It was old Nicholas who brought the news next morning to the brothers as they were breaking their fast.
Lionel should have kept his bed that day, but dared not, lest the fact should arouse suspicion. He had a little fever, the natural result both of his wound and of his loss of blood; he was inclined to welcome rather than deplore it, since it set a flush on cheeks that otherwise must have looked too pale.
So leaning upon his brother's arm he came down to a breakfast of herrings and small ale before the tardy sun of that December morning was well risen.
Nicholas burst in upon them with a white face and shaking limbs. He gasped out his tale of the event in a voice of terror, and both brothers affected to be shocked, dismayed and incredulous. But the worst part of that old man's news, the true cause of his terrible agitation, was yet to be announced.
"And they do zay," he cried with anger quivering through his fear, "they do zay that it were you that killed he, Sir Oliver."
"I?" quoth Sir Oliver, staring, and suddenly like a flood there burst upon his mind a hundred reasons overlooked until this moment, that inevitably must urge the countryside to this conclusion, and to this conclusion only. "Where heard you that foul lie?"
In the tumult of his mind he never heeded what answer was returned by Nicholas. What could it matter where the fellow had heard the thing; by now it would be the accusation on the lips of every man. There was one course to take and he must take it instantly—as he had taken it once before in like case. He must straight to Rosamund to forestall the tale that others would carry to her. God send he did not come too late already.
He stayed for no more than to get his boots and hat, then to the stables for a horse, and he was away over the short mile that divided Penarrow from Godolphin Court, going by bridle and track meadow straight to his goal. He met none until he fetched up in the courtyard at Godolphin Court. Thence a babble of excited voices had reached him as he approached. But at sight of him there fell a general silence, ominous and staring. A dozen men or more were assembled there, and their eyes considered him first with amazement and curiosity, then with sullen anger.
He leapt down from his saddle, and stood a moment waiting for one of the three Godolphin grooms he had perceived in that assembly to take his reins. Seeing that none stirred—
"How now?" he cried. "Does no one wait here? Hither, sirrah, and hold my horse."
The groom addressed hesitated a moment, then, under the stare of Sir Oliver's hard, commanding eye, he shuffled sullenly forward to do as he was bid. A murmur ran through the group. Sir Oliver flashed a glance upon it, and every tongue trembled into silence.
In that silence he strode up the steps, and entered the rush-strewn hall. As he vanished he heard the hubbub behind him break out anew, fiercer than it had been before. But he nothing heeded it.
He found himself face to face with a servant, who shrank before him, staring as those in the courtyard had stared. His heart sank. It was plain that he came a little late already; that the tale had got there ahead of him.
"Where is your mistress?" said he.
"I...I will tell her you are here, Sir Oliver," the man replied in a voice that faltered; and he passed through a doorway on the right. Sir Oliver stood a moment tapping his boots with his whip, his face pale, a deep line between his brows. Then the man reappeared, closing the door after him.
"Mistress Rosamund bids you depart, sir. She will not see you."
A moment Sir Oliver scanned the servant's face—or appeared to scan it, for it is doubtful if he saw the fellow at all. Then for only answer he strode forward towards the door from which the man had issued. The servant set his back to it, his face resolute.
"Sir Oliver, my mistress will not see you."
"Out of my way!" he muttered in his angry, contemptuous fashion, and as the man persistent in his duty stood his ground, Sir Oliver took him by the breast of his jacket, heaved him aside and went in.
She was standing in mid-apartment, dressed by an odd irony all in bridal white, that yet was not as white as was her face. Her eyes looked like two black stains, solemn and haunting as they fastened up on this intruder who would not be refused. Her lips parted, but she had no word for him. She just stared in a horror that routed all his audacity and checked the masterfulness of his advance. At last he spoke.
"I see that you have heard," said he, "the lie that runs the countryside. That is evil enough. But I see that you have lent an ear to it; and that is worse."
She continued to regard him with a cold look of loathing, this child that but two days ago had lain against his heart gazing up at him in trust and adoration.
"Rosamund!" he cried, and approached her by another step. "Rosamund! I am here to tell you that it is a lie."
"You had best go," she said, and her voice had in it a quality that made him tremble.
