The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter V. The Man in the Street
Rachel's perturbation was only the greater from her success in concealing, or at least suppressing it, during the actual process of this singular interview. You may hold your breath without moving a muscle, but the muscles will make up for it when their turn comes, and it was so with Rachel and her nerves; they rose upon her even on the platform, and she climbed the many stairs in a tremor from head to foot. And at the top, in the open night, and at all the many corners of a square that is nothing of the kind, from hoarse throat and on fluttering placard, it was "Trial and Verdict," or "Sensational Verdict at the Old Bailey," here as at the other end of the town.
But now all Rachel's thoughts were of this mysterious Mr. Steel; of his inexplicable behavior towards her, and of her own attitude towards him. Yet, when all was said, or when all that had been said could be remembered, would his behavior be found so very inexplicable? Rachel was not devoid of a proper vanity, albeit that night she had probably less than most women with a tithe of her personal attractions; and yet upon reflection she could conceive but one explanation of such conduct in an elderly man.
"There is no fool like an old fool," quoted Rachel to herself; and it was remarkable that until this moment she had never thought of Mr. Steel as either elderly or old. His eyes were young; his voice was young; she could hear him and see him still, so the strong impression was not all on one side. No more, it would seem, was the fascination. Rachel, indeed, owned to no such feeling, even in her inmost heart. But she did begin to blame herself, alike for her reception of advances which might well have been dictated by mere eccentric benevolence, and for her readiness now to put another construction upon them. And all this time she was threading the streets of Chelsea at a pace suggestive of a destination and a purpose, while in her mind she did nothing but look back.
Impulsive by nature, Rachel had also the courage of each impulse while it lasted; on the other hand, if quick to act, she was only too ready to regret. Like many another whose self-reliance is largely on the surface, an achievement of the will and not the gift of a temperament, she usually paid for a display of spirit with the most dispiriting reaction; and this was precisely the case in point. Rachel was ashamed alike of her rudeness and her vanity; the latter she traced to its source. It was inspired by vague memories of other women who had been through the same ordeal as herself. One had been handed a bouquet in the dock; another had been overwhelmed by proposals of marriage. Rachel herself had received letters of which the first line was enough. But there had been no letter from Mr. Steel. Ah! but he had attended her trial; she remembered him now, his continual presence had impressed itself very subtly upon her mind, without the definite memory of a single glance; and after the trial he sent her his card, he dogged her in the train! What was she to think? There was the voice in which he had offered her his aid; there was the look in his eyes; there was the delicate indirectness of that offer.
A year or two ago, with all her independence, Rachel would not have been so ready to repel one whose advances, however unwarrantable in themselves, were yet marked by so many evidences of sympathy and consideration. She had not always been suspicious and repellent; and she sighed to think how sadly she must have changed, even before the nightmare of the last few weeks.
But a more poignant reminder of her married life was now in store for Rachel Minchin. She had come to Chelsea because it was the only portion of the town in which she had the semblance of a friend; but there did live in Tite Street a young couple with whom the Minchins had at one time been on friendly terms. That was in the day of plenty and extravagance; and the acquaintance, formed at an hotel in the Trossachs, had not ripened in town as the two wives could have wished. It was Mrs. Carrington, however, who had found the Minchins their furnished house, while her husband certainly interested himself in Rachel's defence. Carrington was a barrister, who never himself touched criminal work, but he had spoken to a friend who did, to wit the brilliant terror of female witnesses, and caustic critic of the police, to whom Rachel owed so little. But to Carrington himself she owed much--more indeed than she cared to calculate--for he was not a man whom she liked. She wished to thank him for his kindness, to give certain undertakings and to ask his advice, but it was Mrs. Carrington whom she really hoped to see. There was a good heart, or Rachel was much mistaken. They would have seen more of each other if Mrs. Carrington had had her way. Rachel remembered her on the occasion of the solitary visit she had received at Holloway--for Mrs. Carrington had been the visitor.
"Don't tell Jim," she had said, "when you get off and come to see us."
