The Foster Lover
by Rafael Sabatini
by Rafael Sabatini
Up the hill from Horsebridge, dust-clogged in every pore, jaded and
saddle-worn, I urged my weary nag—the second that I had spent since
leaving London at daybreak on my traitor's errand. On the hill's crest
I drew rein, as much out of instinct and sheer habit as out of mercy
for the poor beast that bore me.
On my left a long line of shadow, tall and black, stretched the trees
of Dunstock Park adown the hill half-way to Romsey town. And yonder,
through the thinning topmost branches, was a golden glory where the
moon was rising, big as a millstone, yellow as a guinea. Here, close at
hand, atop its flight of terraces, stood Dunstock House, holding the
thing dearest to me in all the world; and Dunstock House, to my vast
surprise, was now one blaze of light, its windows glowing like jewels
in the setting of the cool, fragrant night.
Sir William entertained—that much was plain—and I had known nothing
of it; but then, where was the wonder of that, since for three weeks I
had lain close in London, waiting to receive and bear my lord the news
for which all true lovers of King James, the exile, were now athirst? A
ball, it seemed, was toward. The scrape of fiddles reached me there at
the park gates; aye, and the shuffle of feet, I could have sworn, so
calm and silent was the summer night.
I sat awhile, what time my horse, with pendent head and neck
outstretched, breathed raucously in its greed for air. And as I waited
there the gavotte came to an end, the fiddling ceased, and in its room
arose a babble of many voices, touched off with frequent laughter, and
out on to the terrace came by twos and threes Sir William's guests to
breathe the grateful cool.
It occurred to me then that I need ride no farther. Here was my goal;
for if Sir William entertained, there was little doubt—aye, and the
thought was bitter enough, God knows!—that here I should find my lord.
So I roused the mare and urged her through the gates and up the broad
avenue, black now in the shadow of the elms. A truer motive lay, no
doubt, in the hope of seeing another than my lord—Alicia, whom I never
tired of seeing whom I sought every chance to see, although I knew that
she was not for me. She was a matter that lay between Captain Percy,
whom she loved, and my lord, whom she detested, yet who was insistent
and persistent, and being a great man, had, every hope of winning her,
her detestation notwithstanding. As for me— But why say more of
myself, who, afterall, am of small account—the foster-lover, no
more—in this tale of that sweet lady's nuptials?
Erebus was not so black as were the shadows there beneath the elms,
and when my horse had stumbled twice I thought I should be safer afoot.
I tethered the brute to a tree and went on. Quitting the avenue, I
struck a well-known shorter road, a pathway through the shrubbery,
leading to the lower terrace; and Fate herself, I think, must have been
At the shrubbery's end I paused, however, on the edge of the gloom.
The sweep of lawn before me was now alight from the risen moon, and I
bethought me that I was proceeding a thought recklessly. How should I,
charged with that secret business, present myself thus, all grimed and
dusty from the road, to seek my lord among Sir William's guests? Such
an advent must fire the train of much surmising; and all surmising was
dangerous to my lord and me, and to the Cause itself. I paused then and
pondered. Aye, I were better away to Romsey, to await my lord's coming.
But since my lord would not yet be leaving—you see, I had no doubt
touching his presence at that dance—there was time to spare, and it
was sweet and fragrant in the shrubbery after the dust of the high
road; sweet it was to know—although the stiffness and the impression
of it still abode with me—that there was no horse between my knees;
sweet to spy upon the merry-makers, what time I stretched my legs and
snatched a brief rest, to which the great diligence I had made that day
gave me the title; and there was the greatest sweet of all—and this
may have been the real truth of my abiding—the chance of a glimpse of
my dear Alicia.
And presently this glimpse I had and more. A couple descended the
steps from the upper terrace, where other couples sauntered; a man,
tall and graceful in a lilac satin that gleamed silvery in the
moonlight, and a lady, more graceful still though not so tall, a white
ghost in that ghostly radiance. They were Alicia and Captain Percy, the
man to whom her heart was given. A good fellow enough he was, a
blundering, honest, good-natured lad, yet scarce worthy to be the
custodian of that treasure. But then—where was the man of whom I
should not think the same? Moreover, she loved him, as I knew, for she
herself had told me. Was not I her friend—the sometime playmate of her
childhood, who had now the confidence of her adolescence—and was it
not to me she came for counsel when she had need of it? And that was
scarce as often as I could have wished.
More than once as they advanced she looked behind her, and the
impulse of that backward glancing was not to be mistaken. It was fear.
