The Vanity Box/Chapter 14
Maud read The Morning eagerly next day. She wanted to see how Sir Ian's and Terry's evidence would look in print; what the witnesses had said, after she and Terry had left Friars' Moat; and whether anything new had been discovered since yesterday.
"Oh, the inquest is adjourned. So that's what happened!" she exclaimed aloud to Miss Ricardo; for they were breakfasting together when the paper came. "Lots of perfectly horrid details of the murder itself—just the sort of things poor Milly would hate to have people saying about her. I don't know if you'd care to read them, or if you'd rather not?"
Terry felt cold in the sunny warmth of the day, but she answered that she wished to read everything. She did not explain that she longed to find some bit of evidence which would free Sir Ian from suspicion forever, even if it did not clear up the mystery; but in truth that was her feeling.
Presently she read what Tom Barnard had to say. He was questioned more minutely than Sir Ian had been on the appearance of the body, and the room in which it was found. He described the Tower, and the iron staircase which ran round outside, with a balcony landing on each of the three stories above the ground floor. He mentioned the four rooms, one on each floor, and the locked door which led to each room from the staircase. He said that it was one of his duties to visit the Tower from time to time, to see if repairs were needed, and to make sure that no tramps had broken in. Seven years before, when he first came to the Home Farm, the Tower had been left unlocked, as there was nothing of value in it; but it was discovered that tramps were sleeping there, and since those days, keys had been made. Barnard was in the habit of inspecting the Tower once every month or six weeks, and had made his last call only ten or twelve days before the murder. Everything had been right then, the doors locked, and no sign that any one had been inside. On the day of the murder, when he was summoned to go to Sir Ian, he had seen the door of the room on the ground floor standing open. At first he had not thought of examining the lock, but later he had done so, and found that it was unbroken. Therefore a key which fitted it must have been used, by whom he could not guess. He knew only that his own key was at the farm, in its usual place. He would not swear that his key might not have been, at some time or other, taken from that place, and copied; but if so, he had no idea when, or by whom. He did not know any one who might have wished, for any reason whatever, to get into the Tower. There was very little furniture there. In the ground-floor room, a table, and four chairs of a simple and cheap description, brought there many years ago: a rough dresser, with glass doors behind which a tea-set, also simple and cheap, was kept; and in each of the other rooms, nothing more than a chair and a wooden bench; with the exception of the top room of all, which had, in addition to a chair, a desk such as school children use, and an old couch. Most of these things had been placed there by Mr. Forestier in his youth, so Barnard understood; but in his opinion there was no temptation to enter the Tower except for those who wished to see a fine view: unless it were for tramps; and as he had said, he had found no trace of occupation when he searched the rooms a few minutes after seeing the dead body of Lady Hereward.
Tom told how he had noticed her ladyship's gloves folded, or rather rolled neatly up together, lying on the table with her empty bead bag, and explained how in his opinion this proved that she had entered the room quietly, before dreaming of any cause for fear. But it was Doctor Unwin who had most to say about the appearance of Lady Hereward's body.
He deposed that, when he arrived at the Tower toward six o'clock, she had certainly been dead for some time, probably about two hours. The unfortunate lady had been fatally wounded in the throat, by a bullet undoubtedly fired from a revolver of small calibre. Another shot had been fired, but with such deficient aim as to glance off from a whalebone on the left side of a very heavily boned French corset, inflicting no wound, though the dress was cut, and the flesh underneath slightly bruised. When asked if the wound in the throat could have been self-inflicted, the doctor thought probably not, and a colleague who had been called later to view the body, agreed with him on this point. It would be barely possibly, perhaps, for a woman to commit suicide by shooting herself in the left side of the throat, an inch above the collar bone, or clavicle; but it was practically out of the question that she would do so. The natural thing was to aim at the breast, in the hope of reaching the heart; or at the temple; or occasionally a would-be suicide pushed a revolver into the mouth.
