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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER XII. 'BRAVE SPIRITS ARE A BALSAM TO THEMSELVES.'
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CHAPTER XII. 'BRAVE SPIRITS ARE A BALSAM TO THEMSELVES.'
Maurice Clissold also looked at the girl as she stood up at the end of the table in the little bit of clear space left for the witnesses. A shaft of sunshine slanted from the skylight. The room was built out from the house, and lighted from the top, an apartment usually devoted to Masonic meetings and public dinners. In that clear radiance the girl's face was wondrously spiritualized. Easy to fancy that some being not quite of this common earth stood there, and that from those pale lips the awful truth would speak as if by the voice of revelation.

So Maurice Clissold thought as he looked at her. Never till this moment had she appeared to him beautiful; and now it was no common beauty which he beheld in her, but a strange and spiritual charm impossible of definition.

187

'You were the last person who saw Mr. Penwyn alive, except his murderer?' said Mr. Pergament, interrogatively, after the usual formula had been gone through.

'I opened the shop door for him when he went out, after supper.'

'At what o'clock?'

'Half-past two.'

'Was he perfectly sober at that time?'

'Oh yes,' with an indignant look.

'Was he going back to the "Waterfowl" alone?'

'Quite alone.'

'Did he say anything particular to you just at last?—anything that it might be important for us to know?'

A faint colour flushed the pale face at the question.

'Nothing.'

'Is that all you can tell us?'

'There is only one thing more,' the girl answered, calmly. 'I stood at the door a few minutes to watch Mr. Penwyn walking up the street, and just as he turned the corner a man passed on the opposite side of the way in the same direction.'

188

'Towards Lowgate?'

'Yes.'

'What kind of a man?'

'He was rather tall, and wore an overcoat, and a thick scarf around his neck, as if it had been winter.'

'Did you see his face?'

'No.'

'Or notice anything else about him—anything besides the overcoat and the muffler?'

'Nothing.'

'You say he was tall. Was he as tall as that gentleman, do you suppose?—Stand up for a moment, if you please, Mr. Clissold.'

Clissold stood up. He was above the average height of tall men, well over six feet.

'No, he was not so tall as that.'

'Are you sure of that? A man would look taller in this room than in the street. Do you allow for that difference?' inquired Mr. Pergament.

'I do not believe that the man I saw that night was so tall as Mr. Clissold, nor so broad across the shoulders.'

'That will do.'

189

The chief constable next gave evidence as to the finding of the body, the watch buried in the ditch, the empty purse. Then came the landlady of the 'Waterfowl,' with an account of the high words between the two gentlemen, and Mr. Clissold's abrupt departure on the following morning. The Spinnersbury detectives followed, and described Mr. Clissold's arrest, the tracing of footsteps behind the hedge and down to the towpath, and how they had compared Mr. Clissold's boot with the footprints without being able to arrive at any positive conclusion.

'It might very easily be the print of the same foot in a different boot,' said Higlett. 'It isn't so much the difference between the size of the feet as the shape and cut of the boot. The man must have been tall, the length of his stride shows that.'

There was no further evidence. The coroner addressed the jury.

After a few minutes' consultation they returned their verdict,—'That the deceased had been murdered by some person or persons unknown.'

Thus Maurice Clissold found himself a free man190 again, but with the uncomfortable feeling of having been, for a few days, supposed the murderer of his bosom friend. It seemed to him that a stigma would attach to his name henceforward. He would be spoken of as the man who had been suspected, and who was in all probability guilty, but who had been let slip because the chain of evidence was not quite strong enough to hang him.

'I suppose if I had been tried in Scotland the verdict would have been "Non Proven,"' he thought.

One only means of self-justification remained open to him, viz., to find the real murderer. He fancied that Higlett and Smelt looked at him with unfriendly eyes. They were aggravated by the loss of the reward. They would turn their attention in a new direction, no doubt, but considerable time had been lost while they were on a wrong scent.

