False Evidence - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

False Evidence ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

The story of a gallant soldier who is dismissed his regiment, and disowned by his father, because he has been found guilty, on „False Evidence,” of cowardice in the field. He changes his name, and later his son falls in love with the daughter of the man whose False Evidence led to his ruin.

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Liczba stron: 373

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Contents

PROLOGUE

I. MY APOLOGY

II. THE FIRST CLOUD

III. THE BOY MUST BE TOLD

IV. A MYSTERIOUS MEETING

V. ON BOSSINGTON HEADLAND

VI. AN INTERRUPTED ADDRESS

VII. I AM TOLD

VIII. MY VOW

IX. AN UNEXPECTED VISIT

X. THE FIRST MOVE

XI. COLONEL DEVEREUX'S LAND AGENT

XII. DEVEREAUX COURT

XIII. COLONEL SIR FRANCIS DEVEREUX, BART.

XIV. THE BEGINNING OF DANGER

XV. A FLIGHT FOR LIFE

XVI. MY CONVALESCENCE

XVII. A MOONLIGHT RIDE

XVIII. A STRANGE INTERVIEW

XIX. MARIAN SURPRISES ME

XX. AMONGST THE BULRUSHES

XXI. RUPERT DEVEREUX

XXII. FACE TO FACE

XXIII. IN THE PICTURE GALLERY

XXIV. A MIDNIGHT VISITOR

XXV. COUSINS

XXVI. I GIVE WARNING

XXVII. SIR FRANCIS DEVEREUX'S APPEAL

XXVIII. GOODBYE TO DEVEREUX COURT

XXIX. I AM TEMPTED

XXX. LIAR AND COWARD

XXXI. MY FATHER AND I

XXXII. THE BRIGANDS' HOME

XXIII. AT PALERMO

XXXIV. VISITORS FROM ROME

XXXV. WE ENTERTAIN AT THE VILLA

XXXVI. MR. BURTON LEIGH

XXXVII. CUT DOWN

XXXVIII. AN OMINOUS NOTE

XXXIX. MY FATHER'S RESOLUTION

XL. A HORRIBLE MISTAKE

XLI. TWO YEARS AFTER

XLII. A TRAITOROUS LOVE

XLIII. EXPIATION

XLIV. HERO

PROLOGUE

The last sally had been made and repulsed, the last shot fired; the fight was over, and victory remained with the white men. And yet, after all, was it a victory or a massacre? If you were a stay-at-home, and read the report from the telegrams in your club, or in the triumphant columns of the daily papers, especially those on the side of the Ministry, you would certainly have pronounced it the former. But if you had been there on the spot, and had seen the half-naked, ill-armed natives, with the fire of patriotism blazing in their eyes and leaping in their hearts–had seen them being shot down in rows by the merciless guns of the English batteries–another view of the matter might have presented itself to you. It might have occurred to you that these men were fighting on their own soil for their freedom and their country, and that the spirit which was blinding their eyes to the hopelessness of resistance, and urging them on to resist the stranger’s progress with such passionate ineffectiveness, was after all, a natural and a poetic one. But, after all, this has nothing to do with my story.

The battle was over, and it was morning. Far away in the east a dull red light had arisen from over the tops of the towering black mountains, and an angry sun was sullenly shining on the scene of carnage. It was a low hillside, once pleasant enough to look upon, but at that moment probably the most hideous sight which the whole universe could have shown. The silvery streams, which had trickled lazily down to the valley below, now ran thick and red with blood. The luxuriant shrubs and high waving ferns were trampled down and disfigured, and, most horrible sight of all, everywhere were strewn the copper-coloured forms of the beaten natives. There they lay apart and in heaps in all imaginable postures, and with all imaginable expressions on their hard, battered faces. Some lay on their sides with their fingers locked around their spears, and the rigid frown and convulsed passion of an undying hatred branded on their numbed features. Others less brave had been shot in the back whilst flying from the death-dealing fire of the European guns, and lay stretched about in attitudes which in life would have been comical, but in death were grotesquely hideous; and over the sloping fields the misty clouds of smoke still lingered and curled upwards from the battered extinct shells which lay thick on the ground.

High above the scene of devastation, on a rocky tableau at the summit of the range of hills, were pitched the tents of the victors. A little apart from these, conspicuous by the flag which floated above it, were the general’s quarters; and underneath that sloping roof of canvas a strange scene was being enacted.

Seated amongst a little group of the superior officers, with a heavy frown on his stern face, sat the general. Before him, at a little distance, with a soldier on either side, stood a tall, slight young man, in the uniform of an officer, but swordless. His smooth face, as yet beardless, was dyed with a deep flush, which might well be there, whether it proceeded from shame or indignation. For he was under arrest, and charged with a crime which, in a soldier, is heinous indeed–it was cowardice.

