The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XXVIII. In the Matter of a Motive
That was between eight and nine o'clock at night; before ten an outrageous thought occurred to the man with the undisciplined imagination. It closed his mind to the tragedy of an hour ago, to the dead man lying upstairs, whose low and eager voice still went on and on in his ears. It was a thought that possessed Langholm like an unclean spirit from the moment in which he raised his eyes from the last words of the manuscript to which the dead man had referred.
In the long, low room that Langholm lived in a fire was necessary in damp weather, irrespective of the season. It was on the fire that his eyes fell, straight from the paper in his hand ...
No one else had read it. There was an explicit assurance on the point. The Chelsea landlady had no idea that such a statement was in existence; she would certainly have destroyed it if she had known; and further written details convinced Langholm that the woman would never speak of her own accord. There were strange sidelights on the feelings which the young Italian had inspired in an unlikely breast; a mother could have done no more to shield him. On the night of the acquittal, for example, when he was slowly recovering in her house, it had since come to the writer's knowledge that this woman had turned Mrs. Minchin from her door with a lying statement as to his whereabouts. This he mentioned to confirm his declaration that he always meant to tell the truth to Rachel, that it was his first resolve in the early stages of his recovery, long before he knew of her arrest and trial, and that this woman was aware of that resolve as of all else. But he doubted whether she could be made to speak, though he hoped that for his sake she would. And Langholm grinned with set teeth as he turned back to this passage: he would be diabolically safe.
It was only an evil thought. He did not admit it as a temptation. Yet how it stuck, and how it grew!
There was the fire, as though lit on purpose; in a minute the written evidence could be destroyed for ever; and there was no other kind. Dead men tell no tales, and live men only those that suit them!
It all fitted in so marvellously. To a villain it would have been less a temptation than a veritable gift of his ends. Langholm almost wished he were a villain.
There was Steel. Something remained for explanation there, but there really was a case against him. The villain would let that case come on; the would-be villain did so in his own ready fancy, and the end of it was a world without Steel but not without his wife; only, she would be Steel's wife no more.
And this brought Langholm to his senses. "Idiot!" he said, and went out to his wet paths and ruined roses. But the ugly impossible idea dogged him even there.
"If Steel had been guilty--but he isn't, I tell you--no, but if he had been, just for argument, would she ever have looked--hush!--idiot and egotist!--No, but would she? And could you have made her happy if she had?--Ah, that's another thing ... I wonder!--It is worth wondering about; you know you have failed before. Yes, yes, yes; do you think I forget it? No, but I must remind you. Are you the type to make women happy, women with anything in them, women with nerves? Are you not moody, morbid, uneven, full of yourself?--No, of my work. It comes to the same thing for the woman. Could you have made her happy?--yes or no! If no, then pull yourself together and never think of it. Isn't it always better to be the good friend than the tiresome husband, and, if you care for her, to show her your best side instead of all your sides? I thought so! Then thank your stars, and--never again!"
So the two voices, that are only one voice, within Langholm that night, in the heavy fragrance of his soaking garden, under the half-shut eye of a waning moon; and, having conquered him, the voice of sense and sanity reminded him of his reward: "Remember, too, how you promised to serve her; and how, if less by management than good luck, you have, after all, performed the very prodigy you undertook. Go and tell her. I should go to-night. No, it is never too late to bring good news. I should jump on my bicycle and go now!"
The old moon's eye drooped also over Normanthorpe House, out of the clearest sky that there had been for days. The Steels were strolling on the sweep of the drive before the house, out for outing's sake for the first time that day, and together for the sake of being together for the first time that month. There was something untoward in the air. In fact, there was suspicion, and Rachel was beginning to suspect what that suspicion was. She could not say absolutely that she did not entertain it herself for a single instant. She had entertained and had dismissed the thought a good many times. Why had he never told her his real motive in marrying her? Some subtle motive there had been; why could he never tell her what it was? Then there was his intimacy with her first husband, which she had only discovered by chance, after the most sedulous concealment on his part. And, finally, there was the defiant character of his challenge to Langholm, as it were to do his worst (not his best) as a detective.
On the other hand, there was that woman's instinct which no wise woman disregards; and Rachel's instinct had never confirmed her fancies in this matter. But within the last few hours her point of view had totally changed. Her husband was suspected. He said so laughingly himself. He was in a certain danger. Her place was by his side. And let it be remembered that, before his absolute refusal to answer her crucial question about his prime motive for the marriage, Rachel had grown rather to like that place.
