Emma Orczy.

The Heart of a Woman



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There was general stir in the court room, the coroner had risen, also the jury. The journalists were holding agitated parlance with the boy messengers. Louisa – like one who had received a sharp blow on the head – wondered what all this stir meant.

Was it all over? Had Luke irretrievably lost himself in that secret orchard of his, into which he was obviously determined that even she should not enter?

Then she found out that the stir only meant the luncheon hour. All these people were going to eat and to chatter. Heavens above! how they would chatter!

Her father said something about getting a cab, and trying to find a decent hotel in which to have luncheon. But she scarcely heard. She had just seen Luke disappearing through the crowd in company with Mr. Dobson, and he had not even glanced back to look at her.

Every one whispered round her. Lady Ducies' nodding feathers worried her almost to distraction. She allowed her father to lead her away, and to make way for her through the crowd.

Presently she found herself sitting near him in a cab. He was silent and would not look at her. He had begun to think that Luke had killed his cousin; once she heard him repeating the word, "damnable!" twice under his breath. Thus she knew that his loyalty was on the point of giving way.

It seems that they had luncheon somewhere together. She did not take the trouble to inquire where she was: an old-fashioned hotel somewhere in Kensington, with table-cloths that looked as if they had been used for several previous luncheons, and foreign waiters who wore weird-looking shoes and trousers frayed at the edges.

To please her father she ate a little, though she thought that eating must choke her. But it was wearisome to argue, and he – poor dear – looked so miserable.

Time was precious and luncheon interminably slow: it was past two o'clock when Louisa saw Luke again in the court room.

CHAPTER XXVIII
WHICH TELLS OF AN UNEXPECTED TURN OF EVENTS

It seems that coroner and jury had not spent quite so much time over luncheon as the more or less interested spectators. When the crowd began to file back again into the seats, the coroner had already examined and dismissed one witness and was questioning another.

The past and present servants of the Grosvenor Square household would all have to pass before the coroner during the course of this long afternoon. It was only two o'clock and already the gas had to be lighted – two incandescent burners just above the coroner's table – hard, uncompromising lights, that threw a sickly green tinge on every face and cast deep black shadows under every eye.

It was this light no doubt that made Luke's face seem positively ghastly to Louisa: it looked almost like a death-mask, so deep and cavernous did the eyes appear, and so hollow the cheeks. He was sitting in his usual attitude, with arms folded, between Mr. Dobson and one of the women in seedy black whose presence here had puzzled every one.

Old Parker, ex-butler to Lord Radclyffe, was giving evidence.

He had a tale to tell, how Mr. de Mountford "went on awful" when he – the innocent, well-drilled servant – had thought it his duty to introduce Mr. Philip into his lordship's presence.

"Just think of it, your honour," he exclaimed, "his lordship's rightful heir."

Then he added with calm effrontery:

"Mr. Luke 'e give me the sack then and there! He was that wild!"

Just a paltry, silly, meaningless revenge. The death-mask on Luke's face relaxed for a moment when he looked on the fat creature standing before the jury, vainly trying to look pompous and self-righteous, and only succeeding in being a liar.

The evidence would have been of little worth, but for the corroboration from other servants of the Grosvenor Square household. The present two – man and wife – wastrels and drunkards, counted for nothing: they had only entered Lord Radclyffe's service recently when all visitors had ceased from calling at the inhospitable house, and they had seen little or nothing of Luke; but the others – those whom Philip's arbitrary temper had driven out of the house – they had many a tale to tell of the dead man's arrogance, his contemptuous treatment of his younger kinsman, and the bitter words that often flew between the cousins, when doors closed and eavesdroppers were behind the key-holes.

These witnesses – an ex-housekeeper, a footman, a maid – were trying their best, poor things, to "do the right thing by Mr. Luke," little guessing how ill they succeeded. They had been dragged into this much against their will. As a class they hated the police and its doings, even though the cook might occasionally show a preference for the local guardian of peace and order. As for the detective in plain clothes, the man who wore a peaked cap instead of the familiar helmet, him they hated and feared, especially since he seemed to mean mischief for Mr. Luke.

They gave their evidence unwillingly; every admission had to be dragged out of them, once they realized that the revelations of past quarrels between "the gentlemen" would not be to the detriment of the dead, only perhaps to the undoing of the living.

