The Heart of a Woman
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But both sat there and enjoyed their cigars. They were dressed with scrupulous care, in the uniform prescribed by the world in which they lived as being suitable for gentlemen of their position and of their age; frock coats and dark gray trousers, immaculate collar, and tie with pearl pin. Both wore a seal ring on the little finger of the left hand, and a watch chain of early Victorian design. They might be twins but for their faces. Convention had put a livery on them which they would on no account have discarded.
But the faces were very different. Colonel Harris carried his sixty years as easily as if they had been forty. There were not many lines on his round, chubby face, with its red cheeks, and round, child-like eyes. The heavy cavalry moustache, once auburn, now almost white, hid the expression of the mouth, but one felt, judging by the eyes and the smooth forehead, which continued very far now onto the back of his head, that if one were allowed a peep below that walrus-like face adornment one would see a mouth that was kind and none too firm, the mouth of a man who had led other men perhaps but who had invariably been led by his women folk.
Now Sir Thomas Ryder was – or rather is, for he is still in perfect health and full vigour – a very different type of man. You have no doubt seen him about town – for he takes a constitutional in the park every day on his way to his work, and he goes to most first nights at the theatres – and if so you will have admired the keen, sharp face, the closely set eyes, the mobile mouth free from moustache or beard: the face is furrowed all over, especially round the eyes, yet he does not look old. That is because of the furrows; they form a wonderful net-work round his eyes, giving them an expression of perpetual keen amusement. The hair is pale in colour – not white but faded – and scanty. Sir Thomas wears it carefully brushed across the top of his head, with a parting on the left side.
He has a trick when he is thinking deeply of passing his hand – which is white, slender and tapering – over that scanty covering of what, but for it, would be a bald cranium.
Some people said that Sir Thomas Ryder was a man without any sentiment; others that he was a slave to red tape; but no one denied the uncontrovertible fact that he was the right man in the right place.
He looked the part and always acted it, and fewer blunders had undoubtedly been committed in the detective department of the metropolitan police since Sir Thomas Ryder took the guiding reins in hand.
"I suppose," he said at last, "that you've come to see me about this de Mountford business."
"I have," replied Colonel Harris simply.
"Well, it's not a pleasant business."
"I know that. The papers are full of it, and it's all a confounded damnable business, Tom, and that's all about it."
"Unfortunately it's not 'all about it,'" rejoined Sir Thomas dryly.
"That's what Louisa says. Women are so queer about things of that sort, and the papers are full of twaddle.She is anxious about Luke."
"I don't wonder."
"But it's all nonsense, isn't it?"
Colonel Harris did not reply immediately; for one thing, he did not know exactly how to put his own fears and anxieties into words. They were so horrible and so farfetched that to tell them plainly and baldly to his brother-in-law, to this man with whom he was soberly smoking a cigar in a sober-looking office, whilst hansoms and taxicabs were rattling past in the street below within sight and hearing, seemed little short of idiocy. He was not a man of deep penetration – was Colonel Harris – no great reader of thoughts or of character. He tried to look keenly at Sir Thomas's shrewd face, but all he was conscious of was a net-work of wrinkles round a pair of eyes which seemed to be twinkling with humour.
Humour at this moment? Great Heavens above!
"I wish," he blurted out somewhat crossly at last, "you'd help me out a bit, Tom. Hang it all, man, all this officialism makes me dumb."
"Don't," said Sir Thomas blandly, "let it do that, Will," and the speaker's eyes seemed to twinkle even more merrily than before.
"Well then tell me something about Luke."
"Luke de Mountford," mused the other as if the name recalled some distant impression.
"Yes, Luke de Mountford, who is engaged to Louisa, your niece, man, and she's breaking her heart with all the drivel these newspapers talk and I couldn't bear it any longer; so I've come to you, Tom, and you must tell me what truth there is in the drivel, and that's all I want to know."
