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Title: The Pretender
Author: Rafael Sabatini
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1400341.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2014
Date most recently updated: January 2014

Produced by: Corrado Comini

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Title: The Pretender
Author: Rafael Sabatini

*

I WAS glad enough, in all faith, to call a halt at the inn at
Rosthwaite in obedience to the importunities of my men. Peter and
Andrew, who had borne with me the burden of the day at the horse-fair
at Keswick.

It was approaching sunset when we gained the little hamlet, and there
was, still a good hour's ride home before us, so it behooved us not to
tarry overlong. Just time to wash the dust from our throats and give
our legs an easing-space, from the saddle-stiffness that was besetting
us.

Half-reclining on the cushioned window-seat of the empty inn parlor,
I called to Blossom for a draught of October. A garrulous old soul
was this vintner; who suspected me--as for that matter did the whole
countryside--of an imprudent attachment to the cause of Prince
Charlie, and it was of that lost cause and the prince's alleged
wanderings in the heather that he was discoursing to me when the advent
of a stranger set a sudden bridle on his foolish tongue.

The newcomer was a tall, fair young man, wrapped about in a cloak and
wearing a three-cornered hat so far forward upon his brow that it
masked the upper portion of his face. He bore himself with an easy,
graceful carriage rarely seen in our country parts, and through the
dust that overlaid him one perceived his garments to be of a quiet
elegance suggesting the South as his origin.

He paused at sight of me, and for a moment seemed to hesitate. Then,
having paid me the honor of a close scrutiny, to my surprise he
suddenly advanced upon me with a glad eagerness. He thrust back the hat
from his brow, and the youthful face which he now disclosed--a pale,
oval countenance, with full lips, prominent eyes and a flaxen tie-wig--was
elusively familiar. He halted before me, leaning slightly toward
me across the deal table, whilst I looked up and waited for him to
speak. A moment or two he stood as if expecting some movement from me.
Seeing that none came, his level brows were slightly knit, and a look
of hesitation that amounted almost to alarm flitted across his face.

"Surely, surely, sir," said he, at length, and his voice was fresh and
pleasant and softened by a slightly foreign enunciation, "surely I have
the advantage to address Sir Jasper Morford?"

I smiled agreeably--his air and manner all compelled the friendliness--as
I corrected his impression. "My name, sir, is Dayne--Richard
Dayne of Coldbarrow." And again moved by the gallantry of his air, I
added courteously, "your servant, sir."

He continued to stare at me, between astonishment and unbelief. "Why,
surely--" began; then halted, and--"'Tis very odd," he muttered. "I see
I am mistook. Your pardon, sir." And he dropped me a congé, all very
brave and courtly.

"What is no less odd," I said, "is that not only should you have
mistook me for one of your acquaintances, but that there is about
yourself a something with which I seem acquainted."

He drew back sharply, and again alarm peeped at me from his eyes. Then,
recovering: "'Tis very odd, as ye say," he answered, and now there was
a note of coldness in his voice, an imperious note, that seemed to
forbid the pursuance of my curiosity. "Again I crave your pardon, sir."
He turned away, and crossing the room to the table remotest from me,
called the landlord to supply his needs.

I sipped my ale and mused, my eyes upon his graceful back, until
presently my attention was caught by a shadow that fell athwart my
table. Idly I turned to seek the cause. For just one instant I had a
glimpse of a face--blotched, villainous and unclean--pressed against
the leaded window-pane, and of two red-rimmed eyes, evil and intent.
The next moment, in a flash, even as I turned, the apparition vanished.

* * *

THAT a man should peer into an inn parlor was no great matter for
astonishment; but that the man should be at such pains himself to avoid
being seen was a circumstance sufficiently suspicious. Instantly the
thought occurred to me that the ruffian's business might be with my
young gallant across the room.

I resolved to watch, in the hope of learning more, of making sure; and
to this end I set my pewter a little to the left, where the whole of
the window was reflected on its polished surface. And now I sat on and
smoked, my eye upon that reflection. Nor had I long to wait. Presently
the face reappeared slowly and cautiously, and for all that it was too
diminished and distorted by the pewter's surface to enable me to gather
anything of its detail or expression, yet it was enough to inform me
that the watcher had returned. I rose with leisurely nonchalance, and
without turning, took up my measure and sauntered across the room to
the young stranger.

