Then as the Quakeress did not reply, he added almost savagely:
"Why don't you answer, woman? Are ye still hard of hearing?"
"Your pardon, Sir Marmaduke," interposed Lambert firmly, "my aunt is old and feeble. She hath been much upset and over anxious ... seeing that my brother Adam is still from home."
Sir Marmaduke broke into a loud and prolonged laugh.
"Ha! ha! ha! good master ... so I understand ... your brother is from home ... whilst the wallet containing her ladyship's fortune has disappeared along with him, eh?"
"What are they saying, lad?" queried the old woman in her trembling voice, "what are they saying? I am fearful lest there's something wrong with Adam...."
"Nay, nay, dear ... there's naught amiss," said Lambert soothingly, "there's naught amiss...."
Instinctively now Sue had risen. Sir Marmaduke's cruel laugh had grated horribly on her ear, rousing an echo in her memory which she could not understand but which caused her to encircle the trembling figure of the old Quakeress with young, protecting arms.
"Are Squire Boatfield and I to understand, Lambert," continued Sir Marmaduke, speaking to the young man, "that your brother Adam has unaccountably disappeared since the night on which the foreigner met with his tragic fate? Nay, Boatfield," he added, turning to the squire, as Lambert had remained silent, "methinks you, as chief magistrate, should see your duty clearly. 'Tis a warrant you should sign and quickly, too, ere a scoundrel slip through the noose of justice. I can on the morrow to Dover, there to see the chief constable, but Pyot and his men should not be idle the while."
"What is he saying, my dear?" murmured Mistress Lambert, timorously, as she clung with pathetic fervor to the young girl beside her, "what is the trouble?"
"Where is your nephew Adam?" said de Chavasse roughly.
"I do not know," she retorted with amazing strength of voice, as she gently but firmly disengaged herself from the restraining arms that would have kept her back. "I do not know," she repeated, "what is it to thee, where he is? Art accusing him perchance of doing away with that foreign devil?"
Her voice rose shrill and resonant, echoing in the low-ceilinged room; her pale eyes, dimmed with many tears, with hard work, and harder piety were fixed upon the man who had dared to accuse her lad.
He tried not to flinch before that gaze, to keep up the air of mockery, the sound of a sneer. Outside the murmur of voices had become somewhat louder, the shuffling of bare feet on the flag-stones could now be distinctly heard.
THE VOICE OF THE DEAD
The next moment a timid knock against the front door caused everyone to start. A strange eerie feeling descended on the hearts of all, of innocent and of guilty, of accuser and of defender. The knock seemed to have come from spectral hands, for 'twas followed by no further sound.
Then again the knock.
Lambert went to the door and opened it.
"Be the quality here?" queried a timid voice.
"Squire Boatfield is here and Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse," replied Lambert, "what is it, Mat? Come in."
The squire had risen at sound of his name, and now went to the door, glad enough to shake himself free from that awful oppression which hung on the cottage like a weight of evil.
"What is it, Mat?" he asked.
A man in rough shirt and coarse breeches and with high boots reaching up to the thigh was standing humbly in the doorway. He was bareheaded and his lanky hair, wet with rain and glittering with icy moisture, was blown about by the gale. At sight of the squire he touched his forelock.
"The hour is getting late, squire," he said hesitatingly, "we carriers be ready.... 'Tis an hour or more down to Minster ... walking with a heavy burden I mean.... If your Honor would give the order, mayhap we might nail down the coffin lid now and make a start."
Marmaduke de Chavasse, too, had turned towards the doorway. Both men looked out on the little crowd which had congregated beyond the little gate. It was long past three o'clock now, and the heavy snow clouds overhead obscured the scanty winter light, and precipitated the approach of evening. In the gray twilight, a group of men could be seen standing somewhat apart from the others. All were bareheaded, and all wore rough shirts and breeches of coarse worsted, drab or brown in color, toning in with the dull monochrome of the background.
Between them in the muddy road stood the long deal coffin. The sheet which covered it, rendered heavy with persistent wet, flapped dismally against the wooden sides of the box. Overhead a group of rooks were circling whilst uttering their monotonous call.
A few women had joined their men-folk, attracted by the novelty of the proceedings, yielding their momentary comfort to their feeling of curiosity. They had drawn their kirtles over their heads and looked like gigantic oval balls, gray or black, with small mud-stained feet peeping out below.
Sue had thrown an appealing look at Squire Boatfield, when she saw that dismal cortege. Her husband, her prince! the descendant of the Bourbons, the regenerator of France lying there—unrecognizable, horrible and loathsome—in a rough wooden coffin hastily nailed together by a village carpenter.
She did not wish to look on him: and with mute eyes begged the squire to spare her and to spare the old woman, who, through the doorway had caught sight of the drabby little crowd, and of the deal box on the ground.
Lambert, too, at sight of the cortege had gone to the Quakeress, the kind soul who had cared for him and his brother, two nameless lads, without home save the one she had provided for them. He trusted in Squire Boatfield's sense of humanity not to force this septuagenarian to an effort of nerve and will altogether beyond her powers.
Together the two young people were using gentle persuasion to get the old woman to the back room, whence she could not see the dreary scene now or presently, the slow winding of the dismal little procession down the road which leads to Minster, and whence she could not hear that weird flapping of the wet sheet against the side of the coffin, an echo to the slow and muffled tolling of the church bell some little distance away.
But the old woman was obstinate. She struggled against the persuasion of young arms. Things had been said in her cottage just now, which she must hear more distinctly: vague accusations had been framed, a cruel and sneering laugh had echoed through the house from whence one of her lads—Adam—was absent.
"No! no!" she said with quiet firmness, as Lambert urged her to withdraw, "let be, lad ... let be ... ye cannot deceive the old woman all of ye.... The Lord hath put wool in my ears, so I cannot hear ... but my eyes are good.... I can see your faces.... I can read them.... Speak man!" she said, as she suddenly disengaged herself from Richard's restraining arms and walked deliberately up to Marmaduke de Chavasse, "speak man.... Didst thou accuse Adam?"
An involuntary "No!" escaped from the squire's kindly heart and lips. But Sir Marmaduke shrugged his shoulders.
The crisis which by his own acts, by his own cowardice, he himself had precipitated, was here now. Fatality had overtaken him. Whether the whole truth would come to light he did not know. Truly at this moment he hardly cared. He did not feel as if he were himself, but another being before whom stood another Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, on whom he—a specter, a ghoul, a dream figure—was about to pass judgment.
He knew that he need do nothing now, for without his help or any effort on his part, that morbid curiosity which had racked his brain for two days would be fully satisfied. He would know absolutely now, exactly what everyone thought of the mysterious French prince and of his terrible fate on Epple sands.
Thank Satan and all his hordes of devils that heavy chalk boulders had done so complete a work of obliteration.
But whilst he looked down with complete indifference on the old woman, she looked about from one face to the other, trying to read what cruel thoughts of Adam lurked behind those obvious expressions of sympathy.
"So that foreign devil hath done mischief at last," she now said loudly, her tremulous voice gaining in strength as she spoke, "the Lord would not allow him to do it living ... so the devil hath helped him to it now that he is dead.... But I tell you that Adam is innocent.... There was no harm in the lad ... a little rough at times ... but no harm ... he'd no father to bring him up ... and his mother was a wanton ... so there was only the foolish old woman to look after the boys ... but there's no harm in the lad ... there's no harm!"
