The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter VII. A Morning Call
"The way to conceal one's identity," observed Mrs. Steel, "is to assume another as distinctive as one's own."
This oracular utterance was confidentially delivered from the leathern chair at the writing-table, in an inner recess of Rachel's sumptuous sitting-room. The chair had been wheeled aloof from the table, on which were Steel's hat and gloves, and such a sheaf of book-stall literature as suggested his immediate departure upon no short journey, unless, indeed, the magazines and the Sunday newspapers turned out to be another offering to Mrs. Minchin, like the nosegay of hothouse flowers which she still held in her hand. Rachel herself had inadvertently taken the very easy-chair which was a further feature of the recess; in its cushioned depths she already felt at a needless disadvantage, with Mr. Steel bending over her, his strong face bearing down, as it were, upon hers, and his black eyes riddling her with penetrating glances. But to have risen now would have been to show him what she felt. So she trifled with his flowers without looking up, though her eyebrows rose a little on their own account.
"I know what you are thinking," resumed Steel; "that you had no desire to assume any new identity, or for a single moment to conceal your own, and that I have taken a great deal upon myself. That I most freely admit. And I think you will forgive me when you see the papers!"
"Is there so much about me, then?" asked Rachel, with a sigh of apprehension.
"A leading article in every one of them. But they will keep. Indeed, I would much rather you never saw them at all."
"Was that why you brought them in, Mr. Steel?"
The question was irresistible, its satire unconcealed; but Steel's disregard of it steered admirably clear of contempt.
"That was why I bought them, certainly," he admitted. "But I brought them with me for quite a different purpose, for which one would indeed have been enough. I was saying, however, that the best way to sink one's identity is to assume another, provided that the second be as distinctive as the first. We will leave for a moment the question of my officiousness in the matter, and we'll suppose, for the sake of argument, that I was authorized by you to do what in fact I have done. All last week the papers were literally full of your trial, but on Saturday there was a second sensation as well, and this morning it is hard to say which is first and which second; they both occupy so many columns. You may not know it, but the Cape liner due on Saturday was lost with scores of lives, off Finisterre, on Friday morning last."
Rachel failed to see the connection, and yet she felt vaguely that there was one, if she could but recall it; meanwhile she said nothing, but listened with as much attention as a mental search would permit.
"I heard of it first," continued Steel, "late on Friday afternoon, as I came away from the Old Bailey. Now, it was on Friday afternoon, if you recollect, that you gave evidence yourself in your own defence. When you left the witness-box, Mrs. Minchin, and even before you left it, I knew that you were saved!"
Rachel remembered the Swiss maid's remark about the loss of her clothes and the number of persons who had fared so much worse and lost their lives. But Steel's last words dismissed every thought but that of their own import. And in an instant she was trembling upright in the easy-chair.
"You believed me!" she whispered. "You believed me at the time!"
And for nothing had he earned such gratitude yet; her moist eyes saw the old-fashioned courtesy of his bow in answer, but not the subtlety of the smile that bore it company in the depths of the dark eyes: it was a smile that did not extend to the short, tight mouth.
"What is more to the point, my dear lady," he went on in words, "the jury believed you, and I saw that they did. You made a tremendous impression upon them. The lawyer against you was too humane to try very hard to remove it, and the judge too just--though your own man did his best. But I saw at once that it would never be removed. It was between you and the jury--human being to human beings--and no third legal party intervening. That was where you scored; you went straight as a die to those twelve simple hearts. And I saw what you had done--what the lawyers between them could not undo--and took immediate measures."
Rachel looked up with parted lips, only to shut them firmly without a word.
"And who was I to take measures on your behalf?" queried Steel, putting the question for her. "What right or excuse had I to mix myself up in your affairs? I will tell you, for this morning is not last night, and at least you have one good night's rest between you and the past. My dear Mrs. Minchin, I had absolutely no right at all; but I had the excuse which every man has who sees a woman left to stand alone against the world, and who thrusts himself, no matter how officiously, into the breach beside her. And then for a week I had seen you all day and every day, upon your trial!"
