The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 6

Jasper Leigh

If that Christmas was one of sorrow at Godolphin Court, it was nothing less at Penarrow.

Sir Oliver was moody and silent in those days, given to sit for long hours staring into the heart of the fire and repeating to himself again and again every word of his interview with Rosamund, now in a mood of bitter resentment against her for having so readily believed his guilt, now in a gentler sorrowing humour which made full allowance for the strength of the appearances against him.

His half-brother moved softly about the house now in a sort of self-effacement, never daring to intrude upon Sir Oliver’s abstractions. He was well acquainted with their cause. He knew what had happened at Godolphin Court, knew that Rosamund had dismissed Sir Oliver for all time, and his heart smote him to think that he should leave his brother to bear this burden that rightly belonged to his own shoulders.

The thing preyed so much upon his mind that in an expansive moment one evening he gave it tongue.

“Noll,” he said, standing beside his brother’s chair in the firelit gloom, and resting a hand upon his brother’s shoulder, “were it not best to tell the truth?”

Sir Oliver looked up quickly, frowning. “Art mad?” quoth he. “The truth would hang thee, Lal.”

“It might not. And in any case you are suffering something worse than hanging. Oh, I have watched you every hour this past week, and I know the pain that abides in you. It is not just.” And he insisted —“We had best tell the truth.”

Sir Oliver smiled wistfully. He put out a hand and took his brother’s.

“’Tis noble in you to propose it, Lal.”

“Not half so noble as it is in you to bear all the suffering for a deed that was my own.”

“Bah!” Sir Oliver shrugged impatiently; his glance fell away from Lionel’s face and returned to the consideration of the fire. “After all, I can throw off the burden when I will. Such knowledge as that will enhearten a man through any trial.”

He had spoken in a harsh, cynical tone, and Lionel had turned cold at his words. He stood a long while in silence there, turning them over in his mind and considering the riddle which they presented him. He thought of asking his brother bluntly for the key to it, for the precise meaning of his disconcerting statement, but courage failed him. He feared lest Sir Oliver should confirm his own dread interpretation of it.

He drew away after a time, and soon after went to bed. For days thereafter the phrase rankled in his mind —“I can throw off the burden when I will.” Conviction grew upon him that Sir Oliver meant that he was enheartened by the knowledge that by speaking if he choose he could clear himself. That Sir Oliver would so speak he could not think. Indeed, he was entirely assured that Sir Oliver was very far from intending to throw off his burden. Yet he might come to change his mind. The burden might grow too heavy, his longings for Rosamund too clamorous, his grief at being in her eyes her brother’s murderer too overwhelming.

Lionel’s soul shuddered to contemplate the consequences to himself. His fears were self-revelatory. He realized how far from sincere had been his proposal that they should tell the truth; he perceived that it had been no more than the emotional outburst of the moment, a proposal which if accepted he must most bitterly have repented. And then came the reflection that if he were guilty of emotional outbursts that could so outrageously play the traitor to his real desires, were not all men subject to the same? Might not his brother, too, come to fall a prey to one of those moments of mental storm when in a climax of despair he would find his burden altogether too overwhelming and in rebellion cast it from him?

Lionel sought to assure himself that his brother was a man of stern fibres, a man who never lost control of himself. But against this he would argue that what had happened in the past was no guarantee of what might happen in the future; that a limit was set to the endurance of every man be he never so strong, and that it was far from impossible that the limit of Sir Oliver’s endurance might be reached in this affair. If that happened in what case should he find himself? The answer to this was a picture beyond his fortitude to contemplate. The danger of his being sent to trial and made to suffer the extreme penalty of the law would be far greater now than if he had spoken at once. The tale he could then have told must have compelled some attention, for he was accounted a man of unsmirched honour and his word must carry some weight. But now none would believe him. They would argue from his silence and from his having suffered his brother to be unjustly accused that he was craven-hearted and dishonourable, and that if he had acted thus it was because he had no good defence to offer for his deed. Not only would he be irrevocably doomed, but he would be doomed with ignominy, he would be scorned by all upright men and become a thing of contempt over whose end not a tear would be shed.

