The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
His was a life entirely wrapped up in itself. In youth he had been very shy: a shyness caused at first by a serious defect of speech which, though cured in later years, always left an unconquerable diffidence, an almost morbid fear of ridicule in its train.
Because of this, I think, he had never been a sportsman – or, rather, had never been an athlete, for he was splendid with a gun and the finest revolver shot in England, so I've been told, and an acknowledged master of fence, but with bat, ball, or racquet he was invariably clumsy.
He had always hated to be laughed at, and therefore had never gone through the rough mill of a tyro in athletics or in games. Arthur, one of his brothers, had been a blue at Oxford; the other one, James – you remember James de Mountford? was the celebrated cricketer; but he, the eldest, always seemed to remain outside that magic circle of sport, the great ring of many links which unites Englishmen one to another in a way that no other conformity of tastes, of breeding, or of religion can ever do.
Because of this diffidence too, no doubt, he had never married. I was told once by an intimate friend of his, that old Rad – as he was universally called – had never mustered up sufficient courage to propose to any woman. And as he saw one by one the coveted matrimonial prizes – the pretty girls whom at different times he had admired sufficiently to desire for wife – snapped up by more enterprising wooers, his dour moroseness grew into positive chronic ill-humour.
He liked no one and no one liked him: and during sixty years of life he had succeeded in eliminating from his entire being every feeling of sentiment save one. He had to all appearances an absolutely callous heart: he cared neither for dog nor horse – he ordered a splendid mare to be shot without the slightest compunction after she had carried him in the hunting field and in the park faithfully and beautifully for over eight years, just because she had shied at a motor-car and nearly thrown him. He was not cruel, you know, just callous in all respects save one: void of all sentiment – he called it sentimentality – save in his affection for Luke.
Luke had been – ever since he was a growing lad – the buffer in the establishment between the irascible master and the many subordinates. From Mr. Warren – the highly paid and greatly snubbed secretary – down to the maids below stairs, one and all brought troubles, complaints, worries to Mr. Luke. No one dared approach his lordship. A word out of season brought instant dismissal, and no one thought of leaving a place where, besides excellent wages, there was the pleasure of waiting on Mr. Luke. Never Mr. de Mountford, you notice, always Mr. Luke. He had grown up amongst the household; Winston, the old coachman, had taught him to ride; Mary, now housekeeper, then a nurse, had bathed him in a wash-hand basin when he was less than eighteen inches long.
Therefore the atmosphere of the gloomy old house pleased Louisa Harris.
With the perfect and unconscious selfishness of a woman in love, she gauged everything in life just as it affected Luke. She even contrived to like Lord Radclyffe. He trod on every one of her moral and spiritual corns, it is true; he had that lofty contempt for the entire feminine sex which pertains to the Oriental, more than to the more civilized Western races; he combated her opinions, both religious and political, without any pretence at deference; he smoked very strong cigars in every room in the house, without the slightest regard for the feelings of his lady visitors; he did or left undone a great many other things which would tend to irritate and even to offend a woman accustomed to the conventional courtesies of daily social life; but when Luke entered a room, where, but a moment ago, Lord Radclyffe had been venting his chronic ill-humour on an offending or innocent subordinate, the old man's dour face would become transfigured, irradiated with a look of pride and of joy at sight of the man on whom he had lavished all the affection of which his strong nature was capable.
Luke could do no wrong. Luke was always right. He could argue with his lordship, contradict him, obtain anything he liked from him. Eternal contradictions of human nature: the childless man in perfect adoration before a brother's son; the callous, hard-hearted misanthrope soft as wax in the hands of one man.
THE PART PLAYED BY A FIVE-POUND NOTE
And it was into this atmosphere of gloom and of purposeless misanthropy that Louisa Harris brought this morning the cheering sunshine of her own indomitable optimism.
She knew of course from the first that the subject which interested every one in the house more than any other subject could ever do was not to be mentioned in Lord Radclyffe's presence. But she was quite shrewd enough to see that dear old Luke – unsophisticated and none too acute an observer – had overestimated his uncle's indifference to the all-absorbing matter.
The old man's face – usually a mirror of contemptuous cynicism – looked, to the woman's keener insight, distinctly troubled, and his surly silence was even more profound than hitherto.
He hardly did more than bid Louisa a curt, "How de do?" when she entered, and then relapsed into moroseness wholly unbroken before luncheon was announced.
Jim – "in the Blues" – was there when she arrived, and Edie came in a few moments later, breathless and with hat awry and tawny hair flying in all directions, straight from a tussle with the dogs and the sharp wind in the park.
