“So the last shall be first, and the first last.”—HOLY WRIT.
It was a dark room at that hour of six in the evening, when just the single oil reading-lamp under its green shade let fall a dapple of light over the Turkey carpet; over the covers of books taken out of the bookshelves, and the open pages of the one selected; over the deep blue and gold of the coffee service on the little old stool with its Oriental embroidery. Very dark in the winter, with drawn curtains, many rows of leather-bound volumes, oak-panelled walls and ceiling. So large, too, that the lighted spot before the fire where he sat was just an oasis. But that was what Keith Darrant liked, after his day's work—the hard early morning study of his “cases,” the fret and strain of the day in court; it was his rest, these two hours before dinner, with books, coffee, a pipe, and sometimes a nap. In red Turkish slippers and his old brown velvet coat, he was well suited to that framing of glow and darkness. A painter would have seized avidly on his clear-cut, yellowish face, with its black eyebrows twisting up over eyes—grey or brown, one could hardly tell, and its dark grizzling hair still plentiful, in spite of those daily hours of wig. He seldom thought of his work while he sat there, throwing off with practised ease the strain of that long attention to the multiple threads of argument and evidence to be disentangled—work profoundly interesting, as a rule, to his clear intellect, trained to almost instinctive rejection of all but the essential, to selection of what was legally vital out of the mass of confused tactical and human detail presented to his scrutiny; yet sometimes tedious and wearing. As for instance to-day, when he had suspected his client of perjury, and was almost convinced that he must throw up his brief. He had disliked the weak-looking, white-faced fellow from the first, and his nervous, shifty answers, his prominent startled eyes—a type too common in these days of canting tolerations and weak humanitarianism; no good, no good!
Of the three books he had taken down, a Volume of Voltaire—curious fascination that Frenchman had, for all his destructive irony!—a volume of Burton's travels, and Stevenson's “New Arabian Nights,” he had pitched upon the last. He felt, that evening, the want of something sedative, a desire to rest from thought of any kind. The court had been crowded, stuffy; the air, as he walked home, soft, sou'-westerly, charged with coming moisture, no quality of vigour in it; he felt relaxed, tired, even nervy, and for once the loneliness of his house seemed strange and comfortless.
Lowering the lamp, he turned his face towards the fire. Perhaps he would get a sleep before that boring dinner at the Tellasson's. He wished it were vacation, and Maisie back from school. A widower for many years, he had lost the habit of a woman about him; yet to-night he had a positive yearning for the society of his young daughter, with her quick ways, and bright, dark eyes. Curious what perpetual need of a woman some men had! His brother Laurence—wasted—all through women—atrophy of willpower! A man on the edge of things; living from hand to mouth; his gifts all down at heel! One would have thought the Scottish strain might have saved him; and yet, when a Scotsman did begin to go downhill, who could go faster? Curious that their mother's blood should have worked so differently in her two sons. He himself had always felt he owed all his success to it.
His thoughts went off at a tangent to a certain issue troubling his legal conscience. He had not wavered in the usual assumption of omniscience, but he was by no means sure that he had given right advice. Well! Without that power to decide and hold to decision in spite of misgiving, one would never have been fit for one's position at the Bar, never have been fit for anything. The longer he lived, the more certain he became of the prime necessity of virile and decisive action in all the affairs of life. A word and a blow—and the blow first! Doubts, hesitations, sentiment the muling and puking of this twilight age—! And there welled up on his handsome face a smile that was almost devilish—the tricks of firelight are so many! It faded again in sheer drowsiness; he slept....
He woke with a start, having a feeling of something out beyond the light, and without turning his head said: “What's that?” There came a sound as if somebody had caught his breath. He turned up the lamp.
A voice over by the door answered:
Something in the tone, or perhaps just being startled out of sleep like this, made him shiver. He said:
“I was asleep. Come in!”
It was noticeable that he did not get up, or even turn his head, now that he knew who it was, but waited, his half-closed eyes fixed on the fire, for his brother to come forward. A visit from Laurence was not an unmixed blessing. He could hear him breathing, and became conscious of a scent of whisky. Why could not the fellow at least abstain when he was coming here! It was so childish, so lacking in any sense of proportion or of decency! And he said sharply:
“Well, Larry, what is it?”
