The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
Luke and Mr. Dobson were even now making their way to the same group of seats. They had – like the jury and the coroner – been in the mortuary to have a last look at the murdered man. Louisa thought that Luke looked years older than he had done yesterday. She saw him standing for a moment right against the dull, drabby background of the court room wall; and it seemed as if something of that drabbiness had descended upon his soul. Youth seemed to have gone out of him. He appeared to be looking out onto a dreary world through windows obscured by grime.
There was a look not so much of dejection as of absolute hopelessness in the face. No fear, or anxiety – only a renunciation. But this was only for one moment; the next he had caught sight of her, and the look of blank dejection in his eyes suddenly gave place to one of acute and intolerable pain. The face which usually was so calm and placid in its impassive mask of high-bred indifference was almost distorted by an expression of agony which obviously had been quite beyond control.
The whole thing was of course a mere flash, less than a quarter of a second perhaps in duration, and already Luke was just as he had always been: a correct, well-born English gentleman, perfect in manner, perfect in attitude and bearing, under whatever circumstances Fate might choose to place him.
Mr. Dobson spoke to him, and he at once followed his friend and solicitor across the body of the court room to the row of reserved chairs in front of the crowd.
A whisper went round the room, and Louisa with cool indifference turned to greet those among the crowd whom she had recognized as acquaintances and friends. Some were sitting, others standing back against the walls in the rear. Lady Ducies was there, excited and over-dressed, with a large hat that obstructed the view of a masculine-looking woman who sat immediately behind her, and who seemed quite prepared to do battle against the obstruction.
Farther on sat the Countess of Flintshire, novelist and playwright, eager and serious, note-book in hand and a frown between her brows, denoting thought and concentration of purpose. She bowed gravely to Louisa, and contrived to attract Luke's attention, so that he turned toward her, and she was able to note carefully in indelible pencil in a tiny note-book that a murderer about to meet his just fate may bestow an infinity of care on the niceties of his own toilet.
(N. B. The next play written by the Countess of Flintshire, better known to the playgoing public as Maria Annunziata, had an assassin for its principal hero. But the play found no favour with actor-managers, and though it subsequently enjoyed some popularity in the provinces, it was never performed on the London stage.)
Louisa looked on all these people with eyes that dwelt with strange persistency on trivial details: the Countess of Flintshire's note-book, Lady Ducies' hat, the masculine attire of the militant suffragette in the rear – all these minor details impressed themselves upon her memory.
In after years she could always recall the vision of the court room, with its drabby background to a sea of ridiculous faces.
For they all seemed ridiculous to her – all these people – in their obvious eager agitation: they had pushed one another and jostled and fought their way into this small, stuffy room, the elegant ladies with their scent bottles, the men about town with their silk hats and silver-topped canes: they were all ready to endure acute physical discomfort for the sake of witnessing the harrowing sight of one of their own kind being pilloried before the mob: it was just a pinch of spice added to the savourless condiment of every-day life. Then there were the others: those who had come just out of idle curiosity to hear a few unpleasant details, or to read a few unwholesome pages in the book of life of people who lived in a different world to their own.
Ridiculous they seemed, all of them! Louisa felt a sudden desire to laugh aloud, as she realized how very like a theatre the place was, with its boxes, its stalls, and its galleries. But in this case those who usually sat in stalls or boxes, displaying starched shirt-fronts, bare shoulders, and bad manners, they were the actors now made to move or dance or sing, to squirm or to suffer for the delectation of pit and gallery.
On the left a group of young men with keen young faces, all turned toward Luke and toward Louisa and her father. Note-books protruded out of great-coat pockets, fountain pens and indelible pencils snuggled close to hand. Lucky the lightning artist who could sketch for the benefit of his journalistic patrons a rough outline of the gentleman with more than one foot in the dock. Close by, a couple of boys in blue uniform, with wallet at the side and smart pill-box cap on the head, stood ready to take messages, fractions of news, hurried reports to less-favoured mortals whose duty or desire kept them away from this scene of poignant interest.
Louisa saw them all, as in a vivid dream. Never afterward could she believe that it had all been reality: the coroner, the jury, the group of journalists, the idle, whispering, pushing crowd, the loud murmurs which now and again reached her ear:
"Oh! you may take it from me that to-morrow he'll stand in the dock."
"Such brazen indifference I've never seen."
"And they've actually found the dagger with which he murdered the wretched man."
