The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim
The gymnasium itself was a source of immense surprise to both Francis and Wilmore. It stretched along the entire top storey of a long block of buildings, and was elaborately fitted with bathrooms, a restaurant and a reading-room. The trapezes, bars, and all the usual appointments were of the best possible quality. The manager, a powerful-looking man dressed with the precision of the prosperous city magnate, came out of his office to greet them.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he enquired.
"First of all," Francis replied, "accept our heartiest congratulations upon your wonderful gymnasium."
The man bowed.
"It is the best appointed in the country, sir," he said proudly. "Absolutely no expense has been spared in fitting it up. Every one of our appliances is of the latest possible description, and our bathrooms are an exact copy of those in a famous Philadelphia club."
"What is the subscription?" Wilmore asked.
"Five shillings a year."
"And how many members?"
The manager smiled as he saw his two visitors exchange puzzled glances.
"Needless to say, sir," he added, "we are not self-supporting. We have very generous patrons."
"I lave heard my brother speak of this place as being quite wonderful," Wilmore remarked, "but I had no idea that it was upon this scale."
"Is your brother a member?" the man asked.
"He is. To tell you the truth, we came here to ask you a question about him."
"What is his name?"
"Reginald Wilmore. He was here, I think, last Wednesday night."
While Wilmore talked, Francis watched. He was conscious of a curious change in the man's deportment at the mention of Reginald Wilmore's name. From being full of bumptious, almost condescending good-nature, his expression had changed into one of stony incivility. There was something almost sinister in the tightly-closed lips and the suspicious gleam in his eyes.
"What questions did you wish to ask?" he demanded.
"Mr. Reginald Wilmore has disappeared," Francis explained simply. "He came here on leaving the office last Monday. He has not been seen or heard of since."
"Well?" the manager asked.
"We came to ask whether you happen to remember his being here on that evening, and whether he gave any one here any indication of his future movements. We thought, perhaps, that the instructor who was with him might have some information."
"Not a chance," was the uncompromising reply. "I remember Mr. Wilmore being here perfectly. He was doing double turns on the high bar. I saw more of him myself than any one. I was with him when he went down to have his swim."
"Did he seem in his usual spirits?" Wilmore ventured.
"I don't notice what spirits my pupils are in," the man answered, a little insolently. "There was nothing the matter with him so far as I know."
"He didn't say anything about going away?"
"Not a word. You'll excuse me, gentlemen--"
"One moment," Francis interrupted. "We came here ourselves sooner than send a detective. Enquiries are bound to be made as to the young man's disappearance, and we have reason to know that this is the last place at which he was heard of. It is not unreasonable, therefore, is it, that we should come to you for information?"
"Reasonable or unreasonable, I haven't got any," the man declared gruffly. "If Mr. Wilmore's cleared out, he's cleared out for some reason of his own. It's not my business and I don't know anything about it."
"You understand," Francis persisted, "that our interest in young Mr. Wilmore is entirely a friendly one?"
"I don't care whether it's friendly or unfriendly. I tell you I don't know anything about him. And," he added, pressing his thumb upon the button for the lift, "I'll wish you two gentlemen good afternoon. I've business to attend to."
Francis looked at him curiously.
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" he asked, a little abruptly.
"I can't say. My name is John Maclane."
"Heavy-weight champion about seven years ago?"
"I was," the man acknowledged. "You may have seen me in the ring. Now, gentlemen, if you please."
The lift had stopped opposite to them. The manager's gesture of dismissal was final.
"I am sorry, Mr. Maclane, if we have annoyed you with our questions," Francis said. "I wish you could remember a little more of Mr. Wilmore's last visit."
"Well, I can't, and that's all there is to it," was the blunt reply. "As to being annoyed, I am only annoyed when my time's wasted. Take these gents down, Jim. Good afternoon!"
The door was slammed to and they shot downwards. Francis turned to the lift man.
"Do you know a Mr. Wilmore who comes here sometimes?" he asked.
"Not likely!" the man scoffed. "They're comin' and goin' all the time from four o'clock in the afternoon till eleven at night. If I heard a name I shouldn't remember it. This way out, gentlemen."
Wilmore's hand was in his pocket but the man turned deliberately away. They walked out into the street.
"For downright incivility," the former observed, "commend me to the attendants of a young men's gymnasium!"
"All the same, old fellow," he said, "if you worry for another five minutes about Reggie, you're an ass."
