The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview
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XXXIX. The Home-Coming Of Adam Lambert
A ll heads were bent; none of the ignorant folk who stood around would have dared even to look at the old woman kneeling beside that rough deal box which contained the body of her lad. A reverent feeling had killed all curiosity: bewilderment at the extraordinary and wholly unexpected turn of events had been merged in a sense of respectful awe, which rendered every mouth silent, and lowered every lid.
Squire Boatfield, almost paralyzed with astonishment, had murmured half stupidly:
"Adam Lambert ... dead? ... I do not understand."
He turned to Marmaduke de Chavasse as if vaguely, instinctively expecting an answer to the terrible puzzle from him.
De Chavasse's feet, over which he himself seemed to have no control, had of a truth led him forward, so that he, too, stood not far from the old woman now. He had watched her--silent and rigid,--conscious only of one thing--a trivial matter certes--of Editha's inquiring eyes fixed steadily upon him.
Everything else had been merged in a kind of a dream. But the mute question in those eyes was what concerned him. It seemed to represent the satisfaction of that morbid curiosity which had been such a terrible obsession during these past nerve-racking days.
Editha, realizing the identity of the dead man, would there and then know the entire truth. But Editha's fate was too closely linked to his own to render her knowledge of that truth dangerous to de Chavasse: therefore, with him it was merely a sense of profound satisfaction that someone would henceforth share his secret with him.
It is quite impossible to analyze the thoughts of the man who thus stood by--a silent and almost impassive spectator--of a scene, wherein his fate, his life, an awful retribution and deadly justice, were all hanging in the balance. He was not mad, nor did he act with either irrelevance or rashness. The sense of selfprotection was still keen in him ... violently keen ... although undoubtedly he, and he alone, was responsible for the events which culminated in the present crisis. The whole aspect of affairs had changed from the moment that the real identity of the dead had been established. Everyone here present would regard this new mystery in an altogether different light to that by which they had viewed the former weird problem; but still there need be no danger to the murderer. Editha would know, of course, but no one else, and it would be vastly curious anon to see what lady Sue would do.
Therefore, Sir Marmaduke was chiefly conscious of Editha's presence, and then only of Sue.
"Some old woman's folly," he now said roughly, in response to Squire Boatfield's mute inquiry, "awhile ago she identified the clothes as having belonged to the foreign prince."
"Aye, the clothes, de Chavasse," murmured the squire meditatively, "the clothes, but not the man ... and 'twas you yourself who just now...."
"Master Lambert should know his own brother," here came in a suppressed murmur from one or two of the men, who respectful before the quality, had now become too excited to keep altogether silent.
"Of course I know my brother," retorted Richard Lambert boldly, "and can but curse mine own cowardice in not defending him ere this."
"What more lies are we to hear?" sneered de Chavasse, "surely, Boatfield, this stupid scene hath lasted long enough."
"Put my knowledge to the test, sir," rejoined Lambert. "My brother's arm was scarred by a deep cut from shoulder to elbow, caused by the fall of a sharpbladed ax--'twas the right arm ... will you see, Sir Marmaduke, or will you allow me to lay bare the right arm of this man ... to see if I had lied? ..." Squire Boatfield, conquering his reluctance, had approached nearer to the coffin; he, too, lifted the dead man's arm, as the old woman had done just now, and he gazed down meditatively at the hand, which though shapely, was obviously rough and toil-worn. Then, with a firm and deliberate gesture, he undid the sleeve of the doublet and pushed it back, baring the arm up to the shoulder. He looked at the lifeless flesh for a moment, there where a deep and long scar stood out plainly between the elbow and shoulder like the veining in a block of marble. Then he pulled the sleeve down again.
"Neither you, nor Mistress Lambert have lied, master," he said simply. "'Tis Adam Lambert who lies here ... murdered ... and if that be so," he continued firmly, "then the man who put these clothes upon the body of the smith is his murderer ... the foreigner who called himself Prince Amédé d'Orléans."
"The husband of Lady Sue Aldmarshe," quoth Sir Marmaduke, breaking into a loud laugh.
