The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 11

The Truth

The sun was dipping swiftly to the world’s rim when Sakr-el-Bahr with his Nubians and his little retinue of corsairs came to the gates of that white house of his on its little eminence outside the Bab-el-Oueb and beyond the walls of the city.

When Rosamund and Lionel, brought in the wake of the corsair, found themselves in the spacious courtyard beyond the dark and narrow entrance, the blue of the sky contained but the paling embers of the dying day, and suddenly, sharply upon the evening stillness, came a mueddin’s voice calling the faithful unto prayer.

Slaves fetched water from the fountain that played in the middle of the quadrangle and tossed aloft a slender silvery spear of water to break into a myriad gems and so shower down into the broad marble basin. Sakr-el-Bahr washed, as did his followers, and then he went down upon the praying-mat that had been set for him, whilst his corsairs detached their cloaks and spread them upon the ground to serve them in like stead.

The Nubians turned the two slaves about, lest their glances should defile the orisons of the faithful, and left them so facing the wall and the green gate that led into the garden whence were wafted on the cooling air the perfumes of jessamine and lavender. Through the laths of the gate they might have caught a glimpse of the riot of colour there, and they might have seen the slaves arrested by the Persian waterwheel at which they had been toiling and chanting until the call to prayer had come to strike them into statues.

Sakr-el-Bahr rose from his devotions, uttered a sharp word of command, and entered the house. The Nubians followed him, urging their captives before them up the narrow stairs, and so brought them out upon the terrace on the roof, that space which in Eastern houses is devoted to the women, but which no woman’s foot had ever trodden since this house had been tenanted by Sakr-el-Bahr the wifeless.

This terrace, which was surrounded by a parapet some four feet high, commanded a view of the city straggling up the hillside to eastward, from the harbour and of the island at the end of the mole which had been so laboriously built by the labour of Christian slaves from the stones of the ruined fortress — the Peñon, which Kheyr-ed-Din Barbarossa had wrested from the Spaniards. The deepening shroud of evening was now upon all, transmuting white and yellow walls alike to a pearly greyness. To westward stretched the fragrant gardens of the house, where the doves were murmuring fondly among the mulberries and lotus trees. Beyond it a valley wound its way between the shallow hills, and from a pool fringed with sedges and bullrushes above which a great stork was majestically sailing came the harsh croak of frogs.

An awning supported upon two gigantic spears hung out from the southern wall of the terrace which rose to twice the height of that forming the parapet on its other three sides. Under this was a divan and silken cushions, and near it a small Moorish table of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold. Over the opposite parapet, where a lattice had been set, rioted a trailing rose-tree charged with blood-red blossoms, though now their colours were merged into the all-encompassing greyness.

Here Lionel and Rosamund looked at each other in the dim light, their faces gleaming ghostly each to each, whilst the Nubians stood like twin statues by the door that opened from the stair-head.

The man groaned, and clasped his hands before him. The doublet which had been torn from him in the sôk had since been restored and temporarily repaired by a strand of palmetto cord. But he was woefully bedraggled. Yet his thoughts, if his first words are to be taken as an indication of them were for Rosamund’s condition rather than his own.

“O God, that you should be subjected to this!” he cried. “That you should have suffered what you have suffered! The humiliation of it, the barbarous cruelty! Oh!” He covered his haggard face with his hands.

She touched him gently on the arm.

“What I have suffered is but a little thing,” she said, and her voice was wonderfully steady and soothing. Have I not said that these Godolphins were brave folk? Even their women were held to have something of the male spirit in their breasts; and to this none can doubt that Rosamund now bore witness. “Do not pity me, Lionel, for my sufferings are at an end or very nearly.” She smiled strangely, the smile of exaltation that you may see upon the martyr’s face in the hour of doom.

“How?” quoth he, in faint surprise.

“How?” she echoed. “Is there not always a way to thrust aside life’s burden when it grows too heavy — heavier than God would have us bear?”

His only answer was a groan. Indeed, he had done little but groan in all the hours they had spent together since they were brought ashore from the carack; and had the season permitted her so much reflection, she might have considered that she had found him singularly wanting during those hours of stress when a man of worth would have made some effort, however desperate, to enhearten her rather than repine upon his own plight.

