Emma Orczy.

The Heart of a Woman



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Then Luke's return to the lobby, his departure, the final taunt spoken by Philip and the look of murder in his eye, sworn to by the hall porter. She listened to it all, and heard without flinching the last question which the coroner put to the witness:

"Did Mr. de Mountford's visitor carry a stick when he left the club?"

"'E 'ad a stick, sir, when 'e came," was the porter's reply, "and I 'anded it to 'im myself when 'e left."

Louisa had been sitting all this while at the extreme end of the row of chairs, right up against the wall. She sat with her back to the wall, her head leaning against it, her hands hidden within the folds of a monumental sable muff lying idly in her lap. She had her father on her right, and beyond him Mr. Dobson and his clerk; she saw them all in profile as they looked straight before them, at the coroner and at each succeeding witness.

Luke sat farther on, and, as he was slightly turned toward her, she could watch his face all the while that she listened to the hall porter's evidence. It was perfectly still, the features as if moulded in wax; the eyes which actually were a clear hazel appeared quite dark and almost as if they had sunk back within their circling lids. He sat with arms folded, and not a muscle in face or body moved. No stone-carved image could have been more calm, none could have been so mysterious.

Louisa tried to understand and could not. She watched him, not caring whether the empty-headed fools who sat all round saw her watching him or not.

When the coroner asked the hall porter about the stick and the man gave his reply, Luke turned and met Louisa's fixed gaze. The marble-like stillness of his face remained unchanged, only the eyes seemed as if they darkened visibly. At least to her it seemed as if a velvety shadow crept over them, an inscrutable, an un-understandable shadow, and the rims assumed a purple hue.

It was her fancy of course. But Luke's eyes were naturally bright, of varying tones of gray, blue, or green, with never a shadow beneath them. Now they appeared cavernous and dark, and again as he met her gaze, that swift flash of intense misery.

No longer had she the feeling that she was living in a dream, no longer that this was a theatre wherein she and Luke and the dead man were puppets dancing and squirming for the benefit of shallow-hearted dolts. That sense of unreality left her together with the hysterical desire to laugh which had plagued her so in the earlier part of the proceedings. On the contrary, now an overwhelming feeling of intense reality oppressed her, so that she could have screamed with the awful soul agony which the sight of Luke's misery had caused her.

All her nerves were on the rack, her every faculty concentrated on the one supreme desire to understand and to know.

Love, the omnipotent, had encountered an enemy – grim, unexplained Mystery – and he sat pondering, almost cowed by this first check to his supreme might.

Louisa had sought and compelled Luke's gaze, and Love had gleamed in one great flash out of her eyes. Yesterday, at her glance, he had knelt at her feet and buried his sorrow with his aching head in the scented palm of the dearly loved hand.

To-day the look of Love brought but a surfeit of misery, an additional load of sorrow. The eyes in response remained tearless and hard and circled with the dark rings of utter hopelessness.

I'll grant you that if Louisa Harris had been an extraordinary woman, a woman endowed with a wonderfully complex, wonderfully passionate, or wonderfully emotional nature – if, in fact, she had been the true product of this century's morbid modernity – she would, whilst admitting Luke's guilt, have burned with a passion of self-sacrifice, pining to stand beside him pilloried in the dock, and looking forward to a veritable world of idealistic realism in the form of a picturesque suicide, after seeing the black flag hoisted over Newgate prison.

But Louisa, though a modern product of an ultra-modern world, was an absolutely ordinary woman – just a commonplace, sensible creature who thought and felt in a straight and essentially wholesome manner. Though she had read Tolstoi and Dostoyefsky and every Scandinavian and Russian crack-brain who has ever tried to make wrong seem right, black appear white, and animalism masquerade as love, yet she had never been led away from her own clean outlook on life.

She loved Luke and would have given – did in fact give – her whole life to him: but she loved him without analysis or thought of self. It never entered her mind at this moment to wonder if he were guilty or not guilty, if he was capable or not of committing a crime to gain his own ends. All that troubled her was his misery, which she would have given her very soul to alleviate, and the hopelessness in him which she had given the world to console.

The mystery troubled her, not the sin: the marble-like rigidity of his face, not the possibility of the crime.

For the moment, however, she was brought back quickly enough to present realities. The coroner – satisfied with Frederick Power's answers – was giving him a moment's breathing space. The grating of fountain pens against paper was heard from that corner of the room where sat the journalists: the crowd waited silent and expectant, for – unversed though most people there present were in proceedings of this kind – yet instinctively every one felt that one great crucial moment was just about to come; one great, leading question was just about to be put.

