Chapter VI
 

The three diners lingered for only a short time over their dessert. Afterwards, they passed together into a very delightful library on the other side of the round, stone-paved hall. Hilditch excused himself for a moment.

"I have some cigars which I keep in my dressing-room," he explained, "and which I am anxious for you to try. There is an electric stove there and I can regulate the temperature."

He departed, closing the door behind him. Francis came a little further into the room. His hostess, who had subsided into an easy-chair and was holding a screen between her face and the fire, motioned him to, seat himself opposite. He did so without words. He felt curiously and ridiculously tongue-tied. He fell to studying the woman instead of attempting the banality of pointless speech. From the smooth gloss of her burnished hair, to the daintiness of her low, black brocaded shoes, she represented, so far as her physical and outward self were concerned, absolute perfection. No ornament was amiss, no line or curve of her figure other than perfectly graceful. Yet even the fire's glow which she had seemed to dread brought no flush of colour to her cheeks. Her appearance of complete lifelessness remained. It was as though some sort of crust had formed about her being, a condition which her very physical perfection seemed to render the more incomprehensible.

"You are surprised to see me here living with my husband, after what I told you yesterday afternoon?" she said calmly, breaking at last the silence which had reigned between them.

"I am," he admitted.

"It seems unnatural to you, I suppose?"

"Entirely."

"You still believe all that I told you?"

"I must."

She looked at the door and raised her head a little, as though either listening or adjudging the time before her husband would return. Then she glanced across at him once more.

"Hatred," she said, "does not always drive away. Sometimes it attracts. Sometimes the person who hates can scarcely bear the other out of his sight. That is where hate and love are somewhat alike."

The room was warm but Francis was conscious of shivering. She raised her finger warningly. It seemed typical of the woman, somehow, that the message could not be conveyed by any glance or gesture.

"He is coming," she whispered.

Oliver Hilditch reappeared, carrying cigars wrapped in gold foil which he had brought with him from Cuba, the tobacco of which was a revelation to his guest. The two men smoked and sipped their coffee and brandy. The woman sat with half-closed eyes. It was obvious that Hilditch was still in the mood for speech.

"I will tell you, Mr. Ledsam," he said, "why I am so happy to have you here this evening. In the first place, I desire to tender you once more my thanks for your very brilliant efforts on my behalf. The very fact that I am able to offer you hospitality at all is without a doubt due to these."

"I only did what I was paid to do," Francis insisted, a little harshly. "You must remember that these things come in the day's work with us."

His host nodded.

"Naturally," he murmured. "There was another reason, too, why I was anxious to meet you, Mr. Ledsam," he continued. "You have gathered already that I am something of a crank. I have a profound detestation of all sentimentality and affected morals. It is a relief to me to come into contact with a man who is free from that bourgeois incubus to modern enterprise--a conscience."

"Is that your estimate of me?" Francis asked.

"Why not? You practise your profession in the criminal courts, do you not?"

"That is well-known," was the brief reply.

"What measure of conscience can a man have," Oliver Hilditch argued blandly, "who pleads for the innocent and guilty alike with the same simulated fervour? Confess, now, Mr. Ledsam--there is no object in being hypocritical in this matter--have you not often pleaded for the guilty as though you believed them innocent?"

"That has sometimes been my duty," Francis acknowledged.

Hilditch laughed scornfully.

It is all part of the great hypocrisy of society," he proclaimed. "You have an extra glass of champagne for dinner at night and are congratulated by your friends because you have helped some poor devil to cheat the law, while all the time you know perfectly well, and so do your high-minded friends, that your whole attitude during those two hours of eloquence has been a lie. That is what first attracted me to you, Mr. Ledsam."

"I am sorry to hear it," Francis commented coldly. "The ethics of my profession--"

His host stopped him with a little wave of the hand.

"Spare me that," he begged. "While we are on the subject, though, I have a question to ask you. My lawyer told me, directly after he had briefed you, that, although it would make no real difference to your pleading, it would be just as well for me to keep up my bluff of being innocent, even in private conversation with you. Why was that?"

"For the very obvious reason," Francis told him, "that we are not all such rogues and vagabonds as you seem to think. There is more satisfaction to me, at any rate, in saving an innocent man's life than a guilty one's."

Hilditch laughed as though amused.

"Come," he threatened, "I am going to be ill-natured. You have shown signs of smugness, a quality which I detest. I am going to rob you of some part of your self-satisfaction. Of course I killed Jordan. I killed him in the very chair in which you are now sitting."

There was a moment's intense silence. The woman was still fanning herself lazily. Francis leaned forward in his place.

"I do not wish to hear this!" he exclaimed harshly.

"Don't be foolish," his host replied, rising to his feet and strolling across the room. "You know the whole trouble of the prosecution. They couldn't discover the weapon, or anything like it, with which the deed was done. Now I'll show you something ingenious."

Francis followed the other's movements with fascinated eyes. The woman scarcely turned her head. Hilditch paused at the further end of the room, where there were a couple of gun cases, some fishing rods and a bag, of golf clubs. From the latter he extracted a very ordinary-looking putter, and with it in his hands strolled back to them.

"Do you play golf, Ledsam?" he asked. "What do you think of that?"

Francis took the putter into his hand. It was a very ordinary club, which had apparently seen a good deal of service, so much, indeed, that the leather wrapping at the top was commencing to unroll. The maker's name was on the back of the blade, also the name of the professional from whom it had been purchased. Francis swung the implement mechanically with his wrists.

"There seems to be nothing extraordinary about the club," he pronounced. "It is very much like a cleek I putt with myself."

"Yet it contains a secret which would most certainly have hanged me," Oliver Hilditch declared pleasantly. "See!"