"Ye'll forgive the liberty," said I, "but are ye like to be worth
watching? Have ye cause to fear being watched, I mean?"

From the start and the expression of his eyes, 'twas very clear he had.

"I beg that ye'll not move. There is at this moment the most rascally
face in Cumberland pressed against the window-pane."

His uneasiness grew so that my every suspicion was confirmed. Not a
doubt but that here was some poor fugitive Jacobite with, as like as
not, a price upon his handsome head.

He looked at me a moment with eyes that seemed to be seeking to fathom
my very thoughts. Then he lowered his glance. "It is very kind in you
to warn me, sir. 'Twere idle to pretend that I am in no danger, since
in the pass to which things are come, you, sir, an entire stranger,
are now my only hope. I have no claim upon you," he continued, his
tone growing halting, as if fettered by a certain shyness, "and ye may
marvel at the temerity--the effrontery that impels me to implore your
aid in the desperate case in which ye find me."

"Sir," I answered readily, more and more assured with what manner of
man I had to do, "I beg that ye'll command me freely. In so far as I
may be able, I am most ready to assist you."

Again he looked at me, long and searchingly. "That, sir, is as kind as
it is rash. Were I less hard-pressed I must refuse the service you so
generously offer. But, being desperate, I have no other course but the
selfish one of taking you at your word." Then in an altered, brisker
manner--"You are well known in these parts?" he inquired.

I made answer that I was.

"And no doubt ye'll be a person of substance and reputation; to be seen
in your company might mean the disarming of suspicion against me--for
surely it can be no more than a suspicion at present. Were he certain,
he'd not be content to watch. Will ye not join me, sir?" And he waved
me to an empty chair by the table, and raised his voice to call the
landlord.

Anon, when the latter had fetched me a fresh can and had withdrawn, the
stranger--as I thought at first, for lack of other subject wherewith
to entertain me--raised his measure to propose a toast. "The King!"
said he, watching me very intently as he spoke.

I paused a moment before replying. Had he named the king he pledged,
his meaning could not have been plainer than it was. Now, as I have
hinted, for all that I had taken no part in the ill-starred
rising--having been restrained from any such rashness by my far-seeing
uncle, the sheriff--yet my heart was entirely with the Stuart cause,
my sympathies all against the Dutch usurper. Nor had I in the least
dissembled these feelings of mine, and if I caused any surprise in
Cumberland at the time, it was at my remaining passive during the
strife that was but lately ended. That passivity was mainly begot of
my affection for my uncle, which was very deep, and tempered with a
gratitude that compelled my obedience to his wishes in the matter.

* * *

NOTWITHSTANDING, in the presence of this stranger, certain caution
beset me now and I hesitated. Then, drawn to him by the anxious,
almost pathetic, glance with which he watched me and awaited my
reply, I raised my pewter and in the same significant tone that he
had employed--"The King!" I answered, and would have drunk, but that,
leaning across, he set a hand upon my arm, and checked me.

"Which King?" quoth he, his voice dropping almost to a whisper. "Which
King--_de jure_, or _de facto_!"

I met his glance and answered his eagerness with a smile. My heart went
wholly out to him, and "The King _de jure_!" said I, to assure him that
in me he had a friend upon whom he might depend.

His eyes brightened on the word, and then there was the click of a
latch behind him; the door was thrust slowly open, and a burly ruffian,
wearing the evil countenance and the red-rimmed eyes I had seen at the
window, shuffled into the room. My companion flung a glance over his
shoulder at the newcomer, and the other returned the glance with
interest, a sneering smile investing the corners of his loose-lipped
mouth. Then the fellow turned aside and shuffled slowly away to the
seat which I hid lately vacated, where he thumped the table for the
landlord.

