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ALL BECAUSE OF THE TINDER-BOX
How oft it is in life that Fate, leading a traveler in easy gradients upwards along a road of triumph, suddenly assumes a madcap mood and with wanton hand throws a tiny obstacle in his way; an obstacle at times infinitesimal, scarce visible on that way towards success, yet powerful enough to trip the unwary traveler and bring him down to earth with sudden and woeful vigor.
With Sir Marmaduke so far everything had prospered according to his wish. He had inveigled the heiress into a marriage which bound her to his will, yet left him personally free; she had placed her fortune unreservedly and unconditionally in his hands, and had, so far as he knew, not even suspected the treachery practiced upon her by her guardian.
Not a soul had pierced his disguise, and the identity of Prince Amédé d'Orléans was unknown even to his girl-wife.
With the disappearance of that mysterious personage, Sir Marmaduke having realized Lady Sue's fortune, could resume life as an independent gentleman, with this difference, that henceforth he would be passing rich, able to gratify his ambition, to cut a figure in the world as he chose.
Fortune which had been his idol all his life, now was indeed his slave. He had it, he possessed it. It lay snug and safe in a leather wallet inside the lining of his doublet.
Sue had gone out of his sight, desirous apparently of turning her back on him forever. He was free and rich. The game had been risky, daring beyond belief, yet he had won in the end. He could afford to laugh now at all the dangers, the subterfuges, the machinations which had all gone to the making of that tragic comedy in which he had been the principal actor.
The last scene in the drama had been successfully enacted. The curtain had been finally lowered; and Sir Marmaduke swore that there should be no epilogue to the play.
Then it was that Fate--so well-named the wanton jade--shook herself from out the torpor in which she had wandered for so long beside this Kentish squire. A spirit of mischief seized upon her and whispered that she had held this man quite long enough by the hand and that it would be far more amusing now to see him measure his length on the ground.
And all that Fate did, in order to satisfy this spirit of mischief, was to cause Sir Marmaduke to forget his tinder-box in the front parlor of Mistress Martha Lambert's cottage.
A tinder-box is a small matter! an object of infinitesimal importance when the broad light of day illumines the interior of houses or the bosquets of a park, but it becomes an object of paramount importance, when the night is pitch dark, and when it is necessary to effect an exchange of clothing within the four walls of a pavilion.
Sir Marmaduke had walked to the park gates with his wife, not so much because he was anxious for her safety, but chiefly because he meant to retire within the pavilion, there to cast aside forever the costume and appurtenances of Prince Amédé d'Orléans and to reassume the sable-colored doublet and breeches of the Roundhead squire, which proceeding he had for the past six months invariably accomplished in the lonely little building on the outskirts of his own park.
As soon, therefore, as he realized that Sue had gone, he turned his steps towards the pavilion. The night seemed additionally dark here under the elms, and Sir Marmaduke searched in his pocket for his tinder-box.
It was not there. He had left it at the cottage, and quickly recollected seeing it lying on the table at the very moment that Sue pushed the leather wallet towards him.
He had mounted the few stone steps which led up to the building, but even whilst he groped for the latch with an impatient hand, he realized how impossible it would be for him anon, to change his clothes, in the dark; not only to undress and dress again, but to collect the belongings of the Prince d'Orléans subsequently, for the purpose of destroying them at an early opportunity.
Groping about in inky blackness might mean the forgetting of some article of apparel, which, if found later on, might lead to suspicion or even detection of the fraud. Sir Marmaduke dared not risk it.
Light he needed, and light he ought to have. The tinder-box had become of paramount importance, and it was sheer wantonness on the part of Fate that she should have allowed that little article to rest forgotten on the table in Mistress Lambert's cottage.
Sir Marmaduke remained pondering--in the darkness and the mist--for a while. His own doublet and breeches, shoes and stockings were in the pavilion: would he ever be able to get at them without a light? No, certainly not! nor could he venture to go home to the Court in his present disguise, and leave his usual clothes in this remote building.
Prying, suspicious eyes--such as those of Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy, for instance, might prove exceedingly uncomfortable and even dangerous.
On the other hand, would it not be ten thousand times more dangerous to go back to the cottage now and risk meeting Richard Lambert face to face?
And it was Richard whom Sir Marmaduke feared.
He had, therefore, almost decided to try his luck at dressing in the dark, and was once more fumbling with the latch of the pavilion door, when through the absolute silence of the air, there came to his ear through the mist the sound of a young voice calling the name of "Sue!"
The voice was that of Richard Lambert.
The coast would be clear then. Richard had met Sue in the park: no doubt he would hold her a few moments in conversation. The schemer cared not what the two young people would or would not say to one another; all that interested him now was the fact that Richard was not at the cottage, and that, therefore, it would be safe to run back and fetch the tinder-box.
