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Our Library => Dorothy L. Sayers - Clouds of Witness (1926) => Topic started by: Admin on April 09, 2023, 08:17:56 am

Title: 17: The Eloquent Dead
Post by: Admin on April 09, 2023, 08:17:56 am
"Je connaissais Manon: pourquoi m'affliger tant d'un malheur que j'avais dû prévoir."
 - Manon Lescaut

THE gale had blown itself out into a wonderful fresh day, with clear spaces of sky, and a high wind rolling boulders of cumulus down the blue slopes of air.

The prisoner had been wrangling for an hour with his advisers when finally they came into court, and even Sir Impey's classical face showed flushed between the wings of his wig.

"I'm not going to say anything," said the Duke obstinately. "Rotten thing to do. I suppose I can't prevent you callin' her if she insists on comin'---damn' good of her---makes me feel no end of a beast."

"Better leave it at that," said Mr. Murbles. "Makes a good impression, you know. Let him go into the box and behave like a perfect gentleman. They'll like it."

Sir Impey, who had sat through the small hours altering his speech, nodded.

The first witness that day came as something of a surprise. She gave her name and address as Eliza Briggs, known as Madame Brigette of New Bond Street, and her occupation as beauty specialist and perfumer. She had a large and aristocratic clientele of both sexes, and a branch in Paris.

Deceased had been a client of hers in both cities for several years. He had massage and manicure. After the war he had come to her about some slight scars caused by grazing with shrapnel. He was extremely particular about his personal appearance, and, if you called that vanity in a man, you might certainly say he was vain. Thank you. Sir Wigmore Wrinching made no attempt to cross-examine the witness, and the noble lords wondered to one another what it was all about.

At this point Sir Impey Biggs leaned forward, and, tapping his brief impressively with his forefinger, began:

"My lords, so strong is our case that we had not thought it necessary to present an alibi----" when an officer of the court rushed up from a little whirlpool of commotion by the door and excitedly thrust a note into his hand. Sir Impey read, coloured, glanced down the hall, put down his brief, folded his hands over it, and said in a sudden, loud voice which penetrated even to the deaf ear of the Duke of Wiltshire:

"My lords, I am happy to say that our missing witness is here. I call Lord Peter Wimsey."

Every neck was at once craned, and every eye focused on the very grubby and oily figure that came amiably trotting up the long room. Sir Impey Biggs passed the note down to Mr. Murbles, and, turning to the witness, who was yawning frightfully in the intervals of grinning at all his acquaintances, demanded that he should be sworn.

The witness's story was as follows:

"I am Peter Death Bredon Wimsey, brother of the accused. I live at 110A Piccadilly. In consequence of what I read on that bit of blotting-paper which I now identify, I went to Paris to look for a certain lady. The name of the lady is Mademoiselle Simone Vonderaa. I found she had left Paris in company with a man named Van Humperdinck. I followed her, and at length came up with her in New York. I asked her to give me the letter Cathcart wrote on the night of his death. (Sensation.) I produce that letter, with Mademoiselle Vonderaa's signature on the corner, so that it can be identified if Wiggy there tries to put it over you. (Joyous sensation, in which the indignant protests of prosecuting counsel were drowned.) And I'm sorry I've given you such short notice of this, old man, but I only got it the day before yesterday. We came as quick as we could, but we had to come down near Whitehaven with engine trouble, and if we had come down half a mile sooner I shouldn't be here now." (Applause, hurriedly checked by the Lord High Steward.)

"My lords," said Sir Impey, "your lordships are witnesses that I have never seen this letter in my life before. I have no idea of its contents; yet so positive am I that it cannot but assist my noble client's case, that I am willing---nay, eager---to put in this document immediately, as it stands, without perusal, to stand or fall by the contents."

"The handwriting must be identified as that of the deceased," interposed the Lord High Steward.

The ravening pencils of the reporters tore along the paper. The lean young man who worked for the Daily Trumpet scented a scandal in high life and licked his lips, never knowing what a much bigger one had escaped him by a bare minute or so.

Miss Lydia Cathcart was recalled to identify the handwriting, and the letter was handed to the Lord High Steward, who announced:

"The letter is in French. We shall have to swear an interpreter."

