The sea hawk, p.7
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       The Sea-Hawk, p.7

           Rafael Sabatini
 

  CHAPTER V. THE BUCKLER

  It was old Nicholas who brought the news next morning to the brothers asthey were breaking their fast.

  Lionel should have kept his bed that day, but dared not, lest the factshould arouse suspicion. He had a little fever, the natural result bothof his wound and of his loss of blood; he was inclined to welcome ratherthan deplore it, since it set a flush on cheeks that otherwise must havelooked too pale.

  So leaning upon his brother's arm he came down to a breakfast ofherrings and small ale before the tardy sun of that December morning waswell risen.

  Nicholas burst in upon them with a white face and shaking limbs. Hegasped out his tale of the event in a voice of terror, and both brothersaffected to be shocked, dismayed and incredulous. But the worst part ofthat old man's news, the true cause of his terrible agitation, was yetto be announced.

  "And they do zay," he cried with anger quivering through his fear, "theydo zay that it were you that killed he, Sir Oliver."

  "I?" quoth Sir Oliver, staring, and suddenly like a flood there burstupon his mind a hundred reasons overlooked until this moment, thatinevitably must urge the countryside to this conclusion, and to thisconclusion only. "Where heard you that foul lie?"

  In the tumult of his mind he never heeded what answer was returned byNicholas. What could it matter where the fellow had heard the thing; bynow it would be the accusation on the lips of every man. There was onecourse to take and he must take it instantly--as he had taken it oncebefore in like case. He must straight to Rosamund to forestall thetale that others would carry to her. God send he did not come too latealready.

  He stayed for no more than to get his boots and hat, then to the stablesfor a horse, and he was away over the short mile that divided Penarrowfrom Godolphin Court, going by bridle and track meadow straight to hisgoal. He met none until he fetched up in the courtyard at GodolphinCourt. Thence a babble of excited voices had reached him as heapproached. But at sight of him there fell a general silence, ominousand staring. A dozen men or more were assembled there, and their eyesconsidered him first with amazement and curiosity, then with sullenanger.

  He leapt down from his saddle, and stood a moment waiting for one ofthe three Godolphin grooms he had perceived in that assembly to take hisreins. Seeing that none stirred--

  "How now?" he cried. "Does no one wait here? Hither, sirrah, and hold myhorse."

  The groom addressed hesitated a moment, then, under the stare of SirOliver's hard, commanding eye, he shuffled sullenly forward to do ashe was bid. A murmur ran through the group. Sir Oliver flashed a glanceupon it, and every tongue trembled into silence.

  In that silence he strode up the steps, and entered the rush-strewnhall. As he vanished he heard the hubbub behind him break out anew,fiercer than it had been before. But he nothing heeded it.

  He found himself face to face with a servant, who shrank before him,staring as those in the courtyard had stared. His heart sank. It wasplain that he came a little late already; that the tale had got thereahead of him.

  "Where is your mistress?" said he.

  "I...I will tell her you are here, Sir Oliver," the man replied in avoice that faltered; and he passed through a doorway on the right. SirOliver stood a moment tapping his boots with his whip, his face pale, adeep line between his brows. Then the man reappeared, closing the doorafter him.

  "Mistress Rosamund bids you depart, sir. She will not see you."

  A moment Sir Oliver scanned the servant's face--or appeared to scan it,for it is doubtful if he saw the fellow at all. Then for only answerhe strode forward towards the door from which the man had issued. Theservant set his back to it, his face resolute.

  "Sir Oliver, my mistress will not see you."

  "Out of my way!" he muttered in his angry, contemptuous fashion, and asthe man persistent in his duty stood his ground, Sir Oliver took him bythe breast of his jacket, heaved him aside and went in.

  She was standing in mid-apartment, dressed by an odd irony all in bridalwhite, that yet was not as white as was her face. Her eyes lookedlike two black stains, solemn and haunting as they fastened up on thisintruder who would not be refused. Her lips parted, but she had no wordfor him. She just stared in a horror that routed all his audacity andchecked the masterfulness of his advance. At last he spoke.

  "I see that you have heard," said he, "the lie that runs thecountryside. That is evil enough. But I see that you have lent an ear toit; and that is worse."

  She continued to regard him with a cold look of loathing, this childthat but two days ago had lain against his heart gazing up at him intrust and adoration.

