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He had recovered his outward composure at any rate, and the next moment was busy re-adjusting his doublet and bands before the mirror over the hearth.
"Yes! my violent friend!" he said coolly, speaking over his shoulder, "of a truth it is mine own self! Your landlord you see, to whom that worthy woman upstairs owes this nice cottage which she has had rent free for over ten years ... not the foreign vermin, you see," he added with a pleasant laugh, "which maketh your actions of just now, somewhat unpleasant to explain. Is that not so?"
"Nay! but by the Lord!" quoth Adam Lambert, still somewhat dazed, vaguely frightened himself now at the magnitude, the importance of what he had done, "meseems that 'tis thine actions, friend, which will be unpleasant to explain. Thou didst not put on these play-actor's robes for a good purpose, I'll warrant! ... I cannot guess what is thy game, but methinks her young ladyship would wish to know something of its rules ... or mayhap, my brother Richard who is no friend of thine, forsooth."
Gradually his voice had become steadier, his manner more assured. A glimmer of light on the Squire's strange doings had begun to penetrate his simple, dull brain. Vaguely he guessed the purport of the disguise and of the lies, and the mention of Lady Sue's name was not an arrow shot thoughtlessly into the air. At the same time he had not perceived the slightest quiver of fear or even of anxiety on Sir Marmaduke's face.
The latter had in the meanwhile put his crumpled toilet in order and now turned with an urbane smile to his glowering antagonist.
"I will not deny, kind master," he said pleasantly, "that you might cause me a vast amount of unpleasantness just now ... although of a truth, I do not perceive that you would benefit yourself overmuch thereby. On the contrary, you would vastly lose. Your worthy aunt, Mistress Lambert, would lose a pleasant home, and you would never know what you and your brother Richard have vainly striven to find out these past ten years."
"What may that be, pray?" queried the smith sullenly.
"Who you both are," rejoined Sir Marmaduke blandly, as he calmly sat down in one of the stiff-backed elm chairs beside the hearth, "and why worthy Mistress Lambert never speaks to you of your parentage."
"Who we both are?" retorted Lambert with obvious bitterness, "two poor castaways, who, but for the old woman would have been left to starve, and who have tried, therefore, to be a bit grateful to her, and to earn an honest livelihood. That is what we are, Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse; and now prithee tell me, who the devil art thou?"
"You are overfond of swearing, worthy master," quoth Sir Marmaduke lightly, "'tis sinful so I'm told, for one of your creed. But that is no matter to me. You are, believe me, somewhat more interesting than you imagine. Though I doubt if to a Quaker, being heir to title and vast estates hath more than a fleeting interest."
But the smith had shrugged his broad shoulders and uttered an exclamation of contempt.
"Title and vast estates?" he said with an ironical laugh. "Nay! Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, the bait is passing clumsy. An you wish me to hold my tongue about you and your affairs, you'll have to be vastly sharper than that."
"You mistake me, friend smith, I am not endeavoring to purchase your silence. I hold certain information relating to your parentage. This I would be willing to impart to a friend, yet loath to do so to an enemy. A man doth not like to see his enemy in possession of fifteen thousand pounds a year. Does he?"
And Sir Marmaduke appeared absorbed in the contemplation of his left shoe, whilst Adam Lambert repeated stupidly and vaguely:
"Fifteen thousand pounds a year? I?"
"Even you, my friend."
This was said so simply, and with such conviction-carrying certainty--that in spite of himself Lambert's sulkiness vanished. He drew nearer to Sir Marmaduke, looked down on him silently for a second or two, then muttered through his teeth:
"You have the proofs?"
"They will be at your service, my choleric friend," replied the other suavely, "in exchange for your silence."
Adam Lambert drew a chair close to his whilom enemy, sat down opposite to him, with elbows resting on his knee, his clenched fists supporting his chin, and his eyes--anxious, eager, glowing, fixed resolutely on de Chavasse.
"I'll hold my tongue, never fear," he said curtly. "Show me the proofs."
Sir Marmaduke gave a pleasant little laugh.
"Not so fast, my friend," he said, "I do not carry such important papers about in my breeches' pocket."
And he rose from his chair, picked up the perruque and false mustache which the other man had dropped upon the floor, and adjusting these on his head and face he once more presented the appearance of the exiled Orléans prince.
"But thou'lt show them to me to-night," insisted the smith roughly.
"How can I, mine impatient friend?" quoth de Chavasse lightly, "the hour is late already."
"Nay! what matter the lateness of the hour? I am oft abroad at night, early and late, and thou, methinks, hast oft had the midnight hour for company. When and where wilt meet me?" added Lambert peremptorily, "I must see those proofs to-night, before many hours are over, lest the blood in my veins burn my body to ashes with impatience. When wilt meet me? Eleven? ... Midnight? ... or the small hours of the morn?"
He spoke quickly, jerking out his words through closed teeth, his eyes burning with inward fever, his fists closing and unclosing with rapid febrile movements of the fingers.
The pent-up disappointment and rebellion of a whole lifetime against Fate, was expressed in the man's attitude, the agonizing eagerness which indeed seemed to be consuming him.
De Chavasse, on the other hand, had become singularly calm. The black shade as usual hid one of his eyes, masking and distorting the expression of his face; the false mustache, too, concealed the movements of his lips, and the more his opponent's eyes tried to search the schemer's face, the more inscrutable and bland did the latter become.
"Nay, my friend," he said at last, "I do not know that the thought of a midnight excursion with you appeals to my sense of personal security. I ..."
But with a violent oath, Adam had jumped to his feet, and kicked the chair away from under him so that it fell backwards with a loud clatter.
"Thou'lt meet me to-night," he said loudly and threateningly now, "thou'lt meet me on the path near the cliffs of Epple Bay half an hour before midnight, and if thou hast lied to me, I'll throw thee over and Thanet then will be rid of thee ... but if thou dost not come, I'll to my brother Richard even before the church clock of Acol hath sounded the hour of midnight."
De Chavasse watched him silently for the space of three seconds, realizing, of course, that he was completely in that man's power, and also that the smith meant every word that he said. The discovery of the monstrous fraud by Richard Lambert within the next few hours was a contingency which he could not even contemplate without shuddering. He certainly would much prefer to give up to this uncouth laborer the proofs of his parentage which eventually might mean an earldom and a fortune to a village blacksmith.
Sir Marmaduke had reflected on all this, of course, before broaching the subject to Adam Lambert at all. Now he was prepared to go through with the scheme to the end if need be. His uncle, the Earl of Northallerton, might live another twenty years, whilst he himself--if pursued for fraud, might have to spend those years in jail.
On the whole it was simpler to purchase the smith's silence ... this way or another. Sir Marmaduke's reflections at this moment would have delighted those evil spirits who are supposed to revel in the misdoings of mankind.
The thought of the lonely path near the cliffs of Epple Bay tickled his fancy in a manner for which perhaps at this moment he himself could not have accounted. He certainly did not fear Adam Lambert and now said decisively:
"Very well, my friend, an you wish it, I'll come."
"Half an hour before midnight," insisted Lambert, "on the cliffs at Epple Bay."
"Half an hour before midnight: on the cliffs of Epple Bay," assented the other.
He picked up his hat.
"Where art going?" queried the smith suspiciously.
"To change my clothing," replied Sir Marmaduke, who was fingering that fateful tinder-box which alone had brought about the present crisis, "and to fetch those proofs which you are so anxious to see."
"Thou'lt not fail me?"
"Surely not," quoth de Chavasse, as he finally went out of the room.
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