Chapter 71281766

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Chapter NumberXIII
Chapter TitleFace to Fac with the Medici Cub net.
Chapter Urlhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71281766
Full Date1898-01-01
Page Number31
Corrections0
Word Count2487
IllustratedN
Last Corrected0000-00-00
Newspaper TitleAustralian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907)
Trove TitleThe Mystery of Phillip Bennion's Death
article text

CHAPTER XIII.

Face to VAC .> with the Medici Cul) net.

My supicions had been waxing and waning. Originally, when I had come upon my friend lying dead, I had been completely persuaded, as if inspired by a revelation from on high, that he had come to his death by the act of man. I could have cried aloud to the world, such was the strength of my innate conviction, that Ray mond Clinton had slain his uncle. But, as day followed day, and I listened to. the medical evi dence, I came to look at the matetr with calmer eyes. I could not but feel that, in this respect, I might have been doing Mr. Clinton an injus tice. After our discovery of the key of the cabinet, and after he had told me his story ot what he did on that eventful night, almost un consciously to myself, my suspicions of his blood-guiltiness faded into nothing.

When circumstances pointed. to the impos sibilty of Phillip Bennioh's having used the key, and I failed to light upon any other sort of clue, and could not conceive who, in the whole wide world, would wish to work him ill, I began by degrees to believe that, after all, the doctors might have been in the right and I in the wrong, and that the dead man might have come to his death by the sudden operation of one of the ordinary laws which govern our physical consti

tution.

But, after Mr. Cowan had gone, there came, back to me a sickening certainty that my origi nal suspicions had been justified, and that Philip Bennion had not met with his death in the ordi nary course of nature. It was not so much what Mr. Cowan had said-he was far too cau tious to commit himself in actual words-as the manner in which he had said it, which made it clear to my mind, that he himself thought that it. at least, was extremely probable, that the ver dict returned by the coroner's jury had not de clared the truth.

I felt that he be^ved, what I myself had be lieved from the first, that we might be, and probably were, in the presence of that creation of the dead man's brain-the ideal, artist in murder.

My appetite had pretty nearly vanished, and it was with a feeling of depression weighing heavily upon me that I sat down to the over cooked mockery of my morning's meal. I knew

that I should suffer from indigestion, as I swal lowed a few mouthfuls of the dishes which had been cooked'out of all semblance of their proper form. The knowledge that I should so suffer did not tend to raise my spirits, and it was with a pessimistic consciousness that for me life was rapidly becoming not worth living that I re

turned into my sitting-room.

Mr. Cowan had left the key in a little open box upon the table. The parts were still di vided. I sat looking at the box, and the key, and the cabinet with a morbid feeling settling upon my brain that, after all, it would perhaps be quite as well if I had gone one step furthei in that sleep-walking experience of mine, and if I really had destroyed my friend. It seemed to me, in the mood in which I then was, that I might as well hang-even for such a crime as that-as continue to live the life which I had

been living.

I was still wrapped in such-like dark imagin ings when I was interrupted by the entrance of Ralph Hardwicke and his affianced wife, Nina Macrae. I do not know that I was glad to set them. I do not think I was. There was about them, as it seemed to me just then, too aggres sive an air of youth, and health, and hope, and happiness. Upon their sky there seemed to be no possibility of cloud. I was half conscious of a sort of resentment that this should be so.

Ralph came and shook my hand, using his young giant's strength just like a giant, until I thought he would have crushed it into a shape less mass. I was not obliged to him for that. And Nina knelt beside' me, and put her arms about my neck, and kissed me, and insisted on a recognition of her caresses which I was ill-dis posed to give her.

"Guardian," she began, "you and I shall quar rel. When I- came to you before you were not looking well. Now you are looking worse than ever. What have you got upon your mind?"

"Suicide," I. said.

"Suicide!" she cried.

"Yes, suicide," I snarled. It was a snarl for she and Ralph were positively smiling. "Suicide is what I said, and suicide is what I

meant."

