The Heart of a Womanскачать книгу бесплатно
SHALL A MAN ESCAPE HIS FATE?
On the way to the Danish Legation, Colonel Harris asked Luke what his plans were for the evening.
"I shall," replied Luke, "call at Grosvenor Square. I may find Uncle Rad, or Philip, or both at home. I mean to have a good tussle about this wintering abroad. It's really most important."
"I call it criminal," retorted Colonel Harris, "keeping a man in London who has been used to go south in the winter for the past twenty years at least."
"Uncle Rad is still fairly well now, though I do think he looks more feeble than usual. He ought to go at once."
"But," suggested Louisa, "he oughtn't to go alone."
"No. He certainly ought not."
"Would Mr. de Mountford go with him?"
"I don't think so."
"This new man of his, then?"
"That," said Luke hotly, "would be madness. The man is really a drunkard."
"But somebody ought to go."
"Edie would be only too willing – if she is allowed."
"Edie?" exclaimed Louisa.
And she added with a smile:
"What will Reggie Duggan have to say to that?"
"Nothing," he replied quietly. "Reggie Duggan has cried off."
"You don't mean that."
"He has given up Edie who has little or nothing a year, and become engaged to Marian Montagu who has eight thousand pounds a year of her own."
"Poor Edie!" murmured Louisa, whilst Colonel Harris's exclamation was equally to the point and far more forcible, and more particularly concerned the Honourable Reginald Duggan.
"Yes," rejoined Luke, "it has hit her hard, coming on the top of other things. There's no gainsaying the fact, is there, Colonel Harris, that we four brothers and sister owe something to Uncle Arthur's son?"
"The handle of a riding whip," came from out the depths of Colonel Harris's fur coat. "Stupid way parsons have of saying that to wish a man dead is tantamount to murder. I am committing murder now for a matter of that, for I wish that blackguard were buried in one of his native earthquakes."
"Would to God," added Luke, "that wishing alone would do it."
There was so much wrath, such hatred and contempt in those words that Louisa instinctively whispered:
"Hush, Luke! don't talk like that."
And Colonel Harris somewhat ostentatiously cleared his throat and said:
"Don't let us think of that confounded Philip."
Luke took leave of Colonel Harris and of Louisa at the door of the Danish Legation. He waited on the carpeted curb beneath the awning until he saw her white evening cloak disappear in the door-way.
The fog had become very dense. Just here where a number of carriage lamps threw light around, one could distinguish faces and forms immediately close to one, but as Luke turned away from the brilliant lights, he realized how thick was the pall which enveloped London to-night. He looked at his watch; it was close upon eight. The next few minutes brought him to the door of Lord Radclyffe's house.
He rang but obtained no answer.
He rang again and again and finally came to the conclusion that his uncle and cousin were as usual dining out and that the elderly couple who did perfunctory service in the house were either asleep or out of ear-shot or had taken the opportunity of seeking amusement in a neighbouring public house.
But Luke was worried about Lord Radclyffe; moreover he had made up his mind that he would speak to him and to Philip to-night, with regard to the imperative wintering abroad for the old man.
The Veterans' Club was unknown to Luke, but Shaftesbury Avenue was not. He turned into Oxford Street and as taxicabs were now a forbidden luxury he hailed a passing omnibus and jumped into it, and thus was rapidly conveyed into the very heart of the fog which had found its haven around Piccadilly Circus.
THEY HAVE NO HEART
As to what occurred in the heart of the fog on that night in November four years ago, most of you no doubt will remember. Those who do not I must refer to the morning papers of the following day.
A perfect harvest for journalists. Gossip and detail sufficient to fill column upon column of newspaper: gossip that grew as the hours sped on, and the second day of fog pursued its monotonous course.
A man had been found murdered in a taxicab, his throat stabbed through from ear to ear, the jugular pierced, life absolutely extinct; the murderer vanished.
Drama in the midst of reality.
Such things are, you know. No amount of so-called realistic literature, no amount of sneers at what is dubbed melodrama, will prevent this fact occurring – and occurring very frequently in the streets of a mighty city.
Just a man murdered and the murderer disappeared. A very real thing that, and London has had to face such facts often enough, more often than has an audience at Drury Lane or the Adelphi. The superior-minded critic who spells British Drama with a capital B and D, and pronounces it Pritish Trama sat in the stalls of a London theatre on this very same foggy evening in November, four years ago. The play was one that did not appeal to the superior-minded critic: it was just a simple tale of jealousy which led to the breaking of that great commandment: "Thou shalt do no murder!"
