The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 24

The Judges

In the absence of any woman into whose care they might entrust her, Lord Henry, Sir John, and Master Tobias, the ship’s surgeon, had amongst them tended Rosamund as best they could when numbed and half-dazed she was brought aboard the Silver Heron.

Master Tobias had applied such rude restoratives as he commanded, and having made her as comfortable as possible upon a couch in the spacious cabin astern, he had suggested that she should be allowed the rest of which she appeared so sorely to stand in need. He had ushered out the commander and the Queen’s Lieutenant, and himself had gone below to a still more urgent case that was demanding his attention — that of Lionel Tressilian, who had been brought limp and unconscious from the galeasse together with some four other wounded members of the Silver Heron’s crew.

At dawn Sir John had come below, seeking news of his wounded friend. He found the surgeon kneeling over Lionel.

As he entered, Master Tobias turned aside, rinsed his hands in a metal basin placed upon the floor, and rose wiping them on a napkin.

“I can do no more, Sir John,” he muttered in a desponding voice. “He is sped.”

“Dead, d’ye mean?” cried Sir John, a catch in his voice.

The surgeon tossed aside the napkin, and slowly drew down the upturned sleeves of his black doublet. “All but dead,” he answered. “The wonder is that any spark of life should still linger in a body with that hole in it. He is bleeding inwardly, and his pulse is steadily weakening. It must continue so until imperceptibly he passes away. You may count him dead already, Sir John.” He paused. “A merciful, painless end,” he added, and sighed perfunctorily, his pale shaven face decently grave, for all that such scenes as these were commonplaces in his life. “Of the other four,” he continued, “Blair is dead; the other three should all recover.”

But Sir John gave little heed to the matter of those others. His grief and dismay at this quenching of all hope for his friend precluded any other consideration at the moment.

“And he will not even recover consciousness?” he asked insisting, although already he had been answered.

“As I have said, you may count him dead already, Sir John. My skill can do nothing for him.”

Sir John’s head drooped, his countenance drawn and grave. “Nor can my justice,” he added gloomily. “Though it avenge him, it cannot give me back my friend.” He looked at the surgeon. “Vengeance, sir, is the hollowest of all the mockeries that go to make up life.”

“Your task, Sir John,” replied the surgeon, “is one of justice, not vengeance.”

“A quibble, when all is said.” He stepped to Lionel’s side, and looked down at the pale handsome face over which the dark shadows of death were already creeping. “If he would but speak in the interests of this justice that is to do! If we might but have the evidence of his own words, lest I should ever be asked to justify the hanging of Oliver Tressilian.”

“Surely, sir,” the surgeon ventured, “there can be no such question ever. Mistress Rosamund’s word alone should suffice, if indeed so much as that even were required.”

“Ay! His offenses against God and man are too notorious to leave grounds upon which any should ever question my right to deal with him out of hand.”

There was a tap at the door and Sir John’s own body servant entered with the announcement that Mistress Rosamund was asking urgently to see him.

“She will be impatient for news of him,” Sir John concluded, and he groaned. “My God! How am I to tell her? To crush her in the very hour of her deliverance with such news as this! Was ever irony so cruel?” He turned, and stepped heavily to the door. There he paused. “You will remain by him to the end?” he bade the surgeon interrogatively.

Master Tobias bowed. “Of course, Sir John.” And he added, “’Twill not be long.”

Sir John looked across at Lionel again — a glance of valediction. “God rest him!” he said hoarsely, and passed out.

In the waist he paused a moment, turned to a knot of lounging seamen, and bade them throw a halter over the yard-arm, and hale the renegade Oliver Tressilian from his prison. Then with slow heavy step and heavier heart he went up the companion to the vessel’s castellated poop.

The sun, new risen in a faint golden haze, shone over a sea faintly rippled by the fresh clean winds of dawn to which their every stitch of canvas was now spread. Away on the larboard quarter, a faint cloudy outline, was the coast of Spain.

Sir John’s long sallow face was preternaturally grave when he entered the cabin, where Rosamund awaited him. He bowed to her with a grave courtesy, doffing his hat and casting it upon a chair. The last five years had brought some strands of white into his thick black hair, and at the temples in particular it showed very grey, giving him an appearance of age to which the deep lines in his brow contributed.

He advanced towards her, as she rose to receive him. “Rosamund, my dear!” he said gently, and took both her hands. He looked with eyes of sorrow and concern into her white, agitated face.

“Are you sufficiently rested, child?”

“Rested?” she echoed on a note of wonder that he should suppose it.

“Poor lamb, poor lamb!” he murmured, as a mother might have done, and drew her towards him, stroking that gleaming auburn head. “We’ll speed us back to England with every stitch of canvas spread. Take heart then, and. . . . ”

But she broke in impetuously, drawing away from him as she spoke, and his heart sank with foreboding of the thing she was about to inquire.

“I overheard a sailor just now saying to another that it is your intent to hang Sir Oliver Tressilian out of hand — this morning.”

