"Who is your amateur, Sir Timothy?" Wilmore asked harshly.
"Your brother, Mr. Wilmore," was the prompt reply. "You shall see the fight if I have your promise not to attempt in any way to interfere."
Wilmore rose to his feet.
"Do you mean to tell me," he demanded, "that my brother has been decoyed here, kept here against his will, to provide amusement for your guests?"
"Mr. Wilmore, I beg that you will be reasonable," Sir Timothy expostulated. "I saw your brother box at his gymnasium in Holborn. My agent made him the offer of this fight. One of my conditions had to be that he came here to train and that whilst he was here he held no communication whatever with the outside world. My trainer has ideas of his own and this he insists upon. Your brother in the end acquiesced. He was at first difficult to deal with as regards this condition, and he did, in fact, I believe, Mr. Ledsam, pay a visit to your office, with the object of asking you to become an intermediary between him and his relatives."
"He began a letter to me," Francis interposed, "and then mysteriously disappeared."
"The mystery is easily explained," Sir Timothy continued. "My trainer, Roger Hagon, a Varsity blue, and the best heavyweight of his year, occupies the chambers above yours. He saw from the window the arrival of Reginald Wilmore—which was according to instructions, as they were to come down to Hatch End together—went down the stairs to meet him, and, to cut a long story short, fetched him out of your office, Ledsam, without allowing him to finish his letter. This absolute isolation seems a curious condition, perhaps, but Hagon insists upon it, and I can assure you that he knows his business. The mystery, as you have termed it, of his disappearance that morning, is that he went upstairs with Hagon for several hours to undergo a medical examination, instead of leaving the building forthwith."
"Queer thing I never thought of Hagon," Francis remarked. "As a matter of fact, I never see him in the Temple, and I thought that he had left."
"May I ask," Wilmore intervened, "when my brother will be free to return to his home?"
"To-night, directly the fight is over," Sir Timothy replied. "Should he be successful, he will take with him a sum of money sufficient to start him in any business he chooses to enter."
Wilmore frowned slightly.
"But surely," he protested, "that would make him a professional pugilist?"
"Not at all," Sir Timothy replied. "For one thing, the match is a private one in a private house, and for another the money is a gift. There is no purse. If your brother loses, he gets nothing. Will you see the fight, Mr. Wilmore?"
"Yes, I will see it," was the somewhat reluctant assent.
"You will give me your word not to interfere in any way?"
"I shall not interfere," Wilmore promised. "If they are wearing regulation gloves, and the weights are about equal, and the conditions are what you say, it is the last thing I should wish to do."
"Capital!" Sir Timothy exclaimed. "Now to pass on. There is one other feature of my entertainments concerning which I have something to say—a series of performances which takes place on my launch at odd times. There is one fixed for tonight. I can say little about it except that it is unusual. I am going to ask you, Lady Cynthia, and you, Ledsam, to witness it. When you have seen that, you know everything. Then you and I, Ledsam, can call one another's hands. I shall have something else to say to you, but that is outside the doings here."
"Are we to see the fight in the gymnasium?" Lady Cynthia enquired.
Sir Timothy shook his head.
"I do not allow women there under any conditions," he said. "You and Margaret had better stay here whilst that takes place. It will probably be over in twenty minutes. It will be time then for us to find our way to the launch. After that, if you have any appetite, supper. I will order some caviare sandwiches for you," Sir Timothy went on, ringing the bell, "and some wine."
Lady Cynthia smiled.
"It is really a very wonderful party," she murmured.
Their host ushered the two men across the hall, now comparatively deserted, for every one had settled down to his or her chosen amusement—down a long passage, through a private door which he unlocked with a Yale key, and into the gymnasium. There were less than fifty spectators seated around the ring, and Francis, glancing at them hastily, fancied that he recognised nearly every one of them. There was Baker, a judge, a couple of actors, Lord Meadowson, the most renowned of sporting peers, and a dozen who followed in his footsteps; a little man who had once been amateur champion in the bantam class, and who was now considered the finest judge of boxing in the world; a theatrical manager, the present amateur boxing champion, and a sprinkling of others. Sir Timothy and his companions took their chairs amidst a buzz of welcome. Almost immediately, the man who was in charge of the proceedings, and whose name was Harrison, rose from his place.
