Chapter XXX
 

Punctual to his appointment that afternoon, the man who had sought an interview with Francis was shown into the latter's study in Clarges Street.

He wore an overcoat over his livery, and directly he entered the room Francis was struck by his intense pallor. He had been trying feverishly to assure himself that all that the man required was the usual sort of help, or assistance into a hospital. Yet there was something furtive in his visitor's manner, something which suggested the bearer of a guilty secret.

"Please tell me what you want as quickly as you can," Francis begged. "I am due to start down into the country in a few minutes."

"I won't keep you long, sir," the man replied. "The matter is rather a serious one."

"Are you ill?"

"Yes, sir!"

"You had better sit down."

The man relapsed gratefully into a chair.

"I'll leave out everything that doesn't count, sir," he said. "I'll be as brief as I can. I want you to go back to the night I waited upon you at dinner the night Mr. Oliver Hilditch was found dead. You gave evidence. The jury brought it in 'suicide.' It wasn't suicide at all, sir. Mr. Hilditch was murdered."

The sense of horror against which he had been struggling during the last few hours, crept once more through the whole being of the man who listened. He was face to face once more with that terrible issue. Had he perjured himself in vain? Was the whole structure of his dreams about to collapse, to fall about his ears?

"By whom?" he faltered.

"By Sir Timothy Brast, sir."

Francis, who had been standing with his hand upon the table, felt suddenly inclined to laugh. Facile though his brain was, the change of issues was too tremendous for him to readily assimilate it. He picked up a cigarette from an open box, with shaking fingers, lit it, and threw himself into an easy-chair. He was all the time quite unconscious of what he was doing.

"Sir Timothy Brast?" he repeated.

"Yes, sir," the man reiterated. "I wish to tell you the whole story."

"I am listening," Francis assured him.

"That evening before dinner, Sir Timothy Brast called to see Mr. Hilditch, and a very stormy interview took place. I do not know the rights of that, sir. I only know that there was a fierce quarrel. Mrs. Hilditch came in and Sir Timothy left the house. His last words to Mr. Hilditch were, 'You will hear from me again.' As you know, sir--I mean as you remember, if you followed the evidence--all the servants slept at the back of the house. I slept in the butler's room downstairs, next to the plate pantry. I was awake when you left, sitting in my easy-chair, reading. Ten minutes after you had left, there was a sound at the front door as though some one had knocked with their knuckles. I got up, to open it but Mr. Hilditch was before me. He admitted Sir Timothy. They went back into the library together. It struck me that Mr. Hilditch had had a great deal to drink, and there was a queer look on Sir Timothy's face that I didn't understand. I stepped into the little room which communicates with the library by folding doors. There was a chink already between the two. I got a knife from the pantry and widened it until I could see through. I heard very little of the conversation but there was no quarrel. Mr. Hilditch took up the weapon which you know about, sat in a chair and held it to his heart. I heard him say something like this. 'This ought to appeal to you, Sir Timothy. You're a specialist in this sort of thing. One little touch, and there you are.' Mrs. Hilditch said something about putting it away. My master turned to Sir Timothy and said something in a low tone. Suddenly Sir Timothy leaned over. He caught hold of Mr. Hilditch's hand which held the hilt of the dagger, and and--well, he just drove it in, sir. Then he stood away. Mrs. Hilditch sprang up and would have screamed, but Sir Timothy placed his hand over her mouth. In a moment I heard her say, 'What have you done?' Sir Timothy looked at Mr. Hilditch quite calmly. 'I have ridded the world of a verminous creature,' he said. My knees began to shake. My nerves were always bad. I crept back into my room, took off my clothes and got into bed. I had just put the light out when they called for me."

Francis was himself again. There was an immense relief, a joy in his heart. He had never for a single moment blamed Margaret, but he had never for a single moment forgotten. It was a closed chapter but the stain was on its pages. It was wonderful to tear it out and scatter the fragments.

"I remember you at the inquest," he said. "Your name is John Walter."

"Yes, sir."

"Your evidence was very different."

"Yes, sir."

"You kept all this to yourself."

"I did, sir. I thought it best."

"Tell me what has happened since?"

The man looked down at the table.

"I have always been a poor man, sir," he said. "I have had bad luck whenever I've made a try to start at anything. I thought there seemed a chance for me here. I went to Sir Timothy and I told him everything."