My Jacobite looked at me with eyes eloquent with apprehension,
whereupon I immediately fell to talking loudly of common places such as
should lead a stranger to suppose him other than he was. I expounded
to him upon the seasons, upon the excessive rains that we had lately
had, and the urgent need of fine weather to bring on the crops. I
discoursed of the horse-fair at Keswick, and to some extent of the
business I had done there, airing opinions upon the breeding and
rearing of horses, upon the tricks of horse-dealers, and the manner in
which they made gulls of townsfolk.

My Jacobite entered into the spirit of my little comedy, and played his
part in it with a quick and ready wit, now agreeing, now disputing,
and generally conveyed the impression that he had no interests in life
outside of crops and cattle. But his appearance was prone to belie
the suggestion. His laced hat, his tie-wig, his fine boots of Spanish
leather, with their silver spurs, to say nothing of the dress-sword
that hung on his thigh, were all so many contradictions to his talk of
husbandry. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the spy--for that
I now accounted him--and to my dismay observed the growth of that
sinister smile of his as he sat there, his eyes upon us, his ears
attentive.

The suspense grew to a pitch that was unendurable. Better force him
into action, and learn the worst that was to be expected from him,
rather than prolong the present state of things. I resolved upon the
bolder course, and rose.

"Come, Jack," said I, giving my Jacobite the first name that entered my
mind, to show the spy that we were by no means chance acquaintances,
"it is time we were getting homewards. The nags will be treated by now."

"Why, yes, Ned," said he, very promptly following my example. He stood
a moment to finish his ale, entirely at his leisure, then turned to
cross with me to the door. But at the same moment the spy rose too, and
casting aside all further attempt to dissemble his purpose, he gained
the door ahead of us and set his back to it.

"Not so fast, sirs," said he, leering his wicked relish. He was the
cat, and we were the mice that had made sport for him.

"Why, what's this?" said I, covering my fears in a display of angry
astonishment. "The door, sirrah!"

"Pooh!" said he, eying me contemptuously. "You may go your ways, Mr.
Dayne of Coldbarrow. My business is not with you. None has bethought
him yet of setting a price on your head. My affair," and he turned to
my companion, "is with your Royal Highness."

His Royal Highness! I fell back in my amazement, doubting at first, and
then convinced, and marveling how it came that I had been so long in
doubt. Indeed I should have put a name long since to that pale, oval
face, those prominent eyes and full red lips. Here, in the flesh, stood
"Bonnie Prince Charlie," himself. So convinced was I that I had not the
presence of mind to laugh, as did the Prince--disdainfully as at an
egregious blunder.

"Lackaday," said he. "D'ye address me as 'Royal Highness'?"

"Yourself, Charles Stuart, answered the other grimly.

"'Tis a jest, to be sure," the Prince assured him, frowning, "but I
find little humor in it. Ye'll be letting us pass, sir."

The ruffian leaned forward, leering still. "If I'm wrong, the constable
of Rosthwaite shall tell me on't; or, if not the constable, why then
the sheriff."

"D'ye dare detain me?" demanded my companion, and he drew himself up
with a great dignity.

"Ye see," quoth the other, at his ease, "there's a matter of a thousand
guineas on your head. I'm a poor man, your Highness--"

"Tush, sir! Ye're mistook, I tell you," the Prince broke in
impatiently. "Out of my way there!" And he clapped a hand to the silver
hilt of his sword.

The ruffian flashed a pistol from his pocket. "I'm not mistook," said
he, and laughed. "Ye'll be stepping as far as the constable's with me.
And not an inch of that steel of yours, or I'll shoot ye first, and
drag you by the heels to the constable afterward. I'm a plain-spoken
man, your Highness. I like to be understood."

* * *

AT THAT the Prince's self-possession entirely left him. He turned
to me a face that was blank with dismay. Then, with a nobility
and a forgetfulness of self in such a moment that won my heart
entirely--"Very well, sir," said he. "The game is yours. But this
gentleman, at least--I have but met him by chance--you'll not wish to
embroil him with me."

The fellow shrugged his massive shoulders. "As for him, why let him go
his ways and be hanged." He stood away from the door. "There, sir,"
said he.

