THE EVIL SHEPHERD
By E. Philips Oppenheim
Francis Ledsam, alert, well-satisfied with himself and the world, the echo of a little buzz of congratulations still in his ears, paused on the steps of the modern Temple of Justice to light a cigarette before calling for a taxi to take him to his club. Visions of a whisky and soda—his throat was a little parched—and a rubber of easy-going bridge at his favourite table, were already before his eyes. A woman who had followed him from the Court touched him on the shoulder.
"Can I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Ledsam?"
The barrister frowned slightly as he swung around to confront his questioner. It was such a familiar form of address.
"What do you want?" he asked, a little curtly.
"A few minutes' conversation with you," was the calm reply. "The matter is important."
The woman's tone and manner, notwithstanding her plain, inconspicuous clothes, commanded attention. Francis Ledsam was a little puzzled. Small things meant much to him in life, and he had been looking forward almost with the zest of a schoolboy to that hour of relaxation at his club. He was impatient of even a brief delay, a sentiment which he tried to express in his response.
"What do you want to speak to me about?" he repeated bluntly. "I shall be in my rooms in the Temple to-morrow morning, any time after eleven."
"It is necessary for me to speak to you now," she insisted. "There is a tea-shop across the way. Please accompany me there."
Ledsam, a little surprised at the coolness of her request, subjected his accoster to a closer scrutiny. As he did so, his irritation diminished. He shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"If you really have business with me," he said, "I will give you a few minutes."
They crossed the street together, the woman self-possessed, negative, wholly without the embarrassment of one performing an unusual action. Her companion felt the awakening of curiosity. Zealously though she had, to all appearance, endeavoured to conceal the fact, she was without a doubt personable. Her voice and manner lacked nothing of refinement. Yet her attraction to Francis Ledsam, who, although a perfectly normal human being, was no seeker after promiscuous adventures, did not lie in these externals. As a barrister whose success at the criminal bar had been phenomenal, he had attained to a certain knowledge of human nature. He was able, at any rate, to realise that this woman was no imposter. He knew that she had vital things to say.
They passed into the tea-shop and found an empty corner. Ledsam hung up his hat and gave an order. The woman slowly began to remove her gloves. When she pushed back her veil, her vis-a-vis received almost a shock. She was quite as good-looking as he had imagined, but she was far younger—she was indeed little more than a girl. Her eyes were of a deep shade of hazel brown, her eyebrows were delicately marked, her features and poise admirable. Yet her skin was entirely colourless. She was as pale as one whose eyes have been closed in death. Her lips, although in no way highly coloured, were like streaks of scarlet blossom upon a marble image. The contrast between her appearance and that of her companion was curiously marked. Francis Ledsam conformed in no way to the accepted physical type of his profession. He was over six feet in height, broad-shouldered and powerfully made. His features were cast in a large mould, he was of fair, almost sandy complexion, even his mouth was more humourous than incisive. His eyes alone, grey and exceedingly magnetic, suggested the gifts which without a doubt lay behind his massive forehead.
"I am anxious to avoid any possible mistake," she began. "Your name is Francis Ledsam?"
"It is," he admitted.
"You are the very successful criminal barrister," she continued, "who has just been paid an extravagant fee to defend Oliver Hilditch."
"I might take exception to the term 'extravagant'," Ledsam observed drily. "Otherwise, your information appears to be singularly correct. I do not know whether you have heard the verdict. If not, you may be interested to know that I succeeded in obtaining the man's acquittal."
"I know that you did," the woman replied. "I was in the Court when the verdict was brought in. It has since occurred to me that I should like you to understand exactly what you have done, the responsibility you have incurred."
Ledsam raised his eyebrows.
"Responsibility?" he repeated. "What I have done is simple enough. I have earned a very large fee and won my case."
"You have secured the acquittal of Oliver Hilditch," she persisted. "He is by this time a free man. Now I am going to speak to you of that responsibility. I am going to tell you a little about the man who owes his freedom to your eloquence."
It was exactly twenty minutes after their entrance into the teashop when the woman finished her monologue. She began to draw on her gloves again. Before them were two untasted cups of tea and an untouched plate of bread and butter. From a corner of the room the waitress was watching them curiously.
"Good God!" Francis Ledsam exclaimed at last, suddenly realising his whereabouts. "Do you mean to affirm solemnly that what you have been telling me is the truth?"
The woman continued to button her gloves. "It is the truth," she said.
Ledsam sat up and looked around him. He was a little dazed. He had almost the feeling of a man recovering from the influence of some anaesthetic. Before his eyes were still passing visions of terrible deeds, of naked, ugly passion, of man's unscrupulous savagery. During those few minutes he had been transported to New York and Paris, London and Rome. Crimes had been spoken of which made the murder for which Oliver Hilditch had just been tried seem like a trifling indiscretion. Hard though his mentality, sternly matter-of-fact as was his outlook, he was still unable to fully believe in himself, his surroundings, or in this woman who had just dropped a veil over her ashen cheeks. Reason persisted in asserting itself.
"But if you knew all this," he demanded, "why on earth didn't you come forward and give evidence?"
"Because," she answered calmly, as she rose to her feet, "my evidence would not have been admissible. I am Oliver Hilditch's wife."
Francis Ledsam arrived at his club, the Sheridan, an hour later than he had anticipated. He nodded to the veteran hall-porter, hung up his hat and stick, and climbed the great staircase to the card-room without any distinct recollection of performing any of these simple and reasonable actions. In the cardroom he exchanged a few greetings with friends, accepted without comment or without the slightest tinge of gratification a little chorus of chafing congratulations upon his latest triumph, and left the room without any inclination to play, although there was a vacant place at his favourite table. From sheer purposelessness he wandered back again into the hall, and here came his first gleam of returning sensation. He came face to face with his most intimate friend, Andrew Wilmore. The latter, who had just hung up his coat and hat, greeted him with a growl of welcome.
"So you've brought it off again, Francis!"
"Touch and go," the barrister remarked. "I managed to squeak home."
Wilmore laid his hand upon his friend's shoulder and led the way towards two easy-chairs in the lounge.
"I tell you what it is, old chap," he confided, "you'll be making yourself unpopular before long. Another criminal at large, thanks to that glib tongue and subtle brain of yours. The crooks of London will present you with a testimonial when you're made a judge."
"So you think that Oliver Hilditch was guilty, then?" Francis asked curiously.
"My dear fellow, how do I know or care?" was the indifferent reply. "I shouldn't have thought that there had been any doubt about it. You probably know, anyway."
"That's just what I didn't when I got up to make my speech," Francis assured his friend emphatically. "The fellow was given an opportunity of making a clean breast of it, of course—Wensley, his lawyer, advised him to, in fact—but the story he told me was precisely the story he told at the inquest."
They were established now in their easy-chairs, and Wilmore summoned a waiter.
"Two large whiskies and sodas," he ordered. "Francis," he went on, studying his companion intently, "what's the matter with you? You don't look as though your few days in the country last week had done you any good."
Francis glanced around as though to be sure that they were alone.
"I was all right when I came up, Andrew," he muttered. "This case has upset me."
"Upset you? But why the dickens should it?" the other demanded, in a puzzled tone. "It was quite an ordinary case, in its way, and you won it."
"I won it," Francis admitted.
"Your defence was the most ingenious thing I ever heard."
"Mostly suggested, now I come to think of it," the barrister remarked grimly, "by the prisoner himself."
"But why are you upset about it, anyway?" Wilmore persisted.
Francis rose to his feet, shook himself, and with his elbow resting upon the mantelpiece leaned down towards his friend. He could not rid himself altogether of this sense of unreality. He had the feeling that he had passed through one of the great crises of his life.
"I'll tell you, Andrew. You're about the only man in the world I could tell. I've gone crazy."
"I thought you looked as though you'd been seeing spooks," Wilmore murmured sympathetically.
"I have seen a spook," Francis rejoined, with almost passionate seriousness, "a spook who lifted an invisible curtain with invisible fingers, and pointed to such a drama of horrors as De Quincey, Poe and Sue combined could never have imagined. Oliver Hilditch was guilty, Andrew. He murdered the man Jordan—murdered him in cold blood."
"I'm not surprised to hear that," was the somewhat puzzled reply.
"He was guilty, Andrew, not only of the murder of this man, his partner, but of innumerable other crimes and brutalities," Francis went on. "He is a fiend in human form, if ever there was one, and I have set him loose once more to prey upon Society. I am morally responsible for his next robbery, his next murder, the continued purgatory of those forced to associate with him."
"You're dotty, Francis," his friend declared shortly.
"I told you I was crazy," was the desperate reply. "So would you be if you'd sat opposite that woman for half-an-hour, and heard her story."
"What woman?" Wilmore demanded, leaning forward in his chair and gazing at his friend with increasing uneasiness.
"A woman who met me outside the Court and told me the story of Oliver Hilditch's life."
"A complete stranger to me. It transpired that she was his wife."
Wilmore lit a cigarette.
"There are times when one doesn't believe or disbelieve," Francis answered. "One knows."
"All the same, you're crazy," he declared. "Even if you did save the fellow from the gallows, you were only doing your job, doing your duty to the best of poor ability. You had no reason to believe him guilty."
"That's just as it happened," Francis pointed out. "I really didn't care at the time whether he was or not. I had to proceed on the assumption that he was not, of course, but on the other hand I should have fought just as hard for him if I had known him to be guilty."
"And you wouldn't now—to-morrow, say?"
"Because of that woman's story?"
"Because of the woman."
There was a short silence. Then Wilmore asked a very obvious question.
"What sort of a person was she?"
Francis Ledsam was several moments before he replied. The question was one which he had been expecting, one which he had already asked himself many times, yet he was unprepared with any definite reply.
"I wish I could answer you, Andrew," his friend confessed. "As a matter of fact, I can't. I can only speak of the impression she left upon me, and you are about the only person breathing to whom I could speak of that."
Wilmore nodded sympathetically. He knew that, man of the world though Francis Ledsam appeared, he was nevertheless a highly imaginative person, something of an idealist as regards women, unwilling as a rule to discuss them, keeping them, in a general way, outside his daily life.