Slaves entered bearing four enormous flaming torches which they set in iron sconces protruding from the wall of the house. Thence they shed a lurid ruddy glow upon the terrace. The slaves departed again, and presently, in the black gap of the doorway between the Nubians, a third figure appeared unheralded. It was Sakr-el-Bahr.

He stood a moment at gaze, his attitude haughty, his face expressionless; then slowly he advanced. He was dressed in a short white caftan that descended to his knees, and was caught about his waist in a shimmering girdle of gold that quivered like fire in the glow of the torches as he moved. His arms from the elbow and his legs from the knee were bare, and his feet were shod with gold-embroidered red Turkish slippers. He wore a white turban decked by a plume of osprey attached by a jewelled clasp.

He signed to the Nubians and they vanished silently, leaving him alone with his captives.

He bowed to Rosamund. “This, mistress,” he said, “is to be your domain henceforth which is to treat you more as wife than slave. For it is to Muslim wives that the housetops in Barbary are allotted. I hope you like it.”

Lionel staring at him out of a white face, his conscience bidding him fear the very worst, his imagination painting a thousand horrid fates for him and turning him sick with dread, shrank back before his half-brother, who scarce appeared to notice him just then.

But Rosamund confronted him, drawn to the full of her splendid height, and if her face was pale, yet it was as composed and calm as his own; if her bosom rose and fell to betray her agitations yet her glance was contemptuous and defiant, her voice calm and steady, when she answered him with the question —“What is your intent with me?”

“My intent?” said he, with a little twisted smile. Yet for all that he believed he hated her and sought to hurt, to humble and to crush her, he could not stifle his admiration of her spirit’s gallantry in such an hour as this.

From behind the hills peeped the edge of the moon — a sickle of burnished copper.

“My intent is not for you to question,” he replied. “There was a time, Rosamund, when in all the world you had no slave more utter than was I. Yourself in your heartlessness, and in your lack of faith, you broke the golden fetters of that servitude. You’ll find it less easy to break the shackles I now impose upon you.”

She smiled her scorn and quiet confidence. He stepped close to her. “You are my slave, do you understand? — bought in the market-place as I might buy me a mule, a goat, or a camel — and belonging to me body and soul. You are my property, my thing, my chattel, to use or abuse, to cherish or break as suits my whim, without a will that is not my will, holding your very life at my good pleasure.”

She recoiled a step before the dull hatred that throbbed in his words, before the evil mockery of his swarthy bearded face.

“You beast!” she gasped.

“So now you understand the bondage into which you are come in exchange for the bondage which in your own wantonness you dissolved.”

“May God forgive you,” she panted.

“I thank you for that prayer,” said he. “May He forgive you no less.”

And then from the background came an inarticulate sound, a strangled, snarling sob from Lionel.

Sakr-el-Bahr turned slowly. He eyed the fellow a moment in silence, then he laughed.

“Ha! My sometime brother. A pretty fellow, as God lives is it not? Consider him Rosamund. Behold how gallantly misfortune is borne by this pillar of manhood upon which you would have leaned, by this stalwart husband of your choice. Look at him! Look at this dear brother of mine.”

Under the lash of that mocking tongue Lionel’s mood was stung to anger where before it had held naught but fear.

“You are no brother of mine,” he retorted fiercely. “Your mother was a wanton who betrayed my father.”

Sakr-el-Bahr quivered a moment as if he had been struck. Yet he controlled himself.

“Let me hear my mother’s name but once again on thy foul tongue, and I’ll have it ripped out by the roots. Her memory, I thank God, is far above the insults of such a crawling thing as you. None the less, take care not to speak of the only woman whose name I reverence.”

And then turning at bay, as even the rat will do, Lionel sprang upon him, with clawing hands outstretched to reach his throat. But Sakr-el-Bahr caught him in a grip that bent him howling to his knees.

“You find me strong, eh?” he gibed. “Is it matter for wonder? Consider that for six endless months I toiled at the oar of a galley, and you’ll understand what it was that turned my body into iron and robbed me of a soul.”

He flung him off, and sent him crashing into the rosebush and the lattice over which it rambled.