Evidently no secret had been made before these two of the strange events which had culminated this very morning in their brother's avowal to Louisa, and the postponement sine die of the wedding. But equally evidently these young creatures absorbed in their own life, their own pursuits and amusements, were not inclined to look on the matter seriously.
Their sky had been so absolutely cloudless throughout their lives that it was impossible for them at the moment to realize that the dark shadow on the distant horizon might possibly conceal thunder in its filmy bosom.
Edie – just over twenty years of age and already satiated with the excitement of three London seasons, her mind saturated with novel reading and on the lookout for some new sensations – was inclined to look on the affair as an exhilarating interlude between the Shrove Tuesday dance at Wessex House and the first Drawing-Room in May. Jim – "in the Blues" – very eligible as a possible husband for the daughters of ambitious mammas, a trifle spoiled, a little slow of wit, and not a little self-satisfied – dismissed the whole incident as "tommy-rot."
When Louisa first greeted them, Edie had whispered excitedly:
"Has he told you?"
And without waiting for a direct reply had continued, with unabated eagerness:
"Awful exciting, don't you think?"
But Jim with the elegant drawl peculiar to his kind had suppressed further confidences by an authoritative:
"Awful rot I call it, don't you? Luke is soft to worry about it."
Strangely enough, at luncheon it was Lord Radclyffe who brought up the subject matter. Edie with the tactlessness of youth had asked a point-blank question:
"Well," she said, "when is that wedding to be? and what are we bridesmaids going to wear? I warn you I won't have white – I hate a white wedding."
Then as no answer came she said impatiently:
"I wish you'd name the day, you two stupids. Awfully soft I call it hanging about like this."
Luke would have said something then, but Louisa interposed.
"It is all my fault, Edie," she said. "You know I want to take the twins out myself this season. I must give them a real good time before I marry."
"Bosh!" remarked Edith unceremoniously. "Mabel and Chris will have a far better time when you are married and can present them yourself. Tell them from me that its no fun being 'out' and the longer they put it off the better they'll enjoy themselves later on. Besides, Colonel Harris will take them about."
"Father hates sitting up late – " hazarded Louisa, somewhat lamely.
"The truth of the matter is," here broke in Lord Radclyffe dryly, "that Luke had persuaded you to put off the wedding because of this d – d impostor who seems to have set you all off by the ears."
Edie laughed and said, "Bosh!" Jim growled and murmured, "Rot!"
Luke and Louisa were silent, the while Lord Radclyffe's closely-set, dark, piercing eyes, wandered from one young face to the other. Louisa, feeling uncomfortable beneath that none too amiable scrutiny, did not know what to say, but Luke quietly remarked after awhile:
"You're right, uncle. It is my doing, but Lou agrees with me, and we are going to wait until this cloud is properly cleared up."
If any one else had spoken so clearly and decisively in direct contradiction to the old man's obvious wishes in the matter, the result would have been an outburst of ill-humour and probably a volley of invectives, not unmixed with more forcible language. But since it was Luke who had spoken – and Luke could do no wrong – Lord Radclyffe responded quite gently:
"My dear boy," he said, and it was really touching to hear the hard voice soften and linger on the endearing words, "I have told you once and for all that the story of this so-called Philip de Mountford is a fabrication from beginning to end. There is absolutely no reason for you to fret one single instant because of the lies a blackmailer chooses to trump up. As for your putting off your wedding one single hour because of this folly, why, it is positive nonsense. I should have thought you had more common-sense – and Miss Harris, too, for a matter of that."
Luke was silent for a moment or two while Edie tossed her irresponsible young head with the gesture of an absolute "I told you so." Jim muttered something behind his heavy cavalry moustache. Louisa, with head bent and fingers somewhat restless and fidgety, waited to hear what Luke would say.
"If only," he said, "you would consent, Uncle Rad to let Mr. Dobson go through this man's papers."
"What were the good of wasting Mr. Dobson's time?" retorted Lord Radclyffe with surprising good humour. "I know that the man is an impostor. I don't think it," he reiterated emphatically, "I know it."
Before the old man had time to reply, the butler – sober, solemn Parker – came in with a card on a salver, which he presented to his master. Lord Radclyffe took up the card and grunted as he glanced at it. He always grunted when he was threatened with visitors.
"Why," he said gruffly, and he threw the card back onto the salver, "haven't you told Mr. Warren?"
"Mr. Warren," said solemn Parker, "is out, my lord."
"Then ask Mr. Dobson to call another time."