It was always something. He often wondered at the strength of that sense of trusteeship, which kept him still tolerant of the troubles, amenable to the petitions of this brother of his; or was it just “blood” feeling, a Highland sense of loyalty to kith and kin; an old-time quality which judgment and half his instincts told him was weakness but which, in spite of all, bound him to the distressful fellow? Was he drunk now, that he kept lurking out there by the door? And he said less sharply:
“Why don't you come and sit down?”
He was coming now, avoiding the light, skirting along the walls just beyond the radiance of the lamp, his feet and legs to the waist brightly lighted, but his face disintegrated in shadow, like the face of a dark ghost.
“Are you ill, man?”
Still no answer, save a shake of that head, and the passing up of a hand, out of the light, to the ghostly forehead under the dishevelled hair. The scent of whisky was stronger now; and Keith thought:
'He really is drunk. Nice thing for the new butler to see! If he can't behave—'
The figure against the wall heaved a sigh—so truly from an overburdened heart that Keith was conscious with a certain dismay of not having yet fathomed the cause of this uncanny silence. He got up, and, back to the fire, said with a brutality born of nerves rather than design:
“What is it, man? Have you committed a murder, that you stand there dumb as a fish?”
For a second no answer at all, not even of breathing; then, just the whisper:
The sense of unreality which so helps one at moments of disaster enabled Keith to say vigorously:
“By Jove! You have been drinking!”
But it passed at once into deadly apprehension.
“What do you mean? Come here, where I can see you. What's the matter with you, Larry?”
With a sudden lurch and dive, his brother left the shelter of the shadow, and sank into a chair in the circle of light. And another long, broken sigh escaped him.
“There's nothing the matter with me, Keith! It's true!”
Keith stepped quickly forward, and stared down into his brother's face; and instantly he saw that it was true. No one could have simulated the look in those eyes—of horrified wonder, as if they would never again get on terms with the face to which they belonged. To see them squeezed the heart-only real misery could look like that. Then that sudden pity became angry bewilderment.
“What in God's name is this nonsense?”
But it was significant that he lowered his voice; went over to the door, too, to see if it were shut. Laurence had drawn his chair forward, huddling over the fire—a thin figure, a worn, high-cheekboned face with deep-sunk blue eyes, and wavy hair all ruffled, a face that still had a certain beauty. Putting a hand on that lean shoulder, Keith said:
“Come, Larry! Pull yourself together, and drop exaggeration.”
“It's true; I tell you; I've killed a man.”
The noisy violence of that outburst acted like a douche. What was the fellow about—shouting out such words! But suddenly Laurence lifted his hands and wrung them. The gesture was so utterly painful that it drew a quiver from Keith's face.
“Why did you come here,” he said, “and tell me this?”
Larry's face was really unearthly sometimes, such strange gleams passed up on to it!
“Whom else should I tell? I came to know what I'm to do, Keith? Give myself up, or what?”
At that sudden introduction of the practical Keith felt his heart twitch. Was it then as real as all that? But he said, very quietly:
“Just tell me—How did it come about, this—affair?”
That question linked the dark, gruesome, fantastic nightmare on to actuality.
“When did it happen?”
In Larry's face there was—there had always been—something childishly truthful. He would never stand a chance in court! And Keith said:
“How? Where? You'd better tell me quietly from the beginning. Drink this coffee; it'll clear your head.”
Laurence took the little blue cup and drained it.
“Yes,” he said. “It's like this, Keith. There's a girl I've known for some months now—”
Women! And Keith said between his teeth: “Well?”
“Her father was a Pole who died over here when she was sixteen, and left her all alone. A man called Walenn, a mongrel American, living in the same house, married her, or pretended to—she's very pretty, Keith—he left her with a baby six months old, and another coming. That one died, and she did nearly. Then she starved till another fellow took her on. She lived with him two years; then Walenn turned up again, and made her go back to him. The brute used to beat her black and blue, all for nothing. Then he left her again. When I met her she'd lost her elder child, too, and was taking anybody who came along.”
He suddenly looked up into Keith's face.
“But I've never met a sweeter woman, nor a truer, that I swear. Woman! She's only twenty now! When I went to her last night, that brute—that Walenn—had found her out again; and when he came for me, swaggering and bullying—Look!”—he touched a dark mark on his forehead—“I took his throat in my hands, and when I let go—”
“Dead. I never knew till afterwards that she was hanging on to him behind.”
