Chapter IX

It happened that the two men, waiting in the vestibule of the restaurant for Francis' car to crawl up to the entrance through the fog which had unexpectedly rolled up, heard the slight altercation which was afterwards referred to as preceding the tragedy. The two young people concerned were standing only a few feet away, the girl pretty, a little peevish, an ordinary type; her companion, whose boyish features were marred with dissipation, a very passable example of the young man about town going a little beyond his tether.

"It's no good standing here, Victor!" the girl exclaimed, frowning. "The commissionaire's been gone ages already, and there are two others before us for taxis."

"We can't walk," her escort replied gloomily. "It's a foul night. Nothing to do but wait, what? Let's go back and have another drink."

The girl stamped her satin-shod foot impatiently.

"Don't be silly," she expostulated. "You know I promised Clara we'd be there early."

"All very well," the young man grumbled, "but what can we do? We shall have to wait our turn."

"Why can't you slip out and look for a taxi yourself?" she suggested. "Do, Victor," she added, squeezing his arm. "You're so clever at picking them up:"

He made a little grimace, but lit a cigarette and turned up his coat collar.

"I'll do my best" he promised. "Don't go on without me."

"Try up towards Charing Cross Road, not the other way," she advised earnestly.

"Right-oh!" he replied, which illuminative form of assent, a word spoken as he plunged unwillingly into the thick obscurity on the other side of the revolving doors, was probably the last he ever uttered on earth.

Left alone, the girl began to shiver, as though suddenly cold. She turned around and glanced hurriedly back into the restaurant. At that moment she met the steady, questioning scrutiny of Francis' eyes. She stood as though transfixed. Then came the sound which every one talked of for months afterwards, the sound which no one who heard it ever forgot--the death cry of Victor Bidlake, followed a second afterwards by a muffled report. A strain of frenzied surprise seemed mingled with the horror. Afterwards, silence.

There was the sound of some commotion outside, the sound of hurried footsteps and agitated voices. Then a terrible little procession appeared. Something--it seemed to be a shapeless heap of clothes--was carried in and laid upon the floor, in the little space between the revolving doors and the inner entrance. Two blue-liveried attendants kept back the horrified but curious crowd. Francis, vaguely recognised as being somehow or other connected with the law, was one of the few people allowed to remain whilst a doctor, fetched out from the dancing-room, kneeled over the prostrate form. He felt that he knew beforehand the horrible verdict which the latter whispered in his ear after his brief examination.

"Quite dead! A ghastly business!"

Francis gazed at the hole in the shirt-front, disfigured also by a scorching stain.

"A bullet?" he asked.

The doctor nodded.

"Fired within a foot of the poor fellow's heart," he whispered. "The murderer wasn't taking any chances, whoever he was."

"Have the police been sent for?"

The head-porter stepped forward.

"There was a policeman within a few yards of the spot, sir," he replied. "He's gone down to keep every one away from the place where we found the body. We've telephoned to Scotland Yard for an inspector."

The doctor rose to his feet.

"Nothing more can be done," he pronounced. "Keep the people out of here whilst I go and fetch my hat and coat. Afterwards, I'll take the body to the mortuary when the ambulance arrives."

An attendant pushed his way through the crowd of people on the inner side of the door.

"Miss Daisy Hyslop, young lady who was with Mr. Bidlake, has just fainted in the ladies' room, sir," he announced. "Could you come?"

"I'll be there immediately," the doctor promised.

The rest of the proceedings followed a normal course. The police arrived, took various notes, the ambulance followed a little later, the body was removed, and the little crowd of guests, still infected with a sort of awed excitement, were allowed to take their leave. Francis and Wilmore drove almost in silence to the former's rooms in Clarges Street.

"Come up and have a drink, Andrew," Francis invited.

"I need it," was the half-choked response.

Francis led the way in silence up the two flights of stairs into his sitting-room, mixed whiskies and sodas from the decanter and syphon which stood upon the sideboard, and motioned his friend to an easy-chair. Then he gave form to the thought which had been haunting them both.

"What about our friend Sir Timothy Brast?" he enquired. "Do you believe now that he was pulling our legs?"

Wilmore dabbed his forehead with his handkerchief. It was a chilly evening, but there were drops of perspiration still standing there.

"Francis," he confessed, "it's horrible! I don't think realism like this attracts me. It's horrible! What are we going to do?"

"Nothing for the present," was the brief reply. "If we were to tell our story, we should only be laughed at. What there is to be done falls to my lot."

"Had the police anything to say about it?" Wilmore asked.

"Only a few words," Francis replied. "Shopland has it in hand. A good man but unimaginative. I've come across him in one or two cases lately. You'll find a little bit like this in the papers to-morrow: 'The murder is believed to have been committed by one of the gang of desperadoes who have infested the west-end during the last few months.' You remember the assault in the Albany Court Yard, and the sandbagging in Shepherd Market only last week?"

"That seems to let Sir Timothy out," Wilmore remarked.

"There are many motives for crime besides robbery," Francis declared. "Don't be afraid, Andrew, that I am going to turn amateur detective and make the unravelment of this case all the more difficult for Scotland Yard. If I interfere, it will be on a certainty. Andrew, don't think I'm mad but I've taken up the challenge our great philanthropist flung at me to-night. I've very little interest in who killed this boy Victor Bidlake, or why, but I'm convinced of one thing--Brast knew about it, and if he is posing as a patron of crime on a great scale, sooner or later I shall get him. He may think himself safe, and he may have the courage of Beelzebub--he seems rather that type--but if my presentiment about him--comes true, his number's up. I can almost divine the meaning of his breaking in upon our conversation to-night. He needs an enemy--he is thirsting for danger. He has found it!"

Wilmore filled his pipe thoughtfully. At the first whiff of tobacco he began to feel more normal.

"After all, Francis," he said, "aren't we a little overstrung to-night? Sir Timothy Brast is no adventurer. He is a prince in the city, a persona grata wherever he chooses to go. He isn't a hanger-on in Society. He isn't even dependent upon Bohemia for his entertainment. You can't seriously imagine that a man with his possessions is likely to risk his life and liberty in becoming the inspiration of a band of cutthroats?"

Francis smiled. He, too, had lit his pipe and had thrown himself into his favourite chair. He smiled confidently across at his friend.

"A millionaire with brains," he argued, "is just the one person in the world likely to weary of all ordinary forms of diversion. I begin to remember things about him already. Haven't you heard about his wonderful parties down at The Walled House?"

Wilmore struck the table by his side with his clenched fist.

"By George, that's it!" he exclaimed. "Who hasn't!"

"I remember Baker talking about one last year," Francis continued, "never any details, but all kinds of mysterious hints --a sort of mixture between a Roman orgy and a chapter from the 'Arabian Nights'--singers from Petrograd, dancers from Africa and fighting men from Chicago."

"The fellow's magnificent, at any rate," Wilmore remarked.

His host smoked furiously for a moment.

"That's the worst of these multi-millionaires," he declared. "They think they can rule the world, traffic in human souls, buy morals, mock at the law. We shall see!"

"Do you know the thing that I found most interesting about him?" Wilmore asked.

"His black opals," the other suggested. "You're by the way of being a collector, aren't you?"

Wilmore shook his head.

"The fact that he is the father of Oliver Hilditch's widow."

Francis sat quite still for a moment. There was a complete change in his expression. He looked like a man who has received a shock.

"I forgot that," he muttered.