It was a court-martial before which he stood arraigned, although a hastily improvised one. But soldiers have prompt ideas of justice, and General Luxton was a martinet in all matters of discipline. Disciplinarian though he was, however, he liked little the task which was now before him.

He looked up from the papers, which were stretched out on the rickety little round table, with a sudden movement, and bent his frowning gaze upon the accused. The young man returned his gaze steadily, but the colour in his cheeks grew deeper.

“Herbert Devereux, you stand accused of a crime which, in your profession, nothing can palliate or excuse. Have you anything to say for yourself?”

“There will be no need for me to say anything, sir,” was the prompt reply. “It is true that I turned my back upon the enemy, but it was to face a greater danger. The man whose life I saved can disprove this cruel charge against me in a moment. I admit that, from your point of view, appearances are suspicious, but you have only to learn from my half-brother, Rupert Devereux, why I quitted my post, and what I effected by so doing, to absolve me at least from all suspicion of cowardice, however much I may be to blame as a matter of discipline.”

General Luxton appeared surprised, a little relieved.

“I hope so,” he said, not unkindly. “Roberts, send an orderly to Lieutenant Devereux’s tent, and command his presence at once.”

The man withdrew, and there was a few minutes’ delay. Then the entrance to the tent was lifted up, and a tall, dark young man, with thin but decided features, and flashing black eyes, stepped forward. He was handsome, after a certain type, but his expression was too lifeless and supercilious to be prepossessing.

General Luxton looked up and nodded.

“Lieutenant Devereux, your half-brother, who stands accused of cowardice in the face of the enemy, appeals to you to give evidence on his behalf. Let us hear what you saw of him during the recent fighting.”

Eagerly, and with a confident light in his fair young face, the prisoner turned towards the man to whom these words were addressed. But slowly and deliberately the latter turned his back upon his half-brother without noticing his glance of appeal, and with a scornful light in his eyes. There was a slight murmur, and an interchange of looks amongst the few who were present at this significant action.

“I do not know, General Luxton,” he said, slowly, “what the prisoner can expect me to say likely to benefit him. He can scarcely be so mad as to expect me to shield him in this matter on account of our relationship, or to preserve the honour of our name, and yet I do not see why else he should have appealed to me. I saw very little of the affair, and would rather not have seen that. I was riding to you, sir, with a message from Colonel Elliott; and, as I passed trench 4, I saw the prisoner suddenly leave his company and run towards me. He passed several yards to the left, and as he seemed to be hurrying along aimlessly, I called to him. He made no answer, but––”

“LIAR!”

The word seemed hurled out with such a passionate intensity that every one started. General Luxton looked up angrily.

“Silence, sir! You will have an opportunity of saying what you have to say presently. Proceed, Devereux.”

“As I was saying,” Rupert Devereux continued calmly, without appearing to have noticed the interruption, “he made no answer, but seemed to wish to avoid me. As the message with which I was entrusted was an important one, I rode on and left him hurrying towards the rear.”

With a sterner air even than he had at first assumed, General Luxton turned towards the unfortunate young man who stood before him. He was standing as though turned to stone, with wide-open eyes, staring at the man who had just spoken, attitude and expression alike bespeaking an overpowering bewilderment.

“You are at liberty to ask the witness any questions,” the General said, shortly.

For a moment there was a dead silence. Then the words came pouring out from his quivering lips like a mountain torrent.

“Rupert, what have you said? What does this mean? Good God, are you trying to ruin me? Did I not run to your assistance because you were beset by those three blackguards? Didn’t I kill two of them and save your life? You can’t have forgotten it! Why are you lying? Hilton saw it all, and so did Fenwick. Where are they? My God, this is horrible!”

The deep flush had gone from his cheeks, and left him pale as death. Great beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead, and there was a wild look in his deep blue eyes. But the man to whom he made his passionate appeal kept his back turned and heeded not a word of it. Instead of answering he addressed the General.

“General Luxton,” Rupert said, calmly, “the accused, in denying the truth of my statement, mentions the names of two men whom he admits were witnesses of this lamentable occurrence. Might I suggest that they be called to give their version?”

The General nodded assent, and the thing was done. But Hilton was the only one who answered the summons, and on reference to a list of the killed and wounded it was found that Fenwick was reported missing.

“John Hilton, the accused has appealed to you to give evidence on his behalf. Let us hear what you saw of him during the recent fighting.”

The man, an ordinary-looking private, stepped forward and saluted.

