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- The Evil Shepherd - 2/51 -
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.
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