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Title: The Pretender
Author: Rafael Sabatini
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eBook No.: 1400341h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  January 2014
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The Pretender

by

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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