The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
"What are you doing here?" he asked sternly.
"I think," she replied, trying to master her excitement, "that Lord Radclyffe has fainted. I did not know what to do."
"I should think not indeed," he said; "and why did you not ring for the nurse? and why are you here?"
"I wished to see Lord Radclyffe myself," she replied.
"Without my permission?"
"You would have refused it."
"Certainly I should. And I must request you to leave the sick room at once."
Baffled and miserable, she stood for a moment hesitating, vaguely wondering if she could rebel. Indeed, she had no option but to obey. The doctor was well within his rights: she, utterly in the wrong.
She turned toward the door ready to go, but in order to reach it from where she stood, she had to go past the foot of the bed.
The nurse was busy administering restoratives, and Doctor Newington had taken up the attitude dear to every Englishman: his stand upon the hearth rug, and his hands buried in the pockets of his trousers. He was treating Louisa like a disobedient child, and she had no one to appeal to in this moment of complete helplessness.
One moment only did she debate with herself. The nurse just then had gone to a side table to fetch some brandy. The patient, so Louisa heard her tell the doctor, had not actually fainted; he was merely in a state of exhaustion.
Swift and furtive, like some small animal in danger of its life, Louisa slipped in between the screen and the bed, and before the doctor or nurse could prevent her, she had bent right over the sick man and whispered close to his ear:
"Lord Radclyffe, unless you make an effort now, to-morrow Luke will be standing in the dock – branded as a felon. Make an effort for Luke's sake!"
And the spirit which had gone wandering in the land of shadows came back to earth at sound of that one name.
"Luke!" he whispered, "Luke, my boy. I am strong. I can help you."
"Miss Harris – " interposed the doctor sternly.
But the sick man's words had put new strength into her. She was ready to fight the doctor now. The conventional woman of the world was transformed into just a mere woman fighting for the thing she loved – child, lover, or husband, it is all the same when that womanly instinct of combat is aroused.
Doctor Newington would have had to take Louisa Harris by the shoulders now if he meant to eject her: for until the patient spoke, here she meant to remain.
"Doctor," she quietly, "you have another duty to perform than that of watching over your patient. An innocent man is accused of a terrible crime. Lord Radclyffe, though very weak, is fully conscious. If he can save his nephew by a word that word must be spoken to-night."
"Send for Tom Ryder," murmured the sick man, "he'll understand."
The words came in gasps, but otherwise fairly distinctly. Doctor Newington, in all his professional experience, had never been placed in such an extraordinary dilemma.
He was not quite so obstinate about the whole thing as he had originally been, and a kind of hopeless bewilderment showed itself upon his face.
"Will you send for Sir Thomas, doctor?" asked Louisa. "You see that Lord Radclyffe wishes it."
The doctor shrugged his shoulders. The responsibility was getting all too heavy for him. Besides being a fashionable physician, he was also a man, and as such not altogether inhuman. He had seen much acute suffering, both mental and physical, throughout the length of his career, but never had he been brought face to face with such an acute psychological problem, and – frankly – he did not know how to deal with it.
So he sent the nurse to ask Sir Thomas Ryder once more to step up stairs, whilst he himself went up to his patient, and with the mechanical movement born of life-long habit, he placed his white, podgy fingers on the feebly fluttering pulse.
"God only knows what will be the issue," he said almost inaudibly. "I don't."
The sick man, on the other hand, seemed to be husbanding his strength. He had most obediently taken the brandy which had been given him, and now he lay back quietly among the pillows, with eyes closed and lips slightly parted. The hands wandered somewhat restlessly along the smooth surface of the quilt, otherwise Lord Radclyffe lay perfectly still. It even seemed – to Louisa's super-sensitive gaze – as if an expression of content had settled over the pale face. Once the sick man opened his eyes and looked up at the portrait: the lips murmured the one word:
"Luke!" and slowly, very slowly, two tears formed in the sunken eyes and trickled down the wan cheeks.
"You had better," said the doctor curtly, "leave the patient to me and to Sir Thomas."
"Certainly," she replied. "I'll wait in the next room."
"Sir Thomas will call you, no doubt, if your presence is desirable."
She was ready enough to obey now: her uncle's footstep was heard on the landing outside. Quietly she relinquished her place beside the bed, and as she did so she bent down and kissed the poor old hand, that wandered so restlessly along the folds of the quilt.
As Sir Thomas entered the room, she was just leaving it. They met under the lintel of the door.