They had been strolling quite apart, though chatting amiably. Rachel had not dreamt of putting her hand within his arm, as she had sometimes done towards the end before their quarrel. Yet she did it again now, the very moment his quicker vision descried the cyclist in the drive.
"I hope they are not going to run me in to-night," he said. "If they do, I shall run them in for riding without a light. So it's Langholm! Well, Langholm, put salt on him yet?"
"Your murderer, of course."
"I have his confession in my pocket."
It was the first time that Rachel had known her husband taken visibly aback.
"Good God!" he cried. "Then you don't think it's me any longer?"
"I know it is not. Nevertheless, Mrs. Steel must prepare for a shock."
Rachel was shocked. But her grief and horror, though both were real and poignant, were swept away for that hour at least by the full tide of her joy.
It was a double joy. Not only would Rachel be cleared for ever before the world, but her husband would stand exonerated at her side. The day of unfounded suspicions, of either one of them, by the other or by the world, that day at least was over once for all.
Her heart was too full for many explanations; she lingered while Langholm told of his interview with Abel, and then left him to one with her husband alone.
Langholm thereupon spoke more openly of his whole case against Steel, who instantly admitted its strength.
"But I owe you an apology," the latter added, "not only for something I said to you this afternoon, more in mischief than in malice, which I would nevertheless unsay if I could, but for deliberately manufacturing the last link in your chain. I happened to buy both my revolvers and Minchin's from a hawker up the country; his were a present from me; and, as they say out there, one pair was the dead spit of the other. This morning when I found I was being shadowed by these local heroes, it occurred to me for my own amusement to put one of my pair in a thoroughly conspicuous place, and this afternoon I could not resist sending you to the room to add it to your grand discoveries. You see, I could have proved an alibi for the weapon, at all events, during my trip to town a year ago. Yes, poor Minchin wrote to me, and I went up to town by the next train to take him by surprise. How you got to know of his letter I can't conceive. But it carried no hint of blackmail. I think you did wonders, and I hope you will forgive me for that little trap; it really wasn't set for you. It is also perfectly true that I stayed at the Cadogan and was out at that particular time. I went there because it was the one decent hotel I knew of in those parts, which was probably your own reason, and I was out reconnoitring my old friend's house because I knew him for an inveterate late-bird, and he did not write as though marriage had improved his habits. In fact, as you know, he had gone to the dogs altogether."
This reminded Langholm of the hour.
"It is late now," said he, "and I must be off. Poor Severino had not a relation in this country that I know of. There will be a great deal to do to-morrow."
Steel at once insisted on bearing all expenses; that would be the lightest part, he said. "You have done so much!" he added. "By the way, you can't go without saying good-night to my wife. She has still to thank you."
"I don't want to be thanked."
"But for you the truth might never have come out."
"Still I shall be much happier if she never speaks of it again."
"Very well, she shall not--on one condition."
"What is that?"
"Langholm, I thought last summer we were to be rather friends? I don't think that of many people. May I still think it of you?"
"If you will," said Langholm. "I--I don't believe I ever should have brought myself to give you away!"
"You behaved most fairly, my dear fellow. I shall not forget it, nor the way you scored off the blackmailer Abel. If it is any satisfaction to you, I will tell you what his secret was. Nay, I may as well; and my wife, I must tell her too, though all these months I have hidden it from her; but I have no doubt he took it to the police when you failed him. It is bound to get about, but I can live it down as I did the thing itself. Langholm, like many a better man, I left my country for my country's good. Never mind the offence; the curious can hunt up the case, and will perhaps admit there have been worse. But that man and I were transported to Western Australia on the same vessel in '69."
"And yet," said Langholm--they were not quite his next words--"and yet you challenged me to discover the truth! I still can't understand your attitude that night!"
Steel stood silent.
"Some day I may explain it to you," he said. "I am only now going to explain it to my wife."
The men shook hands.
And Langholm rode on his bicycle off the scene of the one real melodrama of a life spent in inventing fictitious ones; and if you ask what he had to show for his part in it, you may get your answer one day from his work. Not from the masterpiece which he used to talk over with Mrs. Steel, for it will never be written; not from any particular novel or story, much less in the reproduction of any of these incidents, wherein he himself played so dubious a part; but perhaps you will find your answer in a deeper knowledge of the human heart, a stronger grasp of the realities of life, a keener sympathy with men and (particularly) with women, than formerly distinguished this writer's books. These, at all events, are some of the things which Charles Langholm has to show, if he will only show them. And in the meantime you are requested not to pity him.
