Right of Way

The look of blank astonishment which spread over Copplestone’s face on hearing this announcement seemed to afford his companion great amusement, and she laughed merrily as she signed to him to turn back towards the woods.

“All the same,” she observed, “I know how to steal a countermarch on Master Chatfield. Come along!⁠—you shan’t be disappointed.”

“Does your cousin know of that?” asked Copplestone. “Are those his orders?”

Audrey’s lips curled a little, and she laughed again⁠—but this time the laughter was cynical.

“I don’t think it much matters whether my cousin knows or not,” she said. “He’s the nominal Squire of Scarhaven, but everybody knows that the real overlord is Peter Chatfield. Peter Chatfield does⁠—everything. And⁠—he hates me! He won’t have had such a pleasant moment for a long time as he had this morning when he took my key away from me and warned me off.”

“But why you?” asked Copplestone.

“Oh⁠—Peter is deep!” she said. “Peter, no doubt, knew that you came to see us last night⁠—Peter knows all that goes on in Scarhaven. And he put things together, and decided that I might act as your cicerone over the Keep and the ruins, and so⁠—there you are!”

“Why should he object to my visiting the Keep?” demanded Copplestone.

“That’s obvious! He considers you a spy,” replied Audrey. “And⁠—there may be reasons why he doesn’t desire your presence in those ancient regions. But⁠—we’ll go there, all the same, if you don’t mind breaking rules and defying Peter.”

“Not I!” said Copplestone. “Hang Peter!”

“There are people who firmly believe that Peter Chatfield should have been hanged long since,” she remarked quietly. “I’m one of them. Chatfield is a bad old man⁠—thoroughly bad! But I’ll circumvent him in this, anyhow. I know how to get into the Keep in spite of him and of his locks and bolts. There’s a big curtain wall, twenty feet high, all round the Keep, but I know where there’s a hole in it, behind some bushes, and we’ll get in there. Come along!”

She led him up the same path through the woods along which Bassett Oliver had gone, according to Ewbank’s account. It wound through groves of fir and pine until it came out on a plateau, in the midst of which, surrounded by a high irregular wall, towered at the angles and buttressed all along its length, stood Scarhaven Keep. And there, at the head of a path which evidently led up from the big house, stood Chatfield, angry and threatening. Beyond him, distributed at intervals about the other paths which converged on the plateau were other men, obviously estate labourers, who appeared to be mounting guard over the forbidden spot.

“Now there’s going to be a row!⁠—between me and Chatfield,” murmured Audrey. “You play spectator⁠—don’t say a word. Leave it to me. We are on our rights along this path⁠—take no notice of Peter.”

But Chatfield was already bearing down on them, his solemn-featured face dark with displeasure. He raised his voice while he was yet a dozen yards away.

“I thought I’d told you as you wasn’t to come near these here ruins!” he said, addressing Audrey in a fashion which made Copplestone’s fingers itch to snatch the oak staff from the agent and lay it freely about his person. “My orders was to that there effect! And when I give orders I mean ’em to be obeyed. You’ll turn straight back where you came from, miss, and in future do as I instruct⁠—d’ye hear that, now?”

“If you expect me to keep quiet or dumb under that sort of thing,” whispered Copplestone, bending towards Audrey, “you’re very much mistaken in me! I shall give this fellow a lesson in another minute if⁠—”

“Well, wait another minute, then,” said Audrey, who had continued to walk forward, steadily regarding the agent’s threatening figure. “Let me talk a little, first⁠—I’m enjoying it. Are you addressing me, Mr. Chatfield?” she went on in her sweetest accents. “I hear you speaking, but I don’t know if you are speaking to me. If so, you needn’t shout.”

“You know very well who I’m a-speaking to,” growled Chatfield. “I told you you wasn’t to come near these ruins⁠—it’s forbidden, by order. You’ll take yourself off, and that there young man with you⁠—we want no paid spies hereabouts!”

“If you speak to me like that again I’ll knock you down!” exclaimed Copplestone, stepping forward before Audrey could stop him. “Or to this lady, either. Stand aside, will you?”

Chatfield twisted on his heel with a surprising agility⁠—not to stand aside, but to wave his arm to the men who stood here and there, behind him.