“Do you realize the horror of the rower’s bench? to sit day in day out, night in night out, chained naked to the oar, amid the reek and stench of your fellows in misfortune, unkempt, unwashed save by the rain, broiled and roasted by the sun, festering with sores, lashed and cut and scarred by the boatswain’s whip as you faint under the ceaseless, endless, cruel toil?”

“Do you realize it?” From a tone of suppressed fury his voice rose suddenly to a roar. “You shall. For that horror which was mine by your contriving shall now be yours until you die.”

He paused; but Lionel made no attempt to avail himself of this. His courage all gone out of him again, as suddenly as it had flickered up, he cowered where he had been flung.

“Before you go there is something else,” Sakr-el-Bahr resumed, “something for which I have had you brought hither to-night.

“Not content with having delivered me to all this, not content with having branded me a murderer, destroyed my good name, filched my possessions and driven me into the very path of hell, you must further set about usurping my place in the false heart of this woman I once loved.”

“I hope,” he went on reflectively, “that in your own poor way you love her, too, Lionel. Thus to the torment that awaits your body shall be added torment for your treacherous soul — such torture of mind as only the damned may know. To that end have I brought you hither. That you may realize something of what is in store for this woman at my hands; that you may take the thought of it with you to be to your mind worse than the boatswain’s lash to your pampered body.”

“You devil!” snarled Lionel. “Oh, you fiend out of hell!”

“If you will manufacture devils, little toad of a brother, do not upbraid them for being devils when next you meet them.”

“Give him no heed, Lionel!” said Rosamund. “I shall prove him as much a boaster as he has proved himself a villain. Never think that he will be able to work his evil will.”

“’Tis you are the boaster there,” said Sakr-el-Bahr. “And for the rest, I am what you and he, between you, have made me.”

“Did we make you liar and coward? — for that is what you are indeed,” she answered.

“Coward?” he echoed, in genuine surprise. “’Twill be some lie that he has told you with the others. In what, pray, was I ever a coward?”

“In what? In this that you do now; in this taunting and torturing of two helpless beings in our power.”

“I speak not of what I am,” he replied, “for I have told you that I am what you have made me. I speak of what I was. I speak of the past.”

She looked at him and she seemed to measure him with her unwavering glance.

“You speak of the past?” she echoed, her voice low. “You speak of the past and to me? You dare?”

“It is that we might speak of it together that I have fetched you all the way from England; that at last I may tell you things I was a fool to have kept from you five years ago; that we may resume a conversation which you interrupted when you dismissed me.”

“I did you a monstrous injury, no doubt,” she answered him, with bitter irony. “I was surely wanting in consideration. It would have become me better to have smiled and fawned upon my brother’s murderer.”

“I swore to you, then, that I was not his murderer,” he reminded her in a voice that shook.

“And I answered you that you lied.”

“Ay, and on that you dismissed me — the word of the man whom you professed to love, the word of the man to whom you had given your trust weighing for naught with you.”

“When I gave you my trust,” she retorted, “I did so in ignorance of your true self, in a headstrong wilful ignorance that would not be guided by what all the world said of you and your wild ways. For that blind wilfulness I have been punished, as perhaps I deserved to be.”

“Lies — all lies!” he stormed. “Those ways of mine — and God knows they were none so wild, when all is said — I abandoned when I came to love you. No lover since the world began was ever so cleansed, so purified, so sanctified by love as was I.”

“Spare me this at least!” she cried on a note of loathing

“Spare you?” he echoed. “What shall I spare you?”

“The shame of it all; the shame that is ever mine in the reflection that for a season I believed I loved you.”

He smiled. “If you can still feel shame, it shall overwhelm you ere I have done. For you shall hear me out. Here there are none to interrupt us, none to thwart my sovereign will. Reflect then, and remember. Remember what a pride you took in the change you had wrought in me. Your vanity welcomed that flattery, that tribute to the power of your beauty. Yet, all in a moment, upon the paltriest grounds, you believed me the murderer of your brother.”

“The paltriest grounds?” she cried, protesting almost despite herself

“So paltry that the justices at Truro would not move against me.”

“Because,” she cut in, “they accounted that you had been sufficiently provoked. Because you had not sworn to them as you swore to me that no provocation should ever drive you to raise your hand against my brother. Because they did not realize how false and how forsworn you were.”

