She sighed. Her confidence was returning—also her self-pity. The latter at once betrayed itself.
"You see," she confided, "Victor and I were engaged to be married, so naturally I let him help me a little. I shan't be able to stay on here now. They are bothering me about their bill already," she added, with a side-glance at an envelope which stood on a table by her side.
He drew a little nearer to her.
"Miss Hyslop—" he began.
"Daisy," she interrupted.
"Miss Daisy Hyslop, then," he continued, smiling, "I suggested just now that I did not want to come and bother you for information without any return. If I can be of any assistance to you in that matter," he added, glancing towards the envelope, "I shall be very pleased."
She sighed gratefully.
"Just till Victor's people return to town," she said. "I know that they mean to do something for me."
"How much?" he asked.
"Two hundred pounds would keep me going," she told him.
He wrote out a cheque. Miss Hyslop drew a sigh of relief as she laid it on one side with the envelope. Then she swung round in her chair to face him where he sat at the writing-table.
"I am afraid you will think that what I have to tell is very insignificant," she confessed. "Victor was one of those boys who always fancied themselves bored. He was bored with polo, bored with motoring, bored with the country and bored with town. Then quite suddenly during the last few weeks he seemed changed. All that he would tell me was that he had found a new interest in life. I don't know what it was but I don't think it was a nice one. He seemed to drop all his old friends, too, and go about with a new set altogether—not a nice set at all. He used to stay out all night, and he quite gave up going to dances and places where he could take me. Once or twice he came here in the afternoon, dead beat, without having been to bed at all, and before he could say half-a-dozen words he was asleep in my easy-chair. He used to mutter such horrible things that I had to wake him up."
"Was he ever short of money?" Francis asked.
She shook her head.
"Not seriously," she answered. "He was quite well-off, besides what his people allowed him. I was going to have a wonderful settlement as soon as our engagement was announced. However, to go on with what I was telling you, the very night before—it happened—he came in to see me, looking like nothing on earth. He cried like a baby, behaved like a lunatic, and called himself all manner of names. He had had a great deal too much to drink, and I gathered that he had seen something horrible. It was then he asked me to dine with him the next night, and told me that he was going to break altogether with his new friends. Something in connection with them seemed to have given him a terrible fright."
Francis nodded. He had the tact to abandon his curiosity at this precise point.
"The old story," he declared, "bad company and rotten habits. I suppose some one got to know that the young man usually carried a great deal of money about with him."
"It was so foolish of him," she assented eagerly: "I warned him about it so often. The police won't listen to it but I am absolutely certain that he was robbed. I noticed when he paid the bill that he had a great wad of bank-notes which were never discovered afterwards."
Francis rose to his feet.
"What are you doing to-night?" he enquired.
"Nothing," she acknowledged eagerly.
"Then let's dine somewhere and see the show at the Frivolity," he suggested.
"You dear man!" she assented with enthusiasm. "The one thing I wanted to do, and the one person I wanted to do it with."
It was after leaving Miss Daisy Hyslop's flat that the event to which Francis Ledsam had been looking forward more than anything else in the world, happened. It came about entirely by chance. There were no taxis in the Strand. Francis himself had finished work for the day, and feeling disinclined for his usual rubber of bridge, he strolled homewards along the Mall. At the corner of Green Park, he came face to face with the woman who for the last few months had scarcely been out of his thoughts. Even in that first moment he realised to his pain that she would have avoided him if she could. They met, however, where the path narrowed, and he left her no chance to avoid him. That curious impulse of conventionality which opens a conversation always with cut and dried banalities, saved them perhaps from a certain amount of embarrassment. Without any conscious suggestion, they found themselves walking side by side.
"I have been wanting to see you very much indeed," he said. "I even went so far as to wonder whether I dared call."
"Why should you?" she asked. "Our acquaintance began and ended in tragedy. There is scarcely any purpose in carrying it further."
He looked at her for a moment before replying. She was wearing black, but scarcely the black of a woman who sorrows. She was still frigidly beautiful, redolent, in all the details of her toilette, of that almost negative perfection which he had learnt to expect from her. She suggested to him still that same sense of aloofness from the actualities of life.
"I prefer not to believe that it is ended," he protested. "Have you so many friends that you have no room for one who has never consciously done you any harm?"
She looked at him with some faint curiosity in her immobile features.
"Harm? No! On the contrary, I suppose I ought to thank you for your evidence at the inquest."
"Some part of it was the truth," he replied.
"I suppose so," she admitted drily. "You told it very cleverly."
He looked her in the eyes.
"My profession helped me to be a good witness," he said. "As for the gist of my evidence, that was between my conscience and myself."
"Your conscience?" she repeated. "Are there really men who possess such things?"
"I hope you will discover that for yourself some day," he answered. "Tell me your plans? Where are you living?"
"For the present with my father in Curzon Street."
"With Sir Timothy Brast?"
"You know him?" she asked indifferently.
"Very slightly," Francis replied. "We talked together, some nights ago, at Soto's Restaurant. I am afraid that I did not make a very favourable impression upon him. I gathered, too, that he has somewhat eccentric tastes."
"I do not see a great deal of my father," she said. "We met, a few months ago, for the first time since my marriage, and things have been a little difficult between us—just at first. He really scarcely ever puts in an appearance at Curzon Street. I dare say you have heard that he makes a hobby of an amazing country house which he has down the river."
"The Walled House?" he ventured.
"I see you have heard of it. All London, they tell me, gossips about the entertainments there."
"Are they really so wonderful?" he asked.
"I have never been to one," she replied. "As a matter of fact, I have spent scarcely any time in England since my marriage. My husband, as I remember he told you, was fond of travelling."
Notwithstanding the warm spring air he was conscious of a certain chilliness. Her level, indifferent tone seemed to him almost abnormally callous. A horrible realisation flashed for a moment in his brain. She was speaking of the man whom she had killed!
"Your father overheard a remark of mine," Francis told her. "I was at Soto's with a friend—Andrew Wilmore, the novelist—and to tell you the truth we were speaking of the shock I experienced when I realised that I had been devoting every effort of which I was capable, to saving the life of—shall we say a criminal? Your father heard me say, in rather a flamboyant manner, perhaps, that in future I declared war against all crime and all criminals."
She smiled very faintly, a smile which had in it no single element of joy or humour.
"I can quite understand my father intervening," she said. "He poses as being rather a patron of artistically-perpetrated crime. Sue is his favourite author, and I believe that he has exceedingly grim ideas as to duelling and fighting generally. He was in prison once for six months at New Orleans for killing a man who insulted my mother. Nothing in the world would ever have convinced him that he had not done a perfectly legitimate thing."
"I am expecting to find him quite an interesting study, when I know him better," Francis pronounced. "My only fear is that he will count me an unfriendly person and refuse to have anything to do with me."
"I am not at all sure," she said indifferently, "that it would not be very much better for you if he did."
"I cannot admit that," he answered, smiling. "I think that our paths in life are too far apart for either of us to influence the other. You don't share his tastes, do you?"
"Which ones?" she asked, after a moment's silence.
"Well, boxing for one," he replied. "They tell me that he is the greatest living patron of the ring, both here and in America."
"I have never been to a fight in my life," she confessed. "I hope that I never may."
"I can't go so far as that," he declared, "but boxing isn't altogether one of my hobbies. Can't we leave your father and his tastes alone for the present? I would rather talk about—ourselves. Tell me what you care about most in life?"
"Nothing," she answered listlessly.
"But that is only a phase," he persisted. "You have had terrible trials, I know, and they must have affected your outlook on life, but you are still young, and while one is young life is always worth having."
"I thought so once," she assented. "I don't now."
"But there must be—there will be compensations," he assured her. "I know that just now you are suffering from the reaction—after all you have gone through. The memory of that will pass."
"The memory of what I have gone through will never pass," she answered.
There was a moment's intense silence, a silence pregnant with reminiscent drama. The little room rose up before his memory—the woman's hopeless, hating eyes, the quivering thread of steel, the dead man's mocking words. He seemed at that moment to see into the recesses of her mind. Was it remorse that troubled her, he wondered? Did she lack strength to realise that in that half-hour at the inquest he had placed on record for ever his judgment of her deed? Even to think of it now was morbid. Although he would never have confessed it even to himself, there was growing daily in his mind some idea of reward. She had never thanked him—he hoped that she never would—but he had surely a right to claim some measure of her thoughts, some light place in her life.
"Please look at me," he begged, a little abruptly.
She turned her head in some surprise. Francis was almost handsome in the clear Spring sunlight, his face alight with animation, his deep-set grey eyes full of amused yet anxious solicitude. Even as she appreciated these things and became dimly conscious of his eager interest, her perturbation seemed to grow.
"Well?" she ventured.
"Do I look like a person who knew what he was talking about?" he asked.
"On the whole, I should say that you did," she admitted.
"Very well, then," he went on cheerfully, "believe me when I say that the shadow which depresses you all the time now will pass. I say this confidently," he added, his voice softening, "because I hope to be allowed to help. Haven't you guessed that I am very glad indeed to see you again?"
She came to a sudden standstill. They had just passed through Lansdowne Passage and were in the quiet end of Curzon Street.
"But you must not talk to me like that!" she expostulated.
