The Sea Hawk, by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter 25

The Advocate

Chairs were set at the long brown table of massive oak, and the officers sat down, facing the open door and the blaze of sunshine on the poop-deck, their backs to the other door and the horn windows which opened upon the stern-gallery. The middle place was assumed by Lord Henry Goade by virtue of his office of Queen’s Lieutenant, and the reason for his chain of office became now apparent. He was to preside over this summary court. On his right sat Sir John Killigrew, and beyond him an officer named Youldon. The other two, whose names have not survived, occupied his lordship’s left.

A chair had been set for Rosamund at the table’s extreme right and across the head of it, so as to detach her from the judicial bench. She sat there now, her elbows on the polished board, her face resting in her half-clenched hands, her eyes scrutinizing the five gentlemen who formed this court.

Steps rang on the companion, and a shadow fell athwart the sunlight beyond the open door. From the vessel’s waist came a murmur of voices and a laugh. Then Sir Oliver appeared in the doorway guarded by two fighting seamen in corselet and morion with drawn swords.

He paused an instant in the doorway, and his eyelids flickered as if he had received a shock when his glance alighted upon Rosamund. Then under the suasion of his guards he entered, and stood forward, his wrists still pinioned behind him, slightly in advance of the two soldiers.

He nodded perfunctorily to the court, his face entirely calm.

“A fine morning, sirs,” said he.

The five considered him in silence, but Lord Henry’s glance, as it rested upon the corsair’s Muslim garb, was eloquent of the scorn which he tells us filled his heart.

“You are no doubt aware, sir,” said Sir John after a long pause, “of the purpose for which you have been brought hither.”

“Scarcely,” said the prisoner. “But I have no doubt whatever of the purpose for which I shall presently be taken hence. However,” he continued, cool and critical, “I can guess from your judicial attitudes the superfluous mockery that you intend. If it will afford you entertainment, faith, I do not grudge indulging you. I would observe only that it might be considerate in you to spare Mistress Rosamund the pain and weariness of the business that is before you.”

“Mistress Rosamund herself desired to be present,” said Sir John, scowling.

“Perhaps,” said Sir Oliver, “she does not realize. . . . ”

“I have made it abundantly plain to her,” Sir John interrupted, almost vindictively.

The prisoner looked at her as if in surprise, his brows knit. Then with a shrug he turned to his judges again.

“In that case,” said he, “there’s no more to be said. But before you proceed, there is another matter upon which I desire an understanding.

“The terms of my surrender were that all others should be permitted to go free. You will remember, Sir John, that you pledged me your knightly word for that. Yet I find aboard here one who was lately with me upon my galeasse — a sometime English seaman, named Jasper Leigh, whom you hold a prisoner.”

“He killed Master Lionel Tressilian,” said Sir John coldly

“That may be, Sir John. But the blow was delivered before I made my terms with you, and you cannot violate these terms without hurt to your honour.”

“D’ye talk of honour, sir?” said Lord Henry.

“Of Sir John’s honour, my lord,” said the prisoner, with mock humility.

“You are here, sir, to take your trial,” Sir John reminded him.

“So I had supposed. It is a privilege for which you agreed to pay a certain price, and now it seems you have been guilty of filching something back. It seems so, I say. For I cannot think but that the arrest was inadvertently effected, and that it will suffice that I draw your attention to the matter of Master Leigh’s detention.”

Sir John considered the table. It was beyond question that he was in honour bound to enlarge Master Leigh, whatever the fellow might have done; and, indeed, his arrest had been made without Sir John’s knowledge until after the event.

“What am I do with him?” he growled sullenly.

“That is for yourself to decide, Sir John. But I can tell you what you may not do with him. You may not keep him a prisoner, or carry him to England or injure him in any way. Since his arrest was a pure error, as I gather, you must repair that error as best you can. I am satisfied that you will do so, and need say no more. Your servant, sirs,” he added to intimate that he was now entirely at their disposal, and he stood waiting.

