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THE SANDS OF EPPLE
Five minutes later Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse, clad in thick dark doublet and breeches and wearing a heavy cloak, once more descended the stairs of Acol Court. He saw the light in the withdrawing-room and knew that Editha was there, mutely watching his departure.
But he did not care to speak to her again. His mind had been quickly made up, nay! his actions in the immediate future should of a truth have been accomplished two days ago, ere the meddlesomeness of women had well-nigh jeopardized his own safety.
All that he meant to do now was to go quickly to the pavilion, find the leather wallet then return to his own stableyard, saddle one of his nags and start forthwith for Dover. Eighteen miles would soon be covered, and though the night was dark, the road was straight and broad. De Chavasse knew it well, and had little fear of losing his way.
With plenty of money in his purse, he would have no difficulty in chartering a boat which, with a favorable tide on the morrow, should soon take him over to France.
All that he ought to have done two days ago! Of a truth, he had been a cowardly fool.
He did not cross the hall this time but went out through the dining-room by the garden entrance. Not a glimmer of light came from above, but as he descended the few stone steps he felt that a few soft flakes of snow tossed by the hurricane were beginning to fall. Of course he knew every inch of his own garden and park and had oft wandered about on the further side of the ha-ha whilst indulging in lengthy sweetly-spoken farewells with his love-sick Sue.
Absorbed in the thoughts of his immediate future plans, he nevertheless walked along cautiously, for the paths had become slippery with the snow, which froze quickly even as it fell.
He did not pause, however, for he wished to lose no time. If he was to ride to Dover this night, he would have to go at foot-pace, for the road would be like glass if this snow and ice continued. Moreover, he was burning to feel that wallet once more between his fingers and to hear the welcome sound of the crushing of crisp papers.
He had plunged resolutely into the thickness of the wood. Here he could have gone blindfolded, so oft had he trodden this path which leads under the overhanging elms straight to the pavilion, walking with Sue's little hand held tightly clasped in his own.
The spiritual presence of the young girl seemed even now to pervade the thicket, her sweet fragrance to fill the frost-laden air.
Bah! he was not the man to indulge in retrospective fancy. The girl was naught to him, and there was no sense of remorse in his soul for the terrible wrongs which he had inflicted on her. All that he thought of now was the wallet which contained the fortune. That which would forever compensate him for the agony, the madness of the past two days.
The bend behind that last group of elms should now reveal the outline of the pavilion. Sir Marmaduke advanced more cautiously, for the trees here were very close together.
The next moment he had paused, crouching suddenly like a carnivorous beast, balked of its prey. There of a truth was the pavilion, but on the steps three men were standing, talking volubly and in whispers. Two of these men carried stable lanterns, and were obviously guiding their companion up to the door of the pavilion.
The light of the lanterns illumined one face after another. De Chavasse recognized his two serving-men, Busy and Toogood; the man who was with them was petty-constable Pyot. Marmaduke with both hands clutching the ivy which clung round the gnarled stem of an old elm, watched from out the darkness what these three men were doing here, beside this pavilion, which had always been so lonely and deserted.
He could not distinguish what they said for they spoke in whispers and the creaking branches groaning beneath the wind drowned every sound which came from the direction of the pavilion and the listener on the watch, straining his every sense in order to hear, dared not creep any closer lest he be perceived.
Anon, the three men examined the door of the pavilion, and shaking the rusty bolts, found that they would not yield. But evidently they were of set purpose, for the next moment all three put their shoulder to the worm-eaten woodwork, and after the third vigorous effort the door yielded to their assault.
Men and lanterns disappeared within the pavilion. Sir Marmaduke heard an ejaculation of surprise, then one of profound satisfaction.
For the space of a few seconds he remained rooted to the spot. It almost seemed to him as if with the knowledge that the wallet and the discarded clothes of the smith had been found, with the certitude that this discovery meant his own undoing probably, and in any case the final loss of the fortune for which he had plotted and planned, lied and masqueraded, killed a man and cheated a girl, that with the knowledge of all this, death descended upon him: so cold did he feel, so unable was he to make the slightest movement.
