The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Lady Cynthia and Sir Timothy strolled after dinner to the bottom of the lawn and watched the punt which Francis was propelling turn from the stream into the river.
"Perfectly idyllic," Lady Cynthia sighed.
"We have another punt," her companion suggested.
She shook her head.
"I am one of those unselfish people," she declared, "whose idea of repose is not only to rest oneself but to see others rest. I think these two chairs, plenty of cigarettes, and you in your most gracious and discoursive mood, will fill my soul with content."
"Your decision relieves my mind," her companion declared, as he arranged the cushions behind her back. "I rather fancy myself with a pair of sculls, but a punt-pole never appealed to me. We will sit here and enjoy the peace. To-morrow night you will find it all disturbed--music and raucous voices and the stampede of my poor, frightened horses in the park. This is really a very gracious silence."
"Are those two really going to marry?" Lady Cynthia asked, moving her head lazily in the direction of the disappearing punt.
"I imagine so."
"And you? What are you going to do then?"
"I am planning a long cruise. I telegraphed to Southampton to-day. I am having my yacht provisioned and prepared. I think I shall go over to South America."
She was silent for a moment.
"Alone?" she asked presently.
"I am always alone," he answered.
"That is rather a matter of your own choice, is it not?"
"Perhaps so. I have always found it hard to make friends. Enemies seem to be more in my line."
"I have not found it difficult to become your friend," she reminded him.
"You are one of my few successes," he replied.
She leaned back with half-closed eyes. There was nothing new about their environment--the clusters of roses, the perfume of the lilies in the rock garden, the even sweeter fragrance of the trim border of mignonette. Away in the distance, the night was made momentarily ugly by the sound of a gramophone on a passing launch, yet this discordant note seemed only to bring the perfection of present things closer. Back across the velvety lawn, through the feathery strips of foliage, the lights of The Sanctuary, shaded and subdued, were dimly visible. The dining-table under the cedar-tree had already been cleared. Hedges, newly arrived from town to play the major domo, was putting the finishing touches to a little array of cool drinks. And beyond, dimly seen but always there, the wall. She turned to him suddenly.
"You build a wall around your life," she said, "like the wall which encircles your mystery house. Last night I thought that I could see a little way over the top. To-night you are different."
"If I am different," he answered quietly, "it is because, for the first time for many years, I have found myself wondering whether the life I had planned for myself, the things which I had planned should make life for me, are the best. I have had doubts--perhaps I might say regrets."
"I should like to go to South America," Lady Cynthia declared softly.
He finished the cigarette which he was smoking and deliberately threw away the stump. Then he turned and looked at her. His face seemed harder than ever, clean-cut, the face of a man able to defy Fate, but she saw something in his eyes which she had never seen before.
"Dear child," he said, "if I could roll back the years, if from all my deeds of sin, as the world knows sin, I could cancel one, there is nothing in the world would make me happier than to ask you to come with me as my cherished companion to just whatever part of the world you cared for. But I have been playing pitch and toss with fortune all my life, since the great trouble came which changed me so much. Even at this moment, the coin is in the air which may decide my fate."
"You mean?" she ventured.
"I mean," he continued, "that after the event of which we spoke last night, nothing in life has been more than an incident, and I have striven to find distraction by means which none of you--not even you, Lady Cynthia, with all your breadth of outlook and all your craving after new things--would justify."
"Nothing that you may have done troubles me in the least," she assured him. "I do wish that you could put it all out of your mind and let me help you to make a fresh start."
"I may put the thing itself out of my mind," he answered sadly, "but the consequences remain."
"There is a consequence which threatens?" she asked.
He was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, he had recovered all his courage.
"There is the coin in the air of which I spoke," he replied. "Let us forget it for a moment. Of the minor things I will make you my judge. Ledsam and Margaret are coming to my party to-morrow night. You, too, shall be my guest. Such secrets as lie on the other side of that wall shall be yours. After that, if I survive your judgment of them, and if the coin which I have thrown into the air comes, down to the tune I call--after that--I will remind you of something which happened last night--of something which, if I live for many years, I shall never forget."
