Emma Orczy.

The Heart of a Woman



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Lord Radclyffe, face to face with the awful event, strove by every power at his command to remain dignified and impassive. The lessons taught by generations of ancestors had to bear fruit now, when a representative of the ancient name stood confronting the greatest crisis that one of his kind has ever had to face – the brutal, vulgar fact of a common murder. The realities of a sordid life brought within the four walls of a solemn, aristocratic old house.

For a moment before he spoke again the old man looked round about him, the tall mahogany bookcases filled with silent friends, the busts of Dryden and of Milton, the globes in their mahogany casings: all heirlooms from the generations of de Mountfords who had gone before.

It seemed as if the present bearer of the historic name called all these mute things to witness this present degradation. A crime had smirched the family escutcheon, for to some minds – those who dwell on empyrean heights to which the matter-of-fact sordidness of every-day life never reaches – to those minds the victim is almost as horrible as the assassin.

Lord Radclyffe however fought his own battle silently. Not with one tremor or one gasp would he let the two men see what he felt. Conventionality wielded her iron rod in this shabby old library, just as she had done in the ball room of the Danish Legation, and whilst not two hundred yards away Louisa Harris sang Guy d'Hardelot's songs and smilingly received praise and thanks for her perfect performance, so here the old man never flinched.

He gave to his nerves the word of command, and as soon as he had forced them to obey, he looked straight at the police officer and said quite calmly:

"Please tell me all that I ought to know."

He sat in his high-backed chair, curtly bidding the two men to sit down; he made no attempt to shade his face and eyes; once the battle fought and won he had nothing more to hide: his own face, rigid and still, his firm mouth, and smooth brow were mask enough to conceal the feelings within.

The officer gave the details at full length: he told Lord Radclyffe all that was known of the mysterious crime. The old man listened in silence until the man had finished speaking, then he asked a few questions:

"You have a clue of course?"

"I think so, my lord," replied the officer guardedly.

"Can I help in any way?"

"Any information, my lord, that you think might help us would of course be gladly welcomed."

"The man who hailed the cab in Shaftesbury Avenue – what was he like? I could help you if I knew."

"I'll have his description properly written out, my lord, and bring it you in the morning."

"Can't you tell me now? Every moment lost is irretrievable in cases like these."

"I am afraid, my lord, that I cannot tell you definitely now. There's a dense fog outside – and – "

"The chauffeur's descriptions are vague," interposed Lord Radclyffe with a sneer, "the eternal excuses for incompetence."

"My lord!" protested the man.

"All right! all right! No offence meant I assure you.

You must pardon an old man's irritability – the news you have brought me does not make for evenness of temper. I rely on your department to clear this matter up with the least possible scandal."

"I am afraid that scandal is inevitable," retorted the officer dryly, for he still felt sore at Lord Radclyffe's ill-tempered thrust. "We shall have to rake up a great deal of what might be unpleasant to many parties."

"Why should it be unpleasant?"

"We shall have to know something of the murdered man's past, of his associates before – before he was able to establish his claim to your lordship's consideration."

"I have no doubt that the late Philip de Mountford had many undesirable associates in the past," remarked Lord Radclyffe curtly.

The silence which followed was tantamount to a dismissal. The officer rose to go. He felt nettled at the old man's obvious sneers: they had been like a cold douche over his enthusiasm, for the case had already drifted into his hands and it promised to be the most interesting and most sensational criminal case of modern times.

"You have not," he said before taking his leave, "told me, my lord, what you wish done about the body."

"Surely," replied Lord Radclyffe querulously, "it is too late now to make any arrangements. What is the time?"

"Half past ten, my lord."

"Surely to-morrow morning we can discuss all that."

"Just as you wish, of course."

"To-morrow morning – as early as you like. My servants will be at home then – the house will be ready – and I can make arrangements – or else we'll wait, as you say, until after the inquest."

The sound of a bell broke the silence that ensued.

"You must excuse me," said his lordship dryly, "my servants are out, and there's some one at the front door."

"I can hear footsteps below stairs, my lord," remarked the officer.

"Ah! I believe you're right. Those two blackguards must have come home and I didn't know it. They do pretty much as they like."

Shuffling, uncertain footsteps were heard across the hall. The officer said hurriedly:

"One more thing, my lord – you will pardon me asking but – you had not thought of – er – offering a reward?"

"What for?"

"The apprehension of the murderer, or useful information that would lead to conviction."