The hours wore on wearily. The atmosphere now surcharged with the heat from the gas brackets had become intolerably oppressive. Opoponax and white heliotrope waxed faint to the nostrils. Through the badly fitting window frame something of the outward fog had penetrated into the room. It hung about in the air, round the gas that burned yellow and dim through it, and obscured the far corners of the place, throwing a veil over the twelve mutes in uniform overcoats with threadbare velvet collars, over the eager and perspiring journalists whose fountain pens had scraped the paper incessantly for so long.

Hot, tired, and oppressed humanity made its warm breath felt in the close, ill-ventilated room. Smelling-salts would not dispel the unpleasantly mingling odours of damp clothes and muddy boots which rose from the plebeian crowd in the rear.

But nobody stirred; no one would have thought of leaving before the last act of this interesting play. The chief actor was not on the stage for the moment, but his presence was felt. It was magnetic in its appeal to excitement. Every question put by the coroner, every reply given by the witnesses, had, as it were, Luke de Mountford for its aim: every word tended toward him, his undoing, the enmeshing of his denials in the close web of circumstantial evidence.

Then a diversion occurred.

The man in the shabby clothes, who looked like a beetle, and who had marshalled his companions into the court room early in the day, was called upon by the usher to come forward. His strange, poorly-clad figure detached itself from the groups immediately round him, his long, loose limbs seeming to swing themselves forward.

His four companions – the three women and the other man – were seized apparently with great agitation and whispered eagerly among themselves. No one in the crowd could guess why these people had been called. They seemed so completely out of the picture which had its invisible frame in Grosvenor Square.

"Go on, Jim!" whispered one of the young women, "they can't do nothing to ye."

And the beetle-like creature shambled forward, with arms gangling beside him, a humble, apologetic look on his care-worn face. He might have been any age from thirty to sixty; time and a perpetual struggle for existence had wiped way all traces of actual age. The cheeks were hollow, and eyes, mouth, and moustache had a droop which added to the settled melancholy of the face.

He was obviously very nervous and looked across at his own friends, who strove to encourage him by signs and whispers.

He nearly dropped the Bible when it was handed to him, and no one could really hear the oath which he repeated mechanically at the usher's bidding.

At last he mustered up a sufficient amount of courage to state his name and address.

"James Baker," he said in answer to the coroner's question. "Bricklayer by trade."

"And where do you live?"

"At 147 Clapham Junction Road, sir," replied the man, scarcely above a whisper.

"Speak up, please," admonished the coroner, "the jury can't hear you. You came here, I understand, prepared to make a statement?"

"Yes, sir."

"Of what nature?"

The man shifted his position from one leg to the other. Heavy beads of perspiration stood out on his pallid forehead.

"Go on, Jim; don't be afeeard," came from the body of the court.

"Silence there!" commanded the usher.

"I wished to say, sir," resumed the man, trying to steady his voice, "that the deceased whom I saw lying in the coffin yonder is my own son, Paul Baker, sir."

"Your son!"

"My son, sir," asserted the man somewhat more steadily, "my son, and 'is mother's, as is sitting over there. My son, Paul Baker, as left 'ome two year ago come next Christmas. We all come 'ere, sir, to-day, me and 'is mother and sister an' Smith an' Jane – we all come 'ere to swear to 'im."

"Your son!"

The exclamation once more came from the coroner, but had any one else dared, that exclamation would have been echoed and re?choed by every mouth in the court room, coupled with emphatic ejaculations of incredulity.

It was as if in a new castle of some grim, sleeping monster a magic wand had touched every somnolent spirit. Smelling salts and scented handkerchiefs were forgotten: the jurymen leaned forward half across the table, oblivious of their own dignity, in their endeavour to obtain a fuller view of this wielder of the magic wand: the beetle-like creature with the sad eyes and pale, hollow cheeks. Even the reporters – accustomed to sensational events – gave up scribbling in order to stare open-mouthed at the shabby figure standing by the table.

At first, of course, the predominant sensation was one of sweeping incredulity. Coroner and jury had met here to-day in this stuffy room in order to conduct an inquiry on the death of Philip de Mountford, heir presumptive to the earldom of Radclyffe. The crowd of fashionable and idle gapers had pushed and jostled in order to hear the ugly story of how wealth and position are fought for and intrigued for even at the cost of crime.

And now to think that the man who lay dead was just a bricklayer's son! It was absolutely incredible. Not till a few moments later did the spectators realize that, if the seedy man at the table spoke truly, then they were witnessing a drama even more poignant than that of the original murder; a drama of deception and of fraud, and a mystery far deeper than that which had originally confronted the sensation mongers.