Her voice broke down now in a sob, her throat seemed choked, but with an effort which seemed indeed amazing in one of her years, she controlled her tears, and for a moment was silent. The gray twilight crept in through the door of the cottage, where Mat, bareheaded and humble, still waited for the order to go.
Sir Marmaduke would have interrupted the old woman's talk ere this, but his limbs were now completely paralyzed: he might have been made of stone, so rigid did he feel himself to be: a marble image, or else a specter, a shadow-figure that existed yet could not move.
There was such passionate earnestness in the old woman's words that everyone else remained dumb. Richard, whose heart was filled with dread, who had endured agonies of anxiety since the disappearance of his brother, had but one great desire, which was to spare to the kind soul a knowledge which would mean death or worse to her.
As for Editha de Chavasse, she was a mere spectator still: so puzzled, so bewildered that she was quite convinced at this moment, that she must be mad. She could not encounter Marmaduke's eyes, try how she might. The look in his face horrified her less than it mystified her. She alone—save the murderer himself—knew that the man who lay in that deal coffin out there was not the mysterious foreigner who had never existed.
But if not the stranger, then who was it, who was dead? and what had Adam Lambert to do with the whole terrible deed?
Sue once more tried to lead Mistress Lambert gently away, but she pushed the young girl aside quite firmly:
"Ye don't believe me?" she asked, looking from one face to the other, "ye don't believe me, yet I tell ye all that Adam is innocent ... and that the Lord will not allow the innocent to be unjustly condemned.... Aye! He will e'en let the dead arise, I say, and proclaim the innocence of my lad!"
Her eyes—with dilated pupils and pale opaque rims—had the look of the seer in them now; she gazed straight out before her into the rain-laden air, and it seemed almost as if in it she could perceive visions of avenging swords, of defending angels and accusing ghouls, that she could hear whisperings of muffled voices and feel beckoning hands guiding her to a world peopled by specters and evil beings that prey upon the dead.
"Let me pass!" she said with amazing vigor, as Squire Boatfield, with kindly concern, tried to bar her exit through the door, "let me pass I say! the dead and I have questions to ask of one another."
"This is madness!" broke in Marmaduke de Chavasse with an effort; "that body is not a fit sight for a woman to look upon."
He would have seized the Quakeress by the arm in order to force her back, but Richard Lambert already stood between her and him.
"Let no one dare to lay a hand on her," he said quietly.
And the old woman escaping from all those who would have restrained her, walked rapidly through the doorway and down the flagged path rendered slippery with the sleet. The gale caught the white wings of her coif, causing them to flutter about her ears, and freezing strands of her gray locks which stood out now all round her head like a grizzled halo.
She could scarcely advance, for the wind drove her kirtle about her lean thighs, and her feet with the heavy tan shoes sank ankle deep in the puddles formed by the water in the interstices of the flagstones. The rain beat against her face, mingling with the tears which now flowed freely down her cheeks. But she did not heed the discomfort nor yet the cold, and she would not be restrained.
The next moment she stood beside the rough wooden coffin and with a steady hand had lifted the wet sheet, which continued to flap with dull, mournful sound round the feet of the dead.
The Quakeress looked down upon the figure stretched out here in death—neither majestic nor peaceful, but horrible and weirdly mysterious. She did not flinch at the sight. Resentment against the foreigner dimmed her sense of horror.
"So my fine prince," she said, whilst awed at the spectacle of this old woman parleying with the dead, carriers and mourners had instinctively moved a few steps away from her, "so thou wouldst harm my boy! ... Thou always didst hate him ... thou with thy grand airs, and thy rough ways.... Had the Lord allowed it, this hand of thine would ere now have been raised against him ... as it oft was raised against the old woman ... whose infirmities should have rendered her sacred in thy sight."
She stooped, and deliberately raised the murdered man's hand in hers, and for one moment fixed her gaze upon it. For that one moment she was silent, looking down at the rough fingers, the coarse nails, the blistered palm.
Then still holding the hand in hers, she looked up, then round at every face which was turned fixedly upon her. Thus she encountered the eyes of the men and women, present here only to witness an unwonted spectacle, then those of the kindly squire, of Lady Sue, of Mistress de Chavasse, and of her other lad—Richard—all of whom had instinctively followed her down the short flagged path in the wake of her strange and prophetic pilgrimage.
Lastly her eyes met those of Marmaduke de Chavasse. Then she spoke slowly in a low muffled voice, which gradually grew more loud and more full of passionate strength.
"Aye! the Lord is just," she said, "the Lord is great! It is the dead which shall rise again and proclaim the innocence of the just, and the guilt of the wicked."
She paused a while, and stooped to kiss the marble-like hand which she held tightly grasped in hers.
"Adam!" she murmured, "Adam, my boy! ... my lad! ..."
The men and women looked on, stupidly staring, not understanding yet, what new tragedy had suddenly taken the place of the old.
"Aunt, aunt dear," whispered Lambert, who had pushed his way forward, and now put his arm round the old woman, for she had begun to sway, "what is the matter, dear?" he repeated anxiously, "what does it mean?"
And conquering his own sense of horror and repulsion, he tried to disengage the cold and rigid hand of the dead from the trembling grasp of the Quakeress. But she would not relinquish her hold, only she turned and looked steadily at the young lad, whilst her voice rose firm and harsh above the loud patter of the rain and the moaning of the wind through the distant; trees.
"It means, my lad," she said, "it means all of you ... that what I said was true ... that Adam is innocent of crime ... for he lies here dead ... and the Lord will see that his death shall not remain unavenged."
Once more she kissed the rough hand, beautiful now with that cold beauty which the rigidity of death imparts; then she replaced it reverently, silently, and fell upon her knees in the wet mud, beside the coffin.
THE HOME-COMING OF ADAM LAMBERT
All heads were bent; none of the ignorant folk who stood around would have dared even to look at the old woman kneeling beside that rough deal box which contained the body of her lad. A reverent feeling had killed all curiosity: bewilderment at the extraordinary and wholly unexpected turn of events had been merged in a sense of respectful awe, which rendered every mouth silent, and lowered every lid.
Squire Boatfield, almost paralyzed with astonishment, had murmured half stupidly:
"Adam Lambert ... dead? ... I do not understand."
He turned to Marmaduke de Chavasse as if vaguely, instinctively expecting an answer to the terrible puzzle from him.
De Chavasse's feet, over which he himself seemed to have no control, had of a truth led him forward, so that he, too, stood not far from the old woman now. He had watched her—silent and rigid,—conscious only of one thing—a trivial matter certes—of Editha's inquiring eyes fixed steadily upon him.
Everything else had been merged in a kind of a dream. But the mute question in those eyes was what concerned him. It seemed to represent the satisfaction of that morbid curiosity which had been such a terrible obsession during these past nerve-racking days.
Editha, realizing the identity of the dead man, would there and then know the entire truth. But Editha's fate was too closely linked to his own to render her knowledge of that truth dangerous to de Chavasse: therefore, with him it was merely a sense of profound satisfaction that someone would henceforth share his secret with him.
It is quite impossible to analyze the thoughts of the man who thus stood by—a silent and almost impassive spectator—of a scene, wherein his fate, his life, an awful retribution and deadly justice, were all hanging in the balance. He was not mad, nor did he act with either irrelevance or rashness. The sense of self-protection was still keen in him ... violently keen ... although undoubtedly he, and he alone, was responsible for the events which culminated in the present crisis.
