The Book Lover

Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini

Mistress Wilding by Rafael Sabatini.jpg

CHAPTER I. POT-VALIANCE

Then drink it thus, cried the rash young fool, and splashed the contents of his cup full into the face of Mr. Wilding even as that gentleman, on his feet, was proposing to drink to the eyes of the young fool’s sister.

The moments that followed were full of interest. A stillness, a brooding, expectant stillness, fell upon the company—and it numbered a round dozen—about Lord Gervase’s richly appointed board. In the soft candlelight the oval table shone like a deep brown pool, in which were reflected the gleaming silver and sparkling crystal that seemed to float upon it.

Blake sucked in his nether-lip, his florid face a thought less florid than its wont, his prominent blue eyes a thought more prominent. Under its golden periwig old Nick Trenchard’s wizened countenance was darkened by a scowl, and his fingers, long, swarthy, and gnarled, drummed fretfully upon the table. Portly Lord Gervase Scoresby—their host, a benign and placid man of peace, detesting turbulence—turned crimson now in wordless rage. The others gaped and stared—some at young Westmacott, some at the man he had so grossly affronted—whilst in the shadows of the hall a couple of lacqueys looked on amazed, all teeth and eyes.

Mr. Wilding stood, very still and outwardly impassive, the wine trickling from his long face, which, if pale, was no paler than its habit, a vestige of the smile with which he had proposed the toast still lingering on his thin lips, though departed from his eyes. An elegant gentleman was Mr. Wilding, tall, and seeming even taller by virtue of his exceeding slenderness. He had the courage to wear his own hair, which was of a dark brown and very luxuriant; dark brown too were his sombre eyes, low-lidded and set at a downward slant. From those odd eyes of his, his countenance gathered an air of superciliousness tempered by a gentle melancholy. For the rest, it was scored by lines that stamped it with the appearance of an age in excess of his thirty years.

Thirty guineas’ worth of Mechlin at his throat was drenched, empurpled and ruined beyond redemption, and on the breast of his blue satin coat a dark patch was spreading like a stain of blood.

Richard Westmacott, short, sturdy, and fair-complexioned to the point of insipidity, watched him sullenly out of pale eyes, and waited. It was Lord Gervase who broke at last the silence—broke it with an oath, a thing unusual in one whose nature was almost woman-mild.

“As God’s my life!” he spluttered wrathfully, glowering at Richard. “To have this happen in my house! The young fool shall make apology!”

“With his dying breath,” sneered Trenchard, and the old rake’s words, his tone, and the malevolent look he bent upon the boy increased the company’s malaise.

“I think,” said Mr. Wilding, with a most singular and excessive sweetness, “that what Mr. Westmacott has done he has done because he apprehended me amiss.”

“No doubt he’ll say so,” opined Trenchard with a shrug, and had caution dug into his ribs by Blake’s elbow, whilst Richard made haste to prove him wrong by saying the contrary.

“I apprehended you exactly, sir,” he answered, defiance in his voice and wine-flushed face.

“Ha!” clucked Trenchard, irrepressible. “He’s bent on self-destruction. Let him have his way, in God’s name.”

But Wilding seemed intent upon showing how long-suffering he could be. He gently shook his head. “Nay, now,” said he. “You thought, Mr. Westmacott, that in mentioning your sister, I did so lightly. Is it not so?”

“You mentioned her, and that is all that matters,” cried Westmacott. “I’ll not have her name on your lips at any time or in any place—no, nor in any manner.” His speech was thick from too much wine.

“You are drunk,” cried indignant Lord Gervase with finality.

“Pot-valiant,” Trenchard elaborated.

Mr. Wilding set down at last the glass which he had continued to hold until that moment. He rested his hands upon the table, knuckles downward, and leaning forward he spoke impressively, his face very grave; and those present—knowing him as they did—were one and all lost in wonder at his unusual patience.

“Mr. Westmacott,” said he, “I do think you are wrong to persist in affronting me. You have done a thing that is beyond forgiveness, and yet, when I offer you this opportunity of honourably retrieving…” He shrugged his shoulders, leaving the sentence incomplete.