"Brrr! it makes me feel quite creepy."
"Yes, he was at your At Home, dear, wasn't he? a week ago."
"Oh! one had to ask him for form's sake, you know."
"Poor Lord Radclyffe, what a terrible blow for him."
"They say he'll never recover his speech or the use of his limbs."
The cackling herd of geese stopped its whisperings, astonished at being thus reproved. Louisa again felt that irrepressible desire to laugh, they were so funny, she thought, so irresponsible! these people who had come to gape at Luke.
Now they were silent and orderly at the bidding of authority. An old woman, with black bonnet and rusty jacket, was munching sandwiches in a corner seat: a young man at the farther end of the room was sharpening a lead-pencil.
By the door through which a brief while ago coroner and jury, also Luke and Mr. Dobson had filed out – the door which apparently gave in the direction of the mortuary – a small group in shabby clothes had just entered the court room, escorted by one of the ushers. The latter made his way to the coroner's table and whispered to that gentleman somewhat animatedly. Louisa could not catch what he said, but she saw that the coroner suddenly lost his morose air of habitual ennui, and appeared keen and greatly interested in what he heard.
He gave certain instructions to the usher, who beckoned to the group in the shabby clothes. They advanced with timid, anxious gait, a world of unspoken apologies in their eyes as they surveyed the brilliant company through which they had to pass. The feathers on Lady Ducies' hat attracted the attention of one of them – a young girl with round black eyes and highly decorated headgear: she nudged her companion and pointed to the gargantuan hat and both the girls giggled almost hysterically.
The man in front led the way. He was pale and cadaverous looking with scanty hair and drooping moustache: in shape he was very like a beetle, with limbs markedly bowed and held away from his stooping body. There were five of them altogether, three women and two men. Louisa was interested in them, vaguely wondering who they were.
That they were personages of importance in this case was apparent from the fact that the usher was bringing some chairs for the women and placing them close to those on which sat the solicitors, and Luke and Louisa herself. The men were made to stand close by and remained just where they had been told to stay, tweed cap in hand, miserably conscious of the many pairs of eyes that were fixed upon them.
"Who are these people, do you know?"
Lady Ducies was leaning forward and had contrived to catch Luke's ear.
He turned round very politely.
"How do you do, Mr. de Mountford," she continued in her shrill treble, which she took no trouble to subdue, "you hadn't seen me, had you?"
"No, Lady Ducies," he replied, "I had not."
"I don't wonder," she commented placidly, "you must feel so anxious. Who are these common people over there, do you know?"
"No, I do not."
"Some of your late cousin's former associates perhaps?" suggested Lady Flintshire, "Maria Annunziata," who sat close by.
"My dear, how can you suggest such a thing," retorted the other, "they are so common."
And once more the cackling geese were still.
THE FOG WAS DENSE, I COULDN'T RIGHTLY SEE
The curtain went up on the first act of the play. It was not perhaps so interesting from the outset as the audience would have wished, and the fashionable portion thereof showed its impatience by sundry coughings and whisperings, which had to be peremptorily checked now and again by a loud:
"Silence, there!" and a threat to clear the court.
The medical officer was giving his testimony at great length as to the cause of death. Technical terms were used in plenty, and puzzled the elegant ladies who had come here to be amused. The jury listened attentively, and the coroner – himself a medical man – asked several very pertinent questions:
"The thrust," he asked of Doctor Blair, who was medical officer of the district, "through the neck was effected by means of a long narrow instrument, with two sharp edges, a dagger in fact?"
"A dagger or a stiletto or a skewer," replied the doctor. "Any sharp, two-edged instrument would cause a wound like the one in the neck of the deceased."
"Was death instantaneous?"
He explained at some length the intricacies of the human throat at the points where the murderer's weapon had entered the neck of his victim. Louisa listened attentively. Every moment she expected to see the coroner's hand wandering to the piece of green baize in front of him, and then drawing it away disclosing a snake-wood stick with silver ferrule stained, and showing the rise of the dagger, sheathed within the body of the stick. Every moment she expected to hear the query:
"Is this the instrument which dealt the blow?"
But this apparently was not to be just yet. The opaque veil of green baize was not to be lifted; that certain long Something was not to be revealed, the Something that would condemn Luke irrevocably, absolutely, to disgrace and to death.
