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THE Novelist—he was young, and differed in this one respect from the majority of his profession, that he rather liked to hear himself talk—accepted the challenge immediately. The subject was surely one upon which he was entitled to speak with authority. It was the latest murder, and novelists are supposed to know all about murders.
"The question is certainly an exceedingly interesting one," he agreed, leaning a little forward in his chair so as to come into touch with his hostess, who had addressed her last remark to him. "The Daily Despatch appeals for signatures to the petition on two grounds—firstly, that the man is convicted by circumstantial evidence alone; secondly, on account of certain features in the case to which you, Mrs. Alexander have just alluded."
"And a wonderfully strong appeal it is, too," Col. Hatton remarked from his place at the other side of the round table. "I don't mind admitting that I left the club half an hour earlier than usual this afternoon on purpose to go and sign the petition."
A heavy-featured, white-complexioned man paused for a moment in his task of eating and drinking a great deal more than was good for him.
"I meant to go myself," he announced. "I've read every word of the case and I consider the verdict ridiculous. The man is innocent. I felt sure of it from the first. It happened to be a busy afternoon in the city, and I quite forgot all about it, or I meant to have stopped on my way home. Not that my signature would have made any difference," he added, watching with satisfaction the replenishing of his glass with the champagne of an excellent vintage. "The fellow will hang, right enough."
THE Novelist—his name was Andrew Faraday—was an emotional personage, and there was a certain shivering contempt in his eyes as he glanced across the table. This man, to judge him by his own words, honestly believed that an innocent human being was to be hanged by the neck in a few hours' time, and yet he had not bestirred himself to sign the petition! He could sit there now, eating and drinking to his fill, stolidly content with himself and the world; he was engaged even at that moment with his champagne, and Faraday's swift glance left him unmoved. The Novelist, with a scarcely perceptible shrug of the shoulders, withdrew his attention from the man only to find it suddenly and curiously arrested by the silent, shy, little woman whom he had taken in to dinner. Her flower-like face was raised almost for the first time; a vivid and unusual life seemed to have been breathed into her eyes and lips. She, too, had felt it. An eloquent moment passed between them. Its silence was broke by one word only which she muttered under her breath.
Faraday was a little startled. There was an absolute venomous contempt in that whispered monosyllable, a contempt which matched his own feelings, and which yet, coming from so unexpected a source, surprised him by its vehemence. The flash of her eyes, amazingly beautiful, had thrilled him. They were lowered now, however, to her plate. There was no trace left of that fiery moment.
"The Daily Despatch," Mrs. Alexander said, addressing herself chiefly to the Novelist, "expressed exactly the feelings I have had all the time. Here is an elderly, wealthy little gentleman, highly nervous, and living an essentially commonplace life. He is married to a woman who may have been something of a trial lately, but with whom he seems to have lived fairly comfortably if not happily. Now does it seem reasonable that such a person should suddenly, without warning, and without any real provocation, commit a crime of unparalleled brutality; that he should practically have cut a woman up into pieces, lingering over his task with almost loving care day by day, going about his usual business all the time and coming back—to that? Can you imagine it possible? Is it possible?"
"Yes!" Andrew Faraday answered, without hesitation.
His hostess looked at him questioningly. Faraday felt that his neighbor’s eyes, too, were once more raised from her plate. Somehow or other, he was curiously conscious of her almost breathless attention.
"The psychology of murder," Faraday said, "has never been properly understood. There is, of course, the murder for robbery, revenge, or jealousy, a deliberate yet passionate crime, probably planned and committed in the heat of the moment and almost inevitably repented of in the future. Then there is another and a subtler description—such a murder, in short, as I believe the man of whom you have been talking, to have committed."
"This is most interesting," Mrs. Alexander murmured. "Do go on, Mr. Faraday." "I mean the man or woman who endures," Faraday continued, "the man who, either from gentleness of disposition or hatred of a row, accepts silently a long course of insults or injuries. An angry word or a blow would do a world of good, would clear the whole thing away, perhaps, but it isn't in the man's nature to strike. He endures. No one knows the danger of that endurance. In time, perhaps, the man begins to brood. Ugly dreams visit him. The face of his torturer is always present. Outwardly, the man is the same; internally, he is drifting towards tragedy. The end comes one day. There is no warning. He simply passes the border-line. He selects the time and the occasion with thoughtful care. He is no longer commonplace; no longer, save on the surface, gentle. He is a fiend, not savagely but gently mad. He can butcher and smile, bury and smile. All the time he is light- hearted. A weight has gone from him. He is not apparently insane—his brain probably has never been more clear. His manner, to a curious friend or acquaintance, would be such as to divert at once all suspicion. Yet that man is the most dangerous and bloodthirsty of all criminals."
