The sea hawk, p.21
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.21

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER XI. THE TRUTH

  The sun was dipping swiftly to the world's rim when Sakr-el-Bahr withhis Nubians and his little retinue of corsairs came to the gates of thatwhite house of his on its little eminence outside the Bab-el-Oueb andbeyond the walls of the city.

  When Rosamund and Lionel, brought in the wake of the corsair, foundthemselves in the spacious courtyard beyond the dark and narrowentrance, the blue of the sky contained but the paling embers of thedying day, and suddenly, sharply upon the evening stillness, came amueddin's voice calling the faithful unto prayer.

  Slaves fetched water from the fountain that played in the middle of thequadrangle and tossed aloft a slender silvery spear of water to breakinto 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 uponthe praying-mat that had been set for him, whilst his corsairs detachedtheir cloaks and spread them upon the ground to serve them in likestead.

  The Nubians turned the two slaves about, lest their glances shoulddefile the orisons of the faithful, and left them so facing the walland the green gate that led into the garden whence were wafted on thecooling air the perfumes of jessamine and lavender. Through the laths ofthe gate they might have caught a glimpse of the riot of colour there,and they might have seen the slaves arrested by the Persian waterwheelat which they had been toiling and chanting until the call to prayer hadcome 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 captivesbefore them up the narrow stairs, and so brought them out upon theterrace on the roof, that space which in Eastern houses is devoted tothe women, but which no woman's foot had ever trodden since this househad 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 beenso laboriously built by the labour of Christian slaves from the stonesof the ruined fortress--the Penon, which Kheyr-ed-Din Barbarossa hadwrested from the Spaniards. The deepening shroud of evening was now uponall, transmuting white and yellow walls alike to a pearly greyness. Towestward stretched the fragrant gardens of the house, where the doveswere murmuring fondly among the mulberries and lotus trees. Beyond it avalley wound its way between the shallow hills, and from a pool fringedwith sedges and bullrushes above which a great stork was majesticallysailing came the harsh croak of frogs.

  An awning supported upon two gigantic spears hung out from the southernwall of the terrace which rose to twice the height of that forming theparapet on its other three sides. Under this was a divan and silkencushions, and near it a small Moorish table of ebony inlaid withmother-of-pearl and gold. Over the opposite parapet, where a lattice hadbeen 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, theirfaces gleaming ghostly each to each, whilst the Nubians stood like twinstatues by the door that opened from the stair-head.

  The man groaned, and clasped his hands before him. The doublet which hadbeen torn from him in the sok had since been restored and temporarilyrepaired 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 ofthem were for Rosamund's condition rather than his own.

  "O God, that you should be subjected to this!" he cried. "That youshould have suffered what you have suffered! The humiliation of it, thebarbarous 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 hervoice was wonderfully steady and soothing. Have I not said that theseGodolphins were brave folk? Even their women were held to have somethingof the male spirit in their breasts; and to this none can doubt thatRosamund now bore witness. "Do not pity me, Lionel, for my sufferingsare at an end or very nearly." She smiled strangely, the smile ofexaltation 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'sburden 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 allthe hours they had spent together since they were brought ashore fromthe carack; and had the season permitted her so much reflection, shemight have considered that she had found him singularly wanting duringthose hours of stress when a man of worth would have made some effort,however desperate, to enhearten her rather than repine upon his ownplight.

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

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

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

  He bowed to Rosamund. "This, mistress," he said, "is to be your domainhenceforth which is to treat you more as wife than slave. For it is toMuslim wives that the housetops in Barbary are allotted. I hope you likeit."

  Lionel staring at him out of a white face, his conscience bidding himfear the very worst, his imagination painting a thousand horridfates for him and turning him sick with dread, shrank back before hishalf-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 wascontemptuous and defiant, her voice calm and steady, when she answeredhim with the question--"What is your intent with me?"

  "My intent?" said he, with a little twisted smile. Yet for all that hebelieved 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 anhour as this.

  From behind the hills peeped the edge of the moon--a sickle of burnishedcopper.

  "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 thegolden fetters of that servitude. You'll find it less easy to break theshackles I now impose upon you."

  She smiled her scorn and quiet confidence. He stepped close to her. "Youare my slave, do you understand?--bought in the market-place as I mightbuy 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 cherishor break as suits my whim, without a will that is not my will, holdingyour 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 exchangefor 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, thenhe laughed.

  "Ha! My
sometime brother. A pretty fellow, as God lives is it not?Consider him Rosamund. Behold how gallantly misfortune is borne by thispillar of manhood upon which you would have leaned, by this stalwarthusband 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 angerwhere before it had held naught but fear.

  "You are no brother of mine," he retorted fiercely. "Your mother was awanton who betrayed my father."