Only one of the members of the jury – Louisa understood that he was the foreman – asked a simple question:
"Would," he said, "the witness explain whether in his opinion the – the unknown murderer – the – I mean – "
He floundered a little in the phrase, having realized that in his official capacity he must keep an open mind – and in that open mind of an English juryman there could for the present dwell no certainty that a murderer – an unknown murderer – did exist.
They were all here – he and the others and the coroner – in order to find out if there had been a murder committed or not.
The coroner, one elbow on the table, one large hand holding firmly the somewhat fleshy chin, looked at the juryman somewhat contemptuously.
"You mean?" he queried with an obvious effort at patience.
"I mean," resumed the man more firmly, "in this present instance, would a certain medical or anatomical knowledge be necessary in order to strike – er – or to thrust – so precisely – just on the right spot to cause immediate death?"
With amiable condescension the coroner put the query to the witness in more concise words.
"No, no," replied the doctor quickly, now that he had understood the question, "the thrust argues no special anatomical knowledge. Most laymen would know that if you pierce the throat from ear to ear suffocation is bound to ensue. It was easily enough done."
"When the deceased's head was turned away?" asked the coroner.
"Why, yes – to look out on the fog, perhaps; or at a passer-by. It would be fairly easy if the would-be murderer was quick and determined and the victim unsuspecting."
And Doctor Blair, with long tapering fingers, pointed toward his own throat, giving illustration of how easily the deed might be done.
"Given the requisite weapon of course."
After a few more courteous questions of a technical kind, the first witness was dismissed – only momentarily, for he would be required again – when the green baize would be lifted from the hidden Something which lay there ready to hand, and the medical man be asked to pronounce finally whether indeed the dagger stick was the requisite weapon for the deed which had been so easy of accomplishment.
The chauffeur who had driven the taxicab was the next witness called. A thick-set man, in dark blue Melton coat and peaked cap, he came forward with that swinging gait which betrayed the ex-coachman.
He gave his evidence well and to the point. He had been hailed on the night in question by two gentlemen in evening dress. It was in Shaftesbury Avenue, just opposite the Lyric Theatre, and a little while after he had heard St. Martin's Church clock strike nine o'clock. "The fog was so dense," he added, "you could not see your hand before your eyes."
He had just put down at the Apollo and had crossed over to the left, going down toward Piccadilly, when the two swells hailed him from the curb. He couldn't rightly see them, because of the fog, but he noticed that both wore high hats and the collars of their overcoats ware turned up to their ears. He hardly saw their faces, but he noticed that one of them carried a walking stick.
"Or it might 'ave been a umbrella," he added after a moment's hesitation, "I couldn't rightly say."
"You must have seen the faces of your fares," argued the coroner, "if you saw that one of them carried a walking stick – or an umbrella. You must have seen something of their faces," he reiterated more emphatically.
"I didn't," retorted the man gruffly. "Was you out in that there fog, sir? If you was, you'd know 'ow you couldn't see your 'and before your eyes. I saw the point of the stick – or the umbrella, I couldn't rightly say which – only because one of them gents waved it at me when 'e was 'ailing me – that's 'ow I seed the point."
The coroner allowed the question of identification to drop: clearly nothing would be got out of the man. The gentlemen, he declared, entered the cab, and then one of them gave directions to him, putting his head out of the right hand window.
"I didn't turn to look at 'im," he said bluntly. "I could 'ear 'is voice plain enough – so why should I take a look at 'im? 'Ow did I know there was a goin' to be murder done in my cab, and me wanted to say what the murderer looked like?"
He looked round the room defiantly, as if expecting applause for this display of sound common-sense, opposed to the coroner's tiresome officialism.
"And what directions," asked the latter, "did the gentleman give you?"
"To go along Piccadilly," replied the witness, "till 'e told me to stop."
"And when did he tell you to stop?"
"By the railings of Green Park, just by 'Yde Park Corner. One of 'em puts 'is 'ead out of the window and calls to me to pull up."
"Which you did?"
"Which I did, and one of 'em gets out and standin' on the curb 'e leans back to the interior of the cab and says: S'long – see you to-morrow,' and then 'e says to me: 'No. 1 Cromwell Road,' and disappears in the fog."
"Surely you saw him then?"
"No. The fog was like pea soup there, though it looked clearer on Knightsbridge away. And 'e got out left side of course. I was up on my box right 'and side – a long way from 'im. I could see a man standin' there, but not 'is face. 'Is 'at was pulled down right over 'is eyes, and 'is coat collar up to 'is ears."