The whole aspect of affairs had changed from the moment that the real identity of the dead had been established. Everyone here present would regard this new mystery in an altogether different light to that by which they had viewed the former weird problem; but still there need be no danger to the murderer.
Editha would know, of course, but no one else, and it would be vastly curious anon to see what lady Sue would do.
Therefore, Sir Marmaduke was chiefly conscious of Editha's presence, and then only of Sue.
"Some old woman's folly," he now said roughly, in response to Squire Boatfield's mute inquiry, "awhile ago she identified the clothes as having belonged to the foreign prince."
"Aye, the clothes, de Chavasse," murmured the squire meditatively, "the clothes, but not the man ... and 'twas you yourself who just now...."
"Master Lambert should know his own brother," here came in a suppressed murmur from one or two of the men, who respectful before the quality, had now become too excited to keep altogether silent.
"Of course I know my brother," retorted Richard Lambert boldly, "and can but curse mine own cowardice in not defending him ere this."
"What more lies are we to hear?" sneered de Chavasse, "surely, Boatfield, this stupid scene hath lasted long enough."
"Put my knowledge to the test, sir," rejoined Lambert. "My brother's arm was scarred by a deep cut from shoulder to elbow, caused by the fall of a sharp-bladed ax—'twas the right arm ... will you see, Sir Marmaduke, or will you allow me to lay bare the right arm of this man ... to see if I had lied? ..."
Squire Boatfield, conquering his reluctance, had approached nearer to the coffin; he, too, lifted the dead man's arm, as the old woman had done just now, and he gazed down meditatively at the hand, which though shapely, was obviously rough and toil-worn. Then, with a firm and deliberate gesture, he undid the sleeve of the doublet and pushed it back, baring the arm up to the shoulder.
He looked at the lifeless flesh for a moment, there where a deep and long scar stood out plainly between the elbow and shoulder like the veining in a block of marble. Then he pulled the sleeve down again.
"Neither you, nor Mistress Lambert have lied, master," he said simply. "'Tis Adam Lambert who lies here ... murdered ... and if that be so," he continued firmly, "then the man who put these clothes upon the body of the smith is his murderer ... the foreigner who called himself Prince Amede d'Orleans."
"The husband of Lady Sue Aldmarshe," quoth Sir Marmaduke, breaking into a loud laugh.
The rain had momentarily ceased, although the gale, promising further havoc, still continued that mournful swaying of the dead branches of the trees. But a gentle drip-drip had replaced that incessant patter. The humid atmosphere had long ago penetrated through rough shirts and worsted breeches, causing the spectators of this weird tragedy to shiver with the cold.
The shades of evening had begun to gather in. It were useless now to attempt to reach Minster before nightfall: nor presumably would the old Quakeress thus have parted from the dead body of her lad.
Richard Lambert had begged that the coffin might be taken into the cottage. The old woman's co-religionists would help her to obtain for Adam fitting and Christian burial.
After Sir Marmaduke's sneering taunt no one had spoken. For these yokels and their womenfolk the matter had passed altogether beyond their ken. Bewildered, not understanding, above all more than half fearful, they consulted one another vaguely and mutely with eyes and quaint expressive gestures, wondering what had best be done.
'Twas fortunate that the rain had ceased. One by one the women, still holding their kirtles tightly round their shoulders, began to move away. The deal box seemed to have reached a degree of mystery from which 'twas best to keep at a distance. The men, too—those who had come as spectators—were gradually edging away; some walked off with their womenfolk, others hung back in groups of three or four discussing the most hospitable place to which 'twere best to adjourn.
All wore a strangely shamed expression of timidity—almost of self-deprecation, as if apologetic for their presence here when the quality had matters of such grave import to discuss. No one had really understood Sir Marmaduke's sneering taunt, only they felt instinctively that there were some secrets which it had been disrespectful even to attempt to guess.
Those who had been prepared to carry the coffin to Minster were the last to hang back. Squire Boatfield was obviously giving some directions to their foreman, Mat, who tugged at his forelock at intervals, indicating that he was prepared to obey. The others stood aside waiting for instructions.
Thus the deal box remained on the ground, exactly opposite the tiny wooden gate, strangely isolated and neglected-looking after the dispersal of the interested crowd which had surrounded it awhile ago. It seemed as if with the establishment of the real identity of the dead the intensity of the excitement had vanished. The mysterious foreigner had a small court round him; Adam Lambert, only his brother and the old Quakeress.
They remained beside the coffin, she kneeling with her head buried in her wrinkled hands, he standing silent and passionately wrathful both against one man and against destiny. He had almost screamed with horror when de Chavasse thus brutally uttered Lady Sue's name: he had seen the young girl almost sway on her feet, as she smothered the cry of agony and horror which at her guardian's callous taunt had risen to her lips.
He had seen and in his heart worshiped her for the heroic effort which she made to remain outwardly calm, not to betray before a crowd the agonizing horror, the awful fear and the burning shame which of a truth would have crushed most women of her tender years. And because he saw that she did not wish to betray one single thought or emotion, he did not approach, nor attempt to show the overwhelming sympathy which he felt.
He knew that any word from him to her would only call forth more malicious sneers from that strange man, who seemed to be pursuing Lady Sue and also himself—Lambert—with a tenacious and incomprehensible hatred.
Richard remained, therefore, beside his dead brother's coffin, supporting and anon gently raising the old woman from the ground.
Mat—the foreman—had joined his comrades and after a word of explanation, they once more gathered round the wooden box. Stooping to their task, their sinews cracking under the effort, the perspiration streaming from their foreheads, they raised the mortal remains of Adam Lambert from the ground and hoisted the burden upon their shoulders.
Then they turned into the tiny gate and slowly walked with it along the little flagged path to the cottage. The men had to stoop as they crossed the threshold, and the heavy box swayed above their powerful shoulders.
The Quakeress and Richard followed, going within in the wake of the six men. The parlor was then empty, and thus it was that Adam Lambert finally came home.
The others—Squire Boatfield and Mistress de Chavasse, Lady Sue and Sir Marmaduke—had stood aside in the small fore-court, to enable the small cortege to pass. Directly Richard Lambert and the old woman disappeared within the gloom of the cottage interior, these four people—each individually the prey of harrowing thoughts—once more turned their steps towards the open road.
There was nothing more to be done here at this cottage, where the veil of mystery which had fallen over the gruesome murder had been so unexpectedly lifted by a septuagenarian's hand.
Squire Boatfield was vastly perturbed. Never had his position as magistrate seemed so onerous to him, nor his duties as major-general quite so arduous. A vague and haunting fear had seized him, a fear that—if he did do his duty, if he did continue his investigations of the mysterious crime—he would learn something vastly horrible and awesome, something he had best never know.
He tried to take indifferent leave of the ladies, yet he quite dreaded to meet Lady Sue's eyes. If all the misery, the terror which she must feel, were expressed in them, then indeed, would her young face be a heart-breaking sight for any man to see.
He kissed the hand of Editha de Chavasse, and bowed in mute and deferential sympathy to the young girl-wife, who of a truth had this day quaffed at one draught the brimful cup of sorrow and of shame.
An inexplicable instinct restrained him from taking de Chavasse's hand; he was quite glad indeed that the latter seemingly absorbed in thoughts was not heeding his going.
The squire in his turn now passed out of the little gate. The evening was drawing in over-rapidly now, and it would be a long and dismal ride from here to Sarre.