The coroner had fingered the papers before him for the space of a few seconds, then he looked up once more at the witness, his elbow resting on the table, his fleshy chin buried in his hand, in an attitude which obviously was habitual to him.

"This visitor," he said speaking loudly and clearly, "who called the night before last at the Veterans' Club and had an interview with the deceased, you saw him well, of course?"

"Yes, sir," was the prompt reply.

"You would know him again?"

"Certainly, sir."

"Looking round this room now, should you say that he was present?"

The man looked across the room straight at Luke and said pointing to him:

"Yes, sir; the gentleman sitting there, sir."

As every one had expected the reply, no one seemed astonished. The many pairs of eyes that turned on Luke now expressed a certain measure of horrified compassion, such as might be bestowed on some dangerous animal brought to earth by a well-aimed gun shot.

The coroner made no comment. He turned to the jury, glancing along either row of solemn faces, on both sides of the long table. Then he said:

"Would any of you gentlemen like to ask this witness a question?"

Receiving no reply, he added:

"Next witness, please!"

CHAPTER XXVII
AND PEOPLE WENT OUT TO LUNCHEON

And now it was Luke de Mountford's turn at last. A wave of excitement swept over the crowd, every neck was craned forward, every eye fixed on this next witness, as he rose from his seat and with courteous words of apology to those whom he disturbed in passing made his way to the centre table.

An absolute embodiment of modern London society, Luke stood there, facing the crowd, the coroner and jury, as he would have faced friends and acquaintances in the grand stand at Ascot or in the stalls of a West End theatre. There are hundreds and thousands of young Englishmen who look exactly as Luke de Mountford looked that morning: dress is almost a uniform, in cut, style, and degree of tone; hair and even features are essentially typical. Luke de Mountford, well-born, well-bred, behaved just as Eton and Oxford had taught him to behave, concealing every emotion, raising neither voice nor gesture. An Englishman of that type has alternately been dubbed hypocritical, and unemotional. He is neither; he is only conventional. Luke himself, facing the most abnormal condition of life that could assail any man of his class, was so absolutely drilled into this semblance of placidity that it cost him no effort to restrain himself, and none to face the forest of inquisitive eyes levelled at him from every side. And since there was no effort, the outward calm appeared perfectly natural: an actor who has played one part two hundred times and more does so night after night until the role itself becomes reality, and he in ordinary every-day life seems even to himself strange and unnatural.

Now Luke was given the Bible to kiss and told to take the oath. From where he stood he could see Louisa and a number of faces turned toward him in undisguised curiosity. Mocking eyes and contemptuous eyes, eyes of indifference and of horror, met his own as with quick glance they swept right over the crowd.

I don't think that he really saw any one except Louisa; no living person existed for him at this moment except Louisa. Hypocritical or unemotional nature – which? None could say, none would take the trouble to probe. All that the crowd saw was a man to all intents and purposes accused of a horrible murder, confronted at every turn with undeniable proofs of his guilt, and yet standing there just as if he were witnessing the first act of some rather dull play.

Hypocrisy or effrontery were the two alternatives which the idle and the curious weighed, whilst anticipating the joy of seeing the mask torn from this wooden image before them.

The coroner was asking the witness his name, and Luke de Mountford's voice was quite steady as he gave reply.

"You were," continued the coroner, "until quite recently and are again now heir-presumptive to the Earl of Radclyffe?"

"It was supposed at one time," replied Luke, "that besides myself there was no other heir to my uncle's title."

"Deceased, I understand, arrived in England about six months ago?"

"So I understand."

"He made claim to be the only son of Lord Radclyffe's brother?"

"That is so."

"And to all appearances was able to substantiate this claim in the eyes of Lord Radclyffe?"

"Apparently."

"So much so that Lord Radclyffe immediately accorded him that position in his household which you had previously occupied?"

"Lord Radclyffe accorded to the deceased the position which he thought fitting that he should occupy."

"You know that the servants in Lord Radclyffe's household have informed the police that in consequence of Mr. Philip de Mountford's advent in the house, you and your brother and sister had to leave it?"

"My brother, sister, and I now live at Fairfax Mansions, Exhibition Road," said Luke evasively.

"And the relations between yourself and the deceased have remained of a very strained nature, I understand?"