"You believe that the type exists?" Mrs. Alexander asked.
"I am sure of it," Faraday replied. "I believe, too, that the man of whom you have been speaking this evening represents it most perfectly and completely."
Mrs. Alexander rose to her feet. At that moment the butler with a word of apology, placed in her hand an evening paper. She glanced at it and turned once more to her guests.
"Mr. Faraday is evidently a prophet," she said. "The man of whom we have been speaking, signed a full confession at six o'clock this evening."
MRS. ALEXANDER'S parties were nothing if not modern. The men were allowed five minutes in which to light their cigars, after which they were expected to cross the hall into the lounge where bridge tables were set out and coffee and liqueurs were served from a sideboard. It seemed to Faraday, when he entered the room, that the only person visible, was the shy, childlike woman with the big eyes, whom he had taken in to dinner. She sat by herself in a darkened corner and she was waiting. He knew quite well that she was waiting for him. He evaded the bridge tables and made his way to her side.
"You don't play bridge?" he asked.
"Not often," she answered. "I am afraid of making mistakes."
He followed the direction of her eyes. They rested once more upon the gentleman with the white complexion and the heavy features. Faraday was puzzled. He had not even heard her name when they were introduced, but it scarcely seemed possible that she was married. He tried to look at her hands but they were clasped nervously together and the rings on her fingers were invisible. He was a man of taste, and he appreciated more and more every moment the strange, almost furtive beauty of her face. She as like some slave child suddenly set free, still shivering under the memory of her past.
"Mr. Faraday," she said, "I wanted to ask you something?"
"I felt that you did. Please go on."
"I was interested in what you were saying just now," she declared, speaking in a quick, nervous undertone, always with her eyes steadfastly fixed upon one particular, bridge table. "You spoke of the man or woman who endures."
"You believe in my theory, I hope?"
"Yes, I believe in it," she replied. "But tell me this, when the time really comes that the bond snaps and the man or woman is transferred into a fiend, don't you think that it is a sort of real madness which comes? The man may go about, as you say, just as usual. He may not seem flurried, he may go through his daily work without the slightest signs of trouble. Yet when you think of what is burning within, don't you think that he is mad?"
"In a sense he is, undoubtedly," Faraday agreed.
"So much so that he is not responsible for what he does," she persisted.
Faraday considered for a moment.
"Not fully responsible, perhaps," he agreed. "It is part of my theory that this quiet, madness, this concentrated and latent fury, is more intense and brings a person nearer to absolute lunacy than any fit of blind passion."
She drew a little breath. Then she looked at him and Faraday was puzzled. What her look meant he could not tell, but her eyes were the color of blue gentian flowers. Then his hostess swept down upon him.
"Mr. Faraday," she said, "you are at my table. We are waiting to cut."
Her manner forbade protest, yet Faraday rose to his feet with a curious reluctance.
"Won't you come and watch us?" he begged, turning to his companion.
"I should like to," she murmured. "I will come in a few minutes."
Faraday could scarcely wait until they were out of earshot.
"Tell me, who is that?" he asked. "Your introduction was quite inaudible."
Mrs. Alexander laughed.
"Do you mean that you haven't known her name all this time? Why, that is Lady Rossheimer."
"She is married?" he exclaimed.
"Naturally," his hostess replied. "Her husband sits there on my right—rather a heavy-looking man. He is Sir James Rossheimer, the great financier, you know."
Faraday stopped short for a moment. A sudden instinct of evil was upon him. The man playing bridge was uglier, even, than at the dinner table. His thick lips were parted, his cheeks were flushed with wine, his eyes fishy. Yet all the covetousness of the money-grabber was there, unmistakable, repulsive. Faraday glanced over his shoulder. From behind the palms the woman was watching him. To the uninitiated there was nothing extraordinary about her expression. Faraday, however understood. He went to his place with a little shiver. There was tragedy abroad in the room and it was he who had set it loose!
FARADAY, who was a self-respecting young man, with some attempt at principles, hated himself during the next few months. He attended a new class of entertainments, became for the first time in his life a regular attendant at the opera, went everywhere, in short, where he was likely to see anything of Lady Rossheimer. As a matter of fact, they saw very little of one another. Sometimes her face would light up at his approach, and her rare but brilliant smile would reward him amply for another wasted evening. At other times she seemed absolutely to avoid him, to shrink at his coming as though she feared it, to withhold from him even the common civilities of friendship. Faraday, on such occasions, grew cold with fear. He dreaded the thoughts which might be hatching in her brain; the dim purpose, born perhaps of his words, growing stronger and stronger every day. More than once he made up his mind to speak to her of these things. When he attempted to do so, however, she laughed in his face. It was a laugh which had nothing to do with mirth. It was not at all pleasant to listen to it, and Faraday shivered at the thought of what might lie behind it. He took to opening the morning papers with a feeling of apprehension. He found a savage satisfaction, even, in ignoring the bland greetings of Rossheimer whom he frequently met at the theaters and supper places, always in company with some "star" of the theatrical world for Rossheimer openly and flagrantly lived the life of a man of the world, as he was pleased to call it. In other words, he even advertised his infidelities.
