The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim
There was a great deal of discussion, the following morning at the Sheridan Club, during the gossipy half-hour which preceded luncheon, concerning Sir Timothy Brast's forthcoming entertainment. One of the men, Philip Baker, who had been for many years the editor of a famous sporting weekly, had a ticket of invitation which he displayed to an envious little crowd.
"You fellows who get invitations to these parties," a famous actor declared, "are the most elusive chaps on earth. Half London is dying to know what really goes on there, and yet, if by any chance one comes across a prospective or retrospective guest, he is as dumb about it as though it were some Masonic function. We've got you this time, Baler, though. We'll put you under the inquisition on Friday morning."
"There a won't be any need," the other replied. "One hears a great deal of rot talked about these affairs, but so far as I know, nothing very much out of the way goes on. There are always one or two pretty stiff fights in the gymnasium, and you get the best variety show and supper in the world."
"Why is there this aroma of mystery hanging about the affair, then?" some one asked.
"Well, for one or two reasons," Baker answered. "One, no doubt, is because Sir Timothy has a great idea of arranging the fights himself, and the opponents actually don't know until the fight begins whom they are meeting, and sometimes not even then. There has been some gossiping, too, about the rules, and the weight of the gloves, but that I know, nothing about."
"And the rest of the show?" a younger member enquired. "Is it simply dancing and music and that sort of thing?"
"Just a variety entertainment," the proud possessor of the scarlet-hued ticket declared. "Sir Timothy always has something up his sleeve. Last year, for instance, he had those six African girls over from Paris in that queer dance which they wouldn't allow in London at all. This time no one knows what is going to happen. The house, as you know, is absolutely surrounded by that hideous stone wall, and from what I have heard, reporters who try to get in aren't treated too kindly. Here's Ledsam. Very likely he knows more about it."
"Ledsam," some one demanded, as Francis joined the group, "are you going to Sir Timothy Brast's show to-morrow night?"
"I hope so," Francis replied, producing his strip of pasteboard.
"Ever been before?"
"Do you know what sort of a show it's going to be?" the actor enquired.
"Not the slightest idea. I don't think any one does. That's rather a feature of the affair, isn't it?"
"It is the envious outsider who has never received an invitation, like myself," some one remarked, "who probably spreads these rumours, for one always hears it hinted that some disgraceful and illegal exhibition is on tap there--a new sort of drugging party, or some novel form of debauchery."
"I don't think," Francis said quietly, "that Sir Timothy is quite that sort of man."
"Dash it all, what sort of man is he?" the actor demanded. "They tell me that financially he is utterly unscrupulous, although he is rolling in money. He has the most Mephistophelian expression of any man I ever met--looks as though he'd set his heel on any one's neck for the sport of it--and yet they say he has given at least fifty thousand pounds to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and that the whole of the park round that estate of his down the river is full of lamed and decrepit beasts which he has bought himself off the streets."
"The man must have an interesting personality," a novelist who had joined the party observed. "Of course, you know that he was in prison for six months?"
"What for?" some one asked.
"Murder, only they brought it in manslaughter," was the terse reply. "He killed his partner. It was many years ago, and no one knows all the facts of the story."
"I am not holding a brief for Sir Timothy," Francis remarked, as he sipped his cocktail. "As a matter of fact, he and I are very much at cross-purposes. But as regards that particular instance, I am not sure that he was very much to be blamed, any more than you can blame any injured person who takes the law into his own hands."
"He isn't a man I should care to have for an enemy," Baker declared.
"Well, we'll shake the truth out of you fellows, somehow or other," one of the group threatened. "On Friday morning we are going to have the whole truth--none of this Masonic secrecy which Baker indulged in last year."
The men drifted in to luncheon and Francis, leaving them, took a taxi on to the Ritz. Looking about in the vestibule for Margaret, he came face to face with Lady Cynthia. She was dressed with her usual distinction in a gown of yellow muslin and a beflowered hat, and was the cynosure of a good many eyes.
"One would almost imagine, Lady Cynthia," he said, as they exchanged greetings, "that you had found that elixir we were talking about."
"Perhaps I have," she answered, smiling. "Are you looking for Margaret? She is somewhere about. We were just having a chat when I was literally carried off by that terrible Lanchester woman. Let's find her."
They strolled up into the lounge. Margaret came to meet them. Her smile, as she gave Francis her left hand, transformed and softened her whole appearance.
"You don't mind my having asked Cynthia to lunch with us?" she said. "I really couldn't get rid of the girl. She came in to see me this morning the most aggressively cheerful person I ever knew. I believe that she had an adventure last night. All that she will tell me is that she dined and danced at Claridge's with a party of the dullest people in town."
A tall, familiar figure passed down the vestibule. Lady Cynthia gave a little start, and Francis, who happened to be watching her, was amazed at her expression.
"Your father, Margaret!" she pointed out. "I wonder if he is lunching here."
"He told me that he was lunching somewhere with a South American friend--one of his partners, I believe," Margaret replied. "I expect he is looking for him."
Sir Timothy caught sight of them, hesitated for a moment and came slowly in their direction.
"Have you found your friend?" Margaret asked.
"The poor fellow is ill in bed," her father answered. "I was just regretting that I had sent the car away, or I should have gone back to Hatch End."
"Stay and lunch with us," Lady Cynthia begged, a little impetuously.
"I shall be very pleased if you will," Francis put in. "I'll go and tell the waiter to enlarge my table."
He hurried off. On his way back, a page-boy touched him on the arm.
"If you please, sir," he announced, "you are wanted on the telephone."
"I?" Francis exclaimed. "Some mistake, I should think. Nobody knows that I am here."
"Mr. Ledsam," the boy said. "This way, sir."
Francis walked down the vestibule to the row of telephone boxes at the further end. The attendant who was standing outside, indicated one of them and motioned the boy to go away. Francis stepped inside. The man followed, closing the door behind him.
"I am asking your pardon, sir, for taking a great liberty," he confessed. "No one wants you on the telephone. I wished to speak to you."
Francis looked at him in surprise. The man was evidently agitated. Somehow or other, his face was vaguely familiar.
"Who are you, and what do you want with me?" Francis asked.
"I was butler to Mr. Hilditch, sir," the man replied. "I waited upon you the night you dined there, sir--the night of Mr. Hilditch's death."
"I have a revelation to make with regard to that night, sir," the man went on, "which I should like to place in your hands. It is a very serious matter, and there are reasons why something must be done about it at once. Can I come and see you at your rooms, sir?"
Francis studied the man for a moment intently. He was evidently agitated--evidently, too, in very bad health. His furtive manner was against him. On the other hand, that might have arisen from nervousness.
"I shall be in at half-past three, number 13 b, Clarges Street," Francis told him.
"I can get off for half-an-hour then, sir," the man replied. "I shall be very glad to come. I must apologise for having troubled you, sir."
Francis went slowly back to his trio of guests. All the way down the carpeted vestibule he was haunted by the grim shadow of a spectral fear. The frozen horror of that ghastly evening was before him like a hateful tableau. Hilditch's mocking words rang in his cars: "My death is the one thing in the world which would make my wife happy." The Court scene, with all its gloomy tragedy, rose before his eyes--only in the dock, instead of Hilditch, he saw another!