Fortunately he had two serving-men with him, each with a lantern. They were now standing beside their master's cob, some few yards down the road, which from this point leads in a straight course down to Sarre.
Not far from the entrance to the forge, Boatfield saw petty-constable Pyot in close converse with Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy, butler to Sir Marmaduke. The man was talking with great volubility, and obvious excitement, and Pyot was apparently torn between his scorn for the narrator's garrulousness, and his fear of losing something of what the talker had to say.
At sight of Boatfield, Pyot unceremoniously left Master Busy standing, open-mouthed, in the very midst of a voluble sentence, and approached the squire, doffing his cap respectfully as he did so.
"Will your Honor sign a warrant?" he asked.
"A warrant? What warrant?" queried the worthy squire, who of a truth, was falling from puzzlement to such absolute bewilderment that he felt literally as if his head would burst with the weight of so much mystery and with the knowledge of such dire infamy.
"I think that the scoundrel is cleverer than we thought, your Honor," continued the petty constable, "we must not allow him to escape."
"I am quite bewildered," murmured the squire. "What is the warrant for?"
"For the apprehension of the man whom the folk about here called the Prince of Orleans. I can set the watches on the go this very night, nay! they shall scour the countryside to some purpose—the murderer cannot be very far, we know that he is dressed in the smith's clothes, we'll get him soon enough, but he may have friends...."
"He may have been a real prince, your Honor," said Pyot with a laugh, which contradicted his own suggestion.
"Aye! aye! ... Mayhap!"
"He may have powerful friends ... or such as would resist the watches ... resist us, mayhap ... a warrant would be useful...."
"Aye! aye! you are right, constable," said Boatfield, still a little bewildered, "do you come along to Sarre with me, I'll give you a warrant this very night. Have you a horse here?"
"Nay, your Honor," rejoined the man, "an it please you, my going to Sarre would delay matters and the watches could not start their search this night."
"Then what am I to do?" exclaimed the squire, somewhat impatient of the whole thing now, longing to get away, and to forget, beside his own comfortable fireside, all the harrowing excitement of this unforgettable day.
"Young Lambert is a bookworm, your Honor," suggested Pyot, who was keen on the business, seeing that his zeal, if accompanied by success, would surely mean promotion; "there'll be ink and paper in the cottage.... An your Honor would but write a few words and sign them, something I could show to a commanding officer, if perchance I needed the help of soldiery, or to the chief constable resident at Dover, for methinks some of us must push on that way ... your Honor must forgive ... we should be blamed—punished, mayhap—if we allowed such a scoundrel to remain unhung...."
"As you will, man, as you will," sighed the worthy squire impatiently, "but wait!" he added, as Pyot, overjoyed, had already turned towards the cottage, "wait until Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse and the ladies have gone."
He called his serving-men to him and ordered them to start on their way towards home, but to wait for him, with his cob, at the bend of the road, just in the rear of the little church.
Some instinct, for which he could not rightly have accounted, roused in him the desire to keep his return to the cottage a secret from Sir Marmaduke. Attended by Pyot, he followed his men down the road, and the angle of the cottage soon hid him from view.
De Chavasse in the meanwhile had ordered his own men to escort the ladies home. Busy and Toogood lighted their lanterns, whilst Sue and Editha, wrapping their cloaks and hoods closely round their heads and shoulders, prepared to follow them.
Anon the little procession began slowly to wind its way back towards Acol Court.
Sir Marmaduke lingered behind for a while, of set purpose: he had no wish to walk beside either Editha or Lady Sue, so he took some time in mounting his nag, which had been tethered in the rear of the forge. His intention was to keep the men with the lanterns in sight, for—though there were no dangerous footpads in Thanet—yet Sir Marmaduke's mood was not one that courted isolation on a dark and lonely road.
Therefore, just before he saw the dim lights of the lanterns disappearing down the road, which at this point makes a sharp dip before rising abruptly once more on the outskirts of the wood, Sir Marmaduke finally put his foot in the stirrup and started to follow.
The mare had scarce gone a few paces before he saw the figure of a woman detaching itself from the little group on ahead, and then turning and walking rapidly back towards the village. He could not immediately distinguish which of the two ladies it was, for the figure was totally hidden beneath the ample folds of cloak and hood, but soon as it approached, he perceived that it was Editha.
He would have stopped her by barring the way, he even thought of dismounting, thinking mayhap that she had left something behind at the cottage, and cursing his men for allowing her to return alone, but quick as a flash of lightning she ran past him, dragging her hood closer over her face as she ran.
He hesitated for a few seconds, wondering what it all meant: he even turned the mare's head round to see whither Editha was going. She had already reached the railing and gate in front of the cottage; the next moment she had lifted the latch, and Sir Marmaduke could see her blurred outline, through the rising mist, walking quickly along the flagged path, and then he heard her peremptory knock at the cottage door.
He waited a while, musing, checking the mare, who longed to be getting home. He fully expected to see Editha return within the next minute or so, for—vaguely through the fast-gathering gloom—he had perceived that someone had opened the door from within, a thin ray of yellowish light falling on Editha's cloaked figure. Then she disappeared into the cottage.
On ahead the swaying lights of the lanterns were rapidly becoming more and more indistinguishable in the distance. Apparently Editha's departure from out the little group had not been noticed by the others. The men were ahead, and Sue, mayhap, was too deeply absorbed in thought to pay much heed as to what was going on round her.
Sir Marmaduke still hesitated. Editha was not returning, and the cottage door was once more closed. Courtesy demanded that he should wait so as to escort her home.
But the fact that she had gone back to the cottage, at risk of having to walk back all alone and along a dark and dreary road, bore a weird significance to this man's tortuous mind. Editha, troubled with a mass of vague fears and horrible conjectures, had, mayhap, desired to have them set at rest, or else to hear their final and terrible confirmation.
In either case Marmaduke de Chavasse had no wish now for a slow amble homewards in company with the one being in the world who knew him for what he was.
That thought and also the mad desire to get away at last, to cease with this fateful procrastination and to fly from this country with the golden booty, which he had gained at such awful risks, these caused him finally to turn the mare's head towards home, leaving Editha to follow as best she might, in the company of one of the serving-men whom he would send back to meet her.
The mare was ready to go. He spurred her to a sharp trot. Then having joined the little group on ahead, he sent Master Courage Toogood back with his lantern, with orders to inquire at the cottage for Mistress de Chavasse and there to await her pleasure.
He asked Lady Sue to mount behind him, but this she refused to do. So he put his nag back to foot space, and thus the much-diminished little party slowly walked back to Acol Court.
What had prompted Editha de Chavasse to return thus alone to the Quakeress's cottage, she herself could not exactly have told.
It must have been a passionate and irresistible desire to heap certainty upon a tangle of horrible surmises.
With Adam Lambert lying dead—obviously murdered—and in the clothes affected by de Chavasse when masquerading as the French hero, there could be only one conclusion. But this to Editha—who throughout had given a helping hand in the management of the monstrous comedy—was so awful a solution of the puzzle that she could not but recoil from it, and strive to deny it while she had one sane thought left in her madly whirling brain.
But though she fought against the conclusion with all her might, she did not succeed in driving it from her thoughts: and through it all there was a vein of uncertainty, that slender thread of hope that after all she might be the prey of some awful delusion, which a word from someone who really knew would anon easily dissipate.
