BY JOSEPH HATTON.
Out, out, damned spot!—Shakspere.
It was during these hours that had "dropped one by one into the gulf of time" that the miserable count had been done to death by as fierce a murderer as had ever mutilated Nature's handiwork, albeit unconscious of his sanguinary deed. While mind and body had, so far as Lord Francis knew, been absorbed in sleep, both had been cruelly awake under a strange mesmeric or electro-biologic influence.
The wrong by which his soul was vexed had carried him out of himself, and brought him under the control of what unsophisticated people call sleep-walking, with suicidal or murderous impulse. Scientists have found in this hypnological condition new examples of unconscious evolution of the mind; but it is not our business to describe or investigate the various discoveries which, in the direction of hypnotic trance or mesmeric constraint, have of late occupied public attention; we have merely to record the facts that in this present history are stranger than fiction.
Illustrations of the possibilities of a dual existtence have been given to the world in the case of Hyde and Jekyll, but sleep-walking is as old as the hills, and give the hypnological subject the original impulse of a bitter wrong sufficient to excite a vengeful desire, then such a deed as that which was proclaimed by the newsboys, as Lord Francis left his chambers to take the tidal train to Paris, is quite conceivable.
The victim of the dream in action, the sleep-walker—the subject of the mesmerizer—comes out of his trance oblivious of his hypnotic adventures.
And thus it was with Lord Francis. But what a crime he had unconsciously committed! And with what heroic self-denial the wife had taken upon herself all the responsibility of the criminal's vengeful act!
The male figure which Lord Francis had seen stealing toward his wife's room was the Count de Mürger. In this Lord Francis was not mistaken, but Fenella was. We know how at the moment her heart was yearning for its rightful lord, but De Mürger little thought that Lady Francis had taken him for Frank. Her feelings had been so wrought up to the pitch of hope, that leaving her room to find her husband and throw herself at his feet, she fancied him in a similar frame of mind—as indeed he was—and love interpreted the approach of the count into that of her husband.
Alas! if she had only resented the presence of the count in the hearing of Lord Francis; if he could have heard the overwhelming rebuke of the true wife as the truculent lover flung himself upon his knees before her, what a world of misery had been spared him and her!
Not that the death of the count was any loss to society or the world; it was not. There was no redeeming feature in his character. He had worked his way into Fenella's confidence by subtle lies; he had won his position in society, such as it was, by the meanest arts; not to mention the replenishing of his purse on more than one occasion by doubtful play at cards, even when invited to the best houses. In short, the count was an unscrupulous man, but he was fascinating to women, and could boast, and did, of his many conquests.
Such perfidy as this may be successful for a time, but it not unfrequently has a violent ending.
In the case of Count de Mürger his career was cut short at the moment when he was, as he thought, on the eve of his most daring and villainous success. If his death cast a shadow upon the reputation of Fenella, since it occurred in her chamber, it threw around her the halo of a wifely devotion not unworthy of the classic days of classic virtue.
It is only the reader, however, of the present history who can understand all that is meant by this revelation of wifely atonement and love. Fenella, like many another wife, had sought to amuse herself with a would-be lover; she had also played him off against the supposed indifference of her husband in a careless rivalry of his harmless flirtations.
When the police entered the chamber of Lady Francis Onslow, they found the count lying dead on the floor. Looking to her for some explanation, she drew herself to her full height, and, flinging upon the body the silver-hilted dagger she had worn in her hair, she said, "This man attempted my life, and I killed him."
It is curious how situations of a kindred character often inspire similar explanation. It will be remembered by many that when the deputy in "The Dead Heart" drew the attention of the guard to the dead Abbé, he did so in words quite similar to those used by Lady Onslow.
It was a most pathetic figure—the slim, pale woman, as she drew her brocaded gown about her and fixed her expressive eyes on the police.
Lord Francis Onslow little dreamed of what had occurred as he fled from the hotel. And yet it was he whom his wife was shielding in her strange confession. It was Lord Francis himself who had slain the count, and in her presence.
