London Magazine, March 1905
by Rafael Sabatini
I once knew a man who, being under sentence of death, was fretted, the night before they hanged him, at having taken coldwhich may serve as an instance of how it is not so much the greater of foreshadowed ills that harasses us as the more imminent. To this construction of the human mind I may set it down that, lying besieged in Penhilgon Castle, with the assurance that should we fall into the hands of the Roundheads that were besetting us there was an overwhelming likelihood of a short shrift in payment for our obstinate resistance, I was a thousand times more plagued and vexed by the coldness of Sir Andrew Penhilgon's daughter than by any contemplation of what might befall did His Majesty's move from Oxford fail to take place in time to save us.
You may say that I was a fool not to discern that a maid could hardly opine the season one for dalliance; but defer your judgment until you have heard what else I have to tell.
A time there had been when it had seemed that my suit with Annabel was like to prosper, and this it had done but for the coming to Penhilgon of Master Steelea man as out of place in that stern garrison as a shaveling monk in a regiment of cavalry. He was a pretty fellowthus much justice I will do his looksbut it would seem that Nature jested in that he had been born a man. At heart, I'll swear, he was a woman. He had a woman's daintiness of speech, a woman's mincing ways of gesture; like a woman, he inclined to the pursuit of flowers and verses, and he was stirred by all a woman's gentle horror of war and bloodshed. He started did a musket crack, and the flash of a drawn sword would make him blench and shudder, whilst the sight of blood turned him as squeamish as the sight of virtue might old Satan.
It was over-strange how Annabel, the child of a warlike race, should come to suffer the attentions of this feeble creature, scented like a nosegay and beribboned like a church in time of victory. Yet this she did; and whilst I went about my duties at the castle in sombre, jealous moodiness, and Sir James scowled damnably upon the business, Master Steele sunned himself in her smiles, walked with her in the quadrangle or upon the ramparts, sat with her at the spinet, and, in short, was never from her side. That he was named Steele was but another irony. Had I had the naming of him I would have called him Water.
Enough was Sir James put about by the siege, and I dared not intrude my grievance upon the anxiety wherewith already he was over-burdened. Moreover, for all that he disliked good Master Steele, yet were his views less rancorous than mine, for, after all, he was but Annabel's father; and a father is oft wont to be less troubled by his daughter's choice of a lover than are other men.
I stood one night upon the ramparts to the north, looking down upon the lights gleaming in the Parliamentarian lines, and wondering how soon the King would come. There was a bloody bandage about my head, for there had been sharp work that day, and though we had repulsed the enemy effectively for the time, yet the victory had been dearly bought in lives and limbs. Annabel approached me softly in the dark, and her voice was tender as a caress.
"My poor Jocelyn, does your head hurt?"
I started round, and, my mood being boorish and surly with jealousy "'Tis naught," said I. "The graze of a pike. A little more and it had made an end of me; yet I know gentler hands that deal wounds less bloody but more hurtful."
"'Tis perhaps that you wound yourself upon the weapons of those hands."
"Mistress," I answered, "I have not a poet's mind to grasp these nice distinctions. Master Steele," I went on, with my back turned, "I pray you make clear to me her meaning."
"To whom are you speaking?" she asked. "Master Steele is not here."
"Is he not!" I cried in feigned surprise, and turning as if to assure myself of his absence: "why, what hath chanced that he is not beside you? And just as I so needed him! Lackaday!"
"Jealousy lends you a poor wit," said she, "and outrivals Nature in making you a dullard."
"Madam," said I with a great dignity, "a wounded head is a not over-useful thing to think with."
She came a step nearer at that, but ere she could speak there was a heavy tread behind us, and Sir Andrew's voice.
"Is it not strange, Jocelyn," said the knight, "with what insistence they press us here on the northern side?"
"I had indeed remarked it," I replied. "Our weakness in this quarter cannot be apparent to them from without, yet, by a singular ill-chance, each attack has been directed against it."
"Ay," he growled sourly, "it would almost seem as if they had information from within."
"Impossible," I answered quickly.
"So you say, yet I cannot repress the suspicion. There is one here of whom we know but little save that he fled to us for shelter."
"Monstrous!" cried Annabel, divining of whom he spoke.
He laughed contemptuously, and looked to me for an answer.