He considered her a moment. Then he took a turn on the terrace. Lionel crouching ever by the rose-tree was almost entirely forgotten by him now.

“God give me patience with you!” he said at length. “I need it. For I desire you to understand many things this night. I mean you to see how just is my resentment; how just the punishment that is to overtake you for what you have made of my life and perhaps of my hereafter. Justice Baine and another who is dead, knew me for innocent.”

“They knew you for innocent?” There was scornful amazement in her tone. “Were they not witnesses of the quarrel betwixt you and Peter and of your oath that you would kill him?”

“That was an oath sworn in the heat of anger. Afterwards I bethought me that he was your brother.”

“Afterwards?” said she. “After you had murdered him?”

“I say again,” Oliver replied calmly, “that I did not do this thing.”

“And I say again that you lie.”

He considered her for a long moment; then he laughed. “Have you ever,” he asked, “known a man to lie without some purpose? Men lie for the sake of profit, they lie out of cowardice or malice, or else because they are vain and vulgar boasters. I know of no other causes that will drive a man to falsehood, save that — ah, yes! —” (and he flashed a sidelong glance at Lionel)—“save that sometimes a man will lie to shield another, out of self-sacrifice. There you have all the spurs that urge a man to falsehood. Can any of these be urging me to-night? Reflect! Ask yourself what purpose I could serve by lying to you now. Consider further that I have come to loathe you for your unfaith; that I desire naught so much as to punish you for that and for all its bitter consequences to me that I have brought you hither to exact payment from you to the uttermost farthing. What end then can I serve by falsehood?”

“All this being so, what end could you serve by truth?” she countered.

“To make you realize to the full the injustice that you did. To make you understand the wrongs for which you are called to pay. To prevent you from conceiving yourself a martyr; to make you perceive in all its deadly bitterness that what now comes to you is the inevitable fruit of your own faithlessness.”

“Sir Oliver, do you think me a fool?” she asked him.

“Madam, I do — and worse,” he answered.

“Ay, that is clear,” she agreed scornfully, “since even now you waste breath in attempting to persuade me against my reason. But words will not blot out facts. And though you talk from now till the day of judgment no word of yours can efface those bloodstains in the snow that formed a trail from that poor murdered body to your own door; no word of yours can extinguish the memory of the hatred between him and you, and of your own threat to kill him; nor can it stifle the recollection of the public voice demanding your punishment. You dare to take such a tone as you are taking with me? You dare here under Heaven to stand and lie to me that you may give false gloze to the villainy of your present deed — for that is the purpose of your falsehood, since you asked me what purpose there could be for it. What had you to set against all that, to convince me that your hands were clean, to induce me to keep the troth which — God forgive me! — I had plighted to you?”

“My word,” he answered her in a ringing voice.

“Your lie,” she amended.

“Do not suppose,” said he, “that I could not support my word by proofs if called upon to do so.”

“Proofs?” She stared at him, wide-eyed a moment. Then her lip curled. “And that no doubt was the reason of your flight when you heard that the Queen’s pursuivants were coming in response to the public voice to call you to account.”

He stood at gaze a moment, utterly dumbfounded. “My flight?” he said. “What fable’s that?”

“You will tell me next that you did not flee. That that is another false charge against you?”

“So,” he said slowly, “it was believed I fled!”

And then light burst upon him, to dazzle and stun him. It was so inevitably what must have been believed, and yet it had never crossed his mind. O the damnable simplicity of it! At another time his disappearance must have provoked comment and investigation, perhaps. But, happening when it did, the answer to it came promptly and convincingly and no man troubled to question further. Thus was Lionel’s task made doubly easy, thus was his own guilt made doubly sure in the eyes of all. His head sank upon his breast. What had he done? Could he still blame Rosamund for having been convinced by so overwhelming a piece of evidence? Could he still blame her if she had burnt unopened the letter which he had sent her by the hand of Pitt? What else indeed could any suppose, but that he had fled? And that being so, clearly such a flight must brand him irrefutably for the murderer he was alleged to be. How could he blame her if she had ultimately been convinced by the only reasonable assumption possible?

A sudden sense of the wrong he had done rose now like a tide about him.

“My God!” he groaned, like a man in pain. “My God!”