"I see what will have to happen," she ob served. "You will have to be taken in hand by a sensible person-like me-and then we'll see if suicide is what you mean." She turned to her lover. "Ralph, tell this wicked person what it is we've come about. Perhaps that will raise his thoughts to the contemplation of'higher

things."

Ralph laughed.

"I doubt it," he declared.

"You doubt it! How dare you, sir! Ralph,

tell him the news at once."

Ralph disposed himself to take his ease upon

the couch.

"You! You will tell it so much better than I-you have that delicacy which I most lack."

"Are you ashamed, sir, of what we have come

to tell?"

"No-that is, not in any appreciable degree more than does become a man."

She turned to me, her eyes all flashing, her face alive with mock anger, and with laughter,

and with love.

"You hear him! Should I tell you of what he is not ashamed in any appreciable degree, more than does become a man? We have fixed the day. That is what we have come to tell you, and that is what he is not ashamed of-in any appreciable degree."

"You have fixed the day for what? For sui

cide?"

."Guardian!" She shrank away from me¡. "How can you! It is our wedding-day that wer

have fixed."

"I have read in some old book that the words are synonymous-marriage and suicide."

Ralph, lying on the couch, laughed out.

She,' pretending to be hurt by my words, stood'

up.

"Guardian! Can anything equal the wicked ness of men?" She sighed. "Yet, after all, 1 suppose that you are right, and that it is a sort of suicide-for the woman that is wed."

She had me there, and she knew she had me. And she looked so sweet, and, not to put too fine a point on it, so kissabie, that she almost charmed the sullen mood right out of me.

"If," I said, with a final resolve to preserve some fragment of my grimness, "to the woman it is suicide, then, to a certainty, it's murder to

the man."

Hardly had the words escaped my lips, than in her bearing I noticed a curious change.

I sat at the table. Ralph lay at my left, up on the couch. She stood at my right. When she had first entered the room she had made straight for me, and, without noticing anything else, had instantly prisoned me with her -twc arms. It seemed, ' therefore, that it was only when, in her prettily simulated anger, she had shrunk away from me, and stood upon her feet that she noticed that my room had received ar addition to the ornaments which it contained and that that addition took the shape of th«

Medici cabinet.

I could not make out, for a moment, what il was that was causing her to fix such an inten sity of gaze upon the opposite side of the room Then I perceived that she was looking at mj three thousand guineas' worth of cabinet.

Still I could not understand what could pos sibly be causing her to regard it in so singulai a manner. She was staring at it with partee lips and widely dilated eyes, as if she wen staring at a ghost.

Ralph and I were both observing her witl

wonder.

"Hallo, Nina, what's the matter?" cried Ralph half laughingly.

She paid no attention to his question. Bu she said, speaking, as it seemed to me, with i degree of tragic intensity which such an inquir; scarcely justified:

"Where did you get that from?"

I was puzzled. Her emotion was so sudden so uncalled-for; the change from jest to eames so almost unnaturally complete.

"Where did I get what from? The cabinet?" "The poisoned cabinet."

The words were gasped rather than spoken,

was startled.

"Nina!" I exclaimed.

Rising from the couch, Ralph advanced to sooth her. It really seemed that she required soothing

"What is the matter with you, child?" h

ssked.

She turned to him a face which had becom all at once transformed. She grasped his arm with her two hands. She looked at him wit eyes which positively blazed. She spoke to hil in a voice the like of which I had never hear

from Nina.

"Ralph, where did he get It from? I sa' that cabinet In Rome-they said it belonged t Lucrezia Borgia-it is the poisoned cabinet!"

Ralph spoke to her almost as lt he had been speaking to a baby,

" «My dear child, what are you talking about?"

But I was more amazed than J could say. She had unconsciously endorsed Mr. Cowan's state ment as to the cabinet's original home.

'.You saw it in Rome?" I cried.

She turned on me like some wild thing.

"Yes-in Rome! How did it come here?" "It belonged to Philip Bennion." "Oh, my God!"

