep draught of the posset, and as he set it down he heard Lionel’s step without. Then the door was flung open, and his brother stood on the threshold a moment at gaze.

Sir Oliver looked round with a scowl, the well-considered reproof already on his lips.

“So. . . . ” he began, and got no further. The sight that met his eyes drove the ready words from his lips and mind; instead it was with a sharp gasp of dismay that he came immediately to his feet. “Lionel!”

Lionel lurched in, closed the door, and shot home one of its bolts. Then he leaned against it, facing his brother again. He was deathly pale, with great dark stains under his eyes; his ungloved right hand was pressed to his side, and the fingers of it were all smeared with blood that was still oozing and dripping from between them. Over his yellow doublet on the right side there was a spreading dark stain whose nature did not intrigue Sir Oliver a moment.

“My God!” he cried, and ran to his brother. “What’s happened, Lal? Who has done this?”

“Peter Godolphin,” came the answer from lips that writhed in a curious smile.

Never a word said Sir Oliver, but he set his teeth and clenched his hands until the nails cut into his palms. Then he put an arm about this lad he loved above all save one in the whole world, and with anguish in his mind he supported him forward to the fire. There Lionel dropped to the chair that Sir Oliver had lately occupied.

“What is your hurt, lad? Has it gone deep?” he asked, in terror almost.

“’Tis naught — a flesh wound; but I have lost a mort of blood. I thought I should have been drained or ever I got me home.”

With fearful speed Sir Oliver drew his dagger and ripped away doublet, vest, and shirt, laying bare the lad’s white flesh. A moment’s examination, and he breathed more freely.

“Art a very babe, Lal,” he cried in his relief. “To ride without thought to stanch so simple a wound, and so lose all this blood — bad Tressilian blood though it be.” He laughed in the immensity of his reaction from that momentary terror. “Stay thou there whilst I call Nick to help us dress this scratch.”

“No, no!” There was note of sudden fear in the lad’s voice, and his hand clutched at his brother’s sleeve. “Nick must not know. None must know, or I am undone else.”

Sir Oliver stared, bewildered. Lionel smiled again that curious twisted, rather frightened smile.

“I gave better than I took, Noll,” said he. “Master Godolphin is as cold by now as the snow on which I left him.”

His brother’s sudden start and the fixed stare from out of his slowly paling face scared Lionel a little. He observed, almost subconsciously, the dull red wheal that came into prominence as the colour faded out of Sir Oliver’s face, yet never thought to ask how it came there. His own affairs possessed him too completely.

“What’s this?” quoth Oliver at last, hoarsely.

Lionel dropped his eyes, unable longer to meet a glance that was becoming terrible.

“He would have it,” he growled almost sullenly, answering the reproach that was written in every line of his brother’s taut body. “I had warned him not to cross my path. But to-night I think some madness had seized upon him. He affronted me, Noll; he said things which it was beyond human power to endure, and. . . . ” He shrugged to complete his sentence.

“Well, well,” said Oliver in a small voice. “First let us tend this wound of yours.”

“Do not call Nick,” was the other’s swift admonition. “Don’t you see, Noll?” he explained in answer to the inquiry of his brother’s stare, “don’t you see that we fought there almost in the dark and without witnesses. It. . . . ” he swallowed, “it will be called murder, fair fight though it was; and should it be discovered that it was I. . . . ” He shivered and his glance grew wild; his lips twitched.

“I see,” said Oliver, who understood at last, and he added bitterly: “You fool!”

“I had no choice,” protested Lionel. “He came at me with his drawn sword. Indeed, I think he was half-drunk. I warned him of what must happen to the other did either of us fall, but he bade me not concern myself with the fear of any such consequences to himself. He was full of foul words of me and you and all whoever bore our name. He struck me with the flat of his blade and threatened to run me through as I stood unless I drew to defend myself. What choice had I? I did not mean to kill him — as God’s my witness, I did not, Noll.”

Without a word Oliver turned to a side-table, where stood a metal basin and ewer. He poured water, then came in the same silence to treat his brother’s wound. The tale that Lionel told made blame impossible, at least from Oliver. He had but to recall the mood in which he himself had ridden after Peter Godolphin; he had but to remember, that only the consideration of Rosamund — only, indeed, the consideration of his future — had set a curb upon his own bloodthirsty humour.

When he had washed the wound he fetched some table linen from a press and ripped it into strips with his dagger; he threaded out one of these and made a preliminary crisscross of the threads across the lips of the wound — for the blade had gone right through the muscles of the breast, grazing the ribs; these threads would help the formation of a clot. Then with the infinite skill and cunning acquired in the course of his rovings he proceeded to the bandaging.

That done, he opened the window and flung out the blood-tinted water. The cloths with which he had mopped the wound and all other similar evidences of the treatment he cast upon the fire. He must remove all traces even from the eyes of Nicholas. He had the most implicit trust in the old servant’s fidelity. But the matter was too grave to permit of the slightest risk. He realized fully the justice of Lionel’s fears that however fair the fight might have been, a thing done thus in secret must be accounted murder by the law.

Bidding Lionel wrap himself in his cloak, Sir Oliver unbarred the door, and went upstairs in quest of a fresh shirt and doublet for his brother. On the landing he met Nicholas descending. He held him a moment in talk of the sick man above, and outwardly at least he was now entirely composed. He dispatched him upstairs again upon a trumped-up errand that must keep him absent for some little time, whilst himself he went to get the things he needed.

He returned below with them, and when he had assisted his brother into fresh garments with as little movement as possible so as not to disturb his dressing of the wound or set it bleeding afresh, he took the blood-stained doublet, vest, and shirt which he had ripped and flung them, too, into the great fire.

