The Fortunes of War

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Fortunes of War  (1907) 
by Rafael Sabatini

Extracted from Ainslee's magazine, 1907 Oct pp. 144–150. Title illustration may be omitted.


By Rafael Sabatini

THE king lay at Oxford, and Sir Geoffrey Wilmot held as an outpost the sleepy town of Dorchester to keep open the lines of communication with the main body of the Royalist army. Strife hung in the air, as thunder hangs in a summer sky; steel and fire and bloody work impended; yet Captain Harry Masefield found it in his heart to pass the brooding hours in dalliance. It was in the blood of this pretty gentleman to make love whenever the time served, and in the old rakish days at Whitehall, he had strewn his path with more love-affairs than he could count years to his age. Yet in his irresponsible, volatile heart they had been no more than the fancies of a leisure hour, the very fruits of the sunny idleness in which he had dwelt. It had remained for a simple, Puritan maid, in whose father's house the chance of war had quartered him, to arouse in him, during those days of stress, a deep and lasting passion, such as had been evoked by none of his fine ladies in the departed time of careless ease.

For a while he suppressed his feelings, almost strove to conquer them, and, being content with Kate's sweet companionship during those days at Dorchester, resolved to seek nothing more. But his passion swelled despite him, growing more violent—perhaps by virtue of its very suppression—until there came a fine June day when it exploded.

They were seated in the dappled shade of an oak, by the sparkling waters of the Thames, and their talk had grown desultory, for the heat was one to beget a dreamy languor. Suddenly the Cavalier turned to his companion, and, without warning, cast his heart, like a bombshell, at her feet.

“Kate, I love thee.” Through much former use of them the words came glibly from the young man's lips; but his face was grown of a sudden white and earnest, which never had been so before.

A tremor ran through the girl, and she sat with averted face, her brown eyes staring at the sheen of water. Masefield took the little hand that lay beside him.

“Sweet——” he began, and with that he broke the spell that had descended on her.

“Don't!” she cried in a sob. “I may not hear you. We were such friends, and now you have spoiled all.”

“Spoiled?” quoth he, leaning toward her, his voice aquiver. “Nay, sweet; not spoiled——

“Aye! spoiled,” she interrupted, and the eyes she turned on him were oddly bright and full of pain. “I may walk with you no more hereafter, and I have so grown to love our roamings, for you have ever been what they tell me that your kind is not.” She paused a moment, then, with a little break in her voice, she gave him the key to the situation. “I am betrothed.”

He sat very still, his eyes reflecting now the pain in hers, his fingers toying absently with the jewel in his ear. It was an odd irony that this simple maid, who had been the first to awaken sincerity in his heart, should also be the first to administer him a rebuff. He bore it well, and with a gentle and becoming dignity inquired the name of his most enviable forestaller.

“It is Master Coote,” she answered him. “His father was my father's friend.”

  • A man to be envied, this good Master Coote,” he sighed. “Yet my envy shall not conquer my good feelings. Count me ever thy friend, Kate. I will plague thee no more with protestations, little friend. Canst trust me?”

She held out her hands to him, and the tears, suppressed till now, flowed forth and puzzled him. Here was no matter for tears that he could see. But, respectful of the wishes she had expressed, he questioned her no further. Nor did he ever again permit his passion to betray itself, lest such a thing should interrupt the old, sweet tenor of their relations, which had been renewed. Master Coote's name was never mentioned between them, but Masefield had a suspicion that in the present conflict her betrothed was on the other side—at least in sympathies. He remembered that on the day after the arrival of the Royalists at Dorchester, a man of that name had applied to Sir Geoffrey for a safe conduct, giving out that he wished to visit a sick brother at Wallingford. From that alleged errand of mercy he returned a week after Masefield's avowal to Kate, and Harry met him at his host's house, whither he was come to pay his duties to Master Ashton and to Kate. He was a lank, swarthy, stern-featured youth, and his somber raiment, close-cropped head, and drawling speech confirmed Masefield in his suspicions concerning him. But he held his peace, and went his ways, until that befell which came to compel his concern in Master Coote's affairs.

