The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter IV. The Man in the Train
Rachel fought her weakness with closed eyes, and was complete mistress of herself when those about her thought that consciousness alone was returning. She recognized the chamber at a glance; it was the one in which generations of metropolitan malefactors, and a few innocent persons like herself, had waited for the verdict of life or death. For her it was life, life, life! And she wondered whether any other of the few had ever come back to life with so little joy.
The female warders were supporting her in a chair; the prison doctor stood over her with a medicine glass.
"Drink this," said he, kindly.
"But I have been conscious all the time."
"Never mind. You need it."
And Rachel took the restorative without more words.
It did its work. The color came back to her face. The blood ran hot in her veins. In a minute she was standing up without assistance.
"And now," said Rachel, "I shall not trespass further on your kindness, and I am sure that you will not wish to detain me."
"We cannot," said the doctor, with a broad smile and a bow; "you are as free as air, and will perhaps allow me to be the first to congratulate you. At the same time, my dear madam, and quite apart from your condition--which is wonderful to me after what you've been through--at the same time, and even with your fortitude, I think it would be advisable to--to wait a little while."
The doctor raised his eyes, and all at once Rachel heard. Overheard--outside--in the world--there was the brutal hooting of a thoughtless mob.
"So that is for me!"
Rachel set her teeth.
"On the contrary," said the kindly doctor, "it may be for the witnesses; but crowds are fickle things; and I should strongly urge you not to court a demonstration of one sort or the other. You are best where you are for the time being, or at all events somewhere within the precincts. And meanwhile your solicitor is waiting to add his congratulations to mine."
"Is he, indeed!" cried Rachel, in a voice as hard as her eye.
"Why, to be sure," rejoined the other, taken somewhat aback. "There must be many matters for discussion between you, and he at least seems very anxious to discuss them. In fact, I may say that he is only awaiting my permission for an immediate interview."
"Then let him await mine!" exclaimed Rachel, in a vindictive voice for which she was apologizing in the next breath. "I owe you much," she added, "if only for your kindness and sympathy during these few minutes. But to him I owe nothing that I cannot pay in cash. He tried to keep me from telling my own story in the box--they all did--but he was the worst of all. So I certainly do not owe him my life. He came to me and he said what he liked; he may have forgotten what he said, but I never shall."
"He would be the first to admit his error now."
"Perhaps; but he believed me guilty to the very end; and I utterly refuse to see him to-night."
"Then I shall tell him so."
And the good doctor disappeared for the nonce, but was back in a couple of minutes, full of the lawyer's expostulations. What did Mrs. Minchin intend to do? Where did she propose to go? There were a hundred matters for explanation and arrangement. Her solicitor said she had no friends, and seemed himself most anxious to act in that capacity. Rachel's lips curled at the thought.
"At least," said she, "I have the friends who guaranteed his bill, if that has anything to say to his anxiety! But what I mean to do and where I may go, are entirely my own affair. And as for the hundred matters he mentions, he might have spoken of them during the week. Perhaps he thought it would be waste of breath, but I should have appreciated the risk."
So her solicitor was beaten off, with all the spirit which was one of Rachel's qualities, but also with the rashness which was that quality's defect. The man was indeed no ornament to his profession, but a police-court practitioner of the pushing order, who had secured the case for notoriety and nothing else. Rachel's soul sickened when she thought of her interviews, and especially her most recent interviews, with one whom she had never seen before her trouble, and whom she devoutly hoped never to see again. She did not perceive that the time had come when the lawyer might have been really useful to her. Yet his messages left her more alive to the difficulties that lay before her as a free woman, and to the immediate necessity of acting for herself once more.
After all there had been a silver lining to the cloud under which she had lain so long. Others had acted for her. It had been a rest. But, conscious of her innocence, and serene in that consciousness, she had prepared herself rather for another life than for a new lease of this one; and, while seeking to steel her soul to the awful sequel of a conviction, in the other direction she had seldom looked beyond the consummate incident of an acquittal. Life seems a royal road when it is death that stares one in the face; but already Rachel saw the hills and the pitfalls; for indeed they began under her nose.
She had no plans, nor a single soul to help her to make any. In all the world she had no real friend. And yet, with the very independence to which this isolation was largely due, she must pick and choose, and reject, in the hour when any friend would have been better than none!
In the first ten minutes of the new life which Rachel Minchin began with her acquittal, she had refused to see her own solicitor, and an unknown gentleman whose card was brought to her by the Chief Warder himself. With the card was a message which might have inspired confidence, and the same might be said of the address. But it was enough for Rachel that she knew no one of the name. The Chief Warder, one of the kindliest mortals, displayed no little irritation under her repeated refusals; but it was the agent, and not the principal, who was so importunate; and the message was not repeated once the former could be induced to bear Mrs. Minchin's answer. The Chief Warder did indeed return, but it was not to make any further reference to the mysterious Mr. Steel who had craved an interview with Mrs. Minchin. And now the good fellow was all smiles.
