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THE PATH NEAR THE CLIFFS
The mist had not lifted. Over the sea it hung heavy and dank like a huge sheet of gray thrown over things secret and unavowable. It was thickest down in the bay lurking in the crevices of the chalk, in the great caverns and mighty architecture carved by the patient toil of the billows in the solid mass of the cliffs.
Up above it was slightly less dense: allowing distinct peeps of the rough carpet of coarse grass, of the downtrodden path winding towards Acol, of the edge of the cliff, abrupt, precipitous, with a drop of some ninety feet into that gray pall of mist to the sands below.
And higher up still, above the mist itself, a deep blue sky dotted with stars, and a full moon, pale and circled with luminous vapors. A gentle breeze had risen about half an hour ago and was blowing the mist hither and thither, striving to disperse it, but not yet succeeding in mastering it, for it only shifted restlessly to and fro, like the giant garments of titanic ghosts, revealing now a distant peep of sea, anon the interior of a colonnaded cavern, abode of mysterious ghouls, or again a nest of gulls in a deep crevice of the chalk: revealing and hiding again:--a shroud dragged listlessly over monstrous dead things.
Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse had some difficulty in keeping to the footpath which leads from the woods of Acol straight toward the cliffs. Unlike Adam Lambert, his eyes were unaccustomed to pierce the moist pall which hid the distance from his view.
Strangely enough he had not cast aside the fantastic accouterments of the French prince, and though these must have been as singularly uncomfortable, as they were inappropriate, for a midnight walk, nevertheless, he still wore the heavy perruque, the dark mustache, broad-brimmed hat, and black shade which were so characteristic of the mysterious personage.
He had heard the church clock at Acol village strike half an hour after eleven and knew that the smith would already be waiting for him.
The acrid smell of seaweed struck forcibly now upon his nostrils. The grass beneath his feet had become more sparse and more coarse. The moisture which clung to his face had a taste of salt in it. Obviously he was quite close to the edge of the cliffs.
The next moment and without any warning a black outline appeared in the moon-illumined density. It was Adam Lambert pacing up and down with the impatience of an imprisoned beast of prey.
A second or two later the febrile hand of the smith had gripped Sir Marmaduke's shoulder.
"You have brought those proofs?" he queried hoarsely.
His face was wet with the mist, and he had apparently oft wiped it with his hand or sleeve, for great streaks of dirt marked his cheeks and forehead, giving him a curious satanic expression, whilst his short lank hair obviously roughed up by impatient fingers, bristled above his square-built head like the coat of a shaggy dog.
In absolute contrast to him, Sir Marmaduke looked wonderfully calm and tidy. In answer to the other man's eager look of inquiry, he made pretense of fumbling in his pockets, as he said quietly:
"Yes! all of them!"
As if idly musing, he continued to walk along the path, whilst the smith first stooped to pick up a small lantern which he had obviously brought with him in order to examine the papers by its light, and then strode in the wake of Sir Marmaduke.
The breeze was getting a bother hold on the mist, and was tossing it about from sea to cliff and upwards with more persistence and more vigor.
The pale, cold moon glistened visibly on the moist atmosphere, and far below and far beyond weird streaks of shimmering silver edged the surface of the sea. The breeze itself had scarcely stirred the water; or,--the soft sound of tiny billows lapping the outstanding boulders was wafted upwards as the tide drew in.
The two men had reached the edge of the cliff. With a slight laugh, indicative of nervousness, Sir Marmaduke had quickly stepped back a pace or two.
"I have brought the proofs," he said, as if wishing to conciliate a dangerous enemy, "we need not stand so near the edge, need we?"
But Adam Lambert shrugged his shoulders in token of contempt at the other's cowardice.
"I'll not harm thee," he said, "an thou hast not lied to me...."
He deposited his lantern by the side of a heap of white chalk, which had, no doubt, been collected at some time or other by idle or childish hands, and stood close to the edge of the cliff. Sir Marmaduke now took his stand beside it, one foot placed higher than the other. Close to him Adam in a frenzy of restlessness had thrown himself down on the heap; below them a drop of ninety feet to the seaweed covered beach.
"Let me see the papers," quoth Adam impatiently.
"Gently, gently, kind sir," said de Chavasse lightly. "Did you think that you could dictate your own terms quite so easily?"
"What dost thou mean?" queried the other.
"I mean that I am about to place in your hands the proof that you are heir to a title and fifteen thousand pounds a year, but at the same time I wish to assure myself that you will be pleasant over certain matters which concern me."
"Have I not said that I would hold my tongue."
"Of a truth you did say so my friend, and therefore, I am convinced that you will not refuse to give me a written promise to that effect."
"I cannot write," said Adam moodily.
"Oh! just your signature!" said de Chavasse pleasantly. "You can write your name?"
"The initials A. and L. They would satisfy me,"
"Why dost thou want written promises," objected the smith, looking up with sullen wrath at Sir Marmaduke. "Is not the word of an honest man sufficient for thee?"
"Quite sufficient," rejoined de Chavasse blandly, "those initials are a mere matter of form. You cannot object if your intentions are honest."
