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Chapter 20 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


She had reached that point of endurance at which sensibility becomes mercifully dulled. She sat there, her head resting against the tall back of the chair, her eyes closed, a sense of physical nausea pervading her.

Yet, at the sound of the Duke’s voice gently addressing her, she opened her long blue eyes, set now in deep stains of suffering, and looked at this handsome satyr who stood before her in an attitude of deference that was in itself a mockery.

“Dear Sylvia,” he was saying, “I am beyond measure pained that you should have been subjected to this . . . this unseemly spectacle; I need not protest that it was no part of my intention.”

She answered him almost mechanically, yet the ironical answer she delivered was true to her proud nature and the histrionic art which would not be denied expression even in the extremity to which she was reduced.

“That, sir, I can well believe.”

He considered her, wondering a little at that flash of spirit, from one in her condition. If anything it but served to increase his admiration. He sighed.

“Ah, my Sylvia, you shall forgive me the shifts to which my love has driven me, and this last shift of all with that roaring fool’s heroics and what they have led to. Endeavour not to think too harshly of me, child. Don’t blame me altogether. Blame that cos amoris, that very whetstone of love—your own incomparable loveliness and grace.”

She sat now stiffly upright, dissembling her fear behind a mask of indignant scorn that was sincere enough.

“Love!” she answered him in a sudden gust of that same scorn. “You call this violence love?”

He answered her with a throbbing vehemence of sincerity, a man pleading his own defence.

“Not the violence, but that which has moved me to it, that which would move me to tear down a world if it stood between you and me. I want you, Sylvia, more than I have ever wanted anything in life. It is because of the very fervency and sincerity of my passion that I have gone so clumsily to work, that in every attempt to lay my homage and devotion at your feet, I have but provoked your resentment. Yet, child, I swear to you that, if it lay in my power, if I were free to make you my Duchess, that is the place I should be offering to you now. I swear it by everything I hold sacred.”

She looked at him. There had been a humility in his bearing which, together with that vibrant sincerity in his voice, must surely have moved her at any other time. It moved her now, but only to a still greater scorn.

“Is anything sacred to such a man as you?” She rose by an effort, and stood before him, swaying, slightly conscious of dizziness and of shivers, and marvelling a little that she should be unable better to command herself. But she commanded herself at least sufficiently to give him his answer. “Sir, your persecution of me has rendered you loathly and abhorrent in my sight, and nothing that you may now do can alter that. I tell you this in the hope that some spirit of manliness, some sense of dignity, will cry a halt to you; so that you may disabuse your mind of any notion that you can prevail by continuing to pursue and plague me with your hateful attentions. And now, sir, I beg you to bid your creatures fetch the chair in which I was brought hither and carry me hence again. Detain me further, and I promise you, sir, that you shall be called to give a strict account of this night’s work.”

The whiplash of her contempt, which she was at pains to render manifest in every word she uttered, the loathing that scorched him from her lovely eyes, served but to stir a dull resentment and to arouse the beast in him. The change was instantly apparent in the sneer that flickered over his white face, in the ugly little soft laugh with which he greeted her demand.

“Let you depart so soon? How can you think it, Sylvia? To have been at such infinite pains to cage you, you lovely bird, merely to let you fly away again!”

“Either you let me depart at once, sir,” she told him almost fiercely, her weakness conquered now in her own indignation, “or the Town shall ring with your infamy. You have practised abduction, sir, and you know the penalty. I shall know how to make you pay it. I swear that you shall hang, though you be Duke of twenty Buckinghams. You do not want for enemies, who will be glad enough to help me, and I am not entirely without friends, your grace.”

He shrugged. “Enemies!” he sneered. “Friends!” He waved a disdainful hand toward the unconscious Holles. “There lies one of your friends, if what the rascal said was true. The others will not be more difficult to dispose of.”

“Your grooms will not suffice to save you from the others.”

That stung him. The blood leapt to his face at that covert taunt that it was only the intervention of his men had saved him now.

But he made answer with a deadly smoothness. “So much even will not be needed. Come, child, be sensible. See precisely where you stand.”

“I see it clearly enough,” she answered.

“I will take leave to doubt it. You do as little justice to my wits, it seems, as ever you have done to my poor person. Who is to charge me, and with what? You will charge me. You will accuse me of bringing you here by force, against your will, and here retaining you. Abduction, in short, you say; and you remind me that it is a grave offence at law.”

“A hanging matter, even for dukes,” said she.

