The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXVII. The Whole Truth
"Have the ladies gone?"
Langholm had ridden a long way round, through the rain, in order to avoid them; nor was there any sign of the phaeton in the lane; yet these were his first whispered words across the wicket, and he would not venture to set foot upon the noisy wet gravel without Mrs. Brunton's assurance that the ladies had been gone some time.
"And they've left him a different man," she added. "But what have you been doing to get wet like that? Dear, dear, dear! I do call it foolish of yer! Well, sir, get out o' them nasty wet things, or I shall have you to nurse an' all!"
The kind, blunt soul bustled to bring him a large can of scalding water, and Langholm bathed and changed before going near the invalid. He also felt another man. The thorough wetting had cooled his spirit and calmed his nerves. His head still ached for sleep, but now it was clear enough. If only his duty were half as plain as the mystery that was one no more! Yet it was something to have solved the prime problem; nay, everything, since it freed his mind for concentration upon his own immediate course. But Langholm reckoned without his stricken guest next door; and went up presently, intending to stay five or ten minutes at the most.
Severino lay smiling, like a happy and excited child. Langholm was sorry to detect the excitement, but determined to cut his own visit shorter than ever. It was more pleasing to him to note how neat and comfortable the room was now, for that was his own handiwork, and the ladies had been there to see it. The good Bruntons had moved most of their things into the room to which they had themselves migrated. In their stead were other things which Langholm had unearthed from the lumber in his upper story, dusted, and carried down and up with his own hands. Thus at the bedside stood a real Chippendale table, with a real Delft vase upon it, filled with such roses as had survived the rain. A drop of water had been spilt upon the table from the vase, and there was something almost fussy in the way that Langholm removed it with his handkerchief.
"Oh," said Severino, "she quite fell in love with the table you found for me, and Mrs. Woodgate wanted the vase. They were wondering if Mrs. Brunton would accept a price."
"They don't belong to Mrs. Brunton," said Langholm, shortly.
"No? Mrs. Woodgate said she had never noticed them in your room. Where did you pick them up?"
Langholm looked at the things, lamps of remembrance alight beneath his lowered eyelids. "The table came from a little shop on Bushey Heath, in Hertfordshire, you know. We--I was spending the day there once ... you had to stoop to get in at the door, I remember. The vase is only from Great Portland Street." The prices were upon his lips; both had been bargains, a passing happiness and pride.
"I must remember to tell them when they come to-morrow," said Severino. "They are the sort of thing a woman likes."
"They are," agreed Langholm, his lowered eyes still lingering on the table and the vase "the sort of thing a woman likes ... So these women are coming again to-morrow, are they?"
The question was quite brisk, when it came.
"Yes, they promised."
"Both of them, eh?"
"Yes, I hope so!" The sick man broke into eager explanations. "I only want to see her, Langholm! That's all I want. I don't want her to myself. What is the good? To see her and be with her is all I want--ever. It has made me so happy. It is really better than if she came alone. You see, as it is, I can't say anything--that matters. Do you see?"
"Perfectly," said Langholm, gently.
The lad lay gazing up at him with great eyes. Langholm fancied their expression was one of incredulity. Twilight was falling early with the rain; the casement was small, and further contracted by an overgrowth of creeper; those two great eyes seemed to shine the brighter through the dusk. Langholm could not make his visit a very short one, after all. He felt it would be cruel.
"What did you talk about, then?" he asked.
A small smile came with the answer, "You!"
"Me! What on earth had you to say about me?"
"I heard all you had been doing."
"You know you didn't tell me, that evening in town."
"No, I was only beginning, then."
It seemed some months ago--more months since that very afternoon.
"Have you found out anything?"
Why should he lie?
"Do you mean to say that you have any suspicion who it is?" Severino was on his elbow.
"More than a suspicion. I am certain. There can be no doubt about it. A pure fluke gave me the clew, but every mortal thing fits it."