Someone who really knew? Nay! that someone could only be Marmaduke, and of him she dared not ask questions.
Mayhap that on the other hand the old woman and Richard Lambert knew more than they had cared to say. Sue was indeed deeply absorbed in thoughts, walking with head bent and eyes fixed on the ground like a somnambulist. Editha, moved by unreasoning instinct, determined to see the Quakeress again, also the man who now lay dead, hoping that from him mayhap she might glean the real solution of that mystery which sooner or later would undoubtedly drive her mad.
Running rapidly past horse and rider, for she would not speak to Marmaduke, she reached the cottage soon enough.
In response to her knock, Master Lambert opened the door to her.
The dim light of a couple of tallow candles flickered weirdly in the draught. Editha looked around her in amazement, astonished that—like herself—Squire Boatfield had also evidently retraced his steps and was sitting now in one of the high-backed chairs beside the hearth, whilst the old Quakeress stood not far from him, her attitude indicative of obstinacy, even of defiance, in the face of a duty with which apparently the squire had been charging her.
At sight of Mistress de Chavasse, Boatfield rose. A look of annoyance crossed his face, at thought that Editha's arrival had, mayhap, endangered the success of his present purpose. Ink and paper were on the table close to his elbow, and it was obvious that he had been questioning the old woman very closely on a subject which she apparently desired to keep secret from him.
Mistress Lambert's attitude had also changed at sight of Editha, who stood for a moment undecided on the threshold ere she ventured within. The look of obstinacy died out of the wrinkled face; the eyes took on a strange expression of sullen wrath.
"Enter, my fine lady, I pray thee, enter," said the Quakeress; "art also a party to these cross-questionings? ... art anxious to probe the secrets which the old woman hath kept hidden within the walls of this cottage?"
She laughed, a low, chuckling laugh, mirthless and almost cruel, as she surveyed Editha's cloaked figure and then the lady's scared and anxious face.
"Nay, I crave your pardon, mistress," said Editha, feeling oddly timid before the strange personality of the Quakeress. "I would of a truth desire to ask your help in ... in ... I would not intrude ... and I ..."
"Nay! nay! prithee enter, fair mistress," rejoined Mistress Lambert dryly. "Strange, that I should hear thy words so plainly.... Thy words seem to find echo in my brain ... raising memories which thou hast buried long ago.... Enter, I prithee, and sit thee down," she added, shuffling towards the chair; "shut the door, Dick lad ... and ask this fair mistress to sit.... The squire is asking many questions ... mayhap that I'll answer them, now that she is here...."
In obedience to the quaint peremptoriness of her manner, Richard had closed the outer door, and drawn the chair forward, asking Mistress de Chavasse to sit. Squire Boatfield, who was visibly embarrassed, was still standing and tried to murmur some excuse, being obviously anxious to curtail this interview and to postpone his further questionings.
"I'll come some other time, mistress," he said with obvious nervousness. "Mistress de Chavasse desires to speak with you, and I'll return later on in the evening ... when you are alone...."
"Nay! nay, man! ..." rejoined the Quakeress, "prithee, sit again ... the evening is young yet ... and what I may tell thee now has something to do with this fine lady here. Wilt question me again? I would mayhap reply."
She stood close to the table, one wrinkled hand resting upon it; the guttering candles cast strange, fantastic lights on her old face, surmounted with the winged coif, and weird shadows down one side of her face. Editha, awed and subdued, gazed on her with a kind of fear, even of horror.
In a dark corner of the little room the straight outline of the long deal box could only faintly be perceived in the gloom. Richard Lambert, silent and oppressed, stood close beside it, his face in shadow, his eyes fixed with a sense of inexplicable premonition on the face of Editha de Chavasse.
"Now, wilt question me again, man?" asked the old Quakeress, turning to the squire, "the Lord hath willed that my ears be clear to-day. Wilt question me? ... I'll hear thee ... and I'll give answer to thy questions...."
"Nay, mistress," replied the squire, pointing to the ink and the paper on the table, "methought you would wish to see the murderer of your ... your nephew ... swing on the gallows for his crime.... I would sign this paper here ordering the murderer of the smith of Acol to be apprehended as soon as found ... and to be brought forthwith before the magistrate ... there to give an account of his doings.... I asked you then to give me the full Christian and surname of the man whom the neighborhood and I myself thought was your nephew ... and to my surprise, you seemed to hesitate and ..."
"And I'll hesitate no longer," she interposed firmly. "Let the lad there ask me his dead brother's name and I'll tell him.... I'll tell him ... if he asks ..."
"Justice must be done against Adam's murderer, dear mistress," said Richard gently, for the old woman had paused and turned to him, evidently waiting for him to speak. "My brother's real name, his parentage, might explain the motive which led an evildoer to commit such an appalling crime. Therefore, dear mistress, do I ask thee to tell us my brother's name, and mine own."
"'Tis well done, lad ... 'tis well done," she rejoined when Richard had ceased speaking, and silence had fallen for awhile on that tiny cottage parlor, "'tis well done," she reiterated. "The secret hath weighed heavily upon my old shoulders these past few years, since thou and Adam were no longer children.... But I swore to thy grandmother who died in the Lord, that thou and Adam should never hear of thy mother's wantonness and shame.... I swore it on her death-bed and I have kept my oath ... but I am old now.... After this trouble, mine hour will surely come.... I am prepared but I will not take thy secret, lad, with me into my grave."
She shuffled across to the old oak dresser which occupied one wall of the little room. Two pairs of glowing eyes followed her every movement; those of Richard Lambert, who seemed to see a vision of his destiny faintly outlined—still blurred—but slowly unfolding itself in the tangled web of fate; and then those of Editha, who even as the old woman spoke had felt a tidal wave of long-forgotten memories sweeping right over her senses. The look in the Quakeress's eyes, the words she uttered—though still obscure and enigmatical—had already told her the whole truth. As in a flash she saw before her, her youth and all its follies, the gay life of thoughtlessness and pleasures, the cradles of her children, the tiny boys who to the woman of fashion were but a hindrance and a burden.
She saw her own mother, rigid and dour, the counterpart of this same old Puritan who had not hesitated to part two children from their mother for over a score of years, any more than she hesitated now to fling insult upon insult on the wretched woman who had more than paid her debt to her own careless frivolity of long ago.
"Thy brother's name was Henry Adam de Chavasse, and thine Michael Richard de Chavasse, sons of Rowland de Chavasse, and of the wanton who was his wife."
The old woman had taken a packet of papers, yellow with age and stained with many tears, from out a secret drawer of the old oak dresser.
Her voice was no longer tremulous as it was wont to be, but firm and dull, monotonous in tone like that of one who speaks whilst in a trance. Squire Boatfield had uttered an exclamation of boundless astonishment. Mechanically he took the packet of papers from the Quakeress's hand and after an instant's hesitation, and in response to an appealing look from Richard, he broke the string which held the documents together and perused them one by one.
But Editha, even as the last of the old woman's words ceased to echo in the narrow room, had risen to her feet. Her heavy cloak glided off her shoulders down upon the ground; her eyes, preternaturally large, glowing and full of awe, were now fixed upon the young man—her son.
"De Chavasse," she murmured, her brain whirling, her heart filled not only with an awful terror, but also with a great and overwhelming joy. "My sons ... then I am ..."
But with a peremptory gesture the Quakeress had stopped the word in her mouth.