"Not I," I answered, my resolve taken not to abandon this poor prince
who had ever had my heart, thankful that at last, and in his need I
should have this chance of serving him. "This gentleman comes with
me, and--"

"Chut!" he interrupted angrily, and set his pistol on a level with my
breast, "If ye're for turning troublesome, young sir, your account is
soon settled. D'ye dream I'll let you come between me and a thousand
guineas?"

"Leave me, sir, I beg," put in the Prince. "You can not help me. Here
is a mercenary villain in quest of blood-money. What arguments do you
suppose could prevail with such a knave?"

The answer to that question flashed at once into my mind. In a belt
about my waist I had two hundred guineas--the fruits of my dealings at
Keswick, the price of the horses I had sold.

"The argument of gold," I answered, and under the Prince's astonished
eyes I turned to the spy. "Look you, sir, what is your price?"

"My price?" He blew out his cheeks and laughed. "Say his price,
rather--and that's a thousand guineas."

I shook my head. "Too much, my friend. Allow his Royal Highness to
depart in peace, forego your pursuit of him, and you shall have two
hundred guineas here and now."

He looked surprised at first; then laughed contemptuously. But the
Prince caught me by the arm.

"No, no, sir!" he exclaimed. "I could not--I will not permit it!"

"Sir," I answered, very deferential, "you shall. Indeed, it is scarce
your right to refuse the service of a loyal subject, who so far has
done naught but talk to show his devotion to your cause. To others it
has been given to fight your battles with steel. I would I might have
been one of those, but since I was not, grant me at least the honor now
of fighting this with gold."

"Sir, it is very noble in you--" he was beginning, when the other
broke in again.

"Not noble enough by many a hundred pounds if he's to carry the
victory," he sneered.

I turned to him with arguments based upon the philosophy that a bird
in the hand is worth several in the bush, and urged him to accept my
offer, since it amounted to all the money that I had upon me.

"What security have you that the Government will pay you the regard?"
I asked him. "I have never heard it urged that it is an over-honest
Government; nor sir, with all respect," I added, sardonically, "d'ye
look a man with a clean conscience, to whom the Government might show
a becoming deference." I saw him wince, and I pursued the argument.
"What, for instance, if the Government, reluctant to part with its
money, were to set up an inquiry into your ways of life, and were to
find in them a pretext on which to jail you and so save its guineas?
What then, my friend?" I taunted him, perceiving that my thrust had
gone home. "Bethink you of the risk you run; consider the certainty I
am offering you. Which is it to be?"

He hesitated a moment, considering me with a gloomy eye. "'Tis not,"
said he presently, "that I am moved by your talk but that neither do
I, myself, desire the Prince's death. It is just that I am a poor
man, else would I not be at the task in which ye find me. Pay me five
hundred guineas and his Highness shall go free; more--I'll even help
him make good his escape. I swear it."

"I have but two hundred guineas on me. But stay! You shall have these
now, and, another three hundred when you bring me word to Coldbarrow
that his Highness is safe."

He pondered my proposal; then leered, and shook his heat. "Ay," he
growled, "and set a trap to catch me when I come! Nay, nay. I'm not to
be taken in that gin!"

"Bethink you," I returned impatiently. "'Tis I shall be in your power.
You have but to inform against me if I fail you." I unbuttoned my
waistcoat, unbuckled the heavy belt, and dropped it on the table with a
resounding clink. "There!" said I. "Will the Government prove as prompt
a paymaster, think; you?"

But in that moment another sound beside the chink of gold had caught
his ear, and he stood in a listening attitude, a strange, startled look
upon his evil face.

"What's that?" he snapped almost under his breath. "Hoofs!" He leaped
to the window-seat, flung up the window, and thrust out his dirty head.
The Prince, standing beside me, looked alarmed and uneasy, as well he
might. And if it crossed his mind to profit by the ruffian's attention
being momentarily engaged elsewhere, he must have dismissed the thought
as unavailing until he knew what fresh peril was approaching! To make
a dash for the open now might be to fall unto a worse plight than the
present one.

"A posse of sheriff's men!" cried the ruffian, turning.

"In Heaven's name, then resolve yourself!" I besought him. "Take this
belt, and come to me at Coldbarrow for the rest, as I have said."