And the superior-minded critic yawned behind a well gloved hand and dubbed the play melodramatic, unreal, and stagey, quite foreign to the life of to-day. But just at that hour – between nine and ten o'clock – a man was murdered in a taxicab, and his murderer vanished in the fog.
London doesn't dub such events melodrama; she does not sneer at them or call them unreal. She knows that they are real: there is nothing stagey or artificial about them: they have even become commonplace.
They occur so often! And most often whilst society dines or dances and the elect applaud with languid grace the newest play by Mr. Bernard Shaw.
Only in this case, the event gained additional interest. The murdered man was a personality. Some one whom everybody that was anybody had talked about, gossiped, and discussed for the past six months. Some one whom few had seen but many had heard about – Philip de Mountford – the son of the late Arthur de Mountford – Radclyffe's newly found heir, you know.
The news spread as only such news can spread, and when Society poured out from theatres, from houses in Grosvenor Square, or from the dining-room of the Carlton, every one had heard the news.
It was as if the sprite of gossip had been busy whispering in over-willing ears.
"Philip de Mountford has been murdered."
"He was found in a taxicab; his throat was cut from ear to ear."
"No! no! not cut, I understand. Pierced through with a sharp instrument – a stiletto, I presume."
"Poor Lord Radclyffe – such a tragedy – "
"He'll never live through it."
"He has looked very feeble lately."
"The scandal round the late Arthur's name broke him up, I think."
"It seems Arthur de Mountford had married a negress."
"No! no! Philip did not look like a half-caste. I saw him once or twice. He was dark but nice looking."
"Still, there was some scandal about the marriage!"
"Nothing to what this scandal will be!"
"Seek whom the crime benefits, you know."
"Then you think? – You really think Luke de Mountford did it?"
"I thought so the moment I heard the story."
"I've always thought that Luke de Mountford a queer sort of fellow."
"And he took his cousin's advent very badly."
"Well one can't wonder at that exactly – to lose a future peerage all of a sudden – and he has no private fortune either – "
"I heard there were awful rows between the cousins until Lord Radclyffe himself turned Luke and the others out of the house."
"And now Philip de Mountford has been murdered."
"And the police will seek him whom the crime benefits."
"It certainly looks very suspicious."
"A real cause c?l?bre! Won't it be exciting."
"Something to read about in one's morning papers."
"I shall try and get reserved seats for the trial. I hate a crush, don't you?"
"Will they hang him, do you think?"
"If he is found guilty – English justice is no respecter of persons."
And tittle-tattle, senseless talk, inane remarks, were wafted on the grimy wings of the fog. They penetrated everywhere, in the lobbies of the theatres, the boudoir of madame and the smoking room of my lord. They penetrated to the magnificent reception rooms of the Danish Legation, and Louisa heard the remarks even before she knew the full details of the story. Louisa had a well-trained contralto voice, and had been asked to sing, in the course of the evening. Just as she stood in an outer room selecting her music, she heard a group of idlers – men and women – talking over the mysterious murder in the taxicab.
They had at first been unconscious of her presence. She had her back toward them, turning over the leaves of of her song. Suddenly there was a hush in the conversation; one of the chatterboxes must have pointed her out to the others.
Whereupon Louisa, serene and smiling, a roll of music in her hand, joined the merry group.
"Please," she said, "don't stop. I have heard nothing yet. And of course I want to know."
One of the men laughed inanely and the ladies murmured silly nothings.
"Oh!" said some one, "it mayn't be true. Such lots of wild rumours get about."
"What," asked Louisa placidly, "mayn't be true? Some one said just now that Philip de Mountford has been murdered."
"Well," murmured one of the ladies, "they say it was Mr. de Mountford; but they can't be sure, can they?"
The group was dissolving: almost, it seemed, as if it had vanished into thin air. When Louisa first heard them talking there were about a dozen men and women, a brilliant throng of gaily plumaged birds; now the ladies remembered that they wanted to hear the latest infant prodigy who had been engaged to entertain the guests at the post-dinner reception to-night, and the men too, feeling uncomfortable and awkward, made good their escape.
People – the pleasure-loving people of to-day – have no use for latent tragedy. Excitement, yes! and drama; but only from the secure distance of a private seat at an Old Bailey trial. The murder of Philip de Mountford could be discussed with quite an amount of enjoyment between a dinner party and a ball supper, but not in Louisa Harris's presence! By Gad! too much of a good thing you know!
Within a very few minutes Louisa found herself almost alone, just the one or two near her to whom she had directly spoken and – fortunately – Colonel Harris in the door-way, come to look for his daughter.