"Why not?" he demanded. "We have met under strange and untoward circumstances, but are you so very different from other women?"
For a single moment she seemed infinitely more human, startled, a little nervous, exquisitely sympathetic to an amazing and unexpected impression. She seemed to look with glad but terrified eyes towards the vision of possible things—and then to realise that it was but a trick of the fancy and to come shivering back to the world of actualities.
"I am very different," she said quietly. "I have lived my life. What I lack in years has been made up to me in horror. I have no desire now but to get rid of this aftermath of years as smoothly and quickly as possible. I do not wish any man, Mr. Ledsam, to talk to me as you are doing."
"You will not accept my friendship?"
"It is impossible," she replied.
"May I be allowed to call upon you?" he went on, doggedly.
"I do not receive visitors," she answered.
They were walking slowly up Curzon Street now. She had given him every opportunity to leave her, opportunities to which he was persistently blind. Her obstinacy had been a shock to him.
"I am sorry," he said, "but I cannot accept my dismissal like this. I shall appeal to your father. However much he may dislike me, he has at least common-sense."
She looked at him with a touch of the old horror in her coldly-questioning eyes.
"In your way you have been kind to me," she admitted. "Let me in return give you a word of advice. Let me beg you to have nothing whatever to do with my father, in friendship or in enmity. Either might be equally disastrous. Either, in the long run, is likely to cost you dear."
"If that is your opinion of your father, why do you live with him?" he asked.
She had become entirely callous again. Her smile, with its mocking quality, reminded him for a moment of the man whom they were discussing.
"Because I am a luxury and comfort-loving parasite," she answered deliberately, "because my father gladly pays my accounts at Lucille and Worth and Reville, because I have never learnt to do without things. And please remember this. My father, so far as I am concerned, has no faults. He is a generous and courteous companion. Nevertheless, number 70 b, Curzon Street is no place for people who desire to lead normal lives."
And with that she was gone. Her gesture of dismissal was so complete and final that he had no courage for further argument. He had lost her almost as soon as he had found her.
Four men were discussing the verdict at the adjourned inquest upon Victor Bidlake, at Soto's American Bar about a fortnight later. They were Robert Fairfax, a young actor in musical comedy, Peter Jacks, a cinema producer, Gerald Morse, a dress designer, and Sidney Voss, a musical composer and librettist, all habitues of the place and members of the little circle towards which the dead man had seemed, during the last few weeks of his life, to have become attracted. At a table a short distance away, Francis Ledsam was seated with a cocktail and a dish of almonds before him. He seemed to be studying an evening paper and to be taking but the scantiest notice of the conversation at the bar.
"It just shows," Peter Jacks declared, "that crime is the easiest game in the world. Given a reasonable amount of intelligence, and a murderer's business is about as simple as a sandwich-man's."
"The police," Gerald Morse, a pale-faced, anaemic-looking youth, declared, "rely upon two things, circumstantial evidence and motive. In the present case there is no circumstantial evidence, and as to motive, poor old Victor was too big a fool to have an enemy in the world."
Sidney Voss, who was up for the Sheridan Club and had once been there, glanced respectfully across at Francis.
"You ought to know something about crime and criminals, Mr. Ledsam," he said. "Have you any theory about the affair?"
Francis set down the glass from which he had been drinking, and, folding up the evening paper, laid it by the side of him.
"As a matter of fact," he answered calmly, "I have."
The few words, simply spoken, yet in their way charged with menace, thrilled through the little room. Fairfax swung round upon his stool, a tall, aggressive-looking youth whose good-looks were half eaten up with dissipation. His eyes were unnaturally bright, the cloudy remains in his glass indicated absinthe.
"Listen, you fellows!" he exclaimed. "Mr. Francis Ledsam, the great criminal barrister, is going to solve the mystery of poor old Victor's death for us!"
The three other young men all turned around from the bar. Their eyes and whole attention seemed rivetted upon Francis. No one seemed to notice the newcomer who passed quietly to a chair in the background, although he was a person of some note and interest to all of them. Imperturbable and immaculate as ever, Sir Timothy Brast smiled amiably upon the little gathering, summoned a waiter and ordered a Dry Martini.
"I can scarcely promise to do that," Francis said slowly, his eyes resting for a second or two upon each of the four faces. "Exact solutions are a little out of my line. I think I can promise to give you a shock, though, if you're strong enough to stand it."
There was another of those curiously charged silences. The bartender paused with the cocktail shaker still in his hand. Voss began to beat nervously upon the counter with his knuckles.
"We can stand anything but suspense," he declared. "Get on with your shock-giving."
"I believe that the person responsible for the death of Victor Bidlake is in this room at the present moment," Francis declared.
Again the silence, curious, tense and dramatic. Little Jimmy, the bartender, who had leaned forward to listen, stood with his mouth slightly open and the cocktail-shaker which was in his hand leaked drops upon the counter. The first conscious impulse of everybody seemed to be to glance suspiciously around the room. The four young men at the bar, Jimmy and one waiter, Francis and Sir Timothy Brast, were its only occupants.
"I say, you know, that's a bit thick, isn't it?" Sidney Voss stammered at last. "I wasn't in the place at all, I was in Manchester, but it's a bit rough on these other chaps, Victor's pals."
"I was dining at the Cafe Royal," Jacks declared, loudly.
Morse drew a little breath.
"Every one knows that I was at Brighton," he muttered.
"I went home directly the bar here closed," Jimmy said, in a still dazed tone. "I heard nothing about it till the next morning."
"Alibis by the bushel," Fairfax laughed harshly. "As for me, I was doing my show—every one knows that. I was never in the place at all."
"The murder was not committed in the place," Francis commented calmly.
Fairfax slid off his stool. A spot of colour blazed in his pale cheeks, the glass which he was holding snapped in his fingers. He seemed suddenly possessed.
"I say, what the hell are you getting at?" he cried. "Are you accusing me—or any of us Victor's pals?"
"I accuse no one," Francis replied, unperturbed. "You invited a statement from me and I made it."
Sir Timothy Brast rose from his place and made his way to the end of the counter, next to Fairfax and nearest Francis. He addressed the former. There was an inscrutable smile upon his lips, his manner was reassuring.
"Young gentleman," he begged, "pray do not disturb yourself. I will answer for it that neither you nor any of your friends are the objects of Mr. Leadsam's suspicion. Without a doubt, it is I to whom his somewhat bold statement refers."
They all stared at him, immersed in another crisis, bereft of speech. He tapped a cigarette upon the counter and lit it. Fairfax, whose glass had just been refilled by the bartender, was still ghastly pale, shaking with nervousness and breathing hoarsely. Francis, tense and alert in his chair, watched the speaker but said nothing.
"You see," Sir Timothy continued, addressing himself to the four young men at the bar, "I happen to have two special aversions in life. One is sweet champagne and the other amateur detectives—their stories, their methods and everything about them. I chanced to sit upstairs in the restaurant, within hearing of Mr. Ledsam and his friend Mr. Wilmore, the novelist, the other night, and I heard Mr. Ledsam, very much to my chagrin, announce his intention of abandoning a career in which he has, if he will allow me to say so,"—with a courteous bow to Francis—"attained considerable distinction, to indulge in the moth-eaten, flamboyant and melodramatic antics of the lesser Sherlock Holmes. I fear that I could not resist the opportunity of—I think you young men call it—pulling his leg."
Every one was listening intently, including Shopland, who had just drifted into the room and subsided into a chair near Francis.
"I moved my place, therefore," Sir Timothy continued, "and I whispered in Mr. Ledsam's ear some rodomontade to the effect that if he were planning to be the giant crime-detector of the world, I was by ambition the arch-criminal—or words to that effect. And to give emphasis to my words, I wound up by prophesying a crime in the immediate vicinity of the place within a few hours."
"A somewhat significant prophecy, under the circumstances," Francis remarked, reaching out for a dish of salted almonds and drawing them towards him.
Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders deprecatingly.
"I will confess," he admitted, "that I had not in my mind an affair of such dimensions. My harmless remark, however, has produced cataclysmic effects. The conversation to which I refer took place on the night of young Bidlake's murder, and Mr. Ledsam, with my somewhat, I confess, bombastic words in his memory, has pitched upon me as the bloodthirsty murderer."
"Hold on for a moment, sir," Peter Jacks begged, wiping the perspiration from his forehead. "We've got to have another drink quick. Poor old Bobby here looks knocked all of a heap, and I'm kind of jumpy myself. You'll join us, sir?"
"I thank you," was the courteous reply. "I do not as a rule indulge to the extent of more than one cocktail, but I will recognise the present as an exceptional occasion. To continue, then," he went on, after the glasses had been filled, "I have during the last few weeks experienced the ceaseless and lynx-eyed watch of Mr. Ledsam and presumably his myrmidons. I do not know whether you are all acquainted with my name, but in case you are not, let me introduce myself. I am Sir Timothy Brast, Chairman, as I dare say you know, of the United Transvaal Gold Mines, Chairman, also, of two of the principal hospitals in London, Vice President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a patron of sport in many forms, a traveller in many countries, and a recipient of the honour of knighthood from His Majesty, in recognition of my services for various philanthropic works. These facts, however, have availed me nothing now that the bungling amateur investigator into crime has pointed the finger of suspicion towards me. My servants and neighbours have alike been plagued to death with cunning questions as to my life and habits. I have been watched in the streets and watched in my harmless amusements. My simple life has been peered into from every perspective and direction. In short, I am suspect. Mr. Ledsam's terrifying statement a few minutes ago was directed towards me and me only."
