Emma Orczy.

The Heart of a Woman



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CHAPTER XXXII
A MAN MUST ACT AS HE THINKS BEST

Louisa knew the flat in Exhibition Road very well. She had helped Edie to furnish it, and to make it pretty and cosey, for Edie's passion was for dogs and for golf; drawing-room chairs and saucepans were not much in her line. So Louisa had chosen practically everything – the piano, as well as the coal-scuttles, and every stick of furniture in Luke's room.

To-night she went up the well-known stairs very slowly: she ached so in every limb that she could scarcely walk. She seemed to have aged twenty years in two days.

Edie was sitting alone in the pretty drawing room buried in a capacious arm-chair, her hands folded before her. The room was in darkness save for the glow of the firelight. She jumped up when Colonel Harris and Louisa were announced and the neat servant in black dress and smart cap and apron switched on the electric light.

"Oh," said poor little Edie impetuously, "I am so thankful you've come!"

She ran up to Louisa and put her arms round her, kissing her.

"Do come and sit with me," she continued, loath to relinquish Colonel Harris's hand after she had shaken it, "I feel that in this solitude I shall go dotty."

Whilst she spoke, she detached with nervous, febrile movements Louisa's fur from round her neck, and dragged the older woman nearer to herself and to the fire. Then she threw herself down on the hearth rug, squatting there in front of the fire, with nervy fingers picking at the fringe of the rug. Her cheeks were red and blotchy with traces of recent tears, her hair, towzled and damp, clung to her moist temples. Suddenly she burst into a torrent of weeping.

"Oh, Lou! what does it all mean?" she exclaimed between heavy sobs. "What does it all mean? They say Luke has murdered that odious Philip! and I have been cooped up here for two days now, not daring to go out! ashamed to face any one! and Luke – Luke – oh!"

The outburst was almost hysterical. The young girl was obviously fearfully overwrought, and had endured a severe nerve-strain by not having the means of giving vent to her feelings. Colonel Harris, with all an Englishman's horror of feminine scenes, was clearing his throat, looking supremely uncomfortable all the time.

"Sh! – sh!" admonished Louisa impatiently, "be quiet, Edie, you mustn't go on like that! Be quiet now!" she added more severely seeing that the girl made no effort to control herself. "What will your servants think?"

"Do you suppose," retorted Edie, "that I care what they think? They can't think more, can they? when they all talk of Luke as if he were a murderer."

"Do for God's sake be silent, Edie. This is too awful."

And Louisa, almost roughly, dragged herself away from the girl's hysterical embrace. She had tried so hard for two days and two nights to keep herself together, and her nerves in check. All day to-day had been one long continuous battle against the danger of "breaking down," that bugbear of the conventional woman of the world.

Now this danger, backed up by this poor child's grief, loomed greater than ever, now – now – that "breaking down" would become a positive sin, the most abject form of cowardice.

But Edie's bewilderment, her loneliness, were intensely pathetic. Louisa had tried to be severe, and insisted on checking the access of hysteria, but her heart went out to the child, and to her puzzlement in face of this awful, un-understandable riddle.

"Look here, Edie," she said gently, putting her own kind arms round the quaking shoulders of the younger girl, "you are just going to show father and me how brave you can be. You are Luke's nearest and dearest one on earth; you must not add to his troubles by this exaggerated show of grief. We'll all have to be brave – all of us – but Luke will have to be the bravest of us all, and so we must all do our best to keep up our courage, and help his own."

She was not accustomed to making such long speeches, nor yet to preach and to admonish. Life, before now, had never placed her in the necessity of admonishing others: everybody round her – the people with whom she came in contact always behaved very much as they should – in the proper conventional worldly manner. People she had hitherto to do with, did not give way to hysterical tears, nor had they occasion to display fortitude in the face of an overwhelming moral shock.

Therefore Louisa was not sure if her words would carry weight, or if they would produce the effect she desired. She gazed anxiously at Edie whilst she spoke, looking with hopeful yet fearful eyes in the poor girl's face, wondering if she had succeeded in calming the hysterical outburst.

Edie hung her head, wilfully veiling her eyes beneath the drooping lids. She twirled her gossamer handkerchief into a tight wet ball and toyed with it nervously.

"It's not much good," she said at last, in very low tones so that Louisa had some difficulty in hearing what she said, "my trying to be brave – when Luke is such a coward!"

"Be quiet, Edie," retorted Louisa, all her kindness and sympathy gone, and pushing the girl roughly away from her. "You have no right to talk like that."

"Well, Colonel Harris," rejoined Edie, turning to the man in her distress, "I ask you, if it isn't just cowardice to run away now, and leave me and Jim to face the whole thing alone?"

