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Title: The Gordian Knot
Author: Rafael Sabatini
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Language: English
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The Gordian Knot

by

Rafael Sabatini


Published in Strand Magazine, December 1940


SIR ARTHUR CROSBIE was with the King at Oxford, as was the duty of a man of honour, whilst at his seat of Milton Court, thirty miles away, my Lord Belsingham sought to be merry with Sir Arthur's lady.

A self-indulgent fellow troubled by no sense of duty either to King or Parliament, his lordship discovered in the prevailing anarchy and confusion of the realm the greater licence for a gay conduct which had been a source of tears to many.

To my Lady Crosbie it was merely a source of scorn, and she was at such pains to make this clear that it was no fault of hers if she was not understood until she had laid the lash of her riding-whip across my lord's florid countenance.

Her merely verbal rebuffs had been accepted as expressions of coyness, or invitations to a greater ardour, and my lord's ardour was inexhaustible in the pursuit of any wife but his own.

It was in the liberal display of it one day, in an orchard meadow by the Cherwell, under apple trees in blossom, that he came upon trouble.

"It does you no honour to utter, my lord," she coldly reproved him, "nor me to hear, words that should be spoken only to your lady."

"Slidikins!" he crowed. "My wife? Where shall I find her? You've surely heard that the heartless jade has left me?"

"Oh, yes, I've heard. And in what circumstances!"

Tone and glance were of scorn unutterable. Some weeks ago the countryside had been agog with the ugly tale of how my Lady Belsingham, weary of blows and insults and in terror for her life, had fled one night from his seat at Broughton, and by her flight had supplied him the occasion for some merry sport.

HE had hunted her with his hounds, and had she not destroyed the scent by wading through the shallows of the river for a mile or more it was likely the beasts would have made an end of her. Nor since that night had she been seen again.

My lord, however, was not to be put out of countenance by the reminder. "I doubt you'll have been heeding the foul lies of the countryside."

"Are they lies? Where is my Lady Belsingham?" she asked with an air of challenge. "It's a question that Sir Arthur may come to put to you. For you'll not have forgotten that she was his cousin."

"Life, madam, am I to be called to account because she's forsaken me? A petulant, puling creature, that was never a proper mate for me."

"I wonder where you would find a proper mate?"

"Will you tease me with that question? Isn't it enough to madden a man with your beauty, must you scourge him with your tongue?"

"Be content that I employ no other weapon."

He stood and stared at her in half laughing incredulity. Here, he opined, was a fortress to be taken by assault.

"Never scowl so," he admonished her "Come, Kate. Kiss and be friends." And in his jovial, laughing way he laid boisterous hands upon her.

It was then, under his touch, that her little lingering patience broke. She shook herself free, and stepped back to get her distance. "You will have it." she said, and lashed him across the face with her riding-whip.

"Perhaps you'll pay heed to that, since you pay no heed to words."

So well did he heed it that his joviality perished. The beast in him was revealed in his snarl, as his hands flew to nurse his seared countenance.

"You cursed jade! You wild-cat! You need taming."

"Not at your hands, my lord," she answered him, regally cold. "If you crave satisfaction, Sir Arthur shall yield it to you. He shall hear of this. Meanwhile you'll come no more to Milton, for if you come you will not be received."

He took an abusive, foul-mouthed leave, and went off in a rage with a vanity as lacerated as his countenance. If in the past his gallantries had known denials, at least none had ever been expressed in violence, still less with the threat of an avenging husband. With his amazement was blent a certain apprehension. Sir Arthur Crosbie was something of a fire-eater, jealous of his rights, and ready at need to maintain them with a sword. If her ladyship's threat was not idle, there might be some unpleasantness to follow.

The gods, however, it seemed, were on his side. So within a week or so of that deplorable business under the apple blossoms, a piece of scandal reached his lordship, in which he perceived his profit.

It was conveyed to him by Parson Strong, whom he met in the village street. The parson, a high-church man of the strongest royalist sympathies, had begun by bewailing the godless disloyalty that plagued the land.

"God save his Majesty from these rebellious villains, as He surely will, for it cannot be the Divine pleasure that tapsters and town 'prentices under such misguided knaves as this Colonel Cromwell, of whom we've lately heard a deal, should set themselves up against men of honour."

Dolefully he shook his grey head. "There's wickedness in the very air these days, my lord, and to be found where least expected. Who would believe that Sir Arthur Crosbie's lady over at Milton, should be sinfully neglectful of her wifely duty what time her knight is at the King's side, away at Oxford."