There were murmurs of sympathy from the four young men, who each in his own fashion appeared to derive consolation from Sir Timothy's frank and somewhat caustic statement. Francis, who had listened unmoved to this flow of words, glanced towards the door behind which dark figures seemed to be looming.
"That is all you have to say, Sir Timothy?" he asked politely.
"For the present, yes," was the guarded reply. "I trust that I have succeeded in setting these young gentlemen's minds at ease."
"There is one of them," Francis said gravely, "whose mind not even your soothing words could lighten."
Shopland had risen unobtrusively to his feet. He laid his hand suddenly on Fairfax's shoulder and whispered in his ear. Fairfax, after his first start, seemed cool enough. He stretched out his hand towards the glass which as yet he had not touched; covered it with his fingers for a moment and drained its contents. The gently sarcastic smile left Sir Timothy's lips. His eyebrows met in a quick frown, his eyes glittered.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded sharply.
A policeman in plain clothes had advanced from the door. The manager hovered in the background. Shopland saw that all was well.
"It means," he announced, "that I have just arrested Mr. Robert Fairfax here on a charge of wilful murder. There is a way out through the kitchens, I believe. Take his other arm, Holmes. Now, gentlemen, if you please."
There were a few bewildered exclamations—then a dramatic hush. Fairfax had fallen forward on his stool. He seemed to have relapsed into a comatose state. Every scrap of colour was drained from his sallow cheeks, his eyes were covered with a film and he was breathing heavily. The detective snatched up the glass from which the young man had been drinking, and smelt it.
"I saw him drop a tablet in just now," Jimmy faltered. "I thought it was one of the digestion pills he uses sometimes."
Shopland and the policeman placed their hands underneath the armpits of the unconscious man.
"He's done, sir," the former whispered to Francis. "We'll try and get him to the station if we can."
The greatest tragedies in the world, provided they happen to other people, have singularly little effect upon the externals of our own lives. There was certainly not a soul in Soto's that night who did not know that Bobby Fairfax had been arrested in the bar below for the murder of Victor Bidlake, had taken poison and died on the way to the police station. Yet the same number of dinners were ordered and eaten, the same quantity of wine drunk. The management considered that they had shown marvellous delicacy of feeling by restraining the orchestra from their usual musical gymnastics until after the service of dinner. Conversation, in consequence, buzzed louder than ever. One speculation in particular absorbed the attention of every single person in the room—why had Bobby Fairfax, at the zenith of a very successful career, risked the gallows and actually accepted death for the sake of killing Victor Bidlake, a young man with whom, so far as anybody knew, he had no cause of quarrel whatever? There were many theories, many people who knew the real facts and whispered them into a neighbour's ear, only to have them contradicted a few moments later. Yet, curiously enough, the two men who knew most about it were the two most silent men in the room, for each was dining alone. Francis, who had remained only in the hope that something of the sort might happen, was conscious of a queer sense of excitement when, with the service of coffee, Sir Timothy, glass in hand, moved up from a table lower down and with a word of apology took the vacant place by his side. It was what he had desired, and yet he felt a thrill almost of fear at Sir Timothy's murmured words. He felt that he was in the company of one who, if not an enemy, at any rate had no friendly feeling towards him.
"My congratulations, Mr. Ledsam," Sir Timothy said quietly. "You appear to have started your career with a success."
"Only a partial one," Francis acknowledged, "and as a matter of fact I deny that I have started in any new career. It was easy enough to make use of a fluke and direct the intelligence of others towards the right person, but when the real significance of the thing still eludes you, one can scarcely claim a triumph."
Sir Timothy gently knocked the ash from the very fine cigar which he was smoking.
"Still, your groundwork was good," he observed.
Francis shrugged his shoulders.
"That," he admitted, "was due to chance."
"Shall we exchange notes?" Sir Timothy suggested gently. "It might be interesting."
"As you will," Francis assented. "There is no particular secret in the way I stumbled upon the truth. I was dining here that night, as you know, with Andrew Wilmore, and while he was ordering the dinner and talking to some friends, I went down to the American Bar to have a cocktail. Miss Daisy Hyslop and Fairfax were seated there alone and talking confidentially. Fairfax was insisting that Miss Hyslop should do something which puzzled her. She consented reluctantly, and Fairfax then hurried off to the theatre. Later on, Miss Hyslop and the unfortunate young man occupied a table close to ours, and I happened to notice that she made a point of leaving the restaurant at a particular time. While they were waiting in the vestibule she grew very impatient. I was standing behind them and I saw her glance at the clock just before she insisted upon her companion's going out himself to look for a taxicab. Ergo, one enquires at Fairfax's theatre. For that exact three-quarters of an hour he is off the stage. At that point my interest in the matter ceases. Scotland Yard was quite capable of the rest."
"Disappointing," Sir Timothy murmured. "I thought at first that you were over-modest. I find that I was mistaken. It was chance alone which set you on the right track."
"Well, there is my story, at any rate," Francis declared. "With how much of your knowledge of the affair are you going to indulge me?"
Sir Timothy slowly revolved his brandy glass.
"Well," he said, "I will tell you this. The two young men concerned, Bidlake and Fairfax, were both guests of mine recently at my country house. They had discovered for one another a very fierce and reasonable antipathy. With that recurrence to primitivism with which I have always been a hearty sympathiser, they agreed, instead of going round their little world making sneering remarks about each other, to fight it out."
"At your suggestion, I presume?" Francis interposed.
"Precisely," Sir Timothy assented. "I recommended that course, and I offered them facilities for bringing the matter to a crisis. The fight, indeed, was to have come off the day after the unfortunate episode which anticipated it."
"Do you mean to tell me that you knew—" Francis began.
Sir Timothy checked him quietly but effectively.
"I knew nothing," he said, "except this. They were neither of them young men of much stomach, and I knew that the one who was the greater coward would probably try to anticipate the matter by attacking the other first if he could. I knew that Fairfax was the greater coward—not that there was much to choose between them—and I also knew that he was the injured person. That is really all there is about it. My somewhat theatrical statement to you was based upon probability, and not upon any certain foreknowledge. As you see, it came off."
"And the cause of their quarrel?" Francis asked.
"There might have been a hundred reasons," Sir Timothy observed. "As a matter of fact, it was the eternal one. There is no need to mention a woman's name, so we will let it go at that."
There was a moment's silence—a strange, unforgettable moment for Francis Ledsam, who seemed by some curious trick of the imagination to have been carried away into an impossible and grotesque world. The hum of eager conversation, the popping of corks, the little trills of feminine laughter, all blended into one sensual and not unmusical chorus, seemed to fade from his ears. He fancied himself in some subterranean place of vast dimensions, through the grim galleries of which men and women with evil faces crept like animals. And towering above them, unreal in size, his scornful face an epitome of sin, the knout which he wielded symbolical and ghastly, driving his motley flock with the leer of the evil shepherd, was the man from whom he had already learnt to recoil with horror. The picture came and went in a flash. Francis found himself accepting a courteously offered cigar from his companion.
"You see, the story is very much like many others," Sir Timothy murmured, as he lit a fresh Cigar himself and leaned back with the obvious enjoyment of the cultivated smoker. "In every country of the world, the animal world as well as the human world, the male resents his female being taken from him. Directly he ceases to resent it, he becomes degenerate. Surely you must agree with me, Mr. Leddam?"
"It comes to this, then," Francis pronounced deliberately, "that you stage-managed the whole affair."
Sir Timothy smiled.
"It is my belief, Mr. Ledsam," he said, "that you grow more and more intelligent every hour."
Sir Timothy glanced presently at his thin gold watch and put it back in his pocket regretfully.
"Alas!" he sighed, "I fear that I must tear myself away. I particularly want to hear the last act of 'Louise.' The new Frenchwoman sings, and my daughter is alone. You will excuse me."
Francis nodded silently. His companion's careless words had brought a sudden dazzling vision into his mind. Sir Timothy scrawled his name at the foot of his bill.
"It is one of my axioms in life, Mr. Ledsam," he continued, "that there is more pleasure to be derived from the society of one's enemies than one's friends. If I thought you sufficiently educated in the outside ways of the world to appreciate this, I would ask if you cared to accompany me?"
Francis did not hesitate for a moment.
"Sir Timothy," he said, "I have the greatest detestation for you, and I am firmly convinced that you represent all the things in life abhorrent to me. On the other hand, I should very much like to hear the last act of 'Louise,' and it would give me the greatest pleasure to meet your daughter. So long as there is no misunderstanding."
Sir Timothy laughed.
"Come," he said, "we will get our hats. I am becoming more and more grateful to you, Mr. Ledsam. You are supplying something in my life which I have lacked. You appeal alike to my sense of humour and my imagination. We will visit the opera together."
The two men left Soto's together, very much in the fashion of two ordinary acquaintances sallying out to spend the evening together. Sir Timothy's Rolls-Royce limousine was in attendance, and in a few minutes they were threading the purlieus of Covent Garden. It was here that an incident occurred which afforded Francis considerable food for thought during the next few days.
