The Nest of the Sparrowhawk by Baroness Orczy - HTML preview

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XLII. The Return

Master Courage Toogood had long ago given up all thought of waiting for the mistress. He had knocked repeatedly at the door of the cottage, from behind the thick panels of which he had heard loud and--he thought--angry voices, speaking words which he could not, however, quite understand.
No answer had come to his knocking and tired with the excitement of the day, fearful, too, at the thought of the lonely walk which now awaited him, he chose to believe that mayhap he had either misunderstood his master's orders, or that Sir Marmaduke himself had been mistaken when he thought the mistress back at the cottage.
These surmises were vastly to Master Courage Toogood's liking, whose name somewhat belied his timid personality. Swinging his lantern and striving to keep up his spirits by the aid of a lusty song, he resolutely turned his steps towards home.
The whole landscape seemed filled with eeriness: the events of the day had left their impress on this dark November night, causing the sighs of the gale to seem more spectral and weird than usual, and the dim outline of the trees with their branches turned away from the coastline, to seem like unhappy spirits with thin, gaunt arms stretched dejectedly out toward the unresponsive distance. Master Toogood tried not to think of ghosts, nor of the many stories of pixies and goblins which are said to take a malicious pleasure in the timorousness of mankind, but of a truth he nearly uttered a cry of terror, and would have fallen on his knees in the mud, when a dark object quite undistinguishable in the gloom suddenly loomed before him.
Yet this was only the portly figure of Master Pyot, the petty constable, who seemed to be mounting guard just outside the cottage, and who was vastly amused at Toogood's pusillanimity. He entered into converse with the young man--no doubt he, too, had been feeling somewhat lonely in the midst of this darkness, which was peopled with unseen shadows. Master Courage was ready enough to talk. He had acquired some of Master Busy's eloquence on the subject of secret investigations, and the mystery which had gained an intensity this afternoon, through the revelations of the old Quakeress, was an all-engrossing one to all.
The attention which Pyot vouchsafed to his narration greatly enhanced Master Toogood's own delight therein, more especially as the petty constable had, as if instinctively, measured his steps with those of the younger man and was accompanying him on his way towards the Court.
Courage told his attentive listener all about Master Busy's surmises and his determination to probe the secrets of the mysterious crime, which--to be quite truthful--the worthy butler with the hard toes had scented long ere it was committed, seeing that he used to spend long hours in vast discomfort in the forked branches of the old elms which surrounded the pavilion at the boundary of the park.
Toogood had no notion if Master Busy had ever discovered anything of interest in the neighborhood of that pavilion, and he was quite, quite sure that the saintly man had never dared to venture inside that archaic building, which had the reputation of being haunted; still, he was over-gratified to perceive that the petty constable was vastly interested in his tale--in spite of these obvious defects in its completeness--and that, moreover, Master Pyot showed no signs of turning on his heel, but continued to trudge along the gloomy road in company with Sir Marmaduke's youngest serving-man.
Thus Editha, when she ran out of Mistress Lambert's cottage, her ears ringing with the fanatic's curses, her heart breaking with the joy of that reverent filial kiss imprinted upon her hands, found the road and the precincts of the cottage entirely deserted.
The night was pitch dark after the rain. Great heavy clouds still hung above, and an icy blast caught her skirts as she lifted the latch of the gate and turned into the open.
But she cared little about the inclemency of the weather. She knew her way about well enough and her mind was too full of terrible thoughts of what was real, to yield to the subtle and feeble fears engendered by imaginings of the supernatural.
Nay! she would, mayhap, have welcomed the pixies and goblins who by mischievous pranks had claimed her attention. They would, of a truth, have diverted her mind from the contemplation of that awful and monstrous deed accomplished by the man whom she would meet anon.
If he whom the villagers had called Adam Lambert was her son, Henry Adam de Chavasse, then Sir Marmaduke was the murderer of her child. All the curses which the old Quakeress had so vengefully poured upon her were as nothing compared with that awful, that terrible fact.
Her son had been murdered ... her eldest son whom she had never known, and she--involuntarily mayhap, compulsorily certes--had in a measure helped to bring about those events which had culminated in that appalling crime.
She had known of Marmaduke's monstrous fraud on the confiding girl whom he now so callously abandoned to her fate. She had known of it and helped him towards its success by luring her other son Richard to that vile gambling den where he had all but lost his honor, or else his reason.
This knowledge and the help she had given was the real curse upon her now: a curse far more horrible and deadly than that which had driven Cain forth into the wilderness. This knowledge and the help she had given had stained her hands with the blood of her own child.
No wonder that she sighed for ghouls and for shadowy monsters, well-nigh longing for a sight of distorted faces, of ugly deformed bodies, and loathsome shapes far less hideous than that specter of an inhuman homicide which followed her along this dark road as she ran--ran on--ran towards the home where dwelt the living monster of evil, the man who had done the deed, which she had helped to accomplish.