And she had kissed her captive sister in a way that made poor Rachel sometimes think she had a friend in England after all; but that was before her committal; and thereafter from that quarter not a word. It was not Mrs. Carrington whom Rachel blamed, however, and those last words of hers implied an invitation which had never been withdrawn. But invitation or no invitation, friend or no friend, Mrs. Carrington she would have to see. And even he would be different now that he knew she was innocent; and if it was easy to see what he had believed of her before, well, so much the more credit to him for what he had done.
So Rachel had decided before quitting the precincts of the Old Bailey; but her subsequent experiences in street and train so absorbed her that she was full of the interview that was over when she ought to have been preparing for the one still before her. And, in her absence of mind, the force of habit had taken advantage of her; instead of going on to Tite Street, she turned too soon, and turned again, and was now appalled to find herself in the very street in which her husband had met his death.
The little street was as quiet as ever; Rachel stood quite still, and for the moment she was the only person in it. She stole up to the house. The blinds were down, and it was in darkness, otherwise all was as she remembered it only too well. Her breath came quickly. It was a strange trick her feet had played her, bringing her here against her will! Yet she had thought of coming as a last resort. The furnished house should be hers for some months yet; it had been taken for six months from July, and this was only the end of November. At the worst--if no one would take her in--
She shuddered at the unfinished thought; and yet there was something in it that appealed to Rachel. To go back there, if only for the shortest time--to show her face openly where it was known--not to slink and hide as though she were really guilty! That might give her back her self-respect; that might make others respect her too. But could she do it, even if she would? Could she bring herself to set foot inside that house again?
Rachel felt tremulously in her pocket; there had been more keys than one, and that which had been in her possession when she was arrested was in it still. Nobody had asked her for it; she had kept it for this; dare she use it after all? The street was still empty; it is the quietest little street in Chelsea. There would never be a better chance.
Rachel crept up the steps. If she should be seen!
She was not; but a footstep rang somewhere in the night, and on that the key was fitted and the door opened without another moment's hesitation. Rachel entered, the door shut noisily behind her, and then her own step rang in turn upon the floor. It was bare boards; and as Rachel felt her way to the electric switches, beyond the dining-room door, her fingers missed the pictures on the walls. This prepared her for what she found when the white light sprang out above her head. The house had been dismantled; not a stick in the rooms, not so much as a stair-rod on the stairs, nor a blind to the window at their head.
The furniture removed while the use of it belonged legally to her! Had they made so sure of her conviction as all that? Rachel's blood came straight from zero to the boil; this was monstrous, this was illegal and wicked. The house was hers for other two months; and there were things of hers in it, she had left everything behind her. If they had been removed, then this outrage was little short of felony, and she would invoke the law from whose clutches she herself had escaped. Rachel had expected to be terrified in the house; she was filled insted with anger and indignation.
It was as she expected; not a trunk had been left; and the removal had taken place that very week. This would account for the electric light being still intact. Rachel discovered it by picking up a crumpled newspaper, which seemed to have contained bread and cheese; it did contain a report of the first day of the trial. They might have waited till her trial was over; they should suffer for their impatience, it was their turn. So angry was Rachel that her own room wounded her with no memories of the past. It was an empty room, and nothing more; and only on her return to the lower floor did that last dread night come back to her in all its horror and all its pitifulness.
The double doors of the late professor! Rachel forgot her grudge against his widow; she pulled the outer door, and pushed the inner one, just as she had done in the small hours of that fatal morning, but this time all was darkness within. She had to put on the electric light for herself. The necessity she could not have explained, but it existed in her mind; she must see the room again. And the first thing she saw was that the window was broken still.
Rachel looked at it more closely than she had done on the morning when she had given her incriminating opinion to the police, and the longer she looked the less reason did she see to alter that opinion. The broken glass might have been placed upon the sill in order to promote the very theory which had been so gullibly adopted by the police, and the watch and chain hidden in the chimney for the same purpose. They might have hanged the man who kept them; and surely this was not the first thief who had slunk away empty-handed after the committal of a crime infinitely greater than the one contemplated.
