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THE VOICE OF THE DEAD
The next moment a timid knock against the front door caused everyone to start. A strange eerie feeling descended on the hearts of all, of innocent and of guilty, of accuser and of defender. The knock seemed to have come from spectral hands, for 'twas followed by no further sound.
Then again the knock.
Lambert went to the door and opened it.
"Be the quality here?" queried a timid voice.
"Squire Boatfield is here and Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse," replied Lambert, "what is it, Mat? Come in."
The squire had risen at sound of his name, and now went to the door, glad enough to shake himself free from that awful oppression which hung on the cottage like a weight of evil.
"What is it, Mat?" he asked.
A man in rough shirt and coarse breeches and with high boots reaching up to the thigh was standing humbly in the doorway. He was bareheaded and his lanky hair, wet with rain and glittering with icy moisture, was blown about by the gale. At sight of the squire he touched his forelock.
"The hour is getting late, squire," he said hesitatingly, "we carriers be ready.... 'Tis an hour or more down to Minster ... walking with a heavy burden I mean.... If your Honor would give the order, mayhap we might nail down the coffin lid now and make a start."
Marmaduke de Chavasse, too, had turned towards the doorway. Both men looked out on the little crowd which had congregated beyond the little gate. It was long past three o'clock now, and the heavy snow clouds overhead obscured the scanty winter light, and precipitated the approach of evening. In the gray twilight, a group of men could be seen standing somewhat apart from the others. All were bareheaded, and all wore rough shirts and breeches of coarse worsted, drab or brown in color, toning in with the dull monochrome of the background.
Between them in the muddy road stood the long deal coffin. The sheet which covered it, rendered heavy with persistent wet, flapped dismally against the wooden sides of the box. Overhead a group of rooks were circling whilst uttering their monotonous call.
A few women had joined their men-folk, attracted by the novelty of the proceedings, yielding their momentary comfort to their feeling of curiosity. They had drawn their kirtles over their heads and looked like gigantic oval balls, gray or black, with small mud-stained feet peeping out below.
Sue had thrown an appealing look at Squire Boatfield, when she saw that dismal cortège. Her husband, her prince! the descendant of the Bourbons, the regenerator of France lying there--unrecognizable, horrible and loathsome--in a rough wooden coffin hastily nailed together by a village carpenter.
She did not wish to look on him: and with mute eyes begged the squire to spare her and to spare the old woman, who, through the doorway had caught sight of the drabby little crowd, and of the deal box on the ground.
Lambert, too, at sight of the cortège had gone to the Quakeress, the kind soul who had cared for him and his brother, two nameless lads, without home save the one she had provided for them. He trusted in Squire Boatfield's sense of humanity not to force this septuagenarian to an effort of nerve and will altogether beyond her powers.
Together the two young people were using gentle persuasion to get the old woman to the back room, whence she could not see the dreary scene now or presently, the slow winding of the dismal little procession down the road which leads to Minster, and whence she could not hear that weird flapping of the wet sheet against the side of the coffin, an echo to the slow and muffled tolling of the church bell some little distance away.
But the old woman was obstinate. She struggled against the persuasion of young arms. Things had been said in her cottage just now, which she must hear more distinctly: vague accusations had been framed, a cruel and sneering laugh had echoed through the house from whence one of her lads--Adam--was absent.
"No! no!" she said with quiet firmness, as Lambert urged her to withdraw, "let be, lad ... let be ... ye cannot deceive the old woman all of ye.... The Lord hath put wool in my ears, so I cannot hear ... but my eyes are good.... I can see your faces.... I can read them.... Speak man!" she said, as she suddenly disengaged herself from Richard's restraining arms and walked deliberately up to Marmaduke de Chavasse, "speak man.... Didst thou accuse Adam?"
An involuntary "No!" escaped from the squire's kindly heart and lips. But Sir Marmaduke shrugged his shoulders.
The crisis which by his own acts, by his own cowardice, he himself had precipitated, was here now. Fatality had overtaken him. Whether the whole truth would come to light he did not know. Truly at this moment he hardly cared. He did not feel as if he were himself, but another being before whom stood another Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, on whom he--a specter, a ghoul, a dream figure--was about to pass judgment.
He knew that he need do nothing now, for without his help or any effort on his part, that morbid curiosity which had racked his brain for two days would be fully satisfied. He would know absolutely now, exactly what everyone thought of the mysterious French prince and of his terrible fate on Epple sands.
Thank Satan and all his hordes of devils that heavy chalk boulders had done so complete a work of obliteration.
But whilst he looked down with complete indifference on the old woman, she looked about from one face to the other, trying to read what cruel thoughts of Adam lurked behind those obvious expressions of sympathy.
"So that foreign devil hath done mischief at last," she now said loudly, her tremulous voice gaining in strength as she spoke, "the Lord would not allow him to do it living ... so the devil hath helped him to it now that he is dead.... But I tell you that Adam is innocent.... There was no harm in the lad ... a little rough at times ... but no harm ... he'd no father to bring him up ... and his mother was a wanton ... so there was only the foolish old woman to look after the boys ... but there's no harm in the lad ... there's no harm!"
Her voice broke down now in a sob, her throat seemed choked, but with an effort which seemed indeed amazing in one of her years, she controlled her tears, and for a moment was silent. The gray twilight crept in through the door of the cottage, where Mat, bareheaded and humble, still waited for the order to go.
