Chapter IV
 

To reach their table, the one concerning which Francis and his friend had been speculating, the new arrivals, piloted by Louis, had to pass within a few feet of the two men. The woman, serene, coldly beautiful, dressed like a Frenchwoman in unrelieved black, with extraordinary attention to details, passed them by with a careless glance and subsided into the chair which Louis was holding. Her companion, however, as he recognised Francis hesitated. His expression of somewhat austere gloom was lightened. A pleasant but tentative smile parted his lips. He ventured upon a salutation, half a nod, half a more formal bow, a salutation which Francis instinctively returned. Andrew Wilmore looked on with curiosity.

"So that is Oliver Hilditch," he murmured.

"That is the man," Francis observed, "of whom last evening half the people in this restaurant were probably asking themselves whether or not he was guilty of murder. To-night they will be wondering what he is going to order for dinner. It is a strange world."

"Strange indeed," Wilmore assented. "This afternoon he was in the dock, with his fate in the balance--the condemned cell or a favoured table at Claridge's. And your meeting! One can imagine him gripping your hands, with tears in his eyes, his voice broken with emotion, sobbing out his thanks. And instead you exchange polite bows. I would not have missed this situation for anything."

"Tradesman!" Francis scoffed. "One can guess already at the plot of your next novel."

"He has courage," Wilmore declared. "He has also a very beautiful companion. Were you serious, Francis, when you told me that that was his wife?"

"She herself was my informant," was the quiet reply.

Wilmore was puzzled.

"But she passed you just now without even a glance of recognition, and I thought you told me at the club this afternoon that all your knowledge of his evil ways came from her. Besides, she looks at least twenty years younger than he does."

Francis, who had been watching his glass filled with champagne, raised it to his lips and drank its contents steadily to the last drop.

"I can only tell you what I know, Andrew," he said, as he set down the empty glass. "The woman who is with him now is the woman who spoke to me outside the Old Bailey this afternoon. We went to a tea-shop together. She told me the story of his career. I have never listened to so horrible a recital in my life."

"And yet they are here together, dining tete-a-tete, on a night when it must have needed more than ordinary courage for either of them to have been seen in public at all," Wilmore pointed out.

"It is as astounding to me as it is to you," Francis confessed. "From the way she spoke, I should never have dreamed that they were living together."

"And from his appearance," Wilmore remarked, as he called the waiter to bring some cigarettes, "I should never have imagined that he was anything else save a high-principled, well-born, straightforward sort of chap. I never saw a less criminal type of face."

They each in turn glanced at the subject of their discussion. Oliver Hilditch's good-looks had been the subject of many press comments during the last few days. They were certainly undeniable. His face was a little lined but his hair was thick and brown. His features were regular, his forehead high and thoughtful, his mouth a trifle thin but straight and shapely. Francis gazed at him like a man entranced. The hours seemed to have slipped away. He was back in the tea-shop, listening to the woman who spoke of terrible things. He felt again his shivering abhorrence of her cold, clearly narrated story. Again he shrank from the horrors from which with merciless fingers she had stripped the coverings. He seemed to see once more the agony in her white face, to hear the eternal pain aching and throbbing in her monotonous tone. He rose suddenly to his feet.

"Andrew," he begged, "tell the fellow to bring the bill outside. We'll have our coffee and liqueurs there."

Wilmore acquiesced willingly enough, but even as they turned towards the door Francis realised what was in store for him. Oliver Hilditch had risen to his feet. With a courteous little gesture he intercepted the passer-by. Francis found himself standing side by side with the man for whose life he had pleaded that afternoon, within a few feet of the woman whose terrible story seemed to have poisoned the very atmosphere he breathed, to have shown him a new horror in life, to have temporarily, at any rate, undermined every joy and ambition he possessed.

"Mr. Ledsam," Hilditch said, speaking with quiet dignity, "I hope that you will forgive the liberty I take in speaking to you here. I looked for you the moment I was free this afternoon, but found that you had left the Court. I owe you my good name, probably my life. Thanks are poor things but they must be spoken."