One night she was kinder to him than usual. They were sitting out together at a crowded dance. She had lost her program—he had taken care never to possess one. They had found a retired corner, and the whole world seemed to be drifting by. With careful impersonality, he talked to her of pictures and theaters, the books of the moment. It was she that evening who struck a more intimate note.
You told me once that you had a cottage near Bourne End," she said. "Tell me, when do you go to it?"
"Tomorrow," he answered, a little desperately. "I'm tired of this life. I am doing no work, and it brings me nothing that I want."
Once again, for a single moment, the mask was dropped. The still, cold woman, with the expressionless features, and the far- away look in her beautiful eyes, faded from the canvas. She leaned towards him, alluring, vital, feminine.
"Perhaps you want too much, or too little."
"I want you!" he whispered, passionately.
He was never sure whether she heard him. For a moment or two she turned her head as though to watch some one in the throng of dancers. When she looked back at him, her face was sphinx- like.
"Will you do something for me?" she asked.
He answered her without speech. She went on.
"Go to your cottage tomorrow and stay there."
His face fell. There was music in her laughter.
"Do as I asked," she begged, "and there may be a surprise for you."
THERE was no surprise about it, however. When he got down to his cottage early on the following afternoon, a dozen gardeners were at work in the grounds which joined his modest demesne. The boards were down from in front of the grey stone mansion which had stood for so long empty. Faraday heard the news before even he had changed into his flannels. The house had been taken by Sir James Rossheimer. The new tenants were expected at once.
FARADAY tried hard to work, but even the season was against him. It was late spring, warm and langorous. The early roses covered his porch. A nightingale sang in the thicket just across the stream; a new moon wrapped the whole place by night in mysterious gloom, a scented, passionate land of shadows. For two nights he waited. On the third she came, walking simply through the shrubbery on to his lawn—a slim, girlish figure in her white dinner-gown and with her uncovered head on which the masses of soft brown hair were simply arranged without any regard to the fashionable coiffure of the season. What she read in his face, however, as he came to meet her, seemed for the moment to distress her. She hesitated. Then she held out the hands which she had half withdrawn.
She looked him in the eyes and he understood. All the chivalry in his nature leapt up to answer her challenge.
"I will be your friend, indeed, dear lady," he answered. "In this atmosphere we can at least speak the truth and be faithful. You have nothing to fear."
She took his arm and with a little sigh of content and they walked down to the river side. He brought her a rug and she sat down.
"For tonight," she said, "let us test our friendship. I have a fancy to enjoy this silence. Come closer to me—so."
They sat together for more than an hour. The water splashed softly against the stone steps, a corncrake now and then uttered his lonely cry, the far-off sound of voices from the main stream reached them every now and then. But for the rest, there was silence, deep, velvety, restful. He saw the comfort of it loosen the lines about her mouth. He saw her eyes grow soft. It was the child again who looked for the moon.
"You have been very good," she murmured, at last, when she rose to her feet. "Tomorrow I will be more entertaining."
THERE were many "tomorrows." The days—even the weeks—drifted by in almost fantastic procession. Sometimes her husband came down from town and his visits always left behind them an undermath which did little to lessen Faraday's anxieties, for she came to him after his departure with the stony look once more in her face, and brooding melancholy back in her eyes. They had picnics together on the river, read poetry, explored the lonely water-ways. Faraday did all he could to divert her, and to drive that look from her face. Yet he never altogether succeeded. Even in their happiest moments he watched it sometimes struggle back. Her silence, too, about herself and her life was almost more than he could stand. One day he boldly questioned her.
"Myra," he said, "you never talk to me of yourself. You never tell me of your life or speak of the future. It isn't natural. Sometimes it frightens me. If you are unhappy, tell me about it. I am your friend."
She looked at him strangely.
"Yes," she admitted. "You are my friend. You shall always be my friend. But you must not ask me any questions about my life. I am getting through it—that is something. Every day is so much to the good.
"You are so lonely," he protested. "Have you no relatives?"
"None," she answered. "I was a typist in my husband's office. It pleased him to marry me."