"Nay!" she said loudly, "do not pollute that sacred name by letting it pass through thy lips. Women such as thou were not made for motherhood.... Thy own mother knew that, when she took thy children from thee and cursed thee on her death-bed for thy sins and for thy shame! Thy sons were honest, God-fearing men, but 'tis no thanks to thee. Thou alone hast heaped shame upon their dead father's name and hast contrived to wreak ruin on the sons who knew thee not."
The Quakeress paused a moment, her pale opaque eyes lighted with an inward glow of wrath and of satisfied vengeance. She and her dead friend and all their co-religionists had hated the woman, who, in defiance of her own Puritanic upbringing, had cast aside her friends and her home in order to throw herself in that vortex of pleasure, which her mother considered evil and infamous.
Together they had all rejoiced over this woman's subsequent humiliation, her sorrow and longing for her children, the ceaseless search, the ever-recurrent disappointments. Now the Quakeress's hour had come, hers and that of the whole of the dour sect who had taken it upon itself to punish and to avenge.
Editha, shamed and miserable, not even daring now to approach her own son and to beg for affection with a look, stood quite rigid and pale, allowing the torrent of the old woman's pent-up hatred to fall upon her and to crush her with its rough cruelty.
Squire Boatfield would have interposed. He had glanced at the various documents—the proofs of what the old woman had asserted—and was satisfied that the horrible tale of what seemed to him unparalleled cruelty was indeed true, and that the narrow bigotry of a community had succeeded in performing that monstrous crime of parting this wretched woman for twenty years from her sons.
Vaguely in his mind, the kindly squire hoped that he—as magistrate—could fitly punish this crime of child-stealing, and the expression with which he now regarded the old Quakeress was certainly not one of good-will.
Mistress Lambert had, in the meanwhile, approached Editha. She now took the younger woman's hand in hers and dragged her towards the coffin.
"There lies one of thy sons," she said with the same relentless energy, "the eldest, who should have been thy pride, murdered in a dark spot by some skulking criminal.... Curse thee! ... curse thee, I say ... as thy mother cursed thee on her death-bed ... curse thee now that retribution has come at last!"
Her words died away, as some mournful echo against these whitewashed walls.
For a moment she stood wrathful and defiant, upright and stern like a justiciary between the dead son and the miserable woman, who of a truth was suffering almost unendurable agony of mind and of heart.
Then in the midst of the awesome silence that followed on that loudly spoken curse, there was the sound of a firm footstep on the rough deal floor, and the next moment Michael Richard de Chavasse was kneeling beside his mother, and covering her icy cold hand with kisses.
A heart-broken moan escaped her throat. She stooped and with trembling lips gently touched the young head bent in simple love and uninquiring reverence before her.
Then without a word, without a look cast either at her cruel enemy, or at the silent spectator of this terrible drama, she turned and ran rapidly out of the room, out into the dark and dismal night.
With a deep sigh of content, Mistress Lambert fell on her knees and thence upon the floor.
The old heart which had contained so much love and so much hatred, such stern self-sacrifice and such deadly revenge, had ceased to beat, now the worker's work was done.
Master Courage Toogood had long ago given up all thought of waiting for the mistress. He had knocked repeatedly at the door of the cottage, from behind the thick panels of which he had heard loud and—he thought—angry voices, speaking words which he could not, however, quite understand.
No answer had come to his knocking and tired with the excitement of the day, fearful, too, at the thought of the lonely walk which now awaited him, he chose to believe that mayhap he had either misunderstood his master's orders, or that Sir Marmaduke himself had been mistaken when he thought the mistress back at the cottage.
These surmises were vastly to Master Courage Toogood's liking, whose name somewhat belied his timid personality. Swinging his lantern and striving to keep up his spirits by the aid of a lusty song, he resolutely turned his steps towards home.
The whole landscape seemed filled with eeriness: the events of the day had left their impress on this dark November night, causing the sighs of the gale to seem more spectral and weird than usual, and the dim outline of the trees with their branches turned away from the coastline, to seem like unhappy spirits with thin, gaunt arms stretched dejectedly out toward the unresponsive distance.
Master Toogood tried not to think of ghosts, nor of the many stories of pixies and goblins which are said to take a malicious pleasure in the timorousness of mankind, but of a truth he nearly uttered a cry of terror, and would have fallen on his knees in the mud, when a dark object quite undistinguishable in the gloom suddenly loomed before him.
Yet this was only the portly figure of Master Pyot, the petty constable, who seemed to be mounting guard just outside the cottage, and who was vastly amused at Toogood's pusillanimity. He entered into converse with the young man—no doubt he, too, had been feeling somewhat lonely in the midst of this darkness, which was peopled with unseen shadows. Master Courage was ready enough to talk. He had acquired some of Master Busy's eloquence on the subject of secret investigations, and the mystery which had gained an intensity this afternoon, through the revelations of the old Quakeress, was an all-engrossing one to all.
The attention which Pyot vouchsafed to his narration greatly enhanced Master Toogood's own delight therein, more especially as the petty constable had, as if instinctively, measured his steps with those of the younger man and was accompanying him on his way towards the Court.
Courage told his attentive listener all about Master Busy's surmises and his determination to probe the secrets of the mysterious crime, which—to be quite truthful—the worthy butler with the hard toes had scented long ere it was committed, seeing that he used to spend long hours in vast discomfort in the forked branches of the old elms which surrounded the pavilion at the boundary of the park.
Toogood had no notion if Master Busy had ever discovered anything of interest in the neighborhood of that pavilion, and he was quite, quite sure that the saintly man had never dared to venture inside that archaic building, which had the reputation of being haunted; still, he was over-gratified to perceive that the petty constable was vastly interested in his tale—in spite of these obvious defects in its completeness—and that, moreover, Master Pyot showed no signs of turning on his heel, but continued to trudge along the gloomy road in company with Sir Marmaduke's youngest serving-man.
Thus Editha, when she ran out of Mistress Lambert's cottage, her ears ringing with the fanatic's curses, her heart breaking with the joy of that reverent filial kiss imprinted upon her hands, found the road and the precincts of the cottage entirely deserted.
The night was pitch dark after the rain. Great heavy clouds still hung above, and an icy blast caught her skirts as she lifted the latch of the gate and turned into the open.
But she cared little about the inclemency of the weather. She knew her way about well enough and her mind was too full of terrible thoughts of what was real, to yield to the subtle and feeble fears engendered by imaginings of the supernatural.
Nay! she would, mayhap, have welcomed the pixies and goblins who by mischievous pranks had claimed her attention. They would, of a truth, have diverted her mind from the contemplation of that awful and monstrous deed accomplished by the man whom she would meet anon.
If he whom the villagers had called Adam Lambert was her son, Henry Adam de Chavasse, then Sir Marmaduke was the murderer of her child. All the curses which the old Quakeress had so vengefully poured upon her were as nothing compared with that awful, that terrible fact.
Her son had been murdered ... her eldest son whom she had never known, and she—involuntarily mayhap, compulsorily certes—had in a measure helped to bring about those events which had culminated in that appalling crime.
She had known of Marmaduke's monstrous fraud on the confiding girl whom he now so callously abandoned to her fate. She had known of it and helped him towards its success by luring her other son Richard to that vile gambling den where he had all but lost his honor, or else his reason.
This knowledge and the help she had given was the real curse upon her now: a curse far more horrible and deadly than that which had driven Cain forth into the wilderness. This knowledge and the help she had given had stained her hands with the blood of her own child.