The company might have spared its deep surprise at so much mildness. There was but the semblance of it. Wilding proceeded thus of purpose set, and under the calm mask of his long white face his mind worked wickedly and deliberately. The temerity of Westmacott, whose nature was notoriously timid, had surprised him for a moment. But anon, reading the boy’s mind as readily as though it had been a scroll unfolded for his instruction, he saw that Westmacott, on the strength of his position as his sister’s brother, conceived himself immune. Mr. Wilding’s avowed courtship of the lady, the hopes he still entertained of winning her, despite the aversion she was at pains to show him, gave Westmacott assurance that Mr. Wilding would never elect to shatter his all too slender chances by embroiling himself in a quarrel with her brother. And—reading him, thus, aright—Mr. Wilding put on that mask of patience, luring the boy into greater conviction of the security of his position. And Richard, conceiving himself safe in his entrenchment behind the bulwarks of his brothership to Ruth Westmacott, and heartened further by the excess of wine he had consumed, persisted in insults he would never otherwise have dared to offer.

“Who seeks to retrieve?” he crowed offensively, boldly looking up into the other’s face. “It seems you are yourself reluctant.” And he laughed a trifle stridently, and looked about him for applause, but found none.

“You are overrash,” Lord Gervase disapproved him harshly.

“Not the first coward I’ve seen grow valiant at a table,” put in Trenchard by way of explanation, and might have come to words with Blake on that same score, but that in that moment Wilding spoke again.

“Reluctant to do what?” he questioned amiably, looking Westmacott so straightly between the eyes that the boy shifted uneasily on his high-backed chair.

Nevertheless, still full of confidence in the unassailability of his position, the mad youth answered, “To cleanse yourself of what I threw at you.”

“Fan me, ye winds!” gasped Nick Trenchard, and looked with expectancy at his friend Wilding.

Now there was one factor with which, in basing with such craven shrewdness his calculations upon Mr. Wilding’s feelings for his sister, young Richard had not reckoned. He was not to know that Wilding, bruised and wounded by Miss Westmacott’s scorn of him, had reached that borderland where love and hate are so merged that they are scarce to be distinguished. Embittered by the slights she had put upon him—slights which his sensitive, lover’s fancy had magnified a hundredfold—Anthony Wilding’s frame of mind was grown peculiar. Of his love she would have none; his kindness she seemingly despised. So be it; she should taste his cruelty. If she scorned his wooing and forbade him to pursue it, at least it was not hers to deny him the power to hurt; and in hurting her that would not be loved by him some measure of fierce and bitter consolation seemed to await him.

He realized, perhaps, not quite all this—and to the unworthiness of it all he gave no thought. But he realized enough as he toyed, as cat with mouse, with Richard Westmacott, to know that in striking at her through the worthless person of this brother whom she cherished—and who persisted in affording him this opportunity—a wicked vengeance would be his.

Peace-loving Lord Gervase had heaved himself suddenly to his feet at Westmacott’s last words, still intent upon saving the situation.

“In Heaven’s name…” he began, when Mr. Wilding, ever calm and smiling, though now a trifle sinister, waved him gently into silence. But that persisting calm of Mr. Wilding’s was too much for old Nick Trenchard. He rose abruptly, drawing all eyes upon himself. It was time, he thought, he took a hand in this.

In addition to his affection for Wilding and his contempt for Westmacott, he was filled with a fear that the latter might become dangerous if not crushed at once. Gifted with a shrewd knowledge of men, acquired during a chequered life of much sour experience, old Nick instinctively mistrusted Richard. He had known him for a fool, a weakling, a babbler, and a bibber of wine. Out of such elements a villain is soon compounded, and Trenchard had cause to fear the form of villainy that lay ready to Richard’s hand. For it chanced that Mr. Trenchard was second cousin to that famous John Trenchard, so lately tried for treason and acquitted to the great joy of the sectaries of the West, and still more lately—but yesterday, in fact—fled the country to escape the rearrest ordered in consequence of that excessive joy. Like his more famous cousin, Nick Trenchard was one of the Duke of Monmouth’s most active agents; and Westmacott, like Wilding, Vallancey, and one or two others at that board, stood, too, committed to the cause of the Protestant Champion.

