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- The Evil Shepherd - 4/51 -
"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
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