"Feeling more yourself?" said he; and, when Rachel said she was, he asked her to listen now; and there was nothing to listen to. "The coast's as clear as the Criminal Court," explained this pleasant official. "A closed cab did it, with an officer on the box; and I'll call you another as soon as you like."
Rachel rose at once.
"It was kind of you to let me stay so long," she said. "But I don't think I will take a cab, thank you, if there's an underground station within reach, and you will kindly tell me the way."
"There's Blackfriars Bridge within five minutes. But you will have more than you can carry--"
"I have nothing worth taking away with me," said Rachel, "except the things I stand up in; but you may give what I leave to any poor woman who cares to have them. And I hope you will accept this trifle for yourself, with my deep gratitude for all your kindness."
Indeed, the man had been kind, and his kindness would have continued to the last had the trial ended differently. Nevertheless, Rachel's trifle was a piece of gold, and one of her last. Nor was this pure generosity. There was an untold joy in being able to give again. It was the first real taste of freedom; and in another minute Rachel was free.
Oh, but what a miracle to hear her feet on the now deserted pavement, to see her breath in the raw November night, and the lights of Ludgate Hill beyond! Rachel raised her veil to see them better. Who would look for her afoot so near the scene of her late ordeal? And what did it matter who saw her and who knew her now? She was innocent; she could look the whole world in the face once more. Oh, to rub shoulders with the world again!
A cab came tinkling up behind her, and Rachel half thought of hailing it, and driving through the lighted town after all; but the hansom was occupied, and the impulse passed. She put down her veil and turned into the stream without catching a suspicious eye. Why should they suspect her? And again, what did it matter if they did?
"Trial an' verdic'! Trial an' verdic'! Acquittal o' Mrs. Minchin! Trial an' verdic'!"
Everybody was buying the damp, pink sheets. Rachel actually bought one herself; and overheard the opinion of the man in the street without a pang. So she might think herself lucky! But she did, she did; in the reaction that had come upon her with the first mouthful of raw air, in the intoxication of treading the outer world again, she thought herself the luckiest woman in London, and revelled rather than otherwise in the very considerations which had appalled her in the precincts of the court. How good, after all, to be independent as well as free! How great to drift with the tide of innocent women and law-abiding men, once more one of themselves, and not even a magnet for morbid curiosity! That would come soon enough; the present was all the more to be enjoyed; and even the vagueness of the immediate future, even the lack of definite plans, had a glamor of their own in eyes that were yet to have their fill of street lamps and shop windows and omnibuses and hansom cabs.
The policeman under the bridge was a joy in himself; he refreshed Rachel's memory as to the way, without giving her an unnecessary look; and he called her "madam" into the bargain! After all, it was not every policeman who had been on duty at the Old Bailey, nor one in many thousands of the population who had gained admission to the court.
Yet if Rachel had relieved the tedium of her trial by using her eyes a little more; if, for example, she had condescended to look twice at the handful of mere spectators beyond the reporters on her right, she could scarcely have failed to recognize the good-looking, elderly man who was at her heels when she took her ticket at Blackfriars Bridge. His white hair was covered by his hat, but the face itself was not one to be forgotten, with its fresh color, its small, grim mouth, and the deep-set glitter beneath the bushy eyebrows. Rachel, however, neither recognized nor looked again.
In a few minutes she had a better chance, when, having entered an empty compartment in the first class, she was joined by this gentleman as the train began to move.
Rachel hid herself behind the newspaper which she had bought, not that she had looked twice at her companion, but because at such close quarters, and in the comparatively fierce light of the first-class compartment, she was terribly afraid that he might look once too often at her. But this fear passed from her in the matchless fascination of reading and re-reading five words in the stop-press column:--"MINCHIN CASE--Verdict, Not guilty."
Not guilty! Not guilty! And to see it in print! Her eyes filled at the sight, and she dried them to gloat again. There were columns and columns about the case, embellished with not unskilful sketches of counsel addressing the jury, and of the judge in the act of summing up. But Rachel had listened to every word from all three; and the professional report was less full and less accurate than the one which she carried in her brain and would carry to her grave. Not that the speeches mattered now. It was no speech that had saved her; it was her own story, from her own lips, that the lawyers would have closed! Rachel forgave them now; she was almost grateful to them for having left it to her to save herself in spite of them all: so should her perfect innocence be impressed upon the whole country as on those twelve fair minds. And once more she pored upon the hurriedly added and ill-printed line which gave their verdict to the world, while the train stopped and started, only to stop and start again.
"And what do you think of it, madam?"
The voice came from the opposite corner of the compartment, and Rachel knew it for that of the gentleman who had jumped in at the last moment at Blackfriars Bridge. It was Charing Cross that they were leaving now, and the door had not opened at that station or the last. Rachel sat breathless behind her evening paper. Not to answer might be to fasten suspicion upon her widow's weeds; and, for all her right to look mankind in the face, she shrank instinctively from immediate recognition. Then in a clap came the temptation to discuss her own case with the owner of a voice at once confident and courtly, and subtly reminiscent of her native colony, where it is no affront for stranger to speak to stranger without introduction or excuse.