"Go ahead, old fellow," he invited. "You know I understand."
"She left the impression upon me," Francis continued quietly, "of a woman who had ceased to live. She was young, she was beautiful, she had all the gifts—culture, poise and breeding—but she had ceased to live. We sat with a marble table between us, and a few feet of oil-covered floor. Those few feet, Andrew, were like an impassable gulf. She spoke from the shores of another world. I listened and answered, spoke and listened again. And when she told her story, she went. I can't shake off the effect she had upon me, Andrew. I feel as though I had taken a step to the right or to the left over the edge of the world."
Andrew Wilmore studied his friend thoughtfully.
He was full of sympathy and understanding. His one desire at that moment was not to make a mistake. He decided to leave unasked the obvious question.
"I know," he said simply. "Are you dining anywhere?"
"I thought of staying on here," was the indifferent reply.
"We won't do anything of the sort," Wilmore insisted. "There's scarcely a soul in to-night, and the place is too humpy for a man who's been seeing spooks. Get back to your rooms and change. I'll wait here."
"What about you?"
"I have some clothes in my locker. Don't be long. And, by-the-bye, which shall it be—Bohemia or Mayfair? I'll telephone for a table. London's so infernally full, these days."
"I really don't care," he confessed. "Now I think of it, I shall be glad to get away from here, though. I don't want any more congratulations on saving Oliver Hilditch's life. Let's go where we are least likely to meet any one we know."
"Respectability and a starched shirt-front, then," Wilmore decided. "We'll go to Claridge's."
The two men occupied a table set against the wall, not far from the entrance to the restaurant, and throughout the progress of the earlier part of their meal were able to watch the constant incoming stream of their fellow-guests. They were, in their way, an interesting contrast physically, neither of them good-looking according to ordinary standards, but both with many pleasant characteristics. Andrew Wilmore, slight and dark, with sallow cheeks and brown eyes, looked very much what he was—a moderately successful journalist and writer of stories, a keen golfer, a bachelor who preferred a pipe to cigars, and lived at Richmond because he could not find a flat in London which he could afford, large enough for his somewhat expansive habits. Francis Ledsam was of a sturdier type, with features perhaps better known to the world owing to the constant activities of the cartoonist. His reputation during the last few years had carried him, notwithstanding his comparative youth—he was only thirty-five years of age—into the very front ranks of his profession, and his income was one of which men spoke with bated breath. He came of a family of landed proprietors, whose younger sons for generations had drifted always either to the Bar or the Law, and his name was well known in the purlieus of Lincoln's Inn before he himself had made it famous. He was a persistent refuser of invitations, and his acquaintances in the fashionable world were comparatively few. Yet every now and then he felt a mild interest in the people whom his companion assiduously pointed out to him.
"A fashionable restaurant, Francis, is rather like your Law Courts—it levels people up," the latter remarked. "Louis, the head-waiter, is the judge, and the position allotted in the room is the sentence. I wonder who is going to have the little table next but one to us. Some favoured person, evidently."
Francis glanced in the direction indicated without curiosity. The table in question was laid for two and was distinguished by a wonderful cluster of red roses.
"Why is it," the novelist continued speculatively, "that, whenever we take another man's wife out, we think it necessary to order red roses?"
"And why is it," Francis queried, a little grimly, "that a dear fellow like you, Andrew, believes it his duty to talk of trifles for his pal's sake, when all the time he is thinking of something else? I know you're dying to talk about the Hilditch case, aren't you? Well, go ahead."
"I'm only interested in this last development," Wilmore confessed. "Of course, I read the newspaper reports. To tell you the truth, for a murder trial it seemed to me to rather lack colour."
"It was a very simple and straightforward case," Francis said slowly. "Oliver Hilditch is the principal partner in an American financial company which has recently opened offices in the West End. He seems to have arrived in England about two years ago, to have taken a house in Hill Street, and to have spent a great deal of money. A month or so ago, his partner from New York arrived in London, a man named Jordan of whom nothing was known. It has since transpired, however, that his journey to Europe was undertaken because he was unable to obtain certain figures relating to the business, from Hilditch. Oliver Hilditch met him at Southampton, travelled with him to London and found him a room at the Savoy. The next day, the whole of the time seems to have been spent in the office, and it is certain, from the evidence of the clerk, that some disagreement took place between the two men. They dined together, however, apparently on good terms, at the Cafe Royal, and parted in Regent Street soon after ten. At twelve o'clock, Jordan's body was picked up on the pavement in Hill Street, within a few paces of Heidrich's door. He had been stabbed through the heart with some needle-like weapon, and was quite dead."
"Was there any vital cause of quarrel between them?" Wilmore enquired.
"Impossible to say," Francis replied. "The financial position of the company depends entirely upon the value of a large quantity of speculative bonds, but as there was only one clerk employed, it was impossible to get at any figures. Hilditch declared that Jordan had only a small share in the business, from which he had drawn a considerable income for years, and that he had not the slightest cause for complaint."
"What were Hilditch's movements that evening?" Wilmore asked.
"Not a soul seems to have seen him after he left Regent Street," was the somewhat puzzled answer. "His own story was quite straightforward and has never been contradicted. He let himself into his house with a latch-key after his return from the Cafe Royal, drank a whisky and soda in the library, and went to bed before half-past eleven. The whole affair—"
Francis broke off abruptly in the middle of his sentence. He sat with his eyes fixed upon the door, silent and speechless.
"What in Heaven's name is the matter, old fellow?" Wilmore demanded, gazing at his companion in blank amazement.
The latter pulled himself together with an effort. The sight of the two new arrivals talking to Louis on the threshold of the restaurant, seemed for the moment to have drawn every scrap of colour from his cheeks. Nevertheless, his recovery was almost instantaneous.
"If you want to know any more," he said calmly, "you had better go and ask him to tell you the whole story himself. There he is."
"And the woman with him?" Wilmore exclaimed under his breath.
To reach their table, the one concerning which Francis and his friend had been speculating, the new arrivals, piloted by Louis, had to pass within a few feet of the two men. The woman, serene, coldly beautiful, dressed like a Frenchwoman in unrelieved black, with extraordinary attention to details, passed them by with a careless glance and subsided into the chair which Louis was holding. Her companion, however, as he recognised Francis hesitated. His expression of somewhat austere gloom was lightened. A pleasant but tentative smile parted his lips. He ventured upon a salutation, half a nod, half a more formal bow, a salutation which Francis instinctively returned. Andrew Wilmore looked on with curiosity.
"So that is Oliver Hilditch," he murmured.
"That is the man," Francis observed, "of whom last evening half the people in this restaurant were probably asking themselves whether or not he was guilty of murder. To-night they will be wondering what he is going to order for dinner. It is a strange world."
"Strange indeed," Wilmore assented. "This afternoon he was in the dock, with his fate in the balance—the condemned cell or a favoured table at Claridge's. And your meeting! One can imagine him gripping your hands, with tears in his eyes, his voice broken with emotion, sobbing out his thanks. And instead you exchange polite bows. I would not have missed this situation for anything."
"Tradesman!" Francis scoffed. "One can guess already at the plot of your next novel."
"He has courage," Wilmore declared. "He has also a very beautiful companion. Were you serious, Francis, when you told me that that was his wife?"
"She herself was my informant," was the quiet reply.
Wilmore was puzzled.
"But she passed you just now without even a glance of recognition, and I thought you told me at the club this afternoon that all your knowledge of his evil ways came from her. Besides, she looks at least twenty years younger than he does."
Francis, who had been watching his glass filled with champagne, raised it to his lips and drank its contents steadily to the last drop.
"I can only tell you what I know, Andrew," he said, as he set down the empty glass. "The woman who is with him now is the woman who spoke to me outside the Old Bailey this afternoon. We went to a tea-shop together. She told me the story of his career. I have never listened to so horrible a recital in my life."
"And yet they are here together, dining tete-a-tete, on a night when it must have needed more than ordinary courage for either of them to have been seen in public at all," Wilmore pointed out.
"It is as astounding to me as it is to you," Francis confessed. "From the way she spoke, I should never have dreamed that they were living together."
"And from his appearance," Wilmore remarked, as he called the waiter to bring some cigarettes, "I should never have imagined that he was anything else save a high-principled, well-born, straightforward sort of chap. I never saw a less criminal type of face."
They each in turn glanced at the subject of their discussion. Oliver Hilditch's good-looks had been the subject of many press comments during the last few days. They were certainly undeniable. His face was a little lined but his hair was thick and brown. His features were regular, his forehead high and thoughtful, his mouth a trifle thin but straight and shapely. Francis gazed at him like a man entranced. The hours seemed to have slipped away. He was back in the tea-shop, listening to the woman who spoke of terrible things. He felt again his shivering abhorrence of her cold, clearly narrated story. Again he shrank from the horrors from which with merciless fingers she had stripped the coverings. He seemed to see once more the agony in her white face, to hear the eternal pain aching and throbbing in her monotonous tone. He rose suddenly to his feet.
"Andrew," he begged, "tell the fellow to bring the bill outside. We'll have our coffee and liqueurs there."
Wilmore acquiesced willingly enough, but even as they turned towards the door Francis realised what was in store for him. Oliver Hilditch had risen to his feet. With a courteous little gesture he intercepted the passer-by. Francis found himself standing side by side with the man for whose life he had pleaded that afternoon, within a few feet of the woman whose terrible story seemed to have poisoned the very atmosphere he breathed, to have shown him a new horror in life, to have temporarily, at any rate, undermined every joy and ambition he possessed.
"Mr. Ledsam," Hilditch said, speaking with quiet dignity, "I hope that you will forgive the liberty I take in speaking to you here. I looked for you the moment I was free this afternoon, but found that you had left the Court. I owe you my good name, probably my life. Thanks are poor things but they must be spoken."
"You owe me nothing at all," Francis replied, in a tone which even he found harsh. "I had a brief before me and a cause to plead. It was a chapter out of my daily work."
"That work can be well done or ill," the other reminded him gently. "In your case, my presence here proves how well it was done. I wish to present you to my wife, who shares my gratitude."