The rain had momentarily ceased, although the gale, promising further havoc, still continued that mournful swaying of the dead branches of the trees. But a gentle drip-drip had replaced that incessant patter. The humid atmosphere had long ago penetrated through rough shirts and worsted breeches, causing the spectators of this weird tragedy to shiver with the cold.
The shades of evening had begun to gather in. It were useless now to attempt to reach Minster before nightfall: nor presumably would the old Quakeress thus have parted from the dead body of her lad.
Richard Lambert had begged that the coffin might be taken into the cottage. The old woman's co-religionists would help her to obtain for Adam fitting and Christian burial.
After Sir Marmaduke's sneering taunt no one had spoken. For these yokels and their womenfolk the matter had passed altogether beyond their ken. Bewildered, not understanding, above all more than half fearful, they consulted one another vaguely and mutely with eyes and quaint expressive gestures, wondering what had best be done.
'Twas fortunate that the rain had ceased. One by one the women, still holding their kirtles tightly round their shoulders, began to move away. The deal box seemed to have reached a degree of mystery from which 'twas best to keep at a distance. The men, too--those who had come as spectators--were gradually edging away; some walked off with their womenfolk, others hung back in groups of three or four discussing the most hospitable place to which 'twere best to adjourn.
All wore a strangely shamed expression of timidity--almost of self-deprecation, as if apologetic for their presence here when the quality had matters of such grave import to discuss. No one had really understood Sir Marmaduke's sneering taunt, only they felt instinctively that there were some secrets which it had been disrespectful even to attempt to guess.
Those who had been prepared to carry the coffin to Minster were the last to hang back. Squire Boatfield was obviously giving some directions to their foreman, Mat, who tugged at his forelock at intervals, indicating that he was prepared to obey. The others stood aside waiting for instructions.
Thus the deal box remained on the ground, exactly opposite the tiny wooden gate, strangely isolated and neglected-looking after the dispersal of the interested crowd which had surrounded it awhile ago. It seemed as if with the establishment of the real identity of the dead the intensity of the excitement had vanished. The mysterious foreigner had a small court round him; Adam Lambert, only his brother and the old Quakeress.
They remained beside the coffin, she kneeling with her head buried in her wrinkled hands, he standing silent and passionately wrathful both against one man and against destiny. He had almost screamed with horror when de Chavasse thus brutally uttered Lady Sue's name: he had seen the young girl almost sway on her feet, as she smothered the cry of agony and horror which at her guardian's callous taunt had risen to her lips.
He had seen and in his heart worshiped her for the heroic effort which she made to remain outwardly calm, not to betray before a crowd the agonizing horror, the awful fear and the burning shame which of a truth would have crushed most women of her tender years. And because he saw that she did not wish to betray one single thought or emotion, he did not approach, nor attempt to show the overwhelming sympathy which he felt.
He knew that any word from him to her would only call forth more malicious sneers from that strange man, who seemed to be pursuing Lady Sue and also himself--Lambert--with a tenacious and incomprehensible hatred. Richard remained, therefore, beside his dead brother's coffin, supporting and anon gently raising the old woman from the ground.
Mat--the foreman--had joined his comrades and after a word of explanation, they once more gathered round the wooden box. Stooping to their task, their sinews cracking under the effort, the perspiration streaming from their foreheads, they raised the mortal remains of Adam Lambert from the ground and hoisted the burden upon their shoulders.
Then they turned into the tiny gate and slowly walked with it along the little flagged path to the cottage. The men had to stoop as they crossed the threshold, and the heavy box swayed above their powerful shoulders.
The Quakeress and Richard followed, going within in the wake of the six men. The parlor was then empty, and thus it was that Adam Lambert finally came home.
The others--Squire Boatfield and Mistress de Chavasse, Lady Sue and Sir Marmaduke--had stood aside in the small fore-court, to enable the small cortège to pass. Directly Richard Lambert and the old woman disappeared within the gloom of the cottage interior, these four people--each individually the prey of harrowing thoughts--once more turned their steps towards the open road. There was nothing more to be done here at this cottage, where the veil of mystery which had fallen over the gruesome murder had been so unexpectedly lifted by a septuagenarian's hand.