"He seems stronger," she whispered pointing to the sick man. "I think that he will make an effort – for Luke's sake."
She waited a moment in the door-way, until she saw Sir Thomas Ryder installed on one side of the bed, and the doctor on the other side, with his finger on the patient's pulse. Then she retreated into the morning room, and moved by some unaccountable impulses she went to the piano and opening it, she sat down, and with exquisite softness began to play the opening bars of one of her favourite songs.
She sang hardly above a whisper: the velvety tones of her voice sounded like the murmur of ghosts through the heavy tapestries of the room. Whenever her voice died away in the intervals of the song she could hear the hum of men's voices, her uncle's low and clear, now and then a word from the doctor, and through it all the voice of the sick man, feeble and distinct, speaking the words that would mean life to Luke.
AND THUS HER HOUR HAD COME
Half an hour had gone by. The fountain pen dropped from Sir Thomas's cramped fingers.
He had been writing, slowly but incessantly, ever since he sat down beside the sick man, and put his first question to him. Lord Radclyffe, with the tenacity peculiar to a strong nature, had clung to his own strength and will power and had spoken clearly, so that Sir Thomas could not only understand but could write down what he heard, word for word – not omitting a phrase – accurately and succinctly.
Once or twice Doctor Newington had to interfere. The patient was in danger of exhaustion, and brandy had again to be administered. Lord Radclyffe took it eagerly. What will power he had left was concentrated on the desire to keep up his strength.
From the boudoir came the gentle murmur of a tender song, whispered by Louisa's appealing contralto voice. The sick man seemed to enjoy it: it seemed to soothe him too, for every now and again he lay quite still and listened attentively: and when he did so his eyes always sought the portrait of Luke.
When all was finished, and the last word written, Sir Thomas rose and grasped his old friend's emaciated hand.
"You'll feel better to-morrow," he whispered cheerily, "when you have your nephew with you. The doctor here must allow you to see him, if you see no one else."
"Lord Radclyffe must have rest now," said the doctor impatiently.
"Certainly, my dear sir," rejoined Sir Thomas. "I need not trouble you any more. I can but hope that your patient will be none the worse for the effort."
The doctor did not reply. The patient after the great effort was in a dangerous state of collapse and required every attention.
Sir Thomas Ryder took his leave and going through the smaller room, he beckoned to Louisa to follow him.
A moment later the doctor was heard ringing for the nurses. Sir Thomas in the hall was struggling with his coat, whilst Louisa stood by, quite still and patient. She knew that her hour would come, and she was grateful to her uncle for taking her away from here so quickly.
She had not asked a single question and Sir Thomas had not volunteered any information. But she was content to wait, until the time when he told her everything.
The cab which had been called all that long while ago was still waiting at the door. It was now past eleven o'clock. Silently Sir Thomas and Louisa Harris stepped into the cab, Mr. Warren, sympathetic and attentive to the last, giving the address to the chauffeur on their behalf.
Less than five minutes later, they had arrived at the Langham Hotel, but they had not exchanged a single word during that time.
Colonel Harris was in the sitting room, waiting for his daughter's return. The maid had told him that her mistress had gone to Sir Thomas Ryder's and had promised to be home again in about an hour, so he was not really anxious, only very worried about her. Personally, he saw no issue to the terrible tangle, and his heart ached for her, as much as it did for Luke.
He found himself quite unable to sit at the club. Luke de Mountford's name was in every man's mouth. The obsession was unendurable, the countless arguments adduced by indifferent lips was positively nerve-racking. Colonel Harris after half an hour had enough of it, and went back to the Langham.
He did not greet his brother-in-law very warmly: he did not feel very well disposed toward him, as he had a vague idea that Sir Thomas Ryder was in a measure responsible for Luke's terrible fate.
"Lou dear, it's very late," he said with gentle reproach when she came in.
"You'll have to forgive her, Will," interposed Sir Thomas, "she came over to have a talk with me, and we went on to try and see old Rad, who is dying, I am afraid, poor chap."
"Now, my dear," he added turning to Louisa whilst he dived into his breast-pocket, from which he extracted a note-book, "go to your own room and read this through very quietly while I talk to your father."
He gave her the book, which she took without a word.
"It won't," he added, "take you very long to read. When you have finished, bring me the notes back, I want them to-night."
She kissed her father before she went out of the room. He and she had both guessed – by that unexplainable, subtle intuition born of sympathy – what the pages of that note-book contained.
