Chapter II
 

Francis Ledsam arrived at his club, the Sheridan, an hour later than he had anticipated. He nodded to the veteran hall-porter, hung up his hat and stick, and climbed the great staircase to the card-room without any distinct recollection of performing any of these simple and reasonable actions. In the cardroom he exchanged a few greetings with friends, accepted without comment or without the slightest tinge of gratification a little chorus of chafing congratulations upon his latest triumph, and left the room without any inclination to play, although there was a vacant place at his favourite table. From sheer purposelessness he wandered back again into the hall, and here came his first gleam of returning sensation. He came face to face with his most intimate friend, Andrew Wilmore. The latter, who had just hung up his coat and hat, greeted him with a growl of welcome.

"So you've brought it off again, Francis!"

"Touch and go," the barrister remarked. "I managed to squeak home."

Wilmore laid his hand upon his friend's shoulder and led the way towards two easy-chairs in the lounge.

"I tell you what it is, old chap," he confided, "you'll be making yourself unpopular before long. Another criminal at large, thanks to that glib tongue and subtle brain of yours. The crooks of London will present you with a testimonial when you're made a judge."

"So you think that Oliver Hilditch was guilty, then?" Francis asked curiously.

"My dear fellow, how do I know or care?" was the indifferent reply. "I shouldn't have thought that there had been any doubt about it. You probably know, anyway."

"That's just what I didn't when I got up to make my speech," Francis assured his friend emphatically. "The fellow was given an opportunity of making a clean breast of it, of course--Wensley, his lawyer, advised him to, in fact--but the story he told me was precisely the story he told at the inquest."

They were established now in their easy-chairs, and Wilmore summoned a waiter.

"Two large whiskies and sodas," he ordered. "Francis," he went on, studying his companion intently, "what's the matter with you? You don't look as though your few days in the country last week had done you any good."

Francis glanced around as though to be sure that they were alone.

"I was all right when I came up, Andrew," he muttered. "This case has upset me."

"Upset you? But why the dickens should it?" the other demanded, in a puzzled tone. "It was quite an ordinary case, in its way, and you won it."

"I won it," Francis admitted.

"Your defence was the most ingenious thing I ever heard."

"Mostly suggested, now I come to think of it," the barrister remarked grimly, "by the prisoner himself."

"But why are you upset about it, anyway?" Wilmore persisted.

Francis rose to his feet, shook himself, and with his elbow resting upon the mantelpiece leaned down towards his friend. He could not rid himself altogether of this sense of unreality. He had the feeling that he had passed through one of the great crises of his life.

"I'll tell you, Andrew. You're about the only man in the world I could tell. I've gone crazy."

"I thought you looked as though you'd been seeing spooks," Wilmore murmured sympathetically.

"I have seen a spook," Francis rejoined, with almost passionate seriousness, "a spook who lifted an invisible curtain with invisible fingers, and pointed to such a drama of horrors as De Quincey, Poe and Sue combined could never have imagined. Oliver Hilditch was guilty, Andrew. He murdered the man Jordan--murdered him in cold blood."

"I'm not surprised to hear that," was the somewhat puzzled reply.

"He was guilty, Andrew, not only of the murder of this man, his partner, but of innumerable other crimes and brutalities," Francis went on. "He is a fiend in human form, if ever there was one, and I have set him loose once more to prey upon Society. I am morally responsible for his next robbery, his next murder, the continued purgatory of those forced to associate with him."

"You're dotty, Francis," his friend declared shortly.

"I told you I was crazy," was the desperate reply. "So would you be if you'd sat opposite that woman for half-an-hour, and heard her story."

"What woman?" Wilmore demanded, leaning forward in his chair and gazing at his friend with increasing uneasiness.

"A woman who met me outside the Court and told me the story of Oliver Hilditch's life."

"A stranger?"

"A complete stranger to me. It transpired that she was his wife."

Wilmore lit a cigarette.

"Believe her?"

"There are times when one doesn't believe or disbelieve," Francis answered. "One knows."

Wilmore nodded.

"All the same, you're crazy," he declared. "Even if you did save the fellow from the gallows, you were only doing your job, doing your duty to the best of poor ability. You had no reason to believe him guilty."

"That's just as it happened," Francis pointed out. "I really didn't care at the time whether he was or not. I had to proceed on the assumption that he was not, of course, but on the other hand I should have fought just as hard for him if I had known him to be guilty."

"And you wouldn't now--to-morrow, say?"

"Never again."

"Because of that woman's story?"

"Because of the woman."

There was a short silence. Then Wilmore asked a very obvious question.

"What sort of a person was she?"

Francis Ledsam was several moments before he replied. The question was one which he had been expecting, one which he had already asked himself many times, yet he was unprepared with any definite reply.

"I wish I could answer you, Andrew," his friend confessed. "As a matter of fact, I can't. I can only speak of the impression she left upon me, and you are about the only person breathing to whom I could speak of that."

Wilmore nodded sympathetically. He knew that, man of the world though Francis Ledsam appeared, he was nevertheless a highly imaginative person, something of an idealist as regards women, unwilling as a rule to discuss them, keeping them, in a general way, outside his daily life.

"Go ahead, old fellow," he invited. "You know I understand."

"She left the impression upon me," Francis continued quietly, "of a woman who had ceased to live. She was young, she was beautiful, she had all the gifts--culture, poise and breeding--but she had ceased to live. We sat with a marble table between us, and a few feet of oil-covered floor. Those few feet, Andrew, were like an impassable gulf. She spoke from the shores of another world. I listened and answered, spoke and listened again. And when she told her story, she went. I can't shake off the effect she had upon me, Andrew. I feel as though I had taken a step to the right or to the left over the edge of the world."

Andrew Wilmore studied his friend thoughtfully.

He was full of sympathy and understanding. His one desire at that moment was not to make a mistake. He decided to leave unasked the obvious question.

"I know," he said simply. "Are you dining anywhere?"

"I thought of staying on here," was the indifferent reply.

"We won't do anything of the sort," Wilmore insisted. "There's scarcely a soul in to-night, and the place is too humpy for a man who's been seeing spooks. Get back to your rooms and change. I'll wait here."

"What about you?"

"I have some clothes in my locker. Don't be long. And, by-the-bye, which shall it be--Bohemia or Mayfair? I'll telephone for a table. London's so infernally full, these days."

Francis hesitated.

"I really don't care," he confessed. "Now I think of it, I shall be glad to get away from here, though. I don't want any more congratulations on saving Oliver Hilditch's life. Let's go where we are least likely to meet any one we know."

"Respectability and a starched shirt-front, then," Wilmore decided. "We'll go to Claridge's."