The Heart of a Woman
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Uncle and niece now sat opposite each other, facing the hearth. He looked straight into the fire, knowing that she would not wish him to see the misery in her face.
"Will you have something, Lou?" he asked kindly. "A cup of tea or something?"
"No, thank you, uncle. We had dinner, and father has gone to the club. I came to see you about Luke."
"Yes?" he said.
"All along," she continued, "ever since father saw you yesterday, I wanted to speak to you. Silly conventionality kept me back."
"It certainly is not usual – " he began.
"No," she broke in quickly, "I know it is not. But this is an unusual case, far too serious for silly ideas of tact or convention to creep in. The man whom I love best in all the world is falsely accused of a most abominable crime. He was arrested – by your orders I suppose – about an hour ago."
He put up his hand in gentle deprecation.
"Stop a moment, my dear," he said quite kindly, but very decisively. "If you have any idea at the back of your head, that I, personally, have any influence at my command with regard to Luke de Mountford's fate, then the sooner you get that idea out of your head the better. If you came here to-night with the notion that by pleading with me you could save Luke from the consequences of his crime, then get that notion out of your head, my dear, and save us both from a very painful interview. Luke de Mountford was not arrested by my orders: I am only an automaton of the law, which takes its own course, without any personal interference on my part. Officially I – as an automaton – did just as duty and the law of this country directs. Personally, I sent through your father some sound advice to Luke de Mountford."
She listened, impassive and silent, to his reproof, and then said simply:
"I beg your pardon, Uncle Ryder: I must have expressed myself badly. I knew quite well that you, personally, bear no animosity against Luke: why, indeed, should you? I had no intention whatever, in coming to see you to-night, of making a scene of lamentation and supplication. On the contrary I knew quite well that – acting from the best of motives – you advised Luke to fly from justice, since in your opinion his condemnation is a foregone conclusion. Father hadn't the chance of passing your advice on to Luke, because when we got to Fairfax Mansions, Edie told us that he was packing up his things, meaning to catch the night boat to Calais."
"Then why the dickens did he miss his train?" exclaimed Sir Thomas gruffly.
"It was not altogether his fault," she replied. "Our arrival delayed him a little, but he would have had plenty of time even then, only the police came, you see, and it was too late."
"I know. It was silly, officious blundering on the part of one of my subs. I meant de Mountford to have plenty of time to get away, and I could have managed it somehow to leave him unmolested if he kept some distance away from England. The whole thing has been most unfortunate."
"I don't think so, uncle," she said quietly, "I am glad, very glad, that Luke has been arrested."
"Are you?" he retorted dryly."The outlook for him is not pleasant."
"I know that. But at any rate now there is a chance that he can prove his innocence."
Sir Thomas Ryder gave a quick sigh of impatience.
"My dear child," he said gently, "do try and be reasonable about that. You only lay up for yourself further stores of misery and of disappointment. De Mountford is guilty, I tell you. He practically confessed at the inquest, and he practically confessed to our fellows after his arrest."
"Practically," she said with strong emphasis, "but not really. Luke has never confessed that he committed a murder."
"Well, he admits that the stick with which the murder was done was his stick; that he had it in his hand the night that the murder was committed; that he went out, with it in his hand, five minutes before the other man was murdered."
"I know all that," she rejoined, "but let me tell you this, Uncle Ryder. Luke has admitted all that, as you say; but he has never admitted that he killed Philip de Mountford – or Paul Baker – whoever he may be. Luke, Uncle Ryder, is allowing the awful accusation to rest upon him, because he wishes to shield the real perpetrator of the crime."
"Nonsense!" broke in Sir Thomas curtly.
"Because, my dear Lou," he said slowly and firmly, "people don't do that sort of thing. The consequences of having taken another person's life – otherwise a murder – are so terrible that no one will bear them for the sake of any one else on earth."
"Yet I tell you, uncle," she reiterated with firmness at least equal to his own, "that Luke never killed that man, and that he pleads guilty to the crime in order to shield some one else."
"Whom?" he retorted.
"That I do not know – as yet. But that is the reason why I came here to-night, uncle: because you must help me to find out."
Sir Thomas abruptly rose from his chair, and took his stand on the hearth rug, with legs apart, and slender hands buried in the pockets of his trousers, in the attitude dear to every Englishman.
His eyes in their framework of innumerable wrinkles looked down, not unkindly, at the pale, serious face of the girl before him.
He, who was accustomed to give every scrap of advice, every senseless piece of title-tattle its just meed of attention, was not likely to leave unheeded the calm assertions of a woman for whom he had great regard, and who was the daughter of a brother officer and one of his best friends. Of course the girl was in love with de Mountford, so her judgment on him was not likely to be wholly unbiassed: at the same time Sir Thomas – like all men who have knocked about the world a great deal, and seen much of its seamy side – had a great belief in woman's instinct, as apart from her judgment, and he was the last man in the world to hold the sex in contempt.