"A typist," he repeated, wonderingly.
"You are complaining that your secretary is away," she said. "Tomorrow I will show you how good a typist I am."
AFTER that she helped him nearly every day for an hour or so. Silent but wonderfully sympathetic, he found her a perfect amanuensis; found also, his work grow in interest and importance under these new auspices. They had established a common ground at last, on which they could safely talk. Often she astonished him by the keenness of her perceptions, the unerring correctness of her critical instinct.
"As a rich lady you were wasted," he told her one day, half in earnest. "You were really meant to be the ideal secretary."
"Perhaps I shall not always be a rich lady," she answered. "Now you must take me out upon the river. I have worked for three hours"
THAT very evening came the beginning of the end. As they rested in the punt at the corner of a backwater, an electric launch came by on which were many beautiful ladies from theatre- land, with wonderful river costumes and gorgeous hats. In the midst of them, like a Pascha, sat Rossheimer. He leaned forward, and a slow, evil smile parted his thick lips as he gazed down into the punt. Beyond that he took no notice of them. His wife's glance of indifferent non-recognition was perfect, in its way, but when the launch was out of sight, Faraday saw the change coming. She shivered a little and put away her book.
"Take me home," she begged. "Today is finished. Take me home quickly, please."
He obeyed her without a word of protest.
"You will come after dinner?" he pleaded.
"After dinner," she repeated.
HE dined early and sat in the garden waiting for her. When she came his heart sank. She was her old self again. She even moved furtively, and her voice was no longer music.
"Come and sit down by the stream," she said. "Let tonight be as our first night here. I cannot talk."
He brought a rug and they sat side by side. For the first time, he held her hand. She gave it to him as a child, and the pressure of his fingers met with no response. The twilight passed and the darkness came. A last he could bear it no longer.
"Myra," he whispered, "you must speak to me. You must tell me what it is that you are brooding about. You are living in a world of your own. You are not even conscious of my presence. Don't be afraid that I am going to break our compact. I am not going to make commonplace love to you. But you know that you are the dearest thing in the word to me. I cannot have you sit there and suffer and say nothing."
She withdrew her fingers which had become so cold as ice. Then she rose slowly to her feet.
"You are kind," she said, "wonderfully kind... Yet you are like the man who stands at the top of a great cliff and watches the friend whom he would have given his life to save, drown. You cannot help me, Andrew. It is dangerous, indeed, for you to try."
"Then let us risk the danger," he begged. "We are not like those others. Let me a little into your life, talk to me freely—come. I will say it—of your husband, of your married life. Do you know that my heart is aching to help you?"
She raised her eyes to his, raised too, her hands, and drew his head down. The lips which touched his forehead, however, were cold.
"Dear Andrew," she murmured, "I thank God that you are the sort of man you are."
SHE passed across his lawn, through the shrubberies, into her own grounds—a strange, sylph-like figure, there was something inexpressibly graceful in her slow fading away. With a gesture she forbade him to follow her. Faraday walked up and down his lawn for an hour or more, and found no relief. After all, perhaps, they were wrong. If he had been like other men and she like other women, the way out would have been easy enough. He went to his room in a state of fierce and sleepless discontent.
Then, through his open windows, came a sound which he had heard but three or four times before, but which was already hatefully familiar—the siren of Sir James Rossheimer's motor car as it swept down the hill from the London Road. He paused in the act of undressing, and glanced at his watch. It was past two o'clock. Rossheimer had his rooms in town and had never once slept down here. What could it mean, this visit at such an hour? Then the memory of that afternoon flashed into his mind. He saw Rossheimer's face, ugly, sneering and vicious. He remembered that smile, and he shook from head to foot. Such a man was probably jealous, would believe just what the bestiality of his own career might point out to him as the obvious thing. Scarcely knowing what he did, Faraday slipped on some clothes and stepped out into the garden. He was a strong man and a brave man, but he found himself trembling in every limb.
THERE was something almost unearthly about the stillness of this sleeping world. The moon had already grown pale, and the light was ghastly. An early blackbird was twittering upon the lawn. From somewhere on the other side of the river a thrush was singing. He passed through the shrubberies and across the smooth shaven lawn to the front of the house. The car had come and gone, the windows seemed to stare at him, cold and unlit. There was not a sign of life in the house. He stole nearer and nearer and nearer to the entrance until he stood there and listened, unashamed, every fibre of his body aching with the tension of his fears. Something was going to happen. Something, perhaps, was already happening. The sounds he dreaded to hear were already throbbing upon his ears. He pushed open the front door and stepped into the stone hall.