The most reasonable hypothesis was that Lady Hereward had been shot by a person who aimed at her as she stood, partly turned from him, unaware of his presence near her. The expression of horror frozen on her dead face might be accounted for by the fact that she had not died immediately after falling, but had remained conscious, and had seen the assassin bending over her. The eyes being open and raised would tend to bear out this supposition, and would seem to show, also, that she had not caught sight of her murderer before the shots were fired. Had he not hidden himself, and aimed at her from a place of concealment (very likely behind the open door), Lady Hereward's eyes would presumably have been closed, in horror of the danger she saw menacing her. But if she had been shot at from the side by a person using the door as a screen, and if she had fallen before the murderer showed himself, she would have died staring up, horror-stricken, into the assassin's face.
Following the medical men, the superintendent of police and the constable who had accompanied Doctor Unwin to the Tower, were called. Their evidence went to substantiate the theory of the surgeon, that the two shots must have been fired from behind the door, probably just after Lady Hereward—surprised at seeing the door open—had entered the room, and laid her bag and folded gloves carefully on the table. In order to put down the gloves in the place where they were found, she might have stood in just such a position as to receive the bullet in the left side of the throat, especially if she had turned slightly, after the first shot grazed her side. Also, the table was near enough to the door to account for the blackening of the skin, which showed that the weapon had been aimed at close quarters.
The police evidence having been taken, and Major Smedley called as witness, some information had reached the coroner from outside, which caused him immediately to adjourn the inquest for two days; and the general impression was that startling developments might be expected at any moment. The rumour ran that an arrest had been made, or was likely to be made; but it was no more than a rumour, as the coroner and the police were extremely reticent.
If they refused to enlighten the public, however, the correspondent of The Morning was ready to do his best to satisfy the curiosity of readers. Not only did he give a graphic account of all that had happened at the inquest, describing the principal witnesses, but he added, for what they might be worth, the theories he heard put forward in the neighbourhood. He announced that the eyes of Lady Hereward would be examined by a great expert in the hope of finding "photographed on her retina the image of her assassin." He believed that the bloodhounds employed in the search for clues to the mystery had come upon some important piece of evidence; though whether it was the missing revolver which they had brought to light, or some other trace of the murderer in his flight from justice, was not yet known. The theory of the police (according to the newspaper correspondent) was against robbery as the true motive of the crime, although several rings and other valuable articles of jewelry, as well as a sum of money, had undoubtedly been stolen, presumably as a blind. It seemed to be generally thought that Lady Hereward had had a special reason for wishing to be left alone in the neighbourhood of the Tower, though certain signs made it seem not so clear that she had originally planned to enter the Tower herself. It was supposed that she might have made an appointment to meet some one who, perhaps, had written begging for charity, or a hearing for some pitiful story, from the well-known Lady Bountiful. There were other theories, of course, the journalist went on to say, some of them extraordinarily sensational in character; but these were the suppositions most in favour; and the murderer was almost certainly no common thief. If Lady Hereward had not been so greatly loved for her generosity and kindness of heart, it might be taken almost for granted that this vindictive crime was one of revenge for some fancied injury; but it was difficult to believe that any man could have imagined himself aggrieved by so gentle a lady.
"What do you think of it all?" asked Maud Ricardo, when Terry put down the paper. "And why do you suppose they suddenly adjourned the inquest?"
"I don't know what to think," Terry answered, helplessly. And if she had a secret supposition of her own, Maud was one of the last persons to whom she would have confided it.
"If only Sir Ian hadn't been such an angel to Milly, of course people would be saying——"
"Oh, don't!" exclaimed Terry.
"I wouldn't, to any one else but you," Maud excused herself.
"Not even to me." She had nearly said, "Not to me, of all people."
"Well, I can't help feeling that if your evidence had been different——"
"It couldn't have been different," Miss Ricardo cut her short.
"Why, no, I suppose not, or you wouldn't have given it," Maud said, glancing at the other with a kind of childlike slyness, from under her long eyelashes. "Strange, how we were speaking of Major Smedley before we knew that Milly was—dead. And then, that he should have come down."
"Wicked old busybody!" Terry could not help exclaiming.
"You believe he volunteered his evidence just to get himself mixed up with a cause célèbre."
"Of course. And in the hope of doing Ian—Sir Ian—harm, in some way or other. When he saw that I was in the room, he thought of a way." Terry spoke half to herself.