  "Rosamund!" he cried, and approached her by another step. "Rosamund! Iam here to tell you that it is a lie."

  "You had best go," she said, and her voice had in it a quality that madehim tremble.

  "Go?" he echoed stupidly. "You bid me go? You will not hear me?"

  "I consented to hear you more than once; refused to hear others who knewbetter than I, and was heedless of their warnings. There is no more tobe said between us. I pray God that they may take and hang you."

  He was white to the lips, and for the first time in his life he knewfear and felt his great limbs trembling under him.

  "They may hang me and welcome since you believe this thing. They couldnot hurt me more than you are doing, nor by hanging me could theydeprive me of aught I value, since your faith in me is a thing to beblown upon by the first rumour of the countryside."

  He saw the pale lips twist themselves into a dreadful smile. "There ismore than rumour, I think," said she. "There is more than all your lieswill ever serve to cloak."

  "My lies?" he cried. "Rosamund, I swear to you by my honour that I havehad no hand in the slaying of Peter. May God rot me where I stand ifthis be not true!"

  "It seems," said a harsh voice behind him, "that you fear God as littleas aught else."

  He wheeled sharply to confront Sir John Killigrew, who had entered afterhim.

  "So," he said slowly, and his eyes grew hard and bright as agates, "thisis your work." And he waved a hand towards Rosamund. It was plain towhat he alluded.

  "My work?" quoth Sir John. He closed the door, and advanced into theroom. "Sir, it seems your audacity, your shamelessness, transcends allbounds. Your...."

  "Have done with that," Sir Oliver interrupted him and smote his greatfist upon the table. He was suddenly swept by a gust of passion. "Leavewords to fools, Sir John, and criticisms to those that can defend thembetter."

  "Aye, you talk like a man of blood. You come hectoring it here in thevery house of the dead--in the very house upon which you have cast thisblight of sorrow and murder...."

  "Have done, I say, or murder there will be!"

  His voice was a roar, his mien terrific. And bold man though Sir Johnwas, he recoiled. Instantly Sir Oliver had conquered himself again. Heswung to Rosamund. "Ah, forgive me!" he pleaded. "I am mad--stark madwith anguish at the thing imputed. I have not loved your brother, itis true. But as I swore to you, so have I done. I have taken blows fromhim, and smiled; but yesterday in a public place he affronted me, lashedme across the face with his riding-whip, as I still bear the mark. Theman who says I were not justified in having killed him for it is a liarand a hypocrite. Yet the thought of you, Rosamund, the thought that hewas your brother sufficed to quench the rage in which he left me. Andnow that by some grim mischance he has met his death, my recompense forall my patience, for all my thought for you is that I am charged withslaying him, and that you believe this charge."

  "She has no choice," rasped Killigrew.

  "Sir John," he cried, "I pray you do not meddle with her choice. Thatyou believe it, marks you for a fool, and a fool's counsel is a rottenstaff to lean upon at any time. Why God o' mercy! assume that I desiredto take satisfaction for the affront he had put upon me; do you know solittle of men, and of me of all men, that you suppose I should go aboutmy vengeance in this hole-and-corner fashion to set a hangman's nooseabout my neck. A fine vengeance that,
as God lives! Was it so I dealtwith you, Sir John, when you permitted your tongue to wag too freely,as you have yourself confessed? Heaven's light, man; take a properview; consider was this matter likely. I take it you are a more fearsomeantagonist than was ever poor Peter Godolphin, yet when I soughtsatisfaction of you I sought it boldly and openly, as is my way. When wemeasured swords in your park at Arwenack we did so before witnesses inproper form, that the survivor might not be troubled with the Justices.You know me well, and what manner of man I am with my weapons. Should Inot have done the like by Peter if I had sought his life? Should Inot have sought it in the same open fashion, and so killed him at mypleasure and leisure, and without risk or reproach from any?"

  Sir John was stricken thoughtful. Here was logic hard and clear as ice;and the knight of Arwenack was no fool. But whilst he stood frowning andperplexed at the end of that long tirade, it was Rosamund who gave SirOliver his answer.

  "You ran no risk of reproach from any, do you say?"

  He turned, and was abashed. He knew the thought that was running in hermind.

  "You mean," he said slowly, gently, his accents charged with reproachfulincredulity, "that I am so base and false that I could in this fashiondo what I dared not for your sake do openly? 'Tis what you mean.Rosamund! I burn with shame for you that you can think such thoughts ofone whom... whom you professed to love."

