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In the hubbub which immediately followed Lord Walterton's tirade, Editha de Chavasse beckoned to the florid woman--who seemed to be her henchwoman--and drew her aside to a distant corner of the room, where there were no tables nigh and where the now subdued hum of the voices, mingling with the sound of music on virginal and stringed instruments, made a murmuring noise which effectually drowned the talk between the two women.
"Have you arranged everything, Mistress Endicott?" asked Editha, speaking in a whisper.
"Everything, mistress," replied the other.
"Perfectly," said the woman, with perceptible hesitation, "but ..."
"What ails you, mistress?" asked Editha haughtily, noting the hesitation, and frowning with impatience thereat.
"My husband thinks the game too dangerous."
"I was not aware," retorted Mistress de Chavasse dryly, "that I had desired Master Endicott's opinion on the subject."
"Mayhap not," rejoined the other, equally dryly, "but you did desire his help in the matter ... and he seems unmindful to give it."
"I have explained ... the game is too dangerous."
"Or the payment insufficient?" sneered Editha. "Which is it?"
"Both, mayhap," assented Mistress Endicott with a careless shrug of her fat shoulders, "the risks are very great. To-night especially...."
"Why especially to-night?"
"Because ever since you have been away from it, this house--though we did our best to make it seem deserted--hath been watched--of that I feel very sure.... My Lord Protector's watchmen have a suspicion of our ... our evening entertainments ... and I doubt not but that they desire to see for themselves how our guests enjoy themselves these nights."
"Well?" rejoined Editha lightly. "What of that?"
"As you know, we did not play for nigh on twelve months now.... Endicott thought it too dangerous ... and to-night ..."
She checked herself abruptly, for Editha had turned an angry face and flashing eyes upon her.
"To-night?" said Mistress de Chavasse curtly, but peremptorily, "what of to-night? ... I sent you orders from Thanet that I wished the house opened to-night ... Lord Walterton, Sir James Overbury and as many of our usual friends as were in the town, apprised that play would be in full progress.... Meseems," she added, casting a searching look all round the room, "that we have singularly few players."
"It was difficult," retorted the other with somewhat more diffidence in her tone than had characterized her speech before now. "Young Squire Delamere committed suicide ... you remember him? ... and Lord Cooke killed Sir Humphrey Clinton in a duel after that fracas we had here, when the police-patrol well-nigh seized upon your person.... Squire Delamere's suicide and Sir Humphrey's death caused much unpleasant talk. And old Mistress Delamere, the mother, hath I fear me, still a watchful eye on us. She means to do us lasting mischief.... It had been wiser to tarry yet awhile.... Twelve months is not sufficient for throwing the dust of ages over us and our doings.... That is my husband's opinion and also mine.... A scandal such as you propose to have to-night, will bring the Protector's spies about our ears ... his police too, mayhap ... and then Heaven help us all, mistress ... for you, in the country, cannot conceive how rigorously are the laws enforced now against gambling, betting, swearing or any other form of innocent amusement.... Why! two wenches were whipped at the post by the public hangman only last week, because forsooth they were betting on the winner amongst themselves, whilst watching a bout of pell-mell.... And you know that John Howthill stood in the pillory for two hours and had both his hands bored through with a hot iron for allowing gambling inside his coffeehouse. ... And so, mistress, you will perceive that I am speaking but in your own interests...."
Editha, who had listened to the long tirade with marked impatience, here interrupted the voluble lady, with harsh command.
"I crave your pardon, mistress," she said peremptorily. "My interests pre-eminently consist in being obeyed by those whom I pay for doing my behests. Now you and your worthy husband live here rent free and derive a benefit of ten pounds every time our guests assemble.... Well! in return for that, I make use of you and your names, in case of any unpleasantness with the vigilance patrol ... or in case of a scandal which might reach my Lord Protector's ears.... Up to this time your positions here have been a sinecure.... I even bore the brunt of the last fracas whilst you remained practically scathless.... But to-night, I own it, there may be some risks ... but of a truth you have been well paid to take them."
"But if we refuse to take the risks," retorted the other.
"If you refuse, mistress," said Editha with a careless shrug of the shoulders, "you and your worthy lord go back to the gutter where I picked you up ... and within three months of that time, I should doubtless have the satisfaction of seeing you both at the whipping-post, for of a truth you would be driven to stealing or some other equally unavowable means of livelihood."
"We could send you there," said Mistress Endicott, striving to suppress her own rising fury, "if we but said the word."
"Nay! you would not be believed, mistress ... but even so, I do not perceive how my social ruin would benefit you."
"Since we are doomed anyhow ... after this night's work," said the woman sullenly.
"Nay! but why should you take so gloomy a view of the situation? ... My Lord Protector hath forgot our existence by now, believe me ... and of a surety his patrol hath not yet knocked at our door.... And methinks, mistress," added Editha significantly, "'tis not in your interest to quarrel with me."
"I have no wish to quarrel with you," quoth Mistress Endicott, who apparently had come to the end of her resistance, and no doubt had known all along that her fortunes were too much bound up with those of Mistress de Chavasse to allow of a rupture between them.
"Then everything is vastly satisfactory," said Editha with forced gayety. "I rely on you, mistress, and on Endicott's undoubted talents to bring this last matter to a successful issue to-night. ... Remember, mistress ... I rely on you."
Perhaps Mistress Endicott would have liked to prolong the argument. As a matter of fact, neither she nor her husband counted the risks of a midnight fracas of great moment to themselves: they had so very little to lose. A precarious existence based on illicit deeds of all sorts had rendered them hard and reckless.
All they wished was to be well paid for the risks they ran; neither of them was wholly unacquainted with the pillory, and it held no great terrors for them. There were so many unavowable pleasures these days, which required a human cloak to cover the identity of the real transgressor, that people like Master and Mistress Endicott prospered vastly.
The case of Mistress de Chavasse's London house wherein the ex-actress had some few years ago established a gaming club, together with its various emoluments attached thereunto, suited the Endicotts' requirements to perfection: but the woman desired an increase of payment for the special risk she would run to-night, and was sorely vexed that she could not succeed in intimidating Editha with threats of vigilance-patrol and whipping-posts.
Mistress de Chavasse knew full well that the Endicotts did not intend to quarrel with her, and having threatened rupture unless her commands were obeyed, she had no wish to argue the matter further with her henchwoman.
At that moment, too, there came the sound of significant and methodical rappings at the door. Editha, who had persistently throughout her discussion with Mistress Endicott, kept one ear open for that sound, heard it even through the buzz of talk. She made a scarcely visible gesture of the hand, bidding the other woman to follow her: that gesture was quickly followed by a look of command.
Mistress Endicott presumably had finally made up her mind to obey. She shrugged her fat shoulders and followed Mistress de Chavasse as far as the center of the room.
"Remember that you are the hostess now," murmured Editha to her, as she herself went to the door and opened it.
With an affected cry of surprise and pleasure she welcomed Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, who was standing on the threshold, prepared to enter and escorted by his young secretary, Master Richard Lambert.
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