"Oh! Ah, yes; a reward by all means! Of course I'll give a reward to stimulate incompetence, eh?"

"What will your lordship make it?" asked the officer, determined this time to show no resentment.

"Two hundred – five hundred – have what you like – so long as you get that brute."

"Five hundred, my lord, would stimulate us all."

"Very well," said Lord Radclyffe briefly. "Good evening."

"Good evening, my lord. And to-morrow morning we'll be ready for the body to be taken away, if you wish it. But the inquest will be the day after, so perhaps it might be best to wait until then. At the coroner's court, Victoria, my lord – South Kensington, you know – everything will be all right. Good evening, my lord."

The two men took their leave, glad enough to have done with the unpleasant interview.

As they walked to the door that gave from the library on the hall it was opened from the outside, and a seedy-looking man, dressed in shabby evening clothes that bore many traces of past libations, walked unceremoniously midway into the room.

"Will you see Mr. Luke de Mountford?" he muttered addressing his master.

"Certainly not," replied his lordship. "It's much too late. Ask Mr. Luke to call again to-morrow. And you and your wife can go to bed."

CHAPTER XV
AND MANY MUST BE QUESTIONED

By the time the police officers reached the outer hall door, Luke had received his order of dismissal. He stood on the step for a moment, undecided what to do, and saw the two men coming out of his uncle's study.

They raised their hats as they met him on the door step, and one of them said politely:

"Mr. Luke de Mountford?"

"That is my name," replied Luke.

"Mine is Travers – attached to Scotland Yard. Could I ask you a few questions?"

"Certainly, but not in my uncle's house, I think."

"Of course not; where do you suggest?"

"Here on the door step if you like."

"Hardly. Might I trouble you to step into a cab with me and to come as far as Victoria police court?"

"It's very late, isn't it? I have an engagement at eleven close by here."

He was going to fetch Colonel Harris and Louisa at the Danish Legation and pilot them home to the Langham.

"It's an important matter, Mr. de Mountford," retorted the man. "Are you lodging anywhere near here?"

"In Exhibition Road, Kensington."

"Ah, close to Cromwell Road?"

"Not far."

"Then where shall it be, Mr. de Mountford?"

"Why not in the cab?" remarked Luke.

"Just as you like."

The taxicab which had brought the police officers was standing some few paces farther on, its strong lights only just piercing the intensity of the fog, and its throbbings, as the taximeter marked off twopences with unerring rapidity, filled the night with their strangely familiar sound.

The three men got into the cab, the officer telling the chauffeur to remain stationary until told to move on.

"I know very little about the business, Mr. – er – Travers," remarked Luke as soon as all three of them had stowed themselves fairly comfortably in the interior of the vehicle. "I suppose it is about this ghastly affair that you wanted to speak to me."

"Yes, sir. It was about that. I thought you could give us some information about the late Mr. de Mountford's past life, or his former friends."

"I know nothing," retorted Luke dryly, "of my cousin's past or present life. He did not confide in me."

"But you were good friends?" interposed the other quickly.

"We knew each other very little."

"And to-night?"

"I saw him at his club."

"Where was that?"

"The Veterans' in Shaftesbury Avenue."

"About what time?"

"Between eight and nine."

"You had some talk with him?"

"Yes."

"Pleasant talk?" asked the officer indifferently.

"Family affairs," rejoined Luke dryly.

"And you parted from him?"

"Somewhere about nine."

"In the club?"

"In the club."

"The door steps?"

"No. The lobby."

"He was alone then? I mean – besides yourself was no one with him?"

"No one. The hall porter stood there of course."

"No one joined him afterward?"

"That I cannot say. When I parted from him he was alone."

"You know that Mr. Philip de Mountford was murdered in a taxicab between Shaftesbury Avenue and Hyde Park Corner, soon after nine o'clock?"

"I have heard most of the details of that extraordinary crime.

"And you can throw no light on it at all?"

"None. How could I?"

"Nothing," insisted the police officer, "occurs to you at this moment that might help us in any way to trace the murderer?"

"Nothing whatever."

The man was silent. It seemed as if he was meditating how best to put one or more questions. Up to now these had been curt and to the point, and as they followed one another in quick succession there was a marked difference in the attitude both of the questioner and the questioned. The police officer had started by being perfectly deferential – just like a man accustomed to speak with people whose position in the world compelled a certain regard. He had originally addressed Luke as "sir," just as he had invariably said "my lord" to Lord Radclyffe, but now he spoke much more curtly. There was a note of demand in every question which he put, a peremptoriness of manner which did not escape the observation of his interlocutor.