At six o'clock that evening Francis turned his two-seater into a winding drive bordered with rhododendrons, and pulled up before the porch of a charming two-storied bungalow, covered with creepers, and with French-windows opening from every room onto the lawns. A man-servant who had heard the approach of the car was already standing in the porch. Sir Timothy, in white flannels and a panama hat, strolled across the lawn to greet his approaching guest.
"Excellently timed, my young friend," he said. "You will have time for your first cocktail before you change. My daughter you know, of course. Lady Cynthia Milton I think you also know."
Francis shook hands with the two girls who were lying under the cedar tree. Margaret Hilditch seemed to him more wonderful than ever in her white serge boating clothes. Lady Cynthia, who had apparently just arrived from some function in town, was still wearing muslin and a large hat.
"I am always afraid that Mr. Ledsam will have forgotten me," she observed, as she gave him her hand. "The last time I met you was at the Old Bailey, when you had been cheating the gallows of a very respectable wife murderer. Poynings, I think his name was."
"I remember it perfectly," Francis assented. "We danced together that night, I remember, at your aunt's, Mrs. Malcolm's, and you were intensely curious to know how Poynings had spent his evening."
"Lady Cynthia's reminder is perhaps a little unfortunate," Sir Timothy observed. "Mr. Ledsam is no longer the last hope of the enterprising criminal. He has turned over a new leaf. To secure the services of his silver tongue, you have to lay at his feet no longer the bags of gold from your ill-gotten gains but the white flower of the blameless life."
"This is all in the worst possible taste," Margaret Hilditch declared, in her cold, expressionless tone. "You might consider my feelings."
Lady Cynthia only laughed.
"My dear Margaret," she said, "if I thought that you had any, I should never believe that you were your father's daughter. Here's to them, anyway," she added, accepting the cocktail from the tray which the butler had just brought out. "Mr. Ledsam, are you going to attach yourself to me, or has Margaret annexed you?"
"I have offered myself to Mrs. Hilditch," Francis rejoined promptly, "but so far I have made no impression."
"Try her with a punt and a concertina after dinner," Lady Cynthia suggested. "After all, I came down here to better my acquaintance with my host. You flirted with me disgracefully when I was a debutante, and have never taken any notice of me since. I hate infidelity in a man. Sir Timothy, I shall devote myself to you. Can you play a concertina?"
"Where the higher forms of music are concerned," he replied, "I have no technical ability. I should prefer to sit at your feet."
"While I punt, I suppose?"
"There are backwaters," he suggested.
Lady Cynthia sipped her cocktail appreciatively.
"I wonder how it is," she observed, "that in these days, although we have become callous to everything else in life, cocktails and flirtations still attract us. You shall take me to a backwater after dinner, Sir Timothy. I shall wear my silver-grey and take an armful of those black cushions from the drawing-room. In that half light, there is no telling what success I may not achieve."
Sir Timothy sighed.
"Alas!" he said, "before dinner is over you will probably have changed your mind."
"Perhaps so," she admitted, "but you must remember that Mr. Ledsam is my only alternative, and I am not at all sure that he likes me. I am not sufficiently Victorian for his taste."
The dressing-bell rang. Sir Timothy passed his arm through Francis'.
"The sentimental side of my domain;" he said, "the others may show you. My rose garden across the stream has been very much admired. I am now going to give you a glimpse of The Walled House, an edifice the possession of which has made me more or less famous."
He led the way through a little shrubbery, across a further strip of garden and through a door in a high wall, which he opened with a key attached to his watch-chain. They were in an open park now, studded with magnificent trees, in the further corner of which stood an imposing mansion, with a great domed roof in the centre, and broad stone terraces, one of which led down to the river. The house itself was an amazingly blended mixture of old and new, with great wings supported by pillars thrown out on either side. It seemed to have been built without regard to any definite period of architecture, and yet to have attained a certain coherency--a far-reaching structure, with long lines of outbuildings. In the park itself were a score or more of horses, and in the distance beyond a long line of loose boxes with open doors. Even as they stood there, a grey sorrel mare had trotted up to their side and laid her head against Sir Timothy's shoulder. He caressed her surreptitiously, affecting not to notice the approach of other animals from all quarters.
"Let me introduce you to The Walled House," its owner observed, "so called, I imagine, because this wall, which is a great deal older than you or I, completely encloses the estate. Of course, you remember the old house, The Walled Palace, they called it? It belonged for many years to the Lynton family, and afterwards to the Crown."
"I remember reading of your purchase," Francis said, "and of course I remember the old mansion. You seem to have wiped it out pretty effectually."