It was a Friday night, and one or two waggons laden with vegetable produce were already threading their way through the difficult thoroughfares. Suddenly Sir Timothy, who was looking out of the window, pressed the button of the car, which was at once brought to a standstill. Before the footman could reach the door Sir Timothy was out in the street. For the first time Francis saw him angry. His eyes were blazing. His voice—Francis had followed him at once into the street—shook with passion. His hand had fallen heavily upon the shoulder of a huge carter, who, with whip in hand, was belabouring a thin scarecrow of a horse.
"What the devil are you doing?" Sir Timothy demanded.
The man stared at his questioner, and the instinctive antagonism of race vibrated in his truculent reply. The carter was a beery-faced, untidy-looking brute, but powerfully built and with huge shoulders. Sir Timothy, straight as a dart, without overcoat or any covering to his thin evening clothes, looked like a stripling in front of him.
"I'm whippin' 'er, if yer want to know," was the carter's reply. "I've got to get up the 'ill, 'aven't I? Garn and mind yer own business!"
"This is my business," Sir Timothy declared, laying his hand upon the neck of the horse. "I am an official of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. You are laying yourself open to a fine for your treatment of this poor brute."
"I'll lay myself open for a fine for the treatment of something else, if you don't quid 'old of my 'oss," the carter retorted, throwing his whip back into the waggon and coming a step nearer. "D'yer 'ear? I don't want any swells interferin' with my business. You 'op it. Is that strite enough? 'Op it, quick!"
Sir Timothy's anger seemed to have abated. There was even the beginning of a smile upon his lips. All the time his hand caressed the neck of the horse. Francis noticed with amazement that the poor brute had raised his head and seemed to be making some faint effort at reciprocation.
"My good man," Sir Timothy said, "you seem to be one of those brutal persons unfit to be trusted with an animal. However—"
The carter had heard quite enough. Sir Timothy's tone seemed to madden him. He clenched his fist and rushed in.
"You take that for interferin', you big toff!" he shouted.
The result of the man's effort at pugilism was almost ridiculous. His arms appeared to go round like windmills beating the air. It really seemed as though he had rushed upon the point of Sir Timothy's knuckles, which had suddenly shot out like the piston of an engine. The carter lay on his back for a moment. Then he staggered viciously to his feet.
"Don't," Sir Timothy begged, as he saw signs of another attack. "I don't want to hurt you. I have been amateur champion of two countries. Not quite fair, is it?"
"Wot d'yer want to come interferin' with a chap's business for?" the man growled, dabbing his cheek with a filthy handkerchief but keeping at a respectful distance.
"It happens to be my business also," Sir Timothy replied, "to interfere whenever I see animals ill-treated. Now I don't want to be unreasonable. That animal has done all the work it ought to do in this world. How much is she worth to you?"
Through the man's beer-clogged brain a gleam of cunning began to find its way. He looked at the Rolls-Royce, with the two motionless servants on the box, at Francis standing by, at Sir Timothy, even to his thick understanding the very prototype of a "toff."
"That 'oss," he said, "ain't what she was, it's true, but there's a lot of work in 'er yet. She may not be much to look at but she's worth forty quid to me—ay, and one to spit on!"
Sir Timothy counted out some notes from the pocketbook which he had produced, and handed them to the man.
"Here are fifty pounds," he said. "The mare is mine. Johnson!"
The second man sprang from his seat and came round.
"Unharness that mare," his master ordered, "help the man push his trolley back out of the way, then lead the animal to the mews in Curzon Street. See that she is well bedded down and has a good feed of corn. To-morrow I shall send her down to the country, but I will come and have a look at her first."
The man touched his hat and hastened to commence his task. The carter, who had been busy counting the notes, thrust them into his pocket with a grin.
"Good luck to yer, guvnor!" he shouted out, in valedictory fashion. "'Ope I meets yer again when I've an old crock on the go."
Sir Timothy turned his head.
"If ever I happen to meet you, my good man," he threatened, "using your whip upon a poor beast who's doing his best, I promise you you won't get up in two minutes, or twenty.... We might walk the last few yards, Mr. Ledsam."
The latter acquiesced at once, and in a moment or two they were underneath the portico of the Opera House. Sir Timothy had begun to talk about the opera but Francis was a little distrait. His companion glanced at him curiously.
"You are puzzled, Mr. Ledsam?" he remarked.
"Very," was the prompt response.
Sir Timothy smiled.
"You are one of these primitive Anglo-Saxons," he said, "who can see the simple things with big eyes, but who are terribly worried at an unfamiliar constituent. You have summed me up in your mind as a hardened brute, a criminal by predilection, a patron of murderers. Ergo, you ask yourself why should I trouble to save a poor beast of a horse from being chastised, and go out of my way to provide her with a safe asylum for the rest of her life? Shall I help you, Mr. Ledsam?"
"I wish you would," Francis confessed.
They had passed now through the entrance to the Opera House and were in the corridor leading to the grand tier boxes. On every side Sir Timothy had been received with marks of deep respect. Two bowing attendants were preceding them. Sir Timothy leaned towards his companion.
"Because," he whispered, "I like animals better than human beings."
Margaret Hilditch, her chair pushed back into the recesses of the box, scarcely turned her head at her father's entrance.
"I have brought an acquaintance of yours, Margaret," the latter announced, as he hung up his hat. "You remember Mr. Ledsam?"
Francis drew a little breath of relief as he bowed over her hand. For the second time her inordinate composure had been assailed. She was her usual calm and indifferent self almost immediately, but the gleam of surprise, and he fancied not unpleasant surprise, had been unmistakable.
"Are you a devotee, Mr. Ledsam?" she asked.
"I am fond of music," Francis answered, "especially this opera."
She motioned to the chair in the front of the box, facing the stage.
"You must sit there," she insisted. "I prefer always to remain here, and my father always likes to face the audience. I really believe," she went on, "that he likes to catch the eye of the journalist who writes little gossipy items, and to see his name in print."
"But you yourself?" Francis ventured.
"I fancy that my reasons for preferring seclusion should be obvious enough," she replied, a little bitterly.
"My daughter is inclined, I fear, to be a little morbid," Sir Timothy said, settling down in his place.
Francis made no reply. A triangular conversation of this sort was almost impossible. The members of the orchestra were already climbing up to their places, in preparation for the overture to the last act. Sir Timothy rose to his feet.
"You will excuse me for a moment," he begged. "I see a lady to whom I must pay my respects."
Francis drew a sigh of relief at his departure. He turned at once to his companion.
"Did you mind my coming?" he asked.
"Mind it?" she repeated, with almost insolent nonchalance. "Why should it affect me in any way? My father's friends come and go. I have no interest in any of them."
"But," he protested, "I want you to be interested in me."
She moved a little uneasily in her place. Her tone, nevertheless, remained icy.
"Could you possibly manage to avoid personalities in your conversation, Mr. Ledsam?" she begged.
"I have tried already to tell you how I feel about such things."
She was certainly difficult. Francis realised that with a little sigh.
"Were you surprised to see me with your father?" he asked, a little inanely.
"I cannot conceive what you two have found in common," she admitted.
"Perhaps our interest in you," he replied. "By-the-bye, I have just seen him perform a quixotic but a very fine action," Francis said. "He stopped a carter from thrashing his horse; knocked him down, bought the horse from him and sent it home."
She was mildly interested.
"An amiable side of my father's character which no one would suspect," she remarked. "The entire park of his country house at Hatch End is given over to broken-down animals."
"I am one of those," he confessed, "who find this trait amazing."
"And I am another," she remarked coolly. "If any one settled down seriously to try and understand my father, he would need the spectacles of a De Quincey, the outlook of a Voltaire, and the callousness of a Borgia. You see, he doesn't lend himself to any of the recognised standards."
"Neither do you," he said boldly.
She looked away from him across the House, to where Sir Timothy was talking to a man and woman in one of the ground-floor boxes. Francis recognised them with some surprise—an agricultural Duke and his daughter, Lady Cynthia Milton, one of the most, beautiful and famous young women in London.
"Your father goes far afield for his friends," Francis remarked.
"My father has no friends," she replied. "He has many acquaintances. I doubt whether he has a single confidant. I expect Cynthia is trying to persuade him to invite her to his next party at The Walled House."
"I should think she would fail, won't she?" he asked.
"Why should you think that?"
Francis shrugged his shoulders slightly.
"Your father's entertainments have the reputation of being somewhat unique," he remarked. "You do not, by-the-bye, attend them yourself."
"You must remember that I have had very few opportunities so far," she observed. "Besides, Cynthia has tastes which I do not share."
"As, for instance?"
"She goes to the National Sporting Club. She once travelled, I know, over a hundred miles to go to a bull fight."
"On the whole," Francis said, "I am glad that you do not share her tastes."
"You know her?" Margaret enquired.
"Indifferently well," Francis replied. "I knew her when she was a child, and we seem to come together every now and then at long intervals. As a debutante she was charming. Lately it seems to me that she has got into the wrong set."
"What do you call the wrong set?"
He hesitated for a moment.