Francis bowed to the woman, who now, at her husband's words, raised her eyes. For the first time he saw her smile. It seemed to him that the effort made her less beautiful.
"Your pleading was very wonderful, Mr. Ledsam," she said, a very subtle note of mockery faintly apparent in her tone. "We poor mortals find it difficult to understand that with you all that show of passionate earnestness is merely—what did you call it?—a chapter in your day's work? It is a great gift to be able to argue from the brain and plead as though from the heart."
"We will not detain Mr. Ledsam," Oliver Hilditch interposed, a little hastily. "He perhaps does not care to be addressed in public by a client who still carries with him the atmosphere of the prison. My wife and I wondered, Mr. Ledsam, whether you would be good enough to dine with us one night. I think I could interest you by telling you more about my case than you know at present, and it would give us a further opportunity, and a more seemly one, for expressing our gratitude."
Francis had recovered himself by this time. He was after all a man of parts, and though he still had the feeling that he had been through one of the most momentous days of his life, his savoir faire was making its inevitable reappearance. He knew very well that the idea of that dinner would be horrible to him. He also knew that he would willingly cancel every engagement he had rather than miss it.
"You are very kind," he murmured.
"Are we fortunate enough to find you disengaged," Hilditch suggested, "to-morrow evening?"
"I am quite free," was the ready response.
"That suits you, Margaret?" Hilditch asked, turning courteously to his wife.
For a single moment her eyes were fixed upon those of her prospective guest. He read their message which pleaded for his refusal, and he denied it.
"To-morrow evening will suit me as well as any other," she acquiesced, after a brief pause.
"At eight o'clock, then—number 10 b, Hill Street," Hilditch concluded.
Francis bowed and turned away with a murmured word of polite assent. Outside, he found Wilmore deep in the discussion of the merits of various old brandies with an interested maitre d'hotel.
"Any choice, Francis?" his host enquired.
"None whatever," was the prompt reply, "only, for God's sake, give me a double one quickly!"
The two men were on the point of departure when Oliver Hilditch and his wife left the restaurant. As though conscious that they had become the subject of discussion, as indeed was the case, thanks to the busy whispering of the various waiters, they passed without lingering through the lounge into the entrance hall, where Francis and Andrew Wilmore were already waiting for a taxicab. Almost as they appeared, a new arrival was ushered through the main entrance, followed by porters carrying luggage. He brushed past Francis so closely that the latter looked into his face, half attracted and half repelled by the waxen-like complexion, the piercing eyes, and the dignified carriage of the man whose arrival seemed to be creating some stir in the hotel. A reception clerk and a deputy manager had already hastened forward. The newcomer waved them back for a moment. Bareheaded, he had taken Margaret Hilditch's hands in his and raised them to his lips.
"I came as quickly as I could," he said. "There was the usual delay, of course, at Marseilles, and the trains on were terrible. So all has ended well."
Oliver Hilditch, standing by, remained speechless. It seemed for a moment as though his self-control were subjected to a severe strain.
"I had the good fortune," he interposed, in a low tone, "to be wonderfully defended. Mr. Ledsam here—"
He glanced around. Francis, with some idea of what was coming, obeyed an imaginary summons from the head-porter, touched Andrew Wilmore upon the shoulder, and hastened without a backward glance through the swing-doors. Wilmore turned up his coat-collar and looked doubtfully up at the rain.
"I say, old chap," he protested, "you don't really mean to walk?"
Francis thrust his hand through his friend's arm and wheeled him round into Davies Street.
"I don't care what the mischief we do, Andrew," he confided, "but couldn't you see what was going to happen? Oliver Hilditch was going to introduce me as his preserver to the man who had just arrived!"
"Are you afflicted with modesty, all of a sudden?" Wilmore grumbled.
"No, remorse," was the terse reply.
Indecision had never been one of Francis Ledsam's faults, but four times during the following day he wrote out a carefully worded telegraphic message to Mrs. Oliver Hilditch, 10 b, Hill Street, regretting his inability to dine that night, and each time he destroyed it. He carried the first message around Richmond golf course with him, intending to dispatch his caddy with it immediately on the conclusion of the round. The fresh air, however, and the concentration required by the game, seemed to dispel the nervous apprehensions with which he had anticipated his visit, and over an aperitif in the club bar he tore the telegram into small pieces and found himself even able to derive a certain half-fearful pleasure from the thought of meeting again the woman who, together with her terrible story, had never for one moment been out of his thoughts. Andrew Wilmore, who had observed his action, spoke of it as they settled down to lunch.
"So you are going to keep your engagement tonight, Francis?" he observed.
The latter nodded.
"After all, why not?" he asked, a little defiantly. "It ought to be interesting."
"Well, there's nothing of the sordid criminal, at any rate, about Oliver Hilditch," Wilmore declared. "Neither, if one comes to think of it, does his wife appear to be the prototype of suffering virtue. I wonder if you are wise to go, Francis?"
"Why not?" the man who had asked himself that question a dozen times already, demanded.
"Because," Wilmore replied coolly, "underneath that steely hardness of manner for which your profession is responsible, you have a vein of sentiment, of chivalrous sentiment, I should say, which some day or other is bound to get you into trouble. The woman is beautiful enough to turn any one's head. As a matter of fact, I believe that you are more than half in love with her already."
Francis Ledsam sat where the sunlight fell upon his strong, forceful face, shone, too, upon the table with its simple but pleasant appointments, upon the tankard of beer by his side, upon the plate of roast beef to which he was already doing ample justice. He laughed with the easy confidence of a man awakened from some haunting nightmare, relieved to find his feet once more firm upon the ground.
"I have been a fool to take the whole matter so seriously, Andrew," he declared. "I expect to walk back to Clarges Street to-night, disillusioned. The man will probably present me with a gold pencil-case, and the woman—"
"Well, what about the woman?" Wilmore asked, after a brief pause.
"Oh, I don't know!" Francis declared, a little impatiently. "The woman is the mystery, of course. Probably my brain was a little over-excited when I came out of Court, and what I imagined to be an epic was nothing more than a tissue of exaggerations from a disappointed wife. I'm sure I'm doing the right thing to go there.... What about a four-ball this afternoon, Andrew?"
The four-ball match was played and won in normal fashion. The two men returned to town together afterwards, Wilmore to the club and Francis to his rooms in Clarges Street to prepare for dinner. At a few minutes to eight he rang the bell of number 10 b, Hill Street, and found his host and hostess awaiting him in the small drawing-room into which he was ushered. It seemed to him that the woman, still colourless, again marvellously gowned, greeted him coldly. His host, however, was almost too effusive. There was no other guest, but the prompt announcement of dinner dispelled what might have been a few moments of embarrassment after Oliver Hilditch's almost too cordial greeting. The woman laid her fingers upon her guest's coat-sleeve. The trio crossed the little hall almost in silence.
Dinner was served in a small white Georgian dining-room, with every appurtenance of almost Sybaritic luxury. The only light in the room was thrown upon the table by two purple-shaded electric lamps, and the servants who waited seemed to pass backwards and forwards like shadows in some mysterious twilight—even the faces of the three diners themselves were out of the little pool of light until they leaned forward. The dinner was chosen with taste and restraint, the wines were not only costly but rare. A watchful butler, attended now and then by a trim parlour-maid, superintended the service. Only once, when she ordered a bowl of flowers removed from the table, did their mistress address either of them. Conversation after the first few amenities speedily became almost a monologue. One man talked whilst the others listened, and the man who talked was Oliver Hilditch. He possessed the rare gift of imparting colour and actuality in a few phrases to the strange places of which he spoke, of bringing the very thrill of strange happenings into the shadowy room. It seemed that there was scarcely a country of the world which he had not visited, a country, that is to say, where men congregate, for he admitted from the first that he was a city worshipper, that the empty places possessed no charm for him.
"I am not even a sportsman," he confessed once, half apologetically, in reply to a question from his guest. "I have passed down the great rivers of the world without a thought of salmon, and I have driven through the forest lands and across the mountains behind a giant locomotive, without a thought of the beasts which might be lurking there, waiting to be killed. My only desire has been to reach the next place where men and women were."
"Irrespective of nationality?" Francis queried.
"Absolutely. I have never minded much of what race—I have the trick of tongues rather strangely developed—but I like the feeling of human beings around me. I like the smell and sound and atmosphere of a great city. Then all my senses are awake, but life becomes almost turgid in my veins during the dreary hours of passing from one place to another."
"Do you rule out scenery as well as sport from amongst the joys of travel?" Francis enquired.
"I am ashamed to make such a confession," his host answered, "but I have never lingered for a single unnecessary moment to look at the most wonderful landscape in the world. On the other hand, I have lounged for hours in the narrowest streets of Pekin, in the markets of Shanghai, along Broadway in New York, on the boulevards in Paris, outside the Auditorium in Chicago. These are the obvious places where humanity presses the thickest, but I know of others. Some day we will talk of them."
Francis, too, although that evening, through sheer lack of sympathy, he refused to admit it, shared to some extent Hilditch's passionate interest in his fellow-creatures, and notwithstanding the strange confusion of thought into which he had been thrown during the last twenty-four hours, he felt something of the pungency of life, the thrill of new and appealing surroundings, as he sat in his high-backed chair, sipping his wonderful wine, eating almost mechanically what was set before him, fascinated through all his being by his strange company.
For three days he had cast occasional glances at this man, seated in the criminal dock with a gaoler on either side of him, his fine, nervous features gaining an added distinction from the sordidness of his surroundings. Now, in the garb of civilisation, seated amidst luxury to which he was obviously accustomed, with a becoming light upon his face and this strange, fascinating flow of words proceeding always from his lips, the man, from every external point of view, seemed amongst the chosen ones of the world. The contrast was in itself amazing. And then the woman! Francis looked at her but seldom, and when he did it was with a curious sense of mental disturbance; poignant but unanalysable.
It was amazing to see her here, opposite the man of whom she had told him that ghastly story, mistress of his house, to all appearance his consort, apparently engrossed in his polished conversation, yet with that subtle withholding of her real self which Francis rather imagined than felt, and which somehow seemed to imply her fierce resentment of her husband's re-entry into the arena of life. It was a situation so strange that Francis, becoming more and more subject to its influence, was inclined to wonder whether he had not met with some accident on his way from the Court, and whether this was not one of the heated nightmares following unconsciousness.