"Has he a grudge against Ian?" All Maud's curiosity was awake.
"Oh, merely the grudge he has against every man who isn't a coward. Cowards are civil to him, because they re afraid of what he may do or say, just as people fear a vicious cat. Men and women who aren't cowards can't be civil to creatures like that. It only encourages them in their blackmailing career."
"I suppose, then," said Maud thoughtfully, "that you weren't nice to him in India."
"No, I was as horrid as I knew how to be. I dare say I kept him from being asked to a few houses where he would have liked to go. And naturally he was never asked to ours, as I was mistress of it socially in those days."
"That explains things!"
"Yes. That explains things."
"He s remembered, all these years."
"He wouldn't be Major Smedley if he hadn't."
"Fancy!" murmured Maud. "As soon as he got into the room, he sent a scrap of paper to the coroner, suggesting things about your having been engaged to Ian. Then all those men consulted a lot, and at last decided to question you. He did it to put hateful ideas in their heads, and he would have quite succeeded, if you hadn't been too clever for him."
"Don't call it clever," Terry protested, almost irritably. "It's not clever to tell the truth."
"The clever thing is to tell the truth in the right way," Maud argued subtly, with another of her long-lashed glances. "And you did—quite wonderfully. You turned the tide for Ian—and you were so quiet about it, too! It was your manner as much as your words that did the trick."
"Oh, Maud, you make me almost hate you, when you use such expressions!" Terry broke out, her nerves tried beyond self-control. "I wonder if you do it on purpose?"
"That's your quick-tempered American mother," said Maud. "If I'm slangy I've learnt it from Norman. I'm awfully imitative without meaning it, you know. And I seem to feel what people are thinking about, in the most curious way, when I'm excited. It's like telepathy—or the way a blotting-pad absorbs ink. I felt how your testimony turned the tide of suspicion which had begun to set in against Ian, after that curious exhibition of his—and the things Milly's maid said and the questions they began asking you. But, of course, we can't hope that the idea won't be discussed—that people won't talk. It would be so dramatic, you know, if——"
"If what?" Terry asked defiantly.
"You said 'don't, even to you,' when I first wanted to discuss it."
The blood rushed to Terry Ricardo's face. "How can you, Maud?" she cried. "When he has been your friend for years."
"I'm doing nothing, saying nothing, and believing nothing against him," Mrs. Ricardo defended herself, vexed with her companion. "I'm only glancing at what other people will say—for they will, you know. One might as well look facts in the face. At least, I should think that would be your way, as you pride yourself on your courage—which I don't, at all. There s no use disguising it; Ian Hereward will have to stand some disagreeable gossip, as well as Ian Barr."
"I hope to heaven it may never reach his ears," ejaculated Terry.
"Probably that's just what Nora Verney is wishing for Ian Barr. But neither of your wishes will be granted. It's rather queer, isn't it?—in this case there are three young women, outside it, as far as they themselves are concerned, yet each trying to protect a man from being suspected. You; Nora Verney; and Milly's maid, Craigie; though, of course, those two girls may not be entirely outside the case themselves, as you are."
"What do you mean?" asked Terry.
"I hardly know. But you can never quite tell, in an awful affair like this, how evidence may turn. Craigie's testimony simply gave it away that she didn't like her mistress, though I don't suppose the woman fully realized what she was saying either about herself or that lover of hers. As for Miss Verney——"
"She hasn't even given her evidence yet," broke in Terry, impelled to defend the beautiful girl who was so unhappy.
"No. But wait till they go on with the inquest. There's evidently a mystery about that adjournment. They've found out something, and have got to wait to find out something more. Which one is it going to concern, do you feel, Terry? Sir Ian Hereward; or Ian Barr; or Edward the footman? Or some stranger?"
"I feel nothing," Terry answered.
Which was true only if to have a lump of ice instead of a heart, were to feel nothing.
And Terry's breakfast had consisted of no more than a few sips of tea, and a crumb or two of toast. But Maud was far too deeply absorbed in the exciting puzzle she was setting for herself, to notice her guest's lack of appetite, since her own was good.