He looked at her, and then averted his glance again, unable now to endure the haggard, strained yet fearless gaze of those brave eyes of hers.

“What else, indeed, could you believe?” he muttered brokenly, thus giving some utterance to what was passing through his mind.

“Naught else but the whole vile truth,” she answered fiercely, and thereby stung him anew, whipped him out of his sudden weakening back to his mood of resentment and vindictiveness.

She had shown herself, he thought in that moment of reviving anger, too ready to believe what told against him.

“The truth?” he echoed, and eyed her boldly now. “Do you know the truth when you see it? We shall discover. For by God’s light you shall have the truth laid stark before you now, and you shall find it hideous beyond all your hideous imaginings.”

There was something so compelling now in his tone and manner that it drove her to realize that some revelation was impending. She was conscious of a faint excitement, a reflection perhaps of the wild excitement that was astir in him.

“Your brother,” he began, “met his death at the hands of a false weakling whom I loved, towards whom I had a sacred duty. Straight from the deed he fled to me for shelter. A wound he had taken in the struggle left that trail of blood to mark the way he had come.” He paused, and his tone became gentler, it assumed the level note of one who reasons impassively. “Was it not an odd thing, now, that none should ever have paused to seek with certainty whence that blood proceeded, and to consider that I bore no wound in those days? Master Baine knew it, for I submitted my body to his examination, and a document was drawn up and duly attested which should have sent the Queen’s pursuivants back to London with drooping tails had I been at Penarrow to receive them.”

Faintly through her mind stirred the memory that Master Baine had urged the existence of some such document, that in fact he had gone so far as to have made oath of this very circumstance now urged by Sir Oliver; and she remembered that the matter had been brushed aside as an invention of the justice’s to answer the charge of laxity in the performance of his duty, particularly as the only co-witness he could cite was Sir Andrew Flack, the parson, since deceased. Sir Oliver’s voice drew her attention from that memory.

“But let that be,” he was saying. “Let us come back to the story itself. I gave the craven weakling shelter. Thereby I drew down suspicion upon myself, and since I could not clear myself save by denouncing him, I kept silent. That suspicion drew to certainty when the woman to whom I was betrothed, recking nothing of my oaths, freely believing the very worst of me, made an end of our betrothal and thereby branded me a murderer and a liar in the eyes of all. Indignation swelled against me. The Queen’s pursuivants were on their way to do what the justices of Truro refused to do.

“So far I have given you facts. Now I give you surmise — my own conclusions — but surmise that strikes, as you shall judge, the very bull’s-eye of truth. That dastard to whom I had given sanctuary, to whom I had served as a cloak, measured my nature by his own and feared that I must prove unequal to the fresh burden to be cast upon me. He feared lest under the strain of it I should speak out, advance my proofs, and so destroy him. There was the matter of that wound, and there was something still more unanswerable he feared I might have urged. There was a certain woman — a wanton up at Malpas — who could have been made to speak, who could have revealed a rivalry concerning her betwixt the slayer and your brother. For the affair in which Peter Godolphin met his death was a pitifully, shamefully sordid one at bottom.”

For the first time she interrupted him, fiercely. “Do you malign the dead?”

“Patience, mistress,” he commanded. “I malign none. I speak the truth of a dead man that the truth may be known of two living ones. Hear me out, then! I have waited long and survived a deal that I might tell you this

“That craven, then, conceived that I might become a danger to him; so he decided to remove me. He contrived to have me kidnapped one night and put aboard a vessel to be carried to Barbary and sold there as a slave. That is the truth of my disappearance. And the slayer, whom I had befriended and sheltered at my own bitter cost, profited yet further by my removal. God knows whether the prospect of such profit was a further temptation to him. In time he came to succeed me in my possessions, and at last to succeed me even in the affections of the faithless woman who once had been my affianced wife.”

At last she started from the frozen patience in which she had listened hitherto. “Do you say that . . . that Lionel . . .?” she was beginning in a voice choked by indignation.

And then Lionel spoke at last, straightening himself into a stiffly upright attitude.

“He lies!” he cried. “He lies, Rosamund! Do not heed him.”

“I do not,” she answered, turning away.