"Please don't think that I am laying down the law," he said. "I have been out so little, the last few years, that I ought not, perhaps, to criticise. Lady Cynthia, however, seems to me to belong to the extreme section of the younger generation, the section who have a sort of craze for the unusual, whose taste in art and living is distorted and bizarre. You know what I mean, don't you—black drawing-rooms, futurist wall-papers, opium dens and a cocaine box! It's to some extent affectation, of course, but it's a folly that claims its victims."
She studied him for a moment attentively. His leanness was the leanness of muscular strength and condition, his face was full of vigour and determination.
"You at least have escaped the abnormal," she remarked. "I am not quite sure how the entertainments at The Walled House would appeal to you, but if my father should invite you there, I should advise you not to go."
"Why not?" he asked.
She hesitated for a moment.
"I really don't know why I should trouble to give you advice," she said. "As a matter of fact, I don't care whether you go or not. In any case, you are scarcely likely to be asked."
"I am not sure that I agree with you," he protested. "Your father seems to have taken quite a fancy to me."
"And you?" she murmured.
"Well, I like the way he bought that horse," Francis admitted. "And I am beginning to realise that there may be something in the theory which he advanced when he invited me to accompany him here this evening—that there is a certain piquancy in one's intercourse with an enemy, which friendship lacks. There may be complexities in his character which as yet I have not appreciated."
The curtain had gone up and the last act of the opera had commenced. She leaned back in her chair. Without a word or even a gesture, he understood that a curtain had been let down between them. He obeyed her unspoken wish and relapsed into silence. Her very absorption, after all, was a hopeful sign. She would have him believe that she felt nothing, that she was living outside all the passion and sentiment of life. Yet she was absorbed in the music.... Sir Timothy came back and seated himself silently. It was not until the tumult of applause which broke out after the great song of the French ouvrier, that a word passed between them.
"Cavalisti is better," Sir Timothy commented. "This man has not the breadth of passion. At times he is merely peevish."
She shook her head.
"Cavalisti would be too egotistical for the part," she said quietly. "It is difficult."
Not another word was spoken until the curtain fell. Francis lingered for a moment over the arrangement of her cloak. Sir Timothy was already outside, talking to some acquaintances.
"It has been a great pleasure to see you like this unexpectedly," he said, a little wistfully.
"I cannot imagine why," she answered, with an undernote of trouble in her tone. "Remember the advice I gave you before. No good can come of any friendship between my father and you."
"There is this much of good in it, at any rate," he answered, as he held open the door for her. "It might give me the chance of seeing you sometimes."
"That is not a matter worth considering," she replied.
"I find it very much worth considering," he whispered, losing his head for a moment as they stood close together in the dim light of the box, and a sudden sense of the sweetness of her thrilled his pulses. "There isn't anything in the world I want so much as to see you oftener—to have my chance."
There was a momentary glow in her eyes. Her lips quivered. The few words which he saw framed there—he fancied of reproof—remained unspoken. Sir Timothy was waiting for them at the entrance.
"I have been asking Mrs. Hilditch's permission to call in Curzon Street," Francis said boldly.
"I am sure my daughter will be delighted," was the cold but courteous reply.
Margaret herself made no comment. The car drew up and she stepped into it—a tall, slim figure, wonderfully graceful in her unrelieved black, her hair gleaming as though with some sort of burnish, as she passed underneath the electric light. She looked back at him with a smile of farewell as he stood bareheaded upon the steps, a smile which reminded him somehow of her father, a little sardonic, a little tender, having in it some faintly challenging quality. The car rolled away. People around were gossiping—rather freely.
"The wife of that man Oliver Hilditch," he heard a woman say, "the man who was tried for murder, and committed suicide the night after his acquittal. Why, that can't be much more than three months ago."
"If you are the daughter of a millionaire," her escort observed, "you can defy convention."
"Yes, that was Sir Timothy Brast," another man was saying. "He's supposed to be worth a cool five millions."
"If the truth about him were known," his companion confided, dropping his voice, "it would cost him all that to keep out of the Old Bailey. They say that his orgies at Hatch End—Our taxi. Come on, Sharpe."
Francis strolled thoughtfully homewards.
Francis Ledsam was himself again, the lightest-hearted and most popular member of his club, still a brilliant figure in the courts, although his appearances there were less frequent, still devoting the greater portion of his time, to his profession, although his work in connection with it had become less spectacular. One morning, at the corner of Clarges Street and Curzon Street, about three weeks after his visit to the Opera, he came face to face with Sir Timothy Brast.
"Well, my altruistic peerer into other people's affairs, how goes it?" the latter enquired pleasantly.
"How does it seem, my arch-criminal, to be still breathing God's fresh air?" Francis retorted in the same vein. "Make the most of it. It may not last for ever."
Sir Timothy smiled. He was looking exceedingly well that morning, the very prototype of a man contented with life and his part in it. He was wearing a morning coat and silk hat, his patent boots were faultlessly polished, his trousers pressed to perfection, his grey silk tie neat and fashionable. Notwithstanding his waxenlike pallor, his slim figure and lithe, athletic walk seemed to speak of good health.
"You may catch the minnow," he murmured. "The big fish swim on. By-the-bye," he added, "I do not notice that your sledge-hammer blows at crime are having much effect. Two undetected murders last week, and one the week before. What are you about, my astute friend?"
"Those are matters for Scotland Yard," Francis replied, with an indifferent little wave of the hand which held his cigarette. "Details are for the professional. I seek that corner in Hell where the thunders are welded and the poison gases mixed. In other words, I seek for the brains of crime."
"Believe me, we do not see enough of one another, my young friend," Sir Timothy said earnestly. "You interest me more and more every time we meet. I like your allegories, I like your confidence, which in any one except a genius would seem blatant. When can we dine together and talk about crime?"
"The sooner the better," Francis replied promptly. "Invite me, and I will cancel any other engagement I might happen to have."
Sir Timothy considered for a moment. The June sunshine was streaming down upon them and the atmosphere was a little oppressive.
"Will you dine with me at Hatch End to-night?" he asked. "My daughter and I will be alone."
"I should be delighted," Francis replied promptly. "I ought to tell you, perhaps, that I have called three times upon your daughter but have not been fortunate enough to find her at home."
Sir Timothy was politely apologetic.
"I fear that my daughter is a little inclined to be morbid," he confessed. "Society is good for her. I will undertake that you are a welcome guest."
"At what time do I come and how shall I find your house?" Francis enquired.
"You motor down, I suppose?" Sir Timothy observed. "Good! In Hatch End any one will direct you. We dine at eight. You had better come down as soon as you have finished your day's work. Bring a suitcase and spend the night."
"I shall be delighted," Francis replied.
"Do not," Sir Timothy continued, "court disappointment by over-anticipation. You have without doubt heard of my little gatherings at Hatch End. They are viewed, I am told, with grave suspicion, alike by the moralists of the City and, I fear, the police. I am not inviting you to one of those gatherings. They are for people with other tastes. My daughter and I have been spending a few days alone in the little bungalow by the side of my larger house. That is where you will find us—The Sanctuary, we call it."
"Some day," Francis ventured, "I shall hope to be asked to one of your more notorious gatherings. For the present occasion I much prefer the entertainment you offer."
"Then we are both content," Sir Timothy said, smiling. "Au revoir!"
Francis walked across Green Park, along the Mall, down Horse Guards Parade, along the Embankment to his rooms on the fringe of the Temple. Here he found his clerk awaiting his arrival in some disturbance of spirit.
"There is a young gentleman here to see you, sir," he announced. "Mr. Reginald Wilmore his name is, I think."
"Wilmore?" Francis repeated. "What have you done with him?"
"He is in your room, sir. He seems very impatient. He has been out two or three times to know how long I thought you would be."
Francis passed down the stone passage and entered his room, a large, shady apartment at the back of the building. To his surprise it was empty. He was on the point of calling to his clerk when he saw that the writing-paper on his desk had been disturbed. He went over and read a few lines written in a boy's hasty writing:
DEAR Mr. LEDSAM:
I am in a very strange predicament and I have come to ask your advice. You know my brother Andrew well, and you may remember playing tennis with me last year. I am compelled—
At that point the letter terminated abruptly. There was a blot and a smudge. The pen lay where it seemed to have rolled—on the floor. The ink was not yet dry. Francis called to his clerk.
"Angrave," he said, "Mr. Wilmore is not here."
The clerk looked around in obvious surprise.
"It isn't five minutes since he came out to my office, sir!" he exclaimed. "I heard him go back again afterwards."
Francis shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps he decided not to wait and you didn't hear him go by."
Angrave shook his head.
"I do not see how he could have left the place without my hearing him, sir," he declared. "The door of my office has been open all the time, and I sit opposite to it. Besides, on these stone floors one can hear any one so distinctly."
"Then what," Francis asked, "has become of him?"
The clerk shook his head.
"I haven't any idea, sir," he confessed.
Francis plunged into his work and forgot all about the matter. He was reminded of it, however, at luncheon-time, when, on entering the dining-room of the club, he saw Andrew Wilmore seated alone at one of the small tables near the wall. He went over to him at once.
"Hullo, Andrew," he greeted him, "what are you doing here by yourself?"
"Bit hipped, old fellow," was the depressed reply. "Sit down, will you?"
Francis sat down and ordered his lunch.
"By-the-bye," he said, "I had rather a mysterious visit this morning from your brother Reggie."
Wilmore stared at him for a moment, half in relief, half in amazement.