She leaned towards him. Her eyes were heavy with longing. Her arms, sweet and white in the dusky twilight, stole hesitatingly out.
"Last night was so long ago. Won't you take a later memory?"
Once again she lay in his arms, still and content.
As they crossed the lawn, an hour or so later, they were confronted by Hedges--who hastened, in fact, to meet them.
"You are being asked for on the telephone, sir," he announced. "It is a trunk call. I have switched it through to the study."
"Any name?" Sir Timothy asked indifferently.
The man hesitated. His eyes sought his master's respectfully but charged with meaning.
"The person refuses to give his name, sir, but I fancied that I recognised his voice. I think it would be as well for you to speak, sir."
Lady Cynthia sank into a chair.
"You shall go and answer your telephone call," she said, "and leave Hedges to serve me with one of these strange drinks. I believe I see some of my favourite orangeade."
Sir Timothy made his way into the house and into the low, oak-beamed study with its dark furniture and latticed windows. The telephone bell began to ring again as he entered. He took up the receiver.
"Sir Timothy?" a rather hoarse, strained voice asked.
"I am speaking," Sir Timothy replied. "Who is it?"
The man at the other end spoke as though he were out of breath. Nevertheless, what he said was distinct enough.
"I am John Walter."
"I am just ringing you up," the voice went on, "to give you what's called a sporting chance. There's a boat from Southampton midday tomorrow. If you're wise, you'll catch it. Or better still, get off on your own yacht. They carry a wireless now, these big steamers. Don't give a criminal much of a chance, does it?"
"I am to understand, then," Sir Timothy said calmly, "that you have laid your information?"
"I've parted with it and serve you right," was the bitter reply. "I'm not saying that you're not a brave man, Sir Timothy, but there's such a thing as being foolhardy, and that's what you are. I wasn't asking you for half your fortune, nor even a dab of it, but if your life wasn't worth a few hundred pounds--you, with all that money--well, it wasn't worth saving. So now you know. I've spent ninepence to give you a chance to hop it, because I met a gent who has been good to me. I've had a good dinner and I feel merciful. So there you are."
"Do I gather," Sir Timothy asked, in a perfectly level tone, "that the deed is already done?"
"It's already done and done thoroughly," was the uncompromising answer. "I'm not ringing up to ask you to change your mind. If you were to offer me five thousand now, or ten, I couldn't stop the bally thing. You've a sporting chance of getting away if you start at once. That's all there is to it."
"You have nothing more to say?"
"Nothing! Only I wish to God I'd never stepped into that Mayfair agency. I wish I'd never gone to Mrs. Hilditch's as a temporary butler. I wish I'd never seen any one of you! That's all. You can go to Hell which way you like, only, if you take my advice, you'll go by the way of South America. The scaffold isn't every man's fancy."
There was a burr of the instrument and then silence. Sir Timothy carefully replaced the receiver, paused on his way out of the room to smell a great bowl of lavender, and passed back into the garden.
"More applicants for invitations?" Lady Cynthia enquired lazily.
Her host smiled.
"Not exactly! Although," he added, "as a matter of fact my party would have been perhaps a little more complete with the presence of the person to whom I have been speaking."
Lady Cynthia pointed to the stream, down which the punt was slowly drifting. The moon had gone behind a cloud, and Francis' figure, as he stood there, was undefined and ghostly. A thought seemed to flash into her mind. She leaned forward.
"Once," she said, "he told me that he was your enemy."
"The term is a little melodramatic," Sir Timothy protested. "We look at certain things from opposite points of view. You see, my prospective son-in-law, if ever he becomes that, represents the law--the Law with a capital 'L'--which recognises no human errors or weaknesses, and judges crime out of the musty books of the law-givers of old. He makes of the law a mechanical thing which can neither bend nor give, and he judges humanity from the same standpoint. Yet at heart he is a good fellow and I like him."
"My weakness lies the other way," he confessed, "and my sympathy is with those who do not fear to make their own laws."
She held out her hand, white and spectral in the momentary gloom. At the other end of the lawn, Francis and Margaret were disembarking from the punt.
"Does it sound too shockingly obvious," she murmured, "if I say that I want to make you my law?"