No wonder that she sighed for ghouls and for shadowy monsters, well-nigh longing for a sight of distorted faces, of ugly deformed bodies, and loathsome shapes far less hideous than that specter of an inhuman homicide which followed her along this dark road as she ran—ran on—ran towards the home where dwelt the living monster of evil, the man who had done the deed, which she had helped to accomplish.
Complete darkness reigned all around her, she could not see a yard of the road in front of her, but she went on blindly, guided by instinct, led by that unseen shadow which was driving her on. All round her the gale was moaning in the creaking branches of the trees, branches which were like arms stretched forth in appeal towards the unattainable.
Her progress was slow for she was walking in the very teeth of the hurricane, and her shoes ever and anon remained glued to the slimy mud. But the road was straight enough, she knew it well, and she felt neither fatigue nor discomfort.
Of Sue she did not think. The wrongs done to the defenseless girl were as nothing to her compared with the irreparable—the wrongs done to her sons, the living and the dead: for the one the foul dagger of an inhuman assassin, for the other shame and disgrace.
Sue was young. Sue would soon forget. The girl-wife would soon regain her freedom.... But what of the mother who had on her soul the taint of the murder of her child?
The gate leading to the Court from the road was wide open: it had been left so for her, no doubt, when Sir Marmaduke returned. The house itself was dark, no light save one pierced the interstices of the ill-fitting shutters. Editha paused a moment at the gate, looking at the house—a great black mass, blacker than the surrounding gloom. That had been her home for many years now, ever since her youth and sprightliness had vanished, and she had had nowhere to go for shelter. It had been her home ever since Richard, her youngest boy, had entered it, too, as a dependent.
Oh! what an immeasurable fool she had been, how she had been tricked and fooled all these years by the man who two days ago had put a crown upon his own infamy. He knew where the boys were, he helped to keep them away from their mother, so as to filch from them their present, and above all, future inheritance. How she loathed him now, and loathed herself for having allowed him to drag her down. Aye! of a truth he had wronged her worse even than he had wronged his brother's sons!
She fixed her eyes steadily on the one light which alone pierced the inky blackness of the solid mass of the house. It came from the little withdrawing-room, which was on the left of this entrance to the hall; but the place itself—beyond just that one tiny light—appeared quite silent and deserted. Even from the stableyard on her right and from the serving-men's quarters not a sound came to mingle with the weird whisperings of the wind.
Editha approached and stooping to the ground, she groped in the mud until her hands encountered two or three pebbles.
She picked them up, then going close to the house, she threw these pebbles one by one against the half-closed shutter of the withdrawing-room.
The next moment, she heard the latch of the casement window being lifted from within, and anon the rickety shutter flew back with a thin creaking sound like that of an animal in pain.
The upper part of Sir Marmaduke's figure appeared in the window embrasure, like a dark and massive silhouette against the yellowish light from within. He stooped forward, seeming to peer into the darkness.
"Is that you, Editha?" he queried presently.
"Yes," she replied. "Open!"
She then waited a moment or two, whilst he closed both the shutter and the window, she standing the while on the stone step before the portico. In the stillness she could hear him open the drawing-room door, then cross the hall and finally unbolt the heavy outer door.
She pushed past him over the threshold and went into the gloomy hall, pitch dark save for the flickering light of the candle which he held. She waited until he had re-closed the door, then she stood quite still, confronting him, allowing him to look into her face, to read the expression of her eyes.
In order to do this he had raised the candle, his hand trembling perceptibly, and the feeble light quivered in his grasp, illumining her face at fitful intervals, creeping down her rigid shoulders and arms, as far as her hands, which were tightly clenched. It danced upon his face too, lighting it with weird gleams and fitful sparks, showing the wild look in his eyes, the glitter almost of madness in the dilated pupils, the dark iris sharply outlined against the glassy orbs. It licked the trembling lips and distorted mouth, the drawn nostrils and dank hair, almost alive with that nameless fear.
"You would denounce me?" he murmured, and the cry—choked and toneless—could scarce rise from the dry parched throat.
"Yes!" she said.
He uttered a violent curse.
"You devil ... you ..."
"You have time to go," she said calmly, "'tis a long while 'twixt now and dawn."
He understood. She only would denounce him if he stayed. She wished him no evil, only desired him out of her sight. He tried to say something flippant, something cruel and sneering, but she stopped him with a peremptory gesture.
"Go!" she said, "or I might forget everything save that you killed my son."
For a moment she thought that her life was in danger at his hands, so awful in its baffled rage was the expression of his face when he understood that indeed she knew everything. She even at that moment longed that his cruel instincts should prompt him to kill her. He could never succeed in hiding that crime and retributive justice would of a surety overtake him then, without any help from her.
No doubt he, too, thought of this as the weird flicker of the candle-light showed him her unflinching face, for the next moment, with another muttered curse, and a careless shrug of the shoulders, he turned on his heel, and slowly went upstairs, candle in hand.
Editha watched him until his massive figure was merged in the gloom of the heavy oak stairway. Then she went into the withdrawing-room and waited.
THE SANDS OF EPPLE
Five minutes later Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, clad in thick dark doublet and breeches and wearing a heavy cloak, once more descended the stairs of Acol Court. He saw the light in the withdrawing-room and knew that Editha was there, mutely watching his departure.
But he did not care to speak to her again. His mind had been quickly made up, nay! his actions in the immediate future should of a truth have been accomplished two days ago, ere the meddlesomeness of women had well-nigh jeopardized his own safety.
All that he meant to do now was to go quickly to the pavilion, find the leather wallet then return to his own stableyard, saddle one of his nags and start forthwith for Dover. Eighteen miles would soon be covered, and though the night was dark, the road was straight and broad. De Chavasse knew it well, and had little fear of losing his way.
With plenty of money in his purse, he would have no difficulty in chartering a boat which, with a favorable tide on the morrow, should soon take him over to France.
All that he ought to have done two days ago! Of a truth, he had been a cowardly fool.
He did not cross the hall this time but went out through the dining-room by the garden entrance. Not a glimmer of light came from above, but as he descended the few stone steps he felt that a few soft flakes of snow tossed by the hurricane were beginning to fall. Of course he knew every inch of his own garden and park and had oft wandered about on the further side of the ha-ha whilst indulging in lengthy sweetly-spoken farewells with his love-sick Sue.
Absorbed in the thoughts of his immediate future plans, he nevertheless walked along cautiously, for the paths had become slippery with the snow, which froze quickly even as it fell.
He did not pause, however, for he wished to lose no time. If he was to ride to Dover this night, he would have to go at foot-pace, for the road would be like glass if this snow and ice continued. Moreover, he was burning to feel that wallet once more between his fingers and to hear the welcome sound of the crushing of crisp papers.
He had plunged resolutely into the thickness of the wood. Here he could have gone blindfolded, so oft had he trodden this path which leads under the overhanging elms straight to the pavilion, walking with Sue's little hand held tightly clasped in his own.
The spiritual presence of the young girl seemed even now to pervade the thicket, her sweet fragrance to fill the frost-laden air.
Bah! he was not the man to indulge in retrospective fancy. The girl was naught to him, and there was no sense of remorse in his soul for the terrible wrongs which he had inflicted on her. All that he thought of now was the wallet which contained the fortune. That which would forever compensate him for the agony, the madness of the past two days.