My lord stood fingering his tuft of golden beard, and conceiving that this scandal was concerned with himself. "Why..." he blustered, stammering a little, "Wha...What have you been heeding, parson?"

Forth came an incredible tale of a young lover that Lady Crosbie was harbouring in her very house of Milton Court.

"A LOVER, do you say?" My lord was almost scornful of the tale.

"Well may you disbelieve. But I hope I am not the man to slur a lady's reputation without sound evidence. The evidence of my own eyes." And he went on to relate how, riding two days ago by Milton Court, and chancing to look over a hedge, he had beheld my lady sauntering in the garden with a slim, foppish fellow, all silks and ribbons. They were embracing.

"Embracing!" growled his lordship in quest of details.

"Embracing," the parson insisted. "They sauntered, as it were, enlaced; each with an arm about the waist of the other. And as if that were not enough, presently as I wat...as I observed them, this outrageous fop pulled her to him yet more closely and fell to kissing her, in the course of which, happening to raise his eyes, he saw me. At that they fell apart in guilty confusion, and fled to hide their shame. Yesterday I paid a visit to the Court, and old Giles, Sir Arthur's servant, was forced to confess to me that this gallant is staying in the house. In the house, my lord, and Sir Arthur at the wars."

"Who is the man?" demanded the scowling Belsingham.

"Your lordship's indignation does you honour. Who is he? That I could not learn. I do not think he can be of these parts. A mere stripling he seemed to me; but already ripe in the ways of wickedness. My lady, as I know, possesses no brother or other male kin with whom in honesty she could be so fond. I went there on a visit of remonstrance, as becomes my office. But in her wantonness she was moved to mirth. She never troubled to deny the thing, but just mocked me for my pains."

My lord's full lips twitched unpleasantly under his fair moustache; his blue eyes were hard.

He was galled by what he had learnt, scorning a woman who whilst deep in a shameless intrigue with some popinjay should assume against himself a panoply of prudery and threaten him with a husband's wrath. Presently he came to perceive how the husband's part should be to avenge a rejected lover upon an accepted one. He found the notion not only exquisitely humorous, but also possessing the advantage of securing him from any such reckoning with Sir Arthur as he had been dreading.

MY lord went home to compose the letter which survives in the archives of Milton Court.

"Deir Friend—Yt is sore greaved at hart that I sende yow these to trouble your quiet mynde. But I were false to my dewty to you and no trew freind did I concele a certain trewth when your honour is in dainger, for the which reason I praye yow comehome at once so that yow may recalle my ladie Crosbie to her wiffely dewty, and punish as befittes the knave who makes hys profitte of yowr absence. Yow were well not to lett yowr coming bee knowne, so that yow may sorprise thees shameless ofenders."

That elegant letter, signed, "Yowr most assured loving friend," was delivered to Sir Arthur at Christchurch in Oxford upon the morrow. It brought that hot gentleman to Broughton as fast as horse could carry him.

A slight but wiry, brisk man of thirty was Sir Arthur, with a big brow above a narrow face, and moustachios that bristled like a cat's. In leather jerkin and thigh boots, he creaked into Belsingham's presence as my lord sat at supper.

"What foul lies be these of which you make yourself the sponsor?" was his fierce greeting.

My lord, gravely calm before that stormy challenge, wiped his moustachios, and rose, napkin in hand, to wave away the goggling servants, nor spoke till they were gone.

"Alas, my friend! Your disbelief does honour to your generous heart. It deepens the offence of those who wrong you. The country is agog with the tale of it." He supplied some details. "So public is the scandal grown that already Parson Strong has remonstrated with her ladyship, but—as he tells me—in vain."

"Perish his soul for a meddlesome psalm-whiner." Sir Arthur was vehemently savage. "He's sheltered by his plaguy cloth. But I'll find some other throat to slit over this pretty story, and I'm come to do it. From whom else have you the tale?"

My lord was not comfortable. He spread his hands. "Oddspitikins! Haven't I said that it's on the lips of the whole county?"

"Curse on the county's hasty lips. Whom do they name?"

"Faith, I don't think they've learnt his name."

"Bah!" Sir Arthur was all incredulous contempt. "And you say he's housed at Milton?"

"Of that there can be no doubt."

"No doubt, eh?" Challengingly he asked: "Dare you ride to Milton with me now to prove it?"

