The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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XXXVI. The Girl-Wife
But the effort of the past few moments had been almost more than Marmaduke de Chavasse could bear.
Anon when the church bell over at Acol began a slow and monotonous toll he felt as if his every nerve must give way: as if he must laugh, laugh loudly and long at the idiocy, the ignorance of all these people who thought that they were confronted by an impenetrable mystery, whereas it was all so simple ... so very, very simple.
He had a curious feeling as if he must grip every one of these men here by the throat and demand from each one separately an account of what he thought and felt, what he surmised and what he guessed when standing face to face with the weird enigma presented by that mutilated thing in its rough deal case. He would have given worlds to know what his friend Boatfield thought of it all, or what had been the petty constable's conjectures.
A haunting and devilish desire seized him to break open the skulls of all these yokels and to look into their brains. Above all now the silence of the cottage close to him had become unendurable torment. That closed door, the tiny railing which surrounded the bit of front garden, that little gate the latch of which he himself so oft had lifted, all seemed to hold the key to some terrible mystery, the answer to some fearful riddle which he felt would drive him mad if he could not hit upon it now at once.
The brandy had fired his veins: he no longer felt numb with the cold. A passion of rage was seething in him, and he longed to attack with fists and heels those curtained windows which now looked like eyes turned mutely and inquiringly upon him.
But there was enough sanity in him yet to prevent his doing anything rash: an uncontrolled act might cause astonishment, suspicion mayhap, in the minds of those who witnessed it. He made a violent effort to steady himself even now, above all to steady his voice and to veil that excited glitter which he knew must be apparent in his eyes.
"Meseems that 'tis somewhat strange," he said quite calmly, even lightly, to Squire Boatfield who seemed to be preparing to go, "that these people--the Lamberts--who alone knew the ... the murdered man intimately, should keep so persistently, so determinedly out of the way."
Even while the words escaped his mouth--certes involuntarily--he knew that the most elementary prudence should have dictated silence on this score, and at this juncture. The man was about to be buried, the disappearance of the smith had passed off so far without comment. Peace, the eternal peace of the grave, would soon descend on the weird events which occupied everyone's mind for the present.
What the old Quakeress thought and felt, what Richard--the brother--feared and conjectured was easy for Sir Marmaduke to guess: for him, but for no one else. To these others the silence of the cottage, the absence of the Lamberts from this gathering was simple enough of explanation, seeing that they themselves felt such bitter resentment against the dead man. They quite felt with the old woman's sullenness, her hatred of the foreigner who had disturbed the serenity of her life.
Everyone else was willing to let her be, not to drag her and young Lambert into the unpleasant vortex of these proceedings. Their home was an abode of mourning: it was proper and seemly for them to remain concealed and silent within their cottage; seemly, too, to have curtained their windows and closed their doors.
No one wished to disturb them; no one but Sir Marmaduke, and with him it was once again that morbid access of curiosity, the passionate, intense desire to know and to probe every tiny detail in connection with his own crime. "The old woman Lambert should be made to identify the body, before it is buried," he now repeated with angry emphasis, seeing that a look of disapproval had crossed Squire Boatfield's pleasant face.
"We are satisfied as to the man's identity," rejoined the squire impatiently, "and the sight is not fit for women's eyes."
"Nay, then she should be shown the clothes and effects.... And, if I mistake not, there's Richard Lambert, my late secretary, has he laid sworn information about the man?"
"Yes, I believe so," said Boatfield with some hesitation.
"Nay, Boatfield, an you are so reluctant to do your duty in this matter, I'll speak to these people myself.... You are chief constable of the district ... indeed, 'tis you should do it ... and in the meanwhile I pray you, at least to give orders that the coffin be not nailed down."
The kindly squire would have entered a further protest. He did not see the necessity of confronting an old woman with the gruesome sight of a mutilated corpse, nor did he perceive justifiable cause for further formalities of identification.
But Sir Marmaduke having spoken very peremptorily, had already turned on his heel without waiting for his friend's protest, and was striding across the patch of rough stubble, which bordered the railing round the front of the cottage. Squire Boatfield reluctantly followed him. The next moment de Chavasse had lifted the latch of the gate, crossed the short flagged path and now knocked loudly against the front door.
Apparently there was no desire for secrecy or rebellion on the part of the dwellers of the cottage, for hardly had Sir Marmaduke's imperious knock echoed against the timbered walls, than the door was opened from within by Richard Lambert who, seeing the two gentlemen standing on the threshold, stepped back immediately, allowing them to pass.