"Look here, my dear," he said after a little while, during which he had tried to read the lines in the interesting face turned up toward him, "I honour you for your sense of loyalty to de Mountford, just the same as I honour your father for the like reason. And in order to prove to you that I, individually, would be only too happy to see the man's innocence established beyond a doubt, I am going to argue that soberly and sensibly with you. You hold the theory that Luke de Mountford is shielding some one from the consequences of an awful crime by taking the burden on himself. Now, my dear, as I told you before, people don't do that sort of thing nowadays. In olden times, the consequences of a crime – especially where the aristocracy was concerned – were quite picturesque: the Tower, the block, and all that sort of thing. But to-day the paraphernalia of vengeful justice is very sordid, very mean, and anything but glorious. It means the lengthy inquiry before a police magistrate, then the trial, the past dragged up to the light, the most private secrets thrown to the morbid curiosity of the million. In order to face that sort of thing, my dear, a man must be either guilty – then he cannot help it; or wrongfully accused – then he hopes for the establishment of his innocence. But a man does not prepare himself to face all that out of Quixotic motives alone, knowing himself to be innocent and because he desires that another should be spared those awful humiliations and the chance of a disgusting and shameful death."
"What do you mean by all that, Uncle Ryder," she asked.
"I mean that if we are going to admit this Quixotic motive in de Mountford's attitude now, there can only be one mainspring for it."
"What is that?"
"It is perhaps a little difficult – " he said somewhat hesitatingly.
"You mean," she interposed quietly, "that if Luke is taking this awful crime upon himself for the sake of another, that other can only be a woman whom he loves."
"Well," retorted Sir Thomas, "it is not you, my dear, I presume, who killed this bricklayer from Clapham."
She did not reply immediately: but her lips almost framed themselves into a smile. Luke and another woman! To Sir Thomas Ryder that seemed indeed a very simple explanation. Men have been known to do strange things, to endure much and to sacrifice everything for the sake of woman! But then Sir Thomas knew nothing of Luke, nothing more than what the latter chose to show of his inward self to the world. The memory of those few moments in the room in Fairfax Mansions laughed the other man's suggestion to scorn. Louisa shook her head and said simply:
"No, Uncle Ryder, I did not kill the Clapham bricklayer in the cab."
"And you won't admit that Luke may be shielding another woman?" said Sir Thomas, with just the faintest semblance of a sneer.
"I won't say that," she replied gravely. "You see, I don't really know. I would take a dying oath at this moment – if I were on the point of death – that Luke never committed that abominable crime. I won't even say that he is incapable of it. I'll only swear that he did not do it. And yet he is silent when he is accused. Then, to me, the only possible, the only logical conclusion is that he is shielding some one else."
"Have you questioned him?"
"Put the question directly to him, I mean?"
"And what did he say?"
"That his own stick condemns him, and that he would plead guilty at his trial."
"He never told you directly or indirectly that he killed the man?"
For the space of one second only did Louisa hesitate. She had asked Luke the direct question: "Was it you who killed that man?" and he had replied: "It was I." She had asked it then, determined to know the truth, convinced that she would know the truth when he gave reply. And she did learn the truth then and there, not as Luke hoped that she would interpret it, but as it really was. He had never really lied to her, for she had never been deceived. Now, she did not wish to hide anything from Sir Thomas Ryder, the only man in the whole world who could help her to prove Luke's innocence in spite of himself: therefore, when her uncle reiterated his question somewhat sharply, she replied quite frankly, looking straight up at him:
"He told me directly that it was he who had killed the man."
"And even then you did not believe him?"
"I knew that he tried to lie."
"You firmly believe that de Mountford knows who killed that Paul Baker – or whoever he was?"
"And that he means to go through his trial, and to plead guilty to a charge of murder, so that the real criminal should escape."
"And that he is prepared to hang – to hang, mind you!" reiterated Sir Thomas with almost cruel bluntness, "if he is condemned in order to allow the real criminal to escape?"
"And you yourself have no notion as to who this person maybe?"
"Is there anybody, do you think, who is likely to know more about Luke de Mountford's past and present life than you do yourself?"
"Yes," she said, "Lord Radclyffe."
"Old Radclyffe?" he ejaculated.
"Why, yes. Lord Radclyffe adored Luke before this awful man came between them. He had him with him ever since Luke was a tiny boy. There's no one in the world for whom he cared as he cared for Luke, and the affection was fully reciprocated. My belief is that Lord Radclyffe knows more about Luke than any one else in the world."
