Chapter XIII
 

Four men were discussing the verdict at the adjourned inquest upon Victor Bidlake, at Soto's American Bar about a fortnight later. They were Robert Fairfax, a young actor in musical comedy, peter Jacks, a cinema producer, Gerald Morse, a dress designer, and Sidney Voss, a musical composer and librettist, all habitues of the place and members of the little circle towards which the dead man had seemed, during the last few weeks of his life, to have become attracted. At a table a short distance away, Francis Ledsam was seated with a cocktail and a dish of almonds before him. He seemed to be studying an evening paper and to be taking but the scantiest notice of the conversation at the bar.

"It just shows," Peter Jacks declared, "that crime is the easiest game in the world. Given a reasonable amount of intelligence, and a murderer's business is about as simple as a sandwich-man's."

"The police," Gerald Morse, a pale-faced, anaemic-looking youth, declared, "rely upon two things, circumstantial evidence and motive. In the present case there is no circumstantial evidence, and as to motive, poor old Victor was too big a fool to have an enemy in the world."

Sidney Voss, who was up for the Sheridan Club and had once been there, glanced respectfully across at Francis.

"You ought to know something about crime and criminals, Mr. Ledsam," he said. "Have you any theory about the affair?"

Francis set down the glass from which he had been drinking, and, folding up the evening paper, laid it by the side of him.

"As a matter of fact," he answered calmly, "I have."

The few words, simply spoken, yet in their way charged with menace, thrilled through the little room. Fairfax swung round upon his stool, a tall, aggressive-looking youth whose good-looks were half eaten up with dissipation. His eyes were unnaturally bright, the cloudy remains in his glass indicated absinthe.

"Listen, you fellows!" he exclaimed. "Mr. Francis Ledsam, the great criminal barrister, is going to solve the mystery of poor old Victor's death for us!"

The three other young men all turned around from the bar. Their eyes and whole attention seemed rivetted upon Francis. No one seemed to notice the newcomer who passed quietly to a chair in the background, although he was a person of some note and interest to all of them. Imperturbable and immaculate as ever, Sir Timothy Brast smiled amiably upon the little gathering, summoned a waiter and ordered a Dry Martini.

"I can scarcely promise to do that," Francis said slowly, his eyes resting for a second or two upon each of the four faces. "Exact solutions are a little out of my line. I think I can promise to give you a shock, though, if you're strong enough to stand it."

There was another of those curiously charged si ences. The bartender paused with the cocktail shaker still in his hand. Voss began to beat nervously upon the counter with his knuckles.

"We can stand anything but suspense," he declared. "Get on with your shock-giving."

"I believe that the person responsible for the death of Victor Bidlake is in this room at the present moment," Francis declared.

Again the silence, curious, tense and dramatic. Little Jimmy, the bartender, who had leaned forward to listen, stood with his mouth slightly open and the cocktail-shaker which was in his hand leaked drops upon the counter. The first conscious impulse of everybody seemed to be to glance suspiciously around the room. The four young men at the bar, Jimmy and one waiter, Francis and Sir Timothy Brast, were its only occupants.

"I say, you know, that's a bit thick, isn't it?" Sidney Voss stammered at last. "I wasn't in the place at all, I was in Manchester, but it's a bit rough on these other chaps, Victor's pals."

"I was dining at the Cafe Royal," Jacks declared, loudly.

Morse drew a little breath.

"Every one knows that I was at Brighton," he muttered.

"I went home directly the bar here closed," Jimmy said, in a still dazed tone. "I heard nothing about it till the next morning."

"Alibis by the bushel," Fairfax laughed harshly. "As for me, I was doing my show--every one knows that. I was never in the place at all."

"The murder was not committed in the place," Francis commented calmly.

Fairfax slid off his stool. A spot of colour blazed in his pale cheeks, the glass which he was holding snapped in his fingers. He seemed suddenly possessed.

"I say, what the hell are you getting at?" he cried. "Are you accusing me--or any of us Victor's pals?"

"I accuse no one," Francis replied, unperturbed. "You invited a statement from me and I made it."

Sir Timothy Brast rose from his place and made his way to the end of the counter, next to Fairfax and nearest Francis. He addressed the former. There was an inscrutable smile upon his lips, his manner was reassuring.

"Young gentleman," he begged, "pray do not disturb yourself. I will answer for it that neither you nor any of your friends are the objects of Mr. Leadsam's suspicion. Without a doubt, it is I to whom his somewhat bold statement refers."

They all stared at him, immersed in another crisis, bereft of speech. He tapped a cigarette upon the counter and lit it. Fairfax, whose glass had just been refilled by the bartender, was still ghastly pale, shaking with nervousness and breathing hoarsely. Francis, tense and alert in his chair, watched the speaker but said nothing.

