The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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Sir Timothy walked that evening amongst the shadows. Two hours ago, the last of the workmen from the great furnishing and catering establishments who undertook the management of his famous entertainments, had ceased work for the day and driven off in the motor-brakes hired to take them to the nearest town. The long, low wing whose use no one was able absolutely to divine, was still full of animation, but the great receptionrooms and stately hall were silent and empty. In the gymnasium, an enormous apartment as large as an ordinary concert hall, two or three electricians were still at work, directed by the man who had accompanied Sir Timothy to the East End on the night before. The former crossed the room, his footsteps awaking strange echoes.
"There will be seating for fifty, sir, and standing room for fifty," he announced. "I have had the ring slightly enlarged, as you suggested, and the lighting is being altered so that the start is exactly north and south."
Sir Timothy nodded thoughtfully. The beautiful oak floor of the place was littered with sawdust and shavings of wood. Several tiers of seats had been arranged on the space usually occupied by swings, punching-balls and other artifices. On a slightly raised dais at the further end was an exact replica of a ring, corded around and with sawdust upon the floor. Upon the walls hung a marvellous collection of weapons of every description, from the modern rifle to the curved and terrible knife used by the most savage of known tribes.
"How are things in the quarters?" Sir Timothy asked.
"Every one is well, sir. Doctor Ballantyne arrived this afternoon. His report is excellent."
Sir Timothy nodded and turned away. He looked into the great gallery, its waxen floors shining with polish, ready for the feet of the dancers on the morrow; looked into a beautiful concert-room, with an organ that reached to the roof; glanced into the banquetting hall, which extended far into the winter-garden; made his way up the broad stairs, turned down a little corridor, unlocked a door and passed into his own suite. There was a small dining-room, a library, a bedroom, and a bathroom fitted with every sort of device. A man-servant who had heard him enter, hurried from his own apartment across the way.
"You are not dining here, sir? "he enquired.
Sir Timothy shook his head.
"No, I am dining late at The Sanctuary," he replied. "I just strolled over to see how the preparations were going on. I shall be sleeping over there, too. Any prowlers?" "Photographer brought some steps and photographed the horses in the park from the top of the wall this afternoon, sir," the man announced. "Jenkins let him go. Two or three pressmen sent in their cards to you, but they were not allowed to pass the lodge."
Sir Timothy nodded. Soon he left the house and crossed the park towards The Sanctuary. He was followed all the way by horses, of which there were more than thirty in the great enclosure. One mare greeted him with a neigh of welcome and plodded slowly after him. Another pressed her nose against his shoulder and walked by his side, with his hand upon her neck. Sir Timothy looked a little nervously around, but the park itself lay almost like a deep green pool, unobserved, and invisible from anywhere except the house itself. He spoke a few words to each of the horses, and, producing his key, passed through the door in the wall into The Sanctuary garden, closing it quickly as he recognised Francis standing under the cedar-tree.
"Has Lady Cynthia arrived yet?" he enquired.
"Not yet," Francis replied. "Margaret will be here in a minute. She told me to say that cocktails are here and that she has ordered dinner served on the terrace."
"Excellent!" Sir Timothy murmured. "Let me try one of your cigarettes."
"Everything ready for the great show to-morrow night?" Francis asked, as he served the cocktails.
"Everything is in order. I wonder, really," Sir Timothy went on, looking at Francis curiously, "what you expect to see?"
"I don't think we any of us have any definite idea," Francis replied. "We have all, of course, made our guesses."
"You will probably be disappointed," Sir Timothy warned him. "For some reason or other--perhaps I have encouraged the idea --people look upon my parties as mysterious orgies where things take place which may not be spoken of. They are right to some extent. I break the law, without a doubt, but I break it, I am afraid, in rather a disappointing fashion."
A limousine covered in dust raced in at the open gates and came to a standstill with a grinding of brakes. Lady Cynthia stepped lightly out and came across the lawn to them.
"I am hot and dusty and I was disagreeable," she confided, "but the peace of this wonderful place, and the sight of that beautiful silver thing have cheered me. May I have a cocktail before I go up to change? I am a little late, I know," she went. on, "but that wretched garden-party! I thought my turn would never come to receive my few words. Mother would have been broken-hearted if I had left without them. What slaves we are to royalty! Now shall I hurry and change? You men have the air of wanting your dinner, and I am rather that way myself. You look tired, dear host," she added, a little hesitatingly. "The heat," he answered.
