The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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XXVIII. Husband And Wife
Mistress Martha Lambert was a dignified old woman, on whose wrinkled face stern virtues, sedulously practiced, had left their lasting imprint. Among these virtues which she had thus somewhat ruthlessly exercised throughout her long life, cleanliness and orderliness stood out pre-eminently. They undoubtedly had brought some of the deepest furrows round her eyes and mouth, as indeed they had done round those of Adam Lambert, who having lived with her all his life, had had to suffer from her passion of scrubbing and tidying more than anyone else.
But her cottage was resplendent: her chief virtues being apparent in every nook and corner of the orderly little rooms which formed her home and that of the two lads whom a dying friend had entrusted to her care.
The parlor below, with its highly polished bits of furniture, its spotless wooden floor and whitewashed walls, was a miracle of cleanliness. The table in the center was laid with a snowy white cloth, on it the pewter candlesticks shone like antique silver. Two straight-backed mahogany chairs were drawn cozily near to the hearth, wherein burned a bright fire made up of ash logs. There was a quaint circular mirror in a gilt frame over the hearth, a relic of former, somewhat more prosperous times.
In one of the chairs lolled the mysterious lodger, whom a strange Fate in a perverse mood seemed to have wafted to this isolated little cottage on the outskirts of the loneliest village in Thanet.
Prince Amédé d'Orléans was puffing at that strange weed which of late had taken such marked hold of most men, tending to idleness in them, for it caused them to sit staring at the smoke which they drew from pipes made of clay; surely the Lord had never intended such strange doings, and Mistress Martha would willingly have protested against the unpleasant odor thus created by her lodger when he was puffing away, only that she stood somewhat in awe of his ill-humor and of his violent language, especially when Adam himself was from home. On these occasions--such, for instance, as the present one--she had, perforce, to be content with additional efforts at cleanliness, and, as she was convinced that so much smoke must be conducive to soot and dirt, she plied her dusting-cloth with redoubled vigor and energy. Whilst the prince lolled and pulled at his clay pipe, she busied herself all round the tiny room, polishing the backs of the old elm chairs, and the brass handles of the chest of drawers.
"How much longer are you going to fuss about, my good woman?" quoth Prince Amédé d'Orléans impatiently after a while. "This shuffling round me irritates my nerves."
Mistress Martha, however, suffered from deafness. She could see from the quick, angry turn of the head that her lodger was addressing her, but did not catch his words. She drew a little nearer, bending her ear to him.
"Eh? ... what?" she queried in that high-pitched voice peculiar to the deaf. "I am somewhat hard of hearing just now. I did not hear thee."
But he pushed her roughly aside with a jerk of his elbow.
"Go away!" he said impatiently. "Do not worry me!"
"Ah! the little pigs?" she rejoined blithely. "I thank thee ... they be doing nicely, thank the Lord ... six of them and ... eh? what? ... I'm a bit hard of hearing these times."
He had some difficulty in keeping up even a semblance of calm. The placidity of the old Quakeress irritated him beyond endurance. He dreaded the return of Adam Lambert from his work, and worse still, he feared the arrival of Richard. Fortunately he had gathered from Martha that the young man had come home early in the day in a state of high nervous tension, bordering on acute fever. He had neither eaten nor drunk, but after tidying his clothes and reassuring her as to his future movements, he had sallied out into the woods and had not returned since then.
Sir Marmaduke had quickly arrived at the conclusion that Richard Lambert had seen and spoken to Lady Sue and had learned from her that she was now irrevocably married to him, whom she always called her prince. Doubtless, the young man was frenzied with grief, and in his weak state of health after the terrible happenings of the past few weeks, would mayhap, either go raving mad, or end his miserable existence over the cliffs. Either eventuality would suit Sir Marmaduke admirably, and he sighed with satisfaction at the thought that the knot between the heiress and himself was indeed tied sufficiently firm now to ensure her obedience to his will.
There was to be one more scene in the brief and cruel drama which he had devised for the hoodwinking and final spoliation of a young and inexperienced girl. She had earlier in the day been placed in possession of all the negotiable part of her fortune. This, though by no means representing the whole of her wealth, which also lay in landed estates, was nevertheless of such magnitude that the thought of its possession caused every fiber in Sir Marmaduke's body to thrill with the delight of expectancy.
One more brief scene in the drama: the handing over of that vast fortune, by the young girl-wife--blindly and obediently--to the man whom she believed to be her husband. Once that scene enacted, the curtain would fall on the love episode 'twixt a romantic and ignorant maid and the most daring scoundrel that had ever committed crime to obtain a fortune.