Meanwhile, though Coote might have complained—had he been a warmer-blooded man himself—of the coolness of his reception by Kate, he found no lack of cordiality in the welcome extended him by her father. Master Ashton was unfeignedly glad to see him, and to be able to pour, unrestrained, into his ear, his strictures upon the disjointed nature of the times.

“I hope,” he had said, “thou'lt bide in Dorchester, now that thou'rt returned.”

“I shall bide here just so long as my service to Israel demands,” was Coote's answer, nasal and not over-gracious.

“Why, then, I trust it may keep thee long.”

“No longer than to-night. My work is done, and I am going my ways. Hark you, Master Ashton, for it is well you should know what to expect, and thou, too, Kate. I am come at the bidding of General Lambert to stir up a scourge for the destruction of these Amalekites that Dorchester hath harbored. 'Tis thus: To-morrow, at dead midnight, Lambert makes a camisade upon them, and, taking them by surprise, shall wreck them as utterly as was that Babylon whence they belong. His force is slight, but half that of these malignants. Hence his need to take them in their beds. And to the end that none may escape am I come to enjoin all true followers of the Lord, all godly men that dwell in Dorchester, to arm and rise, once the attack has been delivered, and, joining forces with us, see to it that no man of them all escapes the hell for which he is overripe.”

Father and daughter stared at him as he finished his impassioned speech. Both were pale, and from the eyes of both horror stared forth. At last, it was the old man who spoke.

“But it is murder that ye plan!” he cried. “Think you this will prove sightly in the eyes of the Lord?”

“The Lord of hosts hath set His hand against them,” answered Coote. “Shall the ax boast itself against him that heweth therewith?”

The old man shook his head sorrowfully. This warring with texts on the lips and a sword of treachery in the hand chilled him with mistrust in the ultimate success of the side to which he belonged.

It was sunset, the evening meal was spread, and Coote bidden to table, where the talk shifted to lighter things, to the expression of hopes that were to be fulfilled in the days when strife should be at an end. Kate sat silent and abstracted, her mind full of the grim news she had heard, and her thoughts straying to Masefield, the friend whom this upheaval had brought her, the man who had said that he loved her. Did she love him? It was a question she had not dared set herself. She had thrilled when he had spoken of his passion for her, but she had never paused to ask herself from what source was sprung her exquisite distress. Her duty was to Coote, to whom she was promised, and her stern, uncompromising rearing made her set duty and her plighted word above all other earthly considerations. Besides, she loved Coote—at least, until Masefield came into her life she had never given a thought to any other man.

Yet, as her mind now dwelt on Masefield and on what must be his fate upon the morrow, her affection for Coote seemed a light thing in the balance against her pity for the blithesome Cavalier.

The drone of the men's voices offered no hindrance to the free course of her thoughts, nor was she roused from them until a brisk knock fell suddenly upon the door.

“It will be Captain Masefield,” said her father, his glance following her as she went to open. But the man that glided past her into the chamber bore no resemblance to the debonair captain.

“Master Coote,” he cried excitedly, “praise the Lord I've found you! I have a note for you, and I was told that there is life and death at issue.”

“For whom?” asked the Puritan coldly, taking the scrap of folded paper

“For whom but for you?” the messenger replied.

Coote was reading, and as he read, his sallow cheeks grew sallower.

“Lord save me!” he muttered. Then to the man: “Who gave it thee?”

“I knew him not. I met him at the corner of the High, a fellow tightly muffled in a cloak. But he bade me hasten if I loved you, for your life might hang upon my speed.”

Coote thanked and dismissed the messenger, and, rising, took up his hat and cloak. A moment he looked at that black livery and his steeple hat, and he seemed to pause. Next, his roving eye caught a claret-colored cloak and a gray-feathered castor hanging from a peg. They were Masefield's, and, with a cry of joy, he pounced on them. Then to his amazed companions he vouchsafed at last an explanation:

“Here is what is written:

“You are betrayed. A man has reached Dorchester from Wallingford, with the information that you are a spy in the service of General Lambert. As you value your neck, get you gone at once.

