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- The Evil Shepherd - 5/51 -
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
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