The Vanity Box/Chapter 23
Sir Ian Hereward had been out walking alone in the purple darkness, bareheaded, the breeze from the mountains spraying coolness against his hot forehead. He raised his face to it, as if to receive balm upon a burning wound.
A church clock struck somewhere in the distance. It was eleven. He thought that the hotel doors might be closing, and told himself dimly that he had better go back, unless he wanted to wake the tired concierge. He turned and, ten minutes later, as he was about to mount the steps of the deserted balcony, Nora Verney ran down to him.
"I have been waiting for you," she announced. "They said you were out."
"I hope you are going to tell me of some way in which I can serve you," he replied, kindly, yet with a slight constraint.
"If I dared to tell you!" she almost groaned.
"I think you may dare anything you can wish to dare with me," he answered.
"Oh, it isn't for fear of you I hesitate!" The words rushed from the girl's lips like a flood breaking down some barrier that had held it back. "It isn't that at all, and I wouldn't have you think so. I don't dare talk to you about the only way in which you could serve me, because I have promised not. I've promised Ian Barr, beside whom you are a coward, Sir Ian, a coward."
She was beautiful in her fierce young defiance, under the stars, and Sir Ian looked at her pitifully, as he might have looked at an angry child. "By and by you will tell me why you waited," he said. "It was not for the pleasure of calling me a coward, I think."
"Ian—my Ian—has been arrested."
"Here. He was with me, in the garden."
Sir Ian remained silent for a few seconds, thinking. "Impossible to arrest him in France," he said at last.
"It wasn't exactly an arrest, but they laid a trap for him, an English detective and two French policemen—and he didn't resist. If it hadn't been for me, perhaps he could have escaped. I haven't told Miss Ricardo yet. I was afraid if I went in I might miss you."
"You want me to try and help Barr."
"Sir Ian, I can beg nothing of you. If I did, I should be breaking the most solemn promise. Ian trusts me, and would never love me again if I broke it; otherwise I would break it now."
"What can I do for him?"
The girl's eyes blazed. "You ask me—me—what you can do for him? Oh!"
"I don t understand you," Sir Ian said more coldly. "You have conceived a great horror of me. I quite see that. But if there is something I can do, you had better restrain your dislike enough to tell me clearly what it is."
"You know what you can do," Nora answered. "You can save Ian."
"I tried to do what I could that first day at the inquest, when—"
"You call that 'doing all you could,' when you know he is innocent—when you know who is guilty?"
Sir Ian turned on her in surprise tinged at last with anger, for she flung insult in his face, with tone and words.
"If you will have it," he retorted, "I do not know that Ian Barr is innocent."
"How dare you?" she cried, aghast. "You make me forget my promise to Ian. Now I know you don't mean to help, perhaps I shall be driven to break it to all the world. He will never forgive me—but at least I shall have saved him; and if I kill myself, what will the rest matter? Sir Ian Hereward, I warn you, if you try to harm instead of help your cousin, who gives himself for you, I will tell everything, in spite of my promise."
The soldier-face stiffened. "What do you know?" Sir Ian asked.
"We were together in the Tower," she answered. "We heard."
"Good God!" the words seemed to burst from him.
"Now you can guess what I think of you, when you say that you don't know if Ian is innocent."
"You swear to me that you were there together—Barr and you?" The man caught her hands, and held them, looking her in the eyes, though she struggled to free herself.
"I swear it to you. It depends on you, whether I swear it to others, or keep the silence I promised."
"If this is true, you perjured yourself at the inquest."
"Yes. Because Ian and I agreed to know nothing."
"Good Heavens! If Ian Barr was there with you, Nora, you don't know the difference it makes."
"What do you mean by the 'difference'?"
"I can't tell you what I mean. But you will know sooner or later. As you hope to save your soul—no, as you hope to save your lover's life, answer me this: Was he with you in the Tower until after the shots were fired?"
"As I hope to save Ian's life, he was with me in the Tower till after the shots were fired."
"Where were you both?"
"In the first floor room, first above—the other. We couldn t hear every word that was spoken, but we heard—enough."
"My God! Then it was as I feared."
"I don't know what you mean," the girl said anxiously.
"Tell me the whole story," Sir Ian insisted. "How you got the key; why you were there, why Barr chose that day—everything."