"Good God, Francis, you don't say so!" he exclaimed. "How was he? What did he want? Tell me about it at once? We've been worried to death about the boy."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I didn't see him," Francis explained. "He arrived before I reached my rooms—as you know, I don't live there—waited some time, began to write me this note,"—drawing the sheet of paper from his pocket—"and when I got there had disappeared without leaving a message or anything."
Wilmore adjusted his pince nez with trembling fingers. Then he read the few lines through.
"Francis," he said, when he had finished them, "do you know that this is the first word we've heard of him for three days?"
"Great heavens!" Francis exclaimed. "He was living with his mother, wasn't he?"
"Down at Kensington, but he hasn't been there since Monday," Andrew replied. "His mother is in a terrible state. And now this, I don't understand it at all."
"Was the boy hard up?"
"Not more than most young fellows are," was the puzzled reply. "His allowance was due in a few days, too. He had money in the bank, I feel sure. He was saving up for a motorcar."
"Haven't I seen him once or twice at restaurants lately?" Francis enquired. "Soto's, for instance?"
"Very likely," his brother assented. "Why not? He's fond of dancing, and we none of us ever encouraged him to be a stay-at-home."
"Any particular girl was he interested in?"
"Not that we know of. Like most young fellows of his age, he was rather keen on young women with some connection with the stage, but I don't believe there was any one in particular. Reggie was too fond of games to waste much time that way. He's at the gymnasium three evenings a week."
"I wish I'd been at the office a few minutes earlier this morning," Francis observed. "I tell you what, Andrew. I have some pals down at Scotland Yard, and I'll go down and see them this afternoon. They'll want a photograph, and to ask a few questions, I dare say, but I shouldn't talk about the matter too much."
"You're very kind, Francis," his friend replied, "but it isn't so easy to sit tight. I was going to the police myself this afternoon."
"Take my advice and leave it to me," Francis begged. "I have a particular pal down at Scotland Yard who I know will be interested, and I want him to take up the case."
"You haven't any theory, I suppose?" Wilmore asked, a little wistfully.
Francis shook his head.
"Not the ghost of one," he admitted. "The reason I am advising you to keep as quiet as possible, though, is just this. If you create a lot of interest in a disappearance, you have to satisfy the public curiosity when the mystery is solved."
"I see," Wilmore murmured. "All the same, I can't imagine Reggie getting mixed up in anything discreditable."
"Neither can I, from what I remember of the boy," Francis agreed. "Let me see, what was he doing in the City?"
"He was with Jameson & Scott, the stockbrokers," Wilmore replied. "He was only learning the business and he had no responsibilities. Curiously enough, though, when I went to see Mr. Jameson he pointed out one or two little matters that Reggie had attended to, which looked as though he were clearing up, somehow or other."
"He left no message there, I suppose?"
"Not a line or a word. He gave the porter five shillings, though, on the afternoon before he disappeared—a man who has done some odd jobs for him."
"Well, a voluntary disappearance is better than an involuntary one," Francis remarked. "What was his usual programme when he left the office?"
"He either went to Queen's and played racquets, or he went straight to his gymnasium in the Holborn. I telephoned to Queen's. He didn't call there on the Wednesday night, anyhow."
"Where's the gymnasium?"
"At 147 a Holborn. A lot of city young men go there late in the evening, but Reggie got off earlier than most of them and used to have the place pretty well to himself. I think that's why he stuck to it."
Francis made a note of the address.
"I'll get Shopland to step down there some time," he said. "Or better still, finish your lunch and we'll take a taxi there ourselves. I'm going to the country later on, but I've half-an-hour to spare. We can go without our coffee and be there in ten minutes."
"A great idea," Wilmore acquiesced. "It's probably the last place Reggie visited, anyway."
The gymnasium itself was a source of immense surprise to both Francis and Wilmore. It stretched along the entire top storey of a long block of buildings, and was elaborately fitted with bathrooms, a restaurant and a reading-room. The trapezes, bars, and all the usual appointments were of the best possible quality. The manager, a powerful-looking man dressed with the precision of the prosperous city magnate, came out of his office to greet them.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?" he enquired.
"First of all," Francis replied, "accept our heartiest congratulations upon your wonderful gymnasium."
The man bowed.
"It is the best appointed in the country, sir," he said proudly. "Absolutely no expense has been spared in fitting it up. Every one of our appliances is of the latest possible description, and our bathrooms are an exact copy of those in a famous Philadelphia club."
"What is the subscription?" Wilmore asked.
"Five shillings a year."
"And how many members?"
The manager smiled as he saw his two visitors exchange puzzled glances.
"Needless to say, sir," he added, "we are not self-supporting. We have very generous patrons."
"I lave heard my brother speak of this place as being quite wonderful," Wilmore remarked, "but I had no idea that it was upon this scale."
"Is your brother a member?" the man asked.
"He is. To tell you the truth, we came here to ask you a question about him."
"What is his name?"
"Reginald Wilmore. He was here, I think, last Wednesday night."
While Wilmore talked, Francis watched. He was conscious of a curious change in the man's deportment at the mention of Reginald Wilmore's name. From being full of bumptious, almost condescending good-nature, his expression had changed into one of stony incivility. There was something almost sinister in the tightly-closed lips and the suspicious gleam in his eyes.
"What questions did you wish to ask?" he demanded.
"Mr. Reginald Wilmore has disappeared," Francis explained simply. "He came here on leaving the office last Monday. He has not been seen or heard of since."
"Well?" the manager asked.
"We came to ask whether you happen to remember his being here on that evening, and whether he gave any one here any indication of his future movements. We thought, perhaps, that the instructor who was with him might have some information."
"Not a chance," was the uncompromising reply. "I remember Mr. Wilmore being here perfectly. He was doing double turns on the high bar. I saw more of him myself than any one. I was with him when he went down to have his swim."
"Did he seem in his usual spirits?" Wilmore ventured.
"I don't notice what spirits my pupils are in," the man answered, a little insolently. "There was nothing the matter with him so far as I know."
"He didn't say anything about going away?"
"Not a word. You'll excuse me, gentlemen—"
"One moment," Francis interrupted. "We came here ourselves sooner than send a detective. Enquiries are bound to be made as to the young man's disappearance, and we have reason to know that this is the last place at which he was heard of. It is not unreasonable, therefore, is it, that we should come to you for information?"
"Reasonable or unreasonable, I haven't got any," the man declared gruffly. "If Mr. Wilmore's cleared out, he's cleared out for some reason of his own. It's not my business and I don't know anything about it."
"You understand," Francis persisted, "that our interest in young Mr. Wilmore is entirely a friendly one?"
"I don't care whether it's friendly or unfriendly. I tell you I don't know anything about him. And," he added, pressing his thumb upon the button for the lift, "I'll wish you two gentlemen good afternoon. I've business to attend to."
Francis looked at him curiously.
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" he asked, a little abruptly.
"I can't say. My name is John Maclane."
"Heavy-weight champion about seven years ago?"
"I was," the man acknowledged. "You may have seen me in the ring. Now, gentlemen, if you please."
The lift had stopped opposite to them. The manager's gesture of dismissal was final.
"I am sorry, Mr. Maclane, if we have annoyed you with our questions," Francis said. "I wish you could remember a little more of Mr. Wilmore's last visit."
"Well, I can't, and that's all there is to it," was the blunt reply. "As to being annoyed, I am only annoyed when my time's wasted. Take these gents down, Jim. Good afternoon!"
The door was slammed to and they shot downwards. Francis turned to the lift man.
"Do you know a Mr. Wilmore who comes here sometimes?" he asked.
"Not likely!" the man scoffed. "They're comin' and goin' all the time from four o'clock in the afternoon till eleven at night. If I heard a name I shouldn't remember it. This way out, gentlemen."
Wilmore's hand was in his pocket but the man turned deliberately away. They walked out into the street.
"For downright incivility," the former observed, "commend me to the attendants of a young men's gymnasium!"
"All the same, old fellow," he said, "if you worry for another five minutes about Reggie, you're an ass."
At six o'clock that evening Francis turned his two-seater into a winding drive bordered with rhododendrons, and pulled up before the porch of a charming two-storied bungalow, covered with creepers, and with French-windows opening from every room onto the lawns. A man-servant who had heard the approach of the car was already standing in the porch. Sir Timothy, in white flannels and a panama hat, strolled across the lawn to greet his approaching guest.
"Excellently timed, my young friend," he said. "You will have time for your first cocktail before you change. My daughter you know, of course. Lady Cynthia Milton I think you also know."
Francis shook hands with the two girls who were lying under the cedar tree. Margaret Hilditch seemed to him more wonderful than ever in her white serge boating clothes. Lady Cynthia, who had apparently just arrived from some function in town, was still wearing muslin and a large hat.
"I am always afraid that Mr. Ledsam will have forgotten me," she observed, as she gave him her hand. "The last time I met you was at the Old Bailey, when you had been cheating the gallows of a very respectable wife murderer. Poynings, I think his name was."
"I remember it perfectly," Francis assented. "We danced together that night, I remember, at your aunt's, Mrs. Malcolm's, and you were intensely curious to know how Poynings had spent his evening."