Lest I should have played the eavesdropper on that pair of lovers, I
had departed then, but those timid, over-shoulder glances argued
trouble. The thought of my lord surged on the instant in my mind, and I
decided to remain.
“Nay, nay, sweetheart,” I caught his ardent murmur. “Never tremble.
Let the ogre come and be—eaten.”
“You'd not—” she began. “You'd never—”
“Aye, sweet, would I? More I will; it is the one clear way. Since
'tis not possible to unravel his vile knot, we'll cut it, as did
Alexander that other Gordian one,” spoke the man he was, direct and
simple, with no mind for subtleties.
“Ah, no!” She clutched his arm, and her fears, 'twas plain, were all
for him—so plain that I had some ado to choke down some certain
bitterness that arose in me. “Ah, no!” she cried again, and added the
anguished prayer. “Dear God, is there none to help me?”
“There is one at least very fain,” said I, “did he but know in what
case the help is needed.”
They started back, and Percy claps hand to the hilt of his
dress-sword. “Who's there?” he bellows, mighty fierce.
“Jocelyn! It is Jocelyn!” cried Alicia, and my soul was glad that she
had been so quick to recognize my voice; glad, too, to catch in her
accents a certain note of welcome. I acknowledged my identity, and gave
good reason for not quitting my concealment.
“What do you here?” quoth Captain Percy.
“You were ever over-inquisitive, Percy,” I answered him. “Take it
that I am playing guardian angel to the pair of you. And now your
“What can you do, dear Jocelyn?” cried Alicia.
“I shall be in better case to say when I have heard what is your
need. Is it my Lord Hedingham who troubles you?”
It seems I had put my finger on the plague-spot. “Much has happened
since you went to town,” says she by way of preface, and then Percy
swore under his breath, and looking up to see the cause of it, I beheld
a slim gentleman, all white and gold—like the Cupid on a bridal
cake—descending from the upper terrace. She saw that dazzling vision,
too, and went on breathlessly: “I must speak with you ere I sleep,
Jocelyn, for you may help me. You are ever wise.” Which I swear is a
compliment she had never paid her lover.
“Shall I await you here?” I asked her.
“Aye, do,” said she. “I'll come to you as soon as may be.”
My lord drew nigh as swiftly as aged legs allowed him; there was no
time for more; her arm in Captain Percy's she turned to meet him. He
bowed, and I almost fancied I could hear the creak of his old
joints—for it was a very senile Cupid—just as I thought I could see
the leer upon his painted face.
“Madam,” said he, and simpered. “La! You run a risk of chill. The
night is so insidious, child, and the moonlight—Oh, I vow 'tis vastly
“To your rheumatics, not a doubt, my lord,” growls Percy.
Hedingham looked him over with an eye that glittered in a smiling
face. “I have not the rheumatics, sir,” says he, as one who would
repulse an insult.
“Why, then,” quoth Percy readily enough, “you'll be acquiring them if
you come tripping it on dewy lawns o' nights. A foolish practice at all
times, my lord; a deadly one at your age.”
“What a physician was lost when they made you a soldier, Captain
Percy!” simpers his lordship, with a giggle to mask his frenzy.
“Maybe,” says Percy, very sweetly as they moved away. “But as it is,
the trades go hand in hand, for a physician is sometimes needed to mend
“Sometimes? ” says my lord, with much depth of meaning. “Ah!”
“Aye, my lord—only sometimes, “ Percy explained, “for at others it
is past mending. “
The last I heard of them my lord was laughing a high-pitched senile
cackle—and commending Captain Percy's wit; and so they passed up the
steps, using defiance wrapped in pleasantry, like a gall pill smeared
On the upper terrace figures moved, the windows shone. And the music
was taken up once more, to be silenced and again resumed ere I was
disturbed. And when at last, nigh upon an hour later, a visitor I had,
that visitor was not the Alicia for whom I waited, but Captain Percy.
He came hot-foot and panting, as much from the haste that he had made
as from the anger and excitement that were quickening his pulses.
“Jocelyn,” he bawls, wildly. “She's gone! They've taken her!”
I quitted the trees and came out on to the lawn, heedless now of who
might see me. “What a plague do ye mean?” quoth I. “Taken her? Who's
He caught me fiercely by the arm and let out his tale. “I had it from
Mowbray, the footman, who saw the whole thing happen from an upper
window. She was walking in the clearing with Hedingham. He had drawn
her thither, away from all the others. Suddenly two men appeared from
the bushes on the far side. They flung a cloak over her head, swung her
up, and ran with her to a carriage that stood waiting at the top of the
avenue. Hedingham jumped in after her and the carriage went off at a
I groaned an oath. “How long since?” quoth I.