Steel went straight to his wife. Tears were still in her eyes, but such tears, and such eyes! It cost him an effort to say what he had to say, and that was unusual in his case.
"Rachel," he said at length, in a tone as new as his reluctance, "I am going to answer the question which you have so often asked me. I am going to answer it with perfect honesty, and very possibly you will never speak to me again. I shall be sorry for both our sakes if you do anything precipitate, but in any case you shall act as you think best. You know that I was exceedingly fond of Alec Minchin as a young man; now, I am not often exceedingly fond of anybody, as you may also know by this time. Before your trial I was convinced that you had killed my old friend, whom I was so keen to see again that I came up to town by the very first train after getting his letter. You had robbed me of the only friend I had in England at the very moment when he needed me and I was on my way to him. I could have saved his ship, and you had sent both him and it to the bottom! That, I say candidly, was what I thought."
"I don't blame you for thinking it before the trial," said Rachel. "It seems to have been the universal opinion."
"I formed mine for myself, and I had a particular reason for forming it," continued Steel, with a marked vibration in his usually unemotional voice. "I don't know which to tell you first.... Well, it shall be that reason. On the night of the murder do you remember coming downstairs and going or rather looking into the study--at one o'clock in the morning?"
Rachel recoiled in her chair.
"Heavens!" she cried. "How can you know that?"
"Did you hear nothing as you went upstairs again?"
"I don't remember."
"Not a rattle at the letter-box?"
"Yes! Yes! Now I do remember. And it was actually you!"
"It was, indeed," said Steel, gravely. "I saw you come down, I saw you peep in--all dread and reluctance! I saw you recoil, I saw the face with which you shut those doors and put out the lights. And afterwards I learned from the medical evidence that your husband must have been dead at that time; one thing I knew, and that was that he was not shot during the next hour and more, for I waited about until half-past two in the hope that he would come out. I was not going to ring and bring you down again, for I had seen your face, and I still saw your light upstairs."
"So you thought I had come down to see my handiwork!"
"To see if he was really dead. Yes, I thought that afterwards. I could not help thinking it, Rachel."
"Did it never occur to you that I might have thought he was asleep?"
"Yes, that has struck me since."
"You have not thought me guilty all along, then?"
"Not all along."
"Did you right through my trial?"
"God forgive me--yes, I did! And there was one thing that convinced me more than anything else; that was when you told the jury that the occasion of your final parting upstairs was the last time you saw poor Alec alive."
"But it was," said Rachel. "I remember the question. I did not know how to answer it. I could not tell them I had seen him dead but fancied him only asleep; that they would never have believed. So I told the simple truth. But it upset me dreadfully."
"That I saw. You expected cross-examination."
"Yes; and I did not know whether to stick to the truth or to lie!"
"I can read people sometimes," Steel continued after a pause. "I guessed your difficulty. Surely you must see the only conceivable inference?"
"I did see it."
"And, seeing, do you not forgive?"
"Yes, that. But you married me while you still thought me guilty. I forgive you for denying it at the time. I suppose that was necessary. But you have not yet told me why you did it."
"Honestly, Rachel, it was largely fascination--"
"But not primarily."
"Then let me hear the prime motive at last, for I am tired of trying to guess it!"
Steel stood before his wife as he had never stood before her yet, his white head bowed, his dark eyes lowered, hands clasped, shoulders bent, the suppliant and the penitent in one.
"I did it to punish you," he said. "I thought some one must--I felt I could have hanged you if I had spoken out what I had seen--and I--married you instead!"
His eyes were on the ground. When he raised them she was smiling through unshed tears. But she had spoken first.
"It was not a very terrible motive, after all," she had said; "at least, it has not been such a very terrible--punishment!"
"No; but that was because I did the very last thing I ever thought of doing."
"And that was?"
"To fall in love with you at the beginning!"
Rachel gave a little start.
"Although you thought me guilty?"
"That made no difference at all. But I have thought it less and less, until, on the night you appealed first to me and then to Langholm--on thinking over that night--it was impossible to suppose it any more."
Rachel rose, her cheeks divinely red, her lip trembling, her hand outstretched.
"And you fell in love with me!" she murmured.
"God knows I did, Rachel, in my own way," said Steel.
"I am so glad!" whispered his wife.