"Gentlemen," he said, "this is a sporting contest, but one under usual rules and usual conditions. An amateur, who tips the scales at twelve stone seven, who has never engaged in a boxing contest in his life, is matched against a young man from a different sphere of life, who intends to adopt the ring as his profession, but who has never as yet fought in public. Names, gentlemen, as you know, are seldom mentioned here. I will only say that the first in the ring is the nominee of our friend and host, Sir Timothy Brast; second comes the nominee of Lord Meadowson."
Wilmore, notwithstanding his pre-knowledge, gave a little gasp. The young man who stood now within a few yards of him, carelessly swinging his gloves in his hand, was without a doubt his missing brother. He looked well and in the pink of condition; not only well but entirely confident and at his ease. His opponent, on the other hand, a sturdier man, a few inches shorter, was nervous and awkward, though none the less determined-looking. Sir Timothy rose and whispered in Harrison's ear. The latter nodded. In a very few moments the preliminaries were concluded, the fight begun.
Francis, glad of a moment or two's solitude in which to rearrange his somewhat distorted sensations, found an empty space in the stern of the launch and stood leaning over the rail. His pulses were still tingling with the indubitable excitement of the last half-hour. It was all there, even now, before his eyes like a cinematograph picture—the duel between those two men, a duel of knowledge, of strength, of science, of courage. From beginning to end, there had been no moment when Francis had felt that he was looking on at what was in any way a degrading or immoral spectacle. Each man had fought in his way to win. Young Wilmore, graceful as a panther, with a keen, joyous desire of youth for supremacy written in his face and in the dogged lines of his mouth; the budding champion from the East End less graceful, perhaps, but with even more strength and at least as much determination, had certainly done his best to justify his selection. There were no points to be scored. There had been no undue feinting, no holding, few of the tricks of the professional ring. It was a fight to a finish, or until Harrison gave the word. And the better man had won. But even that knock-out blow which Reggie Wilmore had delivered after a wonderful feint, had had little that was cruel in it. There was something beautiful almost in the strength and grace with which it had been delivered—the breathless eagerness, the waiting, the end.
Francis felt a touch upon his arm and looked around. A tall, sad-faced looking woman, whom he had noticed with a vague sense of familiarity in the dancing-room, was standing by his side.
"You have forgotten me, Mr. Ledsam," she said.
"For the moment," he admitted.
"I am Isabel Culbridge," she told him, watching his face.
"Lady Isabel?" Francis repeated incredulously. "But surely—"
"Better not contradict me," she interrupted. "Look again."
Francis looked again.
"I am very sorry," he said. "It is some time, is it not, since we met?"
She stood by his side, and for a few moments neither of them spoke. The little orchestra in the bows had commenced to play softly, but there was none of the merriment amongst the handful of men and women generally associated with a midnight river picnic. The moon was temporarily obscured, and it seemed as though some artist's hand had so dealt with the few electric lights that the men, with their pale faces and white shirt-fronts, and the three or four women, most of them, as it happened, wearing black, were like some ghostly figures in some sombre procession. Only the music kept up the pretence that this was in any way an ordinary excursion. Amongst the human element there was an air of tenseness which seemed rather to increase as they passed into the shadowy reaches of the river.
"You have been ill, I am afraid?" Francis said tentatively.
"If you will," she answered, "but my illness is of the soul. I have become one of a type," she went on, "of which you will find many examples here. We started life thinking that it was clever to despise the conventional and the known and to seek always for the daring and the unknown. New experiences were what we craved for. I married a wonderful husband. I broke his heart and still looked for new things. I had a daughter of whom I was fond—she ran away with my chauffeur and left me; a son whom I adored, and he was killed in the war; a lover who told me that he worshipped me, who spent every penny I had and made me the laughing-stock of town. I am still looking for new things."
"Sir Timothy's parties are generally supposed to provide them," Francis observed.
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"So far they seem very much like anybody's else," she said. "The fight might have been amusing, but no women were allowed. The rest was very wonderful in its way, but that is all. I am still hoping for what we are to see downstairs."