“I only saw him for a moment, sir,” he said, slowly, and with a marked reluctance. “I was riding behind Lieutenant Devereux when I saw him leave his company and pass us a few yards to the left. It struck me that he looked very pale, and I thought that perhaps he was wounded.”

“He did not leave his company to come to your master’s assistance, then?”

“Certainly not, sir. We were not in any need of it. None of the enemy were near us.”

“Thank you. You can go, Hilton.”

The man saluted and went.

There was a dead silence for a full minute. Then there came a passionate, hysterical cry from the prisoner–

“Liar! Liar! General Luxton, upon my honour, either my brother and this man are under some hallucination or they have entered into a conspiracy against me. Before God Almighty I swear that I only left my post because several of the enemy had crept down from the hill behind and had attacked my brother and his servant. I killed one of them, and the blood of the other is still on my sword. Why, Rupert, you know that you called out, ‘Thanks, Herbert, you have saved my life.’ Those were your very words!”

The man appealed to shook his head slowly and as though with great reluctance. The sigh seemed to madden the prisoner, and he made a sudden movement forward as though to spring at him.

“Oh, this is horrible!” he cried. “Where is Fenwick? He saw it all. Let him be called.”

General Luxton glanced again at the list before him and looked up.

“You are unfortunate in your selections,” he said, dryly. “The evidence of Hilton and your brother, to whom you appealed, only strengthens the case against you. Fenwick is missing. Herbert Devereux,” he went on sternly, “the charge against you has been proved. I, myself, at a most critical moment, saw you desert your post when it was the centre of attack, and it fell to another’s lot to lead your men on to the pursuit. The reasons which you have brought forward to account for your unwarrantable action have been clearly disposed of. You are most certainly guilty of a crime for which, amongst soldiers, there is no pardon. But you are young, and I cannot forget that you are the son of one of the most distinguished officers with whom it has been my good fortune to be associated. For his sake I am willing to make some allowance for you–on one condition you may retain your commission, and, I trust, retrieve this well-nigh fatal mistake in the future. To the crime of cowardice you have added the crime of lying; for that your account of the attack upon your half-brother and your rescue is a pure fabrication I cannot doubt. The peculiar curve in the defile behind trench 4 unfortunately hid you from the field of battle and prevents further evidence as to the occurrence which, you say, took place. But that your story is false no one can possibly doubt. The place has been carefully examined, and there are no dead bodies within a hundred yards. It seems, from your appeal to your half-brother, that you expected him to shield you at the expense of his honour. This lie and false statement of yours you must retract if you hope for any mercy from me.”

There was a convulsive agony in the boy’s white, strained face as he drew himself up, and looked half piteously, half indignantly at his judge. But when he tried to speak he could not, and there was a minute or two’s dead silence whilst he was struggling to obtain the mastery over himself. All expected a confession, and General Luxton removed his eyes from the prisoner, and bent close over his papers, that none might read the compassion which was in his heart, and which was reflected in his face.

The words came at last; and shrill and incoherent though they were, there was a ring of genuine dignity in them.

“General Luxton, I have been guilty neither of cowardice nor falsehood. I swear before God, on the sword which my father himself put into my hands before I left England; by everything that is most holy to me I swear that my account of this awful occurrence is true. Ask the men of whom I was in command when I caught sight of–of him”–and he pointed with a trembling finger and a gesture than which nothing could have been more dramatic to his half-brother–“ask them whether I bore myself like a coward when those spears were whistling around us, or when we were fighting hand-to-hand after the first repulse. God knows that I did not. I left my post to encounter a greater danger still. Bitterly do I regret that I ever did so; but it is the only indiscretion of which I am guilty. I swear it.”

General Luxton raised his head, and what there had been of compassion in his face was either gone or effectually concealed.

“You have sworn enough already,” he said, sternly. “Herbert Devereux, I am bitterly disappointed in you. I was willing to spare your father the disgrace which I fear will kill him; but you cut away the ground from under my feet. You are most certainly proved guilty of gross cowardice in the face of the enemy found guilty, not upon the evidence of one man, but of two, and one of those your own relative. Circumstances, too, are strong against you, so are the probabilities. Most undeniably and conclusively you are found guilty; guilty of cowardice, guilty of falsehood. You will remain under arrest until I can find an opportunity of sending an escort with you to the Hekla. Your commission is forfeited to the Queen, whose uniform you have disgraced.”

Never a sign of guilt in the prisoner’s countenance. Proudly and indignantly he looked his General straight in the face, his cheeks red with a flush, which was not of shame, and the wild fury in his heart blazing out of his eyes.

“It is not I who have disgraced the Queen’s colours; but he–he who has fabricated and sworn to a false string of lies. Rupert, in your heart alone is the knowledge of why you have done this thing. But some day you shall tell me–or die.”