“Joseph!" they both cried, aghast. He shrugged his shoulders, an heroic calm in his demeanor.

“I will cheat them, never fear,” said he. “But should I fail to escape, I may die content, since betrayal did not come until my task was accomplished. At least, their nimble spy can have no knowledge of the scourge that awaits these Amalekites. If I live I shall be in Dorchester again by midnight to-morrow. If not, there are others who will take my place. Farewell!”

He was gone, and Ashton was offering consolation to his child, bidding her be brave and trustful in the Lord, when again the door opened, an Masefield entered briskly

"Is he gone?” he asked.

“Were you the friend who sent that warning?” cried Kate

“Could I have done less, knowing——” He paused, remembering her father. But she understood what he would have said, even as she appreciated the nobility of what he had done for her sake. “Yes,” he added, “it was I. I may have failed in my duty, but, after all, Master Coote's life can be no matter of such importance as to make my breach of trust lie heavy on my conscience. It was fortunate I had it in my power to serve you.”

The tramp of feet sounded without.

“Soldiers,” said Masefield, jerking his thumb in the direction of the sound. “They are losing no time in searching for him. I had best withdraw.”

He had surmised correctly. An ensign and six men, having already ransacked Coote's dwelling, were come to act upon the information that he might be found at Master Ashton's. The ensign was courteous but firm, and his men searched the house, while Masefield, reappearing, engaged his brother officer in conversation.

Their duty done, they departed to seek elsewhere. But morning was to prove that the spy had made good his escape, a matter at which Sir Geoffrey shrugged his massive shoulders. They were overstrong at Dorchester to be in fear of the small force that lay at Wallingford with Lambert. So the Royalist commander slept tranquilly that night, as did his followers, one and all.

It was the Parliament's friends in Dorchester who were wakeful, awaiting the signal to rise up and help in the slaughter of the Amalekite.

Kate lay wide-eyed her bed, a horror in her soul at what was to come, a conflict in her mind. It was Masefield's generous and disinterested warning that her betrothed owed his life, and was Masefield to be slaughtered in his slumber for reward? By allowing it, it seemed to her she did a monstrous thing, and yet were she to warn him it would be an act of betrayal, not only of the trust that Coote reposed in her, but of the side to which from her cradle she belonged.

She heard the clock chime eleven. Another hour and the Parliamentarians would be there, and Dorchester would be washed in blood. Tortured, she lay and prayed to Heaven for guidance, and guidance came to her at last. Warn Masefield she must: but she need not do so until, while it would leave him time to save himself, it would be too late for him to spread the alarm which might frustrate the Roundhead purpose.

She rose, and, having lighted a taper, she scribbled a note, then sat waiting until half-past eleven chimed from the church-tower. Some moments longer she delayed, then stealthily she crept up-stairs to the chamber occupied by Masefield. She had to knock twice ere he was roused—for, lest her father should hear, she dared not strike loudly—then she thrust her scrap of paper 'neath his door, and was gone as silently as she had come.

She regained her room as a quarter to twelve was striking, and overhead she heard sounds which informed her that the captain was stirring. She sat on the bed in the dark, her pulses racing, and waited. Five minutes passed; then she caught a sound of soft steps descending. They halted a moment at her door, then passed on.

After he had gone she sat on, with clenched hands, shuddering at the thought that already he might be too late. Suddenly midnight boomed out, the preconcerted knell of the Royalists in Dorchester.

She went to the window, and, setting it wide, leaned out in that summer night, to listen for the horrid sounds that should announce Lambert's arrival. But the silence continued unbroken. They were late.

The first quarter struck, and she marveled that all should continue still. Then suddenly there came a stir. Men moved in the streets, hastening hither and thither, and to their movements rang the harsh accompaniment of arms. Were these Lambert's men? Across the way some one was knocking at a door, and from the gloom she presently heard a voice.

“Afoot, there, Ensign Wantley. To arms! We are beset.”