As the one man became more aggressive so did Luke also change his manner. There had been affable courtesy in his first reply to the questions put to him, a desire to be of help if help was needed, but with his senses attuned by anxiety and nerve strain to distinguish subtle difference of manner and of intention, he was quick enough to notice that he himself was as it were in a witness box, with a counsel ready enough to bully, or to trip up any contradictory statement.

Not that Luke realized the reason of this change. The thought that he could be suspected of a crime was as far removed from his ken as the desire to visit the moon. He could not understand the officer's attitude; it puzzled him, and put him on his guard – but it was just the instinct of self-preservation, of caution, which comes to men who have had to fight the world, and who have met enemies where they least expected to find one.

"Do you remember," now resumed Travers after that slight pause, which had seemed very long to Luke, but as a matter of fact had only lasted a short minute, "whether you saw Mr. Philip de Mountford speaking with any one when you left him in the lobby of the club?"

"I told you," said Luke impatiently, "that he was alone, except for the hall porter."

"Alone in the whole club house?"

"Alone," reiterated Luke with measured emphasis, "in the lobby of the Veterans' Club."

"How many rooms has the club?"

"I don't know; it was the first time I had ever been there."

"Did you know any of the staff?"

"No – since I had never been there before."

"You were not known to any member of the staff?"

"Not that I know of."

"You were shown into the club rooms without being known there at all?"

"The Veterans' Club is a new one, and its rules apparently are not very strict. I asked if Mr. de Mountford was in the club and was told that I should find him in the smoking room, and I did."

"How long did your interview with Mr. de Mountford last?"

"About three quarters of an hour I should say."

"And it was of a perfectly amicable nature?"

"Of a perfectly indifferent nature," corrected Luke.

"And after the interview what did you do?"

"I walked out of the club."

"But after that?"

"I walked about."

"In the fog?" This in an undisguised tone of surprise.

"In the fog."

"In what direction?"

"Really," here rejoined Luke with a sudden show of resentment, "Mr. – er – Travers, I fail to see how my movements can be of concern to you."

He was certainly not going to tell this man that he had made his way through the fog as far as the residence of the Danish Minister, and that he had walked up and down for over an hour outside that house like a love-sick fool, like a doting idiot, because he knew that if he waited patiently he would presently hear the faint echo of a well-trained contralto voice whose mellowness would come to him through the closed windows of the brilliantly illumined mansion, and would ease for a moment the wild longing of his heart.

What the man near him said in answer to his retort he really could not say. He had not heard, for in a moment his thoughts had flashed back to that lonely vigil in the fog, to the sound of her voice, which came, oh! so faintly, to his ear, and then to the first breath of gossip that came from the passers-by, the coachmen and chauffeurs who had drawn up in long rows along the curb, the idlers who always hang about outside in the cold and the damp when a society function is in progress, the pickers-up of unconsidered trifles, lost or willingly bestowed.

From these he had first heard the news: vaguely at first, for he did not – could not – realize that the amazing thing which was being commented on and discussed had anything to do with him. The talk was of murder, and soon the name of de Mountford was mentioned. The details he got were very confused, and the open allusions as to "seek whom the crime will benefit" never really reached his brain, which was almost numb with the violence of the shock.

His first thought after that was to go and see Uncle Rad: he had, for the moment, almost forgotten Louisa. Every other interest in life sank to nothingness beside the one clear duty: Uncle Rad would be alone; the awful news must be broken very gradually to Uncle Rad. He had hurried to Grosvenor Square, only to find that emissaries of the police had forestalled him in his duty.

All this he could not explain to the man Travers. It would have sounded lame and barely plausible. Nowadays men do not walk outside houses wherein their liege lady dwells, and, if they do, they do not choose a foggy night for the sentimental dalliance. He was thankful, therefore, that Travers put no further questions to him, and merely said with a return to his original politeness:

"I am greatly obliged to you, sir. I don't think I need detain you any longer. You said you had an engagement later on; won't you keep this cab?"

Luke thanked him, but refused the offer of the cab.

"It is close by," he said.

"May I call on you to-morrow morning, sir?"

"If it is necessary."

"I am afraid so. You see we don't like to trouble Lord Radclyffe and we must try and obtain knowledge of certain facts and verify others."

"Quite so. Well, to-morrow then."

"Thank you, sir. Your address is – ?"