I hesitated for a moment. The rivalry that lay between Steele and me made me pause before uttering what otherwise I had spoken boldly. Yet in the end, deeming the season other than one for scruples, and realising how much foundation there was for Sir Andrew's suspicion, "It might not be ill," I hazarded, "to apply some test."
"'Tis what I had thought," he agreed, whereupon Annabel cried "Monstrous" again; then turning to me, "'Tis cowardly in you," she exclaimed. "Master Steele is an honourable gentleman, and I would as soon suspect you of being the traitor."
I smiled wistfully, and held up my left hand, from which the two middle fingers had been lopped by a Puritan sword some months ago.
"'Od's life, Annabel," I answered, "I wear the signs of my loyalty for all to read."
"And so does he, for those that have discerning eyes. He is aglow with loyalty. Could you but see the verses he has written on the King"
"Bah!" snarled Sir Andrew, rudely interrupting her.
"Verses are but words," said I, "and words need not express our true sentiments. Of what value, for instance, is a liar's word?"
"You dub him liar now!" she cried, with a woman's faculty for subverting a man's meaning. "I vow 'tis very noble of you!"
Whereupon, seeing how her mood had grown of that quality in which the merest word offends, I held my peace.
But coming later to ponder what Sir Andrew had saidand aided, maybe, in some unconscious way by my dislike for SteeleI grew more and more distrustful of the youth; to such a degree at last that, seeking Sir Andrew on the morrow, I counselled that some measure of test be applied.
"Do what you will," said he. "I mislike the coxcomb with his oily, insidious ways; and if you do no more than prove him a craven, and cure Annabel of her unaccountable kindness for him, 'twill be something."
He set his hand on my shoulder, and, letting his eyes meet mine, he sighed.
"Before he came to us it seemed that Annabel was growing fond of you, Jocelyn." Then, bracing himself: "Make your experiment, lad. Put him to some test; and may Heaven send you success, and prove him a rogue!"
With that encouragement I set to work. And, my plans being laid, I went in quest of good Master Steele that evening. I found him in one of the rooms overlooking the courtyard. He sat with Annabel, citing lineswhose virtues he was extollingfrom the words of one Thomas Campion. Annabel, who reclined in a great chair, listened with great show of attention.
"Master Steele," said I, as politely as may be.
"Your servant, sir," said he, in a tone that implied the very contrary; then added that anon he would give me his attention. I told him, with a brevity that held more peremptoriness than wit, that my business could not wait, for it was desired that within an hour, as soon as it grew dark, he should leave the castle. Before I had got further Annabel was on her feet, and eyeing me with some show of anger.
"This is your doing, Jocelyn!" she exclaimed hotly.
"In a measure it may be; yet things are not as you think. There is no question of Master Steele's dismissal. On the contrary. I come from Sir Andrew to afford him an opportunity of very signally distinguishing himself, if he is minded to undertake the task I shall propose."
He was toying stupidly with a lock of his hair, his jaw fallen, and his cheeks, methought, a little paler than their wont.
"Master Steele," I resumed, seeing that he had no word to offer, "as you may in a measure realise, our circumstances here are growing sorely straitened, and we shall not be able to resist the crop-ears much longer. We have just had news that Rupert is at Stafford; and we require a messenger who, escaping the vigilance of the Puritans, will make his way to the Prince, and bring him with all despatch to our assistance. It is Sir Andrew's wish that you undertake this."
"But why send Master Steele?" cried Annabel. "He is not a soldier."
"Of that," I answered drily, "I was dimly aware. But for this work a messenger is needed, not a soldier."
Steele stood before me in a very stricken attitude; and from the fact that he betrayed no alacrity to be about the business, I already began to think that we had misjudged him; for, were he a spy, what easier than, upon leaving us, to join the Roundheads, and tell them of our plight, leaving the message to Rupert undelivered?
"Butbut," he stammered, taken aback, "I am all unversed in these affairs. Were it not better, Master Varley, to employ one of the men of the garrison?"
"We can ill afford a single man," I answered; "though, even if we could, matters would be no better. We require someone who will carry a message by word of mouth, and not by letter; else, did our messenger fall into Puritan hands, our condition would be discovered. We require a gentleman who will permit himself to be hanged ere he will betray us; and we can think of no likelier person than yourself."