Strangely enough, incredulity died down, and died down very quickly. A subtle wave filled the murky atmosphere compelling every mind to belief, long before the man's assertions were proved to be correct. The most indifferent became conscious of an overwhelming conviction that the witness was speaking the truth.

This conviction was absolutely paramount in the minds of the chief actors in the play. To them all, to Colonel Harris and to Louisa, to Mr. Dobson and the solicitors, the truth of the statement was never in question. An unerring instinct forced them to believe: and such beliefs are as unconquerable as they are overwhelming. Truth that is an absolute, unquestionable truth finds its way to the mind, when the latter is attuned to subtle or psychic impressions.

And as the truth was borne in upon these people, so did they realize the fulness of its meaning, the deep significance of its portent.

To some of them it seemed as if in a brilliantly illuminated world, all the lights had suddenly been extinguished: to others, as if in a dark and intricate cavern, full of black, impenetrable shadows, dazzling lights had been suddenly switched on.

Louisa, looking across at Luke, saw that to him it meant the latter, and that some of the new, dazzling light had illumined the darkness of his soul.

Something of the tense rigidity of his attitude had gone from him: not the sorrow perhaps, but the blank hopelessness of a misery that flounders in a sea of the unknown.

CHAPTER XXIX
THE WORLD IS SO LARGE

As for the man who had made the extraordinary assertion, he seemed quite unconscious of the effect which it had produced: as if the fact that the supposed heir to an earldom, being actually the son of a Clapham bricklayer, was one that found its natural place in every-day life.

He had his cap in his hand – a shabby, gray tweed cap – and he was twirling it between his fingers round and round with an irritatingly nervous gesture. His eyes now and again were furtively raised at the coroner, as if he were wondering anxiously what punishment would be meted out to him for having created so much commotion, and then with equal furtiveness he dropped them again. His shoulders were bowed and his knees parted company from each other, thus giving him more than ever the appearance of a beetle.

Of course the coroner had to recover his official manner as quickly as possible. But even to him the statement had come as a surprise. He had only known very vaguely that a witness had come forward at the eleventh hour, having only just had time to communicate with the police before the opening of the inquest.

In view of the importance of the evidence, the witness was called as soon as possible; what he had to say would materially affect the whole trend of the inquiry; he had, it seems, brought others with him – members of his own family among them – in order that they might corroborate the truth of what he said.

Quite a minute or so had elapsed in the meanwhile; then at last was the coroner able to resume with at least a semblance of official indifference:

"Now," he said, "let the jury understand a little more clearly what you said just now."

"What I said?" rejoined the man vaguely.

"Yes, what you said. Let us understand it clearly. You went to the mortuary this morning, and saw the body of the deceased?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you state here on oath that in the deceased you recognized your own son?"

"I'll swear to 'im!" replied the witness simply. "Ask 'is mother there!"

And with a long, thin finger, generously edged with grime, he pointed to the woman in seedy black hat and shabby tweed jacket who sat quite close to Luke de Mountford.

"Never mind about his mother just now," admonished the coroner. "We want your statement first. You realize that you are on oath?"

"Yes, sir. I've sworn my Bible oath."

"And you understand the importance of an oath?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you swear that the body of the murdered man whom you saw in the mortuary chamber this morning is that of your son?"

"I swear to that, sir."

I believe that had coroner and jury and practically every man there present, dared to put their thoughts into words at that moment, the ejaculation: "Well! I am blowed!" or "I'm d – d!" as the case might be – would have been generally heard throughout the room. The women, on the other hand, were far too excited even to think.

"Now," resumed the coroner, "tell the jury please when you first identified the deceased as your son?"

"This morning, sir."

"In the mortuary chamber?"

"Yes, sir."

"You had not seen the body before?"

"No, sir."

"Did you know that other witnesses have sworn that the body is that of a gentleman called Philip de Mountford?"

"Yes, sir. I knew that."

"Then do you mean to assert that those other witnesses have sworn false oaths?"

"Oh, no, sir," rejoined James Baker with an apologetic smile of self-deprecation, "I wouldn't say such a thing, sir."

"Well, then?"

"They was mistaken, sir, that's all. Paul was that clever, sir; ask 'is mother there."

And once more the lean and grimy finger pointed to the seedy-looking matron who nodded a melancholy head, half in pride, half in regret.

"Clever, did you say?" asked the coroner, more briskly now. At last he held a thread in this extraordinary tangled skein. "Then do you mean to assert that your son – Paul Baker – went about the world calling himself Philip de Mountford?"

"That must 'ave been it, sir, I think."

"Deceiving people?"

"Aye! 'e was ever a bit o' no good."