"Why you ever leave this spot I can't imagine," she declared, as she turned away, with a lingering glance around. "It seems like Paradise to come here and breathe this air. London is like a furnace."
The two men were alone again. In Francis' pocket were the two documents, which he had not yet made up his mind how to use. Margaret came out to them presently, and he strolled away with her towards the rose garden.
"Margaret," he said, "is it my fancy or has there been a change in your father during the last few days?"
"There is a change of some sort," she admitted. "I cannot describe it. I only know it is there. He seems much more thoughtful and less hard. The change would be an improvement," she went on, "except that somehow or other it makes me feel uneasy. It is as though he were grappling with some crisis."
They came to a standstill at the end of the pergola, where the masses of drooping roses made the air almost faint with their perfume. Margaret stretched out her hand, plucked a handful of the creamy petals and held them against her cheek. A thrush was singing noisily. A few yards away they heard the soft swish of the river.
"Tell me," she asked curiously, "my father still speaks of you as being in some respects an enemy. What does he mean?"
"I will tell you exactly," he answered. "The first time I ever spoke to your father I was dining at Soto's. I was talking to Andrew Wilmore. It was only a short time after you had told me the story of Oliver Hilditch, a story which made me realise the horror of spending one's life keeping men like that out of the clutch of the law."
"Go on, please," she begged.
"Well, I was talking to Andrew. I told him that in future I should accept no case unless I not only believed in but was convinced of the innocence of my client. I added that I was at war with crime. I think, perhaps, I was so deeply in earnest that I may have sounded a little flamboyant. At any rate, your father, who had overheard me, moved up to our table. I think he deduced from what I was saying that I was going to turn into a sort of amateur crime-investigator, a person who I gathered later was particularly obnoxious to him. At any rate, he held out a challenge. 'If you are a man who hates crime,' he said, or something like it, 'I am one who loves it.' He then went on to prophesy that a crime would be committed close to where we were, within an hour or so, and he challenged me to discover the assassin. That night Victor Bidlake was murdered just outside Soto's." "I remember! Do you mean to tell me, then," Margaret went on, with a little shiver, "that father told you this was going to happen?"
"He certainly did," Francis replied. "How his knowledge came I am not sure--yet. But he certainly knew."
"Have you anything else against him?" she asked.
"There was the disappearance of Andrew Wilmore's younger brother, Reginald Wilmore. I have no right to connect your father with that, but Shopland, the Scotland Yard detective, who has charge of the case, seems to believe that the young man was brought into this neighbourhood, and some other indirect evidence which came into my hands does seem to point towards your father being concerned in the matter. I appealed to him at once but he only laughed at me. That matter, too, remains a mystery."
Margaret was thoughtful for a moment. Then she turned towards the house. They heard the soft ringing of the gong.
"Will you believe me when I tell you this?" she begged, as they passed arm in arm down the pergola. "I am terrified of my father, though in many ways he is almost princely in his generosity and in the broad view he takes of things. Then his kindness to all dumb animals, and the way they love him, is the most amazing thing I ever knew. If we were alone here to-night, every animal in the house would be around his chair. He has even the cats locked up if we have visitors, so that no one shall see it. But I am quite honest when I tell you this--I do not believe that my father has the ordinary outlook upon crime. I believe that there is a good deal more of the Old Testament about him than the New."
"And this change which we were speaking about?" he asked, lowering his voice as they reached the lawn.
"I believe that somehow or other the end is coming," she said. "Francis, forgive me if I tell you this--or rather let me be forgiven--but I know of one crime my father has committed, and it makes me fear that there may be others. And I have the feeling, somehow, that the end is close at hand and that he feels it, just as we might feel a thunder-storm in the air."
"I am going to prove the immemorial selfishness of my sex," he whispered, as they drew near the little table. "Promise me one thing and I don't care if your father is Beelzebub himself. Promise me that, whatever happens, it shall not make any difference to us?"
She smiled at him very wonderfully, a smile which had to take the place of words, for there were servants now within hearing, and Sir Timothy himself was standing in the doorway.