"Go?" he echoed stupidly. "You bid me go? You will not hear me?"
"I consented to hear you more than once; refused to hear others who knew better than I, and was heedless of their warnings. There is no more to be said between us. I pray God that they may take and hang you."
He was white to the lips, and for the first time in his life he knew fear and felt his great limbs trembling under him.
"They may hang me and welcome since you believe this thing. They could not hurt me more than you are doing, nor by hanging me could they deprive me of aught I value, since your faith in me is a thing to be blown upon by the first rumour of the countryside."
He saw the pale lips twist themselves into a dreadful smile. "There is more than rumour, I think," said she. "There is more than all your lies will ever serve to cloak."
"My lies?" he cried. "Rosamund, I swear to you by my honour that I have had no hand in the slaying of Peter. May God rot me where I stand if this be not true!"
"It seems," said a harsh voice behind him, "that you fear God as little as aught else."
He wheeled sharply to confront Sir John Killigrew, who had entered after him.
"So," he said slowly, and his eyes grew hard and bright as agates, "this is your work." And he waved a hand towards Rosamund. It was plain to what he alluded.
"My work?" quoth Sir John. He closed the door, and advanced into the room. "Sir, it seems your audacity, your shamelessness, transcends all bounds. Your...."
"Have done with that," Sir Oliver interrupted him and smote his great fist upon the table. He was suddenly swept by a gust of passion. "Leave words to fools, Sir John, and criticisms to those that can defend them better."
"Aye, you talk like a man of blood. You come hectoring it here in the very house of the dead—in the very house upon which you have cast this blight of sorrow and murder...."
"Have done, I say, or murder there will be!"
His voice was a roar, his mien terrific. And bold man though Sir John was, he recoiled. Instantly Sir Oliver had conquered himself again. He swung to Rosamund. "Ah, forgive me!" he pleaded. "I am mad—stark mad with anguish at the thing imputed. I have not loved your brother, it is true. But as I swore to you, so have I done. I have taken blows from him, and smiled; but yesterday in a public place he affronted me, lashed me across the face with his riding-whip, as I still bear the mark. The man who says I were not justified in having killed him for it is a liar and a hypocrite. Yet the thought of you, Rosamund, the thought that he was your brother sufficed to quench the rage in which he left me. And now that by some grim mischance he has met his death, my recompense for all my patience, for all my thought for you is that I am charged with slaying him, and that you believe this charge."
"She has no choice," rasped Killigrew.
"Sir John," he cried, "I pray you do not meddle with her choice. That you believe it, marks you for a fool, and a fool's counsel is a rotten staff to lean upon at any time. Why God o' mercy! assume that I desired to take satisfaction for the affront he had put upon me; do you know so little of men, and of me of all men, that you suppose I should go about my vengeance in this hole-and-corner fashion to set a hangman's noose about my neck. A fine vengeance that, as God lives! Was it so I dealt with you, Sir John, when you permitted your tongue to wag too freely, as you have yourself confessed? Heaven's light, man; take a proper view; consider was this matter likely. I take it you are a more fearsome antagonist than was ever poor Peter Godolphin, yet when I sought satisfaction of you I sought it boldly and openly, as is my way. When we measured swords in your park at Arwenack we did so before witnesses in proper form, that the survivor might not be troubled with the Justices. You know me well, and what manner of man I am with my weapons. Should I not have done the like by Peter if I had sought his life? Should I not have sought it in the same open fashion, and so killed him at my pleasure and leisure, and without risk or reproach from any?"
Sir John was stricken thoughtful. Here was logic hard and clear as ice; and the knight of Arwenack was no fool. But whilst he stood frowning and perplexed at the end of that long tirade, it was Rosamund who gave Sir Oliver his answer.
"You ran no risk of reproach from any, do you say?"
He turned, and was abashed. He knew the thought that was running in her mind.
"You mean," he said slowly, gently, his accents charged with reproachful incredulity, "that I am so base and false that I could in this fashion do what I dared not for your sake do openly? 'Tis what you mean. Rosamund! I burn with shame for you that you can think such thoughts of one whom... whom you professed to love."