There was something intensely dramatic in the passionate bitterness which vibrated in the shrill boyish tone, and, as though moved by a common impulse, every one in the tent followed that threatening gesture. But the face of Rupert Devereux was little like the face of a guilty man. He looked somewhat agitated, and a good deal pained; but although he was the cynosure of all eyes, he turned never a shade the paler, nor flinched once from the passionate fire which was leaping from the eyes of the young prisoner. He seemed as though about to make some reply; but the General raised his hand.

“Remove the prisoner.”

There was a sudden commotion, for, with a deep, despairing groan, and arms for a moment lifted high above his head, he had staggered backwards and sunk heavily to the ground in a dead swoon. What wonder! He was but a boy after all.

*****

“Herbert! Why, Herbert! Good God! where did you spring from? Are you invalided?”

The moonlight was streaming in through the high oriel windows of the long picture-gallery, glittering upon the armour and crossed weapons which hung upon the walls, and casting fantastic rays down the polished oak floor. Colonel Sir Francis Devereux dropped the cigar which he had been peacefully smoking, and brought to a sudden halt his leisurely perambulation of this his favourite resort. Before him, with drooping head, with sunken cheeks, and with deep black rims under his eyes, stood his son Herbert, who, only a few months ago, had departed on his first campaign, a happy, careless young sub. Was it, indeed, his son, or was it a ghost that had stolen upon him out of the gloomy shadows of the vast gallery?

“Invalided! Would to God that I was dead!” broke from the boy’s quivering lips. “Father, I have brought disgrace upon you–disgrace upon our name.” And he stretched out his hands towards the long line of pictured warriors, who seemed to be frowning down upon him from the wall. “Disgrace that you will never forgive, never pardon.”

Like a statue of stone the proud old soldier stood while he listened to his son’s story. Then, with a half-smothered groan, he deliberately turned his back upon him.

“Father,” he pleaded, “listen to me. Before heaven I swear that I am innocent. Rupert lied. Why, I don’t know, but he lied. I never felt fear.”

His father turned half round.

“You have been put on your defence. General Luxton would never have found your father’s son guilty of cowardice had there been room for doubt. The charge was proved against you in court-martial.”

“But, father, it was because they believed Rupert and his man. The only two other men who saw the struggle are dead.”

Colonel Devereux turned away and buried his face in his hands.

“A Devereux guilty of cowardice!” he groaned. “My God! that it should have been my son!”

Then with a sudden movement he turned round. His son had sunk upon his knees before him, and the moon was throwing a ghastly light upon his haggard, supplicating face.

“Out of my sight, and out of my heart for ever, Herbert Devereux!” cried his father, his tones vibrating with a passionate contempt. “You have brought disgrace upon a stainless name. Curse you for it, though you be a thousand times my son. You shall not sleep under this roof again. Begone! Change your name, I command you! Forget that you are a Devereux, as I most surely shall. Turn linen-draper, or man-milliner, or lawyer, what you will so that I never see or hear from you again. Begone, and curse you.”

Scathing and vibrating with scorn though the words were, they seemed to touch a chord in the boy’s heart, not of humiliation, but of righteous anger. He sprang to his feet, and held himself for a moment as proudly as any of his armoured ancestors who looked down from the walls upon father and son.

“I will go, then,” he cried, firmly. “It is right that I should go. But, after all, it is false to say that I have disgraced your name. It is Rupert who has done this.”

He turned and walked steadily away, without a backward glance. Out of the swing doors on to the broad staircase, he passed along noble corridors, between rows of marble statues, down into the mighty dome-like hall, and out of the house which he had loved so well. And the servants, who would have pressed forward to welcome him, hung back in fear, for there was that in his face which they shrunk from looking upon. Out into the soft summer night he stepped, heedless of their wondering glances, and down the broad avenue he hurried, never pausing once to breathe in the balmy night wind, heavy with the odour of sweet-smelling flowers, or to listen to the nightingale singing in the low copse which bordered the gardens. Through a low iron gate he stepped into the park, and walked swiftly along, never glancing to the right or to the left at the strange shadows cast by the mighty oak-trees on the velvety turf, or at the startled deer, who sprung up on every side of him and bounded gracefully away, or at the rabbits who were scampering about all around in desperate alarm; once he had loved to watch and to listen to all these things; but now he felt only a burning desire to escape from them, and to find himself outside the confines of the home which he was leaving for ever. And not until he had reached the last paling, and had vaulted into the broad, white road, did his strength desert him. Then, faint and weary, and heartsick, he sank down in a heap on the roadside, and prayed that he might die.

*****

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