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It was old Nicholas who brought the news next morning to the brothers as they were breaking their fast.
Lionel should have kept his bed that day, but dared not, lest the fact should arouse suspicion. He had a little fever, the natural result both of his wound and of his loss of blood; he was inclined to welcome rather than deplore it, since it set a flush on cheeks that otherwise must have looked too pale.
So leaning upon his brother's arm he came down to a breakfast of herrings and small ale before the tardy sun of that December morning was well risen.
Nicholas burst in upon them with a white face and shaking limbs. He gasped out his tale of the event in a voice of terror, and both brothers affected to be shocked, dismayed and incredulous. But the worst part of that old man's news, the true cause of his terrible agitation, was yet to be announced.
"And they do zay," he cried with anger quivering through his fear, "they do zay that it were you that killed he, Sir Oliver."
"I?" quoth Sir Oliver, staring, and suddenly like a flood there burst upon his mind a hundred reasons overlooked until this moment, that inevitably must urge the countryside to this conclusion, and to this conclusion only. "Where heard you that foul lie?"
In the tumult of his mind he never heeded what answer was returned by Nicholas. What could it matter where the fellow had heard the thing; by now it would be the accusation on the lips of every man. There was one course to take and he must take it instantly--as he had taken it once before in like case. He must straight to Rosamund to forestall the tale that others would carry to her. God send he did not come too late already.
He stayed for no more than to get his boots and hat, then to the stables for a horse, and he was away over the short mile that divided Penarrow from Godolphin Court, going by bridle and track meadow straight to his goal. He met none until he fetched up in the courtyard at Godolphin Court. Thence a babble of excited voices had reached him as he aproached. But at sight of him there fell a general silence, ominous and staring. A dozen men or more were assembled there, and their eyes considered him first with amazement and curiosity, then with sullen anger.
He leapt down from his saddle, and stood a moment waiting for one of the three Godolphin grooms he had perceived in that assembly to take his reins. Seeing that none stirred--
"How now?" he cried. "Does no one wait here? Hither, sirrah, and hold my horse."
The groom addressed hesitated a moment, then, under the stare of Sir Oliver's hard, commanding eye, he shuffled sullenly forward to do as he was bid. A murmur ran through the group. Sir Oliver flashed a glance upon it, and every tongue trembled into silence.
In that silence he strode up the steps, and entered the rush-strewn hall. As he vanished he heard the hubbub behind him break out anew, fiercer than it had been before. But he nothing heeded it.
He found himself face to face with a servant, who shrank before him, staring as those in the courtyard had stared. His heart sank. It was plain that he came a little late already; that the tale had got there ahead of him.
"Where is your mistress?" said he.
"I...I will tell her you are here, Sir Oliver," the man replied in a voice that faltered; and he passed through a doorway on the right. Sir Oliver stood a moment tapping his boots with his whip, his face pale, a deep line between his brows. Then the man reappeared, closing the door after him.
"Mistress Rosamund bids you depart, sir. She will not see you."
A moment Sir Oliver scanned the servant's face--or appeared to scan it, for it is doubtful if he saw the fellow at all. Then for only answer he strode forward towards the door from which the man had issued. The servant set his back to it, his face resolute.
"Sir Oliver, my mistress will not see you."
"Out of my way!" he muttered in his angry, contemptuous fashion, and as the man persistent in his duty stood his ground, Sir Oliver took him by the breast of his jacket, heaved him aside and went in.
She was standing in mid-apartment, dressed by an odd irony all in bridal white, that yet was not as white as was her face. Her eyes looked like two black stains, solemn and haunting as they fastened up on this intruder who would not be refused. Her lips parted, but she had no word for him. She just stared in a horror that routed all his audacity and checked the masterfulness of his advance. At last he spoke.
"I see that you have heard," said he, "the lie that runs the countryside. That is evil enough. But I see that you have lent an ear to it; and that is worse."
She continued to regard him with a cold look of loathing, this child that but two days ago had lain against his heart gazing up at him in trust and adoration.
"Rosamund!" he cried, and approached her by another step. "Rosamund! I am here to tell you that it is a lie."
"You had best go," she said, and her voice had in it a quality that made him tremble.
"Go?" he echoed stupidly. "You bid me go? You will not hear me?"
"I consented to hear you more than once; refused to hear others who knew better than I, and was heedless of their warnings. There is no more to be said between us. I pray God that they may take and hang you."
He was white to the lips, and for the first time in his life he knew fear and felt his great limbs trembling under him.
"They may hang me and welcome since you believe this thing. They could not hurt me more than you are doing, nor by hanging me could they deprive me of aught I value, since your faith in me is a thing to be blown upon by the first rumour of the countryside."
He saw the pale lips twist themselves into a dreadful smile. "There is more than rumour, I think said she. "There is more than all your lies will ever serve to cloak."
"My lies?" he cried. "Rosamund, I swear to you by my honour that I have had no hand in the slaying of Peter. May God rot me where I stand if this be not true!"
"It seems," said a harsh voice behind him, "that you fear God as little as aught else."
He wheeled sharply to confront Sir John Killigrew, who had entered after him.
"So," he said slowly, and his eyes grew hard and bright as agates, "this is your work." And he waved a hand towards Rosamund. It was plain to what he alluded.
"My work?" quoth Sir John. He closed the door, and advanced into the room. "Sir, it seems your audacity, your shamelessness, transcends all bounds. Your...."
"Have done with that," Sir Oliver interrupted him and smote his great fist upon the table. He was suddenly swept by a gust of passion. "Leave words to fools, Sir John, and criticisms to those that can defend them better."
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The Sea-Hawk -by- Rafael Sabatini