Sir Marmaduke would have interrupted the old woman's talk ere this, but his limbs were now completely paralyzed: he might have been made of stone, so rigid did he feel himself to be: a marble image, or else a specter, a shadow-figure that existed yet could not move.
There was such passionate earnestness in the old woman's words that everyone else remained dumb. Richard, whose heart was filled with dread, who had endured agonies of anxiety since the disappearance of his brother, had but one great desire, which was to spare to the kind soul a knowledge which would mean death or worse to her.
As for Editha de Chavasse, she was a mere spectator still: so puzzled, so bewildered that she was quite convinced at this moment, that she must be mad. She could not encounter Marmaduke's eyes, try how she might. The look in his face horrified her less than it mystified her. She alone--save the murderer himself--knew that the man who lay in that deal coffin out there was not the mysterious foreigner who had never existed.
But if not the stranger, then who was it, who was dead? and what had Adam Lambert to do with the whole terrible deed?
Sue once more tried to lead Mistress Lambert gently away, but she pushed the young girl aside quite firmly:
"Ye don't believe me?" she asked, looking from one face to the other, "ye don't believe me, yet I tell ye all that Adam is innocent ... and that the Lord will not allow the innocent to be unjustly condemned.... Aye! He will e'en let the dead arise, I say, and proclaim the innocence of my lad!"
Her eyes--with dilated pupils and pale opaque rims--had the look of the seer in them now; she gazed straight out before her into the rain-laden air, and it seemed almost as if in it she could perceive visions of avenging swords, of defending angels and accusing ghouls, that she could hear whisperings of muffled voices and feel beckoning hands guiding her to a world peopled by specters and evil beings that prey upon the dead.
"Let me pass!" she said with amazing vigor, as Squire Boatfield, with kindly concern, tried to bar her exit through the door, "let me pass I say! the dead and I have questions to ask of one another."
"This is madness!" broke in Marmaduke de Chavasse with an effort; "that body is not a fit sight for a woman to look upon."
He would have seized the Quakeress by the arm in order to force her back, but Richard Lambert already stood between her and him.
"Let no one dare to lay a hand on her," he said quietly.
And the old woman escaping from all those who would have restrained her, walked rapidly through the doorway and down the flagged path rendered slippery with the sleet. The gale caught the white wings of her coif, causing them to flutter about her ears, and freezing strands of her gray locks which stood out now all round her head like a grizzled halo.
She could scarcely advance, for the wind drove her kirtle about her lean thighs, and her feet with the heavy tan shoes sank ankle deep in the puddles formed by the water in the interstices of the flagstones. The rain beat against her face, mingling with the tears which now flowed freely down her cheeks. But she did not heed the discomfort nor yet the cold, and she would not be restrained.
The next moment she stood beside the rough wooden coffin and with a steady hand had lifted the wet sheet, which continued to flap with dull, mournful sound round the feet of the dead.
The Quakeress looked down upon the figure stretched out here in death--neither majestic nor peaceful, but horrible and weirdly mysterious. She did not flinch at the sight. Resentment against the foreigner dimmed her sense of horror.
"So my fine prince," she said, whilst awed at the spectacle of this old woman parleying with the dead, carriers and mourners had instinctively moved a few steps away from her, "so thou wouldst harm my boy! ... Thou always didst hate him ... thou with thy grand airs, and thy rough ways.... Had the Lord allowed it, this hand of thine would ere now have been raised against him ... as it oft was raised against the old woman ... whose infirmities should have rendered her sacred in thy sight."
She stooped, and deliberately raised the murdered man's hand in hers, and for one moment fixed her gaze upon it. For that one moment she was silent, looking down at the rough fingers, the coarse nails, the blistered palm.
Then still holding the hand in hers, she looked up, then round at every face which was turned fixedly upon her. Thus she encountered the eyes of the men and women, present here only to witness an unwonted spectacle, then those of the kindly squire, of Lady Sue, of Mistress de Chavasse, and of her other lad--Richard--all of whom had instinctively followed her down the short flagged path in the wake of her strange and prophetic pilgrimage.
Lastly her eyes met those of Marmaduke de Chavasse. Then she spoke slowly in a low muffled voice, which gradually grew more loud and more full of passionate strength.
"Aye! the Lord is just," she said, "the Lord is great! It is the dead which shall rise again and proclaim the innocence of the just, and the guilt of the wicked."
She paused a while, and stooped to kiss the marble-like hand which she held tightly grasped in hers.
"Adam!" she murmured, "Adam, my boy! ... my lad! ..."
The men and women looked on, stupidly staring, not understanding yet, what new tragedy had suddenly taken the place of the old.
"Aunt, aunt dear," whispered Lambert, who had pushed his way forward, and now put his arm round the old woman, for she had begun to sway, "what is the matter, dear?" he repeated anxiously, "what does it mean?"
And conquering his own sense of horror and repulsion, he tried to disengage the cold and rigid hand of the dead from the trembling grasp of the Quakeress. But she would not relinquish her hold, only she turned and looked steadily at the young lad, whilst her voice rose firm and harsh above the loud patter of the rain and the moaning of the wind through the distant; trees.
"It means, my lad," she said, "it means all of you ... that what I said was true ... that Adam is innocent of crime ... for he lies here dead ... and the Lord will see that his death shall not remain unavenged."
Once more she kissed the rough hand, beautiful now with that cold beauty which the rigidity of death imparts; then she replaced it reverently, silently, and fell upon her knees in the wet mud, beside the coffin.
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