"Yes, I will tell you. I may as well, now," she returned. "Ian had been making plans to go to America. He had heard of a chance. I wouldn't let him write to me at your house. I was afraid—that I'd never get the letters."
"You thought we would intercept them? How childish—and sensational!"
"Life is sensational. You ought to know that now! I didn't think you would stoop to such a thing. I liked and admired you very much, then; and Ian adored you for what he called your immense goodness to him, in spite of adverse circumstances and opposition from the one nearest you. But I did think Lady Hereward might do something. Even that she might have left instructions when she went to Paris, with one of the servants, to watch if I had letters. She detested Ian. She had the cruellest suspicions against him. He could have proved that she was wrong, I'm sure, if he would, though even to me he never told the truth about—about Liane. He only said that he was innocent, and I believed him, but I have my own theory of what really did happen, and I believe I'm right."
"I am not asking you to tell me that," said Sir Ian, with a certain impatience. "I want to know why, and for how long, you and Barr were in the Tower together."
"He wrote me letters to the post-office in the village. Only the postmistress knew, I think. As a girl she was in my father's parish, and he was very good to her and her family. She was grateful; and Ian and I owe it to her that the gossip about his being seen the day—of the murder, was hushed up. Her daughter saw him, but afterward the mother induced her to forget, and it never could be found out where the rumour started. He wrote me that he would come and say good-bye. It was a long time since we had seen each other. We'd only met once before, since he gave up the stewardship. That time it was in the Tower, too, and we chose that place because it was so quiet and remote—hardly any one ever went there—and because it was the best for us, in many ways. Ian had the key."
"Oh! How did he come to have one? The key that was lent him once, he gave back when he finished his work."
"He had the key for a very simple reason. He told me all about it. One day he lost the borrowed key, and was vexed with himself, so he ordered another one made. He got a locksmith to go up to the Tower——"
"No doubt the police have learned that by this time."
"I suppose so. Anyway, after he'd had the new key a few days, he found the borrowed one, somewhere about the house. When he returned it, he kept the other, which used to be in the desk, he says, until he thought that some one was using it; after that he put it out of sight; but when he moved, he took the key away with him, thinking to use it, as he did, afterward—to open the Tower door, and meet me."
"Was it he who unlocked the door of the ground-floor room?"
"Yes. Because we had talked there, the first time we met; and he was in that lower room, waiting for me when I arrived, that second day—the day. But it smelt musty and damp, for the sun never gets in; so we went upstairs, and sat in the room above instead, where it was pleasanter. I'm sure, though, we did not leave the door open. We shut it after us, and I supposed then that Ian locked it; but it seems he forgot. We were making plans for his going to America, and sending for me, when we heard voices. You know whose."
"From the first the conversation was so very terrible that we couldn't let it be known that we were there. We looked at each other, and Ian whispered to me that we must just bear it and try to forget afterward. He said almost anything would be better than she should know who had heard such secrets. She would hate her life, only thinking that we knew. And of course we meant never to tell—never to even speak of it again to each other. Sometimes there would be blanks—sentences we didn't hear, sometimes silence, and then those most awful, awful sobbings. At last—came the two shots, one right after the other. I felt as if I should faint, and I did almost. I felt myself falling, but Ian caught me in his arms and held me up. For a few minutes I think I wasn't wholly conscious, but I never quite fainted, for I know Ian had me in his arms all the time; and when I came back to myself he was holding me still."
"What then?" Sir Ian's voice was hoarse, as if his lips and tongue were dry.
"I listened for a while, and there wasn't a sound. It seemed a ghastly kind of silence, after what had happened. At last I whispered to Ian, and asked what he thought of the shots. He answered that he was afraid they could mean only one thing, but he would go down and look. I said if he went I would go too. He must not go alone, because, if any one else had heard the shots, and came to see, it might be thought that he—had had something to do with the thing. That idea came to me even then, because everybody talked about the way Lady Hereward felt toward Ian, and how it was through her he gave up his place. I begged him to take me, and said I couldn't stay upstairs, alone. I told him I could bear whatever we might have to see. So I went down the stairs behind Ian, and we found the door of the ground-floor room a little open. Ian said, 'I must have forgotten to lock it!' You see from what we heard, we weren't quite sure whether the voices came from the inside of the Tower or outside. We couldn't have seen from the one window in our room, anyway, even if we had looked out, which of course we didn't. It was bad enough to hear such things; but as there was no glass in the window, which had been broken a long time, we couldn't shut out the sounds. When Ian pushed the door wider open, I peeped over his shoulder, and—I saw her. Oh, the look in her staring eyes! It was too agonizing. I forgave her everything, and I hated you. I have hated you ever since."