Sir Thomas Ryder seemed, whilst the other thus talked volubly, to have suddenly made up his mind to say more than had originally been his intention. Anyway, he now said with abrupt directness:
"If, my good Will, by 'drivel' you mean that in the matter of the assassination of Philip de Mountford, in a taxicab last night, grave suspicion rests on his cousin Luke, then there's a great deal of truth in the drivel."
Colonel Harris received the sudden blow without much apparent emotion. He had been sitting in an arm-chair with one hand buried in his trousers pocket, the other holding the cigar.
Now he merely glanced down at the cigar for a moment and then conveyed it to his lips.
"What," he asked, "does that mean exactly?"
"That unless Luke de Mountford will, within the next forty-eight hours, answer certain questions more satisfactorily than he has done hitherto, he will be arrested on a charge of murder."
"That is impossible," protested Colonel Harris hotly.
"Because – because – hang it all, man! you know Luke de Mountford. Do you believe for a moment that he would commit such a dastardly crime? Why, the boy wouldn't know how to plan such villainy, let alone carry it through."
"My dear Will," rejoined the other quietly, "the many years which I have spent at this desk have taught me many things. Among others I have learned that every man is more or less capable of crime: it only depends what the incentive – the temptation if you like to call it so – or the provocation happens to be."
"But here there was no provocation, no temptation, no – "
Colonel Harris paused abruptly. He felt rather than saw his brother-in-law's eyes in their framework of wrinkles resting with obvious sense of amusement upon his wrathful face. No temptation? And what of a peerage and a fortune lost, that could only be regained by the death of the intruder? No provocation? And what of the brother and sister turned out of the old home? The good, simple-minded man had sense enough to see that here, if he wished to speak up for Luke, he was on the wrong track.
"What questions," he said abruptly, "does Luke not answer satisfactorily?"
"How he spent certain hours of yesterday evening."
"He was dancing attendance on Louisa and me."
"Oh, was he? Well that's satisfactory enough. At what time did you part from him?"
"Well! he escorted us to the Danish Legation where we were dining."
"At what time was that?"
"Eight o'clock dinner."
"But he was not dining at the Danish Legation?"
"No. He came and fetched us again soon after eleven."
"That's right, but between whiles?"
"Yes. Between eight and soon after eleven?"
"Well – I suppose – I don't know – yes, of course, I do! What a stupid ass I am. Luke told me himself that he was going to see his uncle at the Something Club in Shaftesbury Avenue."
"Yes, that's it – the Veterans'. Luke wanted to persuade old Radclyffe to go abroad for the benefit of his health – Algeciras – that was it."
"Quite so," rejoined Sir Thomas dryly, "and Luke de Mountford went to the Veterans' Club in Shaftesbury Avenue, and he asked to see Lord Radclyffe, who was a more or less regular habitu? at that hour. On being told that Lord Radclyffe was not there that evening, but that Mr. de Mountford was in the smoking room, Luke elected to go in and presumably to have a talk with his cousin."
"I didn't know that," said Colonel Harris.
"No, but we did. Let me tell you what followed. The hall porter of the club showed Luke into the smoking room, and less than five minutes later he heard loud and angry words proceeding from that room. That a quarrel was going on between the two cousins was of course obvious. One or two members of the club remarked on the noise, and one gentleman actually opened the smoking room door to see what was going on. He seems to have heard the words 'blackguard' and 'beggar' pleasingly intermingled and flying from one young man to the other. This witness knew Philip de Mountford very well by sight, but he had never seen Luke. But remember that Luke denies neither the interview nor the quarrel. The former lasted close on an hour, and Lord Radclyffe's journey to Algeciras was the original topic of discussion. At about nine o'clock Luke emerged from the smoking room. The hall porter saw him. He was then very pale and almost tottered as he walked. Men do get at times intoxicated with rage, you know, Will."
"I know that, and I can well imagine what happened at that interview. Radclyffe had become such a confounded fool that he would not move or do anything without this Philip's permission: and Luke was determined to get him down to Algeciras at once. As Philip was at the club, he thought that he would tackle him then and there."
