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!”
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 Brancaster and 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.”