In anticipation of that last and magnificent dénouement, Sir Marmaduke had once more donned the disguise of the exiled Orléans prince: the elaborate clothes, the thick perruque, the black silk shade over the left eye, which gave him such a sinister expression.
Now he was literally devoured with the burning desire to see Sue arriving with that wallet in her hand, which contained securities and grants to the value of £500,000. A brief interlude with her, a few words of perfunctory affection, a few assurances of good faith, and he--as her princely husband--would vanish from her ken forever.
He meant to go abroad immediately--this very night, if possible. Prudence and caution could easily be thrown to the winds, once the negotiable securities were actually in his hands. What he could convert into money, he would do immediately, going to Amsterdam first, to withdraw the sum standing at the bank there on deposit, and for which anon, he would possess the receipt; after that the sale of the grant of monopolies should be easy of accomplishment. Sir Marmaduke had boundless faith in his own ability to carry through his own business. He might stand to lose some of the money perhaps; prudence and caution might necessitate the relinquishing of certain advantages, but even then he would be rich and passing rich, and he knew that he ran but little risk of detection. The girl was young, inexperienced and singularly friendless: Sir Marmaduke felt convinced that none of the foreign transactions could ever be directly traced to himself.
He would be prudent and Europe was wide, and he meant to leave English grants and securities severely alone.
He had mused and pondered on his plans all day. The evening found him halfexhausted with nerve-strain, febrile and almost sick with the agony of waiting. He had calculated that Sue would be free towards seven o'clock, as he had given Editha strict injunctions to keep discreetly out of the way, whilst at a previous meeting in the park, it had been arranged that the young girl should come to the cottage with the money, on the evening of her twenty-first birthday and there hand her fortune over to her rightful lord.
Now Sir Marmaduke cursed himself and his folly for having made this arrangement. He had not known--when he made it--that Richard would be back at Acol then. Adam the smith, never came home before eight o'clock and the old Quakeress herself would not have been much in the way.
Even now she had shuffled back into her kitchen, leaving her ill-humored lodger to puff away at the malodorous weed as he chose. But Richard might return at any moment, and then ...
Sir Marmaduke had never thought of that possible contingency. If Richard Lambert came face to face with him, he would of a surety pierce the disguise of the prince, and recognize the man who had so deeply wronged poor, unsuspecting Lady Sue. If only a kindly Fate had kept the young man away another twenty-four hours! or better still, if it led the despairing lover's footsteps to the extremest edge of the cliffs!
Sir Marmaduke now paced the narrow room up and down in an agony of impatience. Nine o'clock had struck long ago, but Sue had not yet come. The wildest imaginings run riot in the schemer's brain: every hour, nay! every minute spent within was fraught with danger. He sought his broad-brimmed hat, determined now to meet Sue in the park, to sally forth at risk of missing her, at risk of her arriving here at the cottage when he was absent, and of her meeting Richard Lambert perhaps, before the irrevocable deed of gift had been accomplished.
But the suspense was intolerable.
With a violent oath Sir Marmaduke pressed the hat over his head, and strode to the door.
His hand was on the latch, when he heard a faint sound from without: a girl's footsteps, timorous yet swift, along the narrow flagged path which led down the tiny garden gate.
The next moment he had thrown open the door and Sue stood before him. Anyone but a bold and unscrupulous schemer would have been struck by the pathos of the solitary figure which now appeared in the tiny doorway. The penetrating November drizzle had soaked through the dark cloak and hood which now hung heavy and dank round the young girl's shoulders. Framed by the hood, her face appeared preternaturally pale, her lips were quivering and her eyes, large and dilated, had almost a hunted look in them.
Oh! the pity and sadness of it all! For in her small and trembling hands she was clutching with pathetic tenacity a small, brown wallet which contained a fortune worthy of a princess.
She looked eagerly into her husband's face, dreading the scowl, the outburst of anger or jealousy mayhap with which of late, alas! he had so oft greeted her arrival. But as was his wont, he stood with his back to the lighted room, and she could not read the expression of that one cyclops-like eye, which to-night appeared more sinister than ever beneath the thick perruque and broad-brimmed hat.
"I am sorry to be so late," she said timidly, "the evening repast at the Court was interminable and Mistress de Chavasse full of gossip."
"Yes, yes, I know," he replied, "am I not used to seeing that your social duties oft make you forget your husband?"
"You are unjust, Amédé," she rejoined.
