Emma Orczy.

The Heart of a Woman



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"Very well," assented Sir Thomas, without any hesitation, content that he had gained his point, and quite satisfied that the two conditions were perfectly reasonable and such that the doctor was really compelled to impose. "I must tell you that I came to see you to-night at the instance of my niece, Louisa Harris, who was fianc?e to de Mountford before this unfortunate business. It was she who adduced certain arguments which she placed before me, and which led to my strong desire to question Lord Radclyffe to-night, before de Mountford is brought up before the magistrate to-morrow. She is down below in the cab, waiting for me."

"I cannot allow her to see my patient also," protested the doctor quickly.

"No, no. She shall not see him, unless you give permission."

"Why don't you send her home right away then?"

"Because," retorted Sir Thomas tartly, "you might give that permission, you see."

The argument between the two men had lasted close on half an hour. It was long past ten o'clock when at last Louisa saw them emerging through the lighted door-way. The next moment they were seated in the cab with her, Sir Thomas having given the chauffeur the address of Lord Radclyffe's house in Grosvenor Square.

The doctor tried to be bland and polite, but he was not over successful in this. He did not like being opposed, nor hearing his pronouncements combated. In this case he had been forced to give way, somewhat against his better judgment, and all the way in the cab he was comforting himself with the thought that at any rate he would keep women away from his patient, and that he would in any case cut the interview very short, and demand its abrupt cessation very peremptorily. He would then be backed up by two nurses, and we must do him the justice to say that he was honestly anxious about his patient.

Louisa took no notice of the fashionable doctor's efforts at conversation. She preferred to remain quite silent for those few minutes which elapsed between the departure from Hertford Street and the arrival at the east side of Grosvenor Square. When she saw her uncle coming down the steps of the doctor's house in company with the doctor himself, she knew that the second victory had been won to-night: that Sir Thomas Ryder would be allowed to interview Lord Radclyffe. She had, of course, no suspicion of Doctor Newington's conditions to the interview, but the victory gained was an important one, and for the moment she was content.

CHAPTER XXXVIII
THE HAND OF DEATH WAS ON HIM TOO

A respectable looking butler opened the door in answer to Doctor Newington's pull at the bell.

Luke had had time – on the day preceding the inquest – to put some semblance of order in his uncle's household. The doctor had sent in the nurses, and he had seen to a nice capable housekeeper being installed in the house. She took the further management at once in her own hands. She dismissed the drunken couple summarily and engaged a couple of decent servants – a butler and a cook.

The house, though no less gloomy, looked certainly less lonely and neglected.

Mr.

Warren, who had been Lord Radclyffe's secretary for years, but who had been speedily given his cong? when the imposter took up his permanent abode in the house, was installed once more in the library, replying to the innumerable letters and telegrams of inquiry which poured in with every post.

Louisa and Sir Thomas were shown into the room where the young man was sitting. He rose at once, offering chairs and pushing his own work aside. In the meanwhile the doctor had gone up stairs.

Several minutes elapsed. No one spoke. Mr. Warren, who had always been deeply attached to Luke de Mountford, was longing to ask questions, which, however, he was too shy to formulate. At last there was a knock at the door and one of the nurses came in to say that Lord Radclyffe would be pleased to see Sir Thomas Ryder up stairs.

Louisa rose at the same time as her uncle, but the latter detained her with a gesture full of kind sympathy.

"Not just yet, my dear," he said. "I'll call you as soon as possible."

"But," she asked anxiously, "I shall be allowed to see him, shan't I?"

"I think so," he replied evasively. "But even if you do not see him, you can trust to me. Oh, yes! you can," he added insistently, seeing the deeply troubled look that had crept into her face at his words. "I am going to do to-night what I often have to do in the course of my work. I am going to borrow your soul and your mind and allow them to speak through my lips. When I go up stairs, I shall only outwardly be the police officer searching for proofs of a crime: inwardly I shall be a noble-hearted woman trying to discover proofs of her fianc?e's innocence. That will be right, dear, won't it?"

She nodded acquiescence, trying to appear content. Then she pleaded once again, dry-eyed and broken-voiced: "You will try and get permission for me to see Lord Radclyffe, won't you?"

"I give you my word," he said solemnly.

Then he went up stairs.

Mr. Warren, quiet and sympathetic, persuaded Louisa to sit down again by the hearth. He took her muff and fur stole from her, and threw a log on the fire. The flames spurted off, giving a cheerful crackle. But Louisa saw no pictures in this fire, her mind was up stairs in Lord Radclyffe's room, wondering what was happening.