"Tell me," he asked his host, during one of the brief pauses in the conversation, "have you ever tried to analyse this interest of yours in human beings and crowded cities, this hatred of solitude and empty spaces?"
Oliver Hilditch smiled thoughtfully, and gazed at a salted almond which he was just balancing between the tips of his fingers.
"I think," he said simply, "it is because I have no soul."
The three diners lingered for only a short time over their dessert. Afterwards, they passed together into a very delightful library on the other side of the round, stone-paved hall. Hilditch excused himself for a moment.
"I have some cigars which I keep in my dressing-room," he explained, "and which I am anxious for you to try. There is an electric stove there and I can regulate the temperature."
He departed, closing the door behind him. Francis came a little further into the room. His hostess, who had subsided into an easy-chair and was holding a screen between her face and the fire, motioned him to, seat himself opposite. He did so without words. He felt curiously and ridiculously tongue-tied. He fell to studying the woman instead of attempting the banality of pointless speech. From the smooth gloss of her burnished hair, to the daintiness of her low, black brocaded shoes, she represented, so far as her physical and outward self were concerned, absolute perfection. No ornament was amiss, no line or curve of her figure other than perfectly graceful. Yet even the fire's glow which she had seemed to dread brought no flush of colour to her cheeks. Her appearance of complete lifelessness remained. It was as though some sort of crust had formed about her being, a condition which her very physical perfection seemed to render the more incomprehensible.
"You are surprised to see me here living with my husband, after what I told you yesterday afternoon?" she said calmly, breaking at last the silence which had reigned between them.
"I am," he admitted.
"It seems unnatural to you, I suppose?"
"You still believe all that I told you?"
She looked at the door and raised her head a little, as though either listening or adjudging the time before her husband would return. Then she glanced across at him once more.
"Hatred," she said, "does not always drive away. Sometimes it attracts. Sometimes the person who hates can scarcely bear the other out of his sight. That is where hate and love are somewhat alike."
The room was warm but Francis was conscious of shivering. She raised her finger warningly. It seemed typical of the woman, somehow, that the message could not be conveyed by any glance or gesture.
"He is coming," she whispered.
Oliver Hilditch reappeared, carrying cigars wrapped in gold foil which he had brought with him from Cuba, the tobacco of which was a revelation to his guest. The two men smoked and sipped their coffee and brandy. The woman sat with half-closed eyes. It was obvious that Hilditch was still in the mood for speech.
"I will tell you, Mr. Ledsam," he said, "why I am so happy to have you here this evening. In the first place, I desire to tender you once more my thanks for your very brilliant efforts on my behalf. The very fact that I am able to offer you hospitality at all is without a doubt due to these."
"I only did what I was paid to do," Francis insisted, a little harshly. "You must remember that these things come in the day's work with us."
His host nodded.
"Naturally," he murmured. "There was another reason, too, why I was anxious to meet you, Mr. Ledsam," he continued. "You have gathered already that I am something of a crank. I have a profound detestation of all sentimentality and affected morals. It is a relief to me to come into contact with a man who is free from that bourgeois incubus to modern enterprise—a conscience."
"Is that your estimate of me?" Francis asked.
"Why not? You practise your profession in the criminal courts, do you not?"
"That is well-known," was the brief reply.
"What measure of conscience can a man have," Oliver Hilditch argued blandly, "who pleads for the innocent and guilty alike with the same simulated fervour? Confess, now, Mr. Ledsam—there is no object in being hypocritical in this matter—have you not often pleaded for the guilty as though you believed them innocent?"
"That has sometimes been my duty," Francis acknowledged.
Hilditch laughed scornfully.
"It is all part of the great hypocrisy of society," he proclaimed. "You have an extra glass of champagne for dinner at night and are congratulated by your friends because you have helped some poor devil to cheat the law, while all the time you know perfectly well, and so do your high-minded friends, that your whole attitude during those two hours of eloquence has been a lie. That is what first attracted me to you, Mr. Ledsam."
"I am sorry to hear it," Francis commented coldly. "The ethics of my profession—"
His host stopped him with a little wave of the hand.
"Spare me that," he begged. "While we are on the subject, though, I have a question to ask you. My lawyer told me, directly after he had briefed you, that, although it would make no real difference to your pleading, it would be just as well for me to keep up my bluff of being innocent, even in private conversation with you. Why was that?"
"For the very obvious reason," Francis told him, "that we are not all such rogues and vagabonds as you seem to think. There is more satisfaction to me, at any rate, in saving an innocent man's life than a guilty one's."
Hilditch laughed as though amused.
"Come," he threatened, "I am going to be ill-natured. You have shown signs of smugness, a quality which I detest. I am going to rob you of some part of your self-satisfaction. Of course I killed Jordan. I killed him in the very chair in which you are now sitting."
There was a moment's intense silence. The woman was still fanning herself lazily. Francis leaned forward in his place.
"I do not wish to hear this!" he exclaimed harshly.
"Don't be foolish," his host replied, rising to his feet and strolling across the room. "You know the whole trouble of the prosecution. They couldn't discover the weapon, or anything like it, with which the deed was done. Now I'll show you something ingenious."
Francis followed the other's movements with fascinated eyes. The woman scarcely turned her head. Hilditch paused at the further end of the room, where there were a couple of gun cases, some fishing rods and a bag, of golf clubs. From the latter he extracted a very ordinary-looking putter, and with it in his hands strolled back to them.
"Do you play golf, Ledsam?" he asked. "What do you think of that?"
Francis took the putter into his hand. It was a very ordinary club, which had apparently seen a good deal of service, so much, indeed, that the leather wrapping at the top was commencing to unroll. The maker's name was on the back of the blade, also the name of the professional from whom it had been purchased. Francis swung the implement mechanically with his wrists.
"There seems to be nothing extraordinary about the club," he pronounced. "It is very much like a cleek I putt with myself."
"Yet it contains a secret which would most certainly have hanged me," Oliver Hilditch declared pleasantly. "See!"
He held the shaft firmly in one hand and bent the blade away from it. In a moment or two it yielded and he commenced to unscrew it. A little exclamation escaped from Francis' lips. The woman looked on with tired eyes.
"The join in the steel," Hilditch pointed out, "is so fine as to be undistinguishable by the naked eye. Yet when the blade comes off, like this, you see that although the weight is absolutely adjusted, the inside is hollow. The dagger itself is encased in this cotton wool to avoid any rattling. I put it away in rather a hurry the last time I used it, and as you see I forgot to clean it."
Francis staggered back and gripped at the mantelpiece. His eyes were filled with horror. Very slowly, and with the air of one engaged upon some interesting task, Oliver Hilditch had removed the blood-stained sheath of cotton wool from around the thin blade of a marvellous-looking stiletto, on which was also a long stain of encrusted blood.
"There is a handle," he went on, "which is perhaps the most ingenious thing of all. You touch a spring here, and behold!"
He pressed down two tiny supports which opened upon hinges about four inches from the top of the handle. There was now a complete hilt.
"With this little weapon," he explained, "the point is so sharpened and the steel so wonderful that it is not necessary to stab. It has the perfection of a surgical instrument. You have only to lean it against a certain point in a man's anatomy, lunge ever so little and the whole thing is done. Come here, Mr. Ledsam, and I will show you the exact spot."
Francis made no movement. His eyes were fixed upon the weapon.
"If I had only known!" he muttered.
"My dear fellow, if you had," the other protested soothingly, "you know perfectly well that it would not have made the slightest difference. Perhaps that little break in your voice would not have come quite so naturally, the little sweep of your arm towards me, the man whom a moment's thoughtlessness might sweep into Eternity, would have been a little stiffer, but what matter? You would still have done your best and you would probably still have succeeded. You don't care about trifling with Eternity, eh? Very well, I will find the place for you."
Hilditch's fingers strayed along his shirt-front until he found a certain spot. Then he leaned the dagger against it, his forefinger and second finger pressed against the hilt. His eyes were fixed upon his guest's. He seemed genuinely interested. Francis, glancing away for a moment, was suddenly conscious of a new horror. The woman had leaned a little forward in her easy-chair until she had attained almost a crouching position. Her eyes seemed to be measuring the distance from where she sat to that quivering thread of steel.
"You see, Ledsam," his host went on, "that point driven now at that angle would go clean through the vital part of my heart. And it needs no force, either—just the slow pressure of these two fingers. What did you say, Margaret?" he enquired, breaking off abruptly.
The woman was seated upon the very edge of her chair, her eyes rivetted upon the dagger. There was no change in her face, not a tremor in her tone.
"I said nothing," she replied. "I did not speak at all. I was just watching."
Hilditch turned back to his guest.
"These two fingers," he repeated, "and a flick of the wrist—very little more than would be necessary for a thirty yard putt right across the green."
Francis had recovered himself, had found his bearings to a certain extent.
"I am sorry that you have told me this, Mr. Hilditch," he said, a little stiffly.
"Why?" was the puzzled reply. "I thought you would be interested."
"I am interested to this extent," Francis declared, "I shall accept no more cases such as yours unless I am convinced of my client's innocence. I look upon your confession to me as being in the worst possible taste, and I regret very much my efforts on your behalf."
The woman was listening intently. Hilditch's expression was one of cynical wonder. Francis rose to his feet and moved across to his hostess.
"Mrs. Hilditch," he said, "will you allow me to make my apologies? Your husband and I have arrived at an understanding—or perhaps I should say a misunderstanding—which renders the acceptance of any further hospitality on my part impossible."
She held out the tips of her fingers.
"I had no idea," she observed, with gentle sarcasm, "that you barristers were such purists morally. I thought you were rather proud of being the last hope of the criminal classes."
"Madam," Francis replied, "I am not proud of having saved the life of a self-confessed murderer, even though that man may be your husband."
Hilditch was laughing softly to himself as he escorted his departing guest to the door.
"You have a quaint sense of humour," Francis remarked.
"Forgive me," Oliver Hilditch begged, "but your last few words rather appealed to me. You must be a person of very scanty perceptions if you could spend the evening here and not understand that my death is the one thing in the world which would make my wife happy."
