The Lion's Skin
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by Rafael Sabatini
Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
Description: Money and politics! Treachery, romance, betrayal, and snobbery. Unrequited love! Justin Carryll, brought up in France after his real father abandoned him and his mother in 1690, has been schooled all his life to find and destroy that same father. Lord Ostermore, ruined in the South Sea Bubble and flailing desperately in attempts to regain his fortune, has been plotting secretly with the Jacobite Pretender to the English throne. Now Justin is in England for the first time, carrying a message that will suck Lord Ostermore into a doomed conspiracy against the King of England. Justin will betray the betrayer; but as he arrives he is caught up in a web of deceit and betrayal by others; and he falls hopelessly in love with a woman who is the ward of, and depends upon, the very man he would destroy. And now things get truly complicated.... Vintage Sabatini: swashbuckling adventure, spies and counterspies, and a comedy of manners.
eBook Publisher: Hidden Knowledge, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: June 2005
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [353 KB]
Reading time: 238-334 min.
CHAPTER III The Witness
At last the page was found again by Mr. Jenkins. Having found it, he hesitated still a moment, then cleared his throat, and in the manner of one hurling himself forward upon a desperate venture, he began to read.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God," he read, and on in a nasal, whining voice, which not only was the very voice you would have expected from such a man, but in accordance, too, with sound clerical convention. The bridal pair stood before him, the groom with a slight flush on his cheeks and a bright glitter in his black eyes, which were not nice to see; the bride with bowed head and bosom heaving as in response to inward tumult.
The cleric came to the end of his exordium, paused a moment, and whether because he gathered confidence, whether because he realized the impressive character of the fresh matter upon which he entered, he proceeded now in a firmer, more sonorous voice: "I require and charge you both as ye will answer on the dreadful day of judgment----"
"Ye've forgot something," Mr. Caryll interrupted blandly.
His lordship swung round with an impatient gesture and an impatient snort; the lady, too, looked up suddenly, whilst Mr. Jenkins seemed to fall into an utter panic.
"Wha--what?" he stammered. "What have I forgot?"
"To read the directions, I think."
His lordship scowled darkly upon Mr. Caryll, who heeded him not at all, but watched the lady sideways.
Mr. Jenkins turned first scarlet, then paler than he had been before, and bent his eyes to the book to read in a slightly puzzled voice the italicized words above the period he had embarked upon. "And also speaking unto the persons that shall be married, he shall say:" he read, and looked up inquiry, his faintly-colored, prominent eyes endeavoring to sustain Mr. Caryll's steady glance, but failing miserably.
"'Tis farther back," Mr. Caryll informed him in answer to that mute question; and as the fellow moistened his thumb to turn back the pages, Mr. Caryll saved him the trouble. "It says, I think, that the man should be on your right hand and the woman on your left. Ye seem to have reversed matters, Mr. Jenkins. But perhaps ye're left-handed."
"Stab me!" was Mr. Jenkins' most uncanonical comment. "I vow I am over-flustered. Your lordship is so impatient with me. This gentleman is right. But that I was so flustered--Will you not change places with his lordship, ma'am?"
They changed places, after the viscount had thanked Mr. Caryll shortly and cursed the parson with circumstance and fervor. It was well done on his lordship's part, but the lady did not seem convinced by it. Her face looked whiter, and her eyes had an alarmed, half-suspicious expression.
"We must begin again," said Mr. Jenkins. And he began again.
Mr. Caryll listened and watched, and he began to enjoy himself exceedingly. He had not reckoned upon so rich an entertainment when he had consented to come down to witness this odd ceremony. His sense of humor conquered every other consideration, and the circumstance that Lord Rotherby was his brother, if remembered at all, served but to add a spice to the situation.
Out of sheer deviltry he waited until Mr. Jenkins had labored for a second time through the opening periods. Again he allowed him to get as far as "I charge and require you both----," before again he interrupted him.
"There is something else ye've forgot," said he in that sweet, quiet voice of his.
This was too much for Rotherby. "Damn you!" he swore, turning a livid face upon Mr. Caryll, and failed to observe that at the sound of that harsh oath and at the sight of his furious face, the lady recoiled from him, the suspicion lately in her face turning first to conviction and then to absolute horror.
"I do not think you are civil," said Mr. Caryll critically. "It was in your interests that I spoke."
"Then I'll thank you, in my interests, to hold your tongue!" his lordship stormed.
"In that case," said Mr. Caryll, "I must still speak in the interests of the lady. Since you've desired me to be a witness, I'll do my duty by you both and see you properly wed."
"Now, what the devil may you mean by that?" demanded his lordship, betraying himself more and more at every word.
Mr. Jenkins, in a spasm of terror, sought to pour oil upon these waters. "My lord," he bleated, teeth and eyeballs protruding from his pallid face. "My lord! Perhaps the gentleman is right. Perhaps--Perhaps--" He gulped, and turned to Mr. Caryll. "What is't ye think we have forgot now?" he asked.
"The time of day," Mr. Caryll replied, and watched the puzzled look that came into both their faces.
"Do ye deal in riddles with us?" quoth his lordship. "What have we to do with the time of day?"
"Best ask the parson," suggested Mr. Caryll.
Rotherby swung round again to Jenkins. Jenkins spread his hands in mute bewilderment and distress. Mr. Caryll laughed silently.
"I'll not be married! I'll not be married!"