A wave of colour suffused the swarthy face of Sakr-el-Bahr. A moment his eyes followed her as she moved away a step or two, then they turned their blazing light of anger upon Lionel. He strode silently across to him, his mien so menacing that Lionel shrank back in fresh terror.

Sakr-el-Bahr caught his brother’s wrist in a grip that was as that of a steel manacle. “We’ll have the truth this night if we have to tear it from you with red-hot pincers,” he said between his teeth.

He dragged him forward to the middle of the terrace and held him there before Rosamund, forcing him down upon his knees into a cowering attitude by the violence of that grip upon his wrist.

“Do you know aught of the ingenuity of Moorish torture?” he asked him. “You may have heard of the rack and the wheel and the thumbscrew at home. They are instruments of voluptuous delight compared with the contrivances of Barbary to loosen stubborn tongues.”

White and tense, her hands clenched, Rosamund seemed to stiffen before him.

“You coward! You cur! You craven renegade dog!” she branded him.

Oliver released his brother’s wrist and beat his hands together. Without heeding Rosamund he looked down upon Lionel, who cowered shuddering at his feet.

“What do you say to a match between your fingers? Or do you think a pair of bracelets of living fire would answer better, to begin with?”

A squat, sandy-bearded, turbaned fellow, rolling slightly in his gait, came — as had been prearranged — to answer the corsair’s summons.

With the toe of his slipper Sakr-el-Bahr stirred his brother.

“Look up, dog,” he bade him. “Consider me that man, and see if you know him again. Look at him, I say!” And Lionel looked, yet since clearly he did so without recognition his brother explained: “His name among Christians was Jasper Leigh. He was the skipper you bribed to carry me into Barbary. He was taken in his own toils when his ship was sunk by Spaniards. Later he fell into my power, and because I forebore from hanging him he is to-day my faithful follower. I should bid him tell you what he knows,” he continued, turning to Rosamund, “if I thought you would believe his tale. But since I am assured you would not, I will take other means.” He swung round to Jasper again. “Bid Ali heat me a pair of steel manacles in a brazier and hold them in readiness against my need of them.” And he waved his hand.

Jasper bowed and vanished.

“The bracelets shall coax confession from your own lips, my brother.”

“I have naught to confess,” protested Lionel. “You may force lies from me with your ruffianly tortures.”

Oliver smiled. “Not a doubt but that lies will flow from you more readily than truth. But we shall have truth, too, in the end, never doubt it.” He was mocking, and there was a subtle purpose underlying his mockery. “And you shall tell a full story,” he continued, “in all its details, so that Mistress Rosamund’s last doubt shall vanish. You shall tell her how you lay in wait for him that evening in Godolphin Park; how you took him unawares, and. . . . ”

“That is false!” cried Lionel in a passion of sincerity that brought him to his feet.

It was false, indeed, and Oliver knew it, and deliberately had recourse to falsehood, using it as a fulcrum upon which to lever out the truth. He was cunning as all the fiends, and never perhaps did he better manifest his cunning.

“False?” he cried with scorn. “Come, now, be reasonable. The truth, ere torture sucks it out of you. Reflect that I know all — exactly as you told it me. How was it, now? Lurking behind a bush you sprang upon him unawares and ran him through before he could so much as lay a hand to his sword, and so. . . . ”

“The lie of that is proven by the very facts themselves,” was the furious interruption. A subtle judge of tones might have realized that here was truth indeed, angry indignant truth that compelled conviction. “His sword lay beside him when they found him.”

But Oliver was loftily disdainful. “Do I not know? Yourself you drew it after you had slain him.”

The taunt performed its deadly work. For just one instant Lionel was carried off his feet by the luxury of his genuine indignation, and in that one instant he was lost.

“As God’s my witness, that is false!” he cried wildly. “And you know it. I fought him fair. . . . ”

He checked on a long, shuddering, indrawn breath that was horrible to hear.

Then silence followed, all three remaining motionless as statues: Rosamund white and tense, Oliver grim and sardonic, Lionel limp, and overwhelmed by the consciousness of how he had been lured into self-betrayal.

At last it was Rosamund who spoke, and her voice shook and shifted from key to key despite her strained attempt to keep it level.