Maurice Clissold could not quite make up his mind about those Bohemians of the Eborsham Theatre; whether this vagabond heavy father might not know something more than he cared to reveal about James Penwyn's fate. He had given his191 evidence with a sufficiently straightforward air, and the girl was above doubt. Truth was stamped on the pale sorrowful face,—truth, and a silent grief. Could that grief have its root in some fatal secret? Did she know her father guilty of this crime, and shield him with heroic falsehoods, only less sublime than truth?

She stood by her father's side, a little way apart from the crowd, as she had stood throughout the inquiry, intently watchful.

While Maurice lingered, debating whether he should follow up the strolling players, Churchill Penwyn came straight across the room towards him, before the undispersed assembly.

'I congratulate you on your release, Mr. Clissold,' he said, offering his hand with a friendly air, 'and permit me to assure you that I, for one, have been fully assured of your innocence throughout this melancholy business.'

'I thank you for doing me justice, Mr. Penwyn. I was very fond of your cousin. I liked him as well as if he had been my brother, and if the question had been put to me whether harm should come to192 him or me, I believe I should have chosen the evil lot for myself. His mother was a second mother to me, God bless her. She asked me to take care of him a few hours before her death, and I felt from that time as if I were responsible for his future. He was little more than a boy when his poor mother died. He was little more than a boy the last time I saw him alive, the night we had our first quarrel.'

'What was the quarrel about?'

Mr. Clissold shrugged his shoulders, and glanced round the room, which was clearing by degrees, but not yet empty.

'It's too long a story to enter upon here,' he said.

'Come and dine with me at the "Castle," at eight o'clock, and tell me all about it,' said Churchill.

'You're very good. No. I can't manage that. I have something to do.'

'What is that?'

'To begin a business that may take a long time to finish.'

'May I ask the nature of that business?'

'I want to find James Penwyn's murderer.'

193

Churchill shrugged his shoulders and smiled—a half compassionate smile.

'My dear sir,' he said, 'do you think that the murderer is ever found in such a case as this—given a delay of three days and nights—ample time for him to ship himself for any port in the known world? A low, clodhopping assassin, no doubt, in no way distinguishable from other clodhoppers. Find him! did you say? I can conceive no endeavour more hopeless. It is the fashion to rail at our police because they find it a little difficult to put their hands upon every delinquent who may be wanted, but it is hardly the simplest business in the world, to pick the right man out of ten or fifteen millions.'

Maurice Clissold heard him with a troubled look and short impatient sigh.

'I dare say you are right,' he said, 'but I shall do my best to unravel the mystery, even if I am doomed to fail.'

He asked some questions about his friend's funeral. It was to be at three o'clock on the following day, and Churchill was going back to194 London by an early train in order to attend as chief mourner.

'I shall be there,' said Maurice Clissold, and they parted with a friendly hand-shake.

Clissold was touched by Mr. Penwyn's friendliness. That stigma of non proven had not affected Churchill's opinion at any rate.

He followed Matthew Elgood and his daughter into the street, and joined them as they walked slowly homeward, the girl's face half hidden by her veil.

'I want to have a talk with you, Mr. Elgood, if you've no objection,' said Maurice. 'Unless you consider me tainted by the suspicion that has hung over me for the last three days, and object to hold any intercourse with me.'

'No, sir, I suspect no man,' answered the actor, with dignity. 'Although you were pleased to object to your lamented friend's inclination for my society I bear no malice, and I do you the justice to believe you had no part in his untimely end.'

'I thank you, Mr. Elgood, for your confidence.195 Since I have been in that abominable gaol I feel as if there were some odour of felony hanging about me. With regard to the objections of which you speak, I can assure you that they were founded upon no personal dislike, but upon prudential reasons, which I need not enlarge upon.'

'Enough, Mr. Clissold, it boots not now! If you will follow to our humble abode, and share the meal our modest means provide, I will enlighten you upon this theme, so far as my scant knowledge serve withal,' said the actor, unconsciously lapsing into blank verse.

Maurice accepted the invitation. He had a curious desire to see more of that girl, whose pale face had assumed a kind of sublimity just now in the crowded court. Could she really have cared for his murdered friend? She, who had but known him two days? Or was there some dark secret which moved her thus deeply? The man seemed frank and open enough. Hard to believe that villainy lurked beneath the Bohemian's rough kindliness.