The bend behind that last group of elms should now reveal the outline of the pavilion. Sir Marmaduke advanced more cautiously, for the trees here were very close together.
The next moment he had paused, crouching suddenly like a carnivorous beast, balked of its prey. There of a truth was the pavilion, but on the steps three men were standing, talking volubly and in whispers. Two of these men carried stable lanterns, and were obviously guiding their companion up to the door of the pavilion.
The light of the lanterns illumined one face after another. De Chavasse recognized his two serving-men, Busy and Toogood; the man who was with them was petty-constable Pyot. Marmaduke with both hands clutching the ivy which clung round the gnarled stem of an old elm, watched from out the darkness what these three men were doing here, beside this pavilion, which had always been so lonely and deserted.
He could not distinguish what they said for they spoke in whispers and the creaking branches groaning beneath the wind drowned every sound which came from the direction of the pavilion and the listener on the watch, straining his every sense in order to hear, dared not creep any closer lest he be perceived.
Anon, the three men examined the door of the pavilion, and shaking the rusty bolts, found that they would not yield. But evidently they were of set purpose, for the next moment all three put their shoulder to the worm-eaten woodwork, and after the third vigorous effort the door yielded to their assault.
Men and lanterns disappeared within the pavilion. Sir Marmaduke heard an ejaculation of surprise, then one of profound satisfaction.
For the space of a few seconds he remained rooted to the spot. It almost seemed to him as if with the knowledge that the wallet and the discarded clothes of the smith had been found, with the certitude that this discovery meant his own undoing probably, and in any case the final loss of the fortune for which he had plotted and planned, lied and masqueraded, killed a man and cheated a girl, that with the knowledge of all this, death descended upon him: so cold did he feel, so unable was he to make the slightest movement.
But this numbness only lasted a few seconds. Obviously the three men would return in a minute or so; equally obviously his own presence here—if discovered—would mean certain ruin to him. Even while he was making the effort to collect his scattered senses and to move from this fateful and dangerous spot, he saw the three men reappear in the doorway of the pavilion.
The breeches and rough shirt of the smith hung over the arm of Hymn-of-Praise Busy; the dark stain on the shirt was plainly visible by the light of one of the lanterns.
Petty constable Pyot had the leather wallet in his hand, and was peeping down with grave curiosity at the bundle of papers which it contained.
Then with infinite caution, Marmaduke de Chavasse worked his way between the trees towards the old wall which encircled his park. The three men obviously would be going back either to Acol Court, or mayhap, straight to the village.
Sir Marmaduke knew of a gap in the wall which it was quite easy to climb, even in the dark; a path through the thicket at that point led straight out towards the coast.
He had struck that path from the road on the night when he met the smith on the cliffs.
The snow only penetrated in sparse flakes to the thicket here. Although the branches of the trees were dead, they interlaced so closely overhead that they formed ample protection against the wet.
But the fury of the gale seemed terrific amongst these trees and the groaning of the branches seemed like weird cries proceeding from hell.
Anon, the midnight walker reached the open. Here a carpet of coarse grass peeping through the thin layer of snow gave insecure foothold. He stumbled as he pursued his way. He was walking in the teeth of the northwesterly blast now and he could scarcely breathe, for the great gusts caught his throat, causing him to choke.
Still he walked resolutely on. Icy moisture clung to his hair, and to his lips, and soon he could taste the brine in the air. The sound of the breakers some ninety feet below mingled weirdly with the groans of the wind.
He knew the path well. Had he not trodden it three nights ago, on his way to meet the smith? Already in the gloom he could distinguish the broken line of the cliffs sharply defined against the gray density of the horizon.
As he drew nearer the roar of the breakers became almost deafening. A heavy sea was rolling in on the breast of the tide.
Still he walked along, towards the brow of the cliffs. Soon he could distinguish the irregular heap of chalk against which Adam had stood, whilst he had held the lantern in one hand and gripped the knife in the other.
The hurricane nearly swept him off his feet. He had much ado to steady himself against that heap of chalk. The snow had covered his cloak and his hat, and he liked to think that he, too, now—snow-covered—must look like a monstrous chalk boulder, weird and motionless outlined against the leaden grayness of the ocean beyond.
The smith was not by his side now. There was no lantern, no paper, no double-edged dagger. Down nearly a hundred feet below the smith had lain until the turn of the tide. The man's eyes, becoming accustomed to the gloom, could distinguish the points of the great boulders springing boldly from out the sand. The surf as it broke all round and over them was tipped with a phosphorescent light.
The gale, in sheer wantonness, caught the midnight prowler's hat and with a wild sound as of the detonation of a hundred guns, tossed it to the waves below. The snow in a few moments had thrown a white pall over the watcher's head.
He could see quite clearly the tall boulder untouched by the tide, on which he had placed the black silk shade that night, also the broad-brimmed hat, so that these things should be found high and dry and be easily recognizable.
Some twenty feet further on was the smooth stretch of sand where had lain the smith, after he had been dressed up in the fantastic clothes of the mysterious French prince.
Marmaduke de Chavasse gazed upon that spot. The breakers licked it now and again, leaving behind them as they retreated a track of slimy foam, which showed white in this strange gray gloom, rendered alive and moving by the falling snow.
The surf covered that stretch of sand more and more frequently now, and retreated less and less far: the slimy foam floated now over an inky pool; soon that too disappeared. The breakers sought other boulders round which to play their titanic hide-and-seek. The tide had completely hidden the place where Adam Lambert had lain.
Then the watcher walked on—one step and then another—and then the one beyond the edge as he stepped down, down into the abyss ninety feet below.
The chronicles of the time tell us that the mysterious disappearance of Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse was but a nine days' wonder in that great world which lies beyond the boundaries of sea-girt Thanet.
What Thanet thought of it all, the little island kept secret, hiding its surmises in the thicket of her own archaic forests.
Squire Boatfield did his best to wrap the disappearance of his whilom friend in impenetrable veils of mystery. He was a humane and a kindly man and feeling that the guilty had been amply punished, he set to work to cheer and to rehabilitate the innocent.
All of us who have read the memoirs of Editha de Chavasse, written when she was a woman of nearly sixty, remember that she, too, has drawn a thick curtain over the latter days of her brother-in-law's life. It is to her pen that we owe the record of what happened subsequently.
She tells us, for instance, how Master Skyffington, after sundry interviews with my Lord Northallerton, had the honor of bringing to his lordship's notice the young student—so long known as Richard Lambert—who, of a truth, was sole heir to the earldom and to its magnificent possessions and dependencies.
From the memoirs of Editha de Chavasse we also know that Lady Sue Aldmarshe, girl-wife and widow, did, after a period of mourning, marry Michael Richard de Chavasse, sole surviving nephew and heir presumptive of his lordship the Earl of Northallerton.
But it is to the brush of Sir Peter Lely that we owe that exquisite portrait of Sue, when she was Countess of Northallerton, the friend of Queen Catherine, the acknowledged beauty at the Court of the Restoration.
It is a sweet face, whereon the half-obliterated lines of sorrow vie with that look of supreme happiness which first crept into her eyes when she realized that the dear and constant friend who had loved her so dearly, was as true to her in his joy as he had been in those dark days when a terrible crisis had well-nigh wrecked her life.
Lord and Lady Northallerton did not often stay in London. The brilliance of the Court had few attractions for them. Happiness came to them after terrible sorrows. They liked to hide it and their great love in the calm and mystery of forest-covered Thanet.