The Vanity Box/Chapter 15
The next day the secret was out. The inquest had been adjourned because there was new evidence. During the absence of Mr. and Mrs. Barnard from the Home Farm, at Friars' Moat, a detective had interviewed their daughter Margaret (left in the care of a neighbour), and had picked up information of such importance that the child had to be summoned as witness. Mrs. Barnard was recalled, and her little girl was minutely questioned as to the conversation which had taken place in her presence between her mother and Kate Craigie, Lady Hereward's maid.
Who would have dreamed that a tiny being, scarcely more than a baby (in a mother's eyes, at least), would notice so much, and remember so many details of talk between grown-up people? Other mothers, on hearing the story of Poppet, took the affair as a warning not to talk before their children, and recalled the adage, "little pitchers have large ears." Some of Kate Craigie's friends said that Poppet was a sly young minx. But Poppet was not a minx, and so far from being sly, she was almost embarrassingly honest when she spoke out her childish thoughts. She was, however, a reserved, as well as a thoughtful, little girl, who kept things to herself, and brooded upon them, unless questions drew forth her small opinions and ponderings.
In her memory she had stored several rather odd sayings of Kate's, and when a very nice man came to the house, appearing to be surprised that her mother was out, Poppet was far too polite not to answer his questions. She had often been told not to ask too many questions herself, because speech was silver, while silence was golden; and little girls should be seen and not heard. But nobody had ever suggested that a "grown-up" had not a right to put as many queries as he pleased, and to have them answered.
Besides, the man was a particularly kind, agreeable "grown-up." He happened to have a beautiful picture-book in one pocket, and a small box of wonderful sweets from London, in another. Both of these, he said, should be for Poppet, if she were a good girl, and talked to him prettily.
So Poppet talked as prettily as she knew how; and by the time the book and the box were earned, the kind man knew that Kate Craigie had said horrid things about Lady Hereward—poor Lady Hereward, whom (Poppet had been informed) she would never, never see any more. Kate had told Poppet's mother that she would like to shake Lady Hereward, and box her ears, because she was always saying how much better the vanished Liane was than any other maid ever could, would, or should be. And Kate had mentioned to Mrs. Barnard that Edward the footman "hated her ladyship" and often felt as if he could do her a mischief, because she tried to make Kate think he was too far beneath her to make a good husband.
During the adjourned inquest, Kate was recalled, on the strength of this evidence, and, for her lover, made a far worse witness than she had made the other day. She stammered, and contradicted herself, and drew attention ostentatiously to the fact that Miss Verney had been in the woods, near the Tower, not so very long before Lady Hereward was shot, "looking ready to die of fear, or shame, or something." And before Kate could be interrupted and forbidden to touch upon a subject irrelevant to her evidence, she had blurted out the gossip about "Mr. Ian Barr having been seen in the neighbourhood on the day of the murder."
Of course, the coroner and the policemen from Scotland Yard and the neighbourhood already knew perfectly well what the gossip was; but either they could not prove the truth of it, or else they had not been able to lay hands upon Mr. Barr, for he was not among the witnesses summoned to testify at Friars' Moat. Nevertheless, Kate's words, spoken desperately when she was at bay in defence of her lover and herself, probably did some harm to Ian Barr in the minds of jury and journalists, while Edward's statement, later, though rambling and practically valueless, did more.
Major Smedley had his chance to give evidence, at last, and got himself thoroughly disliked by every one present for trying (or apparently trying) to damage the character of Sir Ian Hereward. He said that he was an old friend of the Latham family, that he had known Lady Hereward before her marriage, and her husband both before and afterward, "more or less well," and that there was a "mystery about their coming together." Her people had never thought that he loved her. There was some other reason for the marriage. Sir Ian (then Captain) Hereward had had at least one desperate love affair in India, just before his sudden engagement to his distant cousin, Miss Latham; and people who had known him before he was ordered home to England said that he had never been the same man since. Altogether, if Miss Ricardo were right in believing that Major Smedley had a bone to pick with Sir Ian Hereward, he certainly picked it clean. To all appearances, he produced little or no impression on the minds of the jury, but such insinuations as he made under cloak of answering straightforward questions, could not easily be forgotten, especially when repeated far and wide in the newspapers.