He misunderstood her utterly. “Be comforted,” he said. “My justice shall be swift; my vengeance sure. The yard-arm is charged already with the rope on which he shall leap to his eternal punishment.”

She caught her breath, and set a hand upon her bosom as if to repress its sudden tumult.

“And upon what grounds,” she asked him with an air of challenge, squarely facing him, “do you intend to do this thing?”

“Upon what grounds?” he faltered. He stared and frowned, bewildered by her question and its tone. “Upon what grounds?” he repeated, foolishly almost in the intensity of his amazement. Then he considered her more closely, and the wildness of her eyes bore to him slowly an explanation of words that at first had seemed beyond explaining.

“I see!” he said in a voice of infinite pity; for the conviction to which he had leapt was that her poor wits were all astray after the horrors through which she had lately travelled. “You must rest,” he said gently, “and give no thought to such matters as these. Leave them to me, and be very sure that I shall avenge you as is due.”

“Sir John, you mistake me, I think. I do not desire that you avenge me. I have asked you upon what grounds you intend to do this thing, and you have not answered me.”

In increasing amazement he continued to stare. He had been wrong, then. She was quite sane and mistress of her wits. And yet instead of the fond inquiries concerning Lionel which he had been dreading came this amazing questioning of his grounds to hang his prisoner.

“Need I state to you — of all living folk — the offences which that dastard has committed?” he asked, expressing thus the very question that he was setting himself.

“You need to tell me,” she answered, “by what right you constitute yourself his judge and executioner; by what right you send him to his death in this peremptory fashion, without trial.” Her manner was as stern as if she were invested with all the authority of a judge.

“But you,” he faltered in his ever-growing bewilderment, “you, Rosamund, against whom he has offended so grievously, surely you should be the last to ask me such a question! Why, it is my intention to proceed with him as is the manner of the sea with all knaves taken as Oliver Tressilian was taken. If your mood be merciful towards him — which as God lives, I can scarce conceive — consider that this is the greatest mercy he can look for.”

“You speak of mercy and vengeance in a breath, Sir John.” She was growing calm, her agitation was quieting and a grim sternness was replacing it.

He made a gesture of impatience. “What good purpose could it serve to take him to England?” he demanded. “There he must stand his trial, and the issue is foregone. It were unnecessarily to torture him.”

“The issue may be none so foregone as you suppose,” she replied. “And that trial is his right.”

Sir John took a turn in the cabin, his wits all confused. It was preposterous that he should stand and argue upon such a matter with Rosamund of all people, and yet she was compelling him to it against his every inclination, against common sense itself.

“If he so urges it, we’ll not deny him,” he said at last, deeming it best to humour her. “We’ll take him back to England if he demands it, and let him stand his trial there. But Oliver Tressilian must realize too well what is in store for him to make any such demand.” He passed before her, and held out his hands in entreaty. “Come, Rosamund, my dear! You are distraught, you. . . . ”

“I am indeed distraught, Sir John,” she answered, and took the hands that he extended. “Oh, have pity!” she cried with a sudden change to utter intercession. “I implore you to have pity!”

“What pity can I show you, child? You have but to name. . . . ”

“’Tis not pity for me, but pity for him that I am beseeching of you.”

“For him?” he cried, frowning again.

“For Oliver Tressilian.”

He dropped her hands and stood away. “God’s light!” he swore. “You sue for pity for Oliver Tressilian, for that renegade, that incarnate devil? Oh, you are mad!” he stormed. “Mad!” and he flung away from her, whirling his arms.

“I love him,” she said simply.

That answer smote him instantly still. Under the shock of it he just stood and stared at her again, his jaw fallen.

“You love him!” he said at last below his breath. “You love him! You love a man who is a pirate, a renegade, the abductor of yourself and of Lionel, the man who murdered your brother!”

“He did not.” She was fierce in her denial of it. “I have learnt the truth of that matter.”

“From his lips, I suppose?” said Sir John, and he was unable to repress a sneer. “And you believed him?”

“Had I not believed him I should not have married him.”

“Married him?” Sudden horror came now to temper his bewilderment. Was there to be no end to these astounding revelations? Had they reached the climax yet, he wondered, or was there still more to come? “You married that infamous villain?” he asked, and his voice was expressionless.

“I did — in Algiers on the night we landed there.” He stood gaping at her whilst a man might count to a dozen, and then abruptly he exploded. “It is enough!” he roared, shaking a clenched fist at the low ceiling of the cabin. “It is enough, as God’s my Witness. If there were no other reason to hang him, that would be reason and to spare. You may look to me to make an end of this infamous marriage within the hour.”

“Ah, if you will but listen to me!” she pleaded.

“Listen to you?” He paused by the door to which he had stepped in his fury, intent upon giving the word that there and then should make an end, and summoning Oliver Tressilian before him, announce his fate to him and see it executed on the spot. “Listen to you?” he repeated, scorn and anger blending in his voice. “I have heard more than enough already!”