"I do not object. Hast brought ink or paper?"
"Yes, and the form to which you only need to affix your initials."
Sir Marmaduke now drew a packet of papers from the inner lining of his doublet.
"These are the proofs of your parentage," he said lightly.
Then he took out another single sheet of paper from his pocket, unfolded it and handed it to Lambert. "Can you read it?" he asked.
He stooped and picked up the lantern, whilst handing the paper to Adam. The smith took the document from him, and Sir Marmaduke held the lantern so that he might read.
Adam Lambert was no scholar. The reading of printed matter was oft a difficulty to him, written characters were a vast deal more trouble, but suspicion lurked in the smith's mind, and though his very sinews ached with the desire to handle the proofs, he would not put his initials to any writing which he did not fully comprehend.
It was all done in a moment. Adam was absorbed in deciphering the contents of the paper. De Chavasse held the lantern up with one hand, but at such an angle that Lambert was obliged to step back in order to get its full light.
Then with the other hand, the right, Sir Marmaduke drew a double-edged Italian knife from his girdle, and with a rapid and vigorous gesture, drove it straight between the smith's shoulder blades.
Adam uttered a groan:
"My God ... I am ..."
Then he staggered and fell.
Fell backwards down the edge of the cliff into the mist-enveloped abyss below.
Sir Marmaduke had fallen on one knee and his trembling fingers clutched at the thick short grass, sharp as the blade of a knife, to stop himself from swooning--from falling backwards in the wake of Adam the smith.
A gust of wind wafted the mist upwards, covering him with its humid embrace. But he remained quite still, crouching on his stomach now, his hands clutching the grass for support, whilst great drops of perspiration mingled with the moisture of the mist on his face.
Anon he raised his head a little and turned to look at the edge of the cliff. On hands and knees, like a gigantic reptile, he crawled, then lay flat on the ground, on the extreme edge, his eyes peering down into those depths wherein floating vapors lolled and stirred, with subtle movements like spirits in unrest.
As far as the murderer's eye could reach and could penetrate the density of the fog, white crag succeeded white crag, with innumerable projections which should have helped to toss a falling and inert mass as easily as if it had been an air bubble.
Sir Marmaduke tried to penetrate the secrets which the gray and shifting veil still hid from his view. Beside him lay the Italian knife, its steely surface shimmering in the vaporous light, there where a dull and ruddy stain had not dimmed its brilliant polish. The murderer gazed at his tool and shuddered feebly. But he picked up the knife and mechanically wiped it in the grass, before he restored it to his belt.
Then he gazed downwards again, straining his eyes to pierce the mist, his ears to hear a sound.
But nothing came upwards from that mighty abyss save the now more distinct lapping of the billows round the boulders, for the tide was rapidly setting in.
Down the white sides of the cliff the projections seemed ready to afford a foothold bearing somewhat toward the right, the descent was not so abrupt as it was immediately in front. The chalk of a truth looked slimy and green, and might cause the unwary to trip, but there was that to see down below and that to do, which would make any danger of a fall well worth the risking.
Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse slowly rose to his feet. His knees were still shaking under him, and there was a nervous tremor in his jaw and in his wrists which he tried vainly to conquer.
Nevertheless he managed to readjust his clothes, his perruque, his broad-brimmed hat. The papers he slipped back into his pocket together with the black silk shade and false mustache, then, with the lantern in his left hand he took the first steps towards the perilous descent.
There was something down below that he must see, something that he wished to do.
He walked sidewise at times, bent nearly double, looking like some gigantic and unwieldy crab, as the feeble rays of the mist-hidden moon caught his rounded back in its cloth doublet of a dull reddish hue. At other times he was forced to sit, and to work his way downwards with his hands and heels, tearing his clothes, bruising his elbows and his shoulders against the projections of the titanic masonry. Lumps of chalk detached themselves from beneath and around him and slipped down the precipitous sides in advance of him, with a dull reverberating sound which seemed to rouse the echoes of this silent night.
The descent seemed interminable. His flesh ached, his sinews creaked, his senses reeled with the pain, the mind-agony, the horror of it all.
At last he caught a glimmer of the wet sand, less than ten feet below. He had just landed on a bit of white tableland wantonly carved in the naked cliff. The rough gradients which up to now had guided him in his descent ceased abruptly. Behind him the cliff rose upwards, in front and, to his right, and left a concave wall, straight down to the beach.
Exhausted and half-paralyzed, de Chavasse perforce had to throw himself down these last ten feet, hardly pausing to think whether his head would or would not come in violent contact with one of the chalk boulders which stand out here and there in the flat sandy beach.
He threw down the lantern first, which was extinguished as it fell. Then he took the final jump, and soon lay half-unconscious, numbed and aching in every limb in the wet sand.
Anon he tried to move. His limbs were painful, his shoulders ached, and he had some difficulty in struggling to his feet. An unusually large boulder close by afforded a resting place. He reached it and sat down. His head was still swimming but his limbs were apparently sound. He sat quietly for a while, recouping his strength, gathering his wandering senses. The lantern lay close to his feet, extinguished but not broken.
