The Evil Shepherd - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

The Evil Shepherd ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim

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Opis

Welcome to 1922 and E. P. Oppenheim’s „The Evil Shepherd”. A businessman is found stabbed through the heart, the obvious suspect his partner: Oliver Hilditch, a cold-eyed fellow with a paper-thin alibi. Francis Ledsam is a defense barrister and is congratulating himself on a brilliant performance which has just seen Oliver Hilditch acquitted of murder. His ego is pricked by Margaret Hilditch confessing to him that Hilditch was guilty of crimes far more monstrous than murder. Ledsam vows never again to defend a guilty man. But when his newfound principles run up against the harsh reality of real-world justice, he finds himself trapped between his love for a beautiful woman and a powerful desire to do the right thing – no matter the cost.

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Liczba stron: 363

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER XXIX

CHAPTER XXX

CHAPTER XXXI

CHAPTER XXXII

CHAPTER XXXIII

CHAPTER XXXIV

CHAPTER XXXV

CHAPTER XXXVI

THE END

CHAPTER I

Francis Ledsam, alert, well-satisfied with himself and the world, the echo of a little buzz of congratulations still in his ears, paused on the steps of the modern Temple of Justice to light a cigarette before calling for a taxi to take him to his club. Visions of a whisky and soda–his throat was a little parched–and a rubber of easy-going bridge at his favourite table, were already before his eyes. A woman who had followed him from the Court touched him on the shoulder.

“Can I speak to you for a moment, Mr. Ledsam?”

The barrister frowned slightly as he swung around to confront his questioner. It was such a familiar form of address.

“What do you want?” he asked, a little curtly.

“A few minutes’ conversation with you,” was the calm reply. “The matter is important.”

The woman’s tone and manner, notwithstanding her plain, inconspicuous clothes, commanded attention. Francis Ledsam was a little puzzled. Small things meant much to him in life, and he had been looking forward almost with the zest of a schoolboy to that hour of relaxation at his club. He was impatient of even a brief delay, a sentiment which he tried to express in his response.

“What do you want to speak to me about?” he repeated bluntly. “I shall be in my rooms in the Temple to-morrow morning, any time after eleven.”

“It is necessary for me to speak to you now,” she insisted. “There is a tea-shop across the way. Please accompany me there.”

Ledsam, a little surprised at the coolness of her request, subjected his accoster to a closer scrutiny. As he did so, his irritation diminished. He shrugged his shoulders slightly.

“If you really have business with me,” he said, “I will give you a few minutes.”

They crossed the street together, the woman self-possessed, negative, wholly without the embarrassment of one performing an unusual action. Her companion felt the awakening of curiosity. Zealously though she had, to all appearance, endeavoured to conceal the fact, she was without a doubt personable. Her voice and manner lacked nothing of refinement. Yet her attraction to Francis Ledsam, who, although a perfectly normal human being, was no seeker after promiscuous adventures, did not lie in these externals. As a barrister whose success at the criminal bar had been phenomenal, he had attained to a certain knowledge of human nature. He was able, at any rate, to realise that this woman was no imposter. He knew that she had vital things to say.

They passed into the tea-shop and found an empty corner. Ledsam hung up his hat and gave an order. The woman slowly began to remove her gloves. When she pushed back her veil, her vis-a-vis received almost a shock. She was quite as good-looking as he had imagined, but she was far younger–she was indeed little more than a girl. Her eyes were of a deep shade of hazel brown, her eyebrows were delicately marked, her features and poise admirable. Yet her skin was entirely colourless. She was as pale as one whose eyes have been closed in death. Her lips, although in no way highly coloured, were like streaks of scarlet blossom upon a marble image. The contrast between her appearance and that of her companion was curiously marked. Francis Ledsam conformed in no way to the accepted physical type of his profession. He was over six feet in height, broad-shouldered and powerfully made. His features were cast in a large mould, he was of fair, almost sandy complexion, even his mouth was more humourous than incisive. His eyes alone, grey and exceedingly magnetic, suggested the gifts which without a doubt lay behind his massive forehead.

“I am anxious to avoid any possible mistake,” she began. “Your name is Francis Ledsam?”

“It is,” he admitted.

“You are the very successful criminal barrister,” she continued, “who has just been paid an extravagant fee to defend Oliver Hilditch.”

“I might take exception to the term ‘extravagant’,” Ledsam observed drily. “Otherwise, your information appears to be singularly correct. I do not know whether you have heard the verdict. If not, you may be interested to know that I succeeded in obtaining the man’s acquittal.”

“I know that you did,” the woman replied. “I was in the Court when the verdict was brought in. It has since occurred to me that I should like you to understand exactly what you have done, the responsibility you have incurred.”

Ledsam raised his eyebrows.

“Responsibility?” he repeated. “What I have done is simple enough. I have earned a very large fee and won my case.”

“You have secured the acquittal of Oliver Hilditch,” she persisted. “He is by this time a free man. Now I am going to speak to you of that responsibility. I am going to tell you a little about the man who owes his freedom to your eloquence.”

It was exactly twenty minutes after their entrance into the teashop when the woman finished her monologue. She began to draw on her gloves again. Before them were two untasted cups of tea and an untouched plate of bread and butter. From a corner of the room the waitress was watching them curiously.

