Chapter VIII
 

The little party of late diners passed on their way to the further end of the room, leaving a wave of artificiality behind, or was it, Andrew Wilmore wondered, in a moment of half-dazed speculation, that it was they and the rest of the gay company who represented the real things, and he and his companion who were playing a sombre part in some unreal and gloomier world. Francis' voice, however, when he recommenced his diatribe, was calm and matter-of-fact enough.

"You see," he continued, argumentatively, "I was morally and actually responsible for the man's being brought back into Society. And far worse than that, I was responsible for his being thrust back again upon his wife. Ergo, I was also responsible for what she did that night. The matter seems as plain as a pikestaff to me. I did what I could to atone, rightly or wrongly it doesn't matter, because it is over and done with. There you are, old fellow, now you know what's been making me nervy. I've committed wholesale perjury, but I acted according to my conscience and I think according to justice. The thing has worried me, I admit, but it has passed, and I'm glad it's off my chest. One more liqueur, Andrew, and if you want to we'll talk about my plans for the future."

The brandy was brought. Wilmore studied his friend curiously, not without some relief. Francis had lost the harassed and nervous appearance upon which his club friends had commented, which had been noticeable, even, to a diminishing extent, upon the golf course at Brancaster. He was alert and eager. He had the air of a man upon the threshold of some enterprise dear to his heart.

"I have been through a queer experience," Francis continued presently, as he sipped his second liqueur. "Not only had I rather less than twelve hours to make up my mind whether I should commit a serious offence against the law, but a sensation which I always hoped that I might experience, has come to me in what I suppose I must call most unfortunate fashion."

"The woman?" Wilmore ventured.

Francis assented gloomily. There was a moment's silence. Wilmore, the metaphysician, saw then a strange thing. He saw a light steal across his friend's stern face. He saw his eyes for a moment soften, the hard mouth relax, something incredible, transforming, shine, as it were, out of the man's soul in that moment of self-revelation. It was gone like the momentary passing of a strange gleam of sunshine across a leaden sea, but those few seconds were sufficient. Wilmore knew well enough what had happened.

"Oliver Hilditch's wife," Francis went on, after a few minutes' pause, "presents an enigma which at present I cannot hope to solve. The fact that she received her husband back again, knowing what he was and what he was capable of, is inexplicable to me. The woman herself is a mystery. I do not know what lies behind her extraordinary immobility. Feeling she must have, and courage, or she would never have dared to have ridded herself of the scourge of her life. But beyond that my judgment tells me nothing. I only know that sooner or later I shall seek her out. I shall discover all that I want to know, one way or the other. It may be for happiness--it may be the end of the things that count."

"I guessed this," Wilmore admitted, with a little shiver which he was wholly unable to repress.

Francis nodded.

"Then keep it to yourself, my dear fellow," he begged, "like everything else I am telling you tonight. I have come out of my experience changed in many ways," he continued, "but, leaving out that one secret chapter, this is the dominant factor which looms up before me. I bring into life a new aversion, almost a passion, Andrew, born in a tea-shop in the city, and ministered to by all that has happened since. I have lost that sort of indifference which my profession engenders towards crime. I am at war with the criminal, sometimes, I hope, in the Courts of Justice, but forever out of them. I am no longer indifferent as to whether men do good or evil so long as they do not cross my path. I am a hunter of sin. I am out to destroy. There's a touch of melodrama in this for you, Andrew," he concluded, with a little laugh, "but, my God, I'm in earnest!"

"What does this mean so far as regards the routine of your daily life?" Wilmore asked curiously.

"Well, it brings us to the point we discussed down at Brancaster," Francis replied. "It will affect my work to this extent. I shall not accept any brief unless, after reading the evidence, I feel convinced that the accused is innocent."

"That's all very well," Wilmore observed, "but you know what it will mean, don't you? Lawyers aren't likely to single you out for a brief without ever feeling sure whether you will accept it or not."

