The Lion's Skin by Rafael Sabatini

The Lion's Skin

subjects: Historical Fiction

Description

Since childhood and his mother’s cruel death, young Caryll had been bred in France by his guardians for one purpose—to wreak their vengeance on the father who had never known him. But Caryll did not complete his mission. Instead, he sailed for England and plunged into a maelsrom of dissension and revolt that teemed with danger for him—and for beautiful Mistress Winthrop who loved him. But, in the end the hunter failed, and in this case, the lion was generous.

Excerpt

Mr. Caryll, lately from Rome, stood by the window, looking out over the rainswept, steaming quays to Notre Dame on the island yonder. Overhead rolled and crackled the artillery of an April thunderstorm, and Mr. Caryll, looking out upon Paris in her shroud of rain, under her pall of thundercloud, felt himself at harmony with Nature. Over his heart, too, the gloom of storm was lowering, just as in his heart it was still little more than April time.

Behind him, in that chamber furnished in dark oak and leather of a reign or two ago, sat Sir Richard Everard at a vast writing-table all a-litter with books and papers; and Sir Richard watched his adoptive son with fierce, melancholy eyes, watched him until he grew impatient of this pause.

“Well?” demanded the old baronet harshly. “Will you undertake it, Justin, now that the chance has come?” And he added: “You’ll never hesitate if you are the man I have sought to make you.”

Mr. Caryll turned slowly. “It is because I am the man that you–that God and you–have made me that I do hesitate.”

His voice was quiet and pleasantly modulated, and he spoke English with the faintest slur–perceptible, perhaps, only to the keenest ear–of a French accent. To ears less keen it would merely seem that he articulated with a precision so singular as to verge on pedantry.

The light falling full upon his profile revealed the rather singular countenance that was his own. It was not in any remarkable beauty that its distinction lay, for by the canons of beauty that prevail it was not beautiful. The features were irregular and inclined to harshness, the nose was too abruptly arched, the chin too long and square, the complexion too pallid. Yet a certain dignity haunted that youthful face, of such a quality as to stamp it upon the memory of the merest passer-by. The mouth was difficult to read and full of contradictions; the lips were full and red, and you would declare them the lips of a sensualist but for the line of stern, almost grim, determination in which they met; and yet, somewhere behind that grimness, there appeared to lurk a haunting whimsicality; a smile seemed ever to impend, but whether sweet or bitter none could have told until it broke. The eyes were as remarkable; wide-set and slow-moving, as becomes the eyes of an observant man, they were of an almost greenish color, and so level in their ordinary glance as to seem imbued with an uncanny penetration. His hair–he dared to wear his own, and clubbed it in a broad ribbon of watered silk–was almost of the hue of bronze, with here and there a glint of gold, and as luxuriant as any wig.

For the rest, he was scarcely above the middle height, of an almost frail but very graceful slenderness, and very graceful, too, in all his movements. In dress he was supremely elegant, with the elegance of France, that in England would be accounted foppishness. He wore a suit of dark blue cloth, with white satin linings that were revealed when he moved; it was heavily laced with gold, and a ramiform pattern broidered in gold thread ran up the sides of his silk stockings of a paler blue. Jewels gleamed in the Brussels at his throat, and there were diamond buckles on his lacquered, red-heeled shoes.

Sir Richard considered him with anxiety and some chagrin. “Justin!” he cried, a world of reproach in his voice. “What can you need to ponder?”

“Whatever it may be,” said Mr. Caryll, “it will be better that I ponder it now than after I have pledged myself.”

“But what is it? What?” demanded the baronet.

“I am marvelling, for one thing, that you should have waited thirty years.”

Sir Richard’s fingers stirred the papers before him in an idle, absent manner. Into his brooding eyes there leapt the glitter to be seen in the eyes of the fevered of body or of mind.

“Vengeance,” said he slowly, “is a dish best relished when ‘tis eaten cold.” He paused an instant; then continued: “I might have crossed to England at the time, and slain him. Should that have satisfied me? What is death but peace and rest?”

“There is a hell, we are told,” Mr. Caryll reminded him.

“Ay,” was the answer, “we are told. But I dursn’t risk its being false where Ostermore is concerned. So I preferred to wait until I could brew him such a cup of bitterness as no man ever drank ere he was glad to die.” In a quieter, retrospective voice he continued: “Had we prevailed in the ‘15, I might have found a way to punish him that had been worthy of the crime that calls for it. We did not prevail. Moreover, I was taken, and transported.

“What think you, Justin, gave me courage to endure the rigors of the plantations, cunning and energy to escape after five such years of it as had assuredly killed a stronger man less strong of purpose? What but the task that was awaiting me? It imported that I should live and be free to call a reckoning in full with my Lord Ostermore before I go to my own account.