"But old Rad is very ill just now, unfortunately."
"It would kill him," she retorted, "if anything happened to Luke, whilst he was being coddled up as an invalid, almost as a prisoner, and no news allowed to reach him."
Sir Thomas was silent for a moment, obviously buried in thought. That he was still incredulous was certainly apparent to Louisa's super-sensitive perceptions, but that he meant to be of help to her, in spite of this incredulity was equally certain. Therefore she waited patiently until he had collected his thoughts.
"Well, my dear," he said at last, "I'll tell you what I will do. To-morrow morning I'll go and see if I can have a talk with old Rad – "
"To-morrow morning," she broke in gravely, "Luke will be dragged before the magistrate – the first stage of that awful series of humiliations which you yourself say, Uncle Ryder, that no man who is innocent can possibly endure!"
"I know, my dear," he said almost apologetically, "but I don't see now how that can be avoided."
"We could see Lord Radclyffe to-night!"
"To-night?" he exclaimed. "Why, it's nearly ten o'clock."
"In matters of this sort, time does not count."
"But old Rad is an invalid!"
"He may be a dead man to-morrow, if he hears that Luke – Luke, who was the apple of his eye, who is the heir to his name and title, is being dragged in open court before a police-magistrate, charged with an abominable crime."
"But the doctor, I understand, has forbidden him to see any one."
"I think that the matter has passed the bounds of a doctor's orders. I would go and force my way into his presence without the slightest scruple. I know that any news that he may glean about Luke, within the next few days, will be far more fatal to him, than the few questions which I want to ask him to-night."
"That may be, my dear," rejoined Sir Thomas dryly, "but this does not apply to me. Old Rad is a very old friend of mine, but if I went with you on this errand to-night, I should be going not as a friend, but in an official capacity, and as such I cannot do it without the doctor's permission."
"Very well then," she said quietly, "we'll ask Doctor Newington's permission."
For a little while yet Sir Thomas Ryder seemed to hesitate. Clearly the girl's arguments, her simple conviction, and her latent energy had made a marked impression upon him. He was no longer the sceptical hide-bound official: the man, the gentleman, was tearing away at the fetters of red tape. All the old instincts of chivalry, which at times might be dormant in the heart of an English gentleman – but which are always there nevertheless, hidden away by the mantle of convention – had been aroused by Louisa's attitude toward the man she loved, and also by the remembrance of Luke's bearing throughout this miserable business.
After all what the girl asked was not so very difficult of execution. There are undoubtedly cases where the usual conventional formulas of etiquette must give way to serious exigencies. And there was unanswerable logic in Louisa's arguments: at any time in the near future that old Rad – either through his own obstinacy, or the stupidity or ill-will of a servant – got hold of a newspaper, the suddenness of the blow which he would receive by learning the terrible news without due preparation, would inevitably prove fatal to him. Sir Thomas Ryder prided himself on being a diplomatist of the first water: he did believe that he could so put the necessary questions to Lord Radclyffe, with regard to Luke, that the old man would not suspect the truth for a moment. The latter had, of course, known of the murder before he had been stricken with illness; he had at the time answered the questions put to him by the police officer, without seeming to be greatly shocked at the awful occurrence; and it was not likely that he would be greatly upset at a professional visit from an old friend, who at the same time had the unravelling of the murder mystery at heart.
All these thoughts mirrored themselves on Sir Thomas's wrinkled face. He was taking no trouble to conceal them from Louisa. Soon she saw that she had won her first victory, for her uncle now said with sudden determination:
"Well, my dear! you have certainly got on the right side of me. Your aunt always said you had a very persuasive way with you. I'll tell you what we will do. It is now a quarter to ten – late enough, by Jingo! We'll get into one of those confounded taxis, and drive to Doctor Newington's. I'll see him. You shall stay in the cab; and if I can get his permission, we'll go and have a talk with old Rad – or rather I'll talk first and you shall pretend that our joint visit is only a coincidence. As a matter of fact he knew all about the murder before he got ill, and he won't think it at all unnatural that I have obtained special medical permission to question him myself on the subject. Then you must work in your questions about Luke as best you can afterward. Is that agreed now?"
"Indeed it is, Uncle Ryder," said Louisa, as she rose from her chair, with a deep sigh of infinite contentment. "Thank you," she added gently, and placed her neatly gloved hand upon his arm.
With a kind, fatherly gesture, he gave that little hand an encouraging pat. Then he rang the bell.
"A taxi – quickly!" he said to his man. "My fur coat and my hat. I am going out."
Louisa had gained her first victory. She had put forward neither violence nor passion in support of her arguments. Yet she had conquered because she believed.
A few moments later she and Sir Thomas Ryder were on their way to Doctor Newington's in Hertford Street.