The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
The mellow tones of her contralto voice died down in the heavy atmosphere of the room. They echoed and re-echoed in the heart of the man, who was now kneeling before Louisa, as he would before the Madonna, dumb with the intensity of emotion which her simple words, the sublime selflessness of her sacrifice had brought to an almost maddening pitch. She stood there near him, so devoted, so noble, and so pure, do you wonder or will you smile, when you see him with fair, young head bowed to the ground pressing his lips on the point of her shoe?
"Luke! don't," she cried in passionate sympathy.
She understood him so well, you see!
"Kiss your feet, dear?" he asked. "I would lie down in the dust for your dear feet to walk over me. I only wonder why God should love me so that he gave you for this one beautiful moment to me. Lou, my dearest saint, I cannot accept your sacrifice. Dear heart! dear, dear heart! do try and believe me, when I say that I cannot accept it. As for imagining that I don't understand it and appreciate it, why as soon think that to-morrow's sun will never rise. I worship you, my saint! and I worship your love – the purest, most tender sentiment that ever glorified this ugly world. But its sacrifice I cannot accept. I cannot. I would sooner do that most cowardly of all deeds, end my life here and now, than be tempted for one single instant into the cowardice of accepting it. But the memory of it, dear, that I will take with me. Do not think of me in future as being unhappy. No man can be unhappy whose heart is fed on such a memory!"
He had her two hands imprisoned in his, the scent of sweet peas floating gently to his nostrils. As he buried his lips in their fragrant soft palms he was entirely happy. The world had floated away from him. He was in a land of magic with her; in a land where the air was filled with the fragrance of sweet peas, a land of phantasmagoria, the land of Fata Morgana, which none can enter save those who love. Time sped on, and both had forgotten the world. The fire crackled in the hearth, the clock alone recorded the passing of time. The noise of the great city – so cruel to those who suffer – came but as faint echo through the closely drawn curtains.
There was a discreet knock at the door, and as no reply came from within, it was repeated more insistently.
Luke jumped to his feet, and Louisa retreated into the shadow.
"Come in!" said Luke.
The door was opened, quite softly from outside, and the well-drilled servant said:
"Two gentlemen to see you, sir."
"Where are they, Mary?" he asked.
"In the hall, sir."
"Did they give their names?"
"Where's Miss Edie, Mary?"
"In the drawing room, sir, with Colonel Harris."
"Very well. Then show the two gentlemen into the dining-room. I'll come in a moment."
"Very good, sir."
And the discreet little maid retired, closing the door after her.
WHICH SPEAKS ONLY OF FAREWELLS
The door had scarcely closed, and already she was near him.
"Luke," she whispered, and her voice was hoarse now and choked, "the police!"
"That's about it," he said.
"I thought that they meant to let me get away."
"So father understood from Sir Thomas Ryder. What will you do, Luke?"
"I can't do anything, I am afraid. I wanted to get away – "
"And I have kept you – and now it is too late."
A very little while ago she had hated the idea of his going. Luke – a fugitive from justice – was a picture on which it was intolerable to look. But now the womanly instinct rose up in revolt, at the very thought that he should be arrested, tried, and condemned! What mattered if he were a fugitive, if he were ostracized and despised? what mattered anything so long as he lived and she could be near him? A very little while ago, she would have done anything to keep him from going; she almost longed for his arrest and the publicity of the trial. She was so sure that truth would surely come out, that his innocence would of necessity be proved.
But now, woman-like, she only longed for his safety, and forgetting all the tradition of her past life, all the old lessons of self-restraint, forgetting everything except his immediate danger, she clung to him with all the true passion in her, which she no longer tried to keep in check.
"No, Luke," she murmured in quick, jerky tones, "it is not too late – not at all too late. You stay in here quietly and I'll ask father to go and speak to them. He'll tell them that you haven't come home yet, and that he is waiting here for you himself. Father is well known; they won't suspect him of shielding you; and in the meanwhile you can slip out easily; we'll send your luggage on. You can write and let us know where you are – it is quite easy – and not too late – "
Whilst she spoke, she was gradually edging toward the door. Her voice had sunk to a hoarse whisper, for maddening terror almost deprived her of speech. With insistent strength she would not allow him to detain her, and he, whilst trying to hold her back, was afraid of hurting her. But at the last when she had almost reached the door, he contrived to forestall her, and before she could guess his purpose he had pressed a finger on the button of the electric bell.
She heard the distant tinkle of the bell, and this made her pause.
"What is it, Luke?" she asked. "Why did you ring?"
"For your father, dear," he replied simply.