He held the shaft firmly in one hand and bent the blade away from it. In a moment or two it yielded and he commenced to unscrew it. A little exclamation escaped from Francis' lips. The woman looked on with tired eyes.

"The join in the steel," Hilditch pointed out, "is so fine as to be undistinguishable by the naked eye. Yet when the blade comes off, like this, you see that although the weight is absolutely adjusted, the inside is hollow. The dagger itself is encased in this cotton wool to avoid any rattling. I put it away in rather a hurry the last time I used it, and as you see I forgot to clean it."

Francis staggered back and gripped at the mantelpiece. His eyes were filled with horror. Very slowly, and with the air of one engaged upon some interesting task, Oliver Hilditch had removed the blood-stained sheath of cotton wool from around the thin blade of a marvellous-looking stiletto, on which was also a long stain of encrusted blood.

"There is a handle," he went on, "which is perhaps the most ingenious thing of all. You touch a spring here, and behold!"

He pressed down two tiny supports which opened upon hinges about four inches from the top of the handle. There was now a complete hilt.

"With this little weapon," he explained, "the point is so sharpened and the steel so wonderful that it is not necessary to stab. It has the perfection of a surgical instrument. You have only to lean it against a certain point in a man's anatomy, lunge ever so little and the whole thing is done. Come here, Mr. Ledsam, and I will show you the exact spot."

Francis made no movement. His eyes were fixed upon the weapon.

"If I had only known!" he muttered.

"My dear fellow, if you had," the other protested soothingly, "you know perfectly well that it would not have made the slightest difference. Perhaps that little break in your voice would not have come quite so naturally, the little sweep of your arm towards me, the man whom a moment's thoughtlessness might sweep into Eternity, would have been a little stiffer, but what matter? You would still have done your best and you would probably still have succeeded. You don't care about trifling with Eternity, eh? Very well, I will find the place for you."

Hilditch's fingers strayed along his shirt-front until he found a certain spot. Then he leaned the dagger against it, his forefinger and second finger pressed against the hilt. His eyes were fixed upon his guest's. He seemed genuinely interested. Francis, glancing away for a moment, was suddenly conscious of a new horror. The woman had leaned a little forward in her easy-chair until she had attained almost a crouching position. Her eyes seemed to be measuring the distance from where she sat to that quivering thread of steel.

"You see, Ledsam," his host went on, "that point driven now at that angle would go clean through the vital part of my heart. And it needs no force, either--just the slow pressure of these two fingers. What did you say, Margaret?" he enquired, breaking off abruptly.

The woman was seated upon the very edge of her chair, her eyes rivetted upon the dagger. There was no change in her face, not a tremor in her tone.

"I said nothing," she replied. "I did not speak at all. I was just watching."

Hilditch turned back to his guest.

"These two fingers," he repeated, "and a flick of the wrist --very little more than would be necessary for a thirty yard putt right across the green."

Francis had recovered himself, had found his bearings to a certain extent.

"I am sorry that you have told me this, Mr. Hilditch," he said, a little stiffly.

"Why?" was the puzzled reply. "I thought you would be interested."

"I am interested to this extent," Francis declared, "I shall accept no more cases such as yours unless I am convinced of my client's innocence. I look upon your confession to me as being in the worst possible taste, and I regret very much my efforts on your behalf."

The woman was listening intently. Hilditch's expression was one of cynical wonder. Francis rose to his feet and moved across to his hostess.

"Mrs. Hilditch," he said, "will you allow me to make my apologies? Your husband and I have arrived at an understanding --or perhaps I should say a misunderstanding--which renders the acceptance of any further hospitality on my part impossible."

She held out the tips of her fingers.

"I had no idea," she observed, with gentle sarcasm, "that you barristers were such purists morally. I thought you were rather proud of being the last hope of the criminal classes."

"Madam," Francis replied, "I am not proud of having saved the life of a self-confessed murderer, even though that man may be your husband."

Hilditch was laughing softly to himself as he escorted his departing guest to the door.

"You have a quaint sense of humour," Francis remarked.

"Forgive me," Oliver Hilditch begged, "but your last few words rather appealed to me. You must be a person of very scanty perceptions if you could spend the evening here and not understand that my death is the one thing in the world which would make my wife happy."

Francis walked home with these last words ringing in his ears. They seemed with him even in that brief period of troubled sleep which came to him when he had regained his rooms and turned in. They were there in the middle of the night when he was awakened, shivering, by the shrill summons of his telephone bell. He stood quaking before the instrument in his pajamas. It was the voice which, by reason of some ghastly premonition, he had dreaded to hear--level, composed, emotionless.

"Mr. Ledsam?" she enquired.

"I am Francis Ledsam," he assented. "Who wants me?"

"It is Margaret Hilditch speaking," she announced. "I felt that I must ring up and tell you of a very strange thing which happened after you left this evening."

"Go on," he begged hoarsely.

"After you left," she went on, "my husband persisted in playing with that curious dagger. He laid it against his heart, and seated himself in the chair which Mr. Jordan had occupied, in the same attitude. It was what he called a reconstruction. While he was holding it there, I think that he must have had a fit, or it may have been remorse, we shall never know. He called out and I hurried across the room to him. I tried to snatch the dagger away--I did so, in fact--but I must have been too late. He had already applied that slight movement of the fingers which was necessary. The doctor has just left. He says that death must have been instantaneous."

"But this is horrible!" Francis cried out into the well of darkness.

"A person is on the way from Scotland Yard," the voice continued, without change or tremor. "When he has satisfied himself, I am going to bed. He is here now. Good-night!"

Francis tried to speak again but his words beat against a wall of silence. He sat upon the edge of the bed, shivering. In that moment of agony he seemed to hear again the echo of Oliver Hilditch's mocking words:

"My death is the one thing in the world which would make my wife happy!"