Uneasily Belsingham bowed to that wrathful peremptoriness.

"I'm at your service always, my dear friend."

And so, within the hour, the injured husband and his friend startled Milton Court by an unheralded invasion. Belsingham was between eagerness and anxiety; eagerness to be in at the death, to witness the humbling of the proud jade; anxiety lest evidence should, after all, be lacking, and this fire eater Crosbie should turn upon him.

He was reassured, however, at the very outset by the demeanour of the old servant who admitted them. His surprise at the unexpected apparition of his master amounted to affright and sufficed to confirm Belsingham's hopes and awaken Sir Arthur's misgivings. "Sir Arthur!" he cried out, and yet again and louder still, so as to be heard by all the house. "Sir Arthur! My lady is not expecting you. I'll go tell her that you're come."

His suspicions of treachery aroused, Sir Arthur strode into the hall. "I'll tell her that, myself, Giles. Where is my lady? Above or below?"

The man gulped in panic.

"Why don't you answer me? Where shall I find her?" He took his answer from the servant's movement towards the staircase. "I see. Above." He strode upon him. "Out of my way, man."

Instead of standing aside, however, Giles went slowly up the stairs ahead, on a pretext of conducting him. He gave tongue as he went, his voice at its loudest and shrillest. At the stairhead, he put himself once more in his master's way. "Will you be pleased to stay a moment, Sir Arthur?"

"What's to stay for?"

"There's his lordship. At this hour belike my lady'll not receive visitors."

SIR ARTHUR, perceiving now but pretexts to delay him, and maddened by them, cuffed the old man aside and with Belsingham close behind reached his lady's door to find it locked.

"How now? Odds-blood!" He beat upon the panel as if to break it. "Open! Open!"

Her ladyship's voice answered from within: "Wait, wait. I come."

Sounds of hurried movements and some scraping followed and then, after a pause that was another indication of treachery, came the question:

"Who is there?"

"Odds my life, madam! Do you not yet know my voice?"

"Arthur!" The shrill note of joyous surprise which he must suppose pretended went only to increase his rage.

At long last the key turned, and the door swung open. My lady trembling, pallid and dishevelled stood revealed in a flowing bedgown of flimsy laces. Her dark eyes were wide, and on her lips a smile, intended to convey a welcome, had rather the air of a grin of rigor.

"Arthur!" she gasped. She was out of breath. "You...you take me by surprise. What...Why had I no word of your coming?"

His glance went past her, to rake the room. "Do you sit behind locked doors?"

"Ah...always in your absence."

"You were monstrous slow to open."

"You were not alone. It is not seemly that I receive my Lord Belsingham in this disarray."

Thus she betrayed how much she had known whilst still pretending to be unaware of her husband's presence. He noted it, and his jealous angry eyes considered every detail of her, even to the black smear disfiguring the white hand she rested on the door's edge. Made cruel by her treachery, he assumed an air of ease, so that he might play upon her manifest terrors.

"Shall we be ceremonious with an old friend and neighbour? Come you in, Belsingham. Come in." He led the way past her into the anteroom to her bedchamber.

"Not here, Arthur." She laid a trembling, detaining hand upon his arm. "I will come below if you will..."

"THERE, Kate! There," he laughed. "His lordship would never trouble you so far. He will not tarry. Come in with you," he said again.

Belsingham advanced, a false smile of greeting on his lips. It thrilled him wickedly to behold my Lady Disdain so trapped that she dare do no other than receive him courteously. He conceived the compound of rage and fear in her vixenish heart, and he looked for rich entertainment before departing. He murmured amiabilities, excused this intrusion upon her, for which he begged her to blame her impetuous husband, professed himself with playful gallantry the gainer by it, since it privileged him to behold her ladyship in circumstances that but enhanced her loveliness.

And whilst he chatted, Sir Arthur strode about the chamber with his careless, easy air, but his glance sweeping its every corner for evidence of the hidden presence he suspected.

He came in his restlessness to the wide hearth, and with his arm upon the edge of its great cowl considered the hearthstones. They were overlaid by the soot of a heavy recent fall, and in this a trail betrayed that the fire-basket had very lately been dragged aside. Associating with this my lady's blackened hand, it was suddenly revealed to him where she had bestowed her gallant.

His smile went grim in spite of him as he turned to her. "You are pale, Kate. And trembling. Faith, it's little wonder. The weather is cold and you're but thinly clad."

"Cold?" she echoed, for the May night was of a more than seasonable warmth.