“Some ten minutes, scarcely more,” he answered. “I told Sir William
the moment I had the news, and he answered me that I was in error—that
Mistress Alicia was in her room; that she had withdrawn in consequence
of a headache.”
Now here was more villainy than I had feared. I dragged him with me
across the lawns towards the house. “I'll fathom this,” said I, and
when we came to the clearing in front of the classic portico, I bade
him await me there. The next moment I stood in the hall of Dunstock
House, all travel-stained as I was, demanding to see Sir William
instantly. A lackey ushered me into small room that was Sir William's
study, and thither he came to me at once.
“Back from London, Jocelyn!”
I cut him short. “Where is your niece, Sir William?” I demanded. A
change swept over his great face; his pale eyes changed from vacuity
that was their habit to one of mingled fear and malice. He snorted
first, then informed me that Alicia kept her chamber.
“You have been misinformed, Sir William,” answered I. “She does not
keep her chamber. She has been carried off by that villain Hedingham.”
Another change crept over his countenance. It grew livid. “You
mistake,” says he. “She is in her chamber.”
I looked at him between the eyes a moment; then I took up my hat and
whip, which on entering I had set upon the table. Abundantly clear it
was that here I but wasted precious time. He watched my going with a
face that told me nothing. I paused, my hand upon the doorknob.
“Sir William,” said I, “I know not how my Lord Hedingham may have won
over you the hold he very plainly has. But if this is the price at
which you bought your freedom, I think you have paid over-dearly for it
in parting with your honour.”
“Sir—” he began.
“Spare yourself,” I begged him. “The riddle is not difficult to read.
You seek to use compulsion with Alicia. Alicia sets you at defiance,
and so you give his lordship all opportunity for carrying her off. But
hark you, Sir William, in spite of you and of Lord Hedingham, Alicia
marries where her heart is set, and that so soon as I shall have freed
her from his lordship's clutches. In purchasing her freedom from him,
it may be that I purchase yours. I mention it but to add that I do so
of necessity, not intent; so that you may harbour no gratitude for me.”
The change in his demeanour was amazing. “You would do that?” he
cried, the blood mounting to his cheeks, a gleam of hope quickening his
eyes. After all he was more fool than knave. Then he put the altered
manner from him as swiftly as he assumed it. “Pshaw! What are you,
fool, to pit yourself against Lord Hedingham? You'll not so much as
gain admission to his house.”
“I thank you, sir, at least for telling me where to look,” said I,
and left him.
Outside I found her lover fuming. “Get a coach,” I bade the booby,
“and follow after me. Use all dispatch and drive to Lord Hedingham's
door. But do nothing further. There I will bring Alicia to you.”
“Odso,” he cried. “Are you mad? How are you to win into Hedingham's?”
“'Tis what Sir William is wondering,” I answered him. “But I think I
have a key to his door. See that you make haste!” And so I left him
gaping after me, and sped down the avenue to my horse.
It was a nag as near dead as any that I had seen stand that I fetched
up before his lordship's door that night. Before dismounting I
transferred the pistols from the holsters to my own pockets; then with
the butt of my whip I drummed a sharp tattoo upon the oaken panels.
“Who's there? ” came from within, a voice which I recognised for that
of his man Geddes.
“'Tis I, Jocelyn Talbot. Open!” I urged.
There was an exclamation from Geddes. Clearly he had received his
orders to admit me at whatsoever hour of the day or night I should
present myself, for a chain fell with a clank, the key grated in the
lock, and the door stood open.
“Not yet abed,” says I, as I stepped past him. “Where is my lord?”
“If you'll wait here, sir, “ he answered hurriedly, what time he
fumbled with the door chain, “I'll tell his lordship.”
With my knowledge of the house and of my fellow-traitor's ways, I
made a shrewd guess that he was in his cabinet beyond the library.
“I'll find him for myself,” said I, and started to cross the hall.
“Nay, nay!” cried Geddes in alarm. “Wait, sir, wait!” But still he
was fumbling with the chain. Leave the door open, knowing what he knew,
he did not dare. I quickened my step and was in the library, the door
closed behind me, ere he could start to follow.