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

  "Let me hear my mother's name but once again on thy foul tongue, andI'll have it ripped out by the roots. Her memory, I thank God, is farabove the insults of such a crawling thing as you. None the less, takecare not to speak of the only woman whose name I reverence."

  And then turning at bay, as even the rat will do, Lionel sprangupon him, with clawing hands outstretched to reach his throat. ButSakr-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? Considerthat for six endless months I toiled at the oar of a galley, and you'llunderstand what it was that turned my body into iron and robbed me of asoul."

  He flung him off, and sent him crashing into the rosebush and thelattice 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 stenchof your fellows in misfortune, unkempt, unwashed save by the rain,broiled and roasted by the sun, festering with sores, lashed and cutand 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 rosesuddenly to a roar. "You shall. For that horror which was mine by yourcontriving shall now be yours until you die."

  He paused; but Lionel made no attempt to avail himself of this. Hiscourage 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 withhaving branded me a murderer, destroyed my good name, filched mypossessions and driven me into the very path of hell, you must furtherset about usurping my place in the false heart of this woman I onceloved."

  "I hope," he went on reflectively, "that in your own poor way you loveher, too, Lionel. Thus to the torment that awaits your body shall beadded torment for your treacherous soul--such torture of mind as onlythe damned may know. To that end have I brought you hither. That you mayrealize something of what is in store for this woman at my hands; thatyou may take the thought of it with you to be to your mind worse thanthe 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 notupbraid them for being devils when next you meet them."

  "Give him no heed, Lionel!" said Rosamund. "I shall prove him as much aboaster as he has proved himself a villain. Never think that he will beable 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," sheanswered.

  "Coward?" he echoed, in genuine surprise. "'Twill be some lie that hehas 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 twohelpless beings in our power."

  "I speak not of what I am," he replied, "for I have told you that I amwhat 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 unwaveringglance.

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

  "It is that we might speak of it together that I have fetched you allthe way from England; that at last I may tell you things I was a foolto have kept from you five years ago; that we may resume a conversationwhich you interrupted when you dismissed me."

  "I did you a monstrous injury, no doubt," she answered him, with bitterirony. "I was surely wanting in consideration. It would have become mebetter to have smiled and fawned upon my brother's murderer."

  "I swore to you, then, that I was not his murderer," he reminded her ina voice that shook.

  "And I answered you that you lied."

  "Ay, and on that you dismissed me--the word of the man whom youprofessed to love, the word of the man to whom you had given your trustweighing for naught with you."

  "When I gave you my trust," she retorted, "I did so in ignorance of yourtrue self, in a headstrong wilful ignorance that would not be guidedby what all the world said of you and your wild ways. For that blindwilfulness I have been punished, as perhaps I deserved to be."

  "Lies--all lies!" he stormed. "Those ways of mine--and God knows theywere none so wild, when all is said--I abandoned when I came to loveyou. 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 thatfor a season I believed I loved you."

  He smiled. "If you can still feel shame, it shall overwhelm you ere Ihave done. For you shall hear me out. Here there are none to interruptus, none to thwart my sovereign will. Reflect then, and remember.Remember what a pride you took in the change you had wrought in me. Yourvanity welcomed that flattery, that tribute to the power of your beauty.Yet, all in a moment, upon the paltriest grounds, you believed me themurderer 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 sufficientlyprovoked. Because you had not sworn to them as you swore to me that noprovocation 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. Lionelcrouching ever by the rose-tree was almost entirely forgotten by himnow.

  "God give me patience with you!" he said at length. "I need it. For Idesire you to understand many things this night. I mean you to see howjust is my resentment; how just the punishment that is to overtake youfor what you have made of my life and perhaps of my hereafter. JusticeBaine 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 ofyour oath that you would kill him?"

  "That was an oath sworn in the heat of anger. Afterwards I bethought methat 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 sakeof profit, they lie out of cowardice or malice, or else because they arevain and vulgar boasters. I know of no other causes that will drivea man to falsehood, save that--ah, yes!--" (and he flashed a sidelongglance at Lionel)--"save that sometimes a man will lie to shieldanother, out of self-sacrifice. There you have all the spurs that urgea 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. Considerfurther that I have come to loathe you for your unfaith; that Idesire naught so much as to punish you for that and for all its bitterconsequences to me that I have brought you hither to exact payment fromyou 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 youunderstand the wrongs for which you are called to pay. To prevent youfrom conceiving yourself a martyr; to make you perceive in all itsdeadly bitterness that what now comes to you is the inevitable fruit ofyour 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 wastebreath in attempting to persuade me against my reason. But wordswill not blot out facts. And though you talk from now till the day ofjudgment no word of yours can efface those bloodstains in the snow thatformed a trail from that poor murdered body to your own door; no word ofyours can extinguish the memory of the hatred between him and you, andof your own threat to kill him; nor can it stifle the recollection ofthe public voice demanding your punishment. You dare to take such a toneas you are taking with me? You dare here under Heaven to stand and lieto me that you may give false gloze to the villainy of your presentdeed--for that is the purpose of your falsehood, since you asked me whatpurpose there could be for it. What had you to set against all that, toconvince me that your hands were clean, to induce me to keep the trothwhich--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 ifcalled 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 theQueen's pursuivants were coming in response to the public voice to callyou 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 falsecharge against you?"