"It's not Mr. Dobson hisself, my lord. But a young gentleman from his office."
"Then tell the young gentleman from the office that I haven't time to bother about him."
"Shall I see him, sir?" asked Luke, ready to go.
"Certainly not," retorted the irascible old man. "Stay where you are. You have got Miss Harris to entertain."
"The young gentleman," resumed Parker with respectful insistence, "said he wouldn't keep your lordship five minutes. He said he'd brought some papers for your lordship's signature."
"The Tower Farm lease, Uncle Rad," remarked Luke.
"I think, Mr. Luke," assented the butler, "that the young gentleman did mention the word lease."
"Why has that confounded Warren taken himself off just when I want him?" was Lord Radclyffe's gruff comment as he rose from the table.
"Let me go, sir," insisted Luke.
"No, hang it, boy, you can't sign my name – not yet anyway. I am not yet a helpless imbecile. Show the young man into the library, Parker. I can't think why Dobson is always in such a confounded hurry about leases – sending a fool of a clerk up at most inconvenient hours."
Still muttering half audibly, he walked to the library door, which Parker held open for him, and even this he did not do without surreptitiously taking hold of Luke's hand and giving it a friendly squeeze. For a moment it seemed as if Luke would follow him, despite contrary orders. He paused, undecided, standing in the middle of the room, Louisa's kind gray eyes following his slightest movement.
Jim stolidly pulled the cigar box toward him, and Edie, with chin resting in both hands, looked sulky and generally out of sorts.
Parker – silent and correct of mien – had closed the library door behind his master, and now with noiseless tread he crossed the dining-room and opened the other door – the one that gave on the hall. Louisa instinctively turned her eyes from Luke and saw – standing in the middle of the hall – a young man in jacket suit and overcoat, who had looked up, with palpitating eagerness expressed in his face, the moment he caught sight of Parker.
It was the same man who had lifted his hat to Luke and to herself in Battersea Park this very morning. Luke saw him too and apparently also recognized him.
"That's why he bowed to us, Luke – in the park – you remember?" she said as soon as the door had once more closed on Parker and the visitor.
"Funny that you didn't know him," she continued since Luke had made no comment.
"I didn't," he remarked curtly.
"I did not and do not know this man."
"Not Mr. Dobson's clerk?"
Luke did not answer but went out into the hall. Parker was standing beside the library door which he had just closed, having introduced the visitor into his lordship's presence.
"Parker," said Luke abruptly, "what made you tell his lordship that that young gentleman came from Mr. Dobson?"
The question had come so suddenly that Parker – pompous, dignified Parker – was thrown off his balance, and the reply which took some time in coming, sounded unconvincing.
"The young gentleman," he said slowly, "told me, Mr. Luke, that he came from Mr. Dobson."
"No, Parker," asserted Luke unhesitatingly, "he did nothing of the sort. He wanted to see his lordship and got you to help him concoct some lie whereby he could get what he wanted."
A grayish hue spread over Parker's pink and flabby countenance.
"Lord help me, Mr. Luke," he murmured tonelessly, "how did you know?"
"I didn't," replied Luke curtly. "I guessed. Now I know."
"I didn't think I was doing no harm."
"No harm by introducing into his lordship's presence strangers who might be malefactors?"
Already Luke, at Parker's first admission, had gone quickly to the library door. Here he paused, with his hand on the latch, uncertain if he should enter. The house was an old one, well-built and stout; from within came the even sound of a voice speaking quite quietly, but no isolated word could be distinguished. Parker was floundering in a quagmire of confused explanations.
"Malefactor, Mr. Luke!" he argued, "that young man was no malefactor. He spoke ever so nicely. And he had plenty of money about him. I didn't see I was doing no harm. He wanted to see his lordship and asked me to help him to it – "
"And," queried Luke impatiently, "paid you to help him, eh?"
"I thought," replied the man loftily ignoring the suggestion, "that taking in one of Mr. Dobson's cards that was lying in the tray could do no harm. I thought it couldn't do no harm. The young gentleman said his lordship would be very grateful to me when he found out what I'd done."
"And how grateful was the young gentleman to you, Parker?"
"To the tune of a five-pound note, Mr. Luke."
"Then as you have plenty of money in hand, you can pack up your things and get out of this house before I've time to tell his lordship."
"Mr. Luke – "
"Don't argue. Do as I tell you."
"I must take my notice from his lordship," said Parker, vainly trying to recover his dignity.
"Very well. You can wait until his lordship has been told."