There was a slight pause, and then Lord Henry, his face inscrutable, his glance hostile and cold, addressed the prisoner.

“We have had you brought hither to afford you an opportunity of urging any reasons why we should not hang you out of hand, as is our right.”

Sir Oliver looked at him in almost amused surprise. “Faith!” he said at length. “It was never my habit to waste breath.”

“I doubt you do not rightly apprehend me, sir,” returned his lordship, and his voice was soft and silken as became his judicial position. “Should you demand a formal trial, we will convey you to England that you may have it.”

“But lest you should build unduly upon that,” cut in Sir John fiercely, “let me warn you that as the offences for which you are to suffer were chiefly committed within Lord Henry Goade’s own jurisdiction, your trial will take place in Cornwall, where Lord Henry has the honour to be Her Majesty’s Lieutenant and dispenser of justice.”

“Her Majesty is to be congratulated,” said Sir Oliver elaborately.

“It is for you to choose, sir,” Sir John ran on, “whether you will be hanged on sea or land.”

“My only possible objection would be to being hanged in the air. But you’re not likely to heed that,” was the flippant answer.

Lord Henry leaned forward again. “Let me beg you, sir, in your own interests to be serious,” he admonished the prisoner.

“I confess the occasion, my lord. For if you are to sit in judgment upon my piracy, I could not desire a more experienced judge of the matter on sea or land than Sir John Killigrew.”

“I am glad to deserve your approval,” Sir John replied tartly. “Piracy,” he added, “is but the least of the counts against you.”

Sir Oliver’s brows went up, and he stared at the row of solemn faces.

“As God’s my life, then, your other counts must needs be sound — or else, if there be any justice in your methods, you are like to be disappointed of your hopes of seeing me swing. Proceed, sirs, to the other counts. I vow you become more interesting than I could have hoped.”

“Can you deny the piracy?” quoth Lord Henry.

“Deny it? No. But I deny your jurisdiction in the matter, or that of any English court, since I have committed no piracy in English waters.”

Lord Henry admits that the answer silenced and bewildered him, being utterly unexpected. Yet what the prisoner urged was a truth so obvious that it was difficult to apprehend how his lordship had come to overlook it. I rather fear that despite his judicial office, jurisprudence was not a strong point with his lordship. But Sir John, less perspicuous or less scrupulous in the matter, had his retort ready.

“Did you not come to Arwenack and forcibly carry off thence. . . . ”

“Nay, now, nay, now,” the corsair interrupted, good-humouredly. “Go back to school, Sir John, to learn that abduction is not piracy.”

“Call it abduction, if you will,” Sir John admitted.

“Not if I will, Sir John. We’ll call it what it is, if you please.”

“You are trifling, sir. But we shall mend that presently,” and Sir John banged the table with his fist, his face flushing slightly in anger. (Lord Henry very properly deplores this show of heat at such a time.) “You cannot pretend to be ignorant,” Sir John continued, “that abduction is punishable by death under the law of England.” He turned to his fellow-judges. “We will then, sirs, with your concurrence, say no more of the piracy.”

“Faith,” said Lord Henry in his gentle tones, “in justice we cannot.” And he shrugged the matter aside. “The prisoner is right in what he claims. We have no jurisdiction in that matter, seeing that he committed no piracy in English waters, nor — so far as our knowledge goes — against any vessel sailing under the English flag.”

Rosamund stirred. Slowly she took her elbows from the table, and folded her arms resting them upon the edge of it. Thus leaning forward she listened now with an odd brightness in her eye, a slight flush in her cheeks reflecting some odd excitement called into life by Lord Henry’s admission — an admission which sensibly whittled down the charges against the prisoner.

Sir Oliver, watching her almost furtively, noted this and marvelled, even as he marvelled at her general composure. It was in vain that he sought to guess what might be her attitude of mind towards himself now that she was safe again among friends and protectors.