"Fairfax Mansions, Exhibition Road."

"Such a nice neighbourhood. No fog there to-night I think."

"I hope not. Good night."

"Good night, sir."

Luke made his escape from the cab. He was afraid of missing Louisa and her father. His thoughts were somewhat in a whirl, and – being overburdened with matters of paramount importance – were inclined to dwell on trifles.

"I ought," he reflected, "to have taken that man's cab. It might be difficult to get another and Colonel Harris hates waiting in a crowded hall."

CHAPTER XVI
AND THE PUPPETS DANCED

And so he went to meet Louisa and Colonel Harris at the Danish Legation, and found them a taxicab and generally saw to their comparative comfort.

There was no restraint between the three of them. It was as natural to them all to avoid speaking of important matters on the door step of a neighbour's house, as it was to eat or drink or breathe. So Luke asked if the dinner had been enjoyable and the reception crowded, and Colonel Harris comfortably complained of both. He hated foreign cooking, and society crushes, and had endured both to-night. No doubt the terrible events of this night, as yet mere shadows – hardly admitted to be real – were weighing on the kind old man's usual hearty spirits.

But so versed were they all in the art of make believe that each one individually was able to register in the innermost depths of an anxious heart the firm conviction that the other "had not heard."

Luke was convinced that the gruesome and sordid news could not have penetrated within the gorgeous mansion where Lou in an exquisite gown had sung modern songs in her pure contralto voice. He felt sure that neither Lou nor Colonel Harris had heard that Philip de Mountford had been murdered in a taxicab and that police officers had thought fit to speak to him – Luke – in tones of contemptuous familiarity. Nay more! now that he himself sat thus opposite good-natured, prosy, sensible Colonel Harris, he began to think that he must have been dreaming, that the whole thing could not have occurred, but that he had imagined it all whilst leaning against the garden-railings trying to strain his ears so that they should hear the soft faint echo of that pure contralto voice.

Perhaps the wish had been father to the thought; whilst gazing up at those brilliantly illumined windows, he might in his heart of hearts have wished the non-existence of Philip – not his death, but the annihilation of the past few months, the non-advent of the intruder: and, thus wishing, he may have imagined the whole thing – the murder in the cab, the police officer on the door step of the old home in Grosvenor Square.

A sense of supreme well-being encompassed him now. Lou sat opposite to him. He could not distinguish her face in the gloom, only the outline of her head with the soft brown hair perfectly dressed by the hand of an accomplished maid: Lou, the personification of modernity, of ordinary commonplace life, but exquisite – just the woman whom he loved with every fibre of his heart, every tendril of his being and every sense within him. A soft perfume of sweet peas clung to her gown and was wafted to his nostrils. He closed his eyes, and drew in a long breath of supreme delight. Now and then as the cab gave a jerk his knee came in contact with hers, and down on the ground quite close to his own there rested a small neatly shod foot, the sole of which he would have given his heart's blood to kiss.

Oh, yes; he was quite, quite happy: this was reality: his exquisite Louisa, the outline of her perfect head, the touch of her knee, the scent of sweet peas which intoxicated him and whipped his senses to madness and to dreams. It was reality and the other was only the wild phantasmagoria of a wild imagination – the insane thought born of insane desire. In the darkness which enveloped him and Lou, he could, you see, give free rein to himself. The world was not gaping; conventionality held no sway within these four narrow walls; the puppet could loosen the string which had forced it to dance, it could lie placid for awhile, dead to the world, but enjoying its own existence and its own vitality.

And Lou, watching him in that same darkness which concealed him entirely, save to her eyes of watchfulness, believed that he had heard nothing as yet. She vaguely combated the desire to tell him everything then and there, so that he should hear the worst and the best from her lips rather than through indifferent channels later on.

But with that subtle perception peculiar to her – the modern, commonplace woman of the world – she divined that he was living for the moment in a world of his own, from which it was sacrilege to try and drag him away.

Just then the cab drew up outside the Langham Hotel. The every-day world had returned with its flaring electric lights, its hall porters, its noise and bustle, and chased away the illusions of the past few moments. Luke jumped out, ready to help Lou down – a happy second that, for her hand must needs rest in his.

The glare of the electric lamp above fell full on his face, which was serene, placid, the usual mask of supreme indifference: only Louisa read beyond the mask, and as her hand rested in his for just a thought longer than conventionality allowed, she realized that he knew everything: the murder, the horror, and the suspicion which had touched him already with the tip of its sable wing.



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