He cogitated me a moment, what time the hoofs came rapidly nearer.
"Come, man," I cried, "there is need for haste!"

He advanced slowly--with a maddening slowness. "Very well," he said.
"I'll trust ye, Mr. Dayne." He took up the belt and buckled it about
his waist under his ragged coat.

The Prince turned to me, holding out his hands, thanking me and
blessing me, and overwhelming me with his graciousness. Perforce I had
to cut him short. I turned again to the other.

"Remember," I said, "it is a part of our bargain that ye help his
Highness to safety."

He nodded. "Ye may trust me. A bargain is a bargain, and ye'll not find
me fail in my part on't. Quick!" he cried to the Prince, very brisk now
in his manner. "They are almost here." He plucked a second pistol from
his pocket, and thrust it into my hand. "Secure the landlord," he bade
me "See that he doesn't blab; that he denies having had other guests
than yourself. Come, sir," he resumed to the Prince. "Our way lies by
the back. I shall need a horse--"

"Take mine," I cried in a frenzy. "Bestir! Bestir! Leave Borrowdaile
behind you with all speed."

He opened the door, and held it for his Highness. The Prince turned to
me again to recommence his thanks, perhaps to protest. I thrust him
unceremoniously forward. "Away, sir," I bade him, "or we are all lost!"

And so, at last, they went. I heard their feet go pattering down the
passage; I heard a door open and close, just as the landlord, coming
out of the room opposite, would have inquired into the unusual manner
of their departure. He knew me well, and entertained friendly feelings
toward me, and in half a dozen sentences he was won over to my side.

* * *

THEN in a cloud of dust and with a thunder of hoofs, the sheriff's
posse swept up to the door of the inn, and shouted for old Blossom.
He would have gone at once in answer to their call, but I detained
him. Every moment was of value now, as every moment increased the
start which the Prince had got, and his chances of winning through to
safety. In vain did Blossom remind me that it was not good to keep the
sheriff waiting, in vain did he implore me to let him go in answer to
their impatient calling. I kept him where he was, and let them shout
themselves into a rage. I even went the length of threatening to shoot
him if he disobeyed me. Thus were some precious minutes gained--enough
at least for the purpose which I sought to serve. Then the door was
flung open, and the sheriff himself, in a very fury of impatience,
stood on the threshold.

"Why, what a devil's here?" he cried, very red of face, very angry of
eye. "Why am I kept waiting when I call?"

I came to the landlord's rescue, and myself answered my uncle with the
truth. "Tis my doing sir. Twas I detained him."

"You?" he thundered at me. "And to what end, pray?"

"Why, if you must know, sir," I answered boldly, in a burst of loyally
to the Prince, whom at last I had had the honor of serving, "to the end
that his Royal Highness might get safely away!"

"His Royal Highness?" he echoed, like a man dumfounded. Then his brow
cleared, and his eyes flashed between mockery and anger. "So!" he
cried. "Then he was here!"

The landlord flung himself forward in a panic. "Sir James," he cried,
"I swear I never knew him for the Prince, else I had never harboured
him!"

"The Prince!" echoed my uncle, with a short, angry laugh. "Gad a'
mercy, fool, 'twas no prince--'twas Mike Coleman, Captain Coleman
of the hightoby. 'Tis a fair trade he has been driving with silly
Jacobites by his likeness to the Pretender; ye're not the first gull
he's bubblied with his gooseberry eyes and yellow wig. His Royal
Highness, forsooth! Pah!" He shrivelled me with the scorn of his
glance. "What draft, now, may he have made upon your purse, sweet
nephew? He and his fellow-rogue, Tom Londsay?"

If I looked as foolish as I felt, I must have looked very foolish.

"'Tis no matter for that," I answered glumly, dissembling my loss that
I might avoid still keener gibes from him. "They'll be away by now, I
fear."

He looked at me with undisguised contempt. "Ay, they'll have a deal to
thank you for! Get you to Coldbarrow, nephew, to mind the farm, and
give thanks that ye've an uncle for sheriff, or it might go hard with
you for this. Ay, and leave policies to shrewder heads."

THE END


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