But Sir John, intent only upon the business ahead, plunged angrily on.

“Be it so,” he admitted impatiently. “We will deal with him upon the counts of abduction and murder. Have you anything to say?”

“Nothing that would be like to weigh with you,” replied Sir Oliver. And then with a sudden change from his slightly derisive manner to one that was charged with passion: “Let us make an end of this comedy,” he cried, “of this pretence of judicial proceedings. Hang me, and have done, or set me to walk the plank. Play the pirate, for that is a trade you understand. But a’ God’s name don’t disgrace the Queen’s commission by playing the judge.”

Sir John leapt to his feet, his face aflame. “Now, by Heaven, you insolent knave. . . . ”

But Lord Henry checked him, placing a restraining hand upon his sleeve, and forcing him gently back into his seat. Himself he now addressed the prisoner.

“Sir, your words are unworthy one who, whatever his crimes, has earned the repute of being a sturdy, valiant fighter. Your deeds are so notorious — particularly that which caused you to flee from England and take to roving, and that of your reappearance at Arwenack and the abduction of which you were then guilty — that your sentence in an English court is a matter foregone beyond all possible doubt. Nevertheless, it shall be yours, as I have said, for the asking.

“Yet,” he added, and his voice was lowered and very earnest, “were I your friend, Sir Oliver, I would advise you that you rather choose to be dealt with in the summary fashion of the sea.”

“Sirs,” replied Sir Oliver, “your right to hang me I have not disputed, nor do I. I have no more to say.”

“But I have.”

Thus Rosamund at last, startling the court with her crisp, sharp utterance. All turned to look at her as she rose, and stood tall and compelling at the table’s end.

“Rosamund!” cried Sir John, and rose in his turn. “Let me implore you. . . . ”

She waved him peremptorily, almost contemptuously, into silence.

“Since in this matter of the abduction with which Sir Oliver is charged,” she said, “I am the person said to have been abducted, it were perhaps well that before going further in this matter you should hear what I may hereafter have to say in an English court.”

Sir John shrugged, and sat down again. She would have her way, he realized; just as he knew that its only result could be to waste their time and protract the agony of the doomed man.

Lord Henry turned to her, his manner full of deference. “Since the prisoner has not denied the charge, and since wisely he refrains from demanding to be taken to trial, we need not harass you, Mistress Rosamund. Nor will you be called upon to say anything in an English court.”

“There you are at fault, my lord,” she answered, her voice very level. “I shall be called upon to say something when I impeach you all for murder upon the high seas, as impeach you I shall if you persist in your intent.”

“Rosamund!” cried Oliver in his sudden amazement — and it was a cry of joy and exultation.

She looked at him, and smiled — a smile full of courage and friendliness and something more, a smile for which he considered that his impending hanging was but a little price to pay. Then she turned again to that court, into which her words had flung a sudden consternation.

“Since he disdains to deny the accusation, I must deny it for him,” she informed them. “He did not abduct me, sirs, as is alleged. I love Oliver Tressilian. I am of full age and mistress of my actions, and I went willingly with him to Algiers where I became his wife.”

Had she flung a bomb amongst them she could hardly have made a greater disorder of their wits. They sat back, and stared at her with blank faces, muttering incoherencies.

“His . . . his wife?” babbled Lord Henry. “You became his. . . . ”

And then Sir John cut in fiercely. “A lie! A lie to save that foul villain’s neck!”

Rosamund leaned towards him, and her smile was almost a sneer. “Your wits were ever sluggish, Sir John,” she said. “Else you would not need reminding that I could have no object in lying to save him if he had done me the wrong that is imputed to him.” Then she looked at the others. “I think, sirs, that in this matter my word will outweigh Sir John’s or any man’s in any court of justice.”

“Faith, that’s true enough!” ejaculated the bewildered Lord Henry. “A moment, Killigrew!” And again he stilled the impetuous Sir John. He looked at Sir Oliver, who in truth was very far from being the least bewildered in that company. “What do you say to that, sir?” he asked.