"To run away? What do you mean?" demanded Louisa, placing her hand on the girl's shoulder, forcing her to turn round and to face her.

"Who's running away?" queried Colonel Harris with a frown.

"Luke," said Edie hotly, "is running away. He came home just now, and calmly told me that he was going off abroad to-night, and since then he has been shut up in his room, packing his things. I have been all alone here all day. Jim won't be home till late to-night. Poor old Jim! what a fearful home-coming it will be for him."

But to this renewal of Edie's lamentations, Louisa had not listened, only to the words: "Luke said that he was going abroad to-night!"

Luke – fugitive from justice! The monstrous, unbelievable picture which she had tried to visualize just now had become a mirror reflecting awful, hideous reality.

"Where's Luke?" asked the colonel. "I'd better see him."

"No, father," interposed Louisa quickly. "I'd sooner speak to Luke. Can I go to him, Edie?"

"Yes, I think so," replied the other. "I don't suppose that he has locked his door."

"Louisa," said her father gently, "I don't think you'll be doing any good, dear. A man must act as he thinks best."

"I'm not," she replied, "going to interfere with Luke's plans. I only want to speak to him. Don't bother, Edie. I know my way."

CHAPTER XXXIII
IF YOU WOULD ONLY LET YOURSELF GO

Luke was sitting at a desk, writing, when Louisa entered his room. Only one lamp shaded with yellow silk hung above the desk, throwing golden light on paper and blotting pad and on the hand which held the pen.

When Luke turned at the sound of the opening door his face remained in deep shadow. He could not of course see her distinctly, as her figure was silhouetted against the light in the passage behind her; that was no doubt the reason why he did not rise to greet her when she entered, but remained seated at his desk.

"May I come in, Luke?" she asked.

"Certainly," he replied. "I was just writing to you."

"Then give me your unfinished letter, and tell me what else you were going to write."

"Oh! I had only got as far as your name," he said, pointing to the empty page before him.

"Was it so difficult then," she asked, "to tell me everything?"

She had come forward into the room, and stood beside his desk, one hand resting upon it, her face looking down at the letter which he had not yet begun to write. He still made no attempt to rise, for now her face was in full golden light, and he could see its every feature.

"It is so difficult," he said, "not to write drivel when one is saying good-bye."

"You are going away?" she asked.

"Yes."

"To-night?"

"In half an hour."

"You are going abroad?"

"Certainly."

"Why?"

This last question came abruptly, in harsh, trenchant tones, altogether different to those of her smooth contralto voice. He turned his eyes away from her face, and looked down at his own hands, which were clasped in front of him.

"Because," he replied without the slightest hesitation, "I cannot face what lies before me if I remain."

"Why not?"

"For many reasons. There's Uncle Rad to consider first and foremost, then Edie, and Jim, and Frank."

"What have they to do with it?"

"Everything. After the evidence at the inquest to-day a warrant will be out for my arrest within the next few hours."

"What of it?"

"The evidence against me is overwhelming. I should be tried, perhaps hanged, for murder, at best sent to penal servitude for life. I cannot chance that. I must think of Uncle Rad, of Edie, of Jim and of Frank."

"You have yourself to think of first and foremost."

"Well," he retorted simply, "I have thought of myself, and I do not see how with my own dagger-stick brought up in evidence against me, and my ill-feeling toward – toward the dead man so well-known, I can possibly escape condemnation."

He spoke in such even and perfectly natural tones, that just for a moment – it was a mere flash – Louisa wondered if he were absolutely sane. It seemed impossible that any man could preserve such calm in face of the most appalling fate that ever threatened human being. She, too, like the indifferent, hide-bound official this afternoon was seized with an irrepressible desire to break through that surface of ice. The outer covering must be very thin, she thought; her presence must have melted all the coldness that lay immediately below the surface. Without saying another word, quietly and simply she came down on her knees. Her skirts had not swished as she did so, not a sound from her revealed the movement. When he looked up again, her face was on a level with his, and her eyes – those great luminous eyes that shed no tears at moments such as this – looked straight into his own.

"For pity's sake, Lou," he said, "don't make a drivelling coward of me now."

And he rose, pushing his chair aside, leaving her there, kneeling beside the desk, humbled and helpless. And he retreated within the shadow of the room.

"Luke," she said, imploring him, "you are going to tell me all that troubles you."

"Nothing," he replied curtly, "troubles me. You are wasting your sympathy, you know. And I have a train to catch."

"You are not going, Luke?"

"Indeed I am."

"You condemn yourself for a crime which you have not committed."

"I am already as good as condemned. But I do not choose to hang for the murder of the Clapham bricklayer's son."