WHICH TELLS OF THE CONTENTS OF THE NOTE BOOK
Louisa sat beside the fire and read. The notes were written in Sir Thomas's clear caligraphy, in short, jerky sentences, just as the sick man had spoken them, usually in reply to questions put to him.
As Louisa read on, she could almost hear Lord Radclyffe's whispered words, whilst she herself sang Tosti's melancholy song: "Good-bye!"
"I was not altogether ignorant of my brother Arthur's marriage over in Martinique, but he had always given me to understand that the marriage was not a strictly legal one, and that his son Philip had no right whatever to claim any possible succession to our family title and estates. Even on his deathbed Arthur assured me of this, and said to me most emphatically 'Luke is your heir! My son Philip has no legal claim!'
"I never made the slightest effort to communicate with Arthur's widow or with his child, for Arthur had assured me that they were well provided for and quite happy amongst their own kindred. After the catastrophe of St. Pierre I completely lost sight of them.
"Then came a letter addressed to me from St. Vincent, the first inkling which I had that not only did Arthur's son know of his father's position in life, but that he had full and justifiable reasons for believing that he himself was heir presumptive to the family title and estates which would have been his father's, had the latter outlived the present holder.
"This letter was followed by several others about which neither Luke nor Mr. Warren knew anything, for I told them nothing. At last there came one from Brussels. By this time I had searched carefully through some letters which my brother Arthur had desired that I should destroy after his death, but which I had always kept by me, meaning one day to comply with his wish.
"I had more than a suspicion then that my brother's marriage was a perfectly legal one, and that his son was the only true heir-presumptive to the title and estates which I had always fondly thought could only devolve upon Luke. I went over to Brussels determined to see this Philip before he set foot in England. The thought that he would supersede Luke was more than I could bear.
"I arrived in Brussels early one morning, having crossed over in the night. At once I drove to the mean hotel where he was lodging. He was sharing a room with a man with whom he had picked up a casual acquaintanceship on the sea voyage between the West Indies and Antwerp. The two men had come over together in the Belgian boat. They looked a pair of young blackguards, but it did not take me very long to be convinced that for some reason best known to himself my brother Arthur had deceived me and that his son Philip was indeed the legitimate and rightful heir to the title which I hold. The papers were authentic and undisputable. This much I knew and that Luke, whom I loved best in all the world, more than any father has ever loved his son, would never be Earl of Radclyffe so long as Philip de Mountford lived.
"Men will say that I am an abandoned criminal, and, indeed, it may be so. May God forgive me hereafter, for I killed my brother's son. I pretended to rejoice at his homecoming, and in half an hour had gained his confidence. In the afternoon we went out together and after a short walk we picked up a taxicab. Philip gave the driver the address of a restaurant at which I had asked him to dine with me. I kept carefully in the shadow, so that the man shouldn't see me. Then on the way in the cab, I killed him. When his head was turned away from me, I plunged an old Italian stiletto which I had carried about with me, ever since I had had letters from Philip, straight into his neck.
"He died instantly without a groan, and I was sick to death, but I managed to sit quietly beside him until the cab pulled up: then I jumped out and told the chauffeur to drive my friend on to some remote place on the boulevards.
"I watched the cab until it was out of sight, then I hailed another, and drove straight to the Gard du Nord, and crossed back to England that night. I threw the stiletto overboard into the sea. I had spent twelve hours in Brussels, and I had killed Philip de Mountford, and made sure that Luke would be Earl of Radclyffe after me.
"It was not likely that in their search for the missing criminal who had stabbed an unknown stranger in a cab, the Belgian police would suspect an English peer. The mystery of that crime has remained impenetrable, because nothing was ever known of the stranger who was murdered. At the mean hotel where he lodged no one knew anything about him. Only one person knew and he was silent for purposes of his own.
"Before the police searched the unknown stranger's room, the room which he shared with the chance friend whom he had picked up on the Belgian boat, the latter already had found and concealed the papers which would have revealed the identity of the murdered man, if not that of his murderer.
"I, at home in England, wondered how it was that the Belgian police had never discovered that the murdered man was named Philip de Mountford and that he claimed to be the heir to the earldom of Radclyffe. I expected paragraphs in the paper, some unpleasantness even, but none came.
"I could not understand it, for I had forgotten the existence of the chance friend.