"You will find," said the witness suddenly, "that those bits of words on the blotting-paper come out of the letter. You'll 'scuse my mentioning it."

"Is this person put forward as an expert witness?" inquired Sir Wigmore witheringly.

"Right ho!" said Lord Peter. "Only, you see, it has been rather sprung on Biggy as you might say.

"Sir Impey, I must really ask you to keep your witness in order."

Lord Peter grinned, and a pause ensued while an interpreter was fetched and sworn. Then, at last, the letter was read, amid a breathless silence:

"Riddlesdale Lodge,

"N. E. Yorks.

"le 13 Octobre, 1923.

"SIMONE,---Je viens de recevoir ta lettre. Que dire? Inutiles, les prières ou les reproches. Tu ne comprendras---tu ne liras même pas.

"N'ai-je pas toujours su, d'ailleurs, que tu devais infailliblement me trahir? Depuis dix ans déjà je souffre tous les tourments que puisse infliger la jalousie. Je comprends bien que tu n'as jamais voulu me faire de la peine. C'est tout justement cette insouciance, cette légèreté, cette façon séduisante d'être malhonnête, que j'adorais en toi. J'ai tout su, et je t'ai aimée.

"Ma foi, non, ma chère, jamais je n'ai eu la moindre illusion. Te rappelles-tu cette première rencontre, un soir au Casino? Tu avais dix-sept ans, et tu étais jolie à ravir. Le lendemain tu fus à moi. Tu m'as dit, si gentiment, que tu m'aimais bien, et que j'étais, moi, le premier. Ma pauvre enfant, tu en as menti. Tu riais, toute seule, de ma naïveté--il y avait bien de quoi rire! Dès notre premier baiser, j'ai prévu ce moment.

"Mais écoute, Simone. J'ai la faiblesse de vouloir te montrer exactement ce que tu as fait de moi. Tu regretteras peut-être en peu. Mais, non--si tu pouvais regretter quoi que ce fût, tu ne serais plus Simone.

"Il y a dix ans, la veille de la guerre, j'étais riche---moins riche que ton Américain, mais assez riche pour te donner l'établissement qu'il te fallait. Tu étais moins exigeante avant la guerre, Simone--qui est-ce qui, pendant mon absence, t'a enseigné le goût du luxe? Charmante discrétion de ma part de ne jamais te le demander! Eh bien, une grande partie de ma fortune se trouvant placée en Russie et en Allemagne, j'en ai perdu plus des trois-quarts. Ce que m'en restait en France a beaucoup diminué en valeur. Il est vrai que j'avais mon traitement de capitaine dans l'armée britannique, mais c'est peu de chose, tu sais. Avant même la fin de la guerre, tu m'avais mangé toutes mes économies. C'était idiot, quoi? Un jeune homme qui a perdu les trois-quarts de ses rentes ne se permet plus une maîtresse et un appartement Avenue Kléber. Ou il congédie madame, ou bien il lui demande quelques sacrifices, je n'ai rien osé demander. Si j'étais venu un jour te dire, 'Simone, je suis pauvre'---que m'aurais-tu répondu?

"Sais-tu ce que j'ai fait? Non---tu n'as jamais pensé à demander d'où venait cet argent. Qu'est-ce que cela pouvait te faire que j'ai tout jeté---fortune, honneur, bonheur---pour te posséder? J'ai joué, désespérément, éperdument---j'ai fait pis: j'ai triché au jeu. Je te vois hausser les épaules---tu ris---tu dis, 'Tiens, c'est malin, ça!' Oui, mais cela ne se fait pas. On m'aurait chassé du régiment. Je devenais le dernier des hommes.

"D'ailleurs, cela ne pouvait durer. Déjà un soir à Paris on m'a fait une scène désagréable, bien qu'on n'ait rien pu prouver. C'est alors que je me suis fiancé avec cette demoiselle dont je t'ai parlé, la fille du duc anglais. Le beau projet, quoi! Entretenir ma maîtresse avec l'argent de ma femme! Et je l'aurais fait---et je le ferais encore demain, si c'était pour te reposséder.