  "So," he said slowly, "it was believed I fled!"

  And then light burst upon him, to dazzle and stun him. It was soinevitably what must have been believed, and yet it had never crossedhis mind. O the damnable simplicity of it! At another time hisdisappearance must have provoked comment and investigation, perhaps.But, happening when it did, the answer to it came promptly andconvincingly and no man troubled to question further. Thus was Lionel'stask made doubly easy, thus was his own guilt made doubly sure in theeyes of all. His head sank upon his breast. What had he done? Couldhe still blame Rosamund for having been convinced by so overwhelming apiece of evidence? Could he still blame her if she had burnt unopenedthe letter which he had sent her by the hand of Pitt? What else indeedcould any suppose, but that he had fled? And that being so, clearly sucha flight must brand him irrefutably for the murderer he was alleged tobe. How could he blame her if she had ultimately been convinced by theonly 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 toendure the haggard, strained yet fearless gaze of those brave eyes ofhers.

  "What else, indeed, could you believe?" he muttered brokenly, thusgiving some utterance to what was passing through his mind.

  "Naught else but the whole vile truth," she answered fiercely, andthereby stung him anew, whipped him out of his sudden weakening back tohis mood of resentment and vindictiveness.

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

  "The truth?" he echoed, and eyed her boldly now. "Do you know the truthwhen you see it? We shall discover. For by God's light you shall havethe truth laid stark before you now, and you shall find it hideousbeyond all your hideous imaginings."

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

  "Your brother," he began, "met his death at the hands of a falseweakling whom I loved, towards whom I had a sacred duty. Straight fromthe deed he fled to me for shelter. A wound he had taken in the struggleleft that trail of blood to mark the way he had come." He paused, andhis tone became gentler, it assumed the level note of one who reasonsimpassively. "Was it not an odd thing, now, that none should everhave paused to seek with certainty whence that blood proceeded, and toconsider that I bore no wound in those days? Master Baine knew it, forI submitted my body to his examination, and a document was drawn up andduly attested which should have sent the Queen's pursuivants back toLondon with drooping tails had I been at Penarrow to receive them."

  Faintly through her mind stirred the memory that Master Baine had urgedthe existence of some such document, that in fact he had gone so far asto have made oath of this very circumstance now urged by Sir Oliver; andshe remembered that the matter had been brushed aside as an invention ofthe justice's to answer the charge of laxity in the performance of hisduty, particularly as the only co-witness he could cite was Sir AndrewFlack, the parson, since deceased. Sir Oliver's voice drew her attentionfrom 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 uponmyself, and since I could not clear myself save by denouncing him, Ikept silent. That suspicion drew to certainty when the woman to whom Iwas betrothed, recking nothing of my oaths, freely believing the veryworst of me, made an end of our betrothal and thereby branded me amurderer 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 ofTruro refused to do.

  "So far I have given you facts. Now I give you surmise--my ownconclusions--but surmise that strikes, as you shall judge, the verybull's-eye of truth. That dastard to whom I had given sanctuary, to whomI had served as a cloak, measured my nature by his own and feared thatI must prove unequal to the fresh burden to be cast upon me. He fearedlest 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 wassomething still more unanswerable he feared I might have urged. Therewas a certain woman--a wanton up at Malpas--who could have been madeto speak, who could have revealed a rivalry concerning her betwixt theslayer and your brother. For the affair in which Peter Godolphin met hisdeath was a pitifully, shamefully sordid one at bottom."

  For the first time she interrupted him, fiercely. "Do you malign thedead?"

  "Patience, mistress," he commanded. "I malign none. I speak the truth ofa 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; sohe decided to remove me. He contrived to have me kidnapped one night andput 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 hadbefriended and sheltered at my own bitter cost, profited yet further bymy removal. God knows whether the prospect of such profit was a furthertemptation to him. In time he came to succeed me in my possessions, andat last to succeed me even in the affections of the faithless woman whoonce had been my affianced wife."

  At last she started from the frozen patience in which she had listenedhitherto. "Do you say that... that Lionel...?" she was beginning in avoice choked by indignation.

  And then Lionel spoke at last, straightening himself into a stifflyupright 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 momenthis eyes followed her as she moved away a step or two, then they turnedtheir blazing light of anger upon Lionel. He strode silently across tohim, his mien so menacing that Lionel shrank ba
ck in fresh terror.