She entered the little parlor and stood beside the table, making no movement to divest herself of her dripping cloak, or to sit down, nor indeed did her husband show the slightest inclination to ask her to do either. He had closed the door behind her, and followed her to the center of the room. Was it by accident or design that as he reached the table he threw his broad-brimmed hat, down with such an unnecessary flourish of the arm that he knocked over one of the heavy pewter candlesticks, so that it rolled down upon the floor, causing the tallow candle to sputter and die out with a weird and hissing sound?
Only one dim yellow light now illumined the room, it shone full into the pallid face of the young wife standing some three paces from the table, whilst Prince Amédé d'Orléans' face between her and the light, was once more in deep shadow. "You are unjust," she repeated firmly. "Have I not run the gravest possible risks for your sake, and those without murmur or complaint, for the past six months? Did I not compromise my reputation for you by meeting you alone ... of nights? ..."
"I was laboring under the idea, my wench, that you were doing all that because you cared for me," he retorted with almost brutal curtness, "and because you had the desire to become the Princess d'Orléans; that desire is now gratified and ..." He had not really meant to be unkind. There was of a truth no object to be gained by being brutal to her now. But that wallet, which she held so tightly clutched, acted as an irritant to his nerves. Never of very equable temperament and holding all women in lofty scorn, he chafed against all parleyings with his wife, now that the goal of his ambition was so close at hand.
She winced at the insult, and the tears which she fain would have hidden from him, rose involuntarily to her eyes.
"Ah!" she sighed, "if you only knew how little I care for that title of princess! ... Did you perchance think that I cared? ... Nay! how gladly would I give up all thought of ever bearing that proud appellation, in exchange for a few more happy illusions such as I possessed three months ago."
"Illusions are all very well for a school-girl, my dear Suzanne," he remarked with a cool shrug of his massive shoulders. "Reality should be more attractive to you now...."
He looked her up and down, realizing perhaps for the first time that she was exquisitely beautiful; beautiful always, but more so now in the pathos of her helplessness. Somewhat perfunctorily, because in his ignorance of women he thought that it would please her, and also because vaguely something human and elemental had suddenly roused his pulses, he relinquished his nonchalant attitude, and came a step nearer to her.
"You are very beautiful, my Suzanne," he said half-ironically, and with marked emphasis on the possessive.
Again he drew nearer, not choosing to note the instinctive stiffening of her figure, the shrinking look in her eyes. He caught her arm and drew her to him, laughing a low mocking laugh as he did so, for she had turned her face away from him. "Come," he said lightly, "will you not kiss me, my beautiful Suzanne? ... my wife, my princess."
She was silent, impassive, indifferent so he thought, although the arm which he held trembled within his grip.
He stretched out his other hand, and taking her chin between his fingers, he forcibly turned her face towards him. Something in her face, in her attitude, now roused a certain rough passion in him. Mayhap the weary wailing during the day, the agonizing impatience, or the golden argosy so near to port, had strung up his nerves to fever pitch.
Irritation against her impassiveness, in such glaring contrast to her glowing ardor of but a few weeks ago, mingled with that essentially male desire to subdue and to conquer that which is inclined to resist, sent the blood coursing wildly through his veins.
"Ah!" he said with a sigh half of desire, half of satisfaction, as he looked into her upturned face, "the chaste blush of the bride is vastly becoming to you, my Suzanne! ... it acts as fuel to the flames of my love ... since I can well remember the passionate kisses you gave me so willingly awhile ago."
The thought of that happy past, gave her sudden strength. Catching him unawares she wrenched herself free from his hold.
"This is a mockery, prince," she said with vehemence, and meeting his halfmocking glance with one of scorn. "Do you think that I have been blind these last few weeks? ... Your love for me hath changed, if indeed it ever existed, whilst I ..."
"Whilst you, my beautiful Suzanne," he rejoined lightly, "are mine ... irrevocably, irretrievably mine ... mine because I love you, and because you are my wife ... and owe me that obedience which you vowed to Heaven that you would give me.... That is so, is it not?"
There was a moment's silence in the tiny cottage parlor now, whilst he--gauging the full value of his words, knowing by instinct that he had struck the right cord in that vibrating girlish heart, watched the subtle change in her face from defiance and wrath to submission and appeal.
"Yes, Amédé," she murmured after a while, "I owe you obedience, honor and love, and you need not fear that I will fail in either. But you," she added with pathetic anxiety, "you do care for me still? do you not?"
"Of course I care for you," he remarked, "I worship you.... There! ... will that satisfy you? ... And now?" he added peremptorily, "have you brought the money?"
The short interlude of passion was over. His eye had accidentally rested for one second on the leather wallet, which she still held tightly clutched, and all thoughts of her beauty, of his power or his desires, had flown out to the winds. "Yes," she replied meekly, "it is all here, in the wallet."
