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THE SMITH'S FORGE
Up to the hour of his departure from Acol Court, Sir Marmaduke had been convinced that neither his sister-in-law nor Lady Sue had heard of the news which had set the whole of Thanet in commotion. Acol Court lies very isolated, well off the main Canterbury Road, and just for two days and a half Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy had contrived to hold his tongue.
Most of the village gossips, too, met at the local public bars, and had had up to now no time to wander as far as the Court, nor any reason to do so, seeing that Master Busy was always to be found at Prospect Inn and always ready to discuss the mystery in all its bearings, with anyone who would share a pint of ale with him.
Sir Marmaduke had taken jealous care only to meet the ladies at meal-time, and under penalty of immediate dismissal had forbidden Hymn-of-Praise to speak to the serving-wench of the all-absorbing topic.
So far Master Busy had obeyed, but at the last moment, just before starting for Acol village, Sir Marmaduke had caught sight of Mistress Charity talking to the stableman in the yard. Something in the wench's eyes told him--with absolute certainty that she had just heard of the murder.
That morbid and tenacious curiosity once more got hold of him. He would have given all he possessed at this moment--the entire fruits of his crime perhaps--to know what that ignorant girl thought of it all, and it caused him acute, almost physical pain, to refrain from questioning her.
There was enough of the sense of self-protection in him, however, to check himself from betraying such extraordinary interest in the matter: but he turned on his heel and went quickly back to the house. He wanted to catch sight of Editha's face, if only for a moment; he wanted to see for himself, then and there, if she had also heard the news.
As he entered the hall, she was coming down the stairs. She had on her cloak and hood as if preparing to go out. Their eyes met and he saw that she knew.
Knew what? He broke into a loud and fierce laugh as he met her wildly questioning gaze. There was a look almost of madness in the hopeless puzzlement of her expression.
Of course Editha must be hopelessly puzzled. The very thought of her vague conjecturings had caused him to laugh as maniacs laugh at times.
The mysterious French prince had been found on the sands murdered and mutilated.... But then ...
Still laughing, Sir Marmaduke once more turned, running away from the house now and never pausing until his foot had touched the stirrup and his fingers were entangled in the damp mane of the mare. Even whilst he settled himself into the saddle as comfortably as he could, the grim humor of Editha's bewilderment caused him to laugh, within himself.
The nag stepped slowly along in the mud at first, then broke into a short trot. The two serving-men had started on ahead with their lanterns; they would, of course, be walking all the way.
The icy rain mingled with tiny flakes of snow was insufferably cutting and paralyzing: yet Sir Marmaduke scarcely heeded it, until the mare became unpleasantly uncertain in her gait. Once she stumbled and nearly pitched her rider forward into the mud: whereupon, lashing into her, he paid more heed to her doings.
Once just past the crossroad toward St. Nicholas, he all but turned his horse's head back towards Acol Court. It seemed as if he must find out now at once whether Editha had spoken to Lady Sue and what the young girl had done and said when she heard, in effect, that her husband had been murdered.
Nothing but the fear of missing the last look at the body of Adam Lambert ere the lid of the coffin was nailed down stopped him from returning homewards.
Anon he came upon Busy and Toogood painfully trudging in the mire, and singing lustily to keep themselves cheerful and warm.
Sir Marmaduke drew the mare in, so as to keep pace with his men. On the whole, the road had been more lonely than he liked and he was glad of company.
Outside the Lamberts' cottage a small crowd had collected. From the crest of the hill the tiny bell of Acol church struck the hour of two.
Squire Boatfield had ridden over from Sarre, and Sir Marmaduke--as he dismounted--caught sight of the heels and crupper of the squire's well-known cob. The little crowd had gathered in the immediate neighborhood of the forge, and de Chavasse, from where he now stood, could not see the entrance of the lean-to, only the blank side wall of the shed, and the front of the Lamberts' cottage, the doors and windows of which were hermetically closed.
Up against the angle formed by the wall of the forge and that of the cottage, the enterprising landlord of the local inn had erected a small trestle table, from behind which he was dispensing spiced ale, and bottled Spanish wines.
Squire Boatfield was standing beside that improvised bar, and at sight of Sir Marmaduke he put down the pewter mug which he was in the act of conveying to his lips, and came forward to greet his friend.
"What is the pother about this foreigner, eh, Boatfield?" queried de Chavasse with gruff good-nature as he shook hands with the squire and allowed himself to be led towards that tempting array of bottles and mugs on the trestle table.
The yokels who were assembled at the entrance of the forge turned to gaze with some curiosity at the squire of Acol. De Chavasse was not often seen even in this village: he seldom went beyond the boundary of his own park.
All the men touched their forelocks with deferential respect. Master Jeremy Mounce humbly whispered a query as to what His Honor would condescend to take.
Sir Marmaduke desired a mug of buttered ale or of lamb's wool, which Master Mounce soon held ready for him. He emptied the mug at one draught. The spiced liquor went coursing through his body, and he felt better and more sure of himself. He desired a second mug.
"With more substance in it, Master Landlord," he said pleasantly. "Nay, man! ye are not giving milk to children, but something warm to cheer a man's inside."
"I have a half bottle of brandy here, good Sir Marmaduke," suggested Master Mounce with some diffidence, for brandy was an over-expensive commodity which not many Kentish squires cared to afford.
"Brandy, of course, good master!" quoth de Chavasse lustily, "brandy is the nectar of the gods. Here!" he added, drawing a piece of gold from a tiny pocket concealed in the lining of his doublet, "will this pay for thy half-bottle of nectar."