The old Quakeress and Richard were seemingly not alone. Two ladies sat in those same straight-backed chairs, wherein, some fifty hours ago Adam Lambert and the French prince had agreed upon that fateful meeting on the brow of the cliff.
Sir Marmaduke's restless eyes took in at a glance every detail of that little parlor, which he had known so intimately. The low lintel of the door, which had always forced him to stoop as he entered, the central table with the pewter candlesticks upon it, the elm chairs shining like mirrors in response to the Quakeress' maddening passion for cleanliness.
Everything was just as it had been those few hours ago, when last he had picked up his broad-brimmed hat from the table and walked out of the cottage into the night. Everything was the same as it had been when his young girl-wife pushed a leather wallet across the table to him: the wallet which contained the fortune that he had not yet dared to turn fully to his own account.
Aye! it was all just the same: for even at this moment as he stood there in the room, Sue, pale and still, faced him from across the table. For a moment he was silent, nor did anybody speak. Squire Boatfield felt unaccountably embarrassed, certain that he was intruding, vaguely wondering why the atmosphere in the cottage was so heavy and oppressive.
Behind him, Richard Lambert had quietly closed the front door; the old woman stood in the background; the dusting-cloth which she had been plying so vigorously had dropped out of her hand when the two gentlemen had appeared in her little parlor so unexpectedly.
Sir Marmaduke was the first to break the silence.
"My dear Sue," he said curtly, "this is a strange place indeed wherein to find your ladyship."
He cast a sharp, inquiring glance at her, then at his sister-in-law, who was still sitting by the hearth.
"She insisted on coming," said Mistress de Chavasse with a shrug of the shoulders, "and I had not the power to stop her; I thought it best, therefore, to accompany her."
She was wearing the cloak and hood which Sir Marmaduke had seen round her shoulders when awhile ago he had met her in the hall of the Court. Apparently she had started out with Sue in his immediate wake, and now he had a distinct recollection that while the mare was slowly ambling along, he had looked back once or twice and seen two dark figures walking some fifty yards behind him on the road which he himself had just traversed.
At the moment he had imagined that they were some village folk, wending their way towards Acol: now he was conscious of nerve-racking irritation at the thought that if he had only turned the mare's head back toward the Court--as he had at one time intended to do--he could have averted this present meeting--it almost seemed like a confrontation--here, in this cottage on the self-same spot, where thought of murder had first struck upon his brain.
There was something inexplicable, strangely puzzling now in Sue's attitude. When de Chavasse had entered, she had risen from her chair and, as if deliberately, had walked over to the spot where she had stood during that momentous interview, when she relinquished her fortune entirely and without protest, into the hands of the man whom she had married, and whom she believed to be her lord.
Her gaze now--calm and fixed, and withal vaguely searching--rested on her guardian's face. The fixity of her look increased his nerve-tension. The others, too, were regarding him with varying feelings which were freely expressed in their eyes. Boatfield seemed upset and somewhat resentful, the old woman sullen, despite the deference in her attitude, Lambert defiant, wrathful, nay! full of an incipient desire to avenge past wrongs.
And dominating all, there was Editha's look of bewilderment, of puzzledom in her face at a mystery whereat her senses were beginning to reel, that mute questioning of the eyes, which speaks of turbulent thoughts within. Sir Marmaduke uttered an exclamation of impatience.
"You must return to the Court and at once," he said, avoiding Sue's gaze and speaking directly to Editha, "the men are outside, with lanterns. You'll have to walk quickly an you wish to reach home before twilight."
But even while he spoke, Sue--not heeding him--had turned to Squire Boatfield. She went up to him, holding out her hands as if in instinctive childlike appeal for protection, to a kindly man.
"This mystery is horrible!" she murmured.
Boatfield took her small hands in his, patting them gently the while, desiring to soothe and comfort her, for she seemed deeply agitated and there was a wild look of fear from time to time in her pale face.
"Sir Marmaduke is right," said the squire gently, "this is indeed no place for your ladyship. I did not see you arrive or I had at once persuaded you to go." De Chavasse would again have interposed. He stooped and picked up Sue's cloak which had fallen to the ground, and as he went up to her with the obvious intention of replacing it around her shoulders, she checked him, with a slight motion of her hand.
"I only heard of this terrible crime an hour ago," she said, speaking once more to Boatfield, "and as I methinks, am the only person in the world who can throw light upon this awesome mystery, I thought it my duty to come."
"Of a truth 'twas brave of your ladyship," quoth the squire, feeling a little bewildered at this strange announcement, "but surely ... you did not know this man?"
"If the rumor which hath reached me be correct," she replied quietly, "then indeed did I know the murdered man intimately. Prince Amédé d'Orléans was my husband."