Chapter V
 

Indecision had never been one of Francis Ledsam's faults, but four times during the following day he wrote out a carefully worded telegraphic message to Mrs. Oliver Hilditch, 10 b, Hill Street, regretting his inability to dine that night, and each time he destroyed it. He carried the first message around Richmond golf course with him, intending to dispatch his caddy with it immediately on the conclusion of the round. The fresh air, however, and the concentration required by the game, seemed to dispel the nervous apprehensions with which he had anticipated his visit, and over an aperitif in the club bar he tore the telegram into small pieces and found himself even able to derive a certain half-fearful pleasure from the thought of meeting again the woman who, together with her terrible story, had never for one moment been out of his thoughts. Andrew Wilmore, who had observed his action, spoke of it as they settled down to lunch.

"So you are going to keep your engagement tonight, Francis?" he observed.

The latter nodded.

"After all, why not?" he asked, a little defiantly. "It ought to be interesting."

"Well, there's nothing of the sordid criminal, at any rate, about Oliver Hilditch," Wilmore declared. "Neither, if one comes to think of it, does his wife appear to be the prototype of suffering virtue. I wonder if you are wise to go, Francis?"

"Why not?" the man who had asked himself that question a dozen times already, demanded.

"Because," Wilmore replied coolly, "underneath that steely hardness of manner for which your profession is responsible, you have a vein of sentiment, of chivalrous sentiment, I should say, which some day or other is bound to get you into trouble. The woman is beautiful enough to turn any one's head. As a matter of fact, I believe that you are more than half in love with her already."

Francis Ledsam sat where the sunlight fell upon his strong, forceful face, shone, too, upon the table with its simple but pleasant appointments, upon the tankard of beer by his side, upon the plate of roast beef to which he was already doing ample justice. He laughed with the easy confidence of a man awakened from some haunting nightmare, relieved to find his feet once more firm upon the ground.

"I have been a fool to take the whole matter so seriously, Andrew," he declared. "I expect to walk back to Clarges Street to-night, disillusioned. The man will probably present me with a gold pencil-case, and the woman--"

"Well, what about the woman?" Wilmore asked, after a brief pause.

"Oh, I don't know!" Francis declared, a little impatiently. "The woman is the mystery, of course. Probably my brain was a little over-excited when I came out of Court, and what I imagined to be an epic was nothing more than a tissue of exaggerations from a disappointed wife. I'm sure I'm doing the right thing to go there .... What about a four-ball this afternoon, Andrew?"

The four-ball match was played and won in normal fashion. The two men returned to town together afterwards, Wilmore to the club and Francis to his rooms in Clarges Street to prepare for dinner. At a few minutes to eight he rang the bell of number 10 b, Hill Street, and found his host and hostess awaiting him in the small drawing-room into which he was ushered. It seemed to him that the woman, still colourless, again marvellously gowned, greeted him coldly. His host, however, was almost too effusive. There was no other guest, but the prompt announcement of dinner dispelled what might have been a few moments of embarrassment after Oliver Hilditch's almost too cordial greeting. The woman laid her fingers upon her guest's coat-sleeve. The trio crossed the little hall almost in silence.

Dinner was served in a small white Georgian dining-room, with every appurtenance of almost Sybaritic luxury. The only light in the room was thrown upon the table by two purple-shaded electric lamps, and the servants who waited seemed to pass backwards and forwards like shadows in some mysterious twilight--even the faces of the three diners themselves were out of the little pool of light until they leaned forward. The dinner was chosen with taste and restraint, the wines were not only costly but rare. A watchful butler, attended now and then by a trim parlour-maid, superintended the service. Only once, when she ordered a bowl of flowers removed from the table, did their mistress address either of them. Conversation after the first few amenities speedily became almost a monologue. One man talked whilst the others listened, and the man who talked was Oliver Hilditch. He possessed the rare gift of imparting colour and actuality in a few phrases to the strange places of which he spoke, of bringing the very thrill of strange happenings into the shadowy room. It seemed that there was scarcely a country of the world which he had not visited, a country, that is to say, where men congregate, for he admitted from the first that he was a city worshipper, that the empty places possessed no charm for him.

"I am not even a sportsman," he confessed once, half apologetically, in reply to a question from his guest. "I have passed down the great rivers of the world without a thought of salmon, and I have driven through the forest lands and across the mountains behind a giant locomotive, without a thought of the beasts which might be lurking there, waiting to be killed. My only desire has been to reach the next place where men and women were."

"Irrespective of nationality?" Francis queried.

"Absolutely. I have never minded much of what race--I have. the trick of tongues rather strangely developed--but I like the feeling of human beings around me. I like the smell and sound and atmosphere of a great city. Then all my senses are awake, but life becomes almost turgid in my veins during the dreary hours of passing from one place to another."

"Do you rule out scenery as well as sport from amongst the joys of travel?" Francis enquired.

"I am ashamed to make such a confession," his host answered, "but I have never lingered for a single unnecessary moment to look at the most wonderful landscape in the world. On the other hand, I have lounged for hours in the narrowest streets of Pekin, in the markets of Shanghai, along Broadway in New York, on the boulevards in Paris, outside the Auditorium in Chicago. These are the obvious places where humanity presses the thickest, but I know of others. Some day we will talk of them."

Francis, too, although that evening, through sheer lack of sympathy, he refused to admit it, shared to some extent Hilditch's passionate interest in his fellow-creatures, and notwithstanding the strange confusion of thought into which he had been thrown during the last twenty-four hours, he felt something of the pungency of life, the thrill of new and appealing surroundings, as he sat in his high-backed chair, sipping his wonderful wine, eating almost mechanically what was set before him, fascinated through all his being by his strange company.

For three days he had cast occasional glances at this man, seated in the criminal dock with a gaoler on either side of him, his fine, nervous features gaining an added distinction from the sordidness of his surroundings. Now, in the garb of civilisation, seated amidst luxury to which he was obviously accustomed, with a becoming light upon his face and this strange, fascinating flow of words proceeding always from his lips, the man, from every external point of view, seemed amongst the chosen ones of the world. The contrast was in itself amazing. And then the woman! Francis looked at her but seldom, and when he did it was with a curious sense of mental disturbance; poignant but unanalysable.

It was amazing to see her here, opposite the man of whom she had told him that ghastly story, mistress of his house, to all appearance his consort, apparently engrossed in his polished conversation, yet with that subtle withholding of her real self which Francis rather imagined than felt, and which somehow seemed to imply her fierce resentment of her husband's re-entry into the arena of life. It was a situation so strange that Francis, becoming more and more subject to its influence, was inclined to wonder whether he had not met with some accident on his way from the Court, and whether this was not one of the heated nightmares following unconsciousness.

"Tell me," he asked his host, during one of the brief pauses in the conversation, "have you ever tried to analyse this interest of yours in human beings and crowded cities, this hatred of solitude and empty spaces?"

Oliver Hilditch smiled thoughtfully, and gazed at a salted almond which he was just balancing between the tips of his fingers.

"I think," he said simply, "it is because I have no soul."