"You owe me nothing at all," Francis replied, in a tone which even he found harsh. "I had a brief before me and a cause to plead. It was a chapter out of my daily work."

"That work can be well done or ill," the other reminded him gently. "In your case, my presence here proves how well it was done. I wish to present you to my wife, who shares my gratitude."

Francis bowed to the woman, who now, at her husband's words, raised her eyes. For the first time he saw her smile. It seemed to him that the effort made her less beautiful.

"Your pleading was very wonderful, Mr. Ledsam," she said, a very subtle note of mockery faintly apparent in her tone. "We poor mortals find it difficult to understand that with you all that show of passionate earnestness is merely--what did you call it? --a chapter in your day's work? It is a great gift to be able to argue from the brain and plead as though from the heart."

"We will not detain Mr. Ledsam," Oliver Hilditch interposed, a little hastily. "He perhaps does not care to be addressed in public by a client who still carries with him the atmosphere of the prison. My wife and I wondered, Mr. Ledsam, whether you would be good enough to dine with us one night. I think I could interest you by telling you more about my case than you know at present, and it would give us a further opportunity, and a more seemly one, for expressing our gratitude."

Francis had recovered himself by this time. He was after all a man of parts, and though he still had the feeling that he had been through one of the most momentous days of his life, his savoir faire was making its inevitable reappearance. He knew very well that the idea of that dinner would be horrible to him. He also knew that he would willingly cancel every engagement he had rather than miss it.

"You are very kind," he murmured.

"Are we fortunate enough to find you disengaged," Hilditch suggested, "to-morrow evening?"

"I am quite free," was the ready response.

"That suits you, Margaret?" Hilditch asked, turning courteously to his wife.

For a single moment her eyes were fixed upon those of her prospective guest. He read their message which pleaded for his refusal, and he denied it.

"To-morrow evening will suit me as well as any other," she acquiesced, after a brief pause.

"At eight o'clock, then--number 10 b, Hill Street," Hilditch concluded.

Francis bowed and turned away with a murmured word of polite assent. Outside, he found Wilmore deep in the discussion of the merits of various old brandies with an interested maitre d'hotel.

"Any choice, Francis?" his host enquired.

"None whatever," was the prompt reply, "only, for God's sake, give me a double one quickly!"

The two men were on the point of departure when Oliver Hilditch and his wife left the restaurant. As though conscious that they had become the subject of discussion, as indeed was the case, thanks to the busy whispering of the various waiters, they passed without lingering through the lounge into the entrance hall, where Francis and Andrew Wilmore were already waiting for a taxicab. Almost as they appeared, a new arrival was ushered through the main entrance, followed by porters carrying luggage. He brushed past Francis so closely that the latter looked into his face, half attracted and half repelled by the waxen-like complexion, the piercing eyes, and the dignified carriage of the man whose arrival seemed to be creating some stir in the hotel. A reception clerk and a deputy manager had already hastened forward. The newcomer waved them back for a moment. Bareheaded, he had taken Margaret Hilditch's hands in his and raised them to his lips.

"I came as quickly as I could," he said. "There was the usual delay, of course, at Marseilles, and the trains on were terrible. So all has ended well."

Oliver Hilditch, standing by, remained speechless. It seemed for a moment as though his self-control were subjected to a severe strain.

"I had the good fortune," he interposed, in a low ,tone, "to be wonderfully defended. Mr. Ledsam here--"

He glanced around. Francis, with some idea of what was coming, obeyed an imaginary summons from the head-porter, touched Andrew Wilmore upon the shoulder, and hastened without a backward glance through the swing-doors. Wilmore turned up his coat-collar and looked doubtfully up at the rain.

"I say, old chap," he protested, "you don't really mean to walk?"

Francis thrust his hand through his friend's arm and wheeled him round into Davies Street.

"I don't care what the mischief we do, Andrew," he confided, "but couldn't you see what was going to happen? Oliver Hilditch was going to introduce me as his preserver to the man who had just arrived!"

"Are you afflicted with modesty, all of a sudden?" Wilmore grumbled.

"No, remorse," was the terse reply.