It is known that great discoveries have been made during so-called sleep. Men have made long journeys in their dreams, and awakened unconscious of their travels. Others have arisen refreshed with a new sense of knowledge and power. Louis Stevenson has confessed that he dreams his stories, and then writes them out. There was in a recent Academy the picture of a young girl walking with closed eyes amid poppies and hemlocks. The present writer has experienced, in his own career, an incident of hypnotic sleep or mesmeric trance, during which he went forth in very truth with knife and pistol to commit, as it seemed, some great crime, and was only prevented by the kindly guidance of a loving arm, that held his own and led him back to the couch from which he had risen.
And thus it was when Lord Francis exclaimed, "Too late! O Heaven! to think my own eyes should be witness of my own eternal shame, and—hers," the hand of Fate was stretched out against the intriguing and vicious Count de Mürger. For as Lord Francis staggered back to his room, dazed, stunned, the cold tears welling up into his eyes, his head on his arms, his whole form limp with shattered nerves, a new and terrible power was created within him. He fell into a chair, entirely overcome, and for a little while appeared to sleep. But it was the sleep that awakens, the mesmeric sleep that walks and acts, the dream-sleep that takes possession of body and mind; such sleep as that which afflicted Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan.
Hardly had De Mürger surprised the startled Fenella than Lord Francis arose from the chair and retraced his steps toward his wife's room. While all that he knew of himself was asleep, Nature, in one of its strangest freaks, propelled him forth.
"Back, sir! How dare you come here?" Lady Francis was exclaiming as he entered the room.
De Mürger had just risen from his knees, and in Fenella's hand, raised above her head, was a gleaming dagger.
"But, my dear Fenella, listen," said the count.
"Back, I say! Touch me, and I will kill you!"
"Oh, this is foolish bravado," the Frenchman answered.
"Another word, and I will alarm the house."
"That would only be to ruin your reputation," said the daring lover.
"God knows I have not much reputation to lose in the eyes of the world, since it seems I have given you sufficient encouragement to bring you here."
"Well, then, why be cruel now? You know I love you dearly!" As he made this last appeal, Fenella stood transfixed, her eyes no longer upon his, but gazing, as it seemed, on vacancy.
"Hush," she whispered, her eyes fixed, her figure rigid with fear.
She saw her husband steal ghostlike into the room; noted his blanched face, his lips blue, his eyes piercing bright. He seemed to glide toward her like an animal creeping upon its prey.
"Ah, you relent," said the count, approaching her with loving action, at which the apparition of the avenging husband paused. For a moment Lady Francis thought it was an apparition, the unreal creation of her fears; but as it came crouching on again as if ready to spring, she realized the dreadful situation, and in response to the count in his fool's paradise, she whispered, "Hush! your hour has come, and mine. And, O Heaven, he will never know I am innocent!"
The next moment the stealthy figure rose up and seemed to smite the count as an anaconda might. There was no noise, no thudding blow; but a great iron grip held him by the throat, and in a moment later the dagger was taken from the hand of Lady Francis and was thrust into the heart of the already dying man.
Presently the deed was done, and the murderer stood face to face with his wife. He looked at her as if he saw her not. She spoke; he did not seem to hear her.
"I am innocent, Frank," she said, "but oh, kill me, too; for you can never believe me. I was seeking you when he came to me; I had upbraided myself, and determined to ask your forgiveness for my neglect of you. But oh! for nothing more, as Heaven is my judge! But kill me; you can never again think me a true and honest wife."
For a moment the somnambulist stood and gazed at her, but surely saw her not.
"He is mad!" she said, "mad! Or have I lost my senses? Frank, Frank, I will save you! Begone! I am to blame! I will accept the responsibility! Begone!"
