Chapter VII
 

There was a good deal of speculation at the Sheridan Club, of which he was a popular and much envied member, as to the cause for the complete disappearance from their midst of Francis Ledsam since the culmination of the Hilditch tragedy.

"Sent back four topping briefs, to my knowledge, last week," one of the legal luminaries of the place announced to a little group of friends and fellow-members over a before-dinner cocktail.

"Griggs offered him the defence of William Bull, the Chippenham murderer, and he refused it," another remarked. "Griggs wrote him personally, and the reply came from the Brancaster Golf Club! It isn't like Ledsam to be taking golfing holidays in the middle of the session."

"There's nothing wrong with Ledsam," declared a gruff voice from the corner. "And don't gossip, you fellows, at the top of your voices like a lot of old women. He'll be calling here for me in a moment or two."

They all looked around. Andrew Wilmore rose slowly to his feet and emerged from behind the sheets of an evening paper. He laid his hand upon the shoulder of a friend, and glanced towards the door.

"Ledsam's had a touch of, nerves," he confided. "There's been nothing else the matter with him. We've been down at the Dormy House at Brancasterand he's as right as a trivet now. That Hilditch affair did him in completely."

"I don't see why," one of the bystanders observed. "He got Hilditch off all right. One of the finest addresses to a jury I ever heard."

That's just the point," Wilmore explained "You see, Ledsam had no idea that Hilditch was really guilty, and for two hours that afternoon he literally fought for his life, and in the end wrested a verdict from the jury, against the judge's summing up, by sheer magnetism or eloquence or whatever you fellows like to call it. The very night after, Hilditch confesses his guilt and commits suicide."

"I still don't see where Ledsam's worry comes in," the legal luminary remarked. "The fact that the man was guilty is rather a feather in the cap of his counsel. Shows how jolly good his pleading must have been."

"Just so," Wilmore agreed, "but Ledsam, as you know, is a very conscientious sort of fellow, and very sensitive, too. The whole thing was a shock to him."

"It must have been a queer experience," a novelist remarked from the outskirts of the group, "to dine with a man whose life you have juggled away from the law, and then have him explain his crime to you, and the exact manner of its accomplishment. Seems to bring one amongst the goats, somehow."

"Bit of a shock, no doubt," the lawyer assented, "but I still don't understand Ledsam's sending back all his briefs. He's not going to chuck the profession, is he?"

"Not by any means," Wilmore declared. "I think he has an idea, though, that he doesn't want to accept any briefs unless he is convinced that the person whom he has to represent is innocent, and lawyers don't like that sort of thing, you know. You can't pick and choose, even when you have Leadsam's gifts."

"The fact of it is," the novelist commented, "Francis Ledsam isn't callous enough to be associated with you money-grubbing dispensers of the law. He'd be all right as Public Prosecutor, a sort of Sir Galahad waving the banner of virtue, but he hates to stuff his pockets at the expense of the criminal classes."

"Who the mischief are the criminal classes?" a police court magistrate demanded. "Personally, I call war profiteering criminal, I call a good many Stock Exchange deals criminal, and," he added, turning to a member of the committee who was hovering in the background, "I call it criminal to expect. us to drink French vermouth like this."

"There is another point of view," the latter retorted. "I call it a crime to expect a body of intelligent men to administer without emolument to the greed of such a crowd of rotters. You'll get the right stuff next week."

The hall-porter approached and addressed Wilmore.

"Mr. Ledsam is outside in a taxi, sir," he announced.

"Outside in a taxi?" the lawyer repeated. "Why on earth can't he come in?"

"I never heard such rot," another declared. "Let's go and rope him in."

"Mr. Ledsam desired me to say, sir," the hall porter continued, "to any of his friends who might be here, that he will be in to lunch to-morrow."

"Leave him to me till then," Wilmore begged. "He'll be all right directly. He's simply altering his bearings and taking his time about it. If he's promised to lunch here to-morrow, he will. He's as near as possible through the wood. Coming up in the train, he suggested a little conversation to-night and afterwards the normal life. He means it, too. There's nothing neurotic about Ledsam."

The magistrate nodded.

