Master Lionel was absent most of the following day from Penarrow, upon a pretext of making certain purchases in Truro. It would be half-past seven when he returned; and as he entered he met Sir Oliver in the hall.
"I have a message for you from Godolphin Court," he announced, and saw his brother stiffen and his face change colour. "A boy met me at the gates and bade me tell you that Mistress Rosamund desires a word with you forthwith."
Sir Oliver's heart almost stopped, then went off at a gallop. She asked for him! She had softened perhaps from her yesterday's relentlessness. She would consent at last to see him!
"Be thou blessed for these good tidings!" he answered on a note of high excitement. "I go at once." And on the instant he departed. Such was his eagerness, indeed, that under the hot spur of it he did not even stay to fetch that parchment which was to be his unanswerable advocate. The omission was momentous.
Master Lionel said no word as his brother swept out. He shrank back a little into the shadows. He was white to the lips and felt as he would stifle. As the door closed he moved suddenly. He sprang to follow Sir Oliver. Conscience cried out to him that he could not do this thing. But Fear was swift to answer that outcry. Unless he permitted what was planned to take its course, his life might pay the penalty.
He turned, and lurched into the dining-room upon legs that trembled.
He found the table set for supper as on that other night when he had staggered in with a wound in his side to be cared for and sheltered by Sir Oliver. He did not approach the table; he crossed to the fire, and sat down there holding out his hands to the blaze. He was very cold and could not still his trembling. His very teeth chattered.
Nicholas came in to know if he would sup. He answered unsteadily that despite the lateness of the hour he would await Sir Oliver's return.
"Is Sir Oliver abroad?" quoth the servant in surprise.
"He went out a moment since, I know not whither," replied Lionel. "But since he has not supped he is not like to be long absent."
Upon that he dismissed the servant, and sat huddled there, a prey to mental tortures which were not to be repressed. His mind would turn upon naught but the steadfast, unwavering affection of which Sir Oliver ever had been prodigal towards him. In this very matter of Peter Godolphin's death, what sacrifices had not Sir Oliver made to shield him? From so much love and self-sacrifice in the past he inclined to argue now that not even in extreme peril would his brother betray him. And then that bad streak of fear which made a villain of him reminded him that to argue thus was to argue upon supposition, that it would be perilous to trust such an assumption; that if, after all, Sir Oliver should fail him in the crucial test, then was he lost indeed.
When all is said, a man's final judgment of his fellows must be based upon his knowledge of himself; and Lionel, knowing himself incapable of any such sacrifice for Sir Oliver, could not believe Sir Oliver capable of persisting in such a sacrifice as future events might impose. He reverted to those words Sir Oliver had uttered in that very room two nights ago, and more firmly than ever he concluded that they could have but one meaning.
Then came doubt, and, finally, assurance of another sort, assurance that this was not so and that he knew it; assurance that he lied to himself, seeking to condone the thing he did. He took his head in his hands and groaned loud. He was a villain, a black-hearted, soulless villain! He reviled himself again. There came a moment when he rose shuddering, resolved even in this eleventh hour to go after his brother and save him from the doom that awaited him out yonder in the night.
But again that resolve was withered by the breath of selfish fear. Limply he resumed his seat, and his thoughts took a fresh turn. They considered now those matters which had engaged them on that day when Sir Oliver had ridden to Arwenack to claim satisfaction of Sir John Killigrew. He realized again that Oliver being removed, what he now enjoyed by his brother's bounty he would enjoy henceforth in his own unquestioned right. The reflection brought him a certain consolation. If he must suffer for his villainy, at least there would be compensations.
The clock over the stables chimed the hour of eight. Master Lionel shrank back in his chair at the sound. The thing would be doing even now. In his mind he saw it all—saw his brother come running in his eagerness to the gates of Godolphin Court, and then dark forms resolve themselves from the surrounding darkness and fall silently upon him. He saw him struggling a moment on the ground, then, bound hand and foot, a gag thrust into his mouth, he beheld him in fancy borne swiftly down the slope to the beach and so to the waiting boat.
Another half-hour sat he there. The thing was done by now, and this assurance seemed to quiet him a little.
Then came Nicholas again to babble of some possible mischance having overtaken his master.
"What mischance should have overtaken him?" growled Lionel, as if in scorn of the idea.
"I pray none indeed," replied the servant. "But Sir Oliver lacks not for enemies nowadays, and 'tis scarce zafe for he to be abroad after dark."
Master Lionel dismissed the notion contemptuously. For pretence's sake he announced that he would wait no longer, whereupon Nicholas brought in his supper, and left him again to go and linger about the door, looking out into the night and listening for his master's return. He paid a visit to the stables, and knew that Sir Oliver had gone forth afoot.
Meanwhile Master Lionel must make pretence of eating though actual eating must have choked him. He smeared his platter, broke food, and avidly drank a bumper of claret. Then he, too, feigned a growing anxiety and went to join Nicholas. Thus they spent the weary night, watching for the return of one who Master Lionel knew would return no more.
At dawn they roused the servants and sent them to scour the countryside and put the news of Sir Oliver's disappearance abroad. Lionel himself rode out to Arwenack to ask Sir John Killigrew bluntly if he knew aught of this matter.
Sir John showed a startled face, but swore readily enough that he had not so much as seen Sir Oliver for days. He was gentle with Lionel, whom he liked, as everybody liked him. The lad was so mild and kindly in his ways, so vastly different from his arrogant overbearing brother, that his virtues shone the more brightly by that contrast.