Francis walked home with these last words ringing in his ears. They seemed with him even in that brief period of troubled sleep which came to him when he had regained his rooms and turned in. They were there in the middle of the night when he was awakened, shivering, by the shrill summons of his telephone bell. He stood quaking before the instrument in his pajamas. It was the voice which, by reason of some ghastly premonition, he had dreaded to hear—level, composed, emotionless.
"Mr. Ledsam?" she enquired.
"I am Francis Ledsam," he assented. "Who wants me?"
"It is Margaret Hilditch speaking," she announced. "I felt that I must ring up and tell you of a very strange thing which happened after you left this evening."
"Go on," he begged hoarsely.
"After you left," she went on, "my husband persisted in playing with that curious dagger. He laid it against his heart, and seated himself in the chair which Mr. Jordan had occupied, in the same attitude. It was what he called a reconstruction. While he was holding it there, I think that he must have had a fit, or it may have been remorse, we shall never know. He called out and I hurried across the room to him. I tried to snatch the dagger away—I did so, in fact—but I must have been too late. He had already applied that slight movement of the fingers which was necessary. The doctor has just left. He says that death must have been instantaneous."
"But this is horrible!" Francis cried out into the well of darkness.
"A person is on the way from Scotland Yard," the voice continued, without change or tremor. "When he has satisfied himself, I am going to bed. He is here now. Good-night!"
Francis tried to speak again but his words beat against a wall of silence. He sat upon the edge of the bed, shivering. In that moment of agony he seemed to hear again the echo of Oliver Hilditch's mocking words:
"My death is the one thing in the world which would make my wife happy!"
There was a good deal of speculation at the Sheridan Club, of which he was a popular and much envied member, as to the cause for the complete disappearance from their midst of Francis Ledsam since the culmination of the Hilditch tragedy.
"Sent back four topping briefs, to my knowledge, last week," one of the legal luminaries of the place announced to a little group of friends and fellow-members over a before-dinner cocktail.
"Griggs offered him the defence of William Bull, the Chippenham murderer, and he refused it," another remarked. "Griggs wrote him personally, and the reply came from the Brancaster Golf Club! It isn't like Ledsam to be taking golfing holidays in the middle of the session."
"There's nothing wrong with Ledsam," declared a gruff voice from the corner. "And don't gossip, you fellows, at the top of your voices like a lot of old women. He'll be calling here for me in a moment or two."
They all looked around. Andrew Wilmore rose slowly to his feet and emerged from behind the sheets of an evening paper. He laid his hand upon the shoulder of a friend, and glanced towards the door.
"Ledsam's had a touch of nerves," he confided. "There's been nothing else the matter with him. We've been down at the Dormy House at Brancaster and he's as right as a trivet now. That Hilditch affair did him in completely."
"I don't see why," one of the bystanders observed. "He got Hilditch off all right. One of the finest addresses to a jury I ever heard."
"That's just the point," Wilmore explained "You see, Ledsam had no idea that Hilditch was really guilty, and for two hours that afternoon he literally fought for his life, and in the end wrested a verdict from the jury, against the judge's summing up, by sheer magnetism or eloquence or whatever you fellows like to call it. The very night after, Hilditch confesses his guilt and commits suicide."
"I still don't see where Ledsam's worry comes in," the legal luminary remarked. "The fact that the man was guilty is rather a feather in the cap of his counsel. Shows how jolly good his pleading must have been."
"Just so," Wilmore agreed, "but Ledsam, as you know, is a very conscientious sort of fellow, and very sensitive, too. The whole thing was a shock to him."
"It must have been a queer experience," a novelist remarked from the outskirts of the group, "to dine with a man whose life you have juggled away from the law, and then have him explain his crime to you, and the exact manner of its accomplishment. Seems to bring one amongst the goats, somehow."
"Bit of a shock, no doubt," the lawyer assented, "but I still don't understand Ledsam's sending back all his briefs. He's not going to chuck the profession, is he?"
"Not by any means," Wilmore declared. "I think he has an idea, though, that he doesn't want to accept any briefs unless he is convinced that the person whom he has to represent is innocent, and lawyers don't like that sort of thing, you know. You can't pick and choose, even when you have Leadsam's gifts."
"The fact of it is," the novelist commented, "Francis Ledsam isn't callous enough to be associated with you money-grubbing dispensers of the law. He'd be all right as Public Prosecutor, a sort of Sir Galahad waving the banner of virtue, but he hates to stuff his pockets at the expense of the criminal classes."
"Who the mischief are the criminal classes?" a police court magistrate demanded. "Personally, I call war profiteering criminal, I call a good many Stock Exchange deals criminal, and," he added, turning to a member of the committee who was hovering in the background, "I call it criminal to expect us to drink French vermouth like this."
"There is another point of view," the latter retorted. "I call it a crime to expect a body of intelligent men to administer without emolument to the greed of such a crowd of rotters. You'll get the right stuff next week."
The hall-porter approached and addressed Wilmore.
"Mr. Ledsam is outside in a taxi, sir," he announced.
"Outside in a taxi?" the lawyer repeated. "Why on earth can't he come in?"
"I never heard such rot," another declared. "Let's go and rope him in."
"Mr. Ledsam desired me to say, sir," the hall porter continued, "to any of his friends who might be here, that he will be in to lunch to-morrow."
"Leave him to me till then," Wilmore begged. "He'll be all right directly. He's simply altering his bearings and taking his time about it. If he's promised to lunch here to-morrow, he will. He's as near as possible through the wood. Coming up in the train, he suggested a little conversation to-night and afterwards the normal life. He means it, too. There's nothing neurotic about Ledsam."
The magistrate nodded.
"Run along, then, my merry Andrew," he said, "but see that Ledsam keeps his word about to-morrow."
Andrew Wilmore plunged boldly into the forbidden subject later on that evening, as the two men sat side by side at one of the wall tables in Soto's famous club restaurant. They had consumed an excellent dinner. An empty champagne bottle had just been removed, double liqueur brandies had taken its place. Francis, with an air of complete and even exuberant humanity, had lit a huge cigar. The moment seemed propitious.
"Francis," his friend began, "they say at the club that you refused to be briefed in the Chippenham affair."
"Quite true," was the calm reply. "I told Griggs that I wouldn't have anything to do with it."
Wilmore knew then that all was well. Francis' old air of strength and decision had returned. His voice was firm, his eyes were clear and bright. His manner seemed even to invite questioning.
"I think I know why," Wilmore said, "but I should like you to tell me in your own words."
Francis glanced around as though to be sure that they were not overheard.
"Because," he replied, dropping his voice a little but still speaking with great distinctness, "William Bull is a cunning and dangerous criminal whom I should prefer to see hanged."
"You know that?"
"I know that."
"It would be a great achievement to get him off," Wilmore persisted. "The evidence is very weak in places."
"I believe that I could get him off," was the confident reply. "That is why I will not touch the brief. I think," Francis continued, "that I have already conveyed it to you indirectly, but here you are in plain words, Andrew. I have made up my mind that I will defend no man in future unless I am convinced of his innocence."
"It means practically the end of my career at the bar," Francis admitted. "I realise that absolutely: Fortunately, as you know, I am not dependent upon my earnings, and I have had a wonderful ten years."
"This is all because of the Hilditch affair, I suppose?"
Wilmore was still a little puzzled.
"You seem to imagine that you have something on your conscience as regards that business," he said boldly.
"I have," was the calm reply.
"Come," Wilmore protested, "I don't quite follow your line of thought. Granted that Hilditch was a desperate criminal whom by the exercise of your special gifts you saved from the law, surely his tragic death balanced the account between you and Society?"
"It might have done," Francis admitted, "if he had really committed suicide."
Wilmore was genuinely startled. He looked at his companion curiously.
"What the devil do you mean, old chap?" he demanded. "Your own evidence at the inquest was practically conclusive as to that."
Francis glanced around him with apparent indifference but in reality with keen and stealthy care. On their right was a glass division, through which the sound of their voices could not possibly penetrate. On their left was an empty space, and a table beyond was occupied by a well-known cinema magnate engaged in testing the attractions in daily life of a would-be film star. Nevertheless, Francis' voice was scarcely raised above a whisper.
"My evidence at the coroner's inquest," he confided, "was a subtly concocted tissue of lies. I committed perjury freely. That is the real reason why I've been a little on the nervy side lately, and why I took these few months out of harness."
"Good God!" Wilmore exclaimed, setting down untasted the glass of brandy which he had just raised to his lips.
"I want to finish this matter up," Francis continued calmly, "by making a clean breast of it to you, because from to-night I am starting afresh, with new interests in my life, what will practically amount to a new career. That is why I preferred not to dine at the club to-night, although I am looking forward to seeing them all again. I wanted instead to have this conversation with you. I lied at the inquest when I said that the relations between Oliver Hilditch and his wife that night seemed perfectly normal. I lied when I said that I knew of no cause for ill-will between them. I lied when I said that I left them on friendly terms. I lied when I said that Oliver Hilditch seemed depressed and nervous. I lied when I said that he expressed the deepest remorse for what he had done. There was every indication that night, of the hate which I happen to know existed between the woman and the man. I have not the faintest doubt in my mind but that she murdered him. In my judgment, she was perfectly justified in doing so."
There followed a brief but enforced silence as some late arrivals passed their table. The room was well-ventilated but Andrew Wilmore felt suddenly hot and choking. A woman, one of the little group of newcomers, glanced towards Francis curiously.
"Francis Ledsam, the criminal barrister," her companion whispered,—"the man who got Oliver Hilditch off. The man with him is Andrew Wilmore, the novelist. Discussing a case, I expect."
The little party of late diners passed on their way to the further end of the room, leaving a wave of artificiality behind, or was it, Andrew Wilmore wondered, in a moment of half-dazed speculation, that it was they and the rest of the gay company who represented the real things, and he and his companion who were playing a sombre part in some unreal and gloomier world. Francis' voice, however, when he recommenced his diatribe, was calm and matter-of-fact enough.