"Lady Cynthia's reminder is perhaps a little unfortunate," Sir Timothy observed. "Mr. Ledsam is no longer the last hope of the enterprising criminal. He has turned over a new leaf. To secure the services of his silver tongue, you have to lay at his feet no longer the bags of gold from your ill-gotten gains but the white flower of the blameless life."
"This is all in the worst possible taste," Margaret Hilditch declared, in her cold, expressionless tone. "You might consider my feelings."
Lady Cynthia only laughed.
"My dear Margaret," she said, "if I thought that you had any, I should never believe that you were your father's daughter. Here's to them, anyway," she added, accepting the cocktail from the tray which the butler had just brought out. "Mr. Ledsam, are you going to attach yourself to me, or has Margaret annexed you?"
"I have offered myself to Mrs. Hilditch," Francis rejoined promptly, "but so far I have made no impression."
"Try her with a punt and a concertina after dinner," Lady Cynthia suggested. "After all, I came down here to better my acquaintance with my host. You flirted with me disgracefully when I was a debutante, and have never taken any notice of me since. I hate infidelity in a man. Sir Timothy, I shall devote myself to you. Can you play a concertina?"
"Where the higher forms of music are concerned," he replied, "I have no technical ability. I should prefer to sit at your feet."
"While I punt, I suppose?"
"There are backwaters," he suggested.
Lady Cynthia sipped her cocktail appreciatively.
"I wonder how it is," she observed, "that in these days, although we have become callous to everything else in life, cocktails and flirtations still attract us. You shall take me to a backwater after dinner, Sir Timothy. I shall wear my silver-grey and take an armful of those black cushions from the drawing-room. In that half light, there is no telling what success I may not achieve."
Sir Timothy sighed.
"Alas!" he said, "before dinner is over you will probably have changed your mind."
"Perhaps so," she admitted, "but you must remember that Mr. Ledsam is my only alternative, and I am not at all sure that he likes me. I am not sufficiently Victorian for his taste."
The dressing-bell rang. Sir Timothy passed his arm through Francis'.
"The sentimental side of my domain;" he said, "the others may show you. My rose garden across the stream has been very much admired. I am now going to give you a glimpse of The Walled House, an edifice the possession of which has made me more or less famous."
He led the way through a little shrubbery, across a further strip of garden and through a door in a high wall, which he opened with a key attached to his watch-chain. They were in an open park now, studded with magnificent trees, in the further corner of which stood an imposing mansion, with a great domed roof in the centre, and broad stone terraces, one of which led down to the river. The house itself was an amazingly blended mixture of old and new, with great wings supported by pillars thrown out on either side. It seemed to have been built without regard to any definite period of architecture, and yet to have attained a certain coherency—a far-reaching structure, with long lines of outbuildings. In the park itself were a score or more of horses, and in the distance beyond a long line of loose boxes with open doors. Even as they stood there, a grey sorrel mare had trotted up to their side and laid her head against Sir Timothy's shoulder. He caressed her surreptitiously, affecting not to notice the approach of other animals from all quarters.
"Let me introduce you to The Walled House," its owner observed, "so called, I imagine, because this wall, which is a great deal older than you or I, completely encloses the estate. Of course, you remember the old house, The Walled Palace, they called it? It belonged for many years to the Lynton family, and afterwards to the Crown."
"I remember reading of your purchase," Francis said, "and of course I remember the old mansion. You seem to have wiped it out pretty effectually."
"I was obliged to play the vandal," his host confessed. "In its previous state, the house was picturesque but uninhabitable. As you see it now, it is an exact reproduction of the country home of one of the lesser known of the Borgias—Sodina, I believe the lady's name was. You will find inside some beautiful arches, and a sense of space which all modern houses lack. It cost me a great deal of money, and it is inhabited, when I am in Europe, about once a fortnight. You know the river name for it? 'Timothy's Folly!"'
"But what on earth made you build it, so long as you don't care to live there?" Francis enquired.
Sir Timothy smiled reflectively.
"Well," he explained, "I like sometimes to entertain, and I like to entertain, when I do, on a grand scale. In London, if I give a party, the invitations are almost automatic. I become there a very insignificant link in the chain of what is known as Society, and Society practically helps itself to my entertainment, and sees that everything is done according to rule. Down here things are entirely different. An invitation to The Walled House is a personal matter. Society has nothing whatever to do with my functions here. The reception-rooms, too, are arranged according to my own ideas. I have, as you may have heard, the finest private gymnasium in England. The ballroom and music-room and private theatre, too, are famous."
"And do you mean to say that you keep that huge place empty?" Francis asked curiously.
"I have a suite of rooms there which I occasionally occupy," Sir Timothy replied, "and there are always thirty or forty servants and attendants of different sorts who have their quarters there. I suppose that my daughter and I would be there at the present moment but for the fact that we own this cottage. Both she and I, for residential purposes, prefer the atmosphere there."
"I scarcely wonder at it," Francis agreed.
They were surrounded now by various quadrupeds. As well as the horses, half-a-dozen of which were standing patiently by Sir Timothy's side, several dogs had made their appearance and after a little preliminary enthusiasm had settled down at his feet. He leaned over and whispered something in the ear of the mare who had come first. She trotted off, and the others followed suit in a curious little procession. Sir Timothy watched them, keeping his head turned away from Francis.
"You recognise the mare the third from the end?" he pointed out. "That is the animal I bought in Covent Garden. You see how she has filled out?"
"I should never have recognised her," the other confessed.
"Even Nero had his weaknesses," Sir Timothy remarked, waving the dogs away. "My animals' quarters are well worth a visit, if you have time. There is a small hospital, too, which is quite up to date."
"Do any of the horses work at all?" Francis asked.
Sir Timothy smiled.
"I will tell you a very human thing about my favourites," he said. "In the gardens on the other side of the house we have very extensive lawns, and my head groom thought he would make use of one of a my horses who had recovered from a serious accident and was really quite a strong beast, for one of the machines. He found the idea quite a success, and now he no sooner appears in the park with a halter than, instead of stampeding, practically every one of those horses comes cantering up with the true volunteering spirit. The one which he selects, arches his neck and goes off to work with a whole string of the others following. Dodsley—that is my groom's name—tells me that he does a great deal more mowing now than he need, simply because they worry him for the work. Gratitude, you see, Mr. Ledsam, sheer gratitude. If you were to provide a dozen alms-houses for your poor dependants, I wonder how many of them would be anxious to mow your lawn.... Come, let me show you your room now."
They passed back through the postern-gate into the gardens of The Sanctuary. Sir Timothy led the way towards the house.
"I am glad that you decided to spend the night, Mr. Ledsam," he said. "The river sounds a terribly hackneyed place to the Londoner, but it has beauties which only those who live with it can discover. Mind your head. My ceilings are low."
Francis followed his host along many passages, up and down stairs, until he reached a little suite of rooms at the extreme end of the building. The man-servant who had unpacked his bag stood waiting. Sir Timothy glanced around critically.
"Small but compact," he remarked. "There is a little sitting-room down that stair, and a bathroom beyond. If the flowers annoy you, throw them out of the window. And if you prefer to bathe in the river to-morrow morning, Brooks here will show you the diving pool. I am wearing a short coat myself to-night, but do as you please. We dine at half-past eight."
Sir Timothy disappeared with a courteous little inclination of the head. Francis dismissed the manservant at once as being out of keeping with his quaint and fascinating surroundings. The tiny room with its flowers, its perfume of lavender, its old-fashioned chintzes, and its fragrant linen, might still have been a room in a cottage. The sitting-room, with its veranda looking down upon the river, was provided with cigars, whisky and soda and cigarettes; a bookcase, with a rare copy of Rabelais, an original Surtees, a large paper Decameron, and a few other classics. Down another couple of steps was a perfectly white bathroom, with shower and plunge. Francis wandered from room to room, and finally threw himself into a chair on the veranda to smoke a cigarette. From the river below him came now and then the sound of voices. Through the trees on his right he could catch a glimpse, here and there, of the strange pillars and green domed roof of the Borghese villa.
It was one of those faultless June evenings when the only mission of the faintly stirring breeze seems to be to carry perfumes from garden to garden and to make the lightest of music amongst the rustling leaves. The dinner-table had been set out of doors, underneath the odorous cedar-tree. Above, the sky was an arc of the deepest blue through which the web of stars had scarcely yet found its way. Every now and then came the sound of the splash of oars from the river; more rarely still, the murmur of light voices as a punt passed up the stream. The little party at The Sanctuary sat over their coffee and liqueurs long after the fall of the first twilight, till the points of their cigarettes glowed like little specks of fire through the enveloping darkness. Conversation had been from the first curiously desultory, edited, in a way, Francis felt, for his benefit. There was an atmosphere about his host and Lady Cynthia, shared in a negative way by Margaret Hilditch, which baffled Francis. It seemed to establish more than a lack of sympathy—to suggest, even, a life lived upon a different plane. Yet every now and then their references to everyday happenings were trite enough. Sir Timothy had assailed the recent craze for drugs, a diatribe to which Lady Cynthia had listened in silence for reasons which Francis could surmise.
"If one must soothe the senses," Sir Timothy declared, "for the purpose of forgetting a distasteful or painful present, I cannot see why the average mind does not turn to the contemplation of beauty in some shape or other. A night like to-night is surely sedative enough. Watch these lights, drink in these perfumes, listen to the fall and flow of the water long enough, and you would arrive at precisely the same mental inertia as though you had taken a dose of cocaine, with far less harmful an aftermath."