The room was empty; but across it the door of his closet stood ajar,
and even as I paused I caught Alicia's voice ringing with anger and
contempt. I had run him down.
“You cannot use compulsion, my lord,” she was saying, “and this man
dare not marry us without my consent.”
Soho! His thoughtful lordship had fetched a parson, it would seem.
“Dearest Alicia,” he clucked most hatefully, “who am I to use
compulsion. I faint, I expire, but I do not compel.”
“Then let me go, my lord,” came her impatient answer.
“Nay, not that either,” answered he, his accents more detestably
caressing. “Do not mistake me. I will not use compulsion. Shalt wed me
to-night, to-morrow, or a week hence. Despite my impatience, it shall
be as you please.
Yet were you wiser to wed me now, and place your fair name within the
shelter of mine.”
“You mean, my lord? ” she demanded angrily. 'Swounds ! but she was a
girl of spirit!
“Why,” simpers he, “that Lord Hedingham does not bear the reputation
of a—an anchorite; no—not quite, my dear.” And he laughed in a mock
deprecatory laugh. “And the world hath a way of talking—a vile,
insidious way. But you shall choose. I'll never use compulsion.
I advanced, my step ringing on the paraquetry, my spurs a-jingle.
Instantly my lord's face, startled and angry, appeared at the
half-opened door. Seeing me it lightened to surprise.
“Give me leave a moment, Master Cave,” said he over his shoulder, and
came forward, closing the door.
Under the paint his face was livid, and there was an unhealthy flush
beneath his eyes. He licked his lips a moment, then: “Why, Jocelyn!”
says he in a subdued voice. “You took me by surprise. I have been
awaiting you these ten days.” His glance went past me. Get you gone,
Geddes,” he bade the man, who at that moment opened the door behind me.
Then turning to me again: “What news from London? ” he inquired.
“Let that wait,” said I, and I think my tone must have warned him,
for he looked at me more sharply. “I am concerned to-night with the
news of Hampshire.”
“Ah? And what may that be?” quoth his startled lordship.
“That my Lord Hedingham is a satyr and a villain,” I informed him.
“'Sdeath!” he cried, as if I had stung him, and stood before me, an
evil glitter in his eye.
“Do you go down on your old knees, my lord, and thank Heaven that I
am come in time to take this lady away from you, else it had been very
ill for you, I think.”
At that a spasm of fury crossed his face. “You fool!” he snarled at
me, and then, “You shall be taught!” he croaked. “You shall be taught!”
And stepping forward he made shift to reach the bell-rope.
“Stay where you are, my lord,” I cried, drawing a pistol from my
pocket, “or I'll rid this lady of you in another way.”
He paused; his jaw fell; he looked like a corpse with red-raddled
cheeks. “Would you do murder?” he quavered, fearfully.
“If need be,” I answered pleasantly. “Stand away from that bell-rope,
my lord. I have no mind to shoot the bullies you keep about you. So!
That is better,” said I, and pocketed the pistol. “And now, my lord,
will you please to call the lady?”
He considered me a moment, regaining by an effort some of his
composure. “You fool, Talbot,” he said. “You pitiful fool! Tchah! Since
you demand with threats and violence, I must needs accede. But what
ends do you hope to serve?”
From the street I caught at that moment the faint rumble of wheels.
“I will tell you,” said I. “Captain Percy, whom this lady loves,
awaits her without to complete the elopement for which your lordship
has so thoroughly provided. The minister is yonder, and shall go with
them. They shall be tight-bound by morning.”
He shook his head, and his lips took on a mocking smile. “You reckon
rashly, and without your host. I have but to summon Alicia and tell her
the price I would exact from Sir William if she were to dare do this,
and I dare swear she would not go with you. I hold Sir William in a
springe which shall tighten and crush him unless his niece is my Lady
Hedingham this month.” He leered at me in factuous triumph. “So now, my
cockerel, the cards are on the table. You shall suffer for this night's
work, and that is all that shall come of it—your suffering.”
He looked to see me taken aback, confused. But I smiled calmly, and,
I hope, contemptuously. “You tell me nothing that I did not know,” I
informed him. “For I can make as good a guess as any man. Cards on the
table, do you say, my lord? Cards on the table be it then. And here's
my pack.” And from my pocket I drew the letter from King James, of
which I was the bearer.
“What's that?” quoth he, with a sudden sucking in of breath.
