The Heart of a Woman
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Remember that he individually was quite convinced that Philip's murderer would soon be discovered. He too had read his morning paper, and knew as well as anybody that for the moment suspicion rested upon him. "Seek whom the crime will benefit!" was a phrase freely used in the press this morning. But it was only a question of time; an unpleasant phase to be traversed, some mud that presently would have to be brushed off. No use to worry Louisa with it. Fortunately she took it lightly, too. She was far too sensible to attach importance to such nonsense.
Nevertheless mud thrown in such boundless profusion was apt to hurt very considerably. Luke had to set his teeth this morning when he perused the Times and even now there was in him a sensation of having been bruised all over, after his second interview with Travers, and his talk with Doctor Newington in the library. Louisa did him good. She was calm and sensible and a woman of the world. She never puzzled Luke, nor had she that vague longing to be misunderstood, the peculiar attribute of the woman of to-day. In face of her serenity he almost despised himself for the intensity of his own passion. She was so pure, so womanly in her tenderness, a girl still, she was hardly conscious of passion. But she knew that he was in pain – morally and mentally in pain – and that worse was yet to come; and she, the commonplace, sensible girl, brought forth her full array of calm and of triviality, checking by a placid smile the faintest onrush of passion in him, for passion could but torture him now, when his very soul was troubled and every nerve on the jar.
And thus Colonel Harris found them.
When he entered, Louisa was recounting to Luke the menu of last night's dinner.
"And 'Homard ? la Danoise' was a perfect dream," she was saying. "I suppose it would not be etiquette to ask Her Excellency for the recipe."
Luke rose as the colonel entered and passed his hand across the back of his smooth head, a gesture peculiarly English and peculiarly his own. The older man was undoubtedly the most troubled of the three.
"It's a damnable business this," he said as soon as he had shaken Luke by the hand and thrown off hat and coat.
"Does Sir Thomas Ryder," asked Luke lightly, "also think that I have murdered Philip?"
He knew where Colonel Harris had been. Louisa had not thought of keeping this from him.
"Tom's a fool!" retorted the colonel involuntarily.
It was tantamount to an avowal. Luke never flinched; he even contrived to smile. Louisa sat up very straight, and with an instinctive movement gave the sofa cushions a nervy shake up. But her eyes were fastened on Luke.
"Don't worry, sir," said Luke very quietly. "I'll get out of it all in good time."
"Of course you will! Damn it all!" ejaculated the other fervently.
"The inquest you know is to-morrow."
It was Luke who spoke and Colonel Harris looked up quickly.
"Then," he said, "surely some light will be thrown on this mysterious business."
"Let's hope so, sir," rejoined Luke dryly.
"Has Uncle Ryder told you anything fresh, father? Anything that we don't yet know?"
Colonel Harris did not reply, and Louisa knew that there was something that Uncle Ryder had said, something awful, which had caused her father to wear the troubled look which had terrified her the moment he came in.
Something awful! – which would affect Luke!
"Won't you tell us, father," she said, "what Uncle Ryder told you? Luke ought to know."
"Oh," rejoined Luke, "there's no hurry I'm sure.Colonel Harris will tell me presently. Lou, you were coming to the park this morning. I suppose we can't go to the Temple Garden Show very well."
"Not very well, I think," she replied, "but I'll come for a walk after lunch with pleasure. Father must tell us now what Uncle Ryder said."
Then as Colonel Harris still seemed to hesitate, she became more insistent, and her voice more firm.
"Father dear," she said, "I must know as well as Luke."
The old man took a turn up and down the room, with hands behind his back. He would not look either at Louisa or at Luke, for it would be easier to tell them everything without meeting their eyes. And he had to tell them everything. To her as well as to him. It was no longer any use trying to avoid the subject, pretending that it was trivial, unworthy of discussion.
Facts had to be faced at last, like the dervishes at Omdurman, and a plan of campaign decided on in the event of momentary defeat.
"Ryder," he began quite abruptly at last, "had the hall porter of that confounded club up to his room while I was there, and questioned him before me."
"He could," suggested Luke, "only repeat the story which we all know already. I never denied seeing Philip at the club or quarrelling with him for a matter of that. Hang it all! I have often quarrelled with him before."
"Yes," rejoined the colonel, "they've ferreted out the old servants of your uncle's household, and heard innumerable stories of quarrels."
"Exaggerated, I expect. But what of it?"
"And that hall porter didn't mince matters either. Damn him."
"Philip," remarked Luke dryly, "shouted pretty loudly. I did not."
"The porter said that when you left the club you had 'murder in your eye.'"
"You had overheard Philip's last remark to the porter?"
"Yes – something about pestering beggars. I was ready to make him swallow his words, but I loathe a scene, before people like those who frequent the Veterans' Club."
"I wish to goodness you had gone for him then and there."
"This accursed business would not have occurred."
"Oh, yes it would – sooner or later."
"What makes you say that?"
"Philip must have had an enemy."
"Who murdered him last night, you think?"
"An enemy," assented Luke, "who evidently laid in wait for him, and murdered him last night. It is bound to come out at the inquest."
"About this enemy?" queried Colonel Harris vaguely.
"Why, yes," rejoined Luke a little impatiently, "surely the police have made other investigations. They are not just fastening on me and on no one else."
"Could you," asked Louisa, "help the police in that, Luke?"
"No;" he replied, "I know absolutely nothing about Philip or about his past life."
"Did Lord Radclyffe?"
"I don't know."
"He has been questioned, has he not?"
"He is too ill to see any one. Doctor Newington declares that he must not attempt to see any one. His condition is critical. Moreover, he is only partly conscious."