"Over well, good Sir Marmaduke," said Master Mounce, as he stooped to the ground. From underneath the table he now drew forth a glass and a bottle: the latter he uncorked with slow and deliberate care, and then filled the glass with its contents, whilst Sir Marmaduke watched him with impatient eyes.
"Will you join me, squire?" asked de Chavasse, as he lifted the small tumbler and gazed with marked appreciation at the glistening and transparent liquid.
"Nay, thanks," replied Boatfield with a laugh, "I care naught for these foreign decoctions. Another mug, or even two, of buttered ale, good landlord," he added, turning to Master Mounce.
In the meanwhile petty constable Pyot had stood respectfully at attention ready to relate for the hundredth time, mayhap, all that he knew and all that he meant to know about the mysterious crime.
Sir Marmaduke would of a surety ask many questions, for it was passing strange that he had taken but little outward interest in the matter up to now.
"Well, Pyot," he now said, beckoning to the man to approach, "tell us what you know. By Gad, 'tis not often we indulge in a genuine murder in Thanet! Where was it done? Not on my land, I hope."
"The watches found the body on the beach, your Honor," replied Pyot, "the head was mutilated past all recognition ... the heavy chalk boulders, your Honor ... and a determined maniac methinks, sir, who wanted revenge against a personal enemy.... Else how to account for such a brutal act? ..."
"I suppose," quoth Sir Marmaduke lightly, as he sipped the brandy, "that the identity of the man has been quite absolutely determined."
"Aye! aye! your Honor," rejoined Pyot gravely, "the opinion of all those who have seen the body is that it is that of a foreigner ... Prince of Orleans he called himself, who has been lodging these past months at this place here!"
And the petty constable gave a quick nod in the direction of the cottage.
"Ah! I know but little about him," now said Sir Marmaduke, turning to speak to Squire Boatfield, "although he lived here, on what is my own property, and haunted my park, too ... so I've been told. There was a good deal of talk about him among the wenches in the village."
"Aye! I had heard all about that prince," said Squire Boatfield meditatively, "lodging in this cottage ... 'twas passing strange."
"He was a curious sort of man, your Honor," here interposed Pyot. "We got what information about him we could, seeing that the smith is from home, and that Mistress Lambert, his aunt, I think, is hard of hearing, and gave us many crooked answers. But she told us that the stranger paid for his lodging regularly, and would arrive at the cottage unawares of an evening and stay part of the night ... then he would go off again at cock-crow, and depart she knew not whither."
The man paused in his narrative. Something apparently had caused Sir Marmaduke to turn giddy.
He tugged at his neckbands and his hand fell heavily against the trestle-table.
"Nay! 'tis nothing," he said with a harsh laugh as Master Mounce with an ejaculation of deep concern ran round to him with a chair, whilst Squire Boatfield quickly put out an arm as if he were afraid that his friend would fall. "'Tis nothing," he repeated, "the tramp in the cold, then this heady draught.... I am well I assure you."
He drank half a glass of brandy at a draught, and now the hand which replaced the glass upon the table had not the slightest tremor in it.
"'Tis all vastly interesting," he remarked lightly. "Have you seen the body, Boatfield?"
"Aye! aye!" quoth the squire, speaking with obvious reluctance, for he hated this gruesome subject. "'Tis no pleasant sight. And were I in your shoes, de Chavasse, I would not go in there," and he nodded significantly towards the forge.
"Nay! 'tis my duty as a magistrate," said Sir Marmaduke airily.
He had to steady himself against the table again for a moment or two, ere he turned his back on the hospitable board, and started to walk round towards the forge: no doubt the shaking of his knees was attributable to the strong liquor which he had consumed.
The little crowd parted and dispersed at his approach. The lean-to wherein Adam Lambert was wont to do his work consisted of four walls, one of which was that of the cottage, whilst the other immediately facing it, had a wide opening which formed the only entrance to the shed. A man standing in that entrance would have the furnace on his left: and now in addition to that furnace also the three elm chairs, whereon rested a rough deal case, without a lid, but partly covered with a sheet.
To anyone coming from the outside, this angle of the forge would always seem weird and even mysterious even when the furnace was blazing and the sparks flying from the anvil, beneath the smith's powerful blows, or when--as at present--the fires were extinguished and this part of the shed, innocent of windows, was in absolute darkness.
Sir Marmaduke paused a moment under the lintel which dominated the broad entrance. His eyes had some difficulty in penetrating the density which seemed drawn across the place on his left like some ink-smeared and opaque curtain.
The men assembled outside, watched him from a distance with silent respect. In these days the fact of a gentleman drinking more liquor than was good for him was certes not to his discredit.
The fact that Sir Marmaduke seemed to sway visibly on his legs, as he thus stood for a moment outlined against the dark interior beyond, roused no astonishment in the minds of those who saw him.
Presently he turned deliberately to his left and the next moment his figure was merged in the gloom.
Round the angle of the wall Squire Boatfield was still standing, sipping buttered ale.
Less than two minutes later, Sir Marmaduke reappeared in the doorway. His face was a curious color, and there were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and as he came forward he would have fallen, had not one of the men stepped quickly up to him and offered a steadying arm. But there was nothing strange in that.
The sight of that which lay in Adam Lambert's forge had unmanned a good many ere this.
"I am inclined to believe, my good Boatfield," quoth Sir Marmaduke, as he went back to the trestle-table, and poured himself out another half-glass full of brandy, "I am inclined to believe that when you advised me not to go in there, you spoke words of wisdom which I had done well to follow."
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