"I was obliged to play the vandal," his host confessed. "In its previous state, the house was picturesque but uninhabitable. As you see it now, it is an exact reproduction of the country home of one of the lesser known of the Borgias--Sodina, I believe the lady's name was. You will find inside some beautiful arches, and a sense of space which all modern houses lack. It cost me a great deal of money, and it is inhabited, when I am in Europe, about once a fortnight. You know the river name for it? 'Timothy's Folly!"'
"But what on earth made you build it, so long as you don't care to live there?" Francis enquired.
Sir Timothy smiled reflectively.
"Well," he explained, "I like sometimes to entertain, and I like to entertain, when I do, on a grand scale. In London, if I give a party, the invitations are almost automatic. I become there a very insignificant link in the chain of what is known as Society, and Society practically helps itself to my entertainment, and sees that everything is done according to rule. Down here things are entirely different. An invitation to The Walled House is a personal matter. Society has nothing whatever to do with my functions here. The reception-rooms, too, are arranged according to my own ideas. I have, as you may have heard, the finest private gymnasium in England. The ballroom and music-room and private theatre, too, are famous."
"And do you mean to say that you keep that huge place empty?" Francis asked curiously.
"I have a suite of rooms there which I occasionally occupy," Sir Timothy replied, "and there are always thirty or forty servants and attendants of different sorts who have their quarters there. I suppose that my daughter and I would be there at the present moment but for the fact that we own this cottage. Both she and I, for residential purposes, prefer the atmosphere there."
"I scarcely wonder at it," Francis agreed.
They were surrounded now by various quadrupeds. As well as the horses, half-a-dozen of which were standing patiently by Sir Timothy's side, several dogs had made their appearance and after a little preliminary enthusiasm had settled down at his feet. He leaned over and whispered something in the ear of the mare who had come first. She trotted off, and the others followed suit in a curious little procession. Sir Timothy watched them, keeping his head turned away from Francis.
"You recognise the mare the third from the end?" he pointed out. "That is the animal I bought in Covent Garden. You see how she has filled out?"
"I should never have recognised her," the other confessed.
"Even Nero had his weaknesses," Sir Timothy remarked, waving the dogs away. "My animals' quarters are well worth a visit, if you have time. There is a small hospital, too, which is quite up to date."
"Do any of the horses work at all?" Francis asked.
Sir Timothy smiled.
"I will tell you a very human thing about my favourites," he said. "In the gardens on the other side of the house we have very extensive lawns, and my head groom thought he would make use of one of a my horses who had recovered from a serious accident and was really quite a strong beast, for one of the machines. He found the idea quite a success, and now he no sooner appears in the park with a halter than, instead of stampeding, practically every one of those horses comes cantering up with the true volunteering spirit. The one which he selects, arches his neck and goes off to work with a whole string of the others following. Dodsley--that is my groom's name--tells me that he does a great deal more mowing now than he need, simply because they worry him for the work. Gratitude, you see, Mr. Ledsam, sheer gratitude. If you were to provide a dozen alms-houses for your poor dependants, I wonder how many of them would be anxious to mow your lawn.... Come, let me show you your room now."
They passed back through the postern-gate into the gardens of The Sanctuary. Sir Timothy led the way towards the house.
"I am glad that you decided to spend the night, Mr. Ledsam," he said. "The river sounds a terribly hackneyed place to the Londoner, but it has beauties which only those who live with it can discover. Mind your head. My ceilings are low."
Francis followed his host along many passages, up and down stairs, until he reached a little suite of rooms at the extreme end of the building. The man-servant who had unpacked his bag stood waiting. Sir Timothy glanced around critically.
"Small but compact," he remarked. "There is a little sitting-room down that stair, and a bathroom beyond. If the flowers annoy you, throw them out of the window. And if you prefer to bathe in the river to-morrow morning, Brooks here will show you the diving pool. I am wearing a short coat myself to-night, but do as you please. We dine at half-past eight."
Sir Timothy disappeared with a courteous little inclination of the head. Francis dismissed the manservant at once as being out of keeping with his quaint and fascinating surroundings. The tiny room with its flowers, its perfume of lavender, its old-fashioned chintzes, and its fragrant linen, might still have been a room in a cottage. The sitting-room, with its veranda looking down upon the river, was provided with cigars, whisky and soda and cigarettes; a bookcase, with a rare copy of Rabelais, an original Surtees, a large paper Decameron, and a few other classics. Down another couple of steps was a perfectly white bathroom, with shower and plunge. Francis wandered from room to room, and finally threw himself into a chair on the veranda to smoke a cigarette. From the river below him came now and then the sound of voices. Through the trees on his right he could catch a glimpse, here and there, of the strange pillars and green domed roof of the Borghese villa.