“What . . . what did you say, Lionel?” she asked. Oliver laughed softly. “He was about to add proof of his statement, I think,” he jeered. “He was about to mention the wound he took in that fight, which left those tracks in the snow, thus to prove that I lied — as indeed I did — when I said that he took Peter unawares.

“Lionel!” she cried. She advanced a step and made as if to hold out her arms to him, then let them fall again beside her. He stood stricken, answering nothing. “Lionel!” she cried again, her voice growing suddenly shrill. “Is this true?”

“Did you not hear him say it?” quoth Oliver.

She stood swaying a moment, looking at Lionel, her white face distorted into a mask of unutterable pain. Oliver stepped towards her, ready to support her, fearing that she was about to fall. But with an imperious hand she checked his advance, and by a supreme effort controlled her weakness. Yet her knees shook under her, refusing their office. She sank down upon the divan and covered her face with her hands.

“God pity me!” she moaned, and sat huddled there, shaken with sobs.

Lionel started at that heart-broken cry. Cowering, he approached her, and Oliver, grim and sardonic, stood back, a spectator of the scene he had precipitated. He knew that given rope Lionel would enmesh himself still further. There must be explanations that would damn him utterly. Oliver was well content to look on.

“Rosamund!” came Lionel’s piteous cry. “Rose! Have mercy! Listen ere you judge me. Listen lest you misjudge me!”

“Ay, listen to him,” Oliver flung in, with his soft hateful laugh. “Listen to him. I doubt he’ll be vastly entertaining.”

That sneer was a spur to the wretched Lionel. “Rosamund, all that he has told you of it is false. I . . . I . . . It was done in self-defence. It is a lie that I took him unawares.” His words came wildly now. “We had quarrelled about . . . about . . . a certain matter, and as the devil would have it we met that evening in Godolphin Park, he and I. He taunted me; he struck me, and finally he drew upon me and forced me to draw that I might defend my life. That is the truth. I swear to you here on my knees in the sight of Heaven! And. . . . ”

“Enough, sir! Enough!” she broke in, controlling herself to check these protests that but heightened her disgust.

“Nay, hear me yet, I implore you; that knowing all you may be merciful in your judgment.”

“Merciful?” she cried, and almost seemed to laugh

“It was an accident that I slew him,” Lionel raved on. “I never meant it. I never meant to do more than ward and preserve my life. But when swords are crossed more may happen than a man intends. I take God to witness that his death was an accident resulting from his own fury.”

She had checked her sobs, and she considered him now with eyes that were hard and terrible.

“Was it also an accident that you left me and all the world in the belief that the deed was your brother’s?” she asked him.

He covered his face, as if unable to endure her glance. “Did you but know how I loved you — even in those days, in secret — you would perhaps pity me a little,” he whimpered.

“Pity?” She leaned forward and seemed to spit the word at him. “‘Sdeath, man! Do you sue for pity — you?”

“Yet you must pity me did you know the greatness of the temptation to which I succumbed.”

“I know the greatness of your infamy, of your falseness, of your cowardice, of your baseness. Oh!”

He stretched out suppliant hands to her; there were tears now in his eyes. “Of your charity, Rosamund. . . . ” he was beginning, when at last Oliver intervened:

“I think you are wearying the lady,” he said, and stirred him with his foot. “Relate to us instead some more of your astounding accidents. They are more diverting. Elucidate the accident, by which you had me kidnapped to be sold into slavery. Tell us of the accident by which you succeeded to my property. Expound to the full the accidental circumstances of which throughout you have been the unfortunate victim. Come, man, ply your wits. ’Twill make a pretty tale.”

And then came Jasper to announce that Ali waited with the brazier and the heated manacles.

“They are no longer needed,” said Oliver. “Take this slave hence with you. Bid Ali to take charge of him, and at dawn to see him chained to one of the oars of my galeasse. Away with him.”

Lionel rose to his feet, his face ashen. “Wait! Ah, wait! Rosamund!” he cried.

Oliver caught him by the nape of his neck, spun him round, and flung him into the arms of Jasper. “Take him away!” he growled, and Jasper took the wretch by the shoulders and urged him out, leaving Rosamund and Oliver alone with the truth under the stars of Barbary.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/sabatini/rafael/sea_hawk/part2.11.html

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