"That doesn't worry me," Francis declared. "I don't need the fees, fortunately, and I can always pick up enough work to keep me going by attending Sessions. One thing I can promise you--I certainly shall not sit in my rooms and wait for things to happen. Mine is a militant spirit and it needs the outlet of action."

"Action, yes, but how?" Wilmore queried. "You can't be always hanging about the courts, waiting for the chance of defending some poor devil who's been wrongfully accused--there aren't enough of them, for one thing. On the other hand, you can't walk down Regent Street, brandishing a two-edged sword and hunting for pickpockets."

Francis smiled.

"Nothing so flamboyant, I can assure you, Andrew," he replied; "nor shall I play the amateur detective with his mouth open for mysteries. But listen," he went on earnestly. "I've had some experience, as you know, and, notwithstanding the Oliver Hilditch's of the world, I can generally tell a criminal when I meet him face to face. There are plenty of them about, too, Andrew--as many in this place as any other. I am not going to be content with a negative position as regards evildoers. I am going to set my heel on as many of the human vermin of this city as I can find."

"A laudable, a most exhilarating and delightful pursuit! `human vermin,' too, is excellent. It opens up a new and fascinating vista for the modern sportsman. My congratulations!"

It was an interruption of peculiar and wonderful significance, but Francis did not for the moment appreciate the fact. Turning his head, he simply saw a complete stranger seated unaccountably at the next table, who had butted into a private conversation and whose tone of gentle sarcasm, therefore, was the more offensive.

"Who the devil are you, sir," he demanded, "and where did you come from?"

The newcomer showed no resentment at Francis' little outburst. He simply smiled with deprecating amiability--a tall, spare man, with lean, hard face, complexion almost unnaturally white; black hair, plentifully besprinkled with grey; a thin, cynical mouth, notwithstanding its distinctly humourous curve, and keen, almost brilliant dark eyes. He was dressed in ordinary dinner garb; his linen and jewellery was indeed in the best possible taste. Francis, at his second glance, was troubled with a vague sense of familiarity.

"Let me answer your last question first, sir," the intruder begged. "I was seated alone, several tables away, when the couple next to you went out, and having had pointed out to me the other evening at Claridge's Hotel, and knowing well by repute, the great barrister, Mr. Francis Ledsam, and his friend the world-famed novelist, Mr. Andrew Wilmore, I--er--unobtrusively made my way, half a yard at a time, in your direction--and here I am. I came stealthily, you may object? Without a doubt. If I had come in any other fashion, I should have disturbed a conversation in which I was much interested."

"Could you find it convenient," Francis asked, with icy politeness, "to return to your own table, stealthily or not, as you choose?"

The newcomer showed no signs of moving.

"In after years," he declared, "you would be the first to regret the fact if I did so. This is a momentous meeting. It gives me an opportunity of expressing my deep gratitude to you, Mr. Ledsam, for the wonderful evidence you tendered at the inquest upon the body of my son-in-law, Oliver Hilditch."

Francis turned in his place and looked steadily at this unsought-for companion, learning nothing, however, from the half-mocking smile and imperturbable expression.

"Your son-in-law?" he repeated. "Do you mean to say that you are the father of--of Oliver Hilditch's wife?"

"Widow," the other corrected gently. "I have that honour. You will understand, therefore, that I feel myself on this, the first opportunity, compelled to tender my sincere thanks for evidence so chivalrously offered, so flawlessly truthful."

Francis was a man accustomed to self-control, but he clenched his hands so that his finger nails dug into his flesh. He was filled with an insane and unreasoning resentment against this man whose words were biting into his conscience. Nevertheless, he kept his tone level.

"I do not desire your gratitude," he said, "nor, if you will permit me to say so, your further acquaintance."

The stranger shook his head regretfully.

"You are wrong," he protested. "We were bound, in any case, to know one another. Shall I tell you why? You have just declared yourself anxious to set your heel upon the criminals of the world. I have the distinction of being perhaps the most famous patron of that maligned class now living--and my neck is at your service."