“Maybe; maybe. But first the charge must be made good. Where are your witnesses? Until you produce them, it will be your word against mine. And the word of an actress, however exalted, is . . . in such matters . . . the word of an actress.” He smiled upon her. “Then this house. It is not mine. It is tenanted by a ruffian named Holles; it was taken by him a few days ago in his own name. It was he who brought you here by force. Well, well, if there must be a scapegoat, perhaps he will do as well as another. And, anyhow, he is overdue for the gallows on quite other crimes. He brought you here by force. So far we shall not contradict each other. What follows? How came I here into that man’s house? Why, to rescue you, of course, and I stayed to comfort you in your natural distress. The facts will prove my story. My grooms will swear to it. It will then be seen that in charging me you are a scheming adventuress, returning evil for good, seeking to profit by my unwary generosity. You smile? You think the reputation bestowed upon me by a scandalmongering populace will suffice to give that tale the lie. I am not of your opinion; and, anyway, I am prepared to take the risk. Oh, I would take greater risks for you, my dear.”

She made a little gesture of contempt. “You may be a very master of the art of lying, as of all other evil arts. But lies shall not avail you if you dare to detain me now.”

“If I dare to detain you?” He leaned nearer to her, devouring her with his smouldering eyes. “If I dare, child? Dare?”

She shrank before him in sheer terror. Then, conquering herself, stiffening in every limb, she drew herself erect. Majestically, a very queen of tragedy, she flung out an arm in a gesture of command.

“Stand back, sir! Stand back, and let me pass, let me go.”

He fell back, indeed, a pace or two, but only that he might the better contemplate her. He found her magnificent, in the poise of her graceful body, the ivory pallor of her face, the eyes that glowed and burned and looked the larger for the deep, dark shadows in which they were now set. Suddenly, with an almost inarticulate cry, he sprang forward to seize her. He would make an end of this maddening resistance, he would melt this icy disdain until it should run like water.

She slipped aside and away in panic before his furious onslaught, oversetting the high-backed chair in which she had lately been sitting.

The crash of its fall seemed to penetrate to the slumbering mind of Holles, and disturb his unconsciousness. For he stirred a little, uttering a faint moan.

Beyond that, however, her flight accomplished nothing. Two yards away the wainscot faced her. She would have run round the table, but, before she could turn to do so, the Duke had seized her. She faced him, savagely at bay, raising her hands to protect herself. But his arms went round her arms, forcing her hands down to her sides, and crushing her hurtfully against him, heedless, himself, in his frenzy of the hot pain in his own lacerated shoulder in which the bleeding was redoubled by this effort.

Helpless in his arms she lay.

“You coward, you beast, you vileness!” she gasped. And then he stopped her mouth with kisses.

“Call me what you will, I hold you, I have you, and not all the power of England shall tear you from me now. Realize it, child,”—he fell to pleading. “Realize and accept, and you will find that I have but mastered you only so that I may become your slave.”

She answered him nothing; again that dizziness, that physical sickness was assailing her. She moaned a little, lying helpless there in that grip of his that to her was as loathly and deadly as the coiling embrace of some great snake of which it brought the image to her mind. Again he was kissing her, her eyes, her mouth, her throat, about which still hung the folds of the blue scarf that had served to muffle her. Because this offended him and was in some sense an obstacle, a barrier, he seized one end of it, and, tearing it roughly away, laid bare the lovely throat and breast it had so inconveniently veiled.

Over that white throat he now bent his head like some evil vampire. But his fevered lips never reached it. In the very act of bending, he paused, and stiffened.

Behind him he could hear the footsteps of his grooms reentering the chamber. But it was not their coming that imposed this restraint upon him, that dilated and bulged his eyes with horror, that fetched the ashen pallor to his cheeks, and set him suddenly trembling and shuddering from head to foot.

For a moment he was as a man paralyzed. His limbs refused their office; they seemed turned to lead. Slowly, where he would have had them swift, his arms relaxed their grip of that sweet body. Slowly they uncoiled themselves, and slowly he fell back before her, crouching forward the while, staring ever, his jaw fallen, his face the face of a man in the last extremity of terror.

Suddenly he raised his right hand to point with a shaking finger at her throat. Hoarsely, in a cracked voice, he spoke.

“The tokens! The tokens!”

The three grooms, entering at that moment, checked and stood there just within the threshold as if suddenly turned to stone.

The awakening Holles, on the ground, raising himself a little, and thrusting back the tumbled hair which was being matted to his brow by blood from his cracked head, looked dazedly round and up to see the Duke’s shaking, pointing hand, to hear the Duke’s quavering voice, this time, saying yet again:

“The tokens!”

His grace fell back step by step, gasping with dread, until suddenly he swung about to face his men.

“Back,” he bade them, his voice shrill. “Back! Away! Out of this! She is infected! My God! She has the plague! The tokens are upon her!”

A moment still they stood at gaze in this horror which they fully shared with him. They craned forward, to look at Miss Farquharson, leaning faint and limp against the wainscot, her white neck and shoulders thrown into dazzling relief against the dark brown of the background, and from where they stood they could make out quite plainly stamped upon the white loveliness of that throat the purple blotch that was the brand and token of the pestilence.

As the Duke reached them, they turned, in sudden dread of him. Might he not, himself, already carry upon him the terrible infection? With wild cries of terror they fled before him out of the room, and out of the house, never heeding the commands which, as he precipitately followed, he flung after them.

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