She sank on her knees beside the table; she cov ered her face with her hands; she trembled as an aspen trembles which is shaken by the wind. I was astonished out of the power of speech. What was the meaning of it all?

Ralph, after what seemed to be a glance of in quiry at me, endeavored to assuage her agita tion. Falling on one knee beside her, he put his arm about her waist.

"Nina, what magic spell has suddenly bewitched you? What Is the latest fancy which, all at once, has stolen into your fanciful head, you mis tress of all strange fancies?"

Taking her hand from before her face she look ed at him with wild, eager, searching eyes. Sbe spoke with a little .break in her voice.

"Ralph, you-you will always love me? Won't you, Ralph?"

Ralph's voice, as he answered" her, was soft, and deep, and full of music-full of that music which, they tell us, is the sweetest of all music to a woman's ear.

"Always, sweetheart-for ever and for aye!"

Throwing her arms about his neck, she kissed him with what almost seemed to be an hysterical outburst of affection.

"My darling-oh, my darling!"

Ralph laughingly reminded her of my pre sence. "Sweetheart, are you forgetting that we are not alone?"

"It's only guardian," she said. And, as she said it, she looked up at me with some fragment ary return of the mischief of her smile. "Guard ian doesn't count."

She stood up, disengaging as she did so Ralph's arm from about her waist. But in her man ner there was still something which was strange to me. The thing was made more obvious by the effort which she made to pass it off as nothing.

"Of course I remembered that cabinet, I re membered it well. I noticed it when guardian" -she checked herself with a sort of little gasp "I mean when Mr. Bennion brought it home. He showed it to me. And, of course, I saw it many times after that. I remember just where it stood in his room." She paused; then she added, looking at me with a gratuitous defiance in her eyes and in her bearing, which made me wonder more and more what there was in me she need defy: "And I couldn't make up my mind, but each time I saw it I was always thinking that I had seen it somewhere before-I mean, before I saw it in Mr. Bennion's room. Now it all comes back to me quite clearly. It is the cabinet which I saw in the Fiezza Palace at Rome, and which they said belonged to Lucrezia Borgia. I am sure of it-oh yes, I am quite sure."

The defiant ring in her voice, ' and the defiant gaze in her eyes, as she reiterated her assurance, brought to me a new revelation of Nina Macrae.

Ralph Hardwick had also risen to his feet, and while his lady-love was favoring me with

urexpected recollections of the tragic stage, he ' had sauntered over to the cabinet. He now stood regarding it with the appreciative admira tionof a capable and a sympathetic critic.

"A fine thing. As an example, I should say, almost unique. I also remember it, in the dear old fellow's room, though cot at Rome." He spoke with a touch of dryness, which, unless I am mistaken, made Nina start. "Otway, how came it here?"

Nina echoed his inquiry. But with this differ ence, that while his tone betrayed carelessness, hers betrayed unmistakable defiance. . Defiance of what, I' was more and more at a loss to un derstand.

"Yes, that is just what I was about to ask how came it here?"

I replied, almost with an air of deprecation, feeling as if I had been guilty of some crime:

"Mr. Clinton gave it to me. He thought that I would like a imamemito of imy inland. He asked me what I would like to choose, so I chose that."

"Oh!" Nina drew a long breath, She never removed, for an instant, her eyes from off my face, nor softened in one tittle the hard defiance of her stare. You chose that. I see."

Ralph's laughing voice came from the cabinet.

"And not a bad choice either, for a man who does not profess to much knowledge of such things. I do not think that you could have chosen anything much better worth the having, eh, Nina?"

"No, I don't think he could." She turned towards him with the stiffness of an automaton. Then, in the utterance of an exclamation, all her stiffness vanished. "What's this," she cried.

Her glance had fallen on the little open box which contained the separated parts of what Mr. Cowan had called that "ingenious contrivance" in the way of keys. She stooped over it, repeating in a sort of frenzy her own words.

"What's this-what's this? It's the key! It's unscrewed!" She actually clenched her fist as she stood up and faced me. "What's the meaning

of this?" she cried.

(Tb be conitiinued.)