  Sakr-el-Bahr caught his brother's wrist in a grip that was as that ofa steel manacle. "We'll have the truth this night if we have to tear itfrom you with red-hot pincers," he said between his teeth.

  He dragged him forward to the middle of the terrace and held himthere before Rosamund, forcing him down upon his knees into a coweringattitude 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 athome. They are instruments of voluptuous delight compared with thecontrivances of Barbary to loosen stubborn tongues."

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

  "You coward! You cur! You craven renegade dog!" she branded him.

  Oliver released his brother's wrist and beat his hands together. Withoutheeding Rosamund he looked down upon Lionel, who cowered shuddering athis feet.

  "What do you say to a match between your fingers? Or do you think a pairof 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 knowhim again. Look at him, I say!" And Lionel looked, yet since clearlyhe did so without recognition his brother explained: "His name amongChristians was Jasper Leigh. He was the skipper you bribed to carry meinto Barbary. He was taken in his own toils when his ship was sunk bySpaniards. Later he fell into my power, and because I forebore fromhanging him he is to-day my faithful follower. I should bid him tellyou what he knows," he continued, turning to Rosamund, "if I thoughtyou would believe his tale. But since I am assured you would not, I willtake other means." He swung round to Jasper again. "Bid Ali heat me apair of steel manacles in a brazier and hold them in readiness againstmy 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 fromme with your ruffianly tortures."

  Oliver smiled. "Not a doubt but that lies will flow from you morereadily than truth. But we shall have truth, too, in the end, neverdoubt it." He was mocking, and there was a subtle purpose underlying hismockery. "And you shall tell a full story," he continued, "in all itsdetails, so that Mistress Rosamund's last doubt shall vanish. You shalltell her how you lay in wait for him that evening in Godolphin Park; howyou took him unawares, and...."

  "That is false!" cried Lionel in a passion of sincerity that brought himto his feet.

  It was false, indeed, and Oliver knew it, and deliberately had recourseto 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 bettermanifest his cunning.

  "False?" he cried with scorn. "Come, now, be reasonable. The truth, eretorture sucks it out of you. Reflect that I know all--exactly as youtold it me. How was it, now? Lurking behind a bush you sprang upon himunawares and ran him through before he could so much as lay a hand tohis sword, and so...."

  "The lie of that is proven by the very facts themselves," was thefurious interruption. A subtle judge of tones might have realized thathere 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 itafter you had slain him."

  The taunt performed its deadly work. For just one instant Lionel wascarried off his feet by the luxury of his genuine indignation, and inthat 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 tohear.

  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 intoself-betrayal.

  At last it was Rosamund who spoke, and her voice shook and shifted fromkey 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. "Hewas about to mention the wound he took in that fight, which left thosetracks in the snow, thus to prove that I lied--as indeed I did--when Isaid that he took Peter unawares.

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

  "Did you not hear him say it?" quoth Oliver.

  She stood swaying a moment, looking at Lionel, her white face distortedinto a mask of unutterable pain. Oliver stepped towards her, ready tosupport her, fearing that she was about to fall. But with an imperioushand she checked his advance, and by a supreme effort controlled herweakness. Yet her knees shook under her, refusing their office. She sankdown 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 hehad precipitated. He knew that given rope Lionel would enmesh himselfstill 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 youjudge 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 hastold you of it is false. I...I...It was done in self-defence. It isa lie that I took him unawares." His words came wildly now. "We hadquarrelled about... about... a certain matter, and as the devil wouldhave 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 Imight defend my life. That is the truth. I swear to you here on my kneesin the sight of Heaven! And...."

  "Enough, sir! Enough!" she broke in, controlling herself to check theseprotests that but heightened her disgust.

  "Nay, hear me yet, I implore you; that knowing all you may be mercifulin your judgment."

  "Merciful?" she cried, and almost seemed to laugh

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

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

  "Was it also an accident that you left me and all the world in thebelief that the deed was your brother's?" she asked him.

  He covered his face, as if unable to endure her glance. "Did you butknow how I loved you--even in those days, in secret--you would perhapspity 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 towhich I succumbed."

  "I know the greatness of your infamy, of your falseness, of yourcowardice, of your baseness. Oh!"

  He stretched out suppliant hands to her; there were tears now in hiseyes. "Of your charity, Rosamund...." he was beginning, when at lastOliver intervened:

  "I think you are wearying the lady," he said, and stirred him with hisfoot. "Relate to us instead some more of your astounding accidents.They are more diverting. Elucidate the accident, by which you had mekidnapped to be sold into slavery. Tell us of the accident by whichy
ou succeeded to my property. Expound to the full the accidentalcircumstances 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 andthe heated manacles.

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

  Lionel rose to his feet, his face ashen. "Wait! Ah, wait! Rosamund!" hecried.

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

 
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