Severino dropped back upon his pillow. Langholm seemed glad to talk to him, to loosen his tongue, to unburden his heart ever so little. And, indeed, he was glad.
"And what are you going to do about it?"
"That's my difficulty. She must be cleared before the world. That is the first duty--if it could be done without--making bad almost worse!"
"Bad--worse? How could it, Langholm?"
"Who do you say it is?"
No answer again. Langholm had not bargained to say anything to anybody just yet.
Severino raised himself once more upon an elbow.
"I must know!" he said.
Langholm rose, laughing.
"I'll tell you who I thought it was at first," said he, heartily. "I don't mind telling you that, because it was so absurd; and I think you'll be the first to laugh at it. I was idiot enough to think it might be you, my poor, dear chap!"
"And you don't think so still?" asked Severino, harshly. He had not been the first to laugh.
"Of course I don't, my dear fellow."
"I wish you would sit down again. That's better. So you know it is some one else?"
"So far as one can know anything."
"And you are going to try to bring it home to this man?"
"I don't know. The police may save me the trouble. I believe they are on the same scent at last. Meanwhile, I have given him as fair a warning as a man could wish."
Severino lay back yet again in silence and deep twilight. His breath came quickly. A shiver seemed to pass through the bed.
"You needn't have done that," he whispered at last.
"I thought it was the fair thing to do."
"Yet you needn't have done it--because--your first idea was right!"
[Illustration: "I'll tell you who I thought it was at first," said he, heartily.]
"Right?" echoed Langholm, densely. "My first idea was--right?"
"You said you first thought it was I who killed--her husband."
"It couldn't have been!"
"But it was."
Langholm got back to his feet. He could conceive but one explanation of this preposterous statement. Severino's sickness had extended to his brain. He was delirious. This was the first sign.
"Where are you going?" asked the invalid, querulously, as his companion moved towards the door.
"When was the doctor here last?" demanded Langholm in return.
There was silence for a few moments, and then a faint laugh, that threatened to break into a sob, from the bed.
"I see what you think. How can I convince you that I have all my wits about me? I'd rather not have a light just yet--but in my bag you'll find a writing-case. It is locked, but the keys are in my trouser's pocket. In my writing-case you will find a sealed envelope, and in that a fuller confession than I shall have breath to make to you. Take it downstairs and glance at it--then come back."
"No, no," said Langholm, hoarsely; "no, I believe you! Yes--it was my first idea!"
"I hardly knew what I was doing," Severino whispered. "I was delirious then, if you like! Yet I remember it better than anything else in all my life. I have never forgotten it for an hour--since it first came back!"
"You really were unconscious for days afterwards?"
"I believe it was weeks. Otherwise, you must know--she will be the first to believe--I never could have let her--"
"My poor, dear fellow--of course--of course."
Langholm felt for the emaciated hand, and stroked it as though it had been a child's. Yet that was the hand that had slain Alexander Minchin! And Langholm thought of it; and still his own was almost womanly in the tender pity of its touch.
"I want to tell you," the sick lad murmured. "I wanted to tell her--God knows it--and that alone was why I came to her the moment I could find out where she was. No--no--not that alone! I am too ill to pretend any more. It was not all pretence when I let you think it was only passion that drove me down here. I believe I should have come, even if I had had nothing at all to tell her--only to be near her--as I was this afternoon! But the other made it a duty. Yet, when she came this afternoon, I could not do my duty. I had not the courage. It was too big a thing just to be with her again! And then the other lady--I thanked God for her too--for she made it impossible for me to speak. But to you I must ... especially after what you say."
The man came out in Langholm's ministrations. "One minute," he said; and returned in two or three with a pint of tolerable champagne. "I keep a few for angel's visits," he explained; "but I am afraid I must light the candle. I will put it at the other side of the room. Do you mind the tumbler? Now drink, and tell me only what you feel inclined, neither more nor less."