"You appear to me," Francis said suavely, "to be a buffoon."

It might have been fancy, but Francis could have sworn that he saw the glitter of a sovereign malevolence in the other's dark eyes. If so, it was but a passing weakness, for a moment later the half good-natured, half cynical smile was back again upon the man's lips.

"If so, I am at least a buffoon of parts," was the prompt rejoinder. "I will, if you choose, prove myself."

There was a moment's silence. Wilmore was leaning forward in his place, studying the newcomer earnestly. An impatient invective was somehow stifled upon Francis' lips.

"Within a few yards of this place, sometime before the closing hour to-night," the intruder continued, earnestly yet with a curious absence of any human quality in his hard tone, "there will be a disturbance, and probably what you would call a crime will be committed. Will you use your vaunted gifts to hunt down the desperate criminal, and, in your own picturesque phraseology, set your heel upon his neck? Success may bring you fame, and the trail may lead--well, who knows where?"

Afterwards, both Francis and Andrew Wilmore marvelled at themselves, unable at any time to find any reasonable explanation of their conduct, for they answered this man neither with ridicule, rudeness nor civility. They simply stared at him, impressed with the convincing arrogance of his challenge and unable to find words of reply. They received his mocking farewell without any form of reciprocation or sign of resentment. They watched him leave the room, a dignified, distinguished figure, sped on his way with marks of the deepest respect by waiters, maitres d'hotels and even the manager himself. They behaved, indeed, as they both admitted afterwards, like a couple of moonstruck idiots. When he had finally disappeared, however, they looked at one another and the spell was broken.

"Well, I'm damned!" Francis exclaimed. "Soto, come here at once."

The manager hastened smilingly to their table.

"Soto," Francis invoked, "tell us quickly--tell us the name of the gentleman who has just gone out, and who he is?"

Soto was amazed.

"You don't know Sir Timothy Brast, sir?" he exclaimed. "Why, he is supposed to be one of the richest men in the world! He spends money like water. They say that when he is in England, his place down the river alone costs a thousand pounds a week. When he gives a party here, we can find nothing good enough. He is our most generous client."

"Sir Timothy Brast," Wilmore repeated. "Yes, I have heard of him."

"Why, everybody knows Sir Timothy," Soto went on eloquently. "He is the greatest living patron of boxing. He found the money for the last international fight."

"Does he often come in alone like this?" Francis asked curiously.

"Either alone," Soto replied, "or with a very large party. He entertains magnificently."

"I've seen his name in the paper in connection with something or other, during the last few weeks," Wilmore remarked reflectively.

"Probably about two months ago, sir," Soto suggested. "He gave a donation of ten thousand pounds to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and they made him a Vice President.... In one moment, sir."

The manager hurried away to receive a newly-arrived guest. Francis and his friend exchanged a wondering glance.

"Father of Oliver Hilditch's wife," Wilmore observed, "the most munificent patron of boxing in the world, Vice President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and self-confessed arch-criminal! He pulled our legs pretty well!"

"I suppose so," Francis assented absently.

Wilmore glanced at his watch.

"What about moving on somewhere?" he suggested. "We might go into the Alhambra for half-an-hour, if you like. The last act of the show is the best."

Francis shook his head.

"We've got to see this thing out," he replied. "Have you forgotten that our friend promised us a sensation before we left?"

Wilmore began to laugh a little derisively. Then, suddenly aware of some lack of sympathy between himself and his friend, he broke off and glanced curiously at the latter.

"You're not taking him seriously, are you?" he enquired.

Francis nodded.

"Certainly I am," he confessed.

"You don't believe that he was getting at us?"

"Not for a moment."

"You believe that something is going to happen here in this place, or quite close?"

"I am convinced of it," was the calm reply.

Wilmore was silent. For a moment he was troubled with his old fears as to his friend's condition. A glance, however, at Francis' set face and equable, watchful air, reassured him.

"We must see the thing through, of course, then," he assented. "Let us see if we can spot the actors in the coming drama."