"You see," he continued, argumentatively, "I was morally and actually responsible for the man's being brought back into Society. And far worse than that, I was responsible for his being thrust back again upon his wife. Ergo, I was also responsible for what she did that night. The matter seems as plain as a pikestaff to me. I did what I could to atone, rightly or wrongly it doesn't matter, because it is over and done with. There you are, old fellow, now you know what's been making me nervy. I've committed wholesale perjury, but I acted according to my conscience and I think according to justice. The thing has worried me, I admit, but it has passed, and I'm glad it's off my chest. One more liqueur, Andrew, and if you want to we'll talk about my plans for the future."
The brandy was brought. Wilmore studied his friend curiously, not without some relief. Francis had lost the harassed and nervous appearance upon which his club friends had commented, which had been noticeable, even, to a diminishing extent, upon the golf course at Brancaster. He was alert and eager. He had the air of a man upon the threshold of some enterprise dear to his heart.
"I have been through a queer experience," Francis continued presently, as he sipped his second liqueur. "Not only had I rather less than twelve hours to make up my mind whether I should commit a serious offence against the law, but a sensation which I always hoped that I might experience, has come to me in what I suppose I must call most unfortunate fashion."
"The woman?" Wilmore ventured.
Francis assented gloomily. There was a moment's silence. Wilmore, the metaphysician, saw then a strange thing. He saw a light steal across his friend's stern face. He saw his eyes for a moment soften, the hard mouth relax, something incredible, transforming, shine, as it were, out of the man's soul in that moment of self-revelation. It was gone like the momentary passing of a strange gleam of sunshine across a leaden sea, but those few seconds were sufficient. Wilmore knew well enough what had happened.
"Oliver Hilditch's wife," Francis went on, after a few minutes' pause, "presents an enigma which at present I cannot hope to solve. The fact that she received her husband back again, knowing what he was and what he was capable of, is inexplicable to me. The woman herself is a mystery. I do not know what lies behind her extraordinary immobility. Feeling she must have, and courage, or she would never have dared to have ridded herself of the scourge of her life. But beyond that my judgment tells me nothing. I only know that sooner or later I shall seek her out. I shall discover all that I want to know, one way or the other. It may be for happiness—it may be the end of the things that count."
"I guessed this," Wilmore admitted, with a little shiver which he was wholly unable to repress.
"Then keep it to yourself, my dear fellow," he begged, "like everything else I am telling you tonight. I have come out of my experience changed in many ways," he continued, "but, leaving out that one secret chapter, this is the dominant factor which looms up before me. I bring into life a new aversion, almost a passion, Andrew, born in a tea-shop in the city, and ministered to by all that has happened since. I have lost that sort of indifference which my profession engenders towards crime. I am at war with the criminal, sometimes, I hope, in the Courts of Justice, but forever out of them. I am no longer indifferent as to whether men do good or evil so long as they do not cross my path. I am a hunter of sin. I am out to destroy. There's a touch of melodrama in this for you, Andrew," he concluded, with a little laugh, "but, my God, I'm in earnest!"
"What does this mean so far as regards the routine of your daily life?" Wilmore asked curiously.
"Well, it brings us to the point we discussed down at Brancaster," Francis replied. "It will affect my work to this extent. I shall not accept any brief unless, after reading the evidence, I feel convinced that the accused is innocent."
"That's all very well," Wilmore observed, "but you know what it will mean, don't you? Lawyers aren't likely to single you out for a brief without ever feeling sure whether you will accept it or not."
"That doesn't worry me," Francis declared. "I don't need the fees, fortunately, and I can always pick up enough work to keep me going by attending Sessions. One thing I can promise you—I certainly shall not sit in my rooms and wait for things to happen. Mine is a militant spirit and it needs the outlet of action."
"Action, yes, but how?" Wilmore queried. "You can't be always hanging about the courts, waiting for the chance of defending some poor devil who's been wrongfully accused—there aren't enough of them, for one thing. On the other hand, you can't walk down Regent Street, brandishing a two-edged sword and hunting for pickpockets."
"Nothing so flamboyant, I can assure you, Andrew," he replied; "nor shall I play the amateur detective with his mouth open for mysteries. But listen," he went on earnestly. "I've had some experience, as you know, and, notwithstanding the Oliver Hilditch's of the world, I can generally tell a criminal when I meet him face to face. There are plenty of them about, too, Andrew—as many in this place as any other. I am not going to be content with a negative position as regards evildoers. I am going to set my heel on as many of the human vermin of this city as I can find."
"A laudable, a most exhilarating and delightful pursuit! 'human vermin,' too, is excellent. It opens up a new and fascinating vista for the modern sportsman. My congratulations!"
It was an interruption of peculiar and wonderful significance, but Francis did not for the moment appreciate the fact. Turning his head, he simply saw a complete stranger seated unaccountably at the next table, who had butted into a private conversation and whose tone of gentle sarcasm, therefore, was the more offensive.
"Who the devil are you, sir," he demanded, "and where did you come from?"
The newcomer showed no resentment at Francis' little outburst. He simply smiled with deprecating amiability—a tall, spare man, with lean, hard face, complexion almost unnaturally white; black hair, plentifully besprinkled with grey; a thin, cynical mouth, notwithstanding its distinctly humourous curve, and keen, almost brilliant dark eyes. He was dressed in ordinary dinner garb; his linen and jewellery was indeed in the best possible taste. Francis, at his second glance, was troubled with a vague sense of familiarity.
"Let me answer your last question first, sir," the intruder begged. "I was seated alone, several tables away, when the couple next to you went out, and having had pointed out to me the other evening at Claridge's Hotel, and knowing well by repute, the great barrister, Mr. Francis Ledsam, and his friend the world-famed novelist, Mr. Andrew Wilmore, I—er—unobtrusively made my way, half a yard at a time, in your direction—and here I am. I came stealthily, you may object? Without a doubt. If I had come in any other fashion, I should have disturbed a conversation in which I was much interested."
"Could you find it convenient," Francis asked, with icy politeness, "to return to your own table, stealthily or not, as you choose?"
The newcomer showed no signs of moving.
"In after years," he declared, "you would be the first to regret the fact if I did so. This is a momentous meeting. It gives me an opportunity of expressing my deep gratitude to you, Mr. Ledsam, for the wonderful evidence you tendered at the inquest upon the body of my son-in-law, Oliver Hilditch."
Francis turned in his place and looked steadily at this unsought-for companion, learning nothing, however, from the half-mocking smile and imperturbable expression.
"Your son-in-law?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say that you are the father of—of Oliver Hilditch's wife?"
"Widow," the other corrected gently. "I have that honour. You will understand, therefore, that I feel myself on this, the first opportunity, compelled to tender my sincere thanks for evidence so chivalrously offered, so flawlessly truthful."
Francis was a man accustomed to self-control, but he clenched his hands so that his finger nails dug into his flesh. He was filled with an insane and unreasoning resentment against this man whose words were biting into his conscience. Nevertheless, he kept his tone level.
"I do not desire your gratitude," he said, "nor, if you will permit me to say so, your further acquaintance."
The stranger shook his head regretfully.
"You are wrong," he protested. "We were bound, in any case, to know one another. Shall I tell you why? You have just declared yourself anxious to set your heel upon the criminals of the world. I have the distinction of being perhaps the most famous patron of that maligned class now living—and my neck is at your service."
"You appear to me," Francis said suavely, "to be a buffoon."
It might have been fancy, but Francis could have sworn that he saw the glitter of a sovereign malevolence in the other's dark eyes. If so, it was but a passing weakness, for a moment later the half good-natured, half cynical smile was back again upon the man's lips.
"If so, I am at least a buffoon of parts," was the prompt rejoinder. "I will, if you choose, prove myself."
There was a moment's silence. Wilmore was leaning forward in his place, studying the newcomer earnestly. An impatient invective was somehow stifled upon Francis' lips.
"Within a few yards of this place, sometime before the closing hour to-night," the intruder continued, earnestly yet with a curious absence of any human quality in his hard tone, "there will be a disturbance, and probably what you would call a crime will be committed. Will you use your vaunted gifts to hunt down the desperate criminal, and, in your own picturesque phraseology, set your heel upon his neck? Success may bring you fame, and the trail may lead—well, who knows where?"
Afterwards, both Francis and Andrew Wilmore marvelled at themselves, unable at any time to find any reasonable explanation of their conduct, for they answered this man neither with ridicule, rudeness nor civility. They simply stared at him, impressed with the convincing arrogance of his challenge and unable to find words of reply. They received his mocking farewell without any form of reciprocation or sign of resentment. They watched him leave the room, a dignified, distinguished figure, sped on his way with marks of the deepest respect by waiters, maitres d'hotels and even the manager himself. They behaved, indeed, as they both admitted afterwards, like a couple of moonstruck idiots. When he had finally disappeared, however, they looked at one another and the spell was broken.
"Well, I'm damned!" Francis exclaimed. "Soto, come here at once."
The manager hastened smilingly to their table.
"Soto," Francis invoked, "tell us quickly—tell us the name of the gentleman who has just gone out, and who he is?"
Soto was amazed.
"You don't know Sir Timothy Brast, sir?" he exclaimed. "Why, he is supposed to be one of the richest men in the world! He spends money like water. They say that when he is in England, his place down the river alone costs a thousand pounds a week. When he gives a party here, we can find nothing good enough. He is our most generous client."
"Sir Timothy Brast," Wilmore repeated. "Yes, I have heard of him."
"Why, everybody knows Sir Timothy," Soto went on eloquently. "He is the greatest living patron of boxing. He found the money for the last international fight."
"Does he often come in alone like this?" Francis asked curiously.
"Either alone," Soto replied, "or with a very large party. He entertains magnificently."
"I've seen his name in the paper in connection with something or other, during the last few weeks," Wilmore remarked reflectively.
"Probably about two months ago, sir," Soto suggested. "He gave a donation of ten thousand pounds to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and they made him a Vice President.... In one moment, sir."
The manager hurried away to receive a newly-arrived guest. Francis and his friend exchanged a wondering glance.
"Father of Oliver Hilditch's wife," Wilmore observed, "the most munificent patron of boxing in the world, Vice President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and self-confessed arch-criminal! He pulled our legs pretty well!"