They went straight to the lodging in the narrow196 street leading down to the river. Here all seemed comfortable enough. The evening meal, half tea, half dinner, was ready laid when Mr. Elgood and his visitor went in, and Mr. and Mrs. Dempson were waiting with some impatience for their refreshment. They looked somewhat surprised at the appearance of Clissold, and Mrs. Dempson returned his greeting with a certain stiffness. 'It isn't the pleasantest thing in the world to sit down to table with a suspected murderer,' she remarked afterwards, to which Justina replied, with a sudden flash of anger, 'Do you suppose I would sit in the same room with him if I thought him guilty?'

The low comedian took things more easily than his wife.

'Well, Mat,' he said, 'I thought you were never coming. I've been down at the "Arms," and heard the inquest. Glad to see you at liberty again, Mr. Clissold. A most preposterous business, your arrest. I heard all the evidence. I think those Spinnersbury detectives ought to get it hot. I dare say the press will slang 'em pretty tolerably. Well197 done, Judy!' he went on, with a friendly slap on Justina's shoulder, 'you spoke up like a good one. If you spoke as well as that on the stage, you'd soon be fit for the juvenile lead!'

Justina spoke no word, but took her place quietly at the table, where Mrs. Dempson was pouring out the tea, while Mr. Elgood dispensed a juicy rump-steak.

'I went to the butcher's for it myself,' he said. 'There's nothing like personal influence in these things. They wouldn't dare give me a slice off some superannuated cow. They know when they've got to deal with a judge. "That's beef," said the butcher, as he slapped his knife across the loin, and beef it is. Do you like it with the gravy in it, Mr. Clissold?'

There was a dish of steaming potatoes, and a bowl of lettuces, which greenstuff Mrs. Dempson champed as industriously as if she had been a blood relation of Nebuchadnezzar's.

Never had Maurice Clissold seen any one so silent or so self-sustained as this pale, thin, shadowy-looking girl, whom her friends called Judy. She198 interested him strangely, and he did sorry justice to Mr. Elgood's ideal steak, while watching her. She herself hardly ate anything; but the others were too deeply absorbed in their own meal to be concerned about her. She sat by her father, and drank a little tea, sat motionless for the most part, with her dark thoughtful eyes looking far away, looking into some world that was not for the rest.

So soon as the pangs of hunger were appeased, and the pleasures of the table in some measure exhausted, Mr. Elgood became loquacious again. He gave a detailed description of that last day on the racecourse—the supper—all that James Penwyn had said or done within his knowledge. And then came a discussion as to who could have done the deed.

'He was in the theatre all the evening, you say,' said Maurice. 'Is it possible that any of the scene-shifters, or workmen of any kind, may have observed him—seen him open a well-filled purse, perhaps—and followed him after he left this house? It was one of his foolish habits to carry too much money199 about him—from twenty to fifty pounds, for instance. He used to say it was a bore to sit down and write a cheque for every trifle he wanted. And of course, in our travels, ready money was a necessity. Could it have been one of your people, do you think?'

'No, sir,' replied Mr. Elgood. 'The stage has contributed nothing to the records of crime. From the highest genius who has ever adorned the drama to the lowest functionary employed in the working of its machinery, there has been no such thing as a felon.'

'I am glad to hear you say so, Mr. Elgood; yet it is clear to me that this crime must have been committed by some one who watched and followed my poor friend—some one who knew enough of him to know that he had money about him.'

'I grant you, sir,' replied the actor.

It was now time for these Thespians to repair to the theatre, all but Justina, who, for a wonder, was not in the first piece. Maurice took notice of this fact, and after walking to the theatre with Mr. Elgood, went back to that gentleman's200 lodgings to have a few words alone with his daughter.

He passed through the shop unchallenged, visitors for the lodgers being accustomed to pass in and out in a free and easy manner. He went quietly upstairs. The sitting-room door stood ajar. He pushed it open, and went in.


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