'Swounds! How those reassuring words of mine froze him with their foreshadowing of violence! Pale as the dead, and with eyes that would not meet my glance, he stood and spake no wordhe whose tongue we knew for as glib and pert as that of a hostelry wench. Annabel was watching him; and as moments passed and still he uttered never a syllable, a frown of displeasure fell between her fine eyes.
"You will go, of course, Master Steele?" said she at last.
"Whywhy, yes," he faltered, ashamed at least of the pusillanimity he was manifesting. "Since it is required of me, I'll go. You say that I am to be sent out in an hour?"
"As soon as it is dark," I answered.
Under pretence of making ready he left us upon the instant; and I never doubted but that it was shame that drove him to hide his palsied condition from Annabel's eyes.
Her wrath boiled up as he departed, and like a furythe sweetest, loveliest, daintiest fury that ever graced the realms of Plutoshe turned upon me.
"I read your motive, Master Jocelyn," quoth she indignantly, "as plainly as though you had told me of it!"
"My motive, Madam," said I testily, "is to get a message to Rupert by means of Master Steele."
"Not so," she cried. "You sought but to prove him a coward in my eyes."
"And have I failed?"
"Most signally. For you see that he is prepared to go."
"He could be no less, in your presence, if he would not be branded a craven by you."
"You do him wrong," she cried, with loyal heat, "as you yourself shall confess. You think because he is not a bloodthirsty swaggerer of your own kidney, that he has no valour; because he prefers to smell of musk rather than to reek of leather, you account him a milksop. But already has he proven you wrong, for you see that he goes."
"Ay," I replied unguardedly. "But he shall prove me right ere the business is concluded."
"You confess it, then?" she cried in triumph.
I bit my lip, and swore softly to myself.
"Why, yes. It seems I do."
She measured me with ther eyes for a moment, and a curious smile sat on her lips.
"Jocelyn," said she at last, "have you a mind to make a wager with me touching this?"
"A wager? I'll wager all I am possessed of. What do you lay against it?"
She was silent for a spell, and, turning half from me, she looked through the open window into the gathering dusk. Then: "You have oft wooed me, Jocelyn," she murmured, "have you not?"
"Why, yes; and until this milksop appeared it seemed that I did not do so quite in vain."
"And are you still of the same mind concerning me?" she asked.
The throb of my pulses quickened. I took an eager, yet hesitant, step in her direction, for with my sudden hopes were blended fears and doubt of her.
"Annabel!" I cried. But she waved me back, growing of a sudden very chill, and her answer fell calm and deliberate.
"So sure am I of Master Steele's high spirit, Jocelyn, that I am willing to wager myself against whatever you may incline to lay as of equal value that his courage will be proof against any test that you may apply to it."
"Done!" I cried hotly. "By my soul. I have naught of equal value, yet all I have I'll stake."
"You will be a poor man to-morrow, Jocelyn," she laughed.
"Mayhap," I answered, turning to depart in quest of Master Steele, "and, mayhap, a passing rich one."
From Sir Andrew himself did Steele receive his parting injunctions, and anon we saw him leave the castle by the postern-gate, despite his fears and tremors, and vanish into the darkness of the lowering night.
Now, the news that I had said we had of Rupert had been brought us by one Richard Cartwrighta nephew of Sir Andrew'swho had ridden from Stafford to reassure us with word that the Prince was moving to our relief, and should reach Penhilgon on the morrow. Since this Cartwright was unknown to Steele, I entrusted to him the leading part in the comedy that was about to be enacted, giving him for companions a half-dozen men taken from the stables, and likewise unknown to our coxcomb. We had tricked the men out in plain cuirasses and steel-pots, over scarlet coats, to give them the air of soldiers of the Commonwealth. And these knaves, having left the castle in advance of Master Steele, brought him back within a half-hour of his departure bound and blindfolded. They carried him to one of the lower rooms of the castle, which we had prepared with furnitures of a Puritanical severity, and where, with more troopers of a Parliamentarian aspect, Sir Andrew and I, in cloaks and steeple hats, awaited him. To the uncertain light and our shadowing headgear we trusted to go unrecognised; and, the better to ensure this, we stood not forward, but mingled in the crowd of men-at-arms. Annabel, too, was there by her own desire, but well in the background and the shadows, and wearing also a broad-brimmed hat and a long cloak.
We had strewn the place with accoutrements; and at a littered table Dick Cartwrightlooking as sour and solemn a Puritan as ever discoursed through his nosetook his seat and ordered the bandage to be taken from the prisoner's eyes.