"I suppose so," Francis assented absently.
Wilmore glanced at his watch.
"What about moving on somewhere?" he suggested. "We might go into the Alhambra for half-an-hour, if you like. The last act of the show is the best."
Francis shook his head.
"We've got to see this thing out," he replied. "Have you forgotten that our friend promised us a sensation before we left?"
Wilmore began to laugh a little derisively. Then, suddenly aware of some lack of sympathy between himself and his friend, he broke off and glanced curiously at the latter.
"You're not taking him seriously, are you?" he enquired.
"Certainly I am," he confessed.
"You don't believe that he was getting at us?"
"Not for a moment."
"You believe that something is going to happen here in this place, or quite close?"
"I am convinced of it," was the calm reply.
Wilmore was silent. For a moment he was troubled with his old fears as to his friend's condition. A glance, however, at Francis' set face and equable, watchful air, reassured him.
"We must see the thing through, of course, then," he assented. "Let us see if we can spot the actors in the coming drama."
It happened that the two men, waiting in the vestibule of the restaurant for Francis' car to crawl up to the entrance through the fog which had unexpectedly rolled up, heard the slight altercation which was afterwards referred to as preceding the tragedy. The two young people concerned were standing only a few feet away, the girl pretty, a little peevish, an ordinary type; her companion, whose boyish features were marred with dissipation, a very passable example of the young man about town going a little beyond his tether.
"It's no good standing here, Victor!" the girl exclaimed, frowning. "The commissionaire's been gone ages already, and there are two others before us for taxis."
"We can't walk," her escort replied gloomily. "It's a foul night. Nothing to do but wait, what? Let's go back and have another drink."
The girl stamped her satin-shod foot impatiently.
"Don't be silly," she expostulated. "You know I promised Clara we'd be there early."
"All very well," the young man grumbled, "but what can we do? We shall have to wait our turn."
"Why can't you slip out and look for a taxi yourself?" she suggested. "Do, Victor," she added, squeezing his arm. "You're so clever at picking them up."
He made a little grimace, but lit a cigarette and turned up his coat collar.
"I'll do my best," he promised. "Don't go on without me."
"Try up towards Charing Cross Road, not the other way," she advised earnestly.
"Right-oh!" he replied, which illuminative form of assent, a word spoken as he plunged unwillingly into the thick obscurity on the other side of the revolving doors, was probably the last he ever uttered on earth.
Left alone, the girl began to shiver, as though suddenly cold. She turned around and glanced hurriedly back into the restaurant. At that moment she met the steady, questioning scrutiny of Francis' eyes. She stood as though transfixed. Then came the sound which every one talked of for months afterwards, the sound which no one who heard it ever forgot—the death cry of Victor Bidlake, followed a second afterwards by a muffled report. A strain of frenzied surprise seemed mingled with the horror. Afterwards, silence.
There was the sound of some commotion outside, the sound of hurried footsteps and agitated voices. Then a terrible little procession appeared. Something—it seemed to be a shapeless heap of clothes—was carried in and laid upon the floor, in the little space between the revolving doors and the inner entrance. Two blue-liveried attendants kept back the horrified but curious crowd. Francis, vaguely recognised as being somehow or other connected with the law, was one of the few people allowed to remain whilst a doctor, fetched out from the dancing-room, kneeled over the prostrate form. He felt that he knew beforehand the horrible verdict which the latter whispered in his ear after his brief examination.
"Quite dead! A ghastly business!"
Francis gazed at the hole in the shirt-front, disfigured also by a scorching stain.
"A bullet?" he asked.
The doctor nodded.
"Fired within a foot of the poor fellow's heart," he whispered. "The murderer wasn't taking any chances, whoever he was."
"Have the police been sent for?"
The head-porter stepped forward.
"There was a policeman within a few yards of the spot, sir," he replied. "He's gone down to keep every one away from the place where we found the body. We've telephoned to Scotland Yard for an inspector."
The doctor rose to his feet.
"Nothing more can be done," he pronounced. "Keep the people out of here whilst I go and fetch my hat and coat. Afterwards, I'll take the body to the mortuary when the ambulance arrives."
An attendant pushed his way through the crowd of people on the inner side of the door.
"Miss Daisy Hyslop, young lady who was with Mr. Bidlake, has just fainted in the ladies' room, sir," he announced. "Could you come?"
"I'll be there immediately," the doctor promised.
The rest of the proceedings followed a normal course. The police arrived, took various notes, the ambulance followed a little later, the body was removed, and the little crowd of guests, still infected with a sort of awed excitement, were allowed to take their leave. Francis and Wilmore drove almost in silence to the former's rooms in Clarges Street.
"Come up and have a drink, Andrew," Francis invited.
"I need it," was the half-choked response.
Francis led the way in silence up the two flights of stairs into his sitting-room, mixed whiskies and sodas from the decanter and syphon which stood upon the sideboard, and motioned his friend to an easy-chair. Then he gave form to the thought which had been haunting them both.
"What about our friend Sir Timothy Brast?" he enquired. "Do you believe now that he was pulling our legs?"
Wilmore dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. It was a chilly evening, but there were drops of perspiration still standing there.
"Francis," he confessed, "it's horrible! I don't think realism like this attracts me. It's horrible! What are we going to do?"
"Nothing for the present," was the brief reply. "If we were to tell our story, we should only be laughed at. What there is to be done falls to my lot."
"Had the police anything to say about it?" Wilmore asked.
"Only a few words," Francis replied. "Shopland has it in hand. A good man but unimaginative. I've come across him in one or two cases lately. You'll find a little bit like this in the papers to-morrow: 'The murder is believed to have been committed by one of the gang of desperadoes who have infested the west-end during the last few months.' You remember the assault in the Albany Court Yard, and the sandbagging in Shepherd Market only last week?"
"That seems to let Sir Timothy out," Wilmore remarked.
"There are many motives for crime besides robbery," Francis declared. "Don't be afraid, Andrew, that I am going to turn amateur detective and make the unravelment of this case all the more difficult for Scotland Yard. If I interfere, it will be on a certainty. Andrew, don't think I'm mad but I've taken up the challenge our great philanthropist flung at me to-night. I've very little interest in who killed this boy Victor Bidlake, or why, but I'm convinced of one thing—Brast knew about it, and if he is posing as a patron of crime on a great scale, sooner or later I shall get him. He may think himself safe, and he may have the courage of Beelzebub—he seems rather that type—but if my presentiment about him—comes true, his number's up. I can almost divine the meaning of his breaking in upon our conversation to-night. He needs an enemy—he is thirsting for danger. He has found it!"
Wilmore filled his pipe thoughtfully. At the first whiff of tobacco he began to feel more normal.
"After all, Francis," he said, "aren't we a little overstrung to-night? Sir Timothy Brast is no adventurer. He is a prince in the city, a persona grata wherever he chooses to go. He isn't a hanger-on in Society. He isn't even dependent upon Bohemia for his entertainment. You can't seriously imagine that a man with his possessions is likely to risk his life and liberty in becoming the inspiration of a band of cutthroats?"
Francis smiled. He, too, had lit his pipe and had thrown himself into his favourite chair. He smiled confidently across at his friend.
"A millionaire with brains," he argued, "is just the one person in the world likely to weary of all ordinary forms of diversion. I begin to remember things about him already. Haven't you heard about his wonderful parties down at The Walled House?"
Wilmore struck the table by his side with his clenched fist.
"By George, that's it!" he exclaimed. "Who hasn't!"
"I remember Baker talking about one last year," Francis continued, "never any details, but all kinds of mysterious hints—a sort of mixture between a Roman orgy and a chapter from the 'Arabian Nights'—singers from Petrograd, dancers from Africa and fighting men from Chicago."
"The fellow's magnificent, at any rate," Wilmore remarked.
His host smoked furiously for a moment.
"That's the worst of these multi-millionaires," he declared. "They think they can rule the world, traffic in human souls, buy morals, mock at the law. We shall see!"
"Do you know the thing that I found most interesting about him?" Wilmore asked.
"His black opals," the other suggested. "You're by the way of being a collector, aren't you?"
Wilmore shook his head.
"The fact that he is the father of Oliver Hilditch's widow."
Francis sat quite still for a moment. There was a complete change in his expression. He looked like a man who has received a shock.
"I forgot that," he muttered.
Francis met Shopland one morning about a week later, on his way from Clarges Street to his chambers in the Temple. The detective raised his hat and would have passed on, but Francis accosted him.
"Any progress, Mr. Shopland?" he enquired.
The detective fingered his small, sandy moustache. He was an insignificant-looking little man, undersized, with thin frame and watery eyes. His mouth, however, was hard, and there were some tell-tale little lines at its corners.
"None whatever, I am sorry to say, Mr. Ledsam," he admitted. "At present we are quite in the dark."
"You found the weapon, I hear?"
"It was just an ordinary service revolver, dating from the time of the war, exactly like a hundred thousand others. The enquiries we were able to make from it came to nothing."
"Where was it picked up?"
"In the middle of the waste plot of ground next to Soto's. The murderer evidently threw it there the moment he had discharged it. He must have been wearing rubber-soled shoes, for not a soul heard him go."
Francis nodded thoughtfully.
"I wonder," he said, after a slight pause, "whether it ever occurred to you to interview Miss Daisy Hyslop, the young lady who was with Bidlake on the night of his murder?"
"I called upon her the day afterwards," the detective answered.
"She had nothing to say?"
"Indirectly, of course," Francis continued, "the poor girl was the cause of his death. If she had not insisted upon his going out for a taxicab, the man who was loitering about would probably have never got hold of him."
The detective glanced up furtively at the speaker. He seemed to reflect for a moment.
"I gathered," he said, "in conversation with the commissionaire, that Miss Hyslop was a little impatient that night. It seems, however, that she was anxious to get to a ball which was being given down in Kensington."
"There was a ball, was there?" Francis asked.
"Without a doubt," the detective replied. "It was given by a Miss Clara Bultiwell. She happens to remember urging Miss Hyslop to come on as early as possible."
"So that's that," Francis observed.
"Just so, Mr. Ledsam," the detective murmured.