Mr. Warren spoke of the murdered man. He had not been present at the inquest, and the news that the tyrant who had ruled over Lord Radclyffe for so long was nothing but an impostor came as a fearful shock to him.

There was the pitifulness of the whole thing! The utter purposelessness of a hideous crime. So many lives wrecked, such awful calamity, such appalling humiliation, such ignominy, and all just for nothing! A very little trouble, almost superficial inquiry, would have revealed the imposture, and saved all that sorrow, all the dire humiliation, and prevented the crime for which the law of men decrees that there shall be no pardon.

The man who lay ill up stairs – and he who was lying in the public mortuary, surrounded by all the pomp and luxury which he had filched by his lies – alone could tell the secret of the extraordinary success of the imposture. Lord Radclyffe had accepted the bricklayer's son almost as his own, with that same obstinate reserve with which he had at first flouted the very thought of the man's pretensions. Who could tell what persuasion was used? what arguments? what threats?

And the man was an impostor after all! And he had been murdered, when one word perhaps would have effaced him from the world as completely and less majestically than had been done by death.

Mr. Warren talked of it all, and Louisa listened with half an ear even whilst every sense of hearing in her was concentrated on the floor above, in a vain endeavour to get a faint inkling of what went on in Lord Radclyffe's room. She had heard her uncle's step on the landing, the few hurried sentences exchanged with the doctor before entering the sick chamber, the opening and shutting of a door. Then again the lighter footsteps of the nurses, who had evidently been sent out of the room, when Sir Thomas went in. Louisa heard the faint hum of their voices as they descended the stairs, even a suppressed giggle now and then: they were happy no doubt at the few moments of respite from constant watching, which had apparently been accorded them.

They ran quickly down the last flight of stairs, and across the hall toward the servants' quarters. Their chattering was heard faintly echoing through the baize doors. Then nothing more.

Less than a quarter of an hour went by, and again she heard the opening and shutting of a door, and men's footsteps on the landing.

Louisa could not believe either her eyes which were gazing on the clock, or her ears, which heard now quite distinctly the voice of Sir Thomas descending the stairs, and Doctor Newington's more pompous tones in reply.

"The interview," remarked Mr. Warren, "did not last very long."

But already she had risen from her chair, desperately anxious, wondering what the meaning could be of the shortness of the interview. She was not kept long in suspense, for a moment or two later Sir Thomas Ryder came in followed by Doctor Newington. One glance at her uncle's face told her the whole disappointing truth, even before he spoke.

"It was useless, my dear," he said, "and Doctor Newington was quite right. Lord Radclyffe, I am sorry to say, is hardly conscious. He is, evidently, unable to understand what is said, and certainly quite incapable of making any effort to reply."

"I was afraid so," added Doctor Newington in his usual conventional tones, "the patient, you see, is hardly conscious. His mind is dormant. He just knows me and his nurses, but he did not recognize Sir Thomas."

Louisa said nothing: the blank, hopeless disappointment following on the excitement of the past two hours was exceedingly difficult to bear. The ruling passion – strong even in the midst of despair – the pride that was in her, alone kept her from an utter breakdown. She was grateful to her uncle, who very tactfully interposed his tall figure between her and the indifferent eyes of the doctor. Mr. Warren looked more sympathetic than ever, and that was just as trying to bear as the pompousness of Doctor Newington.

As a matter of fact, Louisa had absolutely ceased to think. The whole future from this moment appeared as an absolute blank. She had not begun to envisage the possibility of going back to the hotel, having utterly failed in accomplishing that which she had set mind and heart to do: the throwing of the first feeble ray of light on the impenetrable darkness of Luke's supposed guilt. She certainly had not envisaged the going to bed to-night, the getting up to-morrow, the beginning of another day with its thousand and one trivial tasks and incidents, all the while that she had failed in doing that which alone could prevent the awful catastrophe of to-morrow!

Luke standing in the dock, like a common criminal!

"I'll just see about getting a cab, dear," said her uncle kindly.

The first of those thousand and one trivialities which would go on and on from now onward in endless monotony, whilst Luke prepared for his trial, for his condemnation, perhaps for death.

It was indeed unthinkable. No wonder that her mind rebelled at the task, refusing all thoughts, remaining like a gray, blank slate from which every impression of past and future has been wiped out.

Sir Thomas Ryder went out of the room, and Mr. Warren went with him. They left the door ajar, so she could hear them talking in the hall. Mr. Warren said:

"Don't go out, Sir Thomas. It's a horrid night. Fletcher will get you a cab."