"And then one day last April I understood. Once more I had letters from abroad, from a man who claimed to be my brother's son. At first I thought the whole thing a silly imposture, until the day when a man confronted me in my own house, armed with every proof that I had killed Philip de Mountford in Brussels. He had the latter's passports, his birth and marriage certificates, his letters of identification, all, all the papers that he had filched from among the dead man's things, and which he now flaunted before me, daring me to prove him an impostor. 'If I am not Philip de Mountford,' he said to me, 'then where is Philip de Mountford?' And from that hour, I was as wax in his hands. He held me and he knew it. I might have proved him an impostor, and he could prove me a murderer.
"Heaven alone knows how I did not lose my reason then. I floundered in a sea of wild conjectures, wild projects, wild hopes of escape. But my tyrant held me, and I dared not rebel.
"And once more I was obsessed with the awful certitude that Luke would never be Earl of Radclyffe after me, while this man lived.
"He had so taken upon himself the personality of Philip, the evidences which went to prove his identity with the late Arthur de Mountford's son were so strangely circumstantial, that, short of my proclaiming loudly that I had killed my brother's son with my own hand, nothing could prevent the impostor from succeeding in filching Luke's inheritance.
"And even if I had confessed then, it seemed to me that this man would still succeed in proving that I had murdered an unknown stranger – a chance friend, who was an English bricklayer's son – and that he and he only was Philip de Mountford, the late Arthur's son.
"When did I first dream of killing him, as I killed the other? I could not tell you that. But it was some time ago, and I watched my opportunity with patience and perseverance. Then at last the opportunity came, following on terrible provocation. That dark, foggy November night that you all remember so well! I was to meet my tyrant at the Veterans' Club at nine o'clock. I drove up there and as I stepped out of the cab I came face to face with Luke. Something in the boy's manner told me what had happened. He didn't tell me, but I guessed. The two men had quarrelled and Luke had had to endure the other's arrogance.
"The news upset me. I felt faint and choked with the fog. Luke didn't like to leave me, and seeing how I tottered he gave me his stick to lean upon. We walked together for a little while up and down, and I felt stronger and better. I begged Luke to leave me. Presently, as the impostor came out at the club door, Luke obeyed at last, and said 'good night' to me.
"Paul Baker – I knew that that was his name – wanted me to drive straight back to Grosvenor Square, but asked me to drop him first near the railings of Green Park. He often walked about there in the evenings. It was a curious fad which he had. We called a cab, and he told the driver where to pull up. When I was sitting next to him, I realized that I had a stick in my hand. I really had forgotten that it was Luke's. Whilst I toyed with it, I noticed that the top came out, and that a sharp dagger was concealed inside the body of the stick.
"Paul Baker was looking out of the window at the fog, and inside the cab it was very dark, so he did not know what I was doing. I killed him, just as I had killed Arthur's son, with a dagger thrust through the neck. This time I did not feel sick, because I hated this man so. When the driver pulled up near Green Park I jumped out quite coolly and told the man to take my friend to some distant address in Kensington.
"I threw the stick away behind the railings in the park. I had forgotten that the stick was Luke's: I knew that it was not mine, and that therefore they could not trace it to me.
"I did not imagine for a moment that Luke could be accused of a crime which he had not committed. I did not think that justice could be so blind.
"All I wanted was to be rid of my tyrant, and that Luke's inheritance should not be filched from him."
WHICH TELLS ONCE MORE OF COMMONPLACE INCIDENTS
The note-book fell out of Louisa's hands on to her lap. How simple the tragedy seemed, now that she knew. How understandable was the mystery of Luke's silence. He knew that "Uncle Rad" was guilty. There lay the awful difficulty!
"Uncle Rad has been father, mother, brother, sister to us all! Bless him!" that was Luke's feeling with regard to Uncle Rad.
The un-understandable was so simple after all!
Louisa went back to the sitting-room. The two men were sitting, smoking in silence. Colonel Harris, too, understood the mystery at last. His loyalty was crowned with the halo of justification.
The public never knew, I think, that Luke de Mountford had actually been arrested for the murder of the Clapham Road bricklayer. The police the next day applied for a remand and then Luke was brought quietly before the magistrate and equally quietly dismissed.
He was free to go and see Uncle Rad.
Louisa did not see him the whole of that day, for he sat by the bedside of the sick man whose strange and perturbed spirit was slowly sinking to rest. Uncle Rad was at peace, for he held the hand and looked into the face of the man on whom he had lavished the storehouse of an affection that had known no bounds.скачать книгу бесплатно
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