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Squire Boatfield was vastly perturbed. Never had his position as magistrate seemed so onerous to him, nor his duties as major-general quite so arduous. A vague and haunting fear had seized him, a fear that--if he did do his duty, if he did continue his investigations of the mysterious crime--he would learn something vastly horrible and awesome, something he had best never know.
He tried to take indifferent leave of the ladies, yet he quite dreaded to meet Lady Sue's eyes. If all the misery, the terror which she must feel, were expressed in them, then indeed, would her young face be a heart-breaking sight for any man to see.
He kissed the hand of Editha de Chavasse, and bowed in mute and deferential sympathy to the young girl-wife, who of a truth had this day quaffed at one draught the brimful cup of sorrow and of shame.
An inexplicable instinct restrained him from taking de Chavasse's hand; he was quite glad indeed that the latter seemingly absorbed in thoughts was not heeding his going.
The squire in his turn now passed out of the little gate. The evening was drawing in over-rapidly now, and it would be a long and dismal ride from here to Sarre.
Fortunately he had two serving-men with him, each with a lantern. They were now standing beside their master's cob, some few yards down the road, which from this point leads in a straight course down to Sarre.
Not far from the entrance to the forge, Boatfield saw petty-constable Pyot in close converse with Master Hymn-of-Praise Busy, butler to Sir Marmaduke. The man was talking with great volubility, and obvious excitement, and Pyot was apparently torn between his scorn for the narrator's garrulousness, and his fear of losing something of what the talker had to say.
At sight of Boatfield, Pyot unceremoniously left Master Busy standing, open-mouthed, in the very midst of a voluble sentence, and approached the squire, doffing his cap respectfully as he did so.
"Will your Honor sign a warrant?" he asked.
"A warrant? What warrant?" queried the worthy squire, who of a truth, was falling from puzzlement to such absolute bewilderment that he felt literally as if his head would burst with the weight of so much mystery and with the knowledge of such dire infamy.
"I think that the scoundrel is cleverer than we thought, your Honor," continued the petty constable, "we must not allow him to escape."
"I am quite bewildered," murmured the squire. "What is the warrant for?"
"For the apprehension of the man whom the folk about here called the Prince of Orléans. I can set the watches on the go this very night, nay! they shall scour the countryside to some purpose--the murderer cannot be very far, we know that he is dressed in the smith's clothes, we'll get him soon enough, but he may have friends...."
"He may have been a real prince, your Honor," said Pyot with a laugh, which contradicted his own suggestion.
"Aye! aye! ... Mayhap!"
"He may have powerful friends ... or such as would resist the watches ... resist us, mayhap ... a warrant would be useful...."
"Aye! aye! you are right, constable," said Boatfield, still a little bewildered, "do you come along to Sarre with me, I'll give you a warrant this very night. Have you a horse here?"
"Nay, your Honor," rejoined the man, "an it please you, my going to Sarre would delay matters and the watches could not start their search this night."
"Then what am I to do?" exclaimed the squire, somewhat impatient of the whole thing now, longing to get away, and to forget, beside his own comfortable fireside, all the harrowing excitement of this unforgettable day.
"Young Lambert is a bookworm, your Honor," suggested Pyot, who was keen on the business, seeing that his zeal, if accompanied by success, would surely mean promotion; "there'll be ink and paper in the cottage.... An your Honor would but write a few words and sign them, something I could show to a commanding officer, if perchance I needed the help of soldiery, or to the chief constable resident at Dover, for methinks some of us must push on that way ... your Honor must forgive ... we should be blamed--punished, mayhap--if we allowed such a scoundrel to remain unhung...."
"As you will, man, as you will," sighed the worthy squire impatiently, "but wait!" he added, as Pyot, overjoyed, had already turned towards the cottage, "wait until Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse and the ladies have gone."
He called his serving-men to him and ordered them to start on their way towards home, but to wait for him, with his cob, at the bend of the road, just in the rear of the little church.
Some instinct, for which he could not rightly have accounted, roused in him the desire to keep his return to the cottage a secret from Sir Marmaduke. Attended by Pyot, he followed his men down the road, and the angle of the cottage soon hid him from view.
De Chavasse in the meanwhile had ordered his own men to escort the ladies home. Busy and Toogood lighted their lanterns, whilst Sue and Editha, wrapping their cloaks and hoods closely round their heads and shoulders, prepared to follow them.
Anon the little procession began slowly to wind its way back towards Acol Court.
Sir Marmaduke lingered behind for a while, of set purpose: he had no wish to walk beside either Editha or Lady Sue, so he took some time in mounting his nag, which had been tethered in the rear of the forge. His intention was to keep the men with the lanterns in sight, for--though there were no dangerous footpads in Thanet--yet Sir Marmaduke's mood was not one that courted isolation on a dark and lonely road.
Therefore, just before he saw the dim lights of the lanterns disappearing down the road, which at this point makes a sharp dip before rising abruptly once more on the outskirts of the wood, Sir Marmaduke finally put his foot in the stirrup and started to follow.
The mare had scarce gone a few paces before he saw the figure of a woman detaching itself from the little group on ahead, and then turning and walking rapidly back towards the village. He could not immediately distinguish which of the two ladies it was, for the figure was totally hidden beneath the ample folds of cloak and hood, but soon as it approached, he perceived that it was Editha.
He would have stopped her by barring the way, he even thought of dismounting, thinking mayhap that she had left something behind at the cottage, and cursing his men for allowing her to return alone, but quick as a flash of lightning she ran past him, dragging her hood closer over her face as she ran.
He hesitated for a few seconds, wondering what it all meant: he even turned the mare's head round to see whither Editha was going. She had already reached the railing and gate in front of the cottage; the next moment she had lifted the latch, and Sir Marmaduke could see her blurred outline, through the rising mist, walking quickly along the flagged path, and then he heard her peremptory knock at the cottage door.
He waited a while, musing, checking the mare, who longed to be getting home. He fully expected to see Editha return within the next minute or so, for--vaguely through the fast-gathering gloom--he had perceived that someone had opened the door from within, a thin ray of yellowish light falling on Editha's cloaked figure. Then she disappeared into the cottage.
On ahead the swaying lights of the lanterns were rapidly becoming more and more indistinguishable in the distance. Apparently Editha's departure from out the little group had not been noticed by the others. The men were ahead, and Sue, mayhap, was too deeply absorbed in thought to pay much heed as to what was going on round her.
Sir Marmaduke still hesitated. Editha was not returning, and the cottage door was once more closed. Courtesy demanded that he should wait so as to escort her home.
But the fact that she had gone back to the cottage, at risk of having to walk back all alone and along a dark and dreary road, bore a weird significance to this man's tortuous mind. Editha, troubled with a mass of vague fears and horrible conjectures, had, mayhap, desired to have them set at rest, or else to hear their final and terrible confirmation.
In either case Marmaduke de Chavasse had no wish now for a slow amble homewards in company with the one being in the world who knew him for what he was.
That thought and also the mad desire to get away at last, to cease with this fateful procrastination and to fly from this country with the golden booty, which he had gained at such awful risks, these caused him finally to turn the mare's head towards home, leaving Editha to follow as best she might, in the company of one of the serving-men whom he would send back to meet her.
The mare was ready to go. He spurred her to a sharp trot. Then having joined the little group on ahead, he sent Master Courage Toogood back with his lantern, with orders to inquire at the cottage for Mistress de Chavasse and there to await her pleasure.
He asked Lady Sue to mount behind him, but this she refused to do. So he put his nag back to foot space, and thus the much-diminished little party slowly walked back to Acol Court.
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