When some moments later Nicholas entered the vast room he found the brothers sitting composedly at table. Had he faced Lionel he would have observed little amiss with him beyond the deep pallor of his face. But he did not even do so much. Lionel sat with his back to the door and the servant’s advance into the room was checked by Sir Oliver with the assurance that they did not require him. Nicholas withdrew again, and the brothers were once more alone.

Lionel ate very sparingly. He thirsted and would have emptied the measure of posset, but that Sir Oliver restrained him, and refused him anything but water lest he should contract a fever. Such a sparing meal as they made — for neither had much appetite — was made in silence. At last Sir Oliver rose, and with slow, heavy steps, suggestive of his humour, he crossed to the fire-place. He threw fresh logs on the blaze, and took from the tall mantelshelf his pipe and a leaden jar of tobacco. He filled the pipe pensively, then with the short iron tongs seized a fragment of glowing wood and applied it to the herb.

He returned to the table, and standing over his brother, he broke at last the silence that had now endured some time.

“What,” he asked gruffly, “was the cause of your quarrel?”

Lionel started and shrank a little; between finger and thumb he kneaded a fragment of bread, his eyes upon it. “I scarce know,” he replied.

“Lal, that is not the truth.”

“How?”

“’Tis not the truth. I am not to be put off with such an answer. Yourself you said that you had warned him not to cross your path. What path was in your mind?”

Lionel leaned his elbows on the table and took his head in his hands. Weak from loss of blood, overwrought mentally as well, in a state of revulsion and reaction also from the pursuit which had been the cause of to-night’s tragic affair, he had not strength to withhold the confidence his brother asked. On the contrary, it seemed to him that in making such a confidence, he would find a haven and refuge in Sir Oliver.

“’Twas that wanton at Malpas was the cause of all,” he complained. And Sir Oliver’s eye flashed at the words. “I deemed her quite other; I was a fool, a fool! I”— he choked, and a sob shook him —“I thought she loved me. I would have married her, I would so, by God.”

Sir Oliver swore softly under his breath.

“I believed her pure and good, and. . . . ” He checked. “After all, who am I to say even now that she was not? ’Twas no fault of hers. ’Twas he, that foul dog Godolphin, who perverted her. Until he came all was well between us. And then. . . . ”

“I see,” said Sir Oliver quietly. “I think you have something for which to thank him, if he revealed to you the truth of that strumpet’s nature. I would have warned thee, lad. But . . . Perhaps I have been weak in that.”

“It was not so; it was not she. . . . ”

“I say it was, and if I say so I am to be believed, Lionel. I’d smirch no woman’s reputation without just cause. Be very sure of that.”

Lionel stared up at him. “O God!” he cried presently, “I know not what to believe. I am a shuttle-cock flung this way and that way.”

“Believe me,” said Sir Oliver grimly. “And set all doubts to rest.” Then he smiled. “So that was the virtuous Master Peter’s secret pastime, eh? The hypocrisy of man! There is no plumbing the endless depths of it!”

He laughed outright, remembering all the things that Master Peter had said of Ralph Tressilian — delivering himself as though he were some chaste and self-denying anchorite. Then on that laugh he caught his breath quite suddenly. “Would she know?” he asked fearfully. “Would that harlot know, would she suspect that ’twas your hand did this?”

“Aye — would she,” replied the other. “I told her to-night, when she flouted me and spoke of him, that I went straight to find him and pay the score between us. I was on my way to Godolphin Court when I came upon him in the park.”

“Then you lied to me again, Lionel. For you said ’twas he attacked you.”

“And so he did.” Lionel countered instantly. “He never gave me time to speak, but flung down from his horse and came at me snarling like a cross-grained mongrel. Oh, he was as ready for the fight as I— as eager.”

“But the woman at Malpas knows,” said Sir Oliver gloomily. “And if she tells. . . . ”

“She’ll not,” cried Lionel. “She dare not for her reputation’s sake.”

“Indeed, I think you are right,” agreed his brother with relief. “She dare not for other reasons, when I come to think of it. Her reputation is already such, and so well detested is she that were it known she had been the cause, however indirect, of this, the countryside would satisfy certain longings that it entertains concerning her. You are sure none saw you either going or returning?”

“None.”

Sir Oliver strode the length of the room and back, pulling at his pipe. “All should be well, then, I think,” said he at last. “You were best abed. I’ll carry you thither.”

He took up his stripling brother in his powerful arms and bore him upstairs as though he were a babe.

When he had seen him safely disposed for slumber, he returned below, shut the door in the hall, drew up the great oaken chair to the fire, and sat there far into the night smoking and thinking.

He had said to Lionel that all should be well. All should be well for Lionel. But what of himself with the burden of this secret on his soul? Were the victim another than Rosamund’s brother the matter would have plagued him but little. The fact that Godolphin was slain, it must be confessed, was not in itself the source of his oppression. Godolphin had more than deserved his end, and he would have come by it months ago at Sir Oliver’s own hand but for the fact that he was Rosamund’s brother, as we know. There was the rub, the bitter, cruel rub. Her own brother had fallen by the hand of his. She loved her brother more than any living being next to himself, just as he loved Lionel above any other but herself. The pain that must be hers he knew; he experienced some of it in anticipation, participating it because it was hers and because all things that were hers he must account in some measure his own.

He rose up at last, cursing that wanton at Malpas who had come to fling this fresh and terrible difficulty where already he had to face so many. He stood leaning upon the overmantel, his foot upon one of the dogs of the fender, and considered what to do. He must bear his burden in silence, that was all. He must keep this secret even from Rosamund. It split his heart to think that he must practise this deceit with her. But naught else was possible short of relinquishing her, and that was far beyond his strength.

The resolve adopted, he took up a taper and went off to bed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sabatini/rafael/sea_hawk/part1.4.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29