"It is all written down," began Severino, in better voice for the first few drams: "how I first heard her singing through the open windows in the summer--only last summer!--how she heard me playing, and how afterwards we came to meet. She was unhappy; he was a bad husband; but I only saw it for myself. He was nice enough to me in his way--liked to send round for me to play when they had anybody there--but there was only one reason why I went. Oh, yes ... the ground she trod on ... the air she breathed! I make no secret of it now; if I made any then, it was because I knew her too well, and feared to lose what I had got. And yet--that brute, that bully, that coarse--"
He checked himself by an effort that stained his face a sickly brown in the light of the distant candle. Langholm handed him the tumbler, and a few more drams went down to do the only good--the temporary good--that human aid could do for Severino now. His eyes brightened. He lay still and silent, collecting strength and self-control.
"I was ill; she brought me flowers. I never had any constitution--trust a Latin race for that--and I became very ill indeed. With a man like you, a chill at worst; with me, pneumonia in a day. Then she came to see me herself, saw the doctor, got in all sorts of things, and was coming to nurse me through the night herself. God bless her for the thought alone! I was supposed not to know; they thought I was unconscious already. But I kept conscious on purpose, I could have lived through anything for that alone. And she never came!
"My landlady sat up instead. She is another of the kindest women on earth; she thought far more of me than I was ever worth, and it was she who screened me through thick and thin during the delirium that followed, and after that. She did not tell the whole truth at the trial; may there be no mercy for me hereafter if the law is not merciful to that staunch soul! She has saved my life--for this! But that night--it was her second in succession--and she had been with me the whole long day--that night she fell asleep beside me in the chair. I can hear her breathing now.
"Dear soul, how it angered me at the time! It made me fret all the more for--her. Why had she broken faith? I knew that she had not. Something had kept her; had he? I had hoped he was out of the way; he left her so much. He was really on the watch, as you may know. At last I got up and went to the window. And all the windows opposite were in darkness except theirs."
Langholm sprang to his feet, but sat down again as suddenly.
"What is it that you thought, Langholm?"
"I believe I know what you did. That's all."
"What? Tell me, please, and then I will tell you."
"All those garden walls--they connect."
"You got through your window, climbed upon your wall, and ran along to the lights. It occurred to you suddenly; it did to me when I went over the house the other day."
Severino lay looking at the imaginative man.
"And yet you could suspect another after that!"
"Ah, there is some mystery there also. But it is strange, indeed, to think that I was right in the beginning!"
"I did not know what I was doing," resumed the young Italian, who, like many a clever foreigner, spoke more precise English than any Englishman; that, with an accent too delicate for written reproduction, alone would have betrayed him. "I still have very little recollection of what happened between my climbing out of our garden and dropping into theirs. I remember that my feet were rather cold, but that is about all.
"It was near midnight, as you know, and the room it happened in--the study--had the brightest light of all. An electric lamp was blazing on the writing-table at the window, and another from a bracket among the books. The window was as wide open as it would go, the lower sash thrown right up; it was just above the scullery window, which is half underground, and has an outside grating. The sill was only the height of one's chin. I can tell you all that now, but at the time I knew very little until I was in the room itself. Thank you, I will take another sip. It does me more good than harm to tell you. But you will find it all written down."
Langholm set down the glass and replenished it. The night had fallen without. The single candle in the farthest corner supplied the only light; in it the one man sat, and the other lay, their eyes locked.
"I spilt the ink as I was creeping over the desk. That is an odd thing to remember, but I was looking for something to wipe it up with when I heard their voices upstairs."
"You heard them both?"
"Yes--quarrelling--and about me! The first thing I heard was my own name. Then the man came running down. But I never tried to get away. The doors were all open. I had heard something else, and I waited to tell him what a liar he was! But I turned out the lights, so that she should not hear the outcry, and sure enough he shut both doors behind him (you would notice there were two) before he turned them on again. So there we stood.