At last there something with a ring of definite insincerity, something that Rachel could take up; and she gazed upon her self-appointed champion with candid eyes.
"Do you mean to say that you never saw me before--my trouble, Mr. Steel?"
"Never in my life, my dear lady."
"Then you knew something about me or mine!"
"What one read in the newspapers--neither more nor less--upon my most solemn word--if that will satisfy you."
And it did; for if there had been palpable insincerity in his previous protestations, there was sincerity of a still more obvious order in Mr. Steel's downright assurances on these two points. He had never ever seen her before. He knew nothing whatever about her up to the period of notoriety; he had no special and no previous knowledge of his own. It might not be true, of course; but there was that in the deep-set eyes which convinced Rachel once and for all. There was a sudden light in them, a light as candid as that which happened to be shining in her own, but a not too kindly one, rather a glint of genuine resentment. It was his smooth protestations that Rachel distrusted and disliked. If she could ruffle him, she might get at the real man; and with her questions she appeared to have done so already.
"I am more than satisfied, in one way," replied Rachel, "and less in another. I rather wish you had known something about me; it would have made it more natural for you to come to my assistance. But never mind. What were these immediate measures?"
"I took these rooms; I had spoken of taking them earlier in the week."
"Yes, on the chance of your getting off."
"But you did not say they were for me!"
"No; and I was vague in what I had said until then. I had a daughter--a widow--whom I rather expected to arrive from abroad towards the end of the week. But I was quite vague."
"Because you thought I had no chance!"
"I had not heard your evidence. The very afternoon I did hear it, and had no longer any doubt about the issue in my own mind, I also heard of this wreck. The very thing! I waited till next morning for the list of the saved; luckily there were plenty of them; and I picked out the name of a married woman travelling alone, and therefore very possibly a widow, from the number. Then I went to the manager. The daughter whom I expected had been wrecked, but she was saved, and would arrive that night. As a matter of fact, the survivors were picked up by a passing North German Lloyd, and they did reach London on Saturday night. Meanwhile I had impressed it upon the manager to keep the matter as quiet as possible, for many excellent reasons, which I need not go into now."
"But the reason for so elaborate a pretence?"
And the keen, dark face was searched with a scrutiny worthy of itself. Steel set his mouth in another visible resolution to tell the truth.
"I thought you might not be sorry to cease being Mrs. Minchin--the Mrs. Minchin who had become so cruelly notorious through no fault of her own--if only for a day or two, or a single night. That was most easily to be effected by your arriving here minus possessions, and plus a very definite story of your own."
"You made very sure of me!" said Rachel, dryly.
"I trusted to my own powers of persuasion, and it was said you had no friends. I will confess," added Steel, "that I hoped the report was true."
"Did it follow that I could have no pride?"
"By no means; on the contrary, I knew that you were full of pride; it is, if I may venture to say so, one of your most salient characteristics. Nothing was more noticeable at your trial; nothing finer have I ever seen! But," added Steel, suppressing a burst of enthusiasm that gained by the suppression, "but, madam, I hoped and prayed that you would have the sense to put your pride in the second place for once."
"Well," said Rachel, "and so far I have done so, Heaven knows!"
"And that is something," rejoined Steel, impressively. "Even if it ends at this--even if you won't hear me out--it is something that you have had one night and one morning free from insult, discomfort, and annoyance."
Rachel felt half frightened and half indignant. Steel was standing up, looking very earnestly down upon her. And something that she had dimly divined in the very beginning--only to chide herself for the mere thought--that thing was in his face and in his voice. Rachel made a desperate attempt to change the subject, but, as will be seen, an unlucky one.
"So I am supposed to be your daughter!" she exclaimed nervously. "May I ask my new name?"
"If you like; but I am going to suggest to you a still newer name, Mrs. Minchin."
Rachel tried to laugh, though his quietly determined and serious face made it more than difficult.
"Do you mean that I am not to be your daughter any longer, Mr. Steel?"
"Not if I can help it. But it will depend upon yourself."
"And what do you want to make me now?"