“To that?” echoed the almost speechless corsair. “What is there left to say?” he evaded.

“’Tis all false,” cried Sir John again. “We were witnesses of the event — you and I, Harry — and we saw. . . . ”

“You saw,” Rosamund interrupted. “But you did not know what had been concerted.”

For a moment that silenced them again. They were as men who stand upon crumbling ground, whose every effort to win to a safer footing but occasioned a fresh slide of soil. Then Sir John sneered, and made his riposte.

“No doubt she will be prepared to swear that her betrothed, Master Lionel Tressilian, accompanied her willingly upon that elopement.”

“No,” she answered. “As for Lionel Tressilian he was carried off that he might expiate his sins — sins which he had fathered upon his brother there, sins which are the subject of your other count against him.”

“Now what can you mean by that?” asked his lordship.

“That the story that Sir Oliver killed my brother is a calumny; that the murderer was Lionel Tressilian, who, to avoid detection and to complete his work, caused Sir Oliver to be kidnapped that he might be sold into slavery.”

“This is too much!” roared Sir John. “She is trifling with us, she makes white black and black white. She has been bewitched by that crafty rogue, by Moorish arts that. . . . ”

“Wait!” said Lord Henry, raising his hand. “Give me leave.” He confronted her very seriously. “This . . . this is a grave statement, mistress. Have you any proof — anything that you conceive to be a proof — of what you are saying?”

But Sir John was not to be repressed. “’Tis but the lying tale this villain told her. He has bewitched her, I say. ’Tis plain as the sunlight yonder.”

Sir Oliver laughed outright at that. His mood was growing exultant, buoyant, and joyous, and this was the first expression of it. “Bewitched her? You’re determined never to lack for a charge. First ’twas piracy, then abduction and murder, and now ’tis witchcraft!”

“Oh, a moment, pray!” cried Lord Henry, and he confesses to some heat at this point. “Do you seriously tell us, Mistress Rosamund, that it was Lionel Tressilian who murdered Peter Godolphin?”

“Seriously?” she echoed, and her lips were twisted in a little smile of scorn. “I not merely tell it you, I swear it here in the sight of God. It was Lionel who murdered my brother and it was Lionel who put it about that the deed was Sir Oliver’s. It was said that Sir Oliver had run away from the consequences of something discovered against him, and I to my shame believed the public voice. But I have since discovered the truth. . . . ”

“The truth, do you say, mistress?” cried the impetuous Sir John in a voice of passionate contempt. “The truth. . . . ”

Again his Lordship was forced to intervene.

“Have patience, man,” he admonished the knight. “The truth will prevail in the end, never fear, Killigrew.”

“Meanwhile we are wasting time,” grumbled Sir John, and on that fell moodily silent.

“Are we further to understand you to say, mistress,” Lord Henry resumed, “that the prisoner’s disappearance from Penarrow was due not to flight, as was supposed, but to his having been trepanned by order of his brother?”

“That is the truth as I stand here in the sight of Heaven,” she replied in a voice that rang with sincerity and carried conviction to more than one of the officers seated at that table. “By that act the murderer sought not only to save himself from exposure, but to complete his work by succeeding to the Tressilian estates. Sir Oliver was to have been sold into slavery to the Moors of Barbary. Instead the vessel upon which he sailed was captured by Spaniards, and he was sent to the galleys by the Inquisition. When his galley was captured by Muslim corsairs he took the only way of escape that offered. He became a corsair and a leader of corsairs, and then. . . . ”

“What else he did we know,” Lord Henry interrupted. “And I assure you it would all weigh very lightly with us or with any court if what else you say is true.”

“It is true. I swear it, my lord,” she repeated.

“Ay,” he answered, nodding gravely. “But can you prove it?”

“What better proof can I offer you than that I love him, and have married him?”

“Bah!” said Sir John.