"The infant with the violin," he said as soon as he caught sight of Louisa, "is just finishing his piece, poor little rat! You promised you would sing next, Lou. What songs have you got?"
"I was just making a selection when you came, father. What would you like me to sing?"
With an unexpressed sigh of relief the last two of the original group of gossips dwindled away into the reception room beyond, congratulating themselves on having successfully engineered their exit.
"Dooced awkward, don't you know, Miss Harris asking questions."
"I suppose she doesn't realize – "
"She will soon enough – "
"She ought to have broken off her engagement long ago."
"Isn't it awful? – Poor thing."
Louisa, left alone with her father, could allow her nerves to ease their fearful tension. She had no need to hide from him the painful quiver of her lips, or the anxious frown across her brow.
"Do you know," she asked, "anything about this awful business, father?"
"There's a lot of gossip," he replied: his voice was not only gruff but hoarse, which showed that he was strangely moved.
"But," she insisted, "some truth in the gossip?"
"They say Philip de Mountford has been murdered."
"Who says so?"
"Some people have come on from the theatres, and men from the clubs. The streets are full of it – and evening papers have brought out midnight editions which are selling like hot cakes."
"And do they say that Luke has killed Philip de Mountford?"
"No" – with some hesitation – "they don't say that."
"But they hint at it."
"How much is actual fact?"
"I understand," he explained, "that at nine o'clock or thereabouts two men in evening dress hailed a passing taxicab just outside the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue and told the chauffeur to drive to Hyde Park corner, just by the railings of the Green Park. The driver drew up there and one of the two men got out. As he reclosed the door of the cab he leaned toward the interior and said cheerfully, "S'long old man. See you to-morrow." Then he told the chauffeur to drive on to 1 Cromwell Road opposite the museum, and turning on his heel disappeared in the fog. When the chauffeur drew up for the second time no one alighted from the cab. So he got down from his box and opened the door."
"The other man," murmured Louisa vaguely, "was in the cab – dead!"
"That's about it."
"With his throat pierced from ear to ear by a sharp instrument which might have been a skewer."
"You have heard it all then?"
"No, no!" she said hurriedly.
The room was swaying round her: the furniture started hopping and dancing. Louisa, who had never fainted in her life, felt as if the floor was giving way under her feet. Memory was unloading one of her storehouses, looking over the contents of a hidden cell, wherein she had put away a strange winter scene in Brussels, a taxicab, the ill-lighted boulevard, the chauffeur getting down from his box and finding a man crouched in the farther corner of the cab – dead – with his throat pierced from ear to ear by an instrument which might have been a skewer. And memory was raking out that cell, clearing it in every corner, trying to find the recollection of a certain morning in Battersea Park a year ago, when Louisa recounted her impressions of that weird scene and told the tale of this crime which she had almost witnessed. Memory found a distinct impression that she had told the tale at full length and with all the details which she knew. She remembered talking it all over, and, that when she did so, the ground in Battersea Park was crisp with the frost under her feet, and an inquisitive robin perched himself on the railings and then flew away accompanying her and another all the way along as far as the gates.
Two pictures, vivid and distinct: that evening in Brussels, and the morning in Battersea Park, her first meeting with Luke after his letter to her – the letter which had come to her in the Palace Hotel and which had made her the happiest woman in all the world. Memory – satisfied – had at last emptied the storehouse of that one cell and left Louisa Harris standing here, staring at her father, her ears buzzing with the idle and irresponsible chatter of society jackdaws, her mind seeing all that had happened outside 1 Cromwell Road: the cab stopping, the chauffeur terrified, the crowd collecting, the police taking notes. Her mind saw it as if her bodily eyes had been there, and all that her father told her seemed but the recapitulation of what she knew already.
"Where," she said after awhile, "is the dead man now?"
"I don't know," he replied. "I should imagine they would keep the body at the police station until the morning. I don't suppose they'd be such mugs as to disturb Lord Radclyffe at this time of night; the shock might kill the old man."
"I suppose they are quite sure that it is Philip de Mountford who was killed?"
"Why, yes; he had his pocket-book, his cards, his letters on him, and money too – robbery was not the object of the crime."
"It was Philip de Mountford then?"
"Good God, yes! Of whom were you thinking?"
"I was thinking of Luke," she replied simply.
The old man said nothing more. Had he spoken at all then it would have been to tell her that he, too, was thinking of Luke and that there was perhaps not a single person in the magnificent house at that moment who was not – in some way or another – thinking of Luke.
