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THE OLD WOMAN
There was silence in the tiny cottage parlor as the young girl made this extraordinary announcement in a firm if toneless voice, without flinching and meeting with a sort of stubborn pride the five pairs of eyes which were now riveted upon her.
From outside came the hum of many voices, dull and subdued, like the buzzing of a swarm of bees, and against the small window panes the incessant patter of icy rain driven and lashed by the gale. Anon the wind moaned in the wide chimney, ... it seemed like the loud sigh of the Fates, satisfied at the tangle wrought by their relentless fingers in the threads of all these lives.
Sir Marmaduke, after a slight pause, had contrived to utter an oath--indicative of the wrath he, as Lady Sue's guardian, should have felt at her statement. Squire Boatfield frowned at the oath. He had never liked de Chavasse and disapproved more than ever of the man's attitude towards his womenkind now.
The girl was in obvious, terrible distress: what she was feeling at this moment when she was taking those around her into her confidence could be as nothing compared to what she must have endured when she first heard the news that her strange bridegroom had been murdered.
The kindly squire, though admitting the guardian's wrath, thought that its violent expression was certainly ill-timed. He allowed Sue to recover herself, for the more calm was her attitude outwardly, the more terrible must be the effort which she was making at self-control.
Sue's eyes were fixed steadily upon her guardian, and Richard Lambert's upon her. Both these young people who had carved their own Fate in the very rock which now had shattered their lives, seemed to be searching for something vague, unavowed and mysterious which instinct told them was there, but which was so elusive, so intangible that the soul of each recoiled, even whilst it tried to probe.
Entirely against her will Sue--whilst she looked on her guardian--could think of nothing save of that day in Dover, the lonely church, the gloomy vestry, and that weird patter of the rain against the window panes.
She was not ashamed of what she had done, only of what she had felt for him, whom she now believed to be dead; that she gave him her fortune was nothing, she neither regretted nor cared about that. What, in the mind of a young and romantic girl, was the value of a fortune squandered, when that priceless treasure--her first love--had already been thrown away? But now she would no longer judge the dead. The money which he had filched from her, Fate and a murderous hand had quickly taken back from him, crushing beneath those chalk boulders his many desires, his vast ambitions, a worthless life and incomparable greed.
Her love, which he had stolen ... that he could not give back: not that ardent, whole-souled, enthusiastic love; not the romantic idealism, the hero-worship, that veil of fantasy behind which first love is wont to hide its ephemerality. But she would not now judge the dead. Her romantic love lay buried in the lonely church at Dover, and she was striving not to think even of its grave.
Squire Boatfield's kindly voice recalled her to her immediate surroundings and to the duty--self-imposed--which had brought her thither.
"My dear child," he said, speaking with unwonted solemnity, "if what you have just stated be, alas! the truth, then indeed, you and you only can throw some light on the terrible mystery which has been puzzling us all ... you may be the means which God hath chosen for bringing an evildoer to justice.... Will you, therefore, try ... though it may be very painful to you ... will you try and tell us everything that is in your mind ... everything which may draw the finger of God and our poor eyes to the miscreant who hath committed such an awful crime."
"I fear me I have not much to tell," replied Sue simply, "but I feel that it is my duty to suggest to the two magistrates here present what I think was the motive which prompted this horrible crime."
"You can suggest a motive for the crime?" interposed Sir Marmaduke, striving to sneer, although his voice sounded quite toneless, for his throat was parched and his tongue clove to the roof of his mouth, "by Gad! 'twere vastly interesting to hear your ladyship's views."
He tried to speak flippantly, at which Squire Boatfield frowned deprecation. Lambert, without a word, had brought a chair near to Lady Sue, and with a certain gentle authority, he forced her to sit down.
"It was a crime, of that I feel sure," said Sue, "nathless, that can be easily proven ... when ... when it has been discovered whether money and securities contained in a wallet of leather have been found among Prince Amédé's effects."
"Money and securities?" ejaculated Sir Marmaduke with a loud oath, which he contrived to bring forth with the violence of genuine wrath, "Money and securities? ... Forsooth, I trust ..."
"My money and my securities, sir," she interposed with obvious hauteur, "which I had last night and in this self-same room placed in the hands of Prince Amédé d'Orléans, my husband."
She said this with conscious pride. Whatever change her feelings may have undergone towards the man who had at one time been the embodiment of her most cherished dreams, she would not let her sneering guardian see that she had repented of her choice.
Death had endowed her exiled prince with a dignity which had never been his in life, and the veil of tragedy which now lay over the mysterious stranger and his still more mysterious life, had called forth to its uttermost the young wife's sense of loyalty to him.
"Not your entire fortune, my dear, dear child, I hope ..." ejaculated Squire Boatfield, more horror-struck this time than he had been when first he had heard of the terrible murder.
"The wallet contained my entire fortune," rejoined Sue calmly, "all that Master Skyffington had placed in my hands on the day that my father willed that it should be given me."
"Such folly is nothing short of criminal," said Sir Marmaduke roughly, "nathless, had not the gentleman been murdered that night he would have shown Thanet and you a clean pair of heels, taking your money with him, of course."
"Aye! aye! but he was murdered," said Squire Boatfield firmly, "the question only is by whom?"
"Some footpad who haunts the cliffs," rejoined de Chavasse lightly, "'tis simple enough."
"Simple, mayhap ..." mused the squire, "yet ..."
He paused a moment and once more silence fell on all those assembled in the small cottage parlor. Sir Marmaduke felt as if every vein in his body was gradually being turned to stone.