But this numbness only lasted a few seconds. Obviously the three men would return in a minute or so; equally obviously his own presence here--if discovered--would mean certain ruin to him. Even while he was making the effort to collect his scattered senses and to move from this fateful and dangerous spot, he saw the three men reappear in the doorway of the pavilion.
The breeches and rough shirt of the smith hung over the arm of Hymn-of-Praise Busy; the dark stain on the shirt was plainly visible by the light of one of the lanterns.
Petty constable Pyot had the leather wallet in his hand, and was peeping down with grave curiosity at the bundle of papers which it contained.
Then with infinite caution, Marmaduke de Chavasse worked his way between the trees towards the old wall which encircled his park. The three men obviously would be going back either to Acol Court, or mayhap, straight to the village.
Sir Marmaduke knew of a gap in the wall which it was quite easy to climb, even in the dark; a path through the thicket at that point led straight out towards the coast.
He had struck that path from the road on the night when he met the smith on the cliffs.
The snow only penetrated in sparse flakes to the thicket here. Although the branches of the trees were dead, they interlaced so closely overhead that they formed ample protection against the wet.
But the fury of the gale seemed terrific amongst these trees and the groaning of the branches seemed like weird cries proceeding from hell.
Anon, the midnight walker reached the open. Here a carpet of coarse grass peeping through the thin layer of snow gave insecure foothold. He stumbled as he pursued his way. He was walking in the teeth of the northwesterly blast now and he could scarcely breathe, for the great gusts caught his throat, causing him to choke.
Still he walked resolutely on. Icy moisture clung to his hair, and to his lips, and soon he could taste the brine in the air. The sound of the breakers some ninety feet below mingled weirdly with the groans of the wind.
He knew the path well. Had he not trodden it three nights ago, on his way to meet the smith? Already in the gloom he could distinguish the broken line of the cliffs sharply defined against the gray density of the horizon.
As he drew nearer the roar of the breakers became almost deafening. A heavy sea was rolling in on the breast of the tide.
Still he walked along, towards the brow of the cliffs. Soon he could distinguish the irregular heap of chalk against which Adam had stood, whilst he had held the lantern in one hand and gripped the knife in the other.
The hurricane nearly swept him off his feet. He had much ado to steady himself against that heap of chalk. The snow had covered his cloak and his hat, and he liked to think that he, too, now--snow-covered--must look like a monstrous chalk boulder, weird and motionless outlined against the leaden grayness of the ocean beyond.
The smith was not by his side now. There was no lantern, no paper, no double-edged dagger. Down nearly a hundred feet below the smith had lain until the turn of the tide. The man's eyes, becoming accustomed to the gloom, could distinguish the points of the great boulders springing boldly from out the sand. The surf as it broke all round and over them was tipped with a phosphorescent light.
The gale, in sheer wantonness, caught the midnight prowler's hat and with a wild sound as of the detonation of a hundred guns, tossed it to the waves below. The snow in a few moments had thrown a white pall over the watcher's head.
He could see quite clearly the tall boulder untouched by the tide, on which he had placed the black silk shade that night, also the broad-brimmed hat, so that these things should be found high and dry and be easily recognizable.
Some twenty feet further on was the smooth stretch of sand where had lain the smith, after he had been dressed up in the fantastic clothes of the mysterious French prince.
Marmaduke de Chavasse gazed upon that spot. The breakers licked it now and again, leaving behind them as they retreated a track of slimy foam, which showed white in this strange gray gloom, rendered alive and moving by the falling snow.
The surf covered that stretch of sand more and more frequently now, and retreated less and less far: the slimy foam floated now over an inky pool; soon that too disappeared. The breakers sought other boulders round which to play their titanic hide-and-seek. The tide had completely hidden the place where Adam Lambert had lain.
Then the watcher walked on--one step and then another--and then the one beyond the edge as he stepped down, down into the abyss ninety feet below.
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