  Her coldness fell from her. Under the lash of his bitter, half-scornfulaccents, her anger mounted, whelming for a moment even her anguish inher brother's death.

  "You false deceiver!" she cried. "There are those who heard you vow hisdeath. Your very words have been reported to me. And from where he laythey found a trail of blood upon the snow that ran to your own door.Will you still lie?"

  They saw the colour leave his face. They saw his arms drop limply to hissides, and his eyes dilate with obvious sudden fear.

  "A... a trail of blood?" he faltered stupidly.

  "Aye, answer that!" cut in Sir John, fetched suddenly from out hisdoubts by that reminder.

  Sir Oliver turned upon Killigrew again. The knight's words restored tohim the courage of which Rosamund's had bereft him. With a man he couldfight; with a man there was no need to mince his words.

  "I cannot answer it," he said, but very firmly, in a tone that brushedaside all implications. "If you say it was so, so it must have been. Yetwhen all is said, what does it prove? Does it set it beyond doubt thatit was I who killed him? Does it justify the woman who loved me tobelieve me a murderer and something worse?" He paused, and looked at heragain, a world of reproach in his glance. She had sunk to a chair, androcked there, her fingers locking and interlocking, her face a mask ofpain unutterable.

  "Can you suggest what else it proves, sir?" quoth Sir John, and therewas doubt in his voice.

  Sir Oliver caught the note of it, and a sob broke from him.

  "O God of pity!" he cried out. "There is doubt in your voice, andthere is none in hers. You were my enemy once, and have since been in amistrustful truce with me, yet you can doubt that I did this thing. Butshe... she who loved me has no room for any doubt!"

  "Sir Oliver," she answered him, "the thing you have done has brokenquite my heart. Yet knowing all the taunts by which you were brought tosuch a deed I could have forgiven it, I think, even though I couldno longer be your wife; I could have forgiven it, I say, but for thebaseness of your present denial."

  He looked at her, white-faced an instant, then turned on his heel andmade for the door. There he paused.

  "Your meaning is quite plain," said he. "It is your wish that I shalltake my trial for this deed." He laughed. "Who will accuse me to theJustices? Will you, Sir John?"

  "If Mistress Rosamund so desires me," replied the knight.

  "Ha! Be it so. But do not think I am the man to suffer myself to be sentto the gallows upon such paltry evidence as satisfies that lady. If anyaccuser comes to bleat of a trail of blood reaching to my door, and ofcertain words I spoke yesterday in anger, I will take my trial--but itshall be trial by battle upon the body of my accuser. That is my right,and I will have every ounce of it. Do you doubt how God will pronounce?I call upon him solemnly to pronounce between me and such an one. If Iam guilty of this thing may He wither my arm when I enter the lists."

  "Myself I will accuse you," came Rosamund's dull voice. "And if youwill, you may claim your rights against me and butcher me as youbutchered him."

  "God forgive you, Rosamund!" said Sir Oliver, and went out.

  He returned home with hell in his heart. He knew not what the futuremight hold in store for him; but such was his resentment againstRosamund that there was no room in his bosom for despair. They shouldnot hang him. He would fight them tooth and claw, and yet Lionel shouldnot suffer. He would take care of that. And then the thought of Lionelchanged his mood a little. How easily could he have shattered theiraccusation, how easily have brought her to her proud knees imploringpardon of him! By a word he could have done it, yet he feared lest thatword must jeopardize his brother.

  In the calm, still watches of that night, as he lay sleepless upon hisbed and saw things without heat, there crept a change into hismental attitude. He reviewed all the evidence that had led her to herconclusions, and he was forced to confess that she was in some measurejustified of them. If she had wronged him, he had wronged her yet more.For years she had listened to all the poisonous things that were saidof him by his enemies--and his arrogance had made him not a few. She haddisregarded all because she loved him; her relations with her brotherhad become strained on that account, yet now, all this returned to crushher; repentance played its part in her cruel belief that it was by hishand Peter Godolphin had fallen. It must almost seem to her that in asense she had been a party to his murder by the headstrong course towhich she had kept in loving the man her brother hated.

  He saw it now, and was more merciful in judging her. She had been morethan human if she had not felt as he now saw that she must feel, andsince reactions are to be measured by the mental exaltations from whichthey spring, so was it but natural that now she must hate him fiercelywhom she had loved wellnigh as fiercely.