They were walking along the Mall now, eastwards. The detective, who seemed to have been just a saunterer, had accommodated himself to Francis' destination.
"Let me see, there was nothing stolen from the young man's person, was there?" Francis asked presently.
"Apparently nothing at all, sir."
"And I gather that you have made every possible enquiry as to the young man's relations with his friends?"
"So far as one can learn, sir, they seem to have been perfectly amicable."
"Of course," Francis remarked presently, "this may have been quite a purposeless affair. The deed may have been committed by a man who was practically a lunatic, without any motive or reason whatever."
"Precisely so, sir," the detective agreed.
"But, all the same, I don't think it was."
"Neither do I, sir."
Francis smiled slightly.
"Shopland," he said, "if there is no further external evidence to be collected, I suggest that there is only one person likely to prove of assistance to you."
"And that one person, sir?"
"Miss Daisy Hyslop."
"The young lady whom I have already seen?"
"The young lady whom you have already seen," he assented. "At the same time, Mr. Shopland, we must remember this. If Miss Hyslop has any knowledge of the facts which are behind Mr. Bidlake's murder, it is more likely to be to her interest to keep them to herself, than to give them away to the police free gratis and for nothing. Do you follow me?"
"That being so," Francis continued, "I am going to make a proposition to you for what it is worth. Where were you going when I met you this morning, Shopland?"
"To call upon you in Clarges Street, sir."
"I was going to ask you if you would be so kind as to call upon Miss Daisy Hyslop, sir."
"Great minds," he murmured. "I will see the young lady this afternoon, Shopland."
The detective raised his hat. They had reached the spot where his companion turned off by the Horse Guards Parade.
"I may hope to hear from you, then, sir?"
"Within the course of a day or two, perhaps earlier," Francis promised.
Francis continued his walk along the Embankment to his chambers in the Temple. He glanced in the outer office as he passed to his consulting room.
"Anything fresh, Angrave?" he asked his head-clerk.
"Nothing whatever, sir," was the quiet reply.
He passed on to his own den—a bare room with long windows looking out over the gardens. He glanced at the two or three letters which lay on his desk, none of them of the least interest, and leaning back in his chair commenced to fill his pipe. There was a knock at the door. Fawsitt, a young beginner at the bar, in whom he had taken some interest and who deviled for him, presented himself.
"Can I have a word with you, Mr. Ledsam?" he asked.
"By all means," was the prompt response. "Sit down."
Fawsitt seated himself on the other side of the table. He had a long, thin face, dark, narrow eyes, unwholesome complexion, a slightly hooked nose, and teeth discoloured through constant smoking. His fingers, too, bore the tell-tale yellow stains.
"Mr. Ledsam," he said, "I think, with your permission, I should like to leave at the end of my next three months."
Francis glanced across at him.
"Sorry to hear that, Fawsitt. Are you going to work for any one else?"
"I haven't made arrangements yet, sir," the young man replied. "I thought of offering myself to Mr. Barnes."
"Why do you want to leave me?" Francis asked.
"There isn't enough for me to do, sir."
Francis lit his pipe.
"It's probably just a lull, Fawsitt," he remarked.
"I don't think so, sir."
"The devil! You've been gossiping with some of these solicitors' clerks, Fawsitt."
"I shouldn't call it gossiping, sir. I am always interested to hear anything that may concern our—my future. I have reason to believe, sir, that we are being passed over for briefs."
"The reason being?"
"One can't pick and choose, sir. One shouldn't, anyway."
"You evidently don't approve of any measure of personal choice as to the work which one takes up."
"Certainly I do not, sir, in our profession. The only brief I would refuse would be a losing or an ill-paid one. I don't conceive it to be our business to prejudge a case."
"I see," Francis murmured. "Go on, Fawsitt."
"There's a rumour about," the young man continued, "that you are only going to plead where the chances are that your client is innocent."
"There's some truth in that," Francis admitted.
"If I could leave a little before the three months, sir, I should be glad," Fawsitt said. "I look at the matter from an entirely different point of view."
"You shall leave when you like, of course, Fawsitt, but tell me what that point of view is?"
"Just this, sir. The simplest-minded idiot who ever stammered through his address, can get an innocent prisoner off if he knows enough of the facts and the law. To my mind, the real triumph in our profession is to be able to unwind the meshes of damning facts and force a verdict for an indubitably guilty client."
"How does the moral side of that appeal to you?" his senior enquired.
"I didn't become a barrister to study morals, or even to consider them," was the somewhat caustic reply. "When once a brief is in my mind, it is a matter of brain, cunning and resource. The guiltier a man, the greater the success if you can get him off."
"And turn him loose again upon Society?"
"It isn't our job to consider that, sir. The moral question is only confusing in the matter. Our job is to make use of the law for the benefit of our client. That's what we're paid for. That's the measure of our success or failure."
"Very reasonably put, Fawsitt," he conceded. "I'll give you a letter to Barnes whenever you like."
"I should be glad if you would do so, sir," the young man said. "I'm only wasting my time here...."
Francis wrote a letter of recommendation to Barnes, the great K.C., considered a stray brief which had found its way in, and strolled up towards the Milan as the hour approached luncheon-time. In the American bar of that palatial hotel he found the young man he was looking for—a flaxen-haired youth who was seated upon one of the small tables, with his feet upon a chair, laying down the law to a little group of acquaintances. He greeted Francis cordially but without that due measure of respect which nineteen should accord to thirty-five.
"Cheerio, my elderly relative!" he exclaimed. "Have a cocktail."
Francis nodded assent.
"Come into this corner with me for a moment, Charles," he invited. "I have a word for your ear."
The young man rose and sat by his uncle's side on a settee.
"In my declining years," the latter began, "I find myself reverting to the follies of youth. I require a letter of introduction from you to a young lady of your acquaintance."
"The devil! Not one of my own special little pets, I hope?"
"Her name is Miss Daisy Hyslop," Francis announced.
Lord Charles Southover pursed his lips and whistled. He glanced at Francis sideways.
"Is this the beginning of a campaign amongst the butterflies," he enquired, "because, if so, I feel it my duty, uncle, to address to you a few words of solemn warning. Miss Daisy Hyslop is hot stuff."
"Look here, young fellow," Francis said equably, "I don't know what the state of your exchequer is—"
"I owe you forty," Lord Charles interrupted. "Spring another tenner, make it fifty, that is, and the letter of introduction I will write for you will bring tears of gratitude to your eyes."
"I'll spring the tenner," Francis promised, "but you'll write just what I tell you—no more and no less."
"Anything extra for keeping mum at home?" the young man ventured tentatively.
"You're a nice sort of nephew to have!" Francis declared. "Abandon these futile attempts at blackmail and just come this way to the writing-table."
"You've got the tenner with you?" the young man asked anxiously.
Francis produced a well-filled pocketbook. His nephew led the way to a writing-table, lit a cigarette which he stuck into the corner of his mouth, and in painstaking fashion wrote the few lines which Francis dictated. The ten pounds changed hands.
"Have one with me for luck?" the young man invited brightly. "No? Perhaps you're right," he added, in valedictory fashion. "You'd better keep your head clear for Daisy!"
Miss Daisy Hyslop received Francis that afternoon, in the sitting-room of her little suite at the Milan. Her welcoming smile was plaintive and a little subdued, her manner undeniably gracious. She was dressed in black, a wonderful background for her really gorgeous hair, and her deportment indicated a recent loss.
"How nice of you to come and see me," she murmured, with a lingering touch of the fingers. "Do take that easy-chair, please, and sit down and talk to me. Your roses were beautiful, but whatever made you send them to me?"
"Impulse," he answered.
She laughed softly.
"Then please yield to such impulses as often as you feel them," she begged. "I adore flowers. Just now, too," she added, with a little sigh, "anything is welcome which helps to keep my mind off my own affairs."
"It was very good of you to let me come," he declared. "I can quite understand that you don't feel like seeing many people just now."
Francis' manner, although deferential and courteous, had nevertheless some quality of aloofness in it to which she was unused and which she was quick to recognise. The smile, faded from her face. She seemed suddenly not quite so young.
"Haven't I seen you before somewhere quite lately?" she asked, a little sharply.
"You saw me at Soto's, the night that Victor Bidlake was murdered," he reminded her. "I stood quite close to you both while you were waiting for your taxi."
The animation evoked by this call from a presumably new admirer, suddenly left her. She became nervous and constrained. She glanced again at his card.
"Don't tell me," she begged, "that you have come to ask me any questions about that night! I simply could not bear it. The police have been here twice, and I had nothing to tell them, absolutely nothing."
"Quite right," he assented soothingly. "Police have such a clumsy way of expecting valuable information for nothing. I'm always glad to hear of their being disappointed."
She studied her visitor for a moment carefully. Then she turned to the table by her side, picked up a note and read it through.
"Lord Southover tells me here," she said, "that you are just a pal of his who wants to make my acquaintance. He doesn't say why."
"Is that necessary?" Francis asked good-naturedly.
She moved in her chair a little nervously, crossing and uncrossing her legs more than once. Her white silk stockings underneath her black skirt were exceedingly effective, a fact of which she never lost consciousness, although at that moment she was scarcely inspired to play the coquette.
"I'd like to think it wasn't," she admitted frankly.
"I've seen you repeatedly upon the stage," he told her, "and, though musical comedy is rather out of my line, I have always admired you immensely."
She studied him once more almost wistfully.
"You look very nice," she acknowledged, "but you don't look at all the kind of man who admires girls who do the sort of rubbish I do on the stage."
"What do I look like?" he asked, smiling.
"A man with a purpose," she answered.
"I begin to think," he ventured, "that we shall get on. You are really a very astute young lady."
"You are quite sure you're not one of these amateur detectives one reads about?" she demanded.
"Certainly not," he assured her. "I will confess that I am interested in Victor Bidlake's death, and I should like to discover the truth about it, but I have a reason for that which I may tell you some day. It has nothing whatever to do with the young man himself. To the best of my belief, I never saw or heard of him before in my life. My interest lies with another person. You have lost a great friend, I know. If you felt disposed to tell me the whole story, it might make such a difference."