Miss Verney, pale as if she were ready for her coffin (like her dead mistress upstairs), but exceedingly lovely to look upon, denied on oath that she had gone out to meet Ian Barr in the woods on the afternoon of the murder, or that she had met him. And the person who had started the story that the young man had been seen on that day could not be unearthed. Inquiries at the railway-station had drawn blanks; and Miss Verney professed not to know where Ian Barr was at the present moment, though she admitted that, for a short time, she had been engaged to him, and that they still wrote to each other occasionally. Beyond this she would admit nothing, and she gave her answers like a mechanical doll. She swore that the breaking of her engagement was not due to Lady Hereward's expressed wish, but to "private reasons." She vowed that, as far as she knew, Lady Hereward had not made things so unpleasant for Mr. Barr that he had resigned his stewardship, nor had the lady forbidden him to visit his fiancée under her roof. There was not, she said, a word of truth in the stupid story that Ian Barr had disliked Lady Hereward. He wished to leave Friars' Moat because he hoped to better his position, in order to marry; and he preferred to make a home in some distant place where his parentage was not a matter of gossip. But there were those in the room, among others Mr. Samways, the coroner, and several members of the jury, who thought that beautiful, pale Miss Verney did not look as if she were telling the truth, or at all events the whole truth. To their searching eyes, she had the air of a culprit, rather than that of a straightforward witness, with no secret knowledge to keep back. And though few people had the heart to blame the girl if she dared risk her soul by perjury for her lover s sake, nevertheless, after her evidence had been taken, many persons were more than ever inclined to believe that Ian Barr had good reasons for keeping out of the way.
Sir Ian, summoned to testify again, to a certain extent confirmed the statements of Miss Verney, though his well-remembered hesitations suggested a different opinion. If his wife had disapproved of Mr. Barr, she had not asked her husband to discharge the young man. Mr. Barr had resigned his stewardship quite of his own accord, rather against Sir Ian's advice than in accordance with it. However, he had gone, on very short notice, and Sir Ian had heard nothing of him since, except that once, several weeks ago, on speaking to Miss Verney of Mr. Barr, she had mentioned that he had some idea of sailing for America. Then Sir Ian went on to state that he had always had the highest respect for the young man's character; that Barr had behaved extremely well, on the whole, in exceptionally trying circumstances, and if he had a fiery temper, Sir Ian had never seen any disagreeable exhibition of it.
Again, on the second day, matters did not appear to be much further advanced, after all, than they had been before, and once more the inquest was adjourned, this time for a fortnight. The dark curtain of mystery had not been lifted an inch when the day came for the murdered Lady Hereward to go to the family vault in Riding St. Mary Church.
A few intimate friends, who desired it, were allowed to bid her a last farewell before her coffin was fastened down, and those who did said that never had they seen her so young and fair and sweet as she appeared pillowed on her favourite white roses. The expression of horror had faded from her face; the pearly flower-petals and green leaves hid the wound in her neck; and she was dressed, not in a stiffly made garment suggestive of death, but in a filmy tea-gown of white chiffon which she had brought home from Paris, the day before she died. People whispered it about that with hands clasped lightly over a loose bunch of roses (she had been vain of her beautiful hands) and the half-smile into which her lips had mercifully relaxed, she was like a statue whose name might be "Mystery."
If only the dead lips could have spoken, just once! But it seemed, so those who saw her said, as if she rejoiced in her silence, as if she would not speak if she could. And since no more was heard about the experiment which was to be tried upon her eyes, the world which talked of her constantly took it for granted either that it had failed, or that the experts had decided it would be useless, for some reason, to attempt it.
So she went to the old, old vault in the old, old church where many generations of Herewards lay; but perhaps none of the name had ever taken with them into the grave such a secret as hers. A word from her would have freed two men, at least, out of three, of suspicion, and perhaps a woman. For Kate Craigie was under that ban as well as her lover now, thanks to her freedom of speech before Poppet. She could not have killed Lady Hereward, since she had been sitting with Mrs. Barnard when the shots in the woods were fired; but she might—so thought some people—have been expecting those shots, because she had encouraged Edward to pay a grudge of hers as well as his own.
Meanwhile, Scotland Yard was busy, in a quiet way. Nobody knew exactly what the police were about, or what clues had been found; but in spite of The Morning's correspondent, it soon began to be rumoured that the exhaustive search of the woods had, after all, resulted in disappointment. The bloodhounds had followed several trails, but they had been misleading ones, or at best had ended in mystery as impenetrable as the thick bracken in the forest. The revolver with which Lady Hereward had been shot was not forthcoming, though it was hunted for with skill and diligence; and no traces of the murderer were visible in the Tower, notwithstanding the fact that a clever detective had examined each of the four rooms, inch by inch. Still, the police were undiscouraged, and though the journalists were certainly not in the confidence of Scotland Yard, each day paragraphs appeared in the newspapers hinting that the murderer was being tracked down, and that "an arrest was imminent."
"Why does not Mr. Ian Barr come forward?" asked one morning paper, in a big black headline; and it was a question which repeated itself in every town and every county of England. But Mr. Barr did not come forward. And when the murder of Lady Hereward was a week old, some other great sensation claimed the most important column of the morning papers, which up till then had been filled by the latest news of the latest theories in the "Tower Mystery"; and the tragedy of Riding Wood had second place for a few days.