"Thy name, fellow?" Cartwright arraigned him harshly.
"Roland Steele, sir," faltered the poet.
"Art well named, you that come stealing here in the night like a devouring lion bearing down upon the fold of Israel. Confess art a spy sent out by that blasphemous, drunken, swaggering knight of hell, Sir Andrew Penhilgonis't not so?" he roared.
"He's an eloquent man, on my soul," grunted Sir Andrew at my elbow.
As for the miserable Master Steele, who had more the look of a mouse than a lion, he fell to trembling very violently, and his eyes were open wide in affright.
"You are in error, sir," he cried. "By my every hope of heaven I swear I am no spy!"
"Are you not from the ogre's castle?"
"From Penhilgon? Yes, sir. ButbutI am a servant there, and"
"A servant, thou, and in those garments?" bellowed Cartwright, the veins on his forehead swelling with the rage he simulated. "Liar, dost think to catch me with such a falsehood? Go capture an eagle with birdlime! 'Twill prove easier."
"You see, whispered Annabel, "that he is no Parliamentarian spy, else had he made himself known to them."
"I confess I had realised thus much," I answered. Yet your wager with me touches his mettle rather than his loyalty. They are about to apply the test."
Already Cartwright was speaking. With much mention of the Lord of Hosts, and here and there a proverb interlarded, he was giving Steele the reassuring news that he was to be hanged at once.
"Take him away," he ended, with a wave of the hand, "and get it over speedily."
Then a wild, blood-curdling shriek rang through the apartment, and the coxcomb had fallen on his knees, and was mumbling an incoherent prayer for mercy, swearing with great readiness of oaths that he was no spy.
"Take him away," Cartwrught repeated more peremptorily; and a couple of men advanced and laid rough hands upon him.
"Spare me, my masters," he shrieked. "I'll buy my life from you. I'll buy it with information that may be of value to you."
Cartwright raised his hand.
"Stay," he commanded, and the men fell back from the prisoner. "Now, sir, you grow more reasonable. What information have you? Come, sir."
"First promise me," said Steele, "that I shall go free if I tell you all I know."
"If you do that, and answer faithfully such further questions as I may put you, you shall go free," Cartwright promised.
Having received that assurance, Master Steele recounted how hard pressed we were, and so at the end of our tether that he was on his way to Stafford to urge Prince Rupert to hasten to our relief. He assured Cartwright that, did he press the castle without delay, it must fall, adding that on the northern side lay our weakness.
"The dastard!" Annabel breathed fiercely in my ear.
"Wait," said I. "It is not ended yet. He is to drink the cup of Judas to the dregs."
"Before I release you," said Cartwright to the prisoner, "there is a service of incalculable value you can render us, and which will satisfy me of your good intentions. You say that you left Penhilgon Castle by the postern-gate. Could you re-enter it by the same means?"
"Assuredly. If I make myself known to them they will readmit me."
He was speaking more calmly now that the shadow of impending doom was lightening.
"You shall do so then, and we will go with you. You shall return to the postern, and you shall announce that you have information of value for that ruffianly Sir Andrew's earnews of importance to that godless, bottle-empying Amalekite."
"His stock of epithets is passing vast," snorted Sir Andrew.
"They will open for you," pursued Cartwright, "and as they do so we will rush their gates. Thus shall the chosen ones of the Lord triumph over these Babylonians. You agree to this?" he demanded sharply.
Steele bowed his head in silence.
"Go, then," said the pseudo-Roundhead, rising. But, as the troopers made shift to lead him out, "Stay!" he commanded, "It were best to blindfold him. Once a traitor, always a traitor; and should he by any chance escape us, it will be best he shall have seen naught that he may anon betray."
I was with with them at the postern when, presently, after having borne him three times round the castle, we halted at the little gate, and the bandage was again removed from his eyes.
"'Tis here, is it not?" whispered Cartwright.
He peered about him in the gloom.
"Yes," he answered softly. "It is here." And, urged by Cartwright, who was on his right, he stepped up to the gate and knocked noisily. I myself was close upon his other side, confident that in the dark, and my face all hidden by my Puritan hat, he would not know me.
He was hailed from within, and in reply he called upon them to open.
"Who are you?" demanded the sentry, and as he seemed to hesitate I gripped him suddenly by the arm to urge him.