  It was a heavy cross to bear. Yet for Lionel's sake he must bear it withwhat fortitude he could. Lionel must not be sacrificed to his egoism fora deed that in Lionel he could not account other than justified. He werebase indeed did he so much as contemplate such a way of escape as that.

  But if he did not contemplate it, Lionel did, and went in terror duringthose days, a terror that kept him from sleep and so fostered the feverin him that on the second day after that grim affair he had the look ofa ghost, hollow-eyed and gaunt. Sir Oliver remonstrated with him and insuch terms as to put heart into him anew. Moreover, there was other newsthat day to allay his terrors: the Justices, at Truro had been informedof the event and the accusation that was made; but they had refusedpoint-blank to take action in the matter. The reason of it was that oneof them was that same Master Anthony Baine who had witnessed the affrontoffered Sir Oliver. He declared that whatever had happened to MasterGodolphin as a consequence was no more than he deserved, no more thanhe had brought upon himself, and he gave it as his decision that hisconscience as a man of honour would not permit him to issue any warrantto the constable.

  Sir Oliver received this news from that other witness, the parson, whohimself had suffered such rudeness at Godolphin's hands, and who, man ofthe Gospel and of peace though he was, entirely supported the Justice'sdecision--or so he declared.

  Sir Oliver thanked him, protesting that it was kind in him and in MasterBaine to take such a view, but for the rest avowing that he had had nohand in the affair, however much appearances might point to him.

  When, however, it came to his knowledge two days later that the wholecountryside was in a ferment against Master Baine as a consequenceof the attitude he had taken up, Sir Oliver summoned the parson andstraightway rode with him to the Justice's house at Truro, there toafford certain evidence which he had withheld from Rosamund and Sir JohnKilligrew
.

  "Master Baine," he said, when the three of them were closeted in thatgentleman's library, "I have heard of the just and gallant pronouncementyou have made, and I am come to thank you and to express my admirationof your courage."

  Master Baine bowed gravely. He was a man whom Nature had made grave.

  "But since I would not that any evil consequences might attend youraction, I am come to lay proof before you that you have acted morerightly even than you think, and that I am not the slayer."

  "You are not?" ejaculated Master Baine in amazement.

  "Oh, I assure you I use no subterfuge with you, as you shall judge. Ihave proof to show you, as I say; and I am come to do so now before timemight render it impossible. I do not desire it to be made public justyet, Master Baine; but I wish you to draw up some such document aswould satisfy the courts at any future time should this matter be takenfurther, as well it may."

  It was a shrewd plea. The proof that was not upon himself was uponLionel; but time would efface it, and if anon publication were madeof what he was now about to show, it would then be too late to lookelsewhere.

  "I assure you, Sir Oliver, that had you killed him after what happened Icould not hold you guilty of having done more than punish a boorish andarrogant offender."

  "I know sir. But it was not so. One of the pieces of evidence againstme--indeed the chief item--is that from Godolphin's body to my doorthere was a trail of blood."

  The other two grew tensely interested. The parson watched him withunblinking eyes.

  "Now it follows logically, I think, inevitably indeed, that the murderermust have been wounded in the encounter. The blood could not possiblyhave been the victim's, therefore it must have been the slayer's.That the slayer was wounded indeed we know, since there was blood uponGodolphin's sword. Now, Master Baine, and you, Sir Andrew, shall bewitnesses that there is upon my body not so much as a scratch of recentdate. I will strip me here as naked as when first I had the mischanceto stray into this world, and you shall satisfy yourselves of that.Thereafter I shall beg you, Master Baine, to indite the document I havementioned." And he removed his doublet as he spoke. "But since I willnot give these louts who accuse me so much satisfaction, lest I seemto go in fear of them, I must beg, sirs, that you will keep this matterentirely private until such time as its publication may be renderednecessary by events."

  They saw the reasonableness of his proposal, and they consented, stillentirely sceptical. But when they had made their examination they wereutterly dumbfounded to find all their notions entirely overset. MasterBaine, of course, drew up the required document, and signed and sealedit, whilst Sir Andrew added his own signature and seal as witnessthereunto.

  With this parchment that should be his buckler against any future need,Sir Oliver rode home, uplifted. For once it were safe to do so, thatparchment should be spread before the eyes of Sir John Killigrew andRosamund, and all might yet be well.

 
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