She did not move as she spoke, nor did he. They both looked steadily at each other. She thought he was about to answer her, when he moved away, retracing his steps from the room as stealthily as he had entered it. She watched him with a strange fascination, and without the power to move until he disappeared; and then, with a moaning cry, she sank upon her knees and put out her hand toward the ghastly heap upon the floor, in the hope that she was only dreaming, and that all she had seen was mere fantasy; but the carpet was wet, and there was blood upon her hand.
"Why did I not kill him!" he had exclaimed, as we know, when he had returned to his own room and passed out of his sleep to life and consciousness.
He knew nothing of the murderous scene in which he had played so terrible a part—knew nothing of the crumpled, bleeding body lying in a hideous heap, with its pale companion looking down upon it, and the light piercing in through the curtained window with ghostlike fingers.
Fenella watched the first sentinels of the morning, pointing airy fingers here and there; one trembling sun-glance falling upon the silver hilt of the red dagger; another seeking, as it were, to find out the hideous face of the dead man. But she uttered no word, only stood there still and quiet, like some strangely sculptured statue waiting to be called to life—as she was presently called by an inspector of police and the manager of the hotel after she had given the alarm.
Aroused to action, she took upon herself all the odium of her husband's deed—took it upon herself with the queen-like dignity of an avenging angel.
"This man attempted my life, and I killed him!"
And they knew, those common men, that when she said her life she meant her honor. To her that was her life, and they were conscious of her great beauty, even as she stood before them, pale as a ghost, and with hot, burning eyes.
The officer noticed that there was no evidence of a struggle; not a curtain was awry, no chair was out of its place, the carpet was unruffled, the room was neat and trim as if nothing unusual had taken place. Before touching the body, he wrote these facts down in his book. Then, laying his hand upon the bundle of clothes, he exposed the dead face of the count, and requested the hotel manager to admit his two attendant constables. One he dispatched for a doctor; to the other he confided the custody of Lady Francis Onslow.
"I charge you formally, madam, with the murder of this man on your own confession, which I have written down, and I warn you that anything else you may say will be given in evidence against you."
"Yes," said Fenella, "he attempted my life, and I killed him."
"You are my prisoner, my lady," said the inspector; "but you may call in any friend you wish to see. At the same time, I again warn you that anything you may say will be taken down and may be given in evidence against you. I will do my duty as considerately as possible, but I have a duty to perform, and that of course you will understand."
The first editions of the newspapers gave conflicting reports of the count's death.
For a time the public did not understand whether the count had been murdered in his bed by burglars, whether he was the victim of Nihilistic vengeance, or whether he had committed suicide; but on the morning following the tragedy they were regaled with all the strange story and much more besides.
The confession of Lady Francis Onslow was a text upon which everybody had a sermon to preach. But it was speedily a point of comment that the marks upon the throat of the dead man suggested a more powerful grip than that of Fenella. There was something in the condition of the body which puzzled the experts. This was no ordinary murder, everybody agreed; nor indeed was it, as we know.
At the inquest the medical testimony showed that death might have been caused either by strangulation or by the various stabbings that disfigured the body.
It seemed to the experts that the man had been done to death by some person far more powerful than the prisoner. The marks on the throat were almost as strong, and the bruises and depression of the windpipe as great, as would be caused by hanging. The man had been gripped by a powerful hand, while the stabs had been given with a force that had left the impression of the handle upon the flesh. The witnesses were few, but they were sufficient to show that a murder had been committed, though the jury and the public had evidently grave doubts about the criminality of the prisoner, Lady Francis Onslow.
One of the jurors had asked a pointed question as to the possibility of the deceased having committed suicide. This was, however, only a kindly suggestion in the direction of Lady Francis Onslow's innocence. The count had been killed by other hands than his own. There was no doubt about that.
What irritated the public in regard to the first day's inquiry was that, while there were hints at scandal, nothing came out that might be called piquant.
Of course, there was the fact that the count was in Lady Onslow's bedroom at midnight; but none of the details that led up to this piece of audacity—if it were audacity—were disclosed.