He laughed. It almost sounded like a natural laugh – would have done so, no doubt, to all ears except hers. Then he added dryly:

"Such a purposeless crime too. Fancy being hanged for killing Paul Baker."

"Luke," she said simply, "you don't seem to realize how you are hurting me!"

One ejaculation, "My God!" escaped him then. He stood quite still, in the shadow, and presently his hand wandered with the old familiar gesture down the smooth back of his head. She remained on her knees and after awhile he came back to her, and sat down on the chair beside the desk, his eyes on a level with hers.

"Look here, Lou," he said quietly, "I have got to go and that's all about it. I have got to, do you understand? The consequences of this crime cannot be faced – not by any one – not by me. There's Uncle Rad to think of first. He is broken and ill; he has more than one foot in the grave. The trial and the scandal couldn't be kept from him; it would be bound to leak out sooner or later. It would be too big a scandal, and it would kill him outright. Then, you see, Lou, it would never do! I should be Earl of Radclyffe and a felon – it wouldn't do, now would it? Who has ever heard of a peer undergoing a life sentence – or being hanged? It wouldn't do – you know it wouldn't do – "

He reiterated this several times, with quaint insistence, as if he were discussing with her the possibility or impossibility of attending a race meeting, or a ball in Lent, she proving obstinate.

She did not reply, leaving him to ramble on in his somewhat wild speech, hoping that if she let him talk on uninterruptedly, he would sooner or later betray something of that enigma which lay hidden behind the wooden mask which he still so persistently wore.

"Besides," he continued, still arguing, "there's Frank to think of – the next heir to the title. I believe that people in penal servitude live an unconscionable time – especially if they are wanted to die. Think of poor old Frank waiting to come into his own – into an old title held by a felon. It is all much too much of a muddle, Lou. It is simpler that I should go – "

"But," she said, really trying now to speak as simply, as calmly as he did himself, "all these arguments which you are using now, Luke, will equally apply if you make yourself a fugitive from justice."

"Oh, I shouldn't be that for very long!" he said lightly.

"You are thinking of suicide?"

"No," he replied simply, "I am not. Only of the chances of a wandering life."

"You seem to look at every chance, Luke, except one."

"Which one is that?"

"That though you might be arrested, though you might be accused and even tried for the murder of – of that man – truth might come out, and your innocence proved."

"That would be impossible, Lou," he said quietly.

"Why – in Heaven's name, Luke!" she exclaimed passionately, "why?"

"My dagger-stick was found inside the railings of the park – and the stains on it are irrefutable proofs."

"That's only circumstantial evidence," she argued, "you can demolish it, if you choose."

"I cannot," he replied. "I should plead guilty – Mr. Dobson says that if I plead guilty, counsel can plead extenuating circumstances – intense provocation and so forth – and I might get a more lenient sentence."

"Luke," she said, looking him straight in the face, compelling his eyes to meet hers, for in their clear depths she meant to read the truth, to compel the truth at last. He had never lied in his life. If he lied now she would know it, she would read it in his face. "Luke! you are shielding some one by taking the crime on your own shoulders."

But his eyes remained perfectly clear and steady as they gazed straight into hers. There was not a shadow in them, not a quiver, as he replied quietly:

"No, Lou, I am shielding no one."

"It was you who killed that man – Philip de Mountford – or Paul Baker – whoever he may be?"

And he answered her firmly, looking steadily into her face:

"It was I."

She said nothing more then, but rose to her feet, and went quite close up to him. With a gesture that had no thought of passion in it, only sublime, motherly love, she took Luke's head in both her hands and pressed it to her heart.

"My poor old Luke!" she murmured.

She smoothed his hair as a mother does to an afflicted child; the motherly instinct was up in arms now, even fighting the womanly, the passionate instinct of a less selfless love. She bent down and kissed his forehead.

"Luke," she said gently, "it would do you such a lot of good if you would only let yourself go."

He had contrived to get hold of her hands: those hands which he loved so dearly, with their soft, rose-tinted palms and the scent of sweet peas which clung to them. His own hot fingers closed on those small hands. She stood before him, tall, elegant – not beautiful! Louisa Harris had never been beautiful, nor yet a fairy princess of romance – only a commonplace woman! A woman of the world, over whose graceful form, her personality even, convention invariably threw her mantle – but a woman for all that – with a passion burning beneath the crust of worldly sang-froid– with heart attuned to feel every quiver, every sensation of joy and of pain. A woman who loved with every fibre in her – who had the supreme gift of merging self in Love – of giving all, her soul, her heart, her mind and every thought – a woman who roused every chord of passion in a man's heart – the woman whom men adore!