Lady Cynthia shrugged her shoulders.
"Cocaine is in one's dressing-room," she objected, "and beauty is hard to seek in Grosvenor Square."
"The common mistake of all men," Sir Timothy continued, "and women, too, for the matter of that, is that we will persist in formulating doctrines for other people. Every man or woman is an entity of humanity, with a separate heaven and a separate hell. No two people can breathe the same air in the same way, or see the same picture with the same eyes."
Lady Cynthia rose to her feet and shook out the folds of her diaphanous gown, daring alike in its shapelessness and scantiness. She lit a cigarette and laid her hand upon Sir Timothy's arm.
"Come," she said, "must I remind you of your promise? You are to show me the stables at The Walled House before it is dark."
"You would see them better in the morning," he reminded her, rising with some reluctance to his feet.
"Perhaps," she answered, "but I have a fancy to see them now."
Sir Timothy looked back at the table.
"Margaret," he said, "will you look after Mr. Ledsam for a little time? You will excuse us, Ledsam? We shall not be gone long."
They moved away together towards the shrubbery and the door in the wall behind. Francis resumed his seat.
"Are you not also curious to penetrate the mysteries behind the wall, Mr. Ledsam?" Margaret asked.
"Not so curious but that I would much prefer to remain here," he answered.
She knocked the ash from her cigarette. She was looking directly at him, and he fancied that there was a gleam of curiosity in her beautiful eyes. There was certainly a little more abandon about her attitude. She was leaning back in a corner of her high-backed chair, and her gown, although it lacked the daring of Lady Cynthia's, seemed to rest about her like a cloud of blue-grey smoke.
"What a curious meal!" she murmured. "Can you solve a puzzle for me, Mr. Ledsam?"
"I would do anything for you that I could," he answered.
"Tell me, then, why my father asked you here to-night? I can understand his bringing you to the opera, that was just a whim of the moment, but an invitation down here savours of deliberation. Studiously polite though you are to one another, one is conscious all the time of the hostility beneath the surface."
"I think that so far as your father is concerned, it is part of his peculiar disposition," Francis replied. "You remember he once said that he was tired of entertaining his friends—that there was more pleasure in having an enemy at the board."
"Are you an enemy, Mr. Ledsam?" she asked curiously.
He rose a little abruptly to his feet, ignoring her question. There were servants hovering in the background.
"Will you walk with me in the gardens?" he begged. "Or may I take you upon the river?"
She rose to her feet. For a moment she seemed to hesitate.
"The river, I think," she decided. "Will you wait for three minutes while I get a wrap. You will find some punts moored to the landing-stage there in the stream. I like the very largest and most comfortable."
Francis strolled to the edge of the stream, and made his choice of punts. Soon a servant appeared with his arms full of cushions, and a moment or two later, Margaret herself, wrapped in an ermine cloak. She smiled a little deprecatingly as she picked her way across the lawn.
"Don't laugh at me for being such a chilly mortal, please," she enjoined. "And don't be afraid that I am going to propose a long expedition. I want to go to a little backwater in the next stream."
She settled herself in the stern and they glided down the narrow thoroughfare. The rose bushes from the garden almost lapped the water as they passed. Behind, the long low cottage, the deserted dinner-table, the smooth lawn with its beds of scarlet geraniums and drooping lilac shrubs in the background, seemed like a scene from fairyland, to attain a perfection of detail unreal, almost theatrical.
"To the right when you reach the river, please," she directed. "You will find there is scarcely any current. We turn up the next stream."
There was something almost mysterious, a little impressive, about the broad expanse of river into which they presently turned. Opposite were woods and then a sloping lawn. From a house hidden in the distance they heard the sound of a woman singing. They even caught the murmurs of applause as she concluded. Then there was silence, only the soft gurgling of the water cloven by the punt pole. They glided past the front of the great unlit house, past another strip of woodland, and then up a narrow stream.
"To the left here," she directed, "and then stop."
They bumped against the bank. The little backwater into which they had turned seemed to terminate in a bed of lilies whose faint fragrance almost enveloped them. The trees on either side made a little arch of darkness.
"Please ship your pole and listen," Margaret said dreamily. "Make yourself as comfortable as you can. There are plenty of cushions behind you. This is where I come for silence."
Francis obeyed her orders without remark. For a few moments, speech seemed impossible. The darkness was so intense that although he was acutely conscious of her presence there, only a few feet away, nothing but the barest outline of her form was visible. The silence which she had brought him to seek was all around them. There was just the faintest splash of water from the spot where the stream and the river met, the distant barking of a dog, the occasional croaking of a frog from somewhere in the midst of the bed of lilies. Otherwise the silence and the darkness were like a shroud. Francis leaned forward in his place. His hands, which gripped the sides of the punt, were hot. The serenity of the night mocked him.
"So this is your paradise," he said, a little hoarsely.
She made no answer. Her silence seemed to him more thrilling than words. He leaned forward. His hands fell upon the soft fur which encompassed her. They rested there. Still she did not speak. He tightened his grasp, moved further forward, the passion surging through his veins, his breath almost failing him. He was so near now that he heard her breathing, saw her face, as pale as ever. Her lips were a little parted, her eyes looked out, as it seemed to him, half in fear, half in hope. He bent lower still. She neither shrank away nor invited him.
"Dear!" he whispered.
Her arms stole from underneath the cloak, her fingers rested upon his shoulders. He scarcely knew whether it was a caress or whether she were holding him from her. In any case it was too late. With a little sob of passion his lips were pressed to hers. Even as she closed her eyes, the scent of the lilies seemed to intoxicate him.
He was back in his place without conscious movement. His pulses were quivering, the passion singing in his blood, the joy of her faint caress living proudly in his memory. It had been the moment of his life, and yet even now he felt sick at heart with fears, with the torment of her passiveness. She had lain there in his arms, he had felt the thrill of her body, some quaint inspiration had told him that she had sought for joy in that moment and had not wholly failed. Yet his anxiety was tumultuous, overwhelming. Then she spoke, and his heart leaped again. Her voice was more natural. It was not a voice which he had ever heard before.
"Give me a cigarette, please—and I want to go back."
He leaned over her again, struck a match with trembling fingers and gave her the cigarette. She smiled at him very faintly.
"Please go back now," she begged. "Smoke yourself, take me home slowly and say nothing."
He obeyed, but his knees were shaking when he stood up. Slowly, a foot at a time, they passed from the mesh of the lilies out into the broad stream. Almost as they did so, the yellow rim of the moon came up over the low hills. As they turned into their own stream, the light was strong enough for him to see her face. She lay there like a ghost, her eyes half closed, the only touch of colour in the shining strands of her beautiful hair. She roused herself a little as they swung around. He paused, leaning upon the pole.
"You are not angry?" he asked.
"No, I am not angry," she answered. "Why should I be? But I cannot talk to you about it tonight."
They glided to the edge of the landing-stage. A servant appeared and secured the punt.
"Is Sir Timothy back yet?" Margaret enquired.
"Not yet, madam."
She turned to Francis.
"Please go and have a whisky and soda in the smoking-room," she said, pointing to the open French windows. "I am going to my favourite seat. You will find me just across the bridge there."
He hesitated, filled with a passionate disinclination to leave her side even for a moment. She seemed to understand but she pointed once more to the room.
"I should like very much," she added, "to be alone for five minutes. If you will come and find me then—please!"
Francis stepped through the French windows into the smoking-room, where all the paraphernalia for satisfying thirst were set out upon the sideboard. He helped himself to whisky and soda and drank it absently, with his eyes fixed upon the clock. In five minutes he stepped once more back into the gardens, soft and brilliant now in the moonlight. As he did so, he heard the click of the gate in the wall, and footsteps. His host, with Lady Cynthia upon his arm, came into sight and crossed the lawn towards him. Francis, filled though his mind was with other thoughts, paused for a moment and glanced towards them curiously. Lady Cynthia seemed for a moment to have lost all her weariness. Her eyes were very bright, she walked with a new spring in her movements. Even her voice, as she addressed Francis, seemed altered.
"Sir Timothy has been showing me some of the wonders of his villa—do you call it a villa or a palace?" she asked.
"It is certainly not a palace," Sir Timothy protested, "and I fear that it has scarcely the atmosphere of a villa. It is an attempt to combine certain ideas of my own with the requirements of modern entertainment. Come and have a drink with us, Ledsam."
"I have just had one," Francis replied. "Mrs. Hilditch is in the rose garden and I am on my way to join her."
He passed on and the two moved towards the open French windows. He crossed the rustic bridge that led into the flower garden, turned down the pergola and came to a sudden standstill before the seat which Margaret had indicated. It was empty, but in the corner lay the long-stalked lily which she had picked in the backwater. He stood there for a moment, transfixed. There were other seats and chairs in the garden, but he knew before he started his search that it was in vain. She had gone. The flower, drooping a little now though the stalk was still wet with the moisture of the river, seemed to him like her farewell.
Francis was surprised, when he descended for breakfast the next morning, to find the table laid for one only. The butler who was waiting, handed him the daily papers and wheeled the electric heater to his side.