"You can't hate me more than I hate myself," Sir Ian groaned. But the bitter anguish in face and voice waked no pity in the girl's heart, full of gentle compassion for others.
"We saw at once she was dead. There couldn't be any mistake in an expression like that. I pulled Ian back, and begged him not to go into the room. He too, thought there was no need, indeed that it would be best not, for every one concerned. We didn't see anything that had been stolen, or think about a revolver. Ian said we must go away, and he must get out of England at once to avoid being called as witness—for whatever came no one must know as long as ever we lived, that we had heard and seen. It wasn't himself that he thought about. It was you. But I thought of him as well, and I knew if we weren't able to explain by telling the real truth, he might be in great danger. I began to say something of that sort to him, but he broke in and made me promise that I wouldn't tell, even to shield him if he were in trouble. Then, in his turn, he promised that he would not go as far from me as America—not for a while, anyhow. He would try to get to France, and keep out of the way there, till perhaps it might be safe to sail for America later. He realized that both our lives might be ruined; that—he might be suspected—hunted—even for years; but for your sake he didn't hesitate. We planned quickly that he should get his bicycle, on which he'd come from London, and wheel it through the woods, as you know one can do there, for miles, until he'd gone far beyond Riding St. Mary, or any place where he was likely to be recognized. Then, at Godalton he would catch a train for Southampton; and unless an alarm had been raised already, he believed he could get to St. Malo in a fishing-smack from close by Southampton, at a tiny place where he used to stay with his mother, as a boy, sometimes. He knew a family of fishermen there, who would help him. Ian was sure he could trust them not to tell, even if there should be a hue and cry; and they never did tell. He said he would take his mother's name, O'Reilly, and I must write him, Poste Restante, Cherbourg, where he hoped to go eventually, and would disguise himself as best he could, if things came to the worst. He saw all that happened, in the papers of course, but I couldn't write him till Miss Ricardo and I reached Paris. I told him in a letter I posted then where we meant to stay, and he went to Aosta, and bribed a man named Guiseppe Verdi to let him a carriage and horses, and lend his licence, so that he could be with me for a little while, driving our carriage. Now you know the whole story. Through my fault he will be taken back to England, and tried for murdering Lady Hereward—since you are so cruel and so cowardly."
"Judge not," said Sir Ian.
"What does it matter to you whether I judge or not?"
There are others of more importance than you, in this," he admitted, his eyes far away.
"If only you were not a coward!" she continued to taunt him, hoping to goad the man, perhaps, to the course she longed to see him take. "Of all things, I never thought you a coward, in old days."
"You, at least, are no coward," he said. "After what you tell me you saw and heard, you came back to Friars' Moat, and poured tea for us in the drawing-room."
"You forced me to come in," she protested. "I felt as if I should die. It seemed then as if the world had come to an end."
"Yes," Sir Ian repeated dreamily. "Yes. It seemed as if the world had come to an end. I wish it had."
"It would have been better for you!" Nora exclaimed. "Will you go to England, and at least do what you can for Ian, without endangering yourself?"
"Yes, I will go to England," he echoed, "and do what I can for Ian. As you say, there may be—something."
Before she could answer, Terry Ricardo's voice called her from the balcony above. "Is that you Nora, with Sir Ian?"
"Yes," replied the girl, startled.
"I'm thankful!" cried Terry. "I was anxious about you, Nora. You were so long away. Is all well?"
"No. All is not well," Nora returned, her voice breaking sharply.
"Oh! Aren't you coming to tell me?"
"Yes, I'm coming." The girl turned to Sir Ian, and almost hissed at him, in a sibilant whisper, "Don't be afraid, coward! I am not going to tell your part."
He drew away from her, standing very straight and tall, his head up. But when Terry had bidden him "Good night," and both women had gone in, his chin dropped, and a long sigh came shuddering from his breast.