“Here, you!” he shouted. “Here, this way, all of you! This here fellow’s threatening me with assault. You lay a finger on me, you young snapper, and I’ll have you in the lockup in ten minutes. Stand between us, you men!⁠—he’s for knocking me down. Now then!” he went on, as the bodyguard got between him and Copplestone, “off you go, out o’ these grounds, both of you⁠—quick! I’ll have no defiance of my orders from neither gel nor boy, man nor woman. Out you go, now⁠—or you’ll be put out.”

But Audrey continued to advance, still watching the agent. “You’re under a mistake, Mr. Chatfield,” she said calmly. “You will observe that Mr. Copplestone and I are on this path. You know very well that this is a public footpath, with a proper and legal right-of-way from time immemorial. You can’t turn us off it, you know⁠—without exposing yourself to all sorts of pains and penalties. You men know that, too,” she continued, turning to the labourers and dropping her bantering tone. “You all know this is a public footpath. So stand out of our way, or I’ll summon every one of you!”

The last words were spoken with so much force and decision that the three labourers involuntarily moved aside. But Chatfield hastened to oppose Audrey’s progress, planting himself in front of a wicket gate which there stood across the path, and he laughed sneeringly.

“And where would you find money to take summonses out?” he said, with a look of contempt, “I should think you and your mother’s something better to do with your bit o’ money than that. Now then, no more words!⁠—back you turn!”

Copplestone’s temper had been gradually rising during the last few minutes. Now, at the man’s carefully measured taunts, he let it go. Before Chatfield or the labourers saw what he was at, he sprang on the agent’s big form, grasped him by the neck with one hand, twisted his oak staff away from him with the other, flung him headlong on the turf, and raised the staff threateningly.

“Now!” he said, “beg Miss Greyle’s pardon, instantly, or I’ll split your wicked old head for you. Quick, man⁠—I mean it!”

Before Chatfield, moaning and groaning, could find his voice capable of words, Marston Greyle, pale and excited, came round a corner of the ruins.

“What’s this, what’s all this?” he demanded. “Here, yon sir, what are you doing with that stick! What⁠—”

“I’m about to chastise your agent for his scoundrelly insolence to your cousin,” retorted Copplestone with cheerful determination. “Now then, my man, quick⁠—I always keep my word!”

“Hand the stick to Mr. Marston Greyle, Mr. Copplestone,” said Audrey in her demurest manner. “I’m sure he would beat Chatfield soundly if he had heard what he said to me⁠—his cousin.”

“Thank you, but I’m in possession,” said Copplestone, grimly. “Mr. Marston Greyle can kick him when I’ve thrashed him. Now, then⁠—are you going to beg Miss Greyle’s pardon, you hoary sinner?”

“What on earth is it all about?” exclaimed Greyle, obviously upset and afraid. “Chatfield, what have you been saying? Go away, you men⁠—go away, all of you, at once. Mr. Copplestone, don’t hit him. Audrey, what is it? Hang it all!⁠—I seem to have nothing but bother⁠—it’s most annoying. What is it, I say?”

“It is merely, Marston, that your agent there, after trying to turn Mr. Copplestone and myself off this public footpath, insulted me with shameful taunts about my mother’s poverty,” replied Audrey. “That’s all! Whereupon⁠—as you were not here to do it⁠—Mr. Copplestone promptly and very properly knocked him down. And now⁠—is Mr. Copplestone to punish him or⁠—will you?”

Copplestone, keeping a sharp eye on the groaning and sputtering agent, contrived at the same time to turn a corner of it on Marston Greyle. That momentary glance showed him much. The Squire was mortally afraid of his man. That was certain⁠—as certain as that they were there. He stood, a picture of vexation and indecision, glancing furtively at Chatfield, then at Audrey, and evidently hating to be asked to take a side.