And Sir Thomas replied: "Thank you."

"Won't you," said the younger man, "wait in the library?"

He had apparently rung a bell, for the man servant came into the hall and was duly told off to whistle for a cab.

"I'd rather go into another room, for a moment, Mr. Warren, if I may," said Sir Thomas. "There are just one or two little questions I would like to put to you."

"Certainly, Sir Thomas," replied Mr. Warren with alacrity.

The two men went together into the dining-room. Louisa by shutting her eyes could almost see them sitting there in the stately and gloomy room, which she knew so well. She could call to mind the last occasion on which she had lunched there, with Lord Radclyffe and Luke, and Edie, and Jim. It was the day on which the impostor first forced his way into the house. Louisa had a clear vision of him even now, just as she had seen him standing that day in the hall, before his interview with Lord Radclyffe. Parker was helping him with his coat and Louisa had seen his face: the bricklayer's son who had come forward with his marvellous array of lies, and who had been so implicitly believed, that he himself had to pay for his lies with a most horrible death.

For that death now – and because of the impenetrable mystery which the impostor had taken with him to his humble grave – Luke stood in danger of being punished with death that was even more horrible than that caused by a stab in the neck under cover of darkness and of fog.

The one chance that there had been of finding a clue to the mystery had been dissipated by the silence of the sick man up stairs. The hand of death was upon him too. He also would take the secret of the bricklayer's son, silently with him to the grave.

Louisa's eyes, vacant and tearless, wandered aimlessly round the room. Doctor Newington was sitting at the desk, writing either a letter or a prescription which apparently required a considerable amount of thought. He seemed deeply absorbed in what he wrote and from time to time referred to a small note-book which he took out of his pocket.

The scratching of his stylo against the paper was the only sound that struck Louisa's ear, the rest of the house seemed lonely and still. Only from far away came the shrill screeching of the cab-whistle.

Louisa rose and went to the door, peeping out into the hall. It was deserted and the dining-room door was shut. She slipped out into the hall. Doctor Newington apparently did not trouble himself about her. Very softly she closed the library door behind her.

Then she ran swiftly up stairs.

CHAPTER XXXIX
A MERE WOMAN FIGHTING FOR THE THING SHE LOVED

Louisa reached the landing slightly out of breath. She knew her way about the old house very well. Two doors now were opposite to her. One of these had been left ajar – intentionally no doubt. It was the one that gave on a smaller morning room, where in the olden days Lord Radclyffe used to have his breakfast and write his private letters: the library being given over to Mr. Warren and to official correspondence.

From this side of the house and right through the silence that hung over it, Louisa could hear very faintly rising from the servants' quarters below, the sound of women's voices chattering and giggling. The nurses then had not returned to their post. With the indifference born of long usage they were enjoying every minute of the brief respite accorded them, content to wait for the doctor's call if the patient had immediate need of them.

Through the chink of the door, the red glow of a shaded lamp came as a sharp crimson streak cutting the surrounding gloom.

Louisa pushed open the door that was ajar and tip-toed softly in.

The little room had been transformed for present emergencies. The desk had been pushed aside, and a small iron bedstead fitted up for the night nurse. A woman's paraphernalia was scattered about on the massive early Victorian furniture: a comb and brush, a cap and apron neatly folded, a couple of long pins, littered the table which used to look so severe with its heavy inkstand and firm blotting-pad. The piano had been relegated into a corner, and the portrait of Luke which always hung over the mantlepiece had been removed.

The door into the bedroom was wide open, and without any hesitation Louisa went in. The bed was immediately in front of her, and between it and the hanging lamp beyond a screen had been placed, so that the upper part of the sick man's figure was invisible at first in the gloom, and the light lay like a red patch right across the quilt at the foot.

Louisa advanced noiselessly and then halted beside the bed. The room was pleasantly warm, and the smell of disinfectants, of medicines, and of lavender water hung in the air – the air of a sick room, oppressive and enervating.

Gradually Louisa's eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness. She fixed them on the sick man who lay quite still against the pillows, his face no less white than the linen against which it rested. Louisa had no idea that any man could alter so in such brief while. It almost seemed difficult to recognize in the white emaciated figure that lay there with the stillness of death, the vigorous man of a few months ago.

The face had the appearance of wax, deep lines from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth accentuating its hollow appearance: the hair was almost snow-white now and clung matted and damp to the forehead and sunken temples.

