“And the woman with him?” Wilmore exclaimed under his breath.
To reach their table, the one concerning which Francis and his friend had been speculating, the new arrivals, piloted by Louis, had to pass within a few feet of the two men. The woman, serene, coldly beautiful, dressed like a Frenchwoman in unrelieved black, with extraordinary attention to details, passed them by with a careless glance and subsided into the chair which Louis was holding. Her companion, however, as he recognised Francis hesitated. His expression of somewhat austere gloom was lightened. A pleasant but tentative smile parted his lips. He ventured upon a salutation, half a nod, half a more formal bow, a salutation which Francis instinctively returned. Andrew Wilmore looked on with curiosity.
“So that is Oliver Hilditch,” he murmured.
“That is the man,” Francis observed, “of whom last evening half the people in this restaurant were probably asking themselves whether or not he was guilty of murder. To-night they will be wondering what he is going to order for dinner. It is a strange world.”
“Strange indeed,” Wilmore assented. “This afternoon he was in the dock, with his fate in the balance—the condemned cell or a favoured table at Claridge’s. And your meeting! One can imagine him gripping your hands, with tears in his eyes, his voice broken with emotion, sobbing out his thanks. And instead you exchange polite bows. I would not have missed this situation for anything.”
“Tradesman!” Francis scoffed. “One can guess already at the plot of your next novel.”
“He has courage,” Wilmore declared. “He has also a very beautiful companion. Were you serious, Francis, when you told me that that was his wife?”
“She herself was my informant,” was the quiet reply.
Wilmore was puzzled.
“But she passed you just now without even a glance of recognition, and I thought you told me at the club this afternoon that all your knowledge of his evil ways came from her. Besides, she looks at least twenty years younger than he does.”
Francis, who had been watching his glass filled with champagne, raised it to his lips and drank its contents steadily to the last drop.
“I can only tell you what I know, Andrew,” he said, as he set down the empty glass. “The woman who is with him now is the woman who spoke to me outside the Old Bailey this afternoon. We went to a tea-shop together. She told me the story of his career. I have never listened to so horrible a recital in my life.”
“And yet they are here together, dining tete-a-tete, on a night when it must have needed more than ordinary courage for either of them to have been seen in public at all,” Wilmore pointed out.
“It is as astounding to me as it is to you,” Francis confessed. “From the way she spoke, I should never have dreamed that they were living together.”