"'Don't let her hear us,' were my first words; and we stood and cursed each other under our breath. I don't know why he didn't knock me down, or rather I do know; it was because I put my hands behind my back and invited him to do it. I was as furious as he was. I forgot that there was anything the matter with me, but when I began telling him that there had been, he looked as though he could have spat in my face. It was no use going on. I could not expect him to believe a word.
"At last he told me to sit down in the chair opposite his chair, and I said, 'With pleasure.' Then he said, 'We'd better have a drink, because only one of us is coming out of this room alive,' and I said the same thing again. He was full of drink already, but not drunk, and my own head was as light as air. I was ready for anything. He unlocked a drawer and took a brace of old revolvers from the case in which I put them away again. I locked up the drawer afterwards, and put his keys back in his pocket, before losing my head and doing all the rest that the police saw through at a glance. Sit still, Langholm! I am getting the cart before the horse. I was not so guilty as you think. They may hang me if they like, but it was as much his act as mine.
"He stood with his back to me, fiddling with the revolvers for a good five minutes, during which time I heard him tear his handkerchief in two, and wondered what in the world he was going to do next. What he did was to turn round and go on fiddling with the pistols behind his back. Then he held out one in each hand by the barrel, telling me to take my choice, that he didn't know which was which himself, but only one of them was loaded. And he had lapped the two halves of his handkerchief round the chambers of each in such a way that neither of us could tell when we were going to fire.
"Then he tossed for first shot, and made me call, and I won. So he sat down in his chair and finished his drink, and told me to blaze across at him from where I sat in the other chair. I tried to get out of it, partly because I seemed to have seen more good in Minchin in those last ten minutes than in all the months that I had known him; he might be a brute, but he was a British brute, and all right about fair play. Besides, for the moment, it was difficult to believe he was serious, or even very angry. But I, on my side, was more in a dream than not, or he would not have managed me as he did. He broke out again, cursed me and his wife, and swore that he would shoot her too if I didn't go through with it. You can't think of the things he was saying when--but I believe he said them on purpose to make me. Anyhow I pulled at last, but there was only a click, and he answered with another like lightning. That showed me how he meant it, plainer than anything else. It was too late to get out. I set my teeth and pulled again ..."
"Like the clash of swords," whispered Langholm, in the pause.
Severino moved his head from side to side upon the pillow.
"No, not that time, Langholm. There was such a report as might have roused the neighborhood--you would have thought--but I forgot to tell you he had shut the window and run up some shutters, and even drawn the curtains, to do for the other houses what the double doors did for his own. When the smoke lifted, he was lying back in his chair as though he had fallen asleep ...
"I think the worst was waiting for her to come down. I opened both doors, but she never came. Then I shut them very quietly--and utterly lost my head. You know what I did. I don't remember doing half. It was the stupid cunning of a real madman, the broken window, and the things up the chimney. I got back as I had come, in the way that struck you as possible when you were there, and I woke my landlady getting in. I believe I told her everything on the spot, and that it was the last sense I spoke for weeks; she nursed me day and night that I might never tell anybody else."
So the story ended, and with it, as might have been expected, the unnatural strength which had sustained the teller till the last; he had used up every ounce of it, and he lay exhausted and collapsed. Langholm became uneasy.
Severino could not swallow the champagne which Langholm poured into his mouth.
Langholm fetched the candle in high alarm--higher yet at what it revealed.
Severino was struggling to raise himself, a deadly leaden light upon his face.
"Raise me up--raise me up."
Langholm raised him in his arms.
"Another--hemorrhage!" said Severino, in a gasping whisper.
And his blood dripped with the words.
Langholm propped him up and rushed out shouting for Brunton--for Mrs. Brunton--for anybody in the house. Both were in, and the woman came up bravely without a word.
"I'll go for the doctor myself," said Langholm. "I shall be quickest."
And he went on his bicycle, hatless, with an unlit lamp.
But the doctor came too late.