"Then you will do what I want you to?" she rejoined eagerly, "you will go away?"
He gave no immediate answer, for already the maid's footstep was heard along the passage. The next moment she was knocking at the door. Luke went up to it, gently forcing Louisa back into the shadow behind him.
"Mary," he said, with his hand on the latch of the door, holding it slightly ajar, "just ask Colonel Harris to come here, will you?"
The girl was heard turning away, and walking back briskly along the passage. Then Luke faced Louisa once again.
He went up to her and without a word took her in his arms. It was a supreme farewell and she knew it. She felt it in the quiver of agony which went right through him as he pressed her so close – so close that her breath nearly left her body and her heart seemed to stand still. She felt it in the sweet, sad pain of the burning kisses with which he covered her face, her eyes, her hair, her mouth. It was the final passionate embrace, the irrevocable linking of soul and heart and mind, the parting of earthly bodies, the union of immortal souls. It was the end of all things earthly, the beginning of things eternal.
She understood and her resistance vanished. All that had been dark to her became suddenly transfigured and illumined. With the merging of earthly passion into that Love which is God's breath, she – the pure and selfless woman, God's most perfect work on earth – became as God, and knew what was good and what had been evil.
Neither of them spoke; the word "farewell" was not uttered between them. His final kiss was upon her eyes, and she closed them after that, the better to imprint on her memory the vision of his face lit up with the divine fire of an unconquerable passion.
The entrance of Colonel Harris brought them both back to present reality. He, poor man, looked severely troubled, and distinctly older than he usually did.
"Did you want me, Luke?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," replied the latter, "the police are here, and I thought that perhaps you and Louisa would be so kind as to take Edie along with you. Jim is going to sleep in barracks to-night, and Edie ought not to stay here alone."
"Yes. We'll take Edie," said the colonel curtly, "she'll be all right with us. Are you ready, Lou?"
"Yes, dear," she replied.
And she passed out of the door without another word, or another look.
The supreme farewell had been spoken. Further words – even another kiss – would have almost desecrated its undying memory.
The two men remained alone, and Colonel Harris without any hesitation held out his hand to Luke de Mountford.
"The police are here, sir," said Luke, without taking the hand that was offered him.
"I know they are," muttered the other, "that's no reason why you should refuse an old friend's hand."
Then as Luke – hesitating no longer – placed his burning hand in that of his friend, Colonel Harris said quietly, almost entreatingly:
"It's only a temporary trouble, eh, my boy? You can easily refute this abominable charge, and prove your innocence?"
"I think not, sir," replied Luke. "I cannot refute the charge and my innocence will be difficult to prove."
"But you are mad, man!" retorted the older man hotly. "You are mad! and are breaking a woman's heart!"
"Heaven forgive me for that, sir. It is the greatest crime."
Colonel Harris smothered a powerful oath. Luke's attitude puzzled him more and more. And his loyalty had received such a succession of shocks to-day that it would have been small wonder if it had begun to totter at last.
He turned away without another word. But at the door he paused once more – in obvious hesitation.
"There's nothing else I can do for you?" he asked.
"Nothing, sir. Thank you."
"You – you were not thinking – of – "
"Of what, sir?" asked Luke.
Then as he saw the other man's eyes wandering to the drawer of the desk, he said simply:
"Of suicide, you mean, sir?"
Colonel Harris nodded.
"Oh, no," rejoined Luke. And he added after a slight pause: "Not at present."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean that I shouldn't exactly hang for the murder of the Clapham bricklayer. I shouldn't let it come to that. I am sorry I did not manage to get away to-night. I thought they meant to let me."
"I think they did mean to. Some blunder I suppose on the part of the subordinates."
"I suppose so."
"Well, Luke," said Colonel Harris with a deep sigh, "I have known you ever since you were a child, but, by G – d, man! I confess that I don't understand you."
"That's very kindly put, sir," rejoined Luke with the semblance of a smile. "You have every right to call me a confounded blackguard."
"I shall only do that after your trial, my boy," said the other. "When I have heard you confess with your own lips that you killed that d – d scoundrel in a moment of intense provocation."
"I had better not keep the police waiting any longer, sir, had I?"
"No! no! that's all right. I'll take my poor Lou away at once, and we'll see after Edie, and Jim – we'll look after them – and Frank, too, when he comes home."
"Thank you, sir."
"S'long my boy."
And Colonel Harris – puzzled, worried, and miserable – finally went out of the room. On the threshold he turned, moved by the simple and primitive instinct of wishing to take a last look at a friend.