She laid it down upon the table, feeling neither anxiety nor remorse. He was her husband and had a right to her fortune, as he had to her person and to her thoughts and heart an he wished. Nor did she care about the money, as to the value of which she was, of course, ignorant.
Her wealth, up to now, had only had a meaning for her, as part of some noble scheme for the regeneration of mankind. Now she hoped vaguely, as she put that wallet down on the table, then pushed it towards her husband, that she was purchasing her freedom with her wealth.
Certainly she realized that his thoughts had very quickly been diverted from her beauty to the contents of the wallet. The mocking laugh died down on his lips, giving place to a sigh of deep satisfaction.
"You were very prudent, my dear Suzanne, to place this portion of your wealth in my charge," he said as he slipped the bulky papers into the lining of his doublet. "Of course it is all yours, and I--your husband--am but the repository and guardian of your fortune. And now methinks 'twere prudent for you to return to the Court. Sir Marmaduke de Chavasse will be missing you...."
It did not seem to strike her as strange that he should dismiss her thus abruptly, and make no attempt to explain what his future plans might be, nor indeed what his intentions were with regard to herself.
The intensity of her disappointment, the utter loneliness and helplessness of her position had caused a veritable numbing of her faculties and of her spirit and for the moment she was perhaps primarily conscious of a sense of relief at her dismissal.
Like her wedding in the dismal little church, this day of her birthday, of her independence, of her handing over her fortune to her husband for the glorious purposes of his selfless schemes had been so very, very different to what she had pictured to herself in her girlish and romantic dreams.
The sordidness of it all had ruthlessly struck her; for the first time in her intercourse with this man, she doubted the genuineness of his motives. With the passing of her fortune from her hands to his, the last vestige of belief in him died down with appalling suddenness.
It could not have been because of the expression in his eyes, as he fingered the wallet, for this she could not see, since his face was still in shadow. It must have been just instinct--that, and the mockery of his attempt to make love to her. Had he ever loved her, he could not have mocked ... not now, that she was helpless and entirely at his mercy.
Love once felt, is sacred to him who feels: mockery even of the ashes of love is an impossible desecration, one beyond the power of any man. Then, if he had never loved her, why had he pretended? Why have deceived her with a semblance of passion?
And the icy whisper of reason blew into her mental ear, the ugly word: "Money." He opened the door for her, and without another word, she passed out into the dark night. Only when she reached the tiny gate at the end of the flagged path, did she realize that he was walking with her.
"I can find my way alone through the woods," she said coldly. "I came alone." "It was earlier then," he rejoined blandly, "and I prefer to see you safely as far as the park."
And they walked on side by side in silence. Overhead the melancholy drip of moisture falling from leaf to leaf, and from leaf to the ground, was the only sound that accompanied their footsteps. Sue shivered beneath her damp cloak; but she walked as far away from him as the width of the woodland path allowed. He seemed absorbed in his own thoughts and not to notice how she shrank from the slightest contact with him.
At the park gate he paused, having opened it for her to pass through. "I must bid you good-night here, Suzanne," he said lightly, "there may be footpads about and I must place your securities away under lock and key. I may be absent a few days for that purpose.... London, you know," he added vaguely. Then as she made no comment:
"I will arrange for our next meeting," he said, "anon, there will be no necessity to keep our marriage a secret, but until I give you permission to speak of it, 'twere better that you remained silent on that score."
She contrived to murmur:
"As you will."
And presently, as he made no movement towards her, she said:
This time he had not even desired to kiss her.
The next moment she had disappeared in the gloom. She fled as fast as she dared in the inky blackness of this November night. She could have run for miles, or for hours, away! away from all this sordidness, this avarice, this deceit and cruelty! Away! away from him!!
How glad she was that darkness enveloped her, for now she felt horribly ashamed. Instinct, too, is cruel at times! Instinct had been silent so long during the most critical juncture of her own folly. Now it spoke loudly, warningly; now that it was too late.
Ashamed of her own stupidity and blindness! her vanity mayhap had alone led her to believe the passionate protestations of a liar.
A liar! a mean, cowardly schemer, but her husband for all that! She owed him love, honor and obedience; if he commanded, she must obey; if he called she must fain go to him.
Oh! please God! that she had succeeded in purchasing her freedom from him by placing £500,000 in his hands.
Shame! shame that this should be! that she should have mistaken vile schemes for love, that a liar's kisses should have polluted her soul! that she should be the wife, the bondswoman of a cheat!