It was the Killigrew way, Lord Henry Goade assures us, pausing here at long length for one of those digressions into the history of families whose members chance to impinge upon his chronicle. “They were,” he says, “ever an impetuous, short-reasoning folk, honest and upright enough so far as their judgment carried them, but hampered by a lack of penetration in that judgment.”

Sir John, as much in his earlier commerce with the Tressilians as in this pregnant hour, certainly appears to justify his lordship of that criticism. There were a score of questions a man of perspicuity would not have asked, not one of which appears to have occurred to the knight of Arwenack. If anything arrested him upon the cabin’s threshold, delayed him in the execution of the thing he had resolved upon, no doubt it was sheer curiosity as to what further extravagances Rosamund might yet have it in her mind to utter.

“This man has suffered,” she told him, and was not put off by the hard laugh with which he mocked that statement. “God alone knows what he has suffered in body and in soul for sins which he never committed. Much of that suffering came to him through me. I know to-day that he did not murder Peter. I know that but for a disloyal act of mine he would be in a position incontestably to prove it without the aid of any man. I know that he was carried off, kidnapped before ever he could clear himself of the accusation, and that as a consequence no life remained him but the life of a renegade which he chose. Mine was the chief fault. And I must make amends. Spare him to me! If you love me. . . . ”

But he had heard enough. His sallow face was flushed to a flaming purple.

“Not another word!” he blazed at her. “It is because I do love you — love and pity you from my heart — that I will not listen. It seems I must save you not only from that knave, but from yourself. I were false to my duty by you, false to your dead father and murdered brother else. Anon, you shall thank me, Rosamund.” And again he turned to depart.

“Thank you?” she cried in a ringing voice. “I shall curse you. All my life I shall loathe and hate you, holding you in horror for a murderer if you do this thing. You fool! Can you not see? You fool!”

He recoiled. Being a man of position and importance, quick, fearless, and vindictive of temperament — and also, it would seem, extremely fortunate — it had never happened to him in all his life to be so uncompromisingly and frankly judged. She was by no means the first to account him a fool, but she was certainly the first to call him one to his face; and whilst to the general it might have proved her extreme sanity, to him it was no more than the culminating proof of her mental distemper.

“Pish!” he said, between anger and pity, “you are mad, stark mad! Your mind’s unhinged, your vision’s all distorted. This fiend incarnate is become a poor victim of the evil of others; and I am become a murderer in your sight — a murderer and a fool. God’s Life! Bah! Anon when you are rested, when you are restored, I pray that things may once again assume their proper aspect.”

He turned, all aquiver still with indignation, and was barely in time to avoid being struck by the door which opened suddenly from without.

Lord Henry Goade, dressed — as he tells us — entirely in black, and with his gold chain of office — an ominous sign could they have read it — upon his broad chest, stood in the doorway, silhouetted sharply against the flood of morning sunlight at his back. His benign face would, no doubt, be extremely grave to match the suit he had put on, but its expression will have lightened somewhat when his glance fell upon Rosamund standing there by the table’s edge.

“I was overjoyed,” he writes, “to find her so far recovered, and seeming so much herself again, and I expressed my satisfaction.”

“She were better abed,” snapped Sir John, two hectic spots burning still in his sallow cheeks. “She is distempered, quite.”

“Sir John is mistaken, my lord,” was her calm assurance, “I am very far from suffering as he conceives.”

“I rejoice therein, my dear,” said his lordship, and I imagine his questing eyes speeding from one to the other of them, and marking the evidences of Sir John’s temper, wondering what could have passed. “It happens,” he added sombrely, “that we may require your testimony in this grave matter that is toward.” He turned to Sir John. “I have bidden them bring up the prisoner for sentence. Is the ordeal too much for you, Rosamund?”

“Indeed, no, my lord,” she replied readily. “I welcome it.” And threw back her head as one who braces herself for a trial of endurance.

“No, no,” cut in Sir John, protesting fiercely. “Do not heed her, Harry. She. . . . ”

“Considering,” she interrupted, “that the chief count against the prisoner must concern his . . . his dealings with myself, surely the matter is one upon which I should be heard.”

“Surely, indeed,” Lord Henry agreed, a little bewildered, he confesses, “always provided you are certain it will not overtax your endurance and distress you overmuch. We could perhaps dispense with your testimony.”

“In that, my lord, I assure you that you are mistaken,” she answered. “You cannot dispense with it.”

“Be it so, then,” said Sir John grimly, and he strode back to the table, prepared to take his place there.

Lord Henry’s twinkling blue eyes were still considering Rosamund somewhat searchingly, his fingers tugging thoughtfully at his short tuft of ashen-coloured beard. Then he turned to the door. “Come in, gentlemen,” he said, “and bid them bring up the prisoner.”

Steps clanked upon the deck, and three of Sir John’s officers made their appearance to complete the court that was to sit in judgment upon the renegade corsair, a judgment whose issue was foregone.

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