Lord Radclyffe seemed unconscious of Louisa's presence in the room, but his eyes were wide open and fixed on a spot high upon the wall immediately opposite to the bed. Louisa looked to see on what those eyes were gazing so intently, and turning she saw the splendid portrait of Luke de Mountford painted by the greatest living master of portraiture, which we all admired in the rooms of the Royal Academy a few years ago. It had been taken away from the boudoir, and brought in here so that the sick man might have the semblance now that he was parted from the reality.

Only a feeble breath escaped Lord Radclyffe's parted lips: there was no distortion in the face, and the hands lay still, waxen-white, against the quilt. Louisa looked down on the sick man without, at first, attempting to speak. She looked down on this the last cord of hope's broken lute, the frail thread on which hung Luke's one chance of safety: this feeble life almost ended, this weak breath which alone could convey words of hope! For the moment Louisa's heart almost misgave her, when she thought of what she meant to do: to bring, namely, this wandering spirit back to earth, in order to make it conscious of such misery as no heart of man could endure and not break. It seemed like purposeless, inhuman cruelty!

Even if she could call that enfeebled mind back to the hideous realities of to-day, what chance was there that the few words which this dying man could utter would be those that could save Luke from the gallows?

Was it not better to let the broken heart sink to rest in peace, the weakened mind go back to the land of shadows unconscious of further sorrow?

Uncertain now, and vaguely fearful she looked up at the portrait of Luke. The eyes in the magnificently painted portrait seemed endowed with amazing vitality. To the loving, heart-broken woman it seemed as if they made a direct appeal to her. Yet, what appeal did they make?

To let the old man – "Uncle Rad" – die in peace, ignorant of the awful fate which must inevitably befall the man whom he loved with such strange, such enduring affection?

Or did those eyes ask for help there, where no other human being could lend assistance now?

"Lord Radclyffe!"

The words escaped her suddenly, almost frightening her, though all along she knew that she had meant to speak.

"Do you know me, Lord Radclyffe?" she said again, "it is Louisa Harris."

No reply. The great eyes with the shadow of death over them were gazing on the face on which they had always loved to dwell.

"Lord Radclyffe," she reiterated, and the deep notes of her contralto voice quivered with the poignancy of her emotion, "Luke is in very great danger, the gravest possible danger that can befall any man. Do you understand me?"

Again no reply. But the great eyes – sunken and glassy – slowly fell from the picture to her face.

"Luke," she repeated, dwelling on the word, "I must speak to you about Luke."

And the lips, stiff and cold, opened slightly and from between them escaped the word, feebly, like the breath of a dying man:

"Luke!"

"He is in grave danger. Lord Radclyffe," she said slowly, "in danger of death."

And this time the faded lips framed the word distinctly:

"Luke – in danger of death!"

The hands which had lain on the quilt up to now, still and waxen as those of a lifeless image, began to tremble visibly, and the eyes – those great, hollow eyes – had a searching, anxious expression in them now.

"Philip de Mountford has been murdered," said Louisa. "You knew that, did you not?"

The sick man nodded. Life and consciousness were slowly returning and with them understanding and the capacity for suffering.

"And Luke is accused of having murdered him."

The trembling of the hands ceased. With a quick, jerky movement they were drawn back against the figure, then used as a leverage. With a sudden accession of strength, the sick man slowly but steadily drew himself up, away from the pillows, until he was almost sitting up in bed. There was understanding in the eyes now, understanding and an awful look of horror.

"It is not true!" he murmured.

"It is true," she said. "Luke was known to have quarrelled with Philip de Mountford, and the dagger-stick with which the crime was committed was found in the park – stained with blood – the dagger-stick which belonged to Luke."

"Luke didn't do it," murmured the sick man.

"I know that he didn't," she replied firmly, "but he pleads guilty. He owns that the stick was his, and will give no denial, no explanation. He is taking upon himself the crime of another – "

"It is not true!" once more murmured the sick man.

Then he fell back exhausted against the pillows.

There he lay once more, with that awful stillness of death: the hands rested on the quilt as if modelled in wax. The eyes were closed, and from between the pale, parted lips not the faintest breath seemed to escape. Helpless and anxious, Louisa looked round her. On a table close by stood an array of bottles. She went up to it, trying to read the labels, wondering if there was anything there that was a powerful restorative. She found a small bottle labelled "brandy" and took it up in her hand, but as she looked up again, she saw Doctor Newington standing in the doorway of the boudoir. One of the nurses was with him, and he was armed with his most pompous and most professional manner.



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