Chapter XXIII
 

There followed a brief period of time, the most wonderful of his life, the happiest of hers. They took advantage of Sir Timothy's absolute license, and spent long days at The Sanctuary, ideal lovers' days, with their punt moored at night amongst the lilies, where her kisses seemed to come to him with an aroma and wonder born of the spot. Then there came a morning when he found a cloud on her face. She was looking at the great wall, and away at the minaret beyond. They had heard from the butler that Sir Timothy had spent the night at the villa, and that preparations were on hand for another of his wonderful parties. Francis, who was swift to read her thoughts, led her away into the rose garden where once she had failed him.

"You have been looking over the wall, Margaret," he said reproachfully.

She looked at him with a little twitch at the corners of her lips.

"Francis dear," she confessed, "I am afraid you are right. I cannot even look towards The Walled House without wondering why it was built--or catch a glimpse of that dome without stupid guesses as to what may go on underneath."

"I think very likely," he said soothingly, "we have both exaggerated the seriousness of your father's hobbies. We know that he has a wonderful gymnasium there, but the only definite rumour I have ever heard about the place is that men fight there who have a grudge against one another, and that they are not too particular about the weight of the gloves. That doesn't appeal to us, you know, Margaret, but it isn't criminal."

"If that were all!" she murmured.

"I dare say it is," he declared. "London, as you know, is a hot-bed of gossip. Everything that goes on is ridiculously exaggerated, and I think that it rather appeals to your father's curious sense of humour to pose as the law-breaker."

She pressed his arm a little. The day was overcast, a slight rain was beginning to fall.

"Francis," she whispered, "we had a perfect day here yesterday. Now the sun has gone and I am shivery."

He understood in a moment.

"We'll lunch at Ranelagh," he suggested. "It is almost on the way up. Then we can see what the weather is like. If it is bad, we can dine in town tonight and do a theatre."

"You are a dear," she told him fervently. "I am going in to get ready."

Francis went round to the garage for his car, and brought it to the front. While he was sitting there, Sir Timothy came through the door in the wall. He was smoking a cigar and he was holding an umbrella to protect his white flannel suit. He was as usual wonderfully groomed and turned out, but he walked as though he were tired, and his smile, as he greeted Francis, lacked a little of its usual light-hearted mockery.

"Are you going up to town?" he enquired.

Francis pointed to the grey skies.

"Just for the day," he answered. "Lady Cynthia went by the early train. We missed you last night."

"I came down late," Sir Timothy explained, "and I found it more convenient to stay at The Walled House. I hope you find that Grover looks after you while I am away? He has carte blanche so far as regards my cellar."

"We have been wonderfully served," Francis assured him.

In the distance they could hear the sound of hammering on the other side of the wall. Francis moved his head in that direction.

"I hear that they are preparing for another of your wonderful entertainments over there," he remarked.

"On Thursday," Sir Timothy assented. "I shall have something to say to you about it later on."

"Am I to take it that I am likely to receive an invitation?" Francis asked.

"I should think it possible," was the calm reply.

"What about Margaret?"

"My entertainment would not appeal to her," Sir Timothy declared. "The women whom I have been in the habit of asking are not women of Margaret's type."

"And Lady Cynthia?"

Sir Timothy frowned slightly.

"I find myself in some difficulty as regards Lady Cynthia," he admitted. "I am the guardian of nobody's morals, nor am I the censor of their tastes, but my entertainments are for men. The women whom I have hitherto asked have been women in whom I have taken no personal interest. They are necessary to form a picturesque background for my rooms, in the same way that I look to the gardeners to supply the floral decorations. Lady Cynthia's instincts, however, are somewhat adventurous. She would scarcely be content to remain a decoration."

"The issuing of your invitations," Francis remarked, "is of course a matter which concerns nobody else except yourself. If you do decide to favour me with one, I shall be delighted to come, provided Margaret has no objection."

"Such a reservation promises well for the future," Sir Timothy observed, with gentle sarcasm. "Here comes Margaret, looking very well, I am glad to see."

Margaret came forward to greet her father before stepping into the car. They exchanged only a few sentences, but Francis, whose interest in their relations was almost abnormally keen, fancied that he could detect signs of some change in their demeanour towards one another. The cold propriety of deportment which had characterised her former attitude towards her father, seemed to have given place to something more uncertain, to something less formal, something which left room even for a measure of cordiality. She looked at him differently. It was as though some evil thought which lived in her heart concerning him had perished.

"You are busy over there, father?" she asked.

"In a way," he replied. "We are preparing for some festivities on Thursday."

Her face fell.

"Another party?"

"One more," he replied. "Perhaps the last--for the present, at any rate."

She waited as though expecting him to explain. He changed the subject, however.