Again he made that gesture-wringing his hands.
In a hard voice Keith said:
“What did you do then?”
“We sat by it a long time. Then I carried it on my back down the street, round a corner to an archway.”
“About fifty yards.”
“Was anyone—did anyone see?”
“Went back to her.”
“Why—in Heaven's name?”
“She was lonely and afraid; so was I, Keith.”
“Where is this place?”
“Forty-two, Borrow Street, Soho.”
“And the archway?”
“Corner of Glove Lane.”
“Good God! Why—I saw it in the paper!”
And seizing the journal that lay on his bureau, Keith read again that paragraph: “The body of a man was found this morning under an archway in Glove Lane, Soho. From marks about the throat grave suspicions of foul play are entertained. The body had apparently been robbed, and nothing was discovered leading to identification.”
It was real earnest, then. Murder! His own brother! He faced round and said:
“You saw this in the paper, and dreamed it. Understand—you dreamed it!”
The wistful answer came:
“If only I had, Keith—if only I had!”
In his turn, Keith very nearly wrung his hands.
“Did you take anything from the—body?”
“This dropped while we were struggling.”
It was an empty envelope with a South American post-mark addressed: “Patrick Walenn, Simon's Hotel, Farrier Street, London.” Again with that twitching in his heart, Keith said:
“Put it in the fire.”
Then suddenly he stooped to pluck it out. By that command—he had—identified himself with this—this—But he did not pluck it out. It blackened, writhed, and vanished. And once more he said:
“What in God's name made you come here and tell me?”
“You know about these things. I didn't mean to kill him. I love the girl. What shall I do, Keith?
“Simple! How simple! To ask what he was to do! It was like Larry! And he said:
“You were not seen, you think?” “It's a dark street. There was no one about.”
“When did you leave this girl the second time?”
“About seven o'clock.”
“Where did you go?”
“To my rooms.”
“In Fitzroy Street?”
“Did anyone see you come in?”
“What have you done since?”
“Not been out?”
“Not seen the girl?”
“You don't know, then, what she's done since?”
“Would she give you away?”
“Would she give herself away—hysteria?”
“Who knows of your relations with her?”
“I don't know who should, Keith.”
“Did anyone see you going in last night, when you first went to her?”
“No. She lives on the ground floor. I've got keys.”
“Give them to me. What else have you that connects you with her?”
“In your rooms?”
“No photographs. No letters?”
“No one saw you going back to her the second time?”
“No one saw you leave her in the morning?”
“You were fortunate. Sit down again, man. I must think.”
Think! Think out this accursed thing—so beyond all thought, and all belief. But he could not think. Not a coherent thought would come. And he began again:
“Was it his first reappearance with her?”
“She told you so?”
“How did he find out where she was?”
“I don't know.”
“How drunk were you?”
“I was not drunk.”
“How much had you drunk?”
“About two bottles of claret—nothing.”
“You say you didn't mean to kill him?”
“What made you choose the arch?”
“It was the first dark place.”
“Did his face look as if he had been strangled?”
“Did you look to see if his clothes were marked?”
“Why not? My God! If you had done it!”
“You say he was disfigured. Would he be recognisable?”
“I don't know.”
“When she lived with him last—where was that?”
“I don't know for certain. Pimlico, I think.”
“How long has she been at the Soho place?”
“Nearly a year.”
“Always the same rooms?”
“Is there anyone living in that house or street who would be likely to know her as his wife?”
“I don't think so.”
“What was he?”
“I should think he was a professional 'bully.'.rdquo;
“I see. Spending most of his time abroad, then?”
“Do you know if he was known to the police?”
“I haven't heard of it.”
“Now, listen, Larry. When you leave here go straight home, and don't go out till I come to you, to-morrow morning. Promise that!”
“I've got a dinner engagement. I'll think this out. Don't drink. Don't talk! Pull yourself together.”
“Don't keep me longer than you can help, Keith!”
That white face, those eyes, that shaking hand! With a twinge of pity in the midst of all the turbulence of his revolt, and fear, and disgust Keith put his hand on his brother's shoulder, and said:
And suddenly he thought: 'My God! Courage! I shall want it all myself!'May 19, 2018, 11:22 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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