"Quite so. He did tackle him. And equally of course the two men quarrelled."
"But hang it all, one's not going to murder every man with whom one quarrels."
"Stop a moment, Will. As you say, one does not murder every man with whom one quarrels. But you must admit that this is altogether an exceptional case. There was more than a mere quarrel between these two men. There was deadly enmity – justified enmity, I'll own, on Luke's side. We have already come across – it was not very difficult – two or three of the servants who were in Lord Radclyffe's house before Luke and his brother and sister were finally turned out of it. They all have tales to tell of the terrible rows which used to go on in the house between the cousins. You, Will, must know how Luke hated this Philip de Mountford?"
Again Colonel Harris was silent. What was the use of denying such an obvious truth?
"You wanted," continued the other man quietly, "to hear the truth, Will, and you've got it. For Louisa's sake, for all our sakes, in fact, I made up my mind to tell you all – or most – that is officially known to me at this moment. You must get Louisa out of town at once – take her abroad if you can, and keep English newspapers away from her."
"She won't come," said Colonel Harris firmly.
"Oh, yes, she will, if you put it the right way."
Which saying on the part of the acute chief of our Criminal Investigation Department was but a further proof – if indeed such proofs were still needed nowadays – of how little clever men know of commonplace women.
"The case will be extremely unpleasant," resumed Sir Thomas who was quite unconscious of the ignorance which he had just displayed. "It will be hateful for you, and quite impossible for Louisa."
"Always supposing," retorted the other, "that Luke is guilty, which neither I nor Louisa will admit for a moment."
"That," rejoined Sir Thomas, "is as you please."
He put down his cigar, crossed one leg over the other, leaned back in his chair, and folded his tapering hands together, putting finger to finger, with the gesture of one who is dealing with a youthful mind, and has much to explain.
"Look here, Will," he resumed, "I have three men standing in my outer office at the present moment. Two of them have come back after having questioned the past servants of the Grosvenor Square household. There was the butler Parker, and an elderly housekeeper, both of whom are in service in the West End. The woman tried to screen Luke and to make light of the many quarrels which broke out between the cousins on all possible occasions; but she broke down under our fellows' sharp questions. She had to admit that the arrogance of the one man often drove the other to unguarded language, and that she had on more than one occasion heard the men servants of the house say that they would not be astonished if murder ensued one day. Well, we have these two witnesses, and can easily get hold of the two or three footmen who expressed those particular views. So much for the past six months. Now for last night. The third man who is out there waiting for me to see him is Frederick Power, hall porter at the Veterans' Club. The story which he told to our Mr. Travers is so important in its minutest detail, that I have decided to question him myself so that I may leave no possible loop-hole to doubt or to inaccuracy in the retelling. I am going to send for the man now. You come and sit round here, the other side of my desk; from this position you will be able to watch the man's face, as well as hear what he has got to say. Now, would you like that?"
"Right you are, Tom," was Colonel Harris's brief method of acknowledging his brother-in-law's kindness, in thus breaking a piece of red tape, and setting aside a very strict official rule. He did as Sir Thomas directed, and sat down in the recess behind the chief's desk, in a comfortable arm-chair with his back to the curtained window.
He would not acknowledge even to himself how deeply stirred he was by all that he had heard, and now by the anticipation of what was yet to come. Emotion – like he was experiencing now – had never come his way before now. He had lost his only son on the Modder River – that had been sorrow of an acute kind; he had laid a much loved wife to rest in the village churchyard close to his stately home in Kent; and he had escorted his late beloved sovereign to her last resting place on that never-to-be-forgotten day close on five years ago now; those three events in his life had been the great strains to which his nerves and sensibilities had been subjected in the past.
But this was altogether different. The sensations which the good man experienced were such that he scarcely knew them himself; he had faced sorrow before, never dishonour – some one else's dishonour, of course – still it touched him very nearly, for, though he might not be a very keen observer, he dearly loved his daughter, and dishonour seemed to be touching her, striking at her through Luke.