At the moment, however, he thought less of this than of the beauty of the face which he saw for the first time. It was a southern face, finely moulded, dark and passionate, full-lipped, yet wide of brow, with a generous breadth between the eyes. Seldom had he seen a woman more beautiful; and he stood silent, the words he had been about to speak dying stillborn on his lips.
Yet she seemed to understand them; she answered them. 'Why have I brought you here?' she cried, her voice trembling; and she pointed to the bed. 'Because he is--he was my father. And he lies there. And because the man who killed him goes free. And I would--I would kill him! Do you hear me? I would kill him!'
Sir George tried to free his mind from the influence of her passion and her eyes, from the nightmare of the room and the body, and to see things in a sane light. 'But--my good girl,' he said, slowly and not unkindly, 'I know nothing about it. Nothing. I am a stranger here.'
'For that reason I brought you here,' she retorted.
'But--I cannot interfere,' he answered, shaking his head. 'There is the law. You must apply to it. The law will punish the man if he has done wrong.'
'But the law will not punish him!' she cried with scorn. 'The law? The law is your law, the law of the rich. And he'--she pointed to the bed--'was poor and a servant. And the man who killed him was his master. So he goes free--of the law!'
'But if he killed him?' Sir George muttered lamely.
'He did!' she cried between her teeth. 'And I would have you kill him!'
He shook his head. 'My good girl,' he said kindly, 'you are distraught. You are not yourself. Or you would know a gentleman does not do these things.'
'A gentleman!' she retorted, her smouldering rage flaming up at last. 'No; but I will tell you what he does. He kills a man to save his purse! Or his honour! Or for a mis-word at cards! Or the lie given in drink! He will run a man through in a dark room, with no one to see fair play! But for drawing his sword to help a woman, or avenge a wrong, a gentleman--a gentleman does not do these things. It is true! And may--'
'Oh, have done, have done, my dear!' cried a wailing, tearful voice; and Sir George, almost cowed by the girl's fierce words and the fiercer execration that was on her lips, hailed the intervention with relief. The woman whom he had seen on her knees had risen and now approached the girl, showing a face wrinkled, worn, and plain, but not ignoble; and for the time lifted above the commonplace by the tears that rained down it. 'Oh, my lovey, have done,' she cried. 'And let the gentleman go. To kill another will not help him that is dead. Nor us that are left alone!'
'It will not help him!' the girl answered, shrilly and wildly; and her eyes, leaving Soane, strayed round the room as if she were that moment awakened and missed some one. 'No! But is he to be murdered, and no one suffer? Is he to die and no one pay? He who had a smile for us, go in or out, and never a harsh word or thought; who never did any man wrong or wished any man ill? Yet he lies there! Oh, mother, mother,' she continued, her voice broken on a sudden by a tremor of pain, 'we are alone! We are alone! We shall never see him come in at that door again!'
The old woman sobbed helplessly and made no answer; on which the girl, with a gesture as simple as it was beautiful, drew the grey head to her shoulder. Then she looked at Sir George. 'Go,' she said; but he saw that the tears were welling up in her eyes, and that her frame was beginning to tremble. 'Go! I was not myself--a while ago--when I fetched you. Go, sir, and leave us.'
Moved by the abrupt change, as well as by her beauty, Sir George lingered; muttering that perhaps he could help her in another way. But she shook her head, once and again; and, instinctively respecting the grief which had found at length its proper vent, he turned and, softly lifting the latch, went out into the court.
The night air cooled his brow, and recalled him to sober earnest and the eighteenth century. In the room which he had left, he had marked nothing out of the common except the girl. The mother, the furniture, the very bed on which the dead man lay, all were appropriate, and such as he would expect to find in the house of his under-steward. But the girl? The girl was gloriously handsome; and as eccentric as she was beautiful. Sir George's head turned and his eyes glowed as he thought of her. He considered what a story he could make of it at White's; and he put up his spying-glass, and looked through it to see if the towers of the cathedral still overhung the court. 'Gad, sir!' he said aloud, rehearsing the story, as much to get rid of an unfashionable sensation he had in his throat as in pure whimsy, 'I was surprised to find that it was Oxford. It should have been Granada, or Bagdad, or Florence! I give you my word, the houris that the Montagu saw in the Hammam at Stamboul were nothing to her!'
The persons through whom he had passed on his way to the door were still standing before the house. Glancing back when he had reached the mouth of the court, he saw that they were watching him; and, obeying a sudden impulse of curiosity, he turned on his heel and signed to the nearest to come to him. 'Here, my man,' he said, 'a word with you.'
The fellow moved towards him reluctantly, and with suspicion. 'Who is it lies dead there?' Sir George asked.
'Your honour knows,' the man answered cautiously.
'No, I don't.'
'Then you will be the only one in Oxford that does not,' the fellow replied, eyeing him oddly.
'Maybe,' Soane answered with impatience. 'Take it so, and answer the question,'
'It is Masterson, that was the porter at Pembroke.'
'Ah! And how did he die?'
'That is asking,' the man answered, looking shiftily about. 'And it is an ill business, and I want no trouble. Oh, well'--he continued, as Sir George put something in his hand--'thank your honour, I'll drink your health. Yes, it is Masterson, poor man, sure enough; and two days ago he was as well as you or I--saving your presence. He was on the gate that evening, and there was a supper on one of the staircases: all the bloods of the College, your honour will understand. About an hour before midnight the Master sent him to tell the gentlemen he could not sleep for the noise. After that it is not known just what happened, but the party had him in and gave him wine; and whether he went then and returned again when the company were gone is a question. Any way, he was found in the morning, cold and dead at the foot of the stairs, and his neck broken. It is said by some a trap was laid for him on the staircase. And if it was,' the man continued, after a pause, his true feeling finding sudden vent, 'it is a black shame that the law does not punish it! But the coroner brought it in an accident.'
Sir George shrugged his shoulders. Then, moved by curiosity and a desire to learn something about the girl, 'His daughter takes it hardly,' he said.
The man grunted. 'Ah,' he said, 'maybe she has need to. Your honour does not come from him?'
'From Whom? I come from no one.'
'To be sure, sir, I was forgetting. But, seeing you with her--but there, you are a stranger.'
Soane would have liked to ask him his meaning, but felt that he had condescended enough. He bade the man a curt good-night, therefore, and turning away passed quickly into St. Aldate's Street. Thence it was but a step to the Mitre, where he found his СКАЧАТЬ