“That, mistress,” said Lord Henry, his manner extremely gentle, “is proof that yourself you believe this amazing story. But it is not proof that the story itself is true. You had it, I suppose,” he continued smoothly, “from Oliver Tressilian himself?”

“That is so; but in Lionel’s own presence, and Lionel himself confirmed it — admitting its truth.”

“You dare say that?” cried Sir John, and stared at her in incredulous anger. “My God! You dare say that?”

“I dare and do,” she answered him, giving him back look for look.

Lord Henry sat back in his chair, and tugged gently at his ashen tuft of beard, his florid face overcast and thoughtful. There was something here he did not understand at all. “Mistress Rosamund,” he said quietly, “let me exhort you to consider the gravity of your words. You are virtually accusing one who is no longer able to defend himself; if your story is established, infamy will rest for ever upon the memory of Lionel Tressilian. Let me ask you again, and let me entreat you to answer scrupulously. Did Lionel Tressilian admit the truth of this thing with which you say that the prisoner charged him?”

“Once more I solemnly swear that what I have spoken is true; that Lionel Tressilian did in my presence, when charged by Sir Oliver with the murder of my brother and the kidnapping of himself, admit those charges. Can I make it any plainer, sirs?”

Lord Henry spread his hands. “After that, Killigrew, I do not think we can go further in this matter. Sir Oliver must go with us to England, and there take his trial.”

But there was one present — that officer named Youldon — whose wits, it seems, were of keener temper.

“By your leave, my lord,” he now interposed, and he turned to question the witness. “What was the occasion on which Sir Oliver forced this admission from his brother?”

Truthfully she answered. “At his house in Algiers on the night he. . . . ” She checked suddenly, perceiving then the trap that had been set for her. And the others perceived it also. Sir John leapt into the breach which Youldon had so shrewdly made in her defences.

“Continue, pray,” he bade her. “On the night he. . . . ”

“On the night we arrived there,” she answered desperately, the colour now receding slowly from her face.

“And that, of course,” said Sir John slowly, mockingly almost, “was the first occasion on which you heard this explanation of Sir Oliver’s conduct?”

“It was,” she faltered — perforce.

“So that,” insisted Sir John, determined to leave her no loophole whatsoever, “so that until that night you had naturally continued to believe Sir Oliver to be the murderer of your brother?”

She hung her head in silence, realizing that the truth could not prevail here since she had hampered it with a falsehood, which was now being dragged into the light.

“Answer me!” Sir John commanded.

“There is no need to answer,” said Lord Henry slowly, in a voice of pain, his eyes lowered to the table. “There can, of course, be but one answer. Mistress Rosamund has told us that he did not abduct her forcibly; that she went with him of her own free will and married him; and she has urged that circumstance as a proof of her conviction of his innocence. Yet now it becomes plain that at the time she left England with him she still believed him to be her brother’s slayer. Yet she asks us to believe that he did not abduct her.” He spread his hands again and pursed his lips in a sort of grieved contempt.

“Let us make an end, a’ God’s name!” said Sir John, rising.

“Ah, wait!” she cried. “I swear that all that I have told you is true — all but the matter of the abduction. I admit that, but I condoned it in view of what I have since learnt.”

“She admits it!” mocked Sir John.

But she went on without heeding him. “Knowing what he has suffered through the evil of others, I gladly own him my husband, hoping to make some amends to him for the part I had in his wrongs. You must believe me, sirs. But if you will not, I ask you is his action of yesterday to count for naught? Are you not to remember that but for him you would have had no knowledge of my whereabouts?”

They stared at her in fresh surprise.

“To what do you refer now, mistress? What action of his is responsible for this?”

“Do you need to ask? Are you so set on murdering him that you affect ignorance? Surely you know that it was he dispatched Lionel to inform you of my whereabouts?”