Rachel's hesitation lasted perhaps a couple of seconds, and then her paper lay across her lap.
"Of what?" she asked, with some presence of mind, for she had never an instant's doubt that the question referred to the topic of the hour.
"We were reading the same paper," replied the questioner, with perfect courtesy; "it only struck me that we might both be reading the same thing, and feeling equally amazed at the verdict."
"You mean in the Minchin case," said Rachel steadily, and without the least interrogation in her tone. "Yes, I was reading it, as I suppose everybody is. But I disagree with you about the verdict."
The young widow's manner was as downright as her words. There was a sudden raising of the bushy eyebrows in the opposite corner, a brief opening of the black eyes underneath.
"Pardon me," said the gentleman, breaking into a smile; "I was not aware that I had expressed an opinion on that point."
"I understood you were amazed," said Rachel, dryly.
"And are not you?" cried the other point-blank. "Do you mean to tell me that you were prepared for an acquittal?"
"I was prepared for anything," replied Rachel, returning a peculiarly penetrating stare with one at least as steady, and yet holding her breath for very fear lest this stranger had found her out, until his next words allayed the suspicion.
"Madam, have you followed the case?"
"Indeed I have," sighed honest Rachel.
"And as a woman you believe this woman innocent?"
It was hard enough to say no more than that; but Rachel was very fresh from her great lesson in self-control.
"It is easy to see that you do not," she merely permitted herself to add.
"On the contrary," said he, with great precision; "on the contrary, my dear madam, I believe this poor lady to be as innocent as yourself."
Again their eyes were locked; again Rachel drew the only inference from so pointed a pronouncement, and yet again was the impression shaken by her companion's next words.
"But I really have no right to an opinion," said he; "since, unlike you, I cannot claim to have read the case. Nor is that the interesting thing now." The stations had come and gone, until now they were at Victoria. The speaker looked out of the window, until they were off again, and off by themselves as before. "The interesting thing, to me, is not what this poor lady has or has not done, but what on earth she is going to do now!"
He looked at her again, and now Rachel was sure. But there was a kindness in his look that did away both with resentment and regret.
"They say she has literally no friends in England," he went on, with unconcealed concern. "That is incredible; and yet, if there be any truth in it, what a terrible position! I fear that everybody will not share your conviction, and, I may add, my own. If one can judge thus early by what one has heard and seen for oneself, this verdict is a personal disappointment to the always bloodthirsty man in the street. Then, God help the poor lady if he spots her! I only hope she will not give him a chance."
And now Rachel not only knew that he knew, but that he wished to apprise her of his knowledge without confessing it in so many words. So he would spare her that embarrassment, and would help her if he could, this utter stranger! Yet she saw it in his face, she heard it in his voice; and becoming gradually alive to his will to help her, as she instinctively was to his power, she had herself the will to consult one whose good intention and better tact were alike obvious. Mystery there was in her meeting with this man; something told her that it was no accident on his side; she began to wonder whether she had not seen him before; and while she wondered he came and sat opposite to her, and went on speaking in a lower voice, his dark eyes fixed on hers.
"If Mrs. Minchin wants a friend--and to-night I think she must--if ever she did or will! Well, if she does, I for one would be her friend--if she would trust me!"
The last words were the lowest of all; and in the tone of them there was a timbre which thrilled Rachel as the dark eyes fascinated her. She began to feel a strange repugnance--and yet more strange attraction. But to the latter her independence gave instant battle--a battle the easier to fight since the next station was Rachel's destination.
"Do you think she would trust me?" he almost whispered leaning towards her. "As a woman--don't you think she might?"
As Rachel hesitated the carriages began to groan beneath the brake; and her hesitation was at an end. So also was her limited capacity for pretence. She sat more upright in her corner, her shoulders fell in angles, and beneath the veil, which she had raised to read her paper, her eyes carried the war of interrogation into the enemy's country.
"I seem to have seen you before," said Rachel, cool of tongue but hot at heart.
"I think it very possible that you have."
"Were you at the trial?"
"From first to last!"
The pause that followed was really broken by the lights of Sloane Square station.
"You know me," said Rachel, hurriedly; "I have seen that for some time. May I ask if you are Mr. Steel?"
"The Mr. Steel who sent me his card after the trial?"
"As a perfect stranger?"
"As a perfect stranger who had watched you for a whole long week in court."
Rachel ignored the relative clause.
"And because I would not see you, Mr. Steel, you have followed me, and forced yourself upon me!"
The train stopped, and Rachel rose.
"You will gather my motives when you recall our conversation," observed Steel; and he opened the door for her. But Rachel turned to him before alighting.
"Mr. Steel," said she, "I am quite sure that you mean kindly and well, and that I above all women should feel supremely grateful; but I cannot help thinking that you are unjust to the man in the street!"
"Better give him a trial," said Steel, coldly enough in his turn.
"I should prefer to," rejoined Rachel, getting out; and there was no little sting in the intonation of the verb; but Mr. Steel was left smiling and nodding very confidently to himself.