Her coldness fell from her. Under the lash of his bitter, half-scornful accents, her anger mounted, whelming for a moment even her anguish in her brother's death.
"You false deceiver!" she cried. "There are those who heard you vow his death. Your very words have been reported to me. And from where he lay they found a trail of blood upon the snow that ran to your own door. Will you still lie?"
They saw the colour leave his face. They saw his arms drop limply to his sides, and his eyes dilate with obvious sudden fear.
"A... a trail of blood?" he faltered stupidly.
"Aye, answer that!" cut in Sir John, fetched suddenly from out his doubts by that reminder.
Sir Oliver turned upon Killigrew again. The knight's words restored to him the courage of which Rosamund's had bereft him. With a man he could fight; with a man there was no need to mince his words.
"I cannot answer it," he said, but very firmly, in a tone that brushed aside all implications. "If you say it was so, so it must have been. Yet when all is said, what does it prove? Does it set it beyond doubt that it was I who killed him? Does it justify the woman who loved me to believe me a murderer and something worse?" He paused, and looked at her again, a world of reproach in his glance. She had sunk to a chair, and rocked there, her fingers locking and interlocking, her face a mask of pain unutterable.
"Can you suggest what else it proves, sir?" quoth Sir John, and there was doubt in his voice.
Sir Oliver caught the note of it, and a sob broke from him.
"O God of pity!" he cried out. "There is doubt in your voice, and there is none in hers. You were my enemy once, and have since been in a mistrustful truce with me, yet you can doubt that I did this thing. But she... she who loved me has no room for any doubt!"
"Sir Oliver," she answered him, "the thing you have done has broken quite my heart. Yet knowing all the taunts by which you were brought to such a deed I could have forgiven it, I think, even though I could no longer be your wife; I could have forgiven it, I say, but for the baseness of your present denial."
He looked at her, white-faced an instant, then turned on his heel and made for the door. There he paused.
"Your meaning is quite plain," said he. "It is your wish that I shall take my trial for this deed." He laughed. "Who will accuse me to the Justices? Will you, Sir John?"
"If Mistress Rosamund so desires me," replied the knight.
"Ha! Be it so. But do not think I am the man to suffer myself to be sent to the gallows upon such paltry evidence as satisfies that lady. If any accuser comes to bleat of a trail of blood reaching to my door, and of certain words I spoke yesterday in anger, I will take my trial—but it shall be trial by battle upon the body of my accuser. That is my right, and I will have every ounce of it. Do you doubt how God will pronounce? I call upon him solemnly to pronounce between me and such an one. If I am guilty of this thing may He wither my arm when I enter the lists."
"Myself I will accuse you," came Rosamund's dull voice. "And if you will, you may claim your rights against me and butcher me as you butchered him."
"God forgive you, Rosamund!" said Sir Oliver, and went out.
He returned home with hell in his heart. He knew not what the future might hold in store for him; but such was his resentment against Rosamund that there was no room in his bosom for despair. They should not hang him. He would fight them tooth and claw, and yet Lionel should not suffer. He would take care of that. And then the thought of Lionel changed his mood a little. How easily could he have shattered their accusation, how easily have brought her to her proud knees imploring pardon of him! By a word he could have done it, yet he feared lest that word must jeopardize his brother.
In the calm, still watches of that night, as he lay sleepless upon his bed and saw things without heat, there crept a change into his mental attitude. He reviewed all the evidence that had led her to her conclusions, and he was forced to confess that she was in some measure justified of them. If she had wronged him, he had wronged her yet more. For years she had listened to all the poisonous things that were said of him by his enemies—and his arrogance had made him not a few. She had disregarded all because she loved him; her relations with her brother had become strained on that account, yet now, all this returned to crush her; repentance played its part in her cruel belief that it was by his hand Peter Godolphin had fallen. It must almost seem to her that in a sense she had been a party to his murder by the headstrong course to which she had kept in loving the man her brother hated.
He saw it now, and was more merciful in judging her. She had been more than human if she had not felt as he now saw that she must feel, and since reactions are to be measured by the mental exaltations from which they spring, so was it but natural that now she must hate him fiercely whom she had loved wellnigh as fiercely.