"You think he imposed upon his lordship, the Earl of Radclyffe?"

"'E must 'ave done, sir, mustn't 'e now? seein' as 'ow 'is lordship must 'ave been took in."

"You helped him in the deception, I suppose?"

"Me, sir? Lor' bless ye no! Me an' 'is mother ain't clever enough for such things! We knew nothin' of Paul's doin's, and 'e allus went 'is own way, sir."

"But at least you knew that this fraud was going on?"

"Not exactly, sir."

"How do you mean 'not exactly?'" retorted the coroner sharply. "You seem to be unconscious of the fact that this story which you are telling the jury is a very serious matter indeed. If it is true, you are not only making a grave accusation against your dead son, but with this accusation you may be involving yourself or some other member of your family in an exceedingly serious charge of fraud, the penalty for which if proved would be very severe indeed. On the other hand if the story you tell is nothing but a cock-and-bull tale, which further evidence would presently demolish, then you lay yourself open to a charge of perjury and of conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. I have thought best to give you this word of warning – the last which you will get from me – because really you do not seem to be fully conscious of the extreme gravity of your position."

The bricklayer from Clapham had listened to this admonition, delivered with solemn emphasis and no small measure of severity, with a kind of stolid indifference. He retained his humble, apologetic attitude, but clearly the coroner's threats did not affect his simple equanimity.

"I thank you, sir, kindly," he said when the coroner had ceased speaking, "but I can't 'elp it. Paul would go on 'is own way. Ask 'is mother there. 'E never would be spoken to, wouldn't Paul. And me and 'is mother allus said 'e'd come to mischief some day."

"Did you know anything at all of this fraud?"

"No, sir. We knew nothin' of it really. You see Paul left 'ome nearly two year ago come Christmas. 'E didn't tell us nothing."

"Then you last saw your son alive two years ago?"

"Yes, sir. That's the last me and 'is mother seed of 'im. Christmas Day, sir, 'twas two year ago nearly. Paul 'e said then 'e'd 'ad enough of knockin' about in London. 'E was goin' abroad, 'e was, that's what 'e said. And 'e left 'ome, sir, the next day. Bank 'oliday 'twere, and that's the last me and 'is mother seed of 'im."

He had told this with all the simple fatalism peculiar to his class. The son went "abroad," and "abroad" to a Clapham labourer is a very vague term indeed. It means so many things: geographically it means any place beyond a twelve-mile radius from home; the Antipodes are "abroad," but so is Yorkshire. Domestically it means that the traveller passes out of the existence of those that are left behind as surely as if he had stepped into the grave. Financially, it means a mouth less to feed, seeing that the intending traveller is nearly always a wastrel at home. In any event the proposed journey "abroad" is taken with quiet philosophy by family and friends. The traveller starts for "abroad" as easily, as simply, as he would for the nearest public house. He has no impedimenta, nothing to burden him or to cause him regret. Strangely enough, no one ever has any idea where the money comes from that pays for the journey "abroad." The traveller being a wastrel never has any himself, and the family is invariably too poor to provide it. But the wastrel goes, nevertheless.

And life within the narrowed precincts of the family circle goes on just as it had done before. Sometimes news comes from the traveller – a picture post-card from "abroad," usually a request for pecuniary assistance. Seldom does good news arrive; still more seldom does the traveller come back home.

But it is all very simple. Nothing to make a fuss about.

"Then," said the coroner, "he didn't tell you where he meant to go?"

"No, sir," replied Jim Baker, "he just was going abroad."

"Do you know where he went?"

"No, sir."

"Did you ever try to find out?"

"No, sir. Where 'ad been the use?"

Where indeed? The world is so large! and the Baker family so insignificant!

"He didn't write to you?"

"No, sir."

"Nor communicate with you in any way?"

"No, sir."

"You had no idea what had become of him?"

"Not until last summer, sir."

"What happened then?"

"His sister, sir, our Emily, she was out walkin' with Harry Smith – young Smith from next door to us, sir – and she was down in the West End o' London with 'im one day, and 'oo should they meet, sir, but Paul."

"Did they speak to him?"

"Yes, sir. They says, ''Ello, Paul, we didn't know as 'ow you was 'ome,' and 'e seemed upset like at first, and pretended 'e didn't know 'em, and that they'd made a mistake. But they chaffed 'im and went on talkin', so I suppose Paul 'e thought it best to make a clean breast of it all."

"Do you mean to say that he told his sister and his friend that he was carrying on a criminal fraud against the Earl of Radclyffe?"



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