"But – "
"There's Philip's lawyer, Davies," said Luke; "the police ought to be in communication with him. It is positively ridiculous the way they seem to do nothing in the way of proper investigation, but only make up their minds that I have killed my cousin. Why! they don't even seem to trouble about the weapon with which the murder was committed."
"The weapon – ?"
The ejaculation, spoken hardly above a whisper, had come from Colonel Harris. Once more the old man felt – as he had done in his brother-in-law's office – that every drop of blood in him had receded back to his heart, and that he would choke if he attempted to utter another word.
"They say," continued Luke quietly, "that Philip was killed by the thrust of a sharp dagger or stiletto, right through the neck. Well, where is that dagger? Have they found it? Or traced it to its owner?"
Then as Colonel Harris was still silent he reiterated once more:
"Did Sir Thomas tell you if they had found the weapon?"
And Colonel Harris nodded and murmured:
"Actually found the weapon?" insisted Luke.
"Behind the railings – in Green Park – close to Hyde Park corner."
"Was it a stiletto? Or a dagger? Or what?"
"It was a stick with a dagger fitting into it. A snake-wood stick. It was covered with mud and – other stains."
There was silence in the room now for the space of a few brief seconds. A silence solemn and full of meaning. All through this rapid succession of questions and answers between Colonel Harris and Luke, Louisa had kept her eyes fixed upon the younger man's face, had seen light indifference at possible danger alternating with impatience at the singular obstinacy of his accusers. Throughout this time the face she knew so well, mirrored that perfect calm which she understood and admired, since it was the reflex of a calm, untroubled soul.
But now there came a change in the face: or rather not in the face but in the soul behind it. The change came at Colonel Harris's last words; a change so subtle, so undetermined, that she was quite sure her father had not perceived it. But movement there was none; one mere, almost imperceptible, quiver of the eyelids – nothing more. The mouth beneath the slight fair moustache had not trembled, the brow remained smooth, the breath came and went as evenly as before.
But the change was there, nevertheless! The gray tint just round the eyes, the stony look in the pupils themselves a tiny speck of moisture round the wing of each nostril. Colonel Harris had not looked at Luke whilst he spoke of the stick. He was staring straight in front of him, hardly conscious of the silence which had cast a strange and mystic spell on these three people standing here in the banal atmosphere of a London hotel.
It was Luke who broke the silence. He said quite quietly asking the question as if it related to a most trivial, most indifferent matter:
"Did Sir Thomas show you the stick?"
The colonel nodded in acquiescence.
"It was my stick, I suppose?"
The query was so sudden, so unexpected that Colonel Harris instinctively uttered an exclamation of amazement.
"Luke! By God, man! Are you mad?"
Louisa said nothing. She was trying to understand the un-understandable. Luke almost smiled at the other man's bewilderment.
"No, sir," he said, "not mad I think. I only want to know how I stand."
"How you stand, man?" ejaculated Colonel Harris with uncontrolled vehemence. "Great Heavens, don't you realize that here is some damned conspiracy as mysterious as it is damnable, and that you will have to look this seriously in the face, if you don't wish to find yourself in the dock before the next four and twenty hours?"
"I am," replied Luke simply, "looking the matter squarely in the face, sir, but I don't quite see how I can avoid standing in the dock as you say, before the next four and twenty hours. You see I had quarrelled with Philip, and my stick – which contained a dagger – was found in the park, covered with mud, as you say, and other stains."
"But, hang it all, man! you did not murder your cousin!"
This was not a query but an assertion. Colonel Harris's loyalty had not wavered, but he could not contrive to keep the note of anxiety out of his voice: nor did he reiterate the assertion when Luke made no answer to it.
Once more the latter passed his hand over the back of his head. You know that gesture. It is so English! and always denotes a certain measure of perturbation. Then he said with seeming irrelevance:
"I suppose I had better go now."
His eyes sought Louisa's, trying to read what she thought and felt. Imagine the awful moment! For he loved her, as you know, with that intensity of passion of which a nature like his – almost cramped by perpetual self-containment – is alone capable. Then to have to stand before her wondering what the next second would reveal, hardly daring to exchange fear for certitude, because of what that certitude might be.
He sought her eyes and had no difficulty in finding them. They had never wandered away from his face. To him – the ardent worshipper – those eyes of hers had never seemed so exquisitely luminous. He read her soul then and there as he would a book. A soul full of trust and brimming over with compassion and with love. Colonel Harris was loyal to the core; he clung to his loyalty, to his belief in Luke as he would to a rock, fearful lest he should flounder in a maze of wonderment, of surmises, of suspicions. God help him! But in Louisa even loyalty was submerged in a sea of love. She cared nothing about suspicions, about facts, about surmises. She had no room in her heart for staunchness: it was all submerged in love.
There was no question, no wonderment, no puzzle in the eyes which met those of Luke. You see she was just a very ordinary kind of woman.
All she knew was that she loved Luke: and all that she conveyed to him by that look, was just love.
And love – omnipotent, strange, and capricious love – wrought a curious miracle then! For Colonel Harris was present in the room, mind you, a third – if not an altogether indifferent – party, there where at this moment these two should have been alone.
It was Colonel Harris's presence in the room that transformed the next instant into a wonderful miracle: for Luke was down on his knees before his simple-souled Lou. She had yielded her hand to him and he had pressed an aching forehead against the delicately perfumed palm.
In face of that love which she had given him, he could only worship: and would have been equally ready to worship before the whole world. And therein lay the miracle. Do you not agree, you who know Englishmen of that class and stamp? Can you conceive one of them falling on his knees save at the bidding of omnipotent Love, and by the miracle which makes a man forget the whole world, defy the whole world, give up the whole world, driven to defiance, to forgetfulness, to self-sacrifice, for the sake of the torturing, exquisite moments of transcendental happiness?