"Mais tu me quittes. Cet Américain est riche---archi-riche. Depuis longtemps tu me répètes que ton appartement est trop petit et que tu t'ennuies à mourir. Cet 'ami bienveillant' t'offre les autos, les diamants, les mille-et-une nuits, la lune! Auprès de ces merveilles, évidemment, que valent l'amour et l'honneur?

"Enfin, le bon duc est d'une stupidité très commode. Il laisse traîner son révolver dans le tiroir de son bureau. D'ailleurs, il vient de me demander une explication à propos de cette histoire de cartes. Tu vois qu'en tout cas la partie était finie. Pourquoi t'en vouloir? On mettra sans doute mon suicide au compte de cet exposé. Tant mieux; je ne veux pas qu'on affiche mon histoire amoureuse dans les journaux.

"Adieu, ma bien-aimée--mon adorée, mon adorée, ma Simone. Sois heureuse avec ton nouvel amant. Ne pense plus à moi. Qu'est-ce tout cela peut bien te faire? Mon Dieu, comme je t'ai aimée--comme je t'aime toujours, malgré moi. Mais c'en est fini. Jamais plus tu ne me perceras le coeur. Oh! J'enrage--je suis fou de douleur! Adieu.



"SIMONE,---I have just got your letter. What am I to say? It is useless to entreat or reproach you. You would not understand, or even read the letter.

"Besides, I always knew you must betray me some day. I have suffered a hell of jealousy for the last ten years. I know perfectly well you never meant to hurt me. It was just your utter lightness and carelessness and your attractive way of being dishonest which was so adorable. I knew everything, and loved you all the same.

"Oh no, my dear, I never had any illusions. You remember our first meeting that night at the Casino. You were seventeen, and heart-breakingly lovely. You came to me the very next day. You told me, very prettily, that you loved me and that I was the first. My poor little girl, that wasn't true. I expect, when you were alone, you laughed to think I was so easily taken in. But there was nothing to laugh at. From our very first kiss I foresaw this moment.

"I'm afraid I'm weak enough, though, to want to tell you just what you have done for me. You may be sorry. But no---if you could regret anything, you wouldn't be Simone any longer.

"Ten years ago, before the war, I was rich---not so rich as your new American, but rich enough to give you what you wanted. You didn't want quite so much before the war, Simone. Who taught you to be so extravagant while I was away? I think it was very nice of me never to ask you. Well, most of my money was in Russian and German securities, and more than three-quarters of it went west. The remainder in France went down considerably in value. I had my captain's pay, of course, but that didn't amount to much. Even before the end of the war you had managed to get through all my savings. Of course, I was a fool. A young man whose income has been reduced by three-quarters can't afford an expensive mistress and a flat in the Avenue Kléber. He ought either to dismiss the lady or to demand a little self-sacrifice. But I didn't dare demand anything. Suppose I had come to you one day and said, 'Simone, I've lost my money'---what would you have said to me?

"What do you think I did? I don't suppose you ever thought about it at all. You didn't care if I was chucking away my money and my honour and my happiness to keep you. I gambled desperately. I did worse, I cheated at cards. I can see you shrug your shoulders and say, 'Good for you!' But it's a rotten thing to do---a rotter's game. If anybody had found out they'd have cashiered me.

"Besides, it couldn't go on for ever. There was one row in Paris, though they couldn't prove anything. So then I got engaged to the English girl I told you about---the duke's daughter. Pretty, wasn't it? I actually brought myself to consider keeping my mistress on my wife's money! But I'd have done it, and I'd do it again, to get you back.

"And now you've chucked me. This American is colossally rich. For a long time you've been dinning into my ears that the flat is too small and that you're bored to death. Your 'good friend' can offer you cars, diamonds---Aladdin's palace---the moon! I admit that love and honour look pretty small by comparison.

"Ah well, the Duke is most obligingly stupid. He leaves his revolver about in his desk drawer. Besides, he's just been in to ask what about this card-sharping story. So you see the game's up, anyhow. I don't blame you. I suppose they'll put my suicide down to fear of exposure. All the better. I don't want my love-affairs in the Sunday Press.

"Good-bye, my dear---oh, Simone, my darling, my darling, good-bye. Be happy with your new lover. Never mind me---what does it all matter? My God---how I loved you, and how I still love you in spite of myself. It's all done with. You'll never break my heart again. I'm mad---mad with misery! Good-bye."