It was the lady who spoke, and those odd words were the first that Mr. Caryll heard from her lips. They made an excellent impression upon him, bearing witness to her good sense and judgment--although belatedly aroused--and informing him, although the pitch was strained just now; that the rich contralto of her voice was full of music. He was a judge of voices, as of much else besides.
"Hoity-toity!" quoth his lordship, between petulance and simulated amusement. "What's all the pother? Hortensia, dear--"
"I'll not be married!" she repeated firmly, her wide brown eyes meeting his in absolute defiance, head thrown back, face pale but fearless.
"I don't believe," ventured Mr. Caryll, "that you could be if you desired it. Leastways not here and now and by this." And he jerked a contemptuous thumb sideways at Mr. Jenkins, toward whom he had turned his shoulder. "Perhaps you have realized it for yourself."
A shudder ran through her; color flooded into her face and out again, leaving it paler than before; yet she maintained a brave front that moved Mr. Caryll profoundly to an even greater admiration of her.
Rotherby, his great jaw set, his hands clenched and eyes blazing, stood irresolute between her and Mr. Caryll. Jenkins, in sheer terror, now sank limply to a chair, whilst Gaskell looked on--a perfect servant--as immovable outwardly and unconcerned as if he had been a piece of furniture. Then his lordship turned again to Caryll.
"You take a deal upon yourself, sir," said he menacingly.
"A deal of what?" wondered Mr. Caryll blandly.
The question nonplussed Rotherby. He swore ferociously. "By God!" he fumed, "I'll have you make good your insinuations. You shall disabuse this lady's mind. You shall--damn you!--or I'll compel you!"
Mr. Caryll smiled very engagingly. The matter was speeding excellently--a comedy the like of which he did not remember to have played a part in since his student days at Oxford, ten years and more ago.
"I had thought," said he, "that the woman who summoned me to be a witness of this--this--ah--wedding"--there was a whole volume of criticism in his utterance of the word--"was the landlady of the 'Adam and Eve.' I begin to think that she was this lady's good angel; Fate, clothed, for once, matronly and benign." Then he dropped the easy, bantering manner with a suddenness that was startling. Gallic fire blazed up through British training. "Let us speak plainly, my Lord Rotherby. This marriage is no marriage. It is a mockery and a villainy. And that scoundrel--worthy servant of his master--is no parson; no, not so much as a hedge-parson is he. Madame," he proceeded, turning now to the frightened lady, "you have been grossly abused by these villains."
"Sir!" blazed Rotherby at last, breaking in upon his denunciation, hand clapped to sword. "Do ye dare use such words to me?"
Mr. Jenkins got to his feet, in a slow, foolish fashion. He put out a hand to stay his lordship. The lady, in the background, looked on with wide eyes, very breathless, one hand to her bosom as if to control its heave.
Mr. Caryll proceeded, undismayed, to make good his accusation. He had dropped back into his slightly listless air of thinly veiled persiflage, and he appeared to address the lady, to explain the situation to her, rather than to justify the charge he had made.
"A blind man could have perceived, from the rustling of his prayer book when he fumbled at it, that the contents were strange to him. And observe the volume," he continued, picking it up and flaunting it aloft. "Fire-new; not a thumbmark anywhere; purchased expressly for this foul venture. Is there aught else so clean and fresh about the scurvy thief?"
"You shall moderate your tones, sir--" began his lordship in a snarl.
"He sets you each on the wrong side of him," continued Mr. Caryll, all imperturbable, "lacking even the sense to read the directions which the book contains, and he has no thought for the circumstance that the time of day is uncanonical. Is more needed, madame?"
"So much was not needed," said she, "though I am your debtor, sir."
Her voice was marvelously steady, ice-cold with scorn, a royal anger increasing the glory of her eyes.
Rotherby's hand fell away from his sword. He realized that bluster was not the most convenient weapon here. He addressed Mr. Caryll very haughtily. "You are from France, sir, and something may be excused you. But not quite all. You have used expressions that are not to be offered to a person of my quality. I fear you scarcely apprehend it."
"As well, no doubt, as those who avoid you, sir," answered Mr. Caryll, with cool contempt, his dislike of the man and of the business in which he had found him engaged mounting above every other consideration.
His lordship frowned inquiry. "And who may those be?"
"Most decent folk, I should conceive, if this be an example of your ways."
"By God, sir! You are a thought too pert. We'll mend that presently. I will first convince you of your error, and you, Hortensia."
"It will be interesting," said Mr. Caryll, and meant it.
Rotherby turned from him, keeping a tight rein upon his anger; and so much restraint in so tempestuous a man was little short of wonderful. "Hortensia," he said, "this is fool's talk. What object could I seek to serve?" She drew back another step, contempt and loathing in her face. "This man," he continued, flinging a hand toward Jenkins, and checked upon the word. He swung round upon the fellow. "Have you fooled me, knave?" he bawled. "Is it true what this man says of you--that ye're no parson at all?"
Jenkins quailed and shriveled. Here was a move for which he was all unprepared, and knew not how to play to it. On the bridegroom's part it was excellently acted; yet it came too late to be convincing.
"You'll have the license in your pocket, no doubt, my lord," put in Mr. Caryll. "It will help to convince the lady of the honesty of your intentions. It will show her that ye were abused by this thief for the sake of the guinea ye were to pay him."