"I confess it is natural you should come to me," said Sir John. "But, my word on it, I have no knowledge of him. It is not my way to beset my enemies in the dark."
"Indeed, indeed, Sir John, I had not supposed it in my heart," replied the afflicted Lionel. "Forgive me that I should have come to ask a question so unworthy. Set it down to my distracted state. I have not been the same man these months, I think, since that happening in Godolphin Park. The thing has preyed upon my mind. It is a fearsome burden to know your own brother—though I thank God he is no more than my half-brother—guilty of so foul a deed."
"How?" cried Killigrew, amazed. "You say that? You believed it yourself?"
Master Lionel looked confused, a look which Sir John entirely misunderstood and interpreted entirely in the young man's favour. And it was thus and in that moment that was sown the generous seed of the friendship that was to spring up between these two men, its roots fertilized by Sir John's pity that one so gentle-natured, so honest, and so upright should be cursed with so villainous a brother.
"I see, I see," he said. And he sighed. "You know that we are daily expecting an order from the Queen to her Justices to take the action which hitherto they have refused against your... against Sir Oliver." He frowned thoughtfully. "D'ye think Sir Oliver had news of this?"
At once Master Lionel saw the drift of what was in the other's mind.
"I know it," he replied. "Myself I bore it him. But why do you ask?"
"Does it not help us perhaps to understand and explain Sir Oliver's disappearance? God lack! Surely, knowing that, he were a fool to have tarried here, for he would hang beyond all doubt did he stay for the coming of her grace's messenger."
"My God!" said Lionel, staring. "You... you think he is fled, then?"
Sir John shrugged. "What else is to be thought?"
Lionel hung his head. "What else, indeed?" said he, and took his leave like a man overwrought, as indeed he was. He had never considered that so obvious a conclusion must follow upon his work so fully to explain the happening and to set at rest any doubt concerning it.
He returned to Penarrow, and bluntly told Nicholas what Sir John suspected and what he feared himself must be the true reason of Sir Oliver's disappearance. The servant, however, was none so easy to convince.
"But do ee believe that he done it?" cried Nicholas. "Do ee believe it, Master Lionel?" There was reproach amounting to horror in the servant's voice.
"God help me, what else can I believe now that he is fled."
Nicholas sidled up to him with tightened lips. He set two gnarled fingers on the young man's arm.
"He'm not fled, Master Lionel," he announced with grim impressiveness. "He'm never a turntail. Sir Oliver he don't fear neither man nor devil, and if so be him had killed Master Godolphin, he'd never ha' denied it. Don't ee believe Sir John Killigrew. Sir John ever hated he."
But in all that countryside the servant was the only one to hold this view. If a doubt had lingered anywhere of Sir Oliver's guilt, that doubt was now dispelled by this flight of his before the approach of the expected orders from the Queen.
Later that day came Captain Leigh to Penarrow inquiring for Sir Oliver.
Nicholas brought word of his presence and his inquiry to Master Lionel, who bade him be admitted.
The thick-set little seaman rolled in on his bowed legs, and leered at his employer when they were alone.
"He's snug and safe aboard," he announced. "The thing were done as clean as peeling an apple, and as quiet."
"Why did you ask for him?" quoth Master Lionel.
"Why?" Jasper leered again. "My business was with him. There was some talk between us of him going a voyage with me. I've heard the gossip over at Smithick. This will fit in with it." He laid that finger of his to his nose. "Trust me to help a sound tale along. 'T were a clumsy business to come here asking for you, sir. Ye'll know now how to account for my visit."
Lionel paid him the price agreed and dismissed him upon receiving the assurance that the Swallow would put to sea upon the next tide.
When it became known that Sir Oliver had been in treaty with Master Leigh for a passage overseas, and that it was but on that account that Master Leigh had tarried in that haven, even Nicholas began to doubt.
Gradually Lionel recovered his tranquillity as the days flowed on. What was done was done, and, in any case, being now beyond recall, there was no profit in repining. He never knew how fortune aided him, as fortune will sometimes aid a villain. The royal pour-suivants arrived some six days later, and Master Baine was the recipient of a curt summons to render himself to London, there to account for his breach of trust in having refused to perform his sworn duty. Had Sir Andrew Flack but survived the chill that had carried him off a month ago, Master Justice Baine would have made short work of the accusation lodged against him. As it was, when he urged the positive knowledge he possessed, and told them how he had made the examination to which Sir Oliver had voluntarily submitted, his single word carried no slightest conviction. Not for a moment was it supposed that this was aught but the subterfuge of one who had been lax in his duty and who sought to save himself from the consequences of that laxity. And the fact that he cited as his fellow-witness a gentleman now deceased but served to confirm his judges in this opinion. He was deposed from his office and subjected to a heavy fine, and there the matter ended, for the hue-and-cry that was afoot entirely failed to discover any trace of the missing Sir Oliver.
For Master Lionel a new existence set in from that day. Looked upon as one in danger of suffering for his brother's sins, the countryside determined to help him as far as possible to bear his burden. Great stress was laid upon the fact that after all he was no more than Sir Oliver's half-brother; some there were who would have carried their kindness to the lengths of suggesting that perhaps he was not even that, and that it was but natural that Ralph Tressilian's second wife should have repaid her husband in kind for his outrageous infidelities. This movement of sympathy was led by Sir John Killigrew, and it spread in so rapid and marked a manner that very soon Master Lionel was almost persuaded that it was no more than he deserved, and he began to sun himself in the favour of a countryside that hitherto had shown little but hostility for men of the Tressilian blood.