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What had prompted Editha de Chavasse to return thus alone to the Quakeress's cottage, she herself could not exactly have told.
It must have been a passionate and irresistible desire to heap certainty upon a tangle of horrible surmises.
With Adam Lambert lying dead--obviously murdered--and in the clothes affected by de Chavasse when masquerading as the French hero, there could be only one conclusion. But this to Editha--who throughout had given a helping hand in the management of the monstrous comedy--was so awful a solution of the puzzle that she could not but recoil from it, and strive to deny it while she had one sane thought left in her madly whirling brain.
But though she fought against the conclusion with all her might, she did not succeed in driving it from her thoughts: and through it all there was a vein of uncertainty, that slender thread of hope that after all she might be the prey of some awful delusion, which a word from someone who really knew would anon easily dissipate.
Someone who really knew? Nay! that someone could only be Marmaduke, and of him she dared not ask questions.
Mayhap that on the other hand the old woman and Richard Lambert knew more than they had cared to say. Sue was indeed deeply absorbed in thoughts, walking with head bent and eyes fixed on the ground like a somnambulist. Editha, moved by unreasoning instinct, determined to see the Quakeress again, also the man who now lay dead, hoping that from him mayhap she might glean the real solution of that mystery which sooner or later would undoubtedly drive her mad.
Running rapidly past horse and rider, for she would not speak to Marmaduke, she reached the cottage soon enough.
In response to her knock, Master Lambert opened the door to her.
The dim light of a couple of tallow candles flickered weirdly in the draught. Editha looked around her in amazement, astonished that--like herself--Squire Boatfield had also evidently retraced his steps and was sitting now in one of the high-backed chairs beside the hearth, whilst the old Quakeress stood not far from him, her attitude indicative of obstinacy, even of defiance, in the face of a duty with which apparently the squire had been charging her.
At sight of Mistress de Chavasse, Boatfield rose. A look of annoyance crossed his face, at thought that Editha's arrival had, mayhap, endangered the success of his present purpose. Ink and paper were on the table close to his elbow, and it was obvious that he had been questioning the old woman very closely on a subject which she apparently desired to keep secret from him.
Mistress Lambert's attitude had also changed at sight of Editha, who stood for a moment undecided on the threshold ere she ventured within. The look of obstinacy died out of the wrinkled face; the eyes took on a strange expression of sullen wrath.
"Enter, my fine lady, I pray thee, enter," said the Quakeress; "art also a party to these cross-questionings? ... art anxious to probe the secrets which the old woman hath kept hidden within the walls of this cottage?"
She laughed, a low, chuckling laugh, mirthless and almost cruel, as she surveyed Editha's cloaked figure and then the lady's scared and anxious face.
"Nay, I crave your pardon, mistress," said Editha, feeling oddly timid before the strange personality of the Quakeress. "I would of a truth desire to ask your help in ... in ... I would not intrude ... and I ..."
"Nay! nay! prithee enter, fair mistress," rejoined Mistress Lambert dryly. "Strange, that I should hear thy words so plainly.... Thy words seem to find echo in my brain ... raising memories which thou hast buried long ago.... Enter, I prithee, and sit thee down," she added, shuffling towards the chair; "shut the door, Dick lad ... and ask this fair mistress to sit.... The squire is asking many questions ... mayhap that I'll answer them, now that she is here...."
In obedience to the quaint peremptoriness of her manner, Richard had closed the outer door, and drawn the chair forward, asking Mistress de Chavasse to sit. Squire Boatfield, who was visibly embarrassed, was still standing and tried to murmur some excuse, being obviously anxious to curtail this interview and to postpone his further questionings.
"I'll come some other time, mistress," he said with obvious nervousness. "Mistress de Chavasse desires to speak with you, and I'll return later on in the evening ... when you are alone...."
"Nay! nay, man! ..." rejoined the Quakeress, "prithee, sit again ... the evening is young yet ... and what I may tell thee now has something to do with this fine lady here. Wilt question me again? I would mayhap reply."
She stood close to the table, one wrinkled hand resting upon it; the guttering candles cast strange, fantastic lights on her old face, surmounted with the winged coif, and weird shadows down one side of her face. Editha, awed and subdued, gazed on her with a kind of fear, even of horror.
In a dark corner of the little room the straight outline of the long deal box could only faintly be perceived in the gloom. Richard Lambert, silent and oppressed, stood close beside it, his face in shadow, his eyes fixed with a sense of inexplicable premonition on the face of Editha de Chavasse.
"Now, wilt question me again, man?" asked the old Quakeress, turning to the squire, "the Lord hath willed that my ears be clear to-day. Wilt question me? ... I'll hear thee ... and I'll give answer to thy questions...."
"Nay, mistress," replied the squire, pointing to the ink and the paper on the table, "methought you would wish to see the murderer of your ... your nephew ... swing on the gallows for his crime.... I would sign this paper here ordering the murderer of the smith of Acol to be apprehended as soon as found ... and to be brought forthwith before the magistrate ... there to give an account of his doings.... I asked you then to give me the full Christian and surname of the man whom the neighborhood and I myself thought was your nephew ... and to my surprise, you seemed to hesitate and ..."
"And I'll hesitate no longer," she interposed firmly. "Let the lad there ask me his dead brother's name and I'll tell him.... I'll tell him ... if he asks ..."
"Justice must be done against Adam's murderer, dear mistress," said Richard gently, for the old woman had paused and turned to him, evidently waiting for him to speak. "My brother's real name, his parentage, might explain the motive which led an evildoer to commit such an appalling crime. Therefore, dear mistress, do I ask thee to tell us my brother's name, and mine own."