"Of an indifferent nature," corrected Luke.

There was a pause. So far these two – the coroner and the witness – had seemed almost like two antagonists going through the first passes of a duel with foils. Steel had struck against steel, curt answers had followed brief questions. Now the combatants paused to draw breath. One of them was fighting the preliminary skirmish for his life against odds that were bound to overwhelm him in the end: the other was just a paid official, indifferent to the victim, interested only in the issue. The man standing at the foot of the table was certainly interesting: the coroner had made up his mind that he was the guilty party – a gentleman and yet a cowardly assassin; he amused himself during this brief pause with a quick analysis of the high-bred, impassive face – quite Saxon in character, fair and somewhat heavy of lid – in no way remarkable save for the present total lack of expression. There was neither indifference nor bravado, neither fear, remorse, nor defiance – only a mask made of wood, hiding every line of the mouth, and not allowing even the eyes to show any signs of vitality.

Beyond that the whole appearance was essentially English: the fair hair neatly groomed, with just a suspicion of curl here and there, and a glint of gold in the high lights, the stiff neck encased in its immaculate collar, the perfectly tailored clothes, the hands, large but well-formed and carefully tended, which lightly interlaced, hung in marble-like stillness before him.

When a man happens to be out in mid-winter with a stout stick in his hand, and he comes across a layer of ice on the top of a pool or a trough of water, he always – or nearly always – is at once a prey to the silly desire to break that layer of ice. The desire is irresistible, and the point of the stick at once goes to work on the smooth surface, chipping it if not actually succeeding in breaking it.

The same desire exists in a far stronger degree when the ice is a moral one – one that covers the real nature of another man: the cold impassiveness that hides the secret orchard to which no one but the owner has access. Then there is an irresistible longing to break that cold barrier, to look within, and to probe that hidden soul, if not within its innermost depths, at any rate below the ice-bound surface; to chip it, to mark it and break its invincible crust.

Some such feeling undoubtedly stirred at the back of the coroner's mind. The hide-bound, red-tape-ridden official was more moved than he would have cared to admit, by a sense of irritation at the placidity of this witness, who was even now almost on his trial. Therefore he had paused in his questionings, afraid lest that sense of irritation should carry him beyond the proper limits of his own powers.

And now he resumed more quietly, with his voice less trenchant and his own manner outwardly more indifferent.

"When," he asked, "did you last see the deceased?"

"In the lobby of the Veterans' Club," replied Luke, "the night before last."

"You had called there to see him?"

"Yes."

"For what purpose?"

"To discuss certain family matters."

"You preferred to discuss these family matters at a club rather than in your cousin's own home?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"For private reasons of my own."

"It would help this inquiry if you would state these private reasons."

"They have no bearing upon the present issue."

"You refuse to state them?" insisted the coroner.

"I do."

The coroner was silent for a moment: it almost seemed as if he meant to press the point at first, then thought differently, for after that brief while, he merely said:

"Very well."

Then he resumed:

"Now, Mr. de Mountford, on the night in question, you say you went to see the deceased at the Veterans' Club. You were, I understand, shown into the smoking room?"

"Yes," was the simple answer.

"Your cousin was in the room?"

"Yes."

"Alone?"

"Alone."

"And how long did your interview with him last?"

"About an hour or less, perhaps."

"Was it of an amicable character?"

This question was identical to the one already put to Luke on the actual night of the crime, by the detective charged to elucidate its mysteries. And Luke's reply was identical to his former one:

"Of an indifferent character," he replied.

"There was no quarrel between you and the deceased gentleman?"

"Our interview was of a private nature," rejoined Luke with unalterable calm.

"But other witnesses," retorted the coroner sharply, "heard angry voices issuing from the smoking room."

"That no doubt is for those other witnesses to say."

"You deny then that you quarrelled with the deceased on the night when he was murdered?"

"I deny nothing. I am not on my trial, I presume."

Again a pause. The coroner closed his eyes and stroked his heavy chin. He had not yet succeeded in chipping the smooth surface of the ice.

"At what precise hour then did you last see the deceased alive?" he asked, allowing his voice once more to appear harsh and his manner more peremptory.

"At nine o'clock or thereabouts, the night before last."

"Where was that?"

"He was in the lobby of the Veterans' Club and I just outside."

"He made certain remarks to the hall porter at that moment, which offended you very deeply, I understand."

"Mr. Philip de Mountford was not always guarded in his speech when he spoke to servants."

