Читать онлайн "A Midsummer Tempest" автора Андерсон Пол Уильям - RuLit - Страница 3

 
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As the front door of the manor opened, two mastiffs, chained near the guns, broke into furious noise. They quieted when Sir Malachi Shelgrave stepped forth, though they still bared teeth and growled at Rupert, the stranger by his side. Behind came four halberdiers in helmet and corselet, two-handed swords slung across their backs, pistols in their belts. The drawbridge boomed hollowly under their tread.

The captive was unarmed and unarmored. The clothes he had worn beneath his mail—linsey-woolsey shirt, leather doublet, coarse hose of blue wadmal, knee-length flare-topped boots—had undergone a hasty cleaning which left faintly visible stains of grass, soil, sweat, and blood. His head was combed and barbered but hatless.

His companion, who was of medium height, must crane neck backward to meet Rupert’s eyes. He smiled, a stiff little twitch, and said in his precise voice: “I do regret your Highness must go thus, as plain as any yokel, for the nonce. You’re such an unawaited guest, you see. This house holds naught that’s near to fitting you.”

“No matter,” Rupert answered indifferently.

“Oh, it is, if but to me. Sir Malachi Shelgrave’s honor makes demand that he show proper hospitality”—he drew breath—“to Rupert, Prince and nephew of the King, by birth Count of the Rhine Palatinate, Duke of Bavaria and Cumberland, the Earl of Holderness, a Knight o’ the Garter, and, over all such titles from the blood or from King Charles, his Captain-General.”

For an instant, Rupert’s set calm broke. He halted and half raised a fist. Lips drew back from teeth, brows down above stare. The guards gripped fast their weapons.

Shelgrave stood his ground, spread palms wide and exclaimed: “I pray your pardon, did I seem to mock! I merely wish to show with what great care I’ve studied you, our glorious opponent.”

Rupert let fingers unclench and fall. Again there was nothing to read on his face. The Roundheads looked relieved.

“This day a master tailor comes from Leeds,” Shelgrave proceeded rapidly. “He’ll measure you, drop every other work, and sleep will be a stranger to his shop till you are suited as becomes a prince in velvet, silk, and cramoisie.”

“No need,” said Rupert. “I am a soldier, not a popinjay.”

His gaze probed the other man. Shelgrave met it, and for a minute they stood locked.

At fifty years of age, the master of the land was still trim and erect. The hair had departed his high-domed skull, save for a brown fringe cut short around his ears; the grayish eyes were forever blinking; skin sagged beneath the chin of an otherwise cleanly molded sallow countenance; but those were almost the only physical scars which time had thus far dealt him. His clothes were of Puritan austerity in color and cut, though a glow in the dark hues bespoke rich material. A rapier hung at his waist, together with a large wallet.

“At least your Highness needs a change or three,” he said. “I think you’ll grace this house—perhaps a month.”

Rupert failed to keep surprise quite out of his tone. “That long a while?”

“I pray my lord, consider.” Shelgrave resumed strolling. Rupert fell into step, as well as such long legs were able. The Parliamentarian glanced side-ways at him before going on: “They say you are a most blunt-spoken man. Have I your leave to use frank words?”

“Aye, do. I’m surfeited with two-tongued courtliness—” Rupert broke off.

Shelgrave nodded knowingly. “Well, then,” he began, “your Highness—and Maurice, your brother, but you the foremost ever, these three years—you’ve been the very spearhead of our foes. Your name’s as dread as Lucifer’s in London. Without that living lightning bolt, yourself, the armies of un-righteousness—forgive me—would long be scattered from around the King like tempest clouds before a cleansing wind.”

“In his sight,” Rupert snapped, “you’re the rude and ugly winter.”

“He is misled.”

“Continue what you’d say.”

“May I indulge my curiosity?” (Rupert gave a brusque nod.) “Although I am no soldier born like you, I did see service under Buckingham in younger days, and was therefor made knight. Sithence a scholar of the art of war, among much else, I’ve read not only Caesar and other ancients, but the chronicles of later strategists like great Gustavus. I’ve thus had knowledge to admire your skill as it deserves. They call you overbold—but nearly always, lord, you’ve won the day. And still so young: a score of years and four!”

Shelgrave blinked at his prisoner, who did not act like a man tickled by flattery. “The fight on Marston Moor thus strikes me strange. When faring north to lift the siege of York, you found your opposition ill-supplied, disheartened, split in squabbling sects and factions, and in no favor with most Northerners. You could have chivvied them as wolves do kine until they broke.’Tis what I feared you’d do. Instead you forced a battle on a ground ill-chosen for your side. I wonder why.”

“I had mine orders,” Rupert rasped. “More I will not say.”

“ ’Tis honorable of your Highness, that—yet useless, for it surely is no secret what envies and intrigues have seethed around the youthful foreigner who sought the King when war broke loose, and was at once raised high. Which rival engineered those orders, Prince? No Puritan would undermine—”

“Have done!” Again Rupert stopped as if in menace.

Shelgrave bowed to him. “Of course. Mine object’s only to explain why I’ve the pleasure of your company.

You see, you’re priceless to our enemies, and hence to us. Your capture was God’s mercy, which brings in sight an ending of this war. Yet still the Royalists retain some strength. Their court’s at Oxford, not so far from London. A massive raid by, let us say, Maurice might still regain you for that high command which soon your fiercest rival won’t begrudge. It must not happen. Fairfax saw this too. Accordingly, he had you carried hither in deepest secrecy, here to abide until the East is absolutely cleared. Then, without fear of any rescuers, you can be brought to London.”

“To what end?”

“That lies with Parliament.”

The furrows tautened around Rupert’s mouth. “I thought as much.”

Shelgrave took his elbow in companionable wise and guided him on along the path. Roses stood tall on either side, above a shyness of pansies; the breeze was full of their fragrance. Sunbeams slanted through trees to dapple the lawn. Gravel scrunched underfoot.

“Your Highness, cast your melancholy off,” Shelgrave urged. “You’ll find enjoyment and sur-cease from strife. The household staff and others you may meet are under oath to breathe no word of you, and known to me for their trustworthiness. And thus by day, though guarded, wander free about these grounds.” He gave an apologetic sigh. “I dare not let you ride. I would I did. I’m eager in the hunt, and you will like my horses and my hounds.”

Briefly, Rupert’s fists knotted.

“But you can fish, play ball, do what you wish,” Shelgrave promised. “I hear you are of philosophic bent.

Well, so am I. Make use of any books. Do you play chess? I’m not so bad at that. At night, I fear, you must be locked away in your apartment, high in yonder tower. But ’twill be furnished with the tools of art—they say you draw and etch delightfully—and you’ll have access likewise to the roof. There often I beguile a sleepless night by tracking moon and stars across the sky. Come too! I’ll show you mysteries in heaven”—his voice trembled a little, ardor leaped behind his eyes—“and maybe they’ll convert you to the truth.”

Rupert shook his head violently. “That lies not in your sour and canting creed.”

     

 

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