Complete darkness reigned all around her, she could not see a yard of the road in front of her, but she went on blindly, guided by instinct, led by that unseen shadow which was driving her on. All round her the gale was moaning in the creaking branches of the trees, branches which were like arms stretched forth in appeal towards the unattainable.
Her progress was slow for she was walking in the very teeth of the hurricane, and her shoes ever and anon remained glued to the slimy mud. But the road was straight enough, she knew it well, and she felt neither fatigue nor discomfort. Of Sue she did not think. The wrongs done to the defenseless girl were as nothing to her compared with the irreparable--the wrongs done to her sons, the living and the dead: for the one the foul dagger of an inhuman assassin, for the other shame and disgrace.
Sue was young. Sue would soon forget. The girl-wife would soon regain her freedom.... But what of the mother who had on her soul the taint of the murder of her child?
The gate leading to the Court from the road was wide open: it had been left so for her, no doubt, when Sir Marmaduke returned. The house itself was dark, no light save one pierced the interstices of the ill-fitting shutters. Editha paused a moment at the gate, looking at the house--a great black mass, blacker than the surrounding gloom. That had been her home for many years now, ever since her youth and sprightliness had vanished, and she had had nowhere to go for shelter. It had been her home ever since Richard, her youngest boy, had entered it, too, as a dependent.
Oh! what an immeasurable fool she had been, how she had been tricked and fooled all these years by the man who two days ago had put a crown upon his own infamy. He knew where the boys were, he helped to keep them away from their mother, so as to filch from them their present, and above all, future inheritance. How she loathed him now, and loathed herself for having allowed him to drag her down. Aye! of a truth he had wronged her worse even than he had wronged his brother's sons!
She fixed her eyes steadily on the one light which alone pierced the inky blackness of the solid mass of the house. It came from the little withdrawingroom, which was on the left of this entrance to the hall; but the place itself-beyond just that one tiny light--appeared quite silent and deserted. Even from the stableyard on her right and from the serving-men's quarters not a sound came to mingle with the weird whisperings of the wind.
Editha approached and stooping to the ground, she groped in the mud until her hands encountered two or three pebbles.
She picked them up, then going close to the house, she threw these pebbles one by one against the half-closed shutter of the withdrawing-room.
The next moment, she heard the latch of the casement window being lifted from within, and anon the rickety shutter flew back with a thin creaking sound like that of an animal in pain.
The upper part of Sir Marmaduke's figure appeared in the window embrasure, like a dark and massive silhouette against the yellowish light from within. He stooped forward, seeming to peer into the darkness.
"Is that you, Editha?" he queried presently.
"Yes," she replied. "Open!"
She then waited a moment or two, whilst he closed both the shutter and the window, she standing the while on the stone step before the portico. In the stillness she could hear him open the drawing-room door, then cross the hall and finally unbolt the heavy outer door.
She pushed past him over the threshold and went into the gloomy hall, pitch dark save for the flickering light of the candle which he held. She waited until he had re-closed the door, then she stood quite still, confronting him, allowing him to look into her face, to read the expression of her eyes.
In order to do this he had raised the candle, his hand trembling perceptibly, and the feeble light quivered in his grasp, illumining her face at fitful intervals, creeping down her rigid shoulders and arms, as far as her hands, which were tightly clenched. It danced upon his face too, lighting it with weird gleams and fitful sparks, showing the wild look in his eyes, the glitter almost of madness in the dilated pupils, the dark iris sharply outlined against the glassy orbs. It licked the trembling lips and distorted mouth, the drawn nostrils and dank hair, almost alive with that nameless fear.
"You would denounce me?" he murmured, and the cry--choked and toneless-could scarce rise from the dry parched throat.
"Yes!" she said.
He uttered a violent curse.
"You devil ... you ..."
"You have time to go," she said calmly, "'tis a long while 'twixt now and dawn." He understood. She only would denounce him if he stayed. She wished him no evil, only desired him out of her sight. He tried to say something flippant, something cruel and sneering, but she stopped him with a peremptory gesture. "Go!" she said, "or I might forget everything save that you killed my son." For a moment she thought that her life was in danger at his hands, so awful in its baffled rage was the expression of his face when he understood that indeed she knew everything. She even at that moment longed that his cruel instincts should prompt him to kill her. He could never succeed in hiding that crime and retributive justice would of a surety overtake him then, without any help from her. No doubt he, too, thought of this as the weird flicker of the candle-light showed him her unflinching face, for the next moment, with another muttered curse, and a careless shrug of the shoulders, he turned on his heel, and slowly went upstairs, candle in hand.
Editha watched him until his massive figure was merged in the gloom of the heavy oak stairway. Then she went into the withdrawing-room and waited.