"And his remarks offended you?"

"My opinion on this point is of no consequence, I imagine."

"You then left the door step of the Veterans' Club, and a moment later the deceased joined you in the street."

"I finally left the club soon after nine, but I did not again see Mr. Philip de Mountford alive."

"The deceased suggested that you should come with him then and there to see Lord Radclyffe at Grosvenor Square; he hailed a taxicab and you entered it with him," insisted the coroner with sudden, slow emphasis.

"I last saw Mr. Philip de Mountford alive in the lobby of the Veterans' Club," reiterated Luke calmly, "soon after nine o'clock."

"He overtook you in the street outside the club?"

"It is not true."

"And hailed a cab?"

"He may have done so, but not in my company."

"You entered the cab with him, and he told the driver to follow along Piccadilly."

"He may have done so," once more reiterated Luke in the same calm and even voice, "but not in my company."

"You parted from him in the lobby of the club?"

"I have told you so."

"And you never saw him again after that?"

"Never."

"You were not with him when he came out of the club?"

"No."

"When he hailed a taxicab?"

"No."

"You were not with him when he entered the cab and put his head out of the window, telling the driver to go along Piccadilly until he was stopped?"

"No."

The answers had come clear, sharp, and distinct, quick ripostes of the foils against the violent attack. Now the adversary drew breath. The pause was dramatic in its effect, far-reaching in its significance. The coroner with eyes steadily fixed on the witness made a quick movement with his hand. He drew away the long narrow strip of green baize in front of him, revealing a snake-wood stick, with ferrule stained and tarnished.

"Is this your stick?" he asked curtly.

"It is my stick," replied Luke.

He had not flinched, yet there were many scores of pairs of eyes fixed upon him, when that green baize covering was removed. But not one of those who gazed so steadily upon him could boast that he or she had seen the slightest tremor of the lids or the merest quiver of the mouth. The voice sounded perfectly clear, the cheeks, though pale, had assumed no grayish hue.

"Very well. That will do," said the coroner quietly.

What more was there to say? The dagger-stick, stained and rusty, told the most graphic tale there was to tell. Yet Luke de Mountford stepped quietly away from the table looking neither self-conscious nor dazed. He went back to his seat, beside Mr. Dobson, and leaning toward him answered some whispered questions which the solicitor was putting to him. He folded his arms before him and after awhile allowed his head to fall forward a little, closing his eyes as he did so. He seemed a little tired, but otherwise unperturbed, even though the hall porter now was recalled and was busy identifying the stick which lay across the coroner's table with the one which he himself had handed to Mr. de Mountford's visitor at nine o'clock the night before last.

And the police too added its share to this work that was going on of enmeshing a criminal. There was the constable who had found the stick inside the railings of Green Park and had taken it straight away to his chiefs at Scotland Yard before the stains on it had been further disturbed; and there was finally Doctor Blair, the district medical officer, also recalled, who examined the dagger which fitted into that snake-wood stick.

He had been shown it yesterday it seems and found how accurately it fitted the wound in the murdered man's throat. To this he swore now in open court, for the coup de th??tre, the production of the dagger-stick, had been kept back until now, in order that it should work its fullest and most dramatic effect.

Colonel Harris, sitting near his daughter, would have given worlds to know what she thought. He himself did not know what to think. His simple, unsophisticated mind was in a maze. The question of Luke's possible guilt had suddenly loomed up before him, dissipating the former blind impulse of partisanship and loyalty. Mr. Dobson too looked puzzled, the old family solicitor who had seen Luke and his brothers and sister grow up, who a few hours, nay minutes, ago would have sworn to his client's innocence before the entire world, he too now was face to face with a hideous feeling of doubt.

Not one other person in the room either, believe me, who was not convinced of Luke's guilt. Louisa knew that well enough as her aching eyes wandered over the sea of faces, meeting hollow compassion, morbid curiosity, at best a certain sympathetic horror, in the glances round. She knew that every one here, the officials, the jury, the police, the public, believed that Luke struck his cousin in the dark; she knew that Mr. Dobson had begun to doubt; and that her father had begun to fear.

And she, with all the fervour of unconquered Love, prayed in her heart that she might understand. She prayed to Love to open the eyes of her mind, for it was her reason which did not understand, which yearned to understand.

Her heart cared nothing, cared for nothing except for the man she loved and the bitter, bitter sorrow which he endured alone, shut away from all, even from her.



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