The hostess came in, elegant and worldly, with banal words to request the pleasure of hearing Miss Harris sing.
"It is so kind of you," she said, "to offer. I have never heard you, you know, and people say you have such a splendid voice. But perhaps you would rather not sing to-night?"
She spoke English perfectly, but with a slight Scandinavian intonation, which seemed to soften the banality of her words. Being foreign, she thought less of concealing her sympathy, and was much less fearful of venturing on delicate ground.
She held out a small, exquisitely gloved hand and laid it almost affectionately on the younger woman's arm.
"I am sure you would rather not sing to-night," she said kindly.
"Indeed, Countess, why should you think that?" retorted Louisa lightly. "I shall be delighted to sing. I wonder which of these new songs you would like best. There is an exquisite one by Guy d'Hardelot. Shall I sing that?"
And Her Excellency, who so charmingly represented Denmark in English society, followed her guest into the reception room: she admired the elegant carriage of the English girl, the slender figure, the soft abundant hair.
And Her Excellency sighed and murmured to herself:
"They are stiff, these English! and oh! they have no feeling, no sentiment!"
And a few moments later when Louisa Harris's really fine voice, firm and clear, echoed in the wide reception room, Her Excellency reiterated her impressions:
"These English have no heart! She sings and her lover is suspected of murder! Bah! they have no heart!"
THE TALE HAD TO BE TOLD
And whilst the morning papers were unfolded by millions of English men and women, and the details of the mysterious crime discussed over eggs and bacon and buttered toast, Philip de Mountford, the newly found heir presumptive to the Earldom of Radclyffe, was lying in the gloomy mortuary chamber of a London police court, whither he had been conveyed in the same cab whose four narrow walls jealously guarded the secret of the tragedy which had been enacted within their precincts.
Lord Radclyffe had been aroused at ten o'clock the previous night by representatives of the police, who came to break the news to him. It was not late, and the old man was not yet in bed. He had opened the front door of his house himself, his servants – he explained curtly – were spending their evening more agreeably elsewhere.
The house – even to the police officers – appeared lonely and gloomy in the extreme, and the figure of the old man, who should have been surrounded by every luxury that rank and wealth can give, looked singularly pathetic as he stood in his own door-way, evidently unprotected and uncared for, and suspiciously demanding what his late visitors' business might be.
Very reluctantly on hearing the latter's status he consented to admit them. He did not at first appear to suspect that anything wrong might have happened, or that anything untoward could occasion this nocturnal visit: in fact, he seemed unconscious of the lateness of the hour.
He walked straight into the library, where he had obviously been sitting, for an arm-chair was drawn to the fire, a reading lamp was lighted on the table, and papers and magazines lay scattered about.
The police officer in plain clothes, who stood with his subordinate, somewhat undecided, hardly knew how to begin. It was a hard task to break such awful news to this lonely old man.
At last it was done; the word "accident" and "your nephew" were blurted out by the man in command. But hardly were these out of his lips than Lord Radclyffe – livid and trembling – had jumped to his feet.
"Luke!" he contrived to exclaim, and his voice was almost choked, his lips and hands trembled, beads of perspiration stood upon his forehead. "Something has happened to Luke."
"No, no, my lord! that's not the name – Philip was on the card and on the letters – Philip de Mountford – that was, I think, the poor gentleman's name."
"And an accident has happened to Mr. Philip de Mountford?"
The voice was quite different now. No longer choked with anxiety, calm and as if mildly interested in passing events. It was obvious even to the strangers present that one nephew was of far greater moment than the other.
"I am afraid, my lord, that it's worse than an accident – "
The officer paused a moment, satisfied that he was doing all that was necessary and possible to mitigate the suddenness of the blow.
"It's foul play," he said at last; "that's what it was."
"Foul play? What do you mean by that?"
"Mr. Philip de Mountford has been murdered, my lord – his body now lies at the police station – would you wish him conveyed home at once, my lord – or wait until after the inquest?"
There was silence in the room for a moment or two, while the old-fashioned clock ticked stolidly on. At the awful announcement, which indeed might have felled a younger and more vigorous man, Lord Radclyffe had not moved. He was still standing, his hand resting on the table beside the piled up newspapers. The light of the lamp veiled by a red shade illumined the transparent delicacy of the high-bred hand, the smooth black surface of the coat, and the glimmering whiteness of the shirt front with its single pearl stud. The face itself was in shadow, and thus the police officer saw little or nothing of that inward struggle for self-mastery which was being put so severely to the test.скачать книгу бесплатно