It was the collapse of my life. I will own to it fairly, and save my credit at least for a sense of humour. To think that all this time I had been building such a structure on such a foundation ! I was bitterly mortified, bitterly humbled; but I trust that I did the gentlemanly thing in at once accepting Sir Calvin's advice. I went straight up to the Baron and apologized.
' It seems I've been making a fool of myself,' I said.
'And I know how that must distress you,' he answered heartily. ' Think no more about it. Your motive has been all through an excellent one-to help your friend at somebody else's expense; and if I've failed you at a pinch, it's not for want of a real good try on your part. And as to my underhand ways---'
'O, they necessarily disappear with the rest,' I interrupted him. 'When one's moon-stricken one sees a bogey in every bush'.
'Well, well,' said Sir Calvin impatiently. ' That's enough said. We hadn't quite done our talk when you came in, Bickerdike. Shut the door when you go out, there's a good fellow'.
The hint was plain to starkness. I slunk away, feeling my tail between my legs. In the hall, to add to my discomfiture, I came upon Audrey. Her face fell on seeing me.
' O, have you come back ?' she said in a dis-charmed voice, fairly paying me with my own bad coin.
' Yes,' I said: ' and now I have, everybody seems to love me'.
She looked at me queerly.
' The Baron has returned too: isn't that delightful?' She laughed and moved away, then came again, on a mischievous thought: ' O, by the by ! There was another thing I might have told you about him the other day. All the half-crowns he wins at chess he puts into a benevolent fund for poor chess-players. He says a half-crown on a game is hke a Benedictine-neither too much nor too little. It is just enough to bring out the brilliancy in a player without intoxicating him'.
I said meekly, ' Yes, Audrey. I expect he is very right; and it is a good thought of his for the poor Professors'.
She stood staring at me a moment, said 'What is the matter with you ?' then turned away, moving much more slowly than before.
All the wind seemed knocked out of me by this blow, and I remained in a very depressed mood. It was my greatest mortification to realize on what vain and empty illusions I had been building a case for my friend. I will do myself so much justice. But whatever I planned seemed to go wrong. I had better retire, I thought, and leave it to better heads than mine to grapple with the problem. Nor did my amour-propre achieve any particular reinstatement for itself from my interview with Sir Calvin on the subject of my journey, made entirely on his behalf. I found him, when at length he called me to it, very distrait, and I thought not particularly interested in what I had to tell him. He seemed to listen attentively, but in fact his answers proved that he had done nothing of the sort. Everything since my return appeared somehow wrong and peculiar. It might have struck one almost as if a cloud had passed away, and a threatened tempest been forgotten. And yet Hugo was in his prison, and nothing new that I could see had happened. I told his father, as he had asked me to do, about the circumstances of his wrong-doing, and even in that failed greatly to interest the General. He did not appear to be particularly shocked. No doubt his principles in such respects were old-fashioned, and took for their text that licentious proverb which, in the name of love and war, exempts a gentleman from those bonds of truth and honour which alone make him one. He was in a strange state altogether, distraught, nervous, excited by turns, and yet always with a look about him which I should have described as exultant pride at high tension. What was the meaning of everything?
During the following day or two I kept myself studiously in the background, proffering no opinions on anything, and only pleading mutely to be put to any use I could reasonably serve. My attitude commended itself to Audrey at last. 'Frank and the Baron,' she once said to me, 'have been meeting and having a long talk together. I wonder if you will disapprove, Mr Bickerdike ?'
'Two heads are better than one,' I answered, 'and as good as three when the Baron's is counted in. I'm not sure you weren't right, Audrey, and that I'm not a worse judge of character than I supposed'.
She looked at me in that queer way of hers.
'That's jolly decent of you,' she said; 'and so I'll say the same to you. It's something to be a gentleman, after all'.
Cryptic, but meant to be propitiatory. I forgave her. She had recovered her spirits wonderfully. She knew, or felt, I think, that something was in the air, though she could not tell what, and it made her confident and happy. I fancy it was her dear friend the Baron who kept her on that prick of expectancy, without quite letting her into the secret. Sometimes now she would even condescend to speak with me.
'Do you know,' she said one day, 'that Sergeant Ridgway is coming down again from Scotland Yard to see us?'
' No 1' I exclaimed. ' He can't have the atrocious bad taste'.
' O, but he is ! ' she said. * The First Commissioner, or the Public Prosecutor, or the Lord High Executioner, or somebody, isn't satisfied with Henstridge's evidence, and he's got to come down and go through all that part of it again. He's to be here to-morrow to see my father at two o'clock'.
'Well,' I said, 'I hope we shan't run across one another, that's all'.
'No,' she answered, in a rather funny way: 'I don't suppose you exactly love him'.
I will say no more, since I have reached the threshold of that extraordinary event which was to falsify at a blow every theory which I, in common with hundreds of others, had built up and elaborated about the Wildshott Murder Case.