He saw Luke standing there in the full light of the electric lamp, calm, quite serene, correct to the last in attitude and bearing. The face was just a mask – marble-like and impassive – jealously guarding the secrets of the soul within. Just a good-looking, well-bred young Englishman in fact, who looked in his elegant attire ready to start off for some social function.
Not a single trace either on his person or in his neat, orderly surroundings of the appalling tragedy which would have broken the spirit of any human creature, less well-schooled in self-restraint.
Convention was triumphant to the end.
The man of the world – the English gentleman, hypocritical or unemotional? which? – was here ready to face abject humiliation and hopeless disgrace as impassively as he would have received the welcome of an hostess at a dinner-party.
WHICH TELLS OF PICTURES IN THE FIRE
It did not take poor little Edie very long to get her things on and to make ready to go away with Colonel Harris and with Louisa. Something of the truth had to be told to her, and we must do her the justice to state that when she understood the full strength of the calamity which had befallen her and Luke, something of her brother's calm dignity showed itself in her own demeanour.
She pulled herself together with remarkable vigour, and before Mary, the maid, she contrived to behave just as if nothing of great importance had occurred.
"I am going to dine out to-night, Mary," she said quite calmly, "and I mayn't be home until sometime to-morrow. So don't sit up for me."
"No, miss," replied Mary demurely, who kept her own counsel, like the well-drilled, good-class servant that she was.
"And tell cook that Mr. de Mountford won't be in either, nor Mr. Jim. I'll see her to-morrow and let her know when we all come back."
"Very good, miss."
Louisa gave ungrudging admiration, and whispered praise to the young girl. She was proud of Edie's behaviour, and grateful to her too. This atmosphere of reserve did her good. She could not have endured a scene of weeping, and keep her own nerves in check all the while.
It was close upon eight o'clock when at last they reached the Langham Hotel. Colonel Harris ordered the dinner to be served in the private sitting room. Of course none of them could eat anything. Their inward thoughts were following Luke de Mountford along that weary Calvary which he had set himself to mount.
Soon after dinner Edie elected to go to bed. The poor child had a vague desire to be alone, and also a vague, unhappy feeling that she was in the way. She was quite woman enough now to understand how much more acutely Louisa Harris must be suffering, than she was herself, and since she – the sister – longed for solitude, how much keener must be that longing in the heart of the woman who loved and had lost Luke.
So she went quietly off to bed. Louisa kissed her with real affection. Edie seemed like something of Luke: like a tender bequest made by a dying man.
After that she herself said "good night" to her father. Colonel Harris was obviously in such acute distress that Louisa felt that, above all things, he must have the companionship of those of his own sex. The atmosphere of woman's sorrow was essentially bad for him. He was not a young man, and the last two days had tried him very severely. Louisa hoped that if she pretended to go to bed early, he would perhaps be induced to go to his club for an hour.
If he only sat there for an hour, reading the papers, and nodding to his many friends, it would take him out of himself.
"I am very tired, dear," she said, after she had seen Edie safely tucked up amongst the blankets. "I think I'll follow Edie's good example. It's no use sitting here, staring into the fire. Is it, dear?"
"Not a bit of use, Lou. And I suppose you would like to be alone?"
"I shan't go to bed, dear, unless you go to the club."
"Very well, Lou. It seems the right thing to do, doesn't it? You go to bed, and I'll go to the club for an hour. As you say, it's no use sitting staring into the fire."
Her room gave on one side of the sitting room, and her father's on the other. She waited until Colonel Harris went away, having helped him on with his overcoat. After he left she felt a little twinge of remorse. The night was cold and raw and he really had not wanted to go out. He would have been quite willing to sit in front of the fire, smoking and reading. He had only gone because his own innate kindliness and tact had suggested to him that Louisa wished to remain alone.
He too, like Edie, felt a little in the way. His daughter's grief was of a nature that a father's love cannot soothe. The greatest solace for it now would be solitude. So, in spite of the fog, in spite of the unpleasantness that met Colonel Harris on every page of every newspaper, he sallied out of the hotel and got into a hansom, with the avowed intention of spending a couple of hours at his club.
Louisa left alone in the sitting room, in front of the cheery fire, sat down for a moment on the sofa and rested her head against the cushions. There was memory even in that, for when she closed her eyes, she could imagine that Luke was sitting at the foot of the sofa; she could see him almost, with his eyes turned ever toward her, and that quaint gesture of his when he passed his hand over the back of his neatly groomed head.
The memory was intolerable now. She rose – restless and feverish – and stood by the fire, one hand on the high mantel-shelf, her forehead resting against that hand, one foot on the fender, and her aching eyes gazing into the red hot glow.