It was a heavy cross to bear. Yet for Lionel's sake he must bear it with what fortitude he could. Lionel must not be sacrificed to his egoism for a deed that in Lionel he could not account other than justified. He were base indeed did he so much as contemplate such a way of escape as that.
But if he did not contemplate it, Lionel did, and went in terror during those days, a terror that kept him from sleep and so fostered the fever in him that on the second day after that grim affair he had the look of a ghost, hollow-eyed and gaunt. Sir Oliver remonstrated with him and in such terms as to put heart into him anew. Moreover, there was other news that day to allay his terrors: the Justices, at Truro had been informed of the event and the accusation that was made; but they had refused point-blank to take action in the matter. The reason of it was that one of them was that same Master Anthony Baine who had witnessed the affront offered Sir Oliver. He declared that whatever had happened to Master Godolphin as a consequence was no more than he deserved, no more than he had brought upon himself, and he gave it as his decision that his conscience as a man of honour would not permit him to issue any warrant to the constable.
Sir Oliver received this news from that other witness, the parson, who himself had suffered such rudeness at Godolphin's hands, and who, man of the Gospel and of peace though he was, entirely supported the Justice's decision—or so he declared.
Sir Oliver thanked him, protesting that it was kind in him and in Master Baine to take such a view, but for the rest avowing that he had had no hand in the affair, however much appearances might point to him.
When, however, it came to his knowledge two days later that the whole countryside was in a ferment against Master Baine as a consequence of the attitude he had taken up, Sir Oliver summoned the parson and straightway rode with him to the Justice's house at Truro, there to afford certain evidence which he had withheld from Rosamund and Sir John Killigrew.
"Master Baine," he said, when the three of them were closeted in that gentleman's library, "I have heard of the just and gallant pronouncement you have made, and I am come to thank you and to express my admiration of your courage."
Master Baine bowed gravely. He was a man whom Nature had made grave.
"But since I would not that any evil consequences might attend your action, I am come to lay proof before you that you have acted more rightly even than you think, and that I am not the slayer."
"You are not?" ejaculated Master Baine in amazement.
"Oh, I assure you I use no subterfuge with you, as you shall judge. I have proof to show you, as I say; and I am come to do so now before time might render it impossible. I do not desire it to be made public just yet, Master Baine; but I wish you to draw up some such document as would satisfy the courts at any future time should this matter be taken further, as well it may."
It was a shrewd plea. The proof that was not upon himself was upon Lionel; but time would efface it, and if anon publication were made of what he was now about to show, it would then be too late to look elsewhere.
"I assure you, Sir Oliver, that had you killed him after what happened I could not hold you guilty of having done more than punish a boorish and arrogant offender."
"I know sir. But it was not so. One of the pieces of evidence against me—indeed the chief item—is that from Godolphin's body to my door there was a trail of blood."
The other two grew tensely interested. The parson watched him with unblinking eyes.
"Now it follows logically, I think, inevitably indeed, that the murderer must have been wounded in the encounter. The blood could not possibly have been the victim's, therefore it must have been the slayer's. That the slayer was wounded indeed we know, since there was blood upon Godolphin's sword. Now, Master Baine, and you, Sir Andrew, shall be witnesses that there is upon my body not so much as a scratch of recent date. I will strip me here as naked as when first I had the mischance to stray into this world, and you shall satisfy yourselves of that. Thereafter I shall beg you, Master Baine, to indite the document I have mentioned." And he removed his doublet as he spoke. "But since I will not give these louts who accuse me so much satisfaction, lest I seem to go in fear of them, I must beg, sirs, that you will keep this matter entirely private until such time as its publication may be rendered necessary by events."
They saw the reasonableness of his proposal, and they consented, still entirely sceptical. But when they had made their examination they were utterly dumbfounded to find all their notions entirely overset. Master Baine, of course, drew up the required document, and signed and sealed it, whilst Sir Andrew added his own signature and seal as witness thereunto.
With this parchment that should be his buckler against any future need, Sir Oliver rode home, uplifted. For once it were safe to do so, that parchment should be spread before the eyes of Sir John Killigrew and Rosamund, and all might yet be well.