Out of his knowledge of the boy Trenchard was led to fear that if he were leniently dealt with now, tomorrow, when, sober, he came to realize the grossness of the thing he had done and the unlikelihood of its being forgiven him, there was no saying but that to protect himself he might betray Wilding’s share in the plot that was being hatched. That in itself would be bad enough; but there might be worse, for he could scarcely betray Wilding without betraying others and—what mattered most—the Cause itself. He must be dealt with out of hand, Trenchard opined, and dealt with ruthlessly.

“I think, Anthony,” said he, “that we have had words enough. Shall you be disposing of Mr. Westmacott to-morrow, or must I be doing it for you?”

With a gasp of dismay young Richard twisted in his chair to confront this fresh and unsuspected antagonist. What danger was this that he had overlooked? Then, even as he turned, Wilding’s voice fell on his ear, and each word of the few he spoke was like a drop of icy water on Westmacott’s overheated brain.

“I protest you are vastly kind, Nick. But I intend, myself, to have the pleasure of killing Mr. Westmacott.” And his smile fell now in mockery upon the disillusioned lad.

Crushed by that bolt from the blue, Richard sat as if stunned, the flush receding from his face until his very lips were livid. The shock had sobered him, and, sobered, he realized in terror what he had done. And yet even sober he was amazed to find that the staff upon which with such security he had leaned should have proved rotten. True he had put much strain upon it; but then he had counted that it would stand much strain.

He would have spoken, but he lacked words, so stricken was he. And even had he done so it is odds none would have heard him, for the late calm was of a sudden turned to garboil. Every man of that company—with the sole exception of Richard himself—was on his feet, and all were speaking at once, in clamouring, excited chorus.

Wilding alone—the butt of their expostulations—stood quietly smiling, and wiped his face at last with a kerchief of finest lawn. Dominating the others in the Babel rose the voice of Sir Rowland Blake—impecunious Blake; Blake lately of the Guards, who had sold his commission as the only thing remaining him upon which he could raise money; Blake, that other suitor for Miss Westmacott’s hand, the suitor favoured by her brother.

“You shall not do it, Mr. Wilding,” he shouted, his face crimson. “No, by God! You were shamed forever. He is but a lad, and drunk.”

Trenchard eyed the short, powerfully built man beside him, and laughed unpleasantly. “You should get yourself bled one of these days, Sir Rowland,” he advised. “There may be no great danger yet; but a man can’t be too careful when he wears a narrow neckcloth.”

Blake—a short, powerfully built man—took no heed of him, but looked straight at Mr. Wilding, who, smiling ever, calmly returned the gaze of those prominent blue eyes.

“You will suffer me, Sir Rowland,” said he sweetly, “to be the judge of whom I will and whom I will not meet.”

Sir Rowland flushed under that mocking glance and caustic tone. “But he is drunk,” he repeated feebly.

“I think,” said Trenchard, “that he is hearing something that will make him sober.”

Lord Gervase took the lad by the shoulder, and shook him impatiently. “Well?” quoth he. “Have you nothing to say? You did a deal of prating just now. I make no doubt but that even at this late hour if you were to make apology…”

“It would be idle,” came Wilding’s icy voice to quench the gleam of hope kindling anew in Richard’s breast. The lad saw that he was lost, and he is a poor thing, indeed, who cannot face the worst once that worst is shown to be irrevocable. He rose with some semblance of dignity.

“It is as I would wish,” said he, but his livid face and staring eyes belied the valour of his words. He cleared his huskiness from his throat. “Sir Rowland,” said he, “will you act for me?”

“Not I!” cried Blake with an oath. “I’ll be no party to the butchery of a boy unfledged.”

“Unfledged?” echoed Trenchard. “Body o’ me! ‘Tis a matter Wilding will amend to-morrow. He’ll fledge him, never fear. He’ll wing him on his flight to heaven.”

Of set purpose did Trenchard add this fuel to the blazing fire. It was no part of his views that this encounter should be avoided. If Richard Westmacott were allowed to live after what had passed, there were too many tall fellows might go in peril of their lives.

Richard, meanwhile, had turned to the man on his left—young Vallancey, a notorious partisan of the Duke of Monmouth’s, a hair-brained gentleman who was his own worst enemy.

“May I count on you, Ned?” he asked.

“Aye—to the death,” said Vallancey magniloquently.

“Mr. Vallancey,” said Trenchard with a wry twist of his sharp features, “you grow prophetic.”

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