It was one of those big red fires, partly made up of coke and partly of coal, wherein only here and there tiny blue flames flit waywardly, and in the building up of which hotel servants are usually past masters. The glowing coal heaped up high in the old-fashioned grate presented a wonderful picture of mysterious architecture: streets and lanes of crimson incandescence, palaces and towers of molten heat, and the little blue flames dancing and peeping out from the fiery depths, mocking and wayward, twirling and twisting as with the joy of life.
Louisa gazed into this city of brilliant crimson and gold, the streets, the palaces, and the towers. And as she gazed – with eyes almost seared – these same streets of fire assumed different shapes; they became stately and wide, with rows of trees forming an avenue along the middle, and tall houses on either side. One or two people were walking along the pavement, but quickly, as if they had business to transact and did not care to loiter. One figure, that of a woman, in neat ulster and serviceable hat – was walking briskly between the row of trees.
The blue flames danced, and disclosed a few vehicles hurrying past swiftly in the night, huge tramways lumbering along, and one or two flying motor cabs. And far ahead – right in the heart of the glow – the distant lights of a more busy thoroughfare. Now the wide street was more dark and lonely than before, only the solitary female figure appeared in the fiery picture, walking among the trees. The last of the lumbering tramways had been merged in the distant lights: only from afar came flying on the blue flames, a taxicab at lightning speed.
It came along, its headlights burning more and more brightly, it rattled past the solitary female pedestrian. Then it stopped in the dark angle made by a huge piece of coal: the blue flames gave a hiss and from every corner of the grate crowds of people came rushing to the spot where the taxicab had halted. The solitary female pedestrian also hurried to the spot. She stopped on the outskirts of the crowd, and yet she saw everything that went on in and round the motor, the horror-stricken driver, the bustling gendarmes, the huddled up mass in the darkest corner of the vehicle.
Then the coal, consumed by its own power, fell together in a formless heap and the picture vanished. Louisa closed her eyes, for the heat in them was intolerable. But only for a moment: for now her mind was made up.
Ever since she had parted from Luke, one thought had been dominant in her mind, one memory had obtruded itself beyond all others, taking definite shape in the visions conjured up by the glowing embers of the fire – that night in Brussels! – the great unforgettable night, on which her whole life's history seemed to find its birth-time.
One great resolve, too, had now taken definite shape.
Louisa rang for her maid, and asked for hat and cloak. The maid – somewhat horrified that her mistress should think of going out alone at so late an hour – was too well drilled to offer advice or make comment. She brought a warm wrap and a closely fitting, simple hat, and respectfully wished to know when she should expect her mistress home.
"In about an hour's time," said Louisa. "Come down into the hall with me, and tell the porter to call me a cab."
Then she went down, accompanied by her maid. A cab was called, and she directed the driver to 56 Chester Terrace.
The address was that of Lady Ryder's town house. The maid – feeling more satisfied – went up stairs again.
PEOPLE DON'T DO THAT SORT OF THING
Lady Ryder was out of town. She was staying at a country house in the Midlands, chaperoning her nieces – Louisa's twin-sisters – but Sir Thomas Ryder was at home.
It was for him that Louisa had asked when the butler opened the door in answer to her ring.
"Sir Thomas is in the library, miss," said the man. "Will you come into the drawing room? and I'll tell Sir Thomas you are here, miss."
"No!" she said, "don't announce me. I'll go to the library."
Sir Thomas put down the paper which he had been reading, when his niece entered. He did not seem at all astonished to see her. No doubt the exercise of his profession had taught him never to be surprised at anything in life. He rose when he recognized who it was, and carefully folded his eyeglasses and slipped them into their case and into his waistcoat pocket. Then he said:
"My dear Louisa, this is quite unexpected! Is your father with you?"
"No," she replied, "I came alone. May I sit down?"
"Certainly, my dear child," he said genially, and himself wheeled a capacious arm-chair round to the fire.
"I am not disturbing you, Uncle Ryder?"
"No! no! Take off your cloak, won't you? I was only at the evening paper, preparatory to turning in early."
She glanced at the paper on the table: that page was uppermost that bore the startling headline, in unusually large type: "The Murder in the Taxicab. Sensational Developments." The chief of the Criminal Investigation Department studied the accounts in the newspapers, the opinion of pressmen and reporters. Everything interested him: he weighed everything in his mind; no silly advice, no empty tittle-tattle, was ever dismissed by him without its due meed of consideration.скачать книгу бесплатно
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