"I think you are wise to run up to town this morning," he said, glancing up at the grey skies. "By-the-bye, if you dine at Curzon Street to-night, do ask Hedges to serve you some of the '99 Cliquot. A marvellous wine, as you doubtless know, Ledsam, but it should be drunk. Au revoir!"

Francis, after a pleasant lunch at Ranelagh, and having arranged with Margaret to dine with her in Curzon Street, spent an hour or two that afternoon at his chambers. As he was leaving, just before five, he came face to face with Shopland descending from a taxi.

"Are you busy, Mr. Ledsam?" the latter enquired. "Can you spare me half-an-hour?"

"An hour, if you like," Francis assented.

Shopland gave the driver an address and the two men seated themselves in the taxicab.

"Any news?" Francis asked curiously.

"Not yet," was the cautious reply. "It will not be long, however."

"Before you discover Reggie Wilmore?"

The detective smiled in a superior way.

"I am no longer particularly interested in Mr. Reginald Wilmore," he declared. "I have come to the conclusion that his disappearance is not a serious affair."

It's serious enough for his relatives," Francis objected.

"Not if they understood the situation," the detective rejoined. "Assure them from me that nothing of consequence has happened to that young man. I have made enquiries at the gymnasium in Holborn, and in other directions. I am convinced that his absence from home is voluntary, and that there is no cause for alarm as to his welfare."

"Then the sooner you make your way down to Kensington and tell his mother so, the better," Francis said, a little severely. "Don't forget that I put you on to this."

"Quite right, sir," the detective acquiesced, "and I am grateful to you. The fact of it is that in making my preliminary investigations with regard to the disappearance of Mr. Wilmore, I have stumbled upon a bigger thing. Before many weeks are past, I hope to be able to unearth one of the greatest scandals of modern times."

"The devil!" Francis muttered.

He looked thoughtfully, almost anxiously at his companion. Shopland's face reflected to the full his usual confidence. He had the air of a man buoyant with hope and with stifled self-satisfaction.

"I am engaged," he continued, "upon a study of the methods and habits of one whom I believe to be a great criminal. I think that when I place my prisoner in the bar, Wainwright and these other great artists in crime will fade from the memory."

"Is Sir Timothy Brast your man?" Francis asked quietly.

His companion frowned portentously.

"No names," he begged.

"Considering that it was I who first put you on to him," Francis expostulated, "I don't think you need be so sparing of your confidence."

"Mr. Ledsam," the detective assured him, "I shall tell you everything that is possible. At the same time, I will be frank with you. You are right when you say that it was you who first directed my attention towards Sir Timothy Brast. Since that time, however, your own relations with him, to an onlooker, have become a little puzzling."

"I see," Francis murmured. "You've been spying on me?"

Shopland shook his head in deprecating fashion.

"A study of Sir Timothy during the last month," he said, "has brought you many a time into the focus."

"Where are we going to now?" Francis asked, a little abruptly.

"Just a side show, sir. It's one of those outside things I have come across which give light and shade to the whole affair. We get out here, if you please."

The two men stepped on to the pavement. They were in a street a little north of Wardour Street, where the shops for the most part were of a miscellaneous variety. Exactly in front of them, the space behind a large plate-glass window had been transformed into a sort of show-place for dogs. There were twenty or thirty of them there, of all breeds and varieties.

"What the mischief is this?" Francis demanded.

"Come in and make enquiries," Shopland replied. "I can promise that you will find it interesting. It's a sort of dog's home."

Francis followed his companion into the place. A pleasant-looking, middle-aged woman came forward and greeted the latter.

"Do you mind telling my friend what you told me the other day?" he asked.

"Certainly, sir," she replied. "We collect stray animals here, sir," she continued, turning to Francis. "Every one who has a dog or a cat he can't afford to keep, or which he wants to get rid of, may bring it to us. We have agents all the time in the streets, and if any official of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals brings us news of a dog or a cat being ill-treated, we either purchase it or acquire it in some way or other and keep it here."

"But your dogs in the window," Francis observed, "all seem to be in wonderful condition."

The woman smiled.

"We have a large dog and cat hospital behind," she explained, "and a veterinary surgeon who is always in attendance. The animals are treated there as they are brought in, and fed up if they are out of condition. When they are ready to sell, we show them."

"But is this a commercial undertaking," Francis enquired carefully, "or is it a branch of the S.P.C.A.?"

"It's quite a private affair, sir," the woman told him. "We charge only five shillings for the dogs and half-a-crown for the cats, but every one who has one must sign our book, promising to give it a good home, and has to be either known to us or to produce references. We do not attempt, of course, to snake a profit."

"Who on earth is responsible for the upkeep?"

"We are not allowed to mention any names here, sir, but as a matter of fact I think that your friend knows. He met the gentleman in here one day. Would you care to have a look at the hospital, sir?"