"Run along, then, my merry Andrew," he said, "but see that Ledsam keeps his word about to-morrow."

Andrew Wilmore plunged boldly into the forbidden subject later on that evening, as the two men sat side by side at one of the wall tables in Soto's famous club restaurant. They had consumed an excellent dinner. An empty champagne bottle had just been removed, double liqueur brandies had taken its place. Francis, with an air of complete and even exuberant humanity, had lit a huge cigar. The moment seemed propitious.

"Francis," his friend began, "they say at the club that you refused to be briefed in the Chippenham affair."

"Quite true," was the calm reply. "I told Griggs that I wouldn't have anything to do with it."

Wilmore knew then that all was well. Francis' old air of strength and decision had returned. His voice was firm, his eyes were clear and bright. His manner seemed even to invite questioning.

"I think I know why," Wilmore said, "but I should like you to tell me in your own words."

Francis glanced around as though to be sure that they were not overheard.

"Because," he replied, dropping his voice a little but still speaking with great distinctness, "William Bull is a cunning and dangerous criminal whom I should prefer to see hanged."

"You know that?"

"I know that."

"It would be a great achievement to get him off," Wilmore persisted. "The evidence is very weak in places."

"I believe that I could get him off," was the confident reply. "That is why I will not touch the brief. I think," Francis continued, "that I have already conveyed it to you indirectly, but here you are in plain words, Andrew. I have made up my mind that I will defend no man in future unless I am convinced of his innocence."

"That means--"

"It means practically the end of my career at the bar," Francis admitted. "I realise that absolutely: Fortunately, as you know, I am not dependent upon my earnings, and I have had a wonderful ten years."

"This is all because of the Hilditch affair, I suppose?"

"Entirely."

Wilmore was still a little puzzled.

"You seem to imagine that you have something on your conscience as regards that business," he said boldly.

"I have," was the calm reply.

"Come," Wilmore protested, "I don't quite follow your line of thought. Granted that Hilditch was a desperate criminal whom by the exercise of your special gifts you saved from the law, surely his tragic death balanced the account between you and Society?"

"It might have done," Francis admitted, "if he had really committed suicide."

Wilmore was genuinely startled. He looked at his companion curiously.

"What the devil do you mean, old chap?" he demanded. "Your own evidence at the inquest was practically conclusive as to that."

Francis glanced around him with apparent indifference but in reality with keen and stealthy care. On their right was a glass division, through which the sound of their voices could not possibly penetrate. On their left was an empty space, and a table beyond was occupied by a well-known cinema magnate engaged in testing the attractions in daily life of a would-be film star. Nevertheless, Francis' voice was scarcely raised above a whisper.

"My evidence at the coroner's inquest," he confided, "was a subtly concocted tissue of lies. I committed perjury freely. That is the real reason why I've been a little on the nervy side lately, and why I took these few months out of harness."

"Good God!" Wilmore exclaimed, setting down untasted the glass of brandy which be had just raised to his lips.

"I want to finish this matter up," Francis continued calmly, "by making a clean breast of it to you, because from to-night I am starting afresh, with new interests in my life, what will practically amount to a new career. That is why I preferred not to dine at the club to-night, although I am looking forward to seeing them all again. I wanted instead to have this conversation with you. I lied at the inquest when I said that the relations between Oliver Hilditch and his wife that night seemed perfectly normal. I lied when I said that I knew of no cause for ill-will between them. I lied when I said that I left them on friendly terms. I lied when I said that Oliver Hilditch seemed depressed and nervous. I lied when I said that he expressed the deepest remorse for what he had done. There was every indication that night, of the hate which I happen to know existed between the woman and the man. I have not the faintest doubt in my mind but that she murdered him. In my judgment, she was perfectly justified in doing so."

There followed a brief but enforced silence as some late arrivals passed their table. The room was well-ventilated but Andrew Wilmore felt suddenly hot and choking. A woman, one of the little group of newcomers, glanced towards Francis curiously.

"Francis Ledsam, the criminal barrister," her companion whispered,--" the man who got Oliver Hilditch off. The man with him is Andrew Wilmore, the novelist. Discussing a case, I expect."