He paused a moment, his head leaned down on his hands, which held on to the bars. I did not speak. His allusion to the ' tricky business' he had surprised the girl over was haunting my mind. How did it consort with my latent suspicion of a mystery somewhere?
'Hugh,' I said presently, 'you won't tell me what she was doing when you first---'
'No, I won't,' he interrupted me bluntly. 'Think what she became to me, and allow me a little decency. I've told you all that's necessary-more than I had ever intended to tell you when I promised you my confidence. I'm sorry for that, Viv. God knows if I had spoken to you at first it might have altered things. But I couldn't make up my mind while a chance existed-or I thought it did. She put me out of my last conceit that day, swearing she was going to expose the whole story. It was all true that I said.' She may have been waiting there on the chance of my passing: I swear I didn't know it. We had our few words, and I gave my promise and passed on. The evidence about the shot was a black he. I can say no more than that'.
I give his words, and leave them at that, making no comment and drawing no conclusions. If his admission as to his first emotion on learning of his release might repel some people, I can only plead that one man's psychology, hke one man's meat, may be impossible of digestion by another. I found it, I confess, hard to stomach myself; but then I had never been a spoilt and wayward only son.
We talked some little time longer on another matter, which had indeed been the main object of my visit-the nature of, and Counsel for, his defence. I had undertaken, at Sir Calvin's instance, to go to London and interview his lawyers on the subject, thus sparing the father the bitter trial of a preliminary explanation, and I told Hugo of my intention.
'What a good fellow you are, Viv.,' he said fondly. 'I don't deserve that you should take all this trouble about me'.
' If I can only appear to justify my own indecent persistence in remaining on to help,' I said stiffly, ' I shall feel satisfied'.
I could not forbear the little thrust: that wounding remark of his had never ceased to rankle in me.
'Well, I asked for it,' he said, with a flushed smile. ' But don't nurse a grudge any longer. I was hardly accountable for. what I said in those days : a man hardly is, you know, when he's on the rack'.
'O! I forgive you,' I answered. 'There's a virtue sometimes in pretending to a thick skin--- and we parted on good terms.
My journey to London was arranged for the morrow after the interview. I had one of my passages with Audrey before going. I don't know what particular prejudice it was the girl cherished against me, but she would never let us be friends. I saw scarcely anything of her in these days, and when we did meet she would hardly speak to me. I could have wished even to propitiate her, because it was plain enough to me how the poor thing was suffering. Her pride and her affections--both of which, I think, were really deep-seated--were cruelly involved in the disgrace befallen them. They found some little compensation, perhaps, in the improved relations estabhshed between her father and herself. Circumstances had brought these two into closer and more sympathetic kinship; it was as if they had discovered between them a father and a daughter; and so far poor Hugo's catastrophe had wrought good. But stiU the girl's loneliness of heart was an evident thing. Pathetically grateful .as she might be for the change in her father's attitude towards her, she could never get nearer to that despotic nature than its own limitations would permit.
'You are pining for your Baron, I suppose,' I said on this day, goaded at last to speak by her insufferable manner towards me. The taunt was effective, at least, in opening her mouth.
'You are always hinting unpleasant things about the Baron, Mr Bickerdike,' she answered, turning sharply on me. 'Don't you think it a little mean to be continually slandering him in that underhand way?'
I saw it was still to be battle, and prepared my guard.
'That is your perverse way of looking at it, Audrey,' I answered quietly. 'From my point of view, it is just trying to help my friends.'
'By maligning them to their enemies?' she answered. 'I suppose that was why you confided to Sergeant Ridgway all you knew about Hugh's affairs?'
It gave me a certain shock. I knew that she had read a full report of the proceedings, but not that she, or any one, had drawn such a cruel conclusion from it.
' Confided, is the word, Audrey,' I answered, with difficulty levelling my voice. 'I can't be held responsible for that breach of trust. Yes, thank you for that smile; but I know what was in my heart, and it was to help Hugh over a difficult place I foresaw for him. My weakness was in thinking other men as honourable as myself. But, anyhow, your stab is rather misplaced, since I wasn't " maligning," as you say, my friends to their enemies, but the other way about, as / see it'.
'Well, don't see it,' she said insolently. 'Perhaps -just consider it as possible--I may happen to know more about the Baron than you do'.
'O! I dare say he's been yarning to you,' I answered,' and quite plausibly enough to a credulous listener. But, if I were you, I wouldn't attach too much importance to what he tells you about himself. I'll say no more as to my own suspicions, though events have not modified them, I can assure you; but I will say that regard for your brother should at least incline you to go warily in a matter which may have a very strong bearing on his interests.'
She stood conning me a moment or two in silence.
'Please to be explicit,' she said then. 'Do you mean that you believe the Baron to be the real criminal?'
I positively jumped.
'Good Heavens!' I cried. 'Don't make me responsible for such wild* statements. I mean only that, in the face of your brother's awful situation, you should be scrupulously careful to do nothing which might seem to impair the efforts of those who are working to throw new light on it. I don't say the Baron is the guilty one, but it is possible your brother is not'.
'Is that all?' she cried. She stepped right up to me, so that our faces were near touching. 'Mr Vivian Bickerdike,' she said, 'Hugh did not commit that murder. I tell you, in case you do not know'.
'I never said he did,' I answered, involuntarily backing a little, her eyes were so pugnacious. ' How you persist in misreading me! I only want to be prepared against all contingencies'.
' Amongst which, I suppose, is the Baron's wicked attempt to exculpate himself to me, by encouraging my suspicions against Hughie?' She laughed, with a sort of defiant sob in her voice. 'I'll tell you what I truly think : that he is a better friend to my brother than you are; and I hope he'll come back soon; and, when he does, I shall go on listening to and believing in him, as I do think I believe in no one else. And in the meantime I'll tell you this for your comfort: he is really English, and really the Baron Le Sage. He takes his title from an estate in the Cevennes, which was left him by a maternal uncle; and he is very rich, and I dare say very eccentric in wanting to do good with his money; and that is enough for the present'.
'And he plays chess for half-crowns and steals private papers !' I cried to myself scornfully, as she turned and left me.
Poor foolish creature. It was no good my trying to convince her, and I gave up the attempt then and there.