And now as Luke de Mountford held her hands, and she stood close beside him, her breath coming and going in quick gasps, with the suppressed excitement of latent self-sacrifice, her eyes glowing and tearless, he half slid from the chair on which he was sitting, and one knee was on the ground, and his face turned up to hers.

He almost smiled, as she repeated, with a little sigh:

"If you would only let yourself go!"

"If I would let myself dwindle down to the level of drivelling fools," he said. "God knows, Lou, it would be easy enough now, when I hold those lovely little hands of yours, and the scent of sweet peas which comes from your dear self reminds me of summer, of old-fashioned gardens of enduring peace. Lou! I dare not even kiss your hands, and yet my whole body aches with the longing to press my lips on them. You see how easily I drift into being a drivelling fool? Would to God I could lie on the ground here before you, and feel the soles of your feet on my neck. How lucky slaves were in olden days, weren't they? They could kneel before their mistress and she would place her naked foot upon their necks. I am a drivelling fool, you see – I talk and talk and let the moments slip by – I am going, Lou, and this is the vision which I am taking with me, the last impression which will dwell in my memory, when memory itself will seem only a dream. You, Lou, standing just here, so close to me that your sweet breath fans my cheek, your dear hands in mine, the scent of sweet peas in my nostrils. The light of this lamp throws a golden radiance over you, your lips are quivering – oh! ever so slightly, and your eyes reveal to me the exquisiteness of your soul. Lou, I am a lucky mortal to have such a vision on which to let my memory dwell!"

She listened in silence, enjoying the delight of hearing him unburdening his soul at last. His love for her! Never had it seemed so great and so pure, now that he spoke of parting! And there was a quaint joy in hearing him thus rambling on – he, the reserved man of the world. Convention had so often sealed his lips, and restrained his passion when he was still wandering happily with her on the smooth paths of Love. Now Fate had hurled stone upon stone down that path. The way was rugged and difficult, parting too, was close at hand; all the restraint of past months tore at the barrier of convention. Luke about to lose the mortal presence of his love, allowed his lips to say that which he had hidden in his heart for so long. The man of the world lost himself in the man who loved.

When he had ceased speaking she said quietly:

"You talk, Luke, as if we were going to part."

"To-night, Lou. I must catch the night boat to Calais."

"My luggage can be sent on," she rejoined simply. "I am quite ready to start."

"To start?" he repeated vaguely.

"Why, yes, Luke," she replied with a smile, "if you go to-night, or at any time, I go with you."

"You cannot, Lou!" he stammered, almost stupidly, feeling quite bewildered, for he had been forcibly dragged back from a happy dreamlike state, to one of impossible reality.

"Why not?"

"You have said it yourself, Lou. I shall be a fugitive from justice.. a man with whom no decent woman would care to link her fate."

"Let us admit then," she said almost gaily, "that I am not a decent woman, for my fate is irretrievably linked with yours."

"This is preposterous." he began.

But already she had interrupted him, speaking quietly in that even, contralto voice of hers which he loved to hear.

"Luke," she said, "you must try and understand. You must, because I have so fully made up my mind, that nothing that you could say would make me change it, unless you told me that you no longer loved me. And this," she added with the ghost of a smile, "you cannot now pretend, Luke, after all that you said just now. It is not that my mind wanted making up. My mind has very little to do with it all. It knows just as my heart does that I could not now live without you. I'm not talking nonsense, Luke, and I seem to be too old for mere sentimental twaddle; therefore, when I say that I could not now live parted from you, I say it from the innermost conviction of my heart. Sh – sh – dear," she whispered, seeing that he wished to interrupt her, "don't try and say anything just yet – not just yet – until I have told you everything. I want you to remember, Luke, that I am no longer very young, and that ever since I can remember anything, I have loved you. I must have loved you even though I did not know it. But if you had never spoken of love to me, if you had never written that letter which I received in Brussels, I probably would have been satisfied to go on with my humdrum life to the end of time; who knows? I might have found contentment if not happiness, by and by with some other man. We women are meant to marry. Men are fond of telling us that our only mission on earth is to marry. But all this possible, quiet content one letter has dissipated. I could never be happy now, never, save in continuing to love you. Life to me would be unspeakably hideous without you and your love. Therefore, I say, Luke, that you have no longer any right to keep me at arm's length. You have no right, having once come into my life, having once given substance and vitality to my love, to withdraw yourself away from me. Love, dear, is a bond, a mutual bond, as sacred, as binding as any that are contracted on this earth. You – when you wrote that letter, when first you spoke to me of love – entered into a bond with me. You have no right to force me to break it."



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