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Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse cursed the weather and cursed himself for being a fool.
He had started from Acol Court on horseback, riding an old nag, for the roads were heavy with mud, and the short cut through the woods quite impassable.
The icy downpour beat against his face and lashed the poor mare's ears and mane until she tossed her head about blindly and impatiently, scarce heeding where she placed her feet. The rider's cloak was already soaked through, and soon even his shirt clung dank and cold to his aching back; the bridle was slippery with the wet, and his numbed fingers could hardly feel its resistance as the mare went stumbling on her way.
Beside horse and rider, Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy and Master Courage Toogood walked ankle-deep in mud--one on each side of the mare, and lantern in hand, for the shades of evening would have drawn in ere the return journey could be undertaken. The two men had taken off their shoes and stockings and had slung them over their shoulders, for 'twas better to walk barefoot than to feel the icy moisture soaking through leather and worsted.
It was then close on two o'clock of an unusually bleak November afternoon. The winds of Heaven, which of a truth do oft use the isle of Thanet as a meeting place, wherein to discuss the mischief which they severally intend to accomplish in sundry quarters later on, had been exceptionally active this day. The southwesterly hurricane had brought, a deluge of rain with it a couple of hours ago, then--satisfied with this prowess--had handed the downpour over to his brother of the northeast, who breathing on it with his icy breath, had soon converted it into sleet: whereupon he turned his back on the mainland altogether, and wandered out towards the ocean, determined to worry the deep-sea fishermen who were out with their nets: but not before he had deputed his brother of the northeast to marshal his army of snow-laden cloud on the firmament.
This the northeast, was over-ready to do, and in answer to his whim a leaden, inky pall now lay over Thanet, whilst the gale continued its mighty, wanton frolic, lashing the sleet against the tiny window-panes of the cottage, or sending it down the chimneys, upon the burning logs below, causing them to splutter and to hiss ere they changed their glow to black and smoking embers.
'Twere impossible to imagine a more discomforting atmosphere in which to be abroad: yet Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse was trudging through the mire, and getting wet to the skin, even when he might just as well be sitting beside the fire in the withdrawing-room at the Court.
He was on his way to the smith's forge at Acol and had ordered his serving-men to accompany him thither: and of a truth neither of them were loath to go. They cared naught about the weather, and the excitement which centered round the Quakeress's cottage at Acol more than counterbalanced the discomfort of a tramp through the mud.
A rumor had reached the Court that the funeral of the murdered man would, mayhap, take place this day, and Master Busy would not have missed such an event for the world, not though the roads lay thick with snow and the drifts rendered progress impossible to all save to the keenest enthusiast. He for one was glad enough that his master had seemed so unaccountably anxious for the company of his own serving men. Sir Marmaduke had ever been overfond of wandering about the lonely woods of Thanet alone.
But since that gruesome murder on the beach forty-eight hours ago and more, both the quality and the yokels preferred to venture abroad in company.
At the same time neither Master Busy nor young Courage Toogood could imagine why Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse should endure such amazing discomfort in order to attend the funeral of an obscure adventurer, who of a truth was as naught to him.
Nor, if the truth were known, could Sir Marmaduke himself have accounted for his presence here on this lonely road, and on one of the most dismal, bleak and unpleasant afternoons that had ever been experienced in Thanet of late.
He should at this moment have been on the other side of the North Sea. The most elemental prudence should indeed have counseled an immediate journey to Amsterdam and a prompt negotiation of all marketable securities which Lady Sue Aldmarshe had placed in his hands.
Yet twice twenty-four hours had gone by since that awful night, when, having finally relinquished his victim to the embrace of the tide, he had picked his way up the chalk cliffs and through the terror-haunted woods to his own room in Acol Court.
He should have left for abroad the next day, ere the news of the discovery of a mysterious murder had reached the precincts of his own park. But he had remained in England. Something seemed to have rooted him to the spot, something to be holding him back whenever he was ready to flee.
At first it had been a mere desire to know. On the morning following his crime he made a vigorous effort to rally his scattered senses, to walk, to move, and to breathe as if nothing had happened, as if nothing lay out there on the sands of Epple, high and dry now, for the tide would have gone out.
Whether he had slept or not since the moment when he had crept stealthily into his own house, silently as the bird of prey when returning to its nest--he could not have said. Undoubtedly he had stripped off the dead man's clothes, the rough shirt and cord breeches which had belonged to Lambert, the smith. Undoubtedly, too, he had made a bundle of these things, hiding them in a dark recess at the bottom of an old oak cupboard which stood in his room. With these clothes he had placed the leather wallet which contained securities worth half a million of solid money.