Then she understood what was taking place. Masefield had given the alarm, and the Royalists were rising to defend themselves. Meanwhile Lambert came not. If he should come now, she realized, he would find the tables turned, and would come to his destruction. In a very frenzy she fell on her knees by the open window, and, with her eyes to the stars, she prayed God to pardon the evil that unwittingly she had wrought, prayed God that Lambert might not come at all, and while she knelt there in prayers and self-reviling, she heard the half-hour strike.

“Thank God!” she cried. “They will not come.”

But her prayers availed not. In spite of them Lambert arrived. It had been decided by his officers that midnight was overearly. Many of the ungodly malignants kept late hours, and sat till midnight at their dice and cards and other deviltries. And so, to his undoing, he had been prevailed upon to delay the attack until one o'clock, when they should be more certain of finding the malignants in their beds.

Instead, the Royalists were up, and waiting for them as they crept into Dorchester town. The Roundheads had butchered the outposts, and gone forward without interruption till Lambert halted them in the market-place, there to give his officers their last instructions. And then, of a sudden, it seemed as if the little square had taken fire. From its four sides a mighty scythe of flame cut through the darkness, and mowed them down as though they had been a field of grass at haytime.

A great cry arose, sounding above the thunder and crackle of that deadly fusillade. Blasphemy burst from lips better schooled in utterance from Holy Writ, and those that had escaped caught up their arms, a wild, disordered mob in which each sought to hew himself a way out of this death-trap that had sprung up about them. Fighting desperately, they retreated down the streets, the Royalists surging everywhere, and showing no mercy to these men who were come to butcher them in their beds. The shirts, which by Lambert's orders they had put on over their armor, that they might know one another in that night's work, now helped forward their undoing, serving as a guide to the Cavaliers.

Some few who had retained something of their wits made haste to pluck off these badges, and among these was Coote, who realized that the present was a time for shelter, not heroics. With this intent he made his way toward Ashton's house. He found the street comparatively quiet, and his sharp knock was answered by Ashton himself with as much speed as even Coote's frenzied haste could have hoped for.

Into the house he stumbled, curses on his pious lips, for it was a monstrous evil hour, and the hand of God seemed set against those who called themselves His people.

“Woe! Woe!” he howled. “We have been betrayed, delivered into the hands of these Egyptians.”

“Tell me of it,” Master Ashton besought him, and in fierce, burning words the Roundhead told him how they had been hoist with their own petard.

A while the old man listened carefully, anon desultorily, for so interlarded with texts and proverbs was the Puritan's speech as to grow wearisome even in the ears of one of his own persuasion. And while he sat and listened the old man's eyes were attracted by a slip of paper at his feet. Idly he took it up. It was Kate's note to Masefield, which the Cavalier had dropped there as he fled. A cry of anguish burst from Ashton to interrupt the speaker.

“What is't?'” quoth Coote.

“This!” cried Ashton, proffering the paper. Then he suddenly withdrew it. “No, no!” he added, a note of fear in his voice. “'Tis not for thee, lad.”

A moment Coote looked at him perplexed. Then a glimmer, a half-suspicion of what it might be flashing through his mind, he advanced.

“Give it me,” he demanded hoarsely. Ashton held up his hand, as if to ward him off.

“No, no,” he repeated. “It concerns thee not.”

“Give it me,” the other insisted. He was mad with the night's happening, and ripe for any violence. Ere the old man knew it, the paper was in Coote's fingers, and he was reading Kate's note:

Save yourself. You are to be attacked at midnight by General Lambert. Go quietly, nor seek to thank me, lest my father should hear you.

“Hell and damnation!” roared that pious gentleman. “Where lurks this wanton?”

As if to answer him, the door opened at that moment, and Kate, pale and haggard of face, stood before him, little recking the discovery he had made. At sight of her, a blind fury took him, and his hand flew to his sword. Old Ashton looked about him for a weapon.

“Nay, nay,” cried the old man. “Thou shalt do no bloodshed here!”

“You say well,” Coote answered grimly. “It shall not be done here. It shall be some hangman's task. Come with me,” he snarled at Kate, “thou drab, thou——

“Father—— " she began appealingly.