"Aye, cold, as I am. Are you not chilled, too, my lord?" He rubbed his hands together and raised his voice: "Giles! Fetch me a taper for these logs. Her ladyship is shivering."

That brought her forward in a fresh surge of terror, a hand to her breast. "No. No."

"I insist. You must have proper care for your health, Kate."

"But, Arthur, I...I stifle with the heat."

"Why then you must be fevered."

His lordship meanwhile, having scanned the hearth, understood and savoured Sir Arthur's humour. "The night airs of May are treacherous, madam." Meeting his glance, she understood at last that she was being mocked, and her terror deepened.

"Come, Giles." Sir Arthur was peremptory. "Bestir."

The old man was shuffling forward with a taper when a fresh fall of soot came down so explosively that Sir Arthur recoiled with the taste of it in his throat. At once he sprang forward again to stare, at a man's hat that lay now upon the hearth; a grey castor sadly blackened, with a trailing plume held by a jewelled buckle.

"Now I wonder how that comes there. Can you conjecture, Kate? Or you, Belsingham?"

Belsingham wagged his head. "If the chimney harbours such oddities," said he, grinning, "faith, it's time you had a fire to smoke them out."

"My own opinion. To it, Giles."

"WAIT! Ah, wait!" my lady shrilled, confronting her husband's mock surprise. "What comedy do you play to desire a fire on so warm a night?"

"Comedy?" he echoed, "Why, madam, you cannot have observed that there are some matters in the chimney of which it were well to clear it."

"I see," she said, the fury of despair in her white face. "You desire to shame me. But my Lord Belsingham? What does he desire? By what right is he here?"

"Oh, madam, I pretend to none." his lordship made haste to answer, with a submission through which derision peeped, to goad her. "I am a reluctant witness commanded by Sir Arthur."

"And do you guess why, madam?" Sir Arthur raged. "Because I desired his presence whilst I tested the tale he brought me. So fond was I that I believed it was a lie to be thrust down his throat again."

"Then, since now you find it true, there is no reason to detain him."

This sudden cold effrontery staggered him. "That is for me to determine," he retorted.

"Nay, I think it is for his lordship. And you must respect his natural repugnance to witness a woman's humiliation." She swung to Belsingham again. "My lord, do not permit yourself to be abused into lingering. Yield to your natural chivalry. Giles, light his lordship."

But Sir Arthur intervened. "Do you still dare to order here?" he cried, in angry amazement at this tone.

She did not on that account abate it. "Whatever may he between you and me, sir, my lord shall not be constrained to a course repugnant to any man of honour."

If she did not succeed in persuading Sir Arthur, at least she succeeded in shaming his lordship into acquiescence, however vexatious this dismissal with the curtain about to rise on a scene that promised such rich entertainment.

"Indeed, indeed, I could not wish to be an intruder longer."

"It is not you, Belsingham, are the intruder," Sir Arthur stormed, without intention to be witty.

"Yet," her ladyship objected, "you cannot wish him to remain...Unless, of course, you feel in need of a protector."

"Pro...protector!" he roared. Goaded by the cunning taunt, he gasped a moment for breath. Then he yielded furiously. "I'll not keep you, Belsingham."

His disappointed lordship murmured leave-takings and went out; Giles followed to light him.

As the door closed, Sir Arthur roused himself from his stupefaction. "Now, madam, for this visitor of yours." He whipped out his sword, and made for the hearth again. "We'll take a look at your coy chimney-sweep. Will you come down, my lad? Or must I quicken you?"

A pair of legs in blue velvet breeches hung in view a moment, then the rest of a body descended in a black cloud. From out of it crawled a slight stripling figure, begrimed from golden lovelocks to rosetted shoes, a pair of scared eyes staring from a mask of coal dust.

The cry with which my lady ran to the protection of this newcomer was a fan to the flames of Sir Arthur's fury. He stepped back to make room.

"Stand forth, sir. Stand forth," he grimly invited. "Cast off the coyness that drives you into chimneys. Let us behold you clearly. Let us admire the charms to which my lady has succumbed."

It was an invitation whose sardonic note would have delighted my Lord Belsingham had he been permitted to remain. As it was, that disappointed gentleman had gone home in the hope that Sir Arthur's need of him should presently acquaint him with details which could not fail to be amusing.

At the earliest he counted upon this for the following morning. But he was not to be kept waiting even until then.