The coroner, in a mild rebuke administered to the foreman of the jury, said the court was assembled to inquire into the death of Count de Mürger, but it was not a court of social investigation; it was not an inquisition charged with a mission to unravel scandal or to exploit the life and manners of a section of Her Majesty's subjects. While he would take any evidence that bore upon the case, however painful that evidence might be to the private feelings or public reputation of even the highest in. the land, he would not allow that court to be unduly inquisitorial in matters that could only satisfy the prurient and licentious taste of that wretched section of the public which found its chief amusement in French novels and the scandals of Vanity Fair.
Poor coroner! he lived to regret those words. Even some of the very best newspapers condemned them; and the worst called for the coroner's instant dismissal, as a panderer to the aristocracy and unfit to preside over a court of any kind.
On the first day of the inquest the coroner asked why Lord Francis Onslow was not present. The question created an expectant hush, which was maintained while Mr. Jarrow Cook, of the firm of Cook, Son & Lovett, the family lawyers
of the Onslows, explained that Lord Francis was somewhere abroad—where, they did not know.
"When did Lord Francis quit the hotel where the count was killed?" asked the foreman of the jury.
"I do not know," was the lawyer's reply.
"I believe he left very early and suddenly for London, and then went on to Paris. Is that so?"
"I really cannot say," was the lawyer's answer.
"I do not know that these questions are in order, Mr. Foreman," said the coroner.
"May be not, Mr. Coroner," replied the foreman, "but there is a good deal, it strikes me, in the conduct of Lord Francis Onslow in this matter that requires explanation."
"Mr. Coroner," said the lawyer, "if you will permit me to say so. Lord Francis will, I am quite sure, be quite ready to answer any questions that this honorable court may desire to ask him ; but I think in his absence that——"
"Certainly," said the coroner, interrupting Mr. Jarrow Cook, of the firm of Cook, Son & Lovett. "I am sure the foreman will feel that it is not within our province at the moment to refer to the conduct of Lord Francis Onslow. His lordship will, no doubt, present himself before us in due course, if wanted. If necessary, I will order his attendance."
At this there was some applause in court, and Mr. Jarrow Cook rose to remark with all deference that he thought the coroner's observation uncalled for, whereupon the coroner reminded Mr. Jarrow Cook that he was only there by courtesy, and that he must request him not to offer any further criticism of a personal nature in regard to the conduct of the court.
Mr. Jarrow Cook bowed, and the proceedings went on without any further interruption.
The prisoner, who was dressed in a quiet gown of gray cashmere, sat placidly in an armchair near Mr. Jarrow Cook. She was pale, but quite self-possessed. The evidence of the police inspector seemed to interest her very much, as he related with careful regard to detail how he was sent for, and what he saw and heard in the prisoner's room; how he cautioned her, and what he said when he took her into custody.
An observant reporter thought he detected a peculiar smile pass over the mobile features of Lady Francis Onslow, when the first medical witness suggested the impossibility of a woman having made the marks on the throat of the dead man; but no doubt, when the case comes to be sifted to its very dregs, and the prosecuting counsel has to reply to this medical criticism, he will be able to adduce instances of the enormous strength that comes with passion, or is the outcome of some great act of revenge, and so on.
That is, if Lady Francis Onslow should have to take her trial for willful murder, though the coroner's inquest ended with her condemnation, the case has still to go before the police magistrate, and already public opinion has decided that if Lady Francis Onslow did kill the would-be Tarquin she is only guilty of manslaughter. By her own confession, upon which she was originally charged, the man sought her life, and she killed him. It was remarked by many that in America she would have easily found bail if she had been arrested, and that if she had ever come before a court for trial she would have been promptly acquitted. "Justifiable homicide" is a verdict not unknown to the English law, many wise persons also remarked.
Meanwhile Lady Francis Onslow was on her way in a police van, to be charged in the police court, and a detective had been told off at Scotland Yard to keep his eye upon Lord Francis Onslow.