“The trumps, I think,” said I, “and Dutch William for the King of
them. My lord, I neither ask nor care what manner of hold is yours upon
Sir William, but I tell you that you shall relinquish it even as you
shall relinquish his niece. This is the letter you been awaiting from
King James that was. There is enough treason in it to bring your hoary,
sinful head to the block. The lady you shall set free at once. Her
lover will be growing impatient out of doors. Sir William also you
shall set free. When this is done you shall have your letter; not
I caught his faint sigh of relief. That, he thought, was to be the
full extent of my threat. “And if I refuse? ” says he. “If I refuse?”
“If within four-and-twenty hours Sir William fails to bring me word
himself that you have complied, I lay this letter before the nearest
justice of the peace.”
Great Jove himself never launched a deadlier thunderbolt than that.
For an instant he beat about for air. Then, “You dastard!” he screamed.
“You hound! You foul, infernal traitor! When the King comes to his own
“We deal with the present, not the future,” I cut in. “Your answer,
He stared at me awhile, sucking at his nether lip, his face blank now
as a mask. Thus a moment; then he exploded once more. “Fool, there is
one thing you have forgotten. If you pull me down, you will be crushed
in my ruins. You are as deeply in it as I am. How can you incriminate
me without bringing yourself to the gallows? Resolve me that,” he
crowed in wicked triumph.
“It is a cost I have counted,” I answered very quietly. “I am
concerned to-night neither for myself nor you, my lord. But for my lady
there. And she goes hence with me.”
Surprise was not the only emotion on his face. He sank feebly to a
chair. “Oh!” he cried. “You are mad.”
“Of a most sweet madness, my lord,” answered I. “Have I played trumps
enough, or must I play King William?”
He rose as with an effort. Again he fell to reviling me for the
double traitor and villain that undoubtedly I was. Then checking at
last, he crossed the room, and threw wide the door of the inner
“Mistress Alicia!” he called. She came forward.
“Jocelyn!” she cried, and stood at gaze upon the threshold, her hands
clasped and held to her bosom, and in her eyes such a light of gladness
as I'll swear not even the sight of Captain Percy—pretty fellow though
he was—could have haled thither. And that I had for balm.
“I have come to fetch you, Alicia,” I informed her. “Bid the parson
to come too. He is no longer needed here.”
A moment she stood there, her eyes wandering from me to the crumpled
figure, all white and gold that was my Lord Hedingham, then back to me
again. “What miracle have you wrought upon my lord?” she asked in sweet
“Shall I tell her, my lord?” I mocked him.
“Get you gone!” he snarled in a passion. “Get you gone!”
I opened the door to the hall, where Geddes waited. “Geddes—the
door!” I ordered. “Mistress Alicia is leaving.” Then, to the minister
who had now come forward, too—a poor hedge-parson whom his lordship
had suborned to do his vile work. “You shall not be disappointed of
your fee,” I comforted him, “nor need you soil your conscience in the
work that's to be done. This lady is to wed; the mistake was in the
groom. You'll find the right one waiting without with a carriage.
“Jocelyn?” quoth she, with parted lips and questioning eyes, a frown
“Faith! 'tis Captain Percy,” I informed her. “You were best elope
with him, since your fate is to elope this night. Go, Alicia, and be
happy! Tarry no longer here. The air of these rooms is foul and
“Dear Jocelyn!” she murmured, her hands outheld to me. “Dear, dear
“You shall thank me another time,” said I, “when we have greater
leisure.” I kissed her hand, and wrenched mine away from her when she
would have kissed it, and so set a term to that pretty comedy.
When she was gone, and the minister with her, I still remained with
my lord, and waited until the sound of wheels had faded in the
distance. He never stirred, but sat there in his great chair, clutching
its arms with his jewelled claws, a carrion fowl despoiled.
“Give you good night, my lord,” I said at length, and turned to go.
“A moment, sir!” said he, his eye upon me with the dead glitter of a
snake's. Bitterly he set me his last question. “Why have you crossed me
I looked him over quietly, reflecting. Then I turned from him with a
shrug. “You would not understand,” said I, and left the room.
As I reached the street a peal of bells went clanging through the
house. He was rousing his bullies to the chase. So leaving my jaded
horse, I relied upon my heels, and ran, forgetful of fatigue, and for
greater safety I lay at the King's Head Inn that night. I lay there,
but I did not sleep. The exaltation of my poor victory spent, I fell a
prey to a bitterness of sorrow and self-pity, which I now hold to have
been unworthy in me. For I had helped the lady of my heart to the man
of hers, and what more than that can a true lover ask?