He groped for his tinder-box, and having found it, proceeded to relight the tiny tallow dip. It was a difficult proceeding for the tinder was damp, and the breeze, though very slight in this hollow portion of the cliffs, nevertheless was an enemy to a trembling little flame.
But Sir Marmaduke noted with satisfaction that his nerves were already under his control. He succeeded in relighting the lantern, which he could not have done if his hands had been as unsteady as they were awhile ago.
He rose once more to his feet, stamped them against the boulders, stretched out his arms, giving his elbows and shoulders full play. Mayhap he had spent a quarter of an hour thus resting since that final jump, mayhap it had been an hour or two; he could not say for time had ceased to be.
But the mist had penetrated to his very bones and he did not remember ever having felt quite so cold.
Now he seized his lantern and began his search, trying to ascertain the exact position of the portion of the cliff's edge where he and Lambert the smith had been standing a while ago.
It was not a difficult matter, nor was the search a long one. Soon he saw a huddled mass lying in the sand.
He went up to it and placed the lantern down upon a boulder.
Horror had entirely left him. The crisis of terror at his own fell deed had been terrible but brief. His was not a nature to shrink from unpleasant sights, nor at such times do men have cause to recoil from contact with the dead.
In the murderer's heart there was no real remorse for the crime which he had committed.
"Bah! why did the fool get in my way?" was the first mental comment which he made when he caught sight of Lambert's body.
Then with a final shrug of the shoulders he dismissed pity, horror or remorse, entirely from his thoughts.
What he now did was to raise the smith's body from the ground and to strip it of its clothing. 'Twas a grim task, on which his chroniclers have never cared to dwell. His purpose was fixed. He had planned and thought it all out minutely, and he was surely not the man to flinch at the execution of a project once he had conceived it.
The death of Adam Lambert should serve a double purpose: the silencing of an avowed enemy and the wiping out of the personality of Prince Amédé d'Orléans.
The latter was as important as the first. It would facilitate the realizing of the fortune and, above all, clear the way for Sir Marmaduke's future life.
Therefore, however gruesome the task, which was necessary in order to attain that great goal, the schemer accomplished it, with set teeth and an unwavering hand.
What he did do on that lonely fog-ridden beach and in the silence of that dank and misty night, was to dress up the body of Adam Lambert, the smith, in the fantastic clothing of Prince Amédé d'Orléans: the red cloth doublet, the lace collars and cuffs, the bunches of ribbon at knee and waist, and the black silk shade over the left eye. All he omitted were the perruque and the false mustache.
Having accomplished this work, he himself donned the clothes of Adam Lambert.
This part of his task being done, he had to rest for a while. 'Tis no easy matter to undress and redress an inert mass.
The smith, dressed in the elaborate accouterments of the mysterious French prince, now lay face upwards on the sand.
The tide was rapidly setting in. In less than half an hour it would reach this portion of the beach.
Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, however, had not yet accomplished all that he meant to do. He knew that the sea-waves had a habit of returning that which they took away. Therefore, his purpose was not fully accomplished when he had dressed the dead smith in the clothes of the Orléans prince. Else had he wished it, he could have consigned his victim to the tide.
But Adam--dead--had now to play a part in the grim comedy which Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse had designed for his own safety, and the more assured success of all his frauds and plans.
Therefore, after a brief rest, the murderer set to work again. A more grim task yet! one from which of a truth more than one evil-doer would recoil.
Not so this bold schemer, this mad worshiper of money and of self. Everything! anything for the safety of Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, for the peaceful possession of £500,000.
Everything! Even the desecration of the dead!
The murderer was powerful, and there is a strength which madness gives. Heavy boulders pushed by vigorous arms had to help in the monstrous deed!
Heavy boulders thrown and rolled over the face of the dead, so as to obliterate all identity!
Nay! had a sound now disturbed the silence of this awesome night, surely it had been the laughter of demons aghast at such a deed!
The moon indeed hid her face, retreating once more behind the veils of mist. The breeze itself was lulled and the fog gathered itself together and wrapped the unavowable horrors of the night in a gray and ghoul-like shroud.
Madness lurked in the eyes of the sacrilegious murderer. Madness which helped him not only to carry his grim task to the end, but, having accomplished it, to see that it was well done.
And his hand did not tremble, as he raised the lantern and looked down on that which had once been Adam Lambert, the smith.
Nay, had those laughing demons looked on it, they would have veiled their faces in awe!
The gentle wavelets of the torpid tide were creeping round that thing in red doublet and breeches, in high top boots, lace cuffs and collar.
Sir Marmaduke looked down calmly upon his work, and did not even shudder with horror.
Madness had been upon him and had numbed his brain.
But the elemental instinct of self-preservation whispered to him that his work was well done.
When the sea gave up the dead, only the clothes, the doublet, the ribands, the lace, the black shade, mayhap, would reveal his identity, as the mysterious French prince who for a brief while had lodged in a cottage at Acol.
But the face was unrecognizable.
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