"You see," Sir Timothy continued, addressing himself to the four young men at the bar, "I happen to have two special aversions in life. One is sweet champagne and the other amateur detectives --their stories, their methods and everything about them. I chanced to sit upstairs in the restaurant, within hearing of Mr. Ledsam and his friend Mr. Wilmore, the novelist, the other night, and I heard Mr. Ledsam, very much to my chagrin, announce his intention of abandoning a career in which he has, if he will allow me to say so,"--with a courteous bow to Francis--"attained considerable distinction, to indulge in the moth-eaten, flamboyant and melodramatic antics of the lesser Sherlock Holmes. I fear that I could not resist the opportunity of--I think you young men call it--pulling his leg."

Every one was listening intently, including Shopland, who had just drifted into the room and subsided into a chair near Francis.

"I moved my place, therefore," Sir Timothy continued, "and I whispered in Mr. Ledsam's ear some rodomontade to the effect that if he were planning to be the giant crime-detector of the world, I was by ambition the arch-criminal--or words to that effect. And to give emphasis to my words, I wound up by prophesying a crime in the immediate vicinity of the place within a few hours."

"A somewhat significant prophecy, under the circumstances," Francis remarked, reaching out for a dish of salted almonds and drawing them towards him.

Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.

"I will confess," he admitted, "that I had not in my mind an affair of such dimensions. My harmless remark, however, has produced cataclysmic effects. The conversation to which I refer took place on the night of young Bidlake's murder, and Mr. Ledsam, with my somewhat, I confess, bombastic words in his memory, has pitched upon me as the bloodthirsty murderer."

"Hold on for a moment, sir," Peter Jacks begged, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "We've got to have another drink quick. Poor old Bobby here looks knocked all of a heap, and I'm kind of jumpy myself. You'll join us, sir?"

"I thank you," was the courteous reply. "I do not as a rule indulge to the extent of more than one cocktail, but I will recognise the present as an exceptional occasion. To continue, then," he went on, after the glasses had been filled, "I have during the last few weeks experienced the ceaseless and lynx-eyed watch of Mr. Ledsam and presumably his myrmidons. I do not know whether you are all acquainted with my name, but in case you are not, let me introduce myself. I am Sir Timothy Brast, Chairman, as I dare say you know, of the United Transvaal Gold Mines, Chairman, also, of two of the principal hospitals in London, Vice President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a patron of sport in many forms, a traveller in many countries, and a recipient of the honour of knighthood from His Majesty, in recognition of my services for various philanthropic works. These facts, however, have availed me nothing now that the bungling amateur investigator into crime has pointed the finger of suspicion towards me. My servants and neighbours have alike been plagued to death with cunning questions as to my life and habits. I have been watched in the streets and watched in my harmless amusements. My simple life has been peered into from every perspective and direction. In short, I am suspect. Mr. Ledsam's terrifying statement a few minutes ago was directed towards me and me only."

There were murmurs of sympathy from the four young men, who each in his own fashion appeared to derive consolation from Sir Timothy's frank and somewhat caustic statement. Francis, who had listened unmoved to this flow of words, glanced towards the door behind which dark figures seemed to be looming.

"That is all you have to say, Sir Timothy?" he asked politely.

"For the present, yes," was the guarded reply. "I trust that I have succeeded in setting these young gentlemen's minds at ease."

"There is one of them," Francis said gravely, "whose mind not even your soothing words could lighten."

Shopland had risen unobtrusively to his feet. He laid his hand suddenly on Fairfax's shoulder and whispered in his ear. Fairfax, after his first start, seemed cool enough. He stretched out his hand towards the glass which as yet he had not touched; covered it with his fingers for a moment and drained its contents. The gently sarcastic smile left Sir Timothy's lips. His eyebrows met in a quick frown, his eyes glittered.

"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded sharply.

A policeman in plain clothes had advanced from the door. The manager hovered in the background. Shopland saw that all was well.

"It means," he announced, "that I have just arrested Mr. Robert Fairfax here on a charge of wilful murder. There is a way out through the kitchens, I believe. Take his other arm, Holmes. Now, gentlemen, if you please."

There were a few bewildered exclamations--then a dramatic hush. Fairfax had fallen forward on his stool. He seemed to have relapsed into a comatose state. Every scrap of colour was drained from his sallow cheeks, his eyes were covered with a film and he was breathing heavily. The detective snatched up the glass from which the young man had been drinking, and smelt it.

"I saw him drop a tablet in just now," Jimmy faltered. "I thought it was one of the digestion pills he uses sometimes."

Shopland and the policeman placed their hands underneath the armpits of the unconscious man.

"He's done, sir," the former whispered to Francis. "We'll try and get him to the station if we can."