IN the gloom of his vast hall, two silver candle branches, reflected in the polished surface of the dark oaken table, made an island of light; and here, a couple of hours after leaving Milton Court, sat his lordship unbuttoned and at ease, with a jug of ale. No sign of his wicked satisfaction was displayed to Sir Arthur as he came striding in upon a lackey's announcement. Lengthening his countenance in gravity, my lord rose to receive this guest who sought him in affliction.

"My poor friend," he murmured.

"You do well to call me that." Sir Arthur was lugubrious. "I am in sore distress."

"I can well conceive it."

"And I've a grim duty to perform."

"You've not yet performed it? I understand. You desire to be formal. It is wise. You'll need a friend in this sad business. Command my services. Indeed, I was expecting you, though not to-night. You lose no time, Arthur."

"There's none to lose."

"As you say. Such matters are best settled quickly. Whom did he prove to be, the fellow in the chimney, this dastard who has taken so vile an advantage of your absence?"

"That's of no account. What really matters is that the good name of my Lady Crosbie must be shielded."

"To be sure it must."

"I am relieved by your ready agreement." Sir Arthur looked sorrowfully at my lord. He sighed. "I deplore what is to do. But I see no help for it. It is plaguily misfortunate that you should know something to the hurt of my lady's honour."

"Nay, now," my lord protested generously. "Never let that trouble you. You may trust my silence as you would your own."

Sir Arthur sighed. "I would I could."

"Oddsmylife, man, be sure you can. My oath on it. So be at ease, and tell me on whom I am to wait for you. A cup of ale, now, to warm you."

"Nay, nay. I'd best keep cool. You see, if the matter touched only myself I could risk being lenient; but it don't. It touches my lady."

"Of course. Of course. You waste words to tell me what I know."

But Sir Arthur went on wasting them, apparently. "I am sure that you mean me well. How, indeed, could I doubt so loyal and true a friend? Yet accidents will happen, unguarded words will out. And so lackaday!-I must make quite sure that you do not talk."

PUZZLED, and grown impatient, my lord frowned at him. But for the wistful mildness of Sir Arthur's manner he might suppose himself threatened. "I've said already that you can be sure."

"I know I can. I can make sure." He sighed again, "But I wish I could do it without killing you."

"K...Killing me!" Belsingham recoiled.

"Do not take it amiss. You must perceive with what regret I approach the task. But it's the only way to be sure. And I must be sure. You'll agree with that."

"I'll agree you're mad." Belsingham's prominent blue eyes bulged like a frog's in a face gone grey. He began to understand at last that Sir Arthur's smooth, melancholy manner was put on to mock him. He looked about him wildly for a weapon, being unarmed. "Do you come here to murder me?"

"How can you think it of me? I'll wait until you find a sword, my lord."

My lord recovered from his panic. A gust of rage swept through him. His eyes narrowed. "I'll not disappoint you. Let some friend of yours wait upon me in the morning."

"A friend? Where shall I find one in these days, when every man of honour is with the King and every scoundrel with the Parliament, and only cowards sit at home?"

Belsingham trembled under that clear insult. "Very well, sir. It is very well. My grooms shall serve for witnesses. I shall expect you in the morning."

"Ah, but you might talk between now and then," said Sir Arthur gently. "I cannot take the risk of that. Come, sir. Summon your grooms. Let them hold the lights And here's to quicken you," he added, and sweeping off his hat he cast it in my lord's face.

The blow quenched the last spark of my lord's reluctance. He bawled for his servants.

Sir Arthur flung off baldrick and doublet, and bared his blade, and whilst my lord made ready two of his grooms thrust aside the heavy table, clearing the centre of the hall. Then, with a groom on either side holding a candle-branch aloft, the two gentlemen faced each other in shirt and breeches.

My lord was by much the bigger man, of longer reach and greater animal vigour, and to these he trusted. But they availed him little against the other's deadly practised skill. At the end of a half-dozen disengages in which my lord had spent a little of his brawny fury, Sir Arthur lured him to open himself by a feint in the high lines. As my lord's blade swung up to the parry, a lightning thrust sped under his ward and passed through him from breast to back.

Sir Arthur's thrust had cut a Gordian knot. The truth which would clear my Lady Crosbie's fair name might now be proclaimed without peril to my Lady Belsingham. For what Belsingham died without suspecting was that the gallant in the chimney, tricked out in Sir Arthur's best blue velvet suit, was the wife his lordship had driven in terror from Broughton and hunted with his dogs.


THE END

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