“Good God!” Francis Ledsam exclaimed at last, suddenly realising his whereabouts. “Do you mean to affirm solemnly that what you have been telling me is the truth?”

The woman continued to button her gloves. “It is the truth,” she said.

Ledsam sat up and looked around him. He was a little dazed. He had almost the feeling of a man recovering from the influence of some anaesthetic. Before his eyes were still passing visions of terrible deeds, of naked, ugly passion, of man’s unscrupulous savagery. During those few minutes he had been transported to New York and Paris, London and Rome. Crimes had been spoken of which made the murder for which Oliver Hilditch had just been tried seem like a trifling indiscretion. Hard though his mentality, sternly matter-of-fact as was his outlook, he was still unable to fully believe in himself, his surroundings, or in this woman who had just dropped a veil over her ashen cheeks. Reason persisted in asserting itself.

“But if you knew all this,” he demanded, “why on earth didn’t you come forward and give evidence?”

“Because,” she answered calmly, as she rose to her feet, “my evidence would not have been admissible. I am Oliver Hilditch’s wife.”

CHAPTER II

Francis Ledsam arrived at his club, the Sheridan, an hour later than he had anticipated. He nodded to the veteran hall-porter, hung up his hat and stick, and climbed the great staircase to the card-room without any distinct recollection of performing any of these simple and reasonable actions. In the cardroom he exchanged a few greetings with friends, accepted without comment or without the slightest tinge of gratification a little chorus of chafing congratulations upon his latest triumph, and left the room without any inclination to play, although there was a vacant place at his favourite table. From sheer purposelessness he wandered back again into the hall, and here came his first gleam of returning sensation. He came face to face with his most intimate friend, Andrew Wilmore. The latter, who had just hung up his coat and hat, greeted him with a growl of welcome.

“So you’ve brought it off again, Francis!”

“Touch and go,” the barrister remarked. “I managed to squeak home.”

Wilmore laid his hand upon his friend’s shoulder and led the way towards two easy-chairs in the lounge.

“I tell you what it is, old chap,” he confided, “you’ll be making yourself unpopular before long. Another criminal at large, thanks to that glib tongue and subtle brain of yours. The crooks of London will present you with a testimonial when you’re made a judge.”

“So you think that Oliver Hilditch was guilty, then?” Francis asked curiously.

“My dear fellow, how do I know or care?” was the indifferent reply. “I shouldn’t have thought that there had been any doubt about it. You probably know, anyway.”

“That’s just what I didn’t when I got up to make my speech,” Francis assured his friend emphatically. “The fellow was given an opportunity of making a clean breast of it, of course–Wensley, his lawyer, advised him to, in fact–but the story he told me was precisely the story he told at the inquest.”

They were established now in their easy-chairs, and Wilmore summoned a waiter.

“Two large whiskies and sodas,” he ordered. “Francis,” he went on, studying his companion intently, “what’s the matter with you? You don’t look as though your few days in the country last week had done you any good.”

Francis glanced around as though to be sure that they were alone.

“I was all right when I came up, Andrew,” he muttered. “This case has upset me.”

“Upset you? But why the dickens should it?” the other demanded, in a puzzled tone. “It was quite an ordinary case, in its way, and you won it.”

“I won it,” Francis admitted.

“Your defence was the most ingenious thing I ever heard.”

“Mostly suggested, now I come to think of it,” the barrister remarked grimly, “by the prisoner himself.”

“But why are you upset about it, anyway?” Wilmore persisted.

Francis rose to his feet, shook himself, and with his elbow resting upon the mantelpiece leaned down towards his friend. He could not rid himself altogether of this sense of unreality. He had the feeling that he had passed through one of the great crises of his life.

“I’ll tell you, Andrew. You’re about the only man in the world I could tell. I’ve gone crazy.”

“I thought you looked as though you’d been seeing spooks,” Wilmore murmured sympathetically.

“I have seen a spook,” Francis rejoined, with almost passionate seriousness, “a spook who lifted an invisible curtain with invisible fingers, and pointed to such a drama of horrors as De Quincey, Poe and Sue combined could never have imagined. Oliver Hilditch was guilty, Andrew. He murdered the man Jordan–murdered him in cold blood.”

“I’m not surprised to hear that,” was the somewhat puzzled reply.

“He was guilty, Andrew, not only of the murder of this man, his partner, but of innumerable other crimes and brutalities,” Francis went on. “He is a fiend in human form, if ever there was one, and I have set him loose once more to prey upon Society. I am morally responsible for his next robbery, his next murder, the continued purgatory of those forced to associate with him.”

“You’re dotty, Francis,” his friend declared shortly.

“I told you I was crazy,” was the desperate reply. “So would you be if you’d sat opposite that woman for half-an-hour, and heard her story.”

“What woman?” Wilmore demanded, leaning forward in his chair and gazing at his friend with increasing uneasiness.

“A woman who met me outside the Court and told me the story of Oliver Hilditch’s life.”

“A stranger?”

“A complete stranger to me. It transpired that she was his wife.”

Wilmore lit a cigarette.

“Believe her?”

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