All this he had done, preparatory to destroying the clothes by fire, and to converting the securities into money abroad. After that he had thrown himself on the bed, without thought, without sensations save those of bodily ache and of numbing fatigue.
Vaguely, as the morning roused him to consciousness, he realized that he must leave for Dover as soon as may be and cross over to France by the first packet available, or, better still, by boat specially chartered. And yet, when anon he rose and dressed, he felt at once that he would not go just yet; that he could not go until certain queries which had formed in his brain had been answered by events.
How soon would the watches find the body? Having found it, what would they do? Would the body be immediately identified by the clothes upon it? or would doubt on that score arise in the minds of the neighboring folk? Would the disappearance of Adam Lambert be known at once and commented upon in connection with the crime?
Curiosity soon became an obsession; he wandered down into the hall where the serving-wench was plying her duster. He searched her face, wondering if she had heard the news.
The mist of the night had yielded to an icy drizzle, but Sir Marmaduke could not remain within. His footsteps guided him in the direction of Acol, on towards Epple Bay. On the path which leads to the edge of the cliffs he met the watches who were tramping on towards the beach.
The men saluted him and went on their way, but he turned and fled as quickly as he dared.
In the afternoon Master Busy brought the news down from Prospect Inn. The body of the man who had called himself a French prince had been found murdered and shockingly mutilated on the sands at Epple. Sir Marmaduke was vastly interested. He, usually so reserved and ill-humored with his servants, had kept Hymn-of-Praise in close converse for nigh upon an hour, asking many questions about the crime, about the petty constables' action in the matter and the comments made by the village folk.
At the same time he gave strict injunctions to Master Busy not to breathe a word of the gruesome subject to the ladies, nor yet to the serving-wench; 'twas not a matter fit for women's ears.
Sir Marmaduke then bade his butler push on as far as Acol, to glean further information about the mysterious event.
That evening he collected all the clothes which had belonged to Lambert, the smith, and wrapping up the leather wallet with them which contained the securities, he carried this bundle to the lonely pavilion on the outskirts of the park.
He was not yet ready to go abroad.
Master Busy returned from his visit to Acol full of what he had seen. He had been allowed to view the body, and to swear before Squire Boatfield that he recognized the clothes as being those usually worn by the mysterious foreigner who used to haunt the woods and park of Acol all last summer.
Hymn-of-Praise had his full meed of pleasure that evening, and the next day, too, for Sir Marmaduke seemed never tired of hearing him recount all the gossip which obtained at Acol and at St. Nicholas: the surmises as to the motive of the horrible crime, the talk about the stranger and his doings, the resentment caused by his weird demise, and the conjectures as to what could have led a miscreant to do away with so insignificant a personage.
All that day--the second since the crime--Sir Marmaduke still lingered in Thanet. Prudence whispered urgent counsels that he should go, and yet he stayed, watching the progress of events with that same morbid and tenacious curiosity.
And now it was the thought of what folk would say when they heard that Adam Lambert had disappeared, and was, of a truth, not returning home, which kept Sir Marmaduke still lingering in England.
That and the inexplicable enigma which ever confronts the searcher of human motives: the overwhelming desire of the murderer to look once again upon his victim.
Master Busy had on that second morning brought home the news from Acol, that Squire Boatfield had caused a rough deal coffin to be made by the village carpenter at the expense of the county, and that mayhap the stranger would be laid therein this very afternoon and conveyed down to Minster, where he would be accorded Christian burial.
Then Sir Marmaduke realized that it would be impossible for him to leave England until after he had gazed once more on the dead body of the smith.
After that he would go. He would shake the sand of Thanet from his heels forever.
When he had learned all that he wished to know he would be free from the present feeling of terrible obsession which paralyzed his movements to the extent of endangering his own safely.
He was bound to look upon his victim once again: an inexplicable and titanic force compelled him to that. Mayhap, that same force would enable him to keep his nerves under control when, presently, he should be face to face with the dead.
Face to face? ... Good God! ...
Yet neither fear nor remorse haunted him. It was only curosity, and, at one thought, a nameless horror! ... Not at the thought of murder ... there he had no compunction, but at that of the terrible deed which from instinct of self-protection had perforce to succeed the graver crime.
The weight of those chalk boulders seemed still to weigh against the muscles of his back. He felt that Sisyphus-like he was forever rolling, rolling a gigantic stone which, failing of its purpose--recoiled on him, rolling back down a precipitous incline, and crushing him beneath its weight ... only to release him again ... to leave him free to endure the same torture over and over again ... and yet again ... forever the same weight ... forever the self-same, intolerable agony....
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