Francis spent a quarter of an hour wandering around. When they left the place, Shopland turned to him with a smile.

"Now, sir," he said, "shall I tell you at whose expense that place is run?"

"I think I can guess," Francis replied. "I should say that Sir Timothy Brast was responsible for it."

The detective nodded. He was a little disappointed.

"You know about his collection of broken-down horses in the park at The Walled House, too, then, I suppose? They come whinnying after him like a flock of sheep whenever he shows himself."

"I know about them, too," Francis admitted. "I was present once when he got out of his car, knocked a carter down who was ill-treating a horse, bought it on the spot and sent it home."

Shopland smiled, inscrutably yet with the air of one vastly pleased.

"These little side-shows," he said, "are what help to make this, which I believe will be the greatest case of my life, so supremely interesting. Any one of my fraternity," he continued, with an air of satisfaction, "can take hold of a thread and follow it step by step, and wind up with the handcuffs, as I did myself with the young man Fairfax. But a case like this, which includes a study of temperament, requires something more."

They were seated once more in the taxicab, on their way westward. Francis for the first time was conscious of an utterly new sensation with regard to his companion. He watched him through half-closed eyes--an insignificant-looking little man whose clothes, though neat, were ill-chosen, and whose tie was an offense. There was nothing in the face to denote unusual intelligence, but the eyes were small and cunning and the mouth dogged. Francis looked away out of the window. A sudden flash of realisation had come to him, a wave of unreasoning but positive dislike.

"When do you hope to bring your case to an end?" he asked.

The man smiled once more, and the very smile irritated his companion.

"Within the course of the next few days, sir," he replied.

"And the charge?"

The detective turned around.

"Mr. Ledsam," he said, "we have been old friends, if you will allow me to use the word, ever since I was promoted to my present position in the Force. You have trusted me with a good many cases, and I acknowledge myself your debtor, but in the matter of Sir Timothy Brast, you will forgive my saying with all respect, sir, that our ways seem to lie a little apart."

"Will you tell me why you have arrived at that conclusion?" Francis asked. "It was I who first incited you to set a watch upon Sir Timothy. It was to you I first mentioned certain suspicions I myself had with regard to him. I treated you with every confidence. Why do you now withhold yours from me?"

"It is quite true, Mr. Ledsam," Shopland admitted, "that it was you who first pointed out Sir Timothy as an interesting study for my profession, but that was a matter of months ago. If you will forgive my saying so, your relations with Sir Timothy have altered since then. You have been his guest at The Sanctuary, and there is a rumour, sir--you will pardon me if I seem to be taking a liberty--that you are engaged to be married to his daughter, Oliver Hilditch's widow."

"You seem to be tolerably well informed as to my affairs, Shopland," Francis remarked.

"Only so far as regards your associations with Sir Timothy," was the deprecating reply. "If you will excuse me, sir, this is where I should like to descend."

"You have no message for Mr. Wilmore, then?" Francis asked.

"Nothing definite, sir, but you can assure him of this. His brother is not likely to come to any particular harm. I have no absolute information to offer, but it is my impression that Mr. Reginald Wilmore will be home before a week is past. Good afternoon, sir."

Shopland stepped out of the taxicab and, raising his hat, walked quickly away. Francis directed the man to drive to Clarges Street. As they drove off, he was conscious of a folded piece of paper in the corner where his late companion had been seated. He picked it up, opened it, realised that it was a letter from a firm of lawyers, addressed to Shopland, and deliberately read it through. It was dated from a small town not far from Hatch End:

DEAR SIR:

Mr. John Phillips of this firm, who is coroner for the district, has desired me to answer the enquiry contained in your official letter of the 13th. The number of inquests held upon bodies recovered from the Thames in the neighbourhood to which you allude, during the present year has been seven. Four of these have been identified. Concerning the remaining three nothing has ever been heard. Such particulars as are on our file will be available to any accredited representative of the police at any time.

Faithfully yours,
PHILLIPS & SON.

The taxicab came to a sudden stop. Francis glanced up. Very breathless, Shopland put his head in at the window.

"I dropped a letter," he gasped.

Francis folded it up and handed it to him.

"What about these three unidentified people, Shopland?" he asked, looking at him intently.

The man frowned angrily. There was a note of defiance in his tone as he stowed the letter away in his pocketbook.

"There were two men and one woman," he replied, "all three of the upper classes. The bodies were recovered from Wilson's lock, some three hundred yards from The Walled House."

"Do they form part of your case?" Francis persisted.

Shopland stepped back.

"Mr. Ledsam," he said, "I told you, some little time ago, that so far as this particular case was concerned I had no confidences to share with you. I am sorry that you saw that letter. Since you did, however, I hope you will not take it as a liberty from one in my position if I advise you most strenuously to do nothing which might impede the course of the law. Good day, sir!"