“Confound it all, Chatfield!” he suddenly burst out. “Why don’t you mind what you’re saying? It’s all very well, Audrey, but you shouldn’t have come along here⁠—especially with strangers. The fact is, I’m so upset about this Oliver affair that I’m going to have a thorough search and examination of the Keep and the ruins, and, of course, we can’t allow anyone inside the grounds while it’s going on. You should have kept to Chatfield’s orders⁠—”

“And since when has a Greyle of Scarhaven kept to a servant’s orders?” interrupted Audrey, with a sneer that sent the blood rushing to the Squire’s face. “Never!⁠—until this present regime, I should think. Orders, indeed!⁠—from an agent! I wonder what the last Squire of Scarhaven would have said to a proposition like that? Mr. Copplestone⁠—you’ve punished that bad old man quite sufficiently. Will you open the gate for me⁠—and we’ll go on our way.”

The girl spoke with so much decision that Copplestone moved away from Chatfield, who struggled to his feet, muttering words that sounded very much like smothered curses.

“I’ll have the law on you!” he growled, shaking his fist at Copplestone. “Before this day’s out, I’ll have the law!”

“Sooner the better,” retorted Copplestone. “Nothing will please me so much as to tell the local magistrates precisely what you said to your master’s kinswoman. You know where I’m to be found⁠—and there,” he added, throwing a card at the agent’s feet, “there you’ll find my permanent address.”

“Give me my walking stick!” demanded Chatfield.

“Not I!” exclaimed Copplestone. “That’s mine, my good man, by right of conquest. You can summon me, or arrest me, if you like, for stealing it.”

He opened the wicket gate for Audrey, and together they passed through, skirted the walls of the ruins, and went away into the higher portion of the woods. Once there the girl laughed.

“Now there’ll be another row!” she said. “Between master and man this time.”

“I think not!” observed Copplestone, with unusual emphasis. “For the master is afraid of the man.”

“Ah!⁠—but which is master and which is man?” asked Audrey in a low voice.

Copplestone stopped and looked narrowly at her.

“Oh?” he said quietly, “so you’ve seen that?”

“Does it need much observation?” she replied. “My mother and I have known for some time that Marston Greyle is entirely under Peter Chatfield’s thumb. He daren’t do anything⁠—save by Chatfield’s permission.”

Copplestone walked on a few yards, ruminating.

“Why!” he asked suddenly.

“How do we know?” retorted Audrey.

“Well, in cases like that,” said Copplestone, “it generally means that one man has a hold on the other. What hold can Chatfield have on your cousin? I understand Mr. Marston Greyle came straight to his inheritance from America. So what could Chatfield know of him⁠—to have any hold?”

“Oh, I don’t know⁠—and I don’t care⁠—much,” replied Audrey, as they passed out of the woods on to the headlands beyond. “Never mind all that⁠—here’s the sea and the open sky⁠—hang Chatfield, and Marston, too! As we can’t see the Keep, let’s enjoy ourselves some other way. What shall we do?”

“You’re the guide, conductress, general boss!” answered Copplestone. “Shall I suggest something that sounds very material, though? Well, then, can’t we go along these cliffs to some village where we can find a nice old fishing inn and get a simple lunch of some sort?”

“That’s certainly material and eminently practical,” laughed Audrey. “We can⁠—that place, along there to the south⁠—Lenwick. And so, come on⁠—and no more talk of Squire and agent. I’ve a remarkable facility in throwing away unpleasant things.”

“It’s a grand faculty⁠—and I’ll try to imitate you,” said Copplestone. “So⁠—today’s our own, eh? Is that it?”

“Say until the middle of this afternoon,” responded Audrey. “Don’t forget that I have a mother at home.”

It was, however, well past the middle of the afternoon when these two returned to Scarhaven, very well satisfied with themselves. They had found plenty to talk about without falling back on Marston Greyle, or Peter Chatfield, or the event of the morning, and Copplestone suddenly remembered, almost with compunction, that he had been so engrossed in his companion that he had almost forgotten the Oliver mystery. But that was sharply recalled to him as he entered the Admiral’s Arms. Mrs. Wooler came forward from her parlour with a mysterious smile on her good-looking face.

“Here’s a billet-doux for you, Mr. Copplestone,” she said. “And I can’t tell you who left it. One of the girls found it lying on the hall table an hour ago.” With that she handed Copplestone a much thumbed, very grimy, heavily-sealed envelope.