Rachel had never wavered in these ideas, but neither had she dwelt on them to any extent, and now they came one instant only to go the next. Her husband was dead--that was once more the paramount thought--and she his widow had been acquitted on a charge of murdering him. But for the moment she was thinking only of him, and her eyes hung over the spot where she had seen him sitting dead--once without dreaming it--and soon they filled. Perhaps she was remembering all that had been good in him, perhaps all that had been evil in herself; her lips quivered, and her eyes filled. But it was hard to pity one who was at rest, hard for her with the world to face afresh that night, without a single friend. The Carringtons? Well, she would see; and now she had a very definite point upon which to consult Mr. Carrington. That helped her, and she went, quietly and unseen as she had come.
There was still a light in the ground-floor windows of the Tite Street house, strong lights and voices; it was the dining-room, for the Minchins had dined there once; and the voices did not include a feminine one that Rachel could perceive. If there were people dining with them, the ladies must have gone upstairs, and Mrs. Carrington was the woman to see Rachel for five minutes, and the one woman in England to whom she could turn. It was an opportunity not to miss--she had not the courage to let it pass--and yet it required almost as much to ring the bell. And even as she rang--but not until that moment--did Rachel recognize and admit to herself the motive which had brought her to that door. It was not to obtain the advice of a clever man; it was the sympathy of another woman that she needed that night more than anything else in all the world.
She was shown at once into the study behind the dining-room, and immediately the voices in the latter ceased. This was ominous; it was for Mrs. Carrington that Rachel had asked; and the omen was instantly fulfilled. It was Mr. Carrington who came into the room, dark, dapper, and duskily flushed with his own hospitality, but without the genial front which Rachel had liked best in him. His voice also, when he had carefully shut the door behind him, was unnaturally stiff.
"I congratulate you," he said, with a bow but nothing more; and Rachel saw there and then how it was to be; for with her at least this man had never been stiff before, having indeed offended her with his familiarity at the time when her husband and he were best friends.
"I owe it very largely to you," faltered Rachel. "How can I thank you?"
Carrington said it was not necessary.
"Then I only hope," said Rachel, on one of her impulses, "that you don't disagree with the verdict?"
"I didn't read the case," replied Carrington glibly, and with neither more nor less of the contemptuous superiority with which he would have referred to any other Old Bailey trial; but the man himself was quick to see the brutality of such a statement, and quicker yet to tone it down.
"It wasn't necessary," he added, with a touch of the early manner which she had never liked; "you see, I knew you."
The insincerity was so obvious that Rachel could scarcely bring herself to confess that she had come to ask his advice. "What was the point?" he said to that, so crisply that the only point which Rachel could think of was the fresh, raw grievance of the empty house.
"Didn't your solicitor tell you?" asked Carrington. "He came to me about it; but I suppose--"
Rachel knew well what he supposed.
"He should have told you to-night," added Carrington, "at any rate. The rent was only paid for half the term--quite right--the usual way. The permanent tenant wanted to be done with the house altogether, and that entitled her to take her things out. No, I'm afraid you have no grievance there, Mrs. Minchin."
"And pray," demanded Rachel, "where are my things?"
"Ah, your solicitor will tell you that--when you give him the chance! He very properly would not care to bother you about trifles until the case against you was satisfactorily disposed of. By the way, I hope you don't mind my cigar? We were smoking in the next room."
"I have taken you from your guests," said Rachel, miserably. "I know I ought not to have come at such an hour."
Carrington did not contradict her.
"But there seemed so much to speak about," she went desperately on. "There are the money matters and--and--"
"If you will come to my chambers," said Carrington, "I shall be delighted to go into things with you, and to advise you to the best of my ability. If you could manage to come at half-past nine on Monday morning, I would be there early and could give you twenty minutes."
He wrote down the address, and, handing it to Rachel, rang the bell. This drove her to despair; evidently it never occurred to him that she was faint with weariness and hunger, that she had nowhere to go for the night, and not the price of a decent meal, much less a bed, in her purse. And even now her pride prevented her from telling the truth; but it would not silence her supreme desire.
"Oh!" she cried; "oh, may I not speak to your wife?"
"Not to-night, if you don't mind," replied Carrington, with his bow and smile. "We can't both desert our guests."
"Only for a minute!" pleaded Rachel. "I wouldn't keep her more!"
"Not to-night," he repeated, with a broader smile, a clearer enunciation, and a decision so obviously irrevocable that Rachel said no more. But she would not see the hand that he could afford to hold out to her now; and as for going near his chambers, never, never, though she starved!