"Mr. Luke – "
"Best not wait to see his lordship, Parker. Take my word for it."
"Very well, Mr. Luke."
There was a tone of finality in Luke's voice which apparently Parker did not dare to combat. The man looked confused and troubled. What had seemed to him merely a venial sin – the taking of a bribe for a trivial service – now suddenly assumed giant proportions – a crime almost, punished by a stern dismissal from Mr. Luke.
He went without venturing on further protest, and Luke, left standing alone in the hall, once more put his hand on the knob of the library door. This time he tried to turn it. But the door had been locked from the inside.
AND THUS THE SHADOW DESCENDED
From within the hum of a man's voice – speaking low and insistently – still came softly through. Luke, with the prodigality of youth, would have given ten years of his life for the gift of second-sight, to know what went on between those four walls beyond the door where he himself stood expectant, undecided, and more than vaguely anxious.
It was quite natural that Louisa should stand here beside him, having come to him softly, noiselessly, like the embodiment of moral strength, and a common-sense which was almost a virtue.
"Uncle Rad," he said quietly, "has locked himself in with this man."
"Who is it, Luke?"
"The man who calls himself Philip de Mountford."
"How do you know?"
"How does one," he retorted, "know such things?"
"And Parker let him in?"
"He gave Parker a five-pound note. Parker is only a grasping fool. He concocted the story of Mr. Dobson and the lease. He is always listening at key-holes, and he knows that Mr. Dobson often sends up a clerk with papers for Uncle Rad's signature. Those things are not very difficult to manage. If one man is determined, and the other corruptible, it's done sooner or later."
"Is Lord Radclyffe safe with that man, do you think?"
"God grant it," he replied fervently.
Jim and Edie made a noisy irruption into the hall, and Luke and Louisa talked ostentatiously of indifferent things – the weather, Lent, and the newest play, until the young people had gathered up coats and hats and banged the street door to behind them, taking their breeziness, their optimism, away with them out into the spring air, and leaving the shadows of the on-coming tragedy to foregather in every angle of the luxurious house in Grosvenor Square.
And there were Luke de Mountford and Louisa Harris left standing alone in the hall; just two very ordinary, very simple-souled young people, face to face for the first time in their uneventful lives with the dark problem of a grim "might be." A locked door between them and the decisions of Fate; a world of possibilities in the silence which now reigned beyond that closed door.
They were – remember – wholly unprepared for it, untrained for any such eventuality. Well-bred and well-brought up, yet were they totally uneducated in the great lessons of life. It was as if a man absolutely untutored in science were suddenly to be confronted with a mathematical problem, the solution or non-solution of which would mean life or death to him. The problem lay in the silence beyond the locked door – silence broken now and again by the persistently gentle hum of the man's voice – the stranger's – but never by a word from Lord Radclyffe.
"Uncle Rad," said Luke at last in deep puzzlement, "has never raised his voice once. I thought that there would be a row – that he would turn the man out of the house. Dear old chap! he hasn't much patience as a rule."
"What shall we do, Luke?" she asked.
"How do you mean?"
"You can't go on standing like that in the hall as if you were eavesdropping. The servants will be coming through presently."
"You are right, Lou," he said, "as usual. I'll go into the dining-room. I could hear there if anything suspicious was happening in the library."
"You are not afraid, Luke?"
"For Uncle Rad, you mean?"
"I hardly know whether I am or not. No," he added decisively after a moment's hesitation, "I am not afraid of violence – the fellow whom we saw in the park did not look that sort."
He led Louisa back into the dining-room, where a couple of footmen were clearing away the luncheon things. The melancholy Parker placed cigar box and matches on a side table and then retired – silent and with a wealth of reproach expressed in his round, beady eyes.
Soon Luke and Louisa were alone. He smoked and she sat in a deep arm-chair close to him saying nothing, for both knew what went on in the other's mind.
Close on an hour went by and then the tinkle of a distant bell broke the silence. Voices were heard somewhat louder of tone in the library, and Lord Radclyffe's sounded quite distinct and firm.
"I'll see you again to-morrow," he said, "at Mr. – Tell me the name and address again, please."
The door leading from library to hall was opened. A footman helped the stranger on with coat and hat. Then the street door banged to again, and once more the house lapsed into silence and gloom.
"I think I had better go now."
Louisa rose, and Luke said in matter-of-fact tones:
"I'll put you into a cab."
"No," she said, "I prefer to walk. I am going straight back to the Langham. Will you go to the Ducies' At Home to-night?"
"Yes," he said, "just to see you."скачать книгу бесплатно