"Well?"

"Sir Timothy never turned a hair, sir. When I had finished he was very short with me, almost curt. 'You have behaved like a man of sense, Walter,' he said. 'How much?' I hesitated for some time. Then I could see he was getting impatient. I doubled what I had thought of first. 'A thousand pounds, sir,' I said. Sir Timothy he went to a safe in the wall and he counted out a thousand pounds in notes, there and then. He brought them over to me. 'Walter,' he said, 'there is your thousand pounds. For that sum I understand you promise to keep what you saw to yourself?' 'Yes, sir,' I agreed. 'Take it, then,' he said, 'but I want you to understand this. There have been many attempts but no one yet has ever succeeded in blackmailing me. No one ever will. I give you this thousand pounds willingly. It is what you have asked for. Never let me see your face again. If you come to me starving, it will be useless. I shall not part with another penny.'"

The man's simple way of telling his story, his speech, slow and uneven on account of his faltering breath, seemed all to add to the dramatic nature of his disclosure. Francis found himself sitting like a child who listens to a fairy story.

"And then?" he asked simply.

"I went off with the money," Walter continued, "and I had cruel bad luck. I put it into a pub. I was robbed a little, I drank a little, my wife wasn't any good. I lost it all, sir. I found myself destitute. I went back to Sir Timothy."

"Well?"

The man shifted his feet nervously. He seemed to have come to the difficult part of his story.

"Sir Timothy was as hard as nails," he said slowly. "He saw me. The moment I had finished, he rang the bell. 'Hedges,' he said to the manservant who came in, 'this man has come here to try and blackmail me. Throw him out. If he gives any trouble, send for the police. If he shows himself here again, send for the police."'

"What happened then?"

"Well, I nearly blurted out the whole story," the man confessed, "and then I remembered that wouldn't do me any good, so I went away. I got a job at the Ritz, but I was took ill a few days afterwards. I went to see a doctor. From him I got my death-warrant, sir."

"Is it heart?"

"It's heart, sir," the man acknowledged. "The doctor told me I might snuff out at any moment. I can't live, anyway, for more than a year. I've got a little girl."

"Now just why have you come to see me?" Francis asked.

"For just this, sir," the man replied. "Here's my account of what happened," he went on, drawing some sheets of foolscap from his pocket. "It's written in my own hand and there are two witnesses to my signature--one a clergyman, sir, and the other a doctor, they thinking it was a will or something. I had it in my mind to send that to Scotland Yard, and then I remembered that I hadn't a penny to leave my little girl. I began to wonder--think as meanly of me as you like, sir--how I could still make some money out of this. I happened to know that you were none too friendly disposed towards Sir Timothy. This confession of mine, if it wouldn't mean hanging, would mean imprisonment for the rest of his life. You could make a better bargain with him than me, sir. Do you want to hold him in your power? If so, you can have this confession, all signed and everything, for two hundred pounds, and as I live, sir, that two hundred pounds is to pay for my funeral, and the balance for my little girl."

Francis took the papers and glanced them through.

"Supposing I buy this document from you," he said, "what is its actual value? You could write out another confession, get that signed, and sell it to another of Sir Timothy's enemies, or you could still go to Scotland Yard yourself."

"I shouldn't do that, sir, I assure you," the man declared nervously, "not on my solemn oath. I want simply to be quit of the whole matter and have a little money for the child."

Francis considered for a moment.

"There is only one way I can see," he said, "to make this document worth the money to me. If you will sign a confession that any statement you have made as to the death of Mr. Hilditch is entirely imaginary, that you did not see Sir Timothy in the house that night, that you went to bed at your usual time and slept until you were awakened, and that you only made this charge for the purpose of extorting money--if you will sign a confession to that effect and give it me with these papers, I will pay you the two hundred pounds and I will never use the confession unless you repeat the charge."

"I'll do it, sir," the man assented.

Francis drew up a document, which his visitor read through and signed. Then he wrote out an open cheque.

"My servant shall take you to the bank in a taxi," he said. "They would scarcely pay you this unless you were identified. We understand one another?"

"Perfectly, sir!"

Francis rang the bell, gave his servant the necessary orders, and dismissed the two men. Half-an-hour later, already changed into flannels, he was on his way into the country.