"Had he his stick – or umbrella – with him then?"
"Yes. With 'is 'ands in 'is pockets, and the tip pointing upward, like a soldier's bayonet."
"You saw that and not his face?" once more insisted the coroner, making a final effort to draw some more definite statement out of the man. It would help justice so much if only this witness were less obstinate! No one would believe that he really saw nothing of the face of the man who had twice spoken to him. He may not have seen it clearly, not the upper part of the face perhaps, but surely he saw the mouth that had actually framed the words!
But the chauffeur was obstinate. He was not going to swear away the life of a man whom he had not rightly seen, only through a fog as thick as pea soup: this was the fortress behind which after awhile he entrenched himself.
In vain did the coroner, pleased at having gained this slight advantage, try to draw him further, explaining to him with the quiet patience of a man moved by official ambition that, far from jeopardizing the life of any man, he might be saving that of an innocent one, falsely accused through circumstantial evidence. In vain did he press and argue, the man was obstinate. After a very long while only, and when the coroner had almost given up arguing and cross-examining, he admitted that he did think that the gentleman who directed him to No. 1 Cromwell Road had a moustache.
"But, mind," he added hurriedly, "I won't swear to it, for I didn't rightly see – the fog was that dense in the park. And 'e wasn't the same as the one 'oo told me to go along Piccadilly until 'e stopped me. The dead man done that."
"How do you know," came as a quick retort from the coroner, "since you declare you could not see the faces?"
"The first gent 'oo spoke to me," replied the chauffeur somewhat sullenly now, "'ad no 'air on 'is face; the second one I think 'ad – but I can't rightly say. I wouldn't swear to neither. And I won't swear," he reiterated with gruff emphasis.
A sigh went round the room, a tremor of excitement, the palpitation of many hearts, and in-drawing of many breaths. No one spoke. No one framed the thought that was uppermost in the mind of every one of the interested spectators of this strange and un-understandable drama. The dead man who lay in the mortuary chamber was clean-shaved, but Luke de Mountford wore a moustache.
Lady Ducies' feathers nodded in the direction of the literary countess who went by the name of Maria Annunziata and the latter made hasty notes in her diminutive book.
But Louisa leaned slightly forward so as to catch fuller sight of Luke, and she encountered his eyes fixed steadily upon her.
After that the driver of the cab concluded his evidence more rapidly. There was little more there than what every one had already learned from the newspapers. The second pulling up in Cromwell Road this time: the silent fare, the descent from the box, the discovery of the huddled figure in the far corner of the cab, the call for the police.
People listened with less attention; thoughts were busy with the contemplation of a picture: two men, one clean-shaved – the dead man of course – and the other wearing a moustache. The first link in the chain of evidence against the assassin had been forged and was ready to be rivetted to the next.
The crowd in the body of the court could only obtain a view of the top of Luke de Mountford's head. It was smooth and fair, of that English fairness of tint which is golden when the light catches it. And the group of elegantly dressed women who came here to-day in order to experience an altogether novel sensation shuddered with delightful excitement as they thought of Black Maria, and handcuffs, and crowds of police officers in blue. A jumble of impressions ran riot in frivolous and irresponsible minds, foremost amongst which was one that the public was not longer allowed to witness a final scene on the gallows.
THE NEXT WITNESS PLEASE
The air grew more and more heavy as the morning dragged on. It was now close on twelve o'clock.
Frederick Power, hall porter of the Veterans' Club had finished his evidence. With the precision of a soldier he had replied curtly and to the point to every question put to him, and had retold all that had occurred on that foggy night, in the smoking room and the lobby of the Veterans' Club in Shaftesbury Avenue.
It was but a repetition of what he had told Sir Thomas Ryder in Colonel Harris's presence the day before. Louisa had had it all at full length from her father; she had drawn the whole story out of him, point by point, just as the man had told it originally. Colonel Harris, reluctant to tell her, was gradually driven to concealing nothing from her. Moreover, since she had made up her mind to attend the inquest she might as well hear it all from him first, the better to be prepared for the public ordeal.
Though she knew it all, she listened attentively to every word which Frederick Power uttered, lest her father had – in telling her – omitted some important detail. She heard again at full length the account of Luke's visit to the Veterans' Club, his desire to see Philip de Mountford, the interview in the smoking room behind closed doors, the angry words of obvious, violent quarrelling.скачать книгу бесплатно
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