All this was a part of Fate's mischievous prank. Sir Marmaduke was not afraid of meeting the old Quakeress, nor yet the surly smith; Richard being out of the way, he had no misgivings in his mind when he retraced his steps towards the cottage.
It was close on eight o'clock then, in fact the tiny bell in Acol church struck the hour even as Sir Marmaduke lifted the latch of the little garden gate.
The old woman was in the parlor, busy as usual with her dusting-cloth. Without heeding her, Sir Marmaduke strode up to the table and pushing the crockery, which now littered it, aside, he searched for his tinder-box.
It was not there. With an impatient oath, he turned to Mistress Martha, and roughly demanded if she had seen it.
"Eh? ... What?" she queried, shuffling a little nearer to him, "I am somewhat hard of hearing ... as thou knowest...."
"Have you seen my tinder-box?" he repeated with ever-growing irritation.
"Ah, yea, the fog!" she said blandly, "'tis damp too, of a truth, and ..."
"Hold your confounded tongue!" he shouted wrathfully, "and try and hear me. My tinder-box...."
"Thy what? I am a bit ..."
"Curse you for an old fool," swore Sir Marmaduke, who by now was in a towering passion.
With a violent gesture he pushed the old woman aside and turning on her in an uncontrolled access of fury, with both arms upraised, he shouted:
"If you don't hear me now, I'll break every bone in your ugly body.... Where is my ..."
It had all happened in a very few seconds: his entrance, his search for the missing box, the growing irritation in him which had caused him to lose control of his temper. And now, even before the threatening words were well out of his mouth, he suddenly felt a vigorous onslaught from the rear, and his own throat clutched by strong and sinewy fingers.
"And I'll break every bone in thy accursed body!" shouted a hoarse voice close to his ear, "if thou darest so much as lay a finger on the old woman."
The struggle was violent and brief. Sir Marmaduke already felt himself overmastered. Adam Lambert had taken him unawares. He was rough and very powerful. Sir Marmaduke was no weakling, yet encumbered by his fantastic clothes he was no match for the smith. Adam turned him about in his nervy hands like a puppet.
Now he was in front and above him, glaring down at the man he hated with eyes which would have searched the very depths of his enemy's soul.
"Thou damned foreigner!" he growled between clenched teeth, "thou vermin! ... Thou toad! Thou ... on thy knees! ... on thy knees, I say ... beg her pardon for thy foul language ... now at once ... dost hear? ... ere I squeeze the breath out of thee...."
Sir Marmaduke felt his knees giving way under him, the smith's grasp on his throat had in no way relaxed. Mistress Martha vainly tried to interpose. She was all for peace, and knew that the Lord liked not a fiery temper. But the look in Adam's face frightened her, and she had always been in terror of the foreigner. Without thought, and imagining that 'twas her presence which irritated the lodger, she beat a hasty retreat to her room upstairs, even as Adam Lambert finally succeeded in forcing Sir Marmaduke down on his knees, not ceasing to repeat the while:
"Her pardon ... beg her pardon, my fine prince ... lick the dust in an English cottage, thou foreign devil ... or, by God, I will kill thee! ..."
"Let me go!" gasped Sir Marmaduke, whom the icy fear of imminent discovery gripped more effectually even than did the village blacksmith's muscular fingers, "let me go ... damn you!"
"Not before I have made thee lick the dust," said Adam grimly, bringing one huge palm down on the elaborate perruque, and forcing Sir Marmaduke's head down, down towards the ground, "lick it ... lick it ... Prince of Orléans...."
He burst out laughing in the midst of his fury, at sight of this disdainful gentleman, with the proud title, about to come in violent contact with a cottage floor. But Sir Marmaduke struggled violently still. He had been wiser no doubt, to take the humiliation quietly, to lick the dust and to pacify the smith: but what man is there who would submit to brute force without using his own to protect himself?
Then Fate at last worked her wanton will.
In the struggle the fantastic perruque and heavy mustache of Prince Amédé d'Orléans remained in the smith's hand whilst it was the round head and clean-shaven face of Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse which came in contact with the floor.
In an instant, stricken at first dumb with surprise and horror, but quickly recovering the power of speech, Adam Lambert murmured:
"You? ... You? ... Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse! ... Oh! my God! ..."
His grip on his enemy had, of course, relaxed. Sir Marmaduke was able to struggle to his feet. Fate had dealt him a blow as unexpected as it was violent. But he had not been the daring schemer that he was, if throughout the past six months, the possibility of such a moment as this had not lurked at the back of his mind.
The blow, therefore, did not find him quite unprepared. It had been stunning but not absolutely crushing. Even whilst Adam Lambert was staring with almost senseless amazement alternately at him and at the bundle of false hair which he was still clutching, Sir Marmaduke had struggled to his feet.
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