The sense of expectancy was so overwhelming that it completely paralyzed every other faculty within him, and Editha's searching eyes seemed like a corroding acid touching an aching wound. Yet for the moment there was no danger. He had so surrounded himself and his crimes with mystery that it would take more than a country squire's slowly moving brain to draw aside that weird and ghostlike curtain which hid his evil deeds.
No! there was no danger--as yet!
But he cursed himself for a fool and a coward, not to have gone away--abroad--long ere such a possible confrontation threatened him. He cursed himself for being here at all--and above all for having left the smith's clothes and the leather wallet in that lonely pavilion in the park.
Squire Boatfield's kind eyes now rested on the old woman, who, awed and silent--shut out by her infirmities from this strange drama which was being enacted in her cottage--had stood calm and impassive by, trying to read with that wonderful quickness of intuition which the poverty of one sense gives to the others--what was going on round her, since she could not hear.
Her eyes--pale and dim, heavy-lidded and deeply-lined--rested often on the face of Richard Lambert, who, leaning against the corner of the hearth, had watched the proceedings silently and intently. When the Quakeress's faded gaze met that of the young man, there was a quick and anxious look which passed from her to him: a look of entreaty for comfort, one of fear and of growing horror.
"And so the exiled prince lodged in your cottage, mistress?" said Squire Boatfield, after a while, turning to Mistress Lambert.
The old woman's eyes wandered from Richard to the squire. The look of fear in them vanished, giving place to good-natured placidity. She shuffled forward, in the manner which had so oft irritated her lodger.
"Eh? ... what?" she queried, approaching the squire, "I am somewhat hard of hearing these times."
"We were speaking of your lodger, mistress," rejoined Boatfield, raising his voice, "harm hath come to him, you know."
"Aye! aye!" she replied blandly, "harm hath come to our lodger.... Nay! the Lord hath willed it so.... The stranger was queer in his ways.... I don't wonder that harm hath come to him...."
"You remember him well, mistress?--him and the clothes he used to wear?" asked Squire Boatfield.
"Oh, yes! I remember the clothes," she rejoined. "I saw them again on the dead who now lieth in Adam's forge ... the same curious clothes of a truth ... clothes the Lord would condemn as wantonness and vanity.... I saw them again on the dead man," she reiterated garrulously, "the frills and furbelows ... things the Lord hateth ... and which no Christian should place upon his person ... yet the foreigner wore them ... he had none other ... and went out with them on him that night that the Lord sent him down into perdition...."
"Did you see him go out that night, mistress?" asked the squire.
"Eh? ... what? ..."
"Did he go out alone?"
The dimmed eyes of the old woman roamed restlessly from face to face. It seemed as if that look of horror and of fear once more struggled to appear within the pale orbs. Yet the squire looked on her with kindness, and Lady Sue's tear-veiled eyes expressed boundless sympathy. Richard, on the other hand, did not look at her, his gaze was riveted on Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse with an intensity which caused the latter to meet that look, trying to defy it, and then to flinch before its expression of passionate wrath.
"We wish to know where your nephew Adam is, mistress," now broke in de Chavasse roughly, "the squire and I would wish to ask him a few questions."
Then as the Quakeress did not reply, he added almost savagely:
"Why don't you answer, woman? Are ye still hard of hearing?"
"Your pardon, Sir Marmaduke," interposed Lambert firmly, "my aunt is old and feeble. She hath been much upset and over anxious ... seeing that my brother Adam is still from home."
Sir Marmaduke broke into a loud and prolonged laugh.
"Ha! ha! ha! good master ... so I understand ... your brother is from home ... whilst the wallet containing her ladyship's fortune has disappeared along with him, eh?"
"What are they saying, lad?" queried the old woman in her trembling voice, "what are they saying? I am fearful lest there's something wrong with Adam...."
"Nay, nay, dear ... there's naught amiss," said Lambert soothingly, "there's naught amiss...."
Instinctively now Sue had risen. Sir Marmaduke's cruel laugh had grated horribly on her ear, rousing an echo in her memory which she could not understand but which caused her to encircle the trembling figure of the old Quakeress with young, protecting arms.
"Are Squire Boatfield and I to understand, Lambert," continued Sir Marmaduke, speaking to the young man, "that your brother Adam has unaccountably disappeared since the night on which the foreigner met with his tragic fate? Nay, Boatfield," he added, turning to the squire, as Lambert had remained silent, "methinks you, as chief magistrate, should see your duty clearly. 'Tis a warrant you should sign and quickly, too, ere a scoundrel slip through the noose of justice. I can on the morrow to Dover, there to see the chief constable, but Pyot and his men should not be idle the while."
"What is he saying, my dear?" murmured Mistress Lambert, timorously, as she clung with pathetic fervor to the young girl beside her, "what is the trouble?"
"Where is your nephew Adam?" said de Chavasse roughly.
"I do not know," she retorted with amazing strength of voice, as she gently but firmly disengaged herself from the restraining arms that would have kept her back. "I do not know," she repeated, "what is it to thee, where he is? Art accusing him perchance of doing away with that foreign devil?"
Her voice rose shrill and resonant, echoing in the low-ceilinged room; her pale eyes, dimmed with many tears, with hard work, and harder piety were fixed upon the man who had dared to accuse her lad.
He tried not to flinch before that gaze, to keep up the air of mockery, the sound of a sneer. Outside the murmur of voices had become somewhat louder, the shuffling of bare feet on the flag-stones could now be distinctly heard.
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