Lord Henry tells us that at this he smote the table with his open palm, displaying an anger he could no longer curb. “This is too much!” he cried. “Hitherto I have believed you sincere but misguided and mistaken. But so deliberate a falsehood transcends all bounds. What has come to you, girl? Why, Lionel himself told us the circumstances of his escape from the galeasse. Himself he told us how that villain had him flogged and then flung him into the sea for dead.”

“Ah!” said Sir Oliver between his teeth. “I recognize Lionel there! He would be false to the end, of course. I should have thought of that.”

Rosamund at bay, in a burst of regal anger leaned forward to face Lord Henry and the others. “He lied, the base, treacherous dog!” she cried.

“Madam,” Sir John rebuked her, “you are speaking of one who is all but dead.”

“And more than damned,” added Sir Oliver. “Sirs,” he cried, “you prove naught but your own stupidity when you accuse this gentle lady of falsehood.”

“We have heard enough, sir,” Lord Henry interrupted.

“Have you so, by God!” he roared, stung suddenly to anger. “You shall hear yet a little more. The truth will prevail, you have said yourself; and prevail the truth shall since this sweet lady so desires it.”

He was flushed, and his light eyes played over them like points of steel, and like points of steel they carried a certain measure of compulsion. He had stood before them half-mocking and indifferent, resigned to hang and desiring the thing might be over and ended as speedily as possible. But all that was before he suspected that life could still have anything to offer him, whilst he conceived that Rosamund was definitely lost to him. True, he had the memory of a certain tenderness she had shown him yesternight aboard the galley, but he had deemed that tenderness to be no more than such as the situation itself begot. Almost he had deemed the same to be here the case until he had witnessed her fierceness and despair in fighting for his life, until he had heard and gauged the sincerity of her avowal that she loved him and desired to make some amends to him for all that he had suffered in the past. That had spurred him, and had a further spur been needed, it was afforded him when they branded her words with falsehood, mocked her to her face with what they supposed to be her lies. Anger had taken him at that to stiffen his resolve to make a stand against them and use the one weapon that remained him — that a merciful chance, a just God had placed within his power almost despite himself.

“I little knew, sirs,” he said, “that Sir John was guided by the hand of destiny itself when last night, in violation of the terms of my surrender, he took a prisoner from my galeasse. That man is, as I have said, a sometime English seaman, named Jasper Leigh. He fell into my hands some months ago, and took the same road to escape from thraldom that I took myself under the like circumstances. I was merciful in that I permitted him to do so, for he is the very skipper who was suborned by Lionel to kidnap me and carry me into Barbary. With me he fell into the hands of the Spaniards. Have him brought hither, and question him.”

In silence they all looked at him, but on more than one face he saw the reflection of amazement at his impudence, as they conceived it.

It was Lord Henry who spoke at last. “Surely, sir, this is most oddly, most suspiciously apt,” he said, and there could be no doubt that he was faintly sneering. “The very man to be here aboard, and taken prisoner thus, almost by chance. . . . ”

“Not quite by chance, though very nearly. He conceives that he has a grudge against Lionel, for it was through Lionel that misfortune overtook him. Last night when Lionel so rashly leapt aboard the galley, Jasper Leigh saw his opportunity to settle an old score and took it. It was as a consequence of that that he was arrested.”

“Even so, the chance is still miraculous.”

“Miracles, my lord, must happen sometimes if the truth is to prevail,” Sir Oliver replied with a tinge of his earlier mockery. “Fetch him hither, and question him. He knows naught of what has passed here. It were a madness to suppose him primed for a situation which none could have foreseen. Fetch him hither, then.”

Steps sounded outside but went unheeded at the moment.

“Surely,” said Sir John, “we have been trifled with by liars long enough!”

The door was flung open, and the lean black figure of the surgeon made its appearance.

“Sir John!” he called urgently, breaking without ceremony into the proceedings, and never heeding Lord Henry’s scowl. “Master Tressilian has recovered consciousness. He is asking for you and for his brother. Quick, sirs! He is sinking fast.”

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