"'Tis well done, lad ... 'tis well done," she rejoined when Richard had ceased speaking, and silence had fallen for awhile on that tiny cottage parlor, "'tis well done," she reiterated. "The secret hath weighed heavily upon my old shoulders these past few years, since thou and Adam were no longer children.... But I swore to thy grandmother who died in the Lord, that thou and Adam should never hear of thy mother's wantonness and shame.... I swore it on her death-bed and I have kept my oath ... but I am old now.... After this trouble, mine hour will surely come.... I am prepared but I will not take thy secret, lad, with me into my grave."
She shuffled across to the old oak dresser which occupied one wall of the little room. Two pairs of glowing eyes followed her every movement; those of Richard Lambert, who seemed to see a vision of his destiny faintly outlined--still blurred--but slowly unfolding itself in the tangled web of fate; and then those of Editha, who even as the old woman spoke had felt a tidal wave of long-forgotten memories sweeping right over her senses. The look in the Quakeress's eyes, the words she uttered--though still obscure and enigmatical--had already told her the whole truth. As in a flash she saw before her, her youth and all its follies, the gay life of thoughtlessness and pleasures, the cradles of her children, the tiny boys who to the woman of fashion were but a hindrance and a burden.
She saw her own mother, rigid and dour, the counterpart of this same old Puritan who had not hesitated to part two children from their mother for over a score of years, any more than she hesitated now to fling insult upon insult on the wretched woman who had more than paid her debt to her own careless frivolity of long ago.
"Thy brother's name was Henry Adam de Chavasse, and thine Michael Richard de Chavasse, sons of Rowland de Chavasse, and of the wanton who was his wife."
The old woman had taken a packet of papers, yellow with age and stained with many tears, from out a secret drawer of the old oak dresser.
Her voice was no longer tremulous as it was wont to be, but firm and dull, monotonous in tone like that of one who speaks whilst in a trance. Squire Boatfield had uttered an exclamation of boundless astonishment. Mechanically he took the packet of papers from the Quakeress's hand and after an instant's hesitation, and in response to an appealing look from Richard, he broke the string which held the documents together and perused them one by one.
But Editha, even as the last of the old woman's words ceased to echo in the narrow room, had risen to her feet. Her heavy cloak glided off her shoulders down upon the ground; her eyes, preternaturally large, glowing and full of awe, were now fixed upon the young man--her son.
"De Chavasse," she murmured, her brain whirling, her heart filled not only with an awful terror, but also with a great and overwhelming joy. "My sons ... then I am ..."
But with a peremptory gesture the Quakeress had stopped the word in her mouth.
"Nay!" she said loudly, "do not pollute that sacred name by letting it pass through thy lips. Women such as thou were not made for motherhood.... Thy own mother knew that, when she took thy children from thee and cursed thee on her death-bed for thy sins and for thy shame! Thy sons were honest, God-fearing men, but 'tis no thanks to thee. Thou alone hast heaped shame upon their dead father's name and hast contrived to wreak ruin on the sons who knew thee not."
The Quakeress paused a moment, her pale opaque eyes lighted with an inward glow of wrath and of satisfied vengeance. She and her dead friend and all their co-religionists had hated the woman, who, in defiance of her own Puritanic upbringing, had cast aside her friends and her home in order to throw herself in that vortex of pleasure, which her mother considered evil and infamous.
Together they had all rejoiced over this woman's subsequent humiliation, her sorrow and longing for her children, the ceaseless search, the ever-recurrent disappointments. Now the Quakeress's hour had come, hers and that of the whole of the dour sect who had taken it upon itself to punish and to avenge.
Editha, shamed and miserable, not even daring now to approach her own son and to beg for affection with a look, stood quite rigid and pale, allowing the torrent of the old woman's pent-up hatred to fall upon her and to crush her with its rough cruelty.
Squire Boatfield would have interposed. He had glanced at the various documents--the proofs of what the old woman had asserted--and was satisfied that the horrible tale of what seemed to him unparalleled cruelty was indeed true, and that the narrow bigotry of a community had succeeded in performing that monstrous crime of parting this wretched woman for twenty years from her sons.
Vaguely in his mind, the kindly squire hoped that he--as magistrate--could fitly punish this crime of child-stealing, and the expression with which he now regarded the old Quakeress was certainly not one of good-will.
Mistress Lambert had, in the meanwhile, approached Editha. She now took the younger woman's hand in hers and dragged her towards the coffin.
"There lies one of thy sons," she said with the same relentless energy, "the eldest, who should have been thy pride, murdered in a dark spot by some skulking criminal.... Curse thee! ... curse thee, I say ... as thy mother cursed thee on her death-bed ... curse thee now that retribution has come at last!"
Her words died away, as some mournful echo against these whitewashed walls.
For a moment she stood wrathful and defiant, upright and stern like a justiciary between the dead son and the miserable woman, who of a truth was suffering almost unendurable agony of mind and of heart.
Then in the midst of the awesome silence that followed on that loudly spoken curse, there was the sound of a firm footstep on the rough deal floor, and the next moment Michael Richard de Chavasse was kneeling beside his mother, and covering her icy cold hand with kisses.
A heart-broken moan escaped her throat. She stooped and with trembling lips gently touched the young head bent in simple love and uninquiring reverence before her.
Then without a word, without a look cast either at her cruel enemy, or at the silent spectator of this terrible drama, she turned and ran rapidly out of the room, out into the dark and dismal night.
With a deep sigh of content, Mistress Lambert fell on her knees and thence upon the floor.
The old heart which had contained so much love and so much hatred, such stern self-sacrifice and such deadly revenge, had ceased to beat, now the worker's work was done.
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