At the bottom of the stairs lay Rossheimer, a hideous sight, beaten to death, an ugly instrument of swinging steel by his side.
Faraday stood still, sobered for a moment, by the evil sight. Then he raised his eyes and saw what might have caused a stronger man to swoon. She was sitting on the stairs, holding a lighted candle in her hand, looking down at what remained of James Rossheimer with the same stony yet watchful look which he knew so well. She seemed neither callous nor interested. The blood which trickled along the white floor of the hall, the ghastliness of his face, his distorted attitude—none of these seemed either to distress or terrify her, but at the sound of the cry which broke at last from Faraday's lips, she looked up. If her expression had been terrible before, there was worse to come. She began to laugh. Faraday thrust his hands over his ears. He would have rushed to her but for the thing which lay between. Recklessly he seized the gong stick and beat the gong like a man possessed. So the servants came streaming down and found them.
THE inquest was necessarily brief, for Lady Rossheimer was suffering from brain fever and unable to attend. Faraday's evidence was listened to in solemn silence. He told the truth and yet he committed deliberate perjury. There was no one in the hall but the dead man when he had entered. Lady Rossheimer's arrival anticipated that of the servants by only a few seconds. The question of his own presence there he answered frankly, telling the exact truth. He knew Rossheimer and his temperament, he knew that his wife feared his anger, and Rossheimer's arrival at such an hour in the night seemed to him so ominous that he left his room and approached the Rossheimer's house, acting upon an uncontrollable impulse. There was not the slightest doubt as to what the verdict would have been but for the necessary adjournment.
FARADAY left the court nominally free, but with a very intelligent inspector of the detective force at his heels. There was scarcely a man or woman in England who did not share the opinion of those who had attended the coroner's inquest. Rossheimer was a bad lot, but nothing justifies murder. The public waited for Lady Rossheimer's recovery only to hear the details of the crime. Meanwhile Faraday retired to his riverside cottage, made friends with the detective, who was really a most agreeable person and installed him there as a guest and his assistant as an indoor servant.
ON the second evening, Faraday made a statement. The detective warned him half-heartedly but Faraday persisted.
"I am going to ask you," he said, "to accept for the moment my statement as the truth. In your heart you won't believe it. With your brain I ask you to do so. I did not murder Rossheimer. He was already dead, beaten to death, when I entered the house. The doctor's evidence should exonerate Lady Rossheimer—"
"Not altogether," the detective reminded him. "You will remember the doctor said that there was a bare possibility that the blows might have been inflicted by a woman in a frenzy."
"Wait till you see Lady Rossheimer," Faraday said stoutly. "She is a charming little woman, but as weak as a kitten. Let me go on. Supposing for a moment that my story is true. Some one committed the murder. While you sit and watch me, the real culprit has nothing to do but calmly slip out of the country. I'm not saying this to get rid of you. Stay with me, by all means, but send an equally good man to make enquiries in London, where Rossheimer started from, and amongst the servants. If Scotland Yard won't do it, you know some clever man outside whom I can employ."
"You think it worth while?" the detective asked, with a faint smile.
Faraday was annoyed.
"I am not particularly anxious to figure in a case of this sort," he said. "Even in this country, I suppose, justice may sometimes make a mistake."
The detective's smile was distinctly apparent now.
"We shan't make any mistake in your case, sir," he declared. "I don't suppose that there's any particular harm in telling you that I'm expecting to leave here tomorrow morning."
"What do you mean?" Faraday cried.
The detective lowered his voice. There was no one else in the room but caution was instinctive with him.
"We are expecting to arrest the chauffeur who drove Sir James down, sometime tonight," he announced. "We've had to send to Queenstown to do it, though."
"We know it," the detective replied. "The life-preserver came from his rooms, the wheels of the car showed that he drove round to the back and escaped that way, and a piece of his clothing was found clutched in Rossheimer's hand. If the inquest hadn't been adjourned, of course, it would have come out, but we didn't want any witnesses, for, to tell you the truth, the fellow has given us the slip."
Faraday tried to drink a whiskey and soda but found himself sobbing instead. The inspector, who admired his host's coolness, lost a little respect for him. But he did not know!
FROM the professional point of view, the remainder of this episode must have been a trifle disappointing to the Novelist. Everything that happened was remarkably obvious. The chauffeur was arrested and hanged. Myra Rossheimer, who speedily became Mrs. Faraday, made him so charming a wife that he was in love with her for the rest of his days. Society accepted their little romance so kindly that it wasn't even necessary for them to live abroad. But there are two things which Faraday has never done. He has never told his wife what he thought when he saw her sitting upon the stairs, and he has never again talked at dinner-parties about the psychology of murder.