He shuddered in my grasp; for a second he faltered; then, to our ineffable amazement, "Let Sir Andrew look to his gates!" he cried in a loud voice. "The enemy is here! God save His Majesty!"
That said, he stood in an attitude of fearsome expectancy, as well he might; for had we been the Roundheads we represented ourselves, a dozen sword-thrusts had laid him stark at once.
For a moment the surprise of it had robbed me of speech. When at last I recovered, I did a thing in which I take pride to this day. I clapped him on the shoulder, and, "Bravely spoken, Master Steele," quoth I warmly. "I crave your pardon for the wrong I have done you in holding you a coward, and submitting you to this test."
And then the door of the postern swung open, and lanterns gleamed within, disclosingamong the men-at-arms assembled thereSir Andrew and Annabel awaiting us. On our shoulders we bore him into the castle, acclaiming him a hero as we went; and that same night a banquet was held at Penhilgon, whereat he sat in the place of honour, 'twixt Sir Andrew and Annabel, flushed with victory, and acknowledging with smiles the toasts that again and again were drunk in his honour and to his heroism. Annabel sat beside him, smiling and treating him with a kindness perchance the greater because she sought to make amends for the moment's doubt that she, too, had entertained. On every hand was laughter, mirth, and song, for wine flowed over-freely, until the only glum countenance at that jovial board was mine. For what manner of wager had I not lost? And how much had I not stood to win?
At last, towards midnight, the company rose, and the men sought their beds, the greater part of them lurching uncertain 'neath their load of wine. I was going by way of the southern rampart to my own apartments when suddenly I came upon our hero giving Annabel "Good-night." I was in too sombre a mood to desire aught but to escape unobserved, and so I flattened myself in the angle of a buttress, waiting for them to leave me a clear way to depart. But as it chanced they turned and came in my direction, so that I was forced to overhear what passed. Steele's loud voice and the thickness of his utterance placed his condition beyond doubt.
"It may be a goodly thing to have thews and sinews and a knowledge of arms," he was boasting, "but meseems I've proven it a greater thing to have a generous share of mother-wit and a quick brain."
"How so?" she asked.
"Why, 'slife," he laughed, with a hiccough, "when that jealous dog Jocelyn Varley gripped my arm at the postern, a slow-reasoning, dull-witted clod would have profited nothing. But on the instant I knew the touch of that maimed stump of his, and detected the two missing middle fingers. I tell you, sweet Annabel"
"More than enough you have already told me!" she broke in, with a fierceness of which even I hardly thought her capableand heaven knows I had tasted the edge of her temper more than once. "You craven, you cheat, you hound!" she cried. "And you sat at table and let them make a hero of you! Why, you"
"Nay, nay! I vow I'll" he began, all of a sudden all subdued, and awake to the indiscretion he had committed.
"I vow you'll leave Penhilgon Castle at daybreak," she cried firmly. "Else will I tell them what you are; and you may come to know the sting of a rope-end, or worse, ere you are driven forth. Now go, and never let me see you"
"On my soul, blood and wounds, you go too far!" His voice grew threatening and he stepped towards her.
"You would dare? Go!" I heard her say again; and, thinking it high time to show myself, I stepped out into the moonlight.
"Did I hear this lady bid you go, good Master Steele?" I asked him sweetly. "I pray you obey her." And so, prompted, maybe, by the generous share of mother-wit he boasted, he took his departure without more ado.
When he was gone Annabel turned to me, and hung her head.
"It seems, that, after all, I have lost my wager," said she.
"Annabel," said I very tenderlyfor methought that haply she might have cared a little for Master Steele, and that his vileness had hurt her"if you regret your wager we will forget you made it."
Her eyes flashed me a sudden look I could not understand.
"Fool!" she said, and, turning on her heel, she would have left me, but that I put forth my hand and caught her.
"Annabel," I pleaded, "Annabel!"
"Would you have the wager forgotten?" she asked and her voice trembled never so lightly.
"Would I? I stand to gain much, Annabel. The best there is to be gained in life. But you"
"Think you I had risked so much had I not been disposed to chance the losing?" she broke in.
With a cry I drew her to me, forgetting the wager and how else I had come to wring that confession from her lips; for when we have gained what we desire it is the way of our weak nature to forget the means by which we have gained it.