Oliver Hilditch, standing by, remained speechless. It seemed for a moment as though his self-control were subjected to a severe strain.
“I had the good fortune,” he interposed, in a low tone, “to be wonderfully defended. Mr. Ledsam here—”
He glanced around. Francis, with some idea of what was coming, obeyed an imaginary summons from the head-porter, touched Andrew Wilmore upon the shoulder, and hastened without a backward glance through the swing-doors. Wilmore turned up his coat-collar and looked doubtfully up at the rain.
“I say, old chap,” he protested, “you don’t really mean to walk?”
Francis thrust his hand through his friend’s arm and wheeled him round into Davies Street.
“I don’t care what the mischief we do, Andrew,” he confided, “but couldn’t you see what was going to happen? Oliver Hilditch was going to introduce me as his preserver to the man who had just arrived!”
“Are you afflicted with modesty, all of a sudden?” Wilmore grumbled.
“No, remorse,” was the terse reply.
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.”