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- The Evil Shepherd - 3/51 -
"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."
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