"No, I wouldn't have kept her," she sobbed in the street; "but she would have kept me! I know her! I know her! She would have had pity on me, in spite of him; but now I can never go near either of them again!"
Then where was she to go? God knew! No respectable hotel would take her in without luggage or a deposit. What was she to do?
But while she wondered her feet were carrying her once more in the old direction, and as she walked an idea came. She was very near the fatal little street at the time. She turned about, and then to the left. In a few moments she was timorously knocking at the door of a house with a card in the window.
"It's you!" cried the woman who came, almost shutting the door in Rachel's face, leaving just space enough for her own.
"You have a room to let," said Rachel, steadily.
"But not to you," said the woman, quickly; and Rachel was not surprised, the other was so pale, so strangely agitated.
"But why?" she asked. "I have been acquitted--thanks partly to your own evidence--and yet you of all women will not take me in! Do you mean to tell me that you actually think I did it still?"
Rachel fully expected an affirmative. She was prepared for that opinion now from all the world; but for once a surprise was in store for her. The pale woman shifted her eyes, then raised them doggedly, and the look in them brought a sudden glow to Rachel's heart.
"No, I don't think that, and never did," said the one independent witness for the defence. "But others do, and I am too near where it happened; it might empty my house and keep it empty."
Rachel seized her hand.
"Never mind, never mind," she whispered. "It is better, ten thousand times, that you should believe in me, that any woman should! Thank you, and God bless you, for that!"
She was turning away, when she faced about upon the steps, gazing past the woman who believed in her, along the passage beyond, an unspoken question beneath the tears in her eyes.
"He is not here," said the landlady, quickly.
"But he did get over it?"
"So we hope; but he was at death's door that morning, and for days and weeks. Now he's abroad again--I'm sure I don't know where."
Rachel said good-night, and this time the door not only shut before she had time to change her mind again, but she heard the bolts shot as she reached the pavement. The fact did not strike her. She was thinking for a moment of the innocent young foreigner who had brought matters to a crisis between her husband and herself. On the whole she was glad that he was not in England--yet there would have been one friend.
And now her own case was really desperate; it was late at night; she was famished and worn out in body and mind, nor could she see the slightest prospect of a lodging for the night.
And that she would have had in the condemned cell, with food and warmth and rest, and the blessed certainty of a speedy issue out of all her afflictions.
It was a bitter irony, after all, this acquittal!
There was but one place for her now. She would perish there of cold and horror; but she might buy something to eat, and take it with her; and at least she could rest, and would be alone, in the empty house, the house of misery and murder, that was yet the one shelter that she knew of in all London.
She crept to the King's road, and returned with a few sandwiches, walking better in her eagerness to break a fast which she had only felt since excitement had given place to despair. But now it was making her faint and ill. And she hurried, weary though she was.
But in the little street itself she stood aghast. A crowd filled it; the crowd stood before the empty house of sorrow and of crime; and in a moment Rachel saw the cause.
It was her own fault. She had left the light burning in the upper room, the bedroom on the second floor.
Rachel joined the skirts of the crowd--drawn by an irresistible fascination--and listened to what was being said. All eyes were upon the lighted window of the bedroom--watching for herself, as she soon discovered--and this made her doubly safe where she stood behind the press.
"She's up there, I tell yer," said one.
"Not her! It's a ghost."
"Her 'usband's ghost, then."
"But vere's a chap 'ere wot sore 'er fice to fice in the next street; an' followed 'er and 'eard the door go; an' w'en 'e come back wiv 'is pals, vere was vat light."
"Let's 'ave 'er aht of it."
"Yuss, she ain't no right there."
"No; the condemned cell's the plice for 'er!"
"Give us a stone afore the copper comes!"
And Rachel saw the first stone flung, and heard the first glass break; and within a very few minutes there was not a whole pane left in the front of the house; but that was all the damage which Rachel herself saw done.
A hand touched her lightly on the shoulder.
"Do you still pin your faith to the man in the street?" said a voice.
And, though she had heard it for the first time that very evening, it was a voice that Rachel seemed to have known all her life.