They heard Sir Timothy's voice a few yards away, and turned to look at him. He had just come from below, and had paused opposite a man who had been standing a little apart from the others, one of the few who was wearing an overcoat, as though he felt the cold. In the background were the two servants who had guarded the gangway.
"Mr. Manuel Loito," Sir Timothy said—"or shall I say Mr. Shopland?—my invited guests are welcome. I have only one method of dealing with uninvited ones."
The two men suddenly stepped forward. Shopland made no protest, attempted no struggle. They lifted him off his feet as though he were a baby, and a moment later there was a splash in the water. They threw a life-belt after him.
"Always humane, you see," Sir Timothy remarked, as he leaned over the side. "Ah! I see that even in his overcoat our friend is swimmer enough to reach the bank. You find our methods harsh, Ledsam?" he asked, turning a challenging gaze towards the latter.
Francis, who had been watching Shopland come to the surface, shrugged his shoulders. He delayed answering for a moment while he watched the detective, disdaining the life-belt, swim to the opposite shore.
"I suppose that under the circumstances," Francis said, "he was prepared to take his risk."
"You should know best about that," Sir Timothy rejoined. "I wonder whether you would mind looking after Lady Cynthia? I shall be busy for a few moments."
Francis stepped across the deck towards where Lady Cynthia had been sitting by her host's side. They had passed into the mouth of a tree-hung strip of the river. The engine was suddenly shut off. A gong was sounded. There was a murmur, almost a sob of relief, as the little sprinkling of men and women rose hastily to their feet and made their way towards the companion-way. Downstairs, in the saloon, with its white satinwood panels and rows of swing chairs, heavy curtains were drawn across the portholes, all outside light was shut out from the place. At the further end, raised slightly from the floor, was a sanded circle. Sir Timothy made his way to one of the pillars by its side and turned around to face the little company of his guests. His voice, though it seemed scarcely raised above a whisper, was extraordinarily clear and distinct. Even Francis, who, with Lady Cynthia, had found seats only just inside the door, could hear every word he said.
"My friends," he began, "you have often before been my guests at such small fights as we have been able to arrange in as unorthodox a manner as possible between professional boxers. There has been some novelty about them, but on the last occasion I think it was generally observed that they had become a little too professional, a little ultra-scientific. There was something which they lacked. With that something I am hoping to provide you to-night. Thank you, Sir Edgar," he murmured, leaning down towards his neighbour.
He held his cigarette in the flame of a match which the other had kindled. Francis, who was watching intently, was puzzled at the expression with which for a moment, as he straightened himself, Sir Timothy glanced down the room, seeking for Lady Cynthia's eyes. In a sense it was as though he were seeking for something he needed—approbation, sympathy, understanding.
"Our hobby, as you know, has been reality," he continued. "That is what we have not always been able to achieve. Tonight I offer you reality. There are two men here, one an East End coster, the other an Italian until lately associated with an itinerant vehicle of musical production. These two men have not outlived sensation as I fancy so many of us have. They hate one another to the death. I forget their surnames, but Guiseppe has stolen Jim's girl, is living with her at the present moment, and proposes to keep her. Jim has sworn to have the lives of both of them. Jim's career, in its way, is interesting to us. He has spent already six years in prison for manslaughter, and a year for a brutal assault upon a constable. Guiseppe was tried in his native country for a particularly fiendish murder, and escaped, owing, I believe, to some legal technicality. That, however, has nothing to do with the matter. These men have sworn to fight to the death, and the girl, I understand, is willing to return to Jim if he should be successful, or to remain with Guiseppe if he should show himself able to retain her. The fight between these men, my friends, has been transferred from Seven Dials for your entertainment. It will take place before you here and now."
There was a little shiver amongst the audience. Francis, almost to his horror, was unable to resist the feeling of queer excitement which stole through his veins. A few yards away, Lady Isabel seemed to have become transformed. She was leaning forward in her chair, her eyes glowing, her lips parted, rejuvenated, dehumanised. Francis' immediate companion, however, rather surprised him. Her eyes were fixed intently upon Sir Timothy's. She seemed to have been weighing every word he had spoken. There was none of that hungry pleasure in her face which shone from the other woman's and was reflected in the faces of many of the others. She seemed to be bracing