Chapter XIV
 

The greatest tragedies in the world, provided they happen to other people, have singularly little effect upon the externals of our own lives. There was certainly not a soul in Soto's that night who did not know that Bobby Fairfax had been arrested in the bar below for the murder of Victor Bidlake, had taken poison and died on the way to the police station. Yet the same number of dinners were ordered and eaten, the same quantity of wine drunk. The management considered that they had shown marvellous delicacy of feeling by restraining the orchestra from their usual musical gymnastics until after the service of dinner. Conversation, in consequence, buzzed louder than ever. One speculation in particular absorbed the attention of every single person in the room--why had Bobby Fairfax, at the zenith of a very successful career, risked the gallows and actually accepted death for the sake of killing Victor Bidlake, a young man with whom, so far as anybody knew, he had no cause of quarrel whatever? There were many theories, many people who knew the real facts and whispered them into a neighbour's ear, only to have them contradicted a few moments later. Yet, Curiously enough, the two men who knew most about it were the two most silent men in the room, for each was dining alone. Francis, who had remained only in the hope that something of the sort might happen, was conscious of a queer sense of excitement when, with the service of coffee, Sir Timothy, glass in hand, moved up from a table lower down and with a word of apology took the vacant place by his side. It was what he had desired, and yet he felt a thrill almost of fear at Sir Timothy's murmured words. He felt that he was in the company of one who, if not an enemy, at any rate had no friendly feeling towards him.

"My congratulations, Mr. Ledsam," Sir Timothy said quietly. "You appear to have started your career with a success."

"Only a partial one," Francis acknowledged, "and as a matter of fact I deny that I have started in any new career. It was easy enough to make use of a fluke and direct the intelligence of others towards the right person, but when the real significance of the thing still eludes you, one can scarcely claim a triumph."

Sir Timothy gently knocked the ash from the very fine cigar which he was smoking.

"Still, your groundwork was good," he observed.

Francis shrugged his shoulders.

"That," he admitted, "was due to chance."

"Shall we exchange notes?" Sir Timothy suggested gently. "It might be interesting."

"As you will," Francis assented. "There is no particular secret in the way I stumbled upon the truth. I was dining here that night, as you know, with Andrew Wilmore, and while he was ordering the dinner and talking to some friends, I went down to the American Bar to have a cocktail. Miss Daisy Hyslop and Fairfax were seated there alone and talking confidentially. Fairfax was insisting that Miss Hyslop should do something which puzzled her. She consented reluctantly, and Fairfax then hurried off to the theatre. Later on, Miss Hyslop and the unfortunate young man occupied a table close to ours, and I happened to notice that she made a point of leaving the restaurant at a particular time. While they were waiting in the vestibule she grew very impatient. I was standing behind them and I saw her glance at the clock just before she insisted upon her companion's going out himself to look for a taxicab. Ergo, one enquires at Fairfax's theatre. For that exact three-quarters of an hour he is off the stage. At that point my interest in the matter ceases. Scotland Yard was quite capable of the rest."

"Disappointing," Sir Timothy murmured. "I thought at first that you were over-modest. I find chat I was mistaken. It was chance alone which set you on the right track."

"Well, there is my story, at any rate," Francis declared. "With how much of your knowledge of the affair are you going to indulge me?"

Sir Timothy slowly revolved his brandy glass.

"Well," he said, "I will tell you this. The two young men concerned, Bidlake and Fairfax, were both guests of mine recently at my country house. They had discovered for one another a very fierce and reasonable antipathy. With that recurrence to primitivism with which I have always been a hearty sympathiser, they agreed, instead of going round their little world making sneering remarks about each other, to fight it out."

"At your suggestion, I presume?" Francis interposed.

"Precisely," Sir Timothy assented. "I recommended that course, and I offered them facilities for bringing the matter to a crisis. The fight, indeed, was to have come off the day after the unfortunate episode which anticipated it."

"Do you mean to tell me that you knew--" Francis began.

Sir Timothy checked him quietly but effectively.

"I knew nothing," he said, "except this. They were neither of them young men of much stomach, and I knew that the one who was the greater coward would probably try to anticipate the matter by attacking the other first if he could. I knew that Fairfax was the greater coward--not that there was much to choose between them--and I also knew that he was the injured person. That is really all there is about it. My somewhat theatrical statement to you was based upon probability, and not upon any certain foreknowledge. As you see, it came off."

"And the cause of their quarrel?" Francis asked.

"There might have been a hundred reasons," Sir Timothy observed. "As a matter of fact, it was the eternal one. There is no need to mention a woman's name, so we will let it go at that."

There was a moment's silence--a strange, unforgettable moment for Francis Ledsam, who seemed by some curious trick of the imagination to have been carried away into an impossible and grotesque world. The hum of eager conversation, the popping of corks, the little trills of feminine laughter, all blended into one sensual and not unmusical chorus, seemed to fade from his ears. He fancied himself in some subterranean place of vast dimensions, through the grim galleries of which men and women with evil faces crept like animals. And towering above them, unreal in size, his scornful face an epitome of sin, the knout which he wielded symbolical and ghastly, driving his motley flock with the leer of the evil shepherd, was the man from whom he had already learnt to recoil with horror. The picture came and went in a flash. Francis found himself accepting a courteously offered cigar from his companion.

"You see, the story is very much like many others," Sir Timothy murmured, as he lit a fresh Cigar himself and leaned back with the obvious enjoyment of the cultivated smoker. "In every country of the world, the animal world as well as the human world, the male resents his female being taken from him. Directly he ceases to resent it, he becomes degenerate. Surely you must agree with me, Mr. Leddam?

"It comes to this, then," Francis pronounced deliberately, "that you stage-managed the whole affair."

Sir Timothy smiled.

"It is my belief, Mr. Ledsam," he said, "that you grow more and more intelligent every hour."

Sir Timothy glanced presently at his thin gold watch and put it back in his pocket regretfully.

"Alas!" he sighed, "I fear that I must tear myself away. I particularly want to hear the last act of 'Louise.' The new Frenchwoman sings, and my daughter is alone. You will excuse me."

Francis nodded silently. His companion's careless words had brought a sudden dazzling vision into his mind. Sir Timothy scrawled his name at the foot of his bill.

"It is one of my axioms in life, Mr. Ledsam," he continued, "that there is more pleasure to be derived from the society of one's enemies than one's friends. If I thought you sufficiently educated in the outside ways of the world to appreciate this, I would ask if you cared to accompany me?"

Francis did not hesitate for a moment.

"Sir Timothy," he said, "I have the greatest detestation for you, and I am firmly convinced that you represent all the things in life abhorrent to me. On the other hand, I should very much like to hear the last act of 'Louise,' and it would give me the greatest pleasure to meet your daughter. So long as there is no misunderstanding."

Sir Timothy laughed.

"Come," he said, "we will get our hats. I am becoming more and more grateful to you, Mr. Ledsam. You are supplying something in my life which I have lacked. You appeal alike to my sense of humour and my imagination. We will visit the opera together."