“Come with me,” thundered the Puritan, striding to the door. He flung it open, turned, and stood waiting. “Must I drag thee hence?” he asked, and, seeing that she stirred not, he strode to her and caught her fiercely by the wrist. At that, old Ashton was moved to anger. With a growl, he sprang at Coote, who met his onrush with a blow that felled him. Then, seizing the half-fainting girl in his arms, he carried her bodily from the house. In the street he came upon a dozen fugitive Roundheads. He halted them with a shout.

“Here is the wanton that hath sold us unto Egypt; here is the traitress!” he screamed, “We go not hence without her.”

Over Shillingford Bridge a party of frenzied, fugitive Roundheads made their panic-stricken way. They numbered little over twenty men, and they represented well-nigh all that was left of thirty score who had marched that night to Dorchester. Lambert and a half-dozen with him had already passed them, riding at the gallop for Wallingford to gather up such belongings as imported and and get them away ere Sir Geoffrey's force swept down on them.

With the men at the bridge was a woman whom two were half-supporting, half-carrying. They got across, up the slope that faced them, and down the other side. At the foot of that hill Coote called a halt. He was the only surviving officer, and they looked to him for guidance.

“Bring forth the woman,” he commanded, his voice rough and hoarse from the much that he had shouted. “Here is a tree will serve our purpose. No need to burden ourselves further with this baggage.”

They had no rope, but he removed his sash, which was some ten feet long when unwound.

“'Twas wrought by her hands,” he sneered. “What fitter halter than this love-gift?” And his gloomy eyes sought her face in the pale light of the dawning day.

She stood before him, very white; but, for all that horrid terror was in her glance, her lips never moved to entreat, nor to speech of any kind.

“Hast naught to say?” he growled, angered by this stubborn silence.

She stirred at that; a little color crept into her cheeks.

“Do with me as you will,” said she, in an emotionless voice. “I am sorry, and I ask Heaven to pardon the destruction of life that has been wrought through my action. But I meant not to betray, and God, with whom our motives count for more than the outward seeming of our deed, will judge me accordingly. I accounted a warning I gave Captain Masefield as the just discharge of a debt we owed, for it was he who sent you word last night that you were betrayed.”

“Better he had let me die——” he began, then broke off, and smiled on her mighty evilly. “Is that all?” quoth he.

“All,” she answered, lowering her head

“On thy knees, daughter of Baal!” he thundered. “Ask pardon of God. Thy sands are run.”

Mechanically she obeyed him, falling on her knees and turning her brave soul to prayer, realizing that her end was at hand.

Coote turned to his men, and held out the sash he had doffed.

“Who will perform the justice of the Lord on this woman?” he asked.

In silence those gloomy, beaten men looked at one another, but none made him answer. Three in succession he called by name, commanding them to do this thing. But one by one they answered him that they were not hangmen. He let fall the scarf at last, growling his displeasure and his contempt of them, and from his belt he plucked a pistol.

“It shall be my task, then,” he muttered. “Woman, when thou'rt ready put forth thy hands; nor keep me waiting overlong.”

Thus in silence they stood, all eyes upon the kneeling girl. What was that, behind them, on the slope? The morning wind rustling through the trees? They heard it not, so intent were they, nor stirred until, like a peal of thunder, a volley of musketry crashed down the hillside and poured its hail into their group.

“The malignants are upon us!” screamed one.

Coote raised his eyes and caught the gleam of steel and flash of colors of the company, some three score strong, that swept down the hill toward them. With an oath, he leveled his pistol at Kate. She shut her eyes, but ere he could fire, a bullet took him in the throat. He spun round on his heel, and fell, his pistol going off and raising a spurt of dust where the bullet cut a furrow in the ground.

Strong arms lifted Kate from the ground, where she had fallen, fainting, at the last moment; strong arms pressed her to a cuirassed bosom and stirred her to awake and look incredulously into Masefield's good gray eyes.

“Kate, my) little Kate,” he panted. “I love thee, Kate, I love thee!”

And there in that shambles, under the eyes of those rough men of war, the Puritan maid came to understand what her heart told her. And what her heart told her, her lips told him.

“I love thee, Harry,” she whispered. “Thank God you came!” And she fell a-sobbing in his arms.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.