Thus he came to the dread conclusion that in his endeavours to screen himself he had but enmeshed himself the more inextricably. If Oliver but spoke he was lost. And back he came to the question: What assurance had he that Oliver would not speak?

The fear of this from occurring to him occasionally began to haunt him day and night, and for all that the fever had left him and his wound was entirely healed, he remained pale and thin and hollow-eyed. Indeed the secret terror that was in his soul glared out of his eyes at every moment. He grew nervous and would start up at the least sound, and he went now in a perpetual mistrust of Oliver, which became manifest in a curious petulance of which there were outbursts at odd times.

Coming one afternoon into the dining-room, which was ever Sir Oliver’s favourite haunt in the mansion of Penarrow, Lionel found his half-brother in that brooding attitude, elbow on knee and chin on palm, staring into the fire. This was so habitual now in Sir Oliver that it had begun to irritate Lionel’s tense nerves; it had come to seem to him that in this listlessness was a studied tacit reproach aimed at himself.

“Why do you sit ever thus over the fire like some old crone?” he growled, voicing at last the irritability that so long had been growing in him.

Sir Oliver looked round with mild surprise in his glance. Then from Lionel his eyes travelled to the long windows.

“It rains,” he said.

“It was not your wont to be driven to the fireside by rain. But rain or shine ’tis ever the same. You never go abroad.”

“To what end?” quoth Sir Oliver, with the same mildness, but a wrinkle of bewilderment coming gradually between his dark brows. “Do you suppose I love to meet lowering glances, to see heads approach one another so that confidential curses of me may be muttered?”

“Ha!” cried Lionel, short and sharp, his sunken eyes blazing suddenly. “It has come to this, then, that having voluntarily done this thing to shield me you now reproach me with it.”

“I?” cried Sir Oliver, aghast.

“Your very words are a reproach. D’ye think I do not read the meaning that lies under them?”

Sir Oliver rose slowly, staring at his brother. He shook his head and smiled.

“Lal, Lal!” he said. “Your wound has left you disordered, boy. With what have I reproached you? What was this hidden meaning of my words? If you will read aright you will see it to be that to go abroad is to involve myself in fresh quarrels, for my mood is become short, and I will not brook sour looks and mutterings. That is all.”

He advanced and set his hands upon his brother’s shoulders. Holding him so at arm’s length he considered him, what time Lionel drooped his head and a slow flush overspread his cheeks. “Dear fool!” he said, and shook him. “What ails you? You are pale and gaunt, and not yourself at all. I have a notion. I’ll furnish me a ship and you shall sail with me to my old hunting-grounds. There is life out yonder — life that will restore your vigour and your zest, and perhaps mine as well. How say you, now?”

Lionel looked up, his eye brightening. Then a thought occurred to him; a thought so mean that again the colour flooded into his cheeks, for he was shamed by it. Yet it clung. If he sailed with Oliver, men would say that he was a partner in the guilt attributed to his brother. He knew — from more than one remark addressed him here or there, and left by him uncontradicted — that the belief was abroad on the countryside that a certain hostility was springing up between himself and Sir Oliver on the score of that happening in Godolphin Park. His pale looks and hollow eyes had contributed to the opinion that his brother’s sin was weighing heavily upon him. He had ever been known for a gentle, kindly lad, in all things the very opposite of the turbulent Sir Oliver, and it was assumed that Sir Oliver in his present increasing harshness used his brother ill because the lad would not condone his crime. A deal of sympathy was consequently arising for Lionel and was being testified to him on every hand. Were he to accede to such a proposal as Oliver now made him, assuredly he must jeopardize all that.

He realized to the full the contemptible quality of his thought and hated himself for conceiving it. But he could not shake off its dominion. It was stronger than his will.

His brother observing this hesitation, and misreading it drew him to the fireside and made him sit.

“Listen,” he said, as he dropped into the chair opposite. “There is a fine ship standing in the road below, off Smithick. You’ll have seen her. Her master is a desperate adventurer named Jasper Leigh, who is to be found any afternoon in the alehouse at Penycumwick. I know him of old, and he and his ship are to be acquired. He is ripe for any venture, from scuttling Spaniards to trading in slaves, and so that the price be high enough we may buy him body and soul. His is a stomach that refuses nothing, so there be money in the venture. So here is ship and master ready found; the rest I will provide — the crew, the munitions, the armament, and by the end of March we shall see the Lizard dropping astern. What do you say, Lal? ’Tis surely better than to sit, moping here in this place of gloom.”

“I’ll . . . I’ll think of it,” said Lionel, but so listlessly that all Sir Oliver’s quickening enthusiasm perished again at once and no more was said of the venture.

But Lionel did not altogether reject the notion. If on the one hand he was repelled by it, on the other he was attracted almost despite himself. He went so far as to acquire the habit of riding daily over to Penycumwick, and there he made the acquaintance of that hardy and scarred adventurer of whom Sir Oliver had spoken, and listened to the marvels the fellow had to tell — many of them too marvellous to be true — of hazards upon distant seas.

But one day in early March Master Jasper Leigh had a tale of another kind for him, news that dispelled from Lionel’s mind all interest in the captain’s ventures on the Spanish Main. The seaman had followed the departing Lionel to the door of the little inn and stood by his stirrup after he had got to horse.

“A word in your ear, good Master Tressilian,” said he. “D’ye know what is being concerted here against our brother?”

“Against my brother?”

“Ay — in the matter of the killing of Master Peter Godolphin last Christmas. Seeing that the Justices would not move of theirselves, some folk ha’ petitioned the Lieutenant of Cornwall to command them to grant a warrant for Sir Oliver’s arrest on a charge o’ murder. But the Justices ha’ refused to be driven by his lordship, answering that they hold their office direct from the Queen and that in such a matter they are answerable to none but her grace. And now I hear that a petition be gone to London to the Queen herself, begging her to command her Justices to perform their duty or quit their office.”

Lionel drew a sharp breath, and with dilating eyes regarded the mariner, but made him no answer.

Jasper laid a long finger against his nose and his eyes grew cunning. “I thought I’d warn you, sir, so as you may bid Sir Oliver look to hisself. ’Tis a fine seaman and fine seamen be none so plentiful.”

Lionel drew his purse from his pocket and without so much as looking into its contents dropped it into the seaman’s ready hand, with a muttered word of thanks.

He rode home in terror almost. It was come. The blow was about to fall, and his brother would at last be forced to speak. At Penarrow a fresh shock awaited him. He learnt from old Nicholas that Sir Oliver was from home, that he had ridden over to Godolphin Court.

The instant conclusion prompted by Lionel’s terror was that already the news had reached Sir Oliver and that he had instantly taken action; for he could not conceive that his brother should go to Godolphin Court upon any other business.

But his fears on that score were very idle. Sir Oliver, unable longer to endure the present state of things, had ridden over to lay before Rosamund that proof with which he had taken care to furnish himself. He could do so at last without any fear of hurting Lionel. His journey, however, had been entirely fruitless. She had refused point-blank to receive him, and for all that with a humility entirely foreign to him he had induced a servant to return to her with a most urgent message, yet he had been denied. He returned stricken to Penarrow, there to find his brother awaiting him in a passion of impatience.

“Well?” Lionel greeted him. “What will you do now?”

Sir Oliver looked at him from under brows that scowled darkly in reflection of his thoughts.

“Do now? Of what do you talk?” quoth he.

“Have you not heard?” And Lionel told him the news.

Sir Oliver stared long at him when he had done, then his lips tightened and he smote his brow.

“So!” he cried. “Would that be why she refused to see me? Did she conceive that I went perhaps to plead? Could she think that? Could she?”

He crossed to the fireplace and stirred the logs with his boot angrily. “Oh! ’Twere too unworthy. Yet of a certainty ’tis her doing, this.”

“What shall you do?” insisted Lionel, unable to repress the question that was uppermost in his mind; and his voice shook.

“Do?” Sir Oliver looked at him over his shoulder. “Prick this bubble, by heaven! Make an end of it for them, confound them and cover them with shame.”

He said it roughly, angrily, and Lionel recoiled, deeming that roughness and anger aimed at himself. He sank into a chair, his knees loosened by his sudden fear. So it seemed that he had had more than cause for his apprehensions. This brother of his who boasted such affection for him was not equal to bearing this matter through. And yet the thing was so unlike Oliver that a doubt still lingered with him.

“You . . . you will tell them the truth?” he said, in small, quavering voice.

Sir Oliver turned and considered him more attentively.

“A God’s name, Lal, what’s in thy mind now?” he asked, almost roughly. “Tell them the truth? Why, of course — but only as it concerns myself. You’re not supposing that I shall tell them it was you? You’ll not be accounting me capable of that?”

“What other way is there?”

Sir Oliver explained the matter. The explanation brought Lionel relief. But this relief was ephemeral. Further reflection presented a new fear to him. It came to him that if Sir Oliver cleared himself, of necessity his own implication must follow. His terrors very swiftly magnified a risk that in itself was so slender as to be entirely negligible. In his eyes it ceased to be a risk; it became a certain and inevitable danger. If Sir Oliver put forward this proof that the trail of blood had not proceeded from himself, it must, thought Lionel, inevitably be concluded that it was his own. As well might Sir Oliver tell them the whole truth, for surely they could not fail to infer it. Thus he reasoned in his terror, accounting himself lost irrevocably.

Had he but gone with those fears of his to his brother, or had he but been able to abate them sufficiently to allow reason to prevail, he must have been brought to understand how much further they carried him than was at all justified by probability. Oliver would have shown him this, would have told him that with the collapsing of the charge against himself no fresh charge could be levelled against any there, that no scrap of suspicion had ever attached to Lionel, or ever could. But Lionel dared not seek his brother in this matter. In his heart he was ashamed of his fears; in his heart he knew himself for a craven. He realized to the full the hideousness of his selfishness, and yet, as before, he was not strong enough to conquer it. In short, his love of himself was greater than his love of his brother, or of twenty brothers.

The morrow — a blustering day of late March found him again at that alehouse at Penycumwick in the company of Jasper Leigh. A course had occurred to him, as the only course now possible. Last night his brother had muttered something of going to Killigrew with his proofs since Rosamund refused to receive him. Through Killigrew he would reach her, he had said; and he would yet see her on her knees craving his pardon for the wrong she had done him, for the cruelty she had shown him.

Lionel knew that Killigrew was absent from home just then; but he was expected to return by Easter, and to Easter there was but a week. Therefore he had little time in which to act, little time in which to execute the project that had come into his mind. He cursed himself for conceiving it, but held to it with all the strength of a weak nature.

Yet when he came to sit face to face with Jasper Leigh in that little inn-parlour with the scrubbed table of plain deal between them, he lacked the courage to set his proposal forth. They drank sherry sack stiffly laced with brandy by Lionel’s suggestion, instead of the more customary mulled ale. Yet not until he had consumed the best part of a pint of it did Lionel feel himself heartened to broaching his loathsome business. Through his head hummed the words his brother had said some time ago when first the name of Jasper Leigh had passed between them —“a desperate adventurer ripe for anything. So the price be high enough you may buy him body and soul.” Money enough to buy Jasper Leigh was ready to Lionel’s hand; but it was Sir Oliver’s money — the money that was placed at Lionel’s disposal by his half-brother’s open-handed bounty. And this money he was to employ for Oliver’s utter ruin! He cursed himself for a filthy, contemptible hound; he cursed the foul fiend that whispered such suggestions into his mind; he knew himself, despised himself and reviled himself until he came to swear to be strong and to go through with whatever might await him sooner than be guilty of such a baseness; the next moment that same resolve would set him shuddering again as he viewed the inevitable consequences that must attend it.

Suddenly the captain set him a question, very softly, that fired the train and blew all his lingering self-resistance into shreds.

“You’ll ha’ borne my warning to Sir Oliver?” he asked, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard by the vintner who was stirring beyond the thin wooden partition.

Master Lionel nodded, nervously fingering the jewel in his ear, his eyes shifting from their consideration of the seaman’s coarse, weather-tanned and hairy countenance.

“I did,” he said. “But Sir Oliver is headstrong. He will not stir.”

“Will he not?” The captain stroked his bushy red beard and cursed profusely and horribly after the fashion of the sea. “Od’s wounds! He’s very like to swing if he bides him here.”

“Ay,” said Lionel, “if he bides.” He felt his mouth turn dry as he spoke; his heart thudded, but its thuds were softened by a slight insensibility which the liquor had produced in him.

He uttered the words in so curious a tone that the sailor’s dark eyes peered at him from under his heavy sandy eyebrows. There was alert inquiry in that glance. Master Lionel got up suddenly.

“Let us take a turn outside, captain,” said he.

The captain’s eyes narrowed. He scented business. There was something plaguily odd about this young gentleman’s manner. He tossed off the remains of his sack, slapped down the pot and rose.

“Your servant, Master Tressilian,” said he.

Outside our gentleman untethered his horse from the iron ring to which he had attached the bridle; leading his horse he turned seaward and strode down the road that wound along the estuary towards Smithick.

A sharp breeze from the north was whipping the water into white peaks of foam; the sky was of a hard brightness and the sun shone brilliantly. The tide was running out, and the rock in the very neck of the haven was thrusting its black crest above the water. A cable’s length this side of it rode the black hull and naked spars of the Swallow — Captain Leigh’s ship.

Lionel stepped along in silence, very gloomy and pensive, hesitating even now. And the crafty mariner reading this hesitation, and anxious to conquer it for the sake of such profit as he conceived might lie in the proposal which he scented, paved the way for him at last.

“I think that ye’ll have some matter to propose to me.” said he slyly. “Out with it, sir, for there never was a man more ready to serve you.”

“The fact is,” said Lionel, watching the other’s face with a sidelong glance, “I am in a difficult position, Master Leigh.”

“I’ve been in a many,” laughed the captain, “but never yet in one through which I could not win. Strip forth your own, and haply I can do as much for you as I am wont to do for myself.”

“Why, it is this wise,” said the other. “My brother will assuredly hang as you have said if he bides him here. He is lost if they bring him to trial. And in that case, faith, I am lost too. It dishonours a man’s family to have a member of it hanged. ’Tis a horrible thing to have happen.”

“Indeed, indeed!” the sailor agreed encouragingly.

“I would abstract him from this,” pursued Lionel, and at the same time cursed the foul fiend that prompted him such specious words to cloak his villainy. “I would abstract him from it, and yet ’tis against my conscience that he should go unpunished for I swear to you, Master Leigh, that I abhor the deed — a cowardly, murderous deed!”

“Ah!” said the captain. And lest that grim ejaculation should check his gentleman he made haste to add —“To be sure! To be sure!”

Master Lionel stopped and faced the other squarely, his shoulders to his horse. They were quite alone in as lonely a spot as any conspirator could desire. Behind him stretched the empty beach, ahead of him the ruddy cliffs that rise gently to the wooded heights of Arwenack.

“I’ll be quite plain and open with you, Master Leigh. Peter Godolphin was my friend. Sir Oliver is no more than my half-brother. I would give a deal to the man who would abstract Sir Oliver secretly from the doom that hangs over him, and yet do the thing in such a way that Sir Oliver should not thereby escape the punishment he deserves.”

It was strange, he thought, even as he said it, that he could bring his lips so glibly to utter words that his heart detested.

The captain looked grim. He laid a finger upon Master Lionel’s velvet doublet in line with that false heart of his.

“I am your man,” said he. “But the risk is great. Yet ye say that ye’ld give a deal. . . . ”

“Yourself shall name the price,” said Lionel quickly, his eyes burning feverishly, his cheeks white.

“Oh I can contrive it, never fear,” said the captain. “I know to a nicety what you require. How say you now: if I was to carry him overseas to the plantations where they lack toilers of just such thews as his?” He lowered his voice and spoke with some slight hesitation, fearing that he proposed perhaps more than his prospective employer might desire.

“He might return,” was the answer that dispelled all doubts on that score.

“Ah!” said the skipper. “What o’ the Barbary rovers, then! They lack slaves and are ever ready to trade, though they be niggardly payers. I never heard of none that returned once they had him safe aboard their galleys. I ha’ done some trading with them, bartering human freights for spices and eastern carpets and the like.”

Master Lionel breathed hard. “’Tis a horrible fate, is’t not?”

The captain stroked his beard. “Yet ’tis the only really safe bestowal, and when all is said ’tis not so horrible as hanging, and certainly less dishonouring to a man’s kin. Ye’ld be serving Sir Oliver and yourself.”

“’Tis so, tis so,” cried Master Lionel almost fiercely. “And the price?”

The seaman shifted on his short, sturdy legs, and his face grew pensive. “A hundred pound?” he suggested tentatively.

“Done with you for a hundred pounds,” was the prompt answer — so prompt that Captain Leigh realized he had driven a fool’s bargain which it was incumbent upon him to amend.

“That is, a hundred pound for myself,” he corrected slowly. “Then there be the crew to reckon for — to keep their counsel and lend a hand; ’twill mean another hundred at the least.”

Master Lionel considered a moment. “It is more than I can lay my hands on at short notice. But, look you, you shall have a hundred and fifty pounds in coin and the balance in jewels. You shall not be the loser in that, I promise you. And when you come again, and bring me word that all is done as you now undertake there shall be the like again.”

Upon that the bargain was settled. And when Lionel came to talk of ways and means he found that he had allied himself to a man who understood his business thoroughly. All the assistance that the skipper asked was that Master Lionel should lure his gentleman to some concerted spot conveniently near the waterside. There Leigh would have a boat and his men in readiness, and the rest might very safely be left to him.

In a flash Lionel bethought him of the proper place for this. He swung round, and pointed across the water to Trefusis Point and the grey pile of Godolphin Court all bathed in sunshine now.

“Yonder, at Trefusis Point in the shadow of Godolphin Court at eight to-morrow night, when there will be no moon. I’ll see that he is there. But on your life do not miss him.”

“Trust me,” said Master Leigh. “And the money?”

“When you have him safely aboard come to me at Penarrow,” he replied, which showed that after all he did not trust Master Leigh any further than he was compelled.

The captain was quite satisfied. For should his gentleman fail to disburse he could always return Sir Oliver to shore.

On that they parted. Lionel mounted and rode away, whilst Master Leigh made a trumpet of his hands and hallooed to the ship.

As he stood waiting for the boat that came off to fetch him, a smile slowly overspread the adventurer’s rugged face. Had Master Lionel seen it he might have asked himself how far it was safe to drive such bargains with a rogue who kept faith only in so far as it was profitable. And in this matter Master Leigh saw a way to break faith with profit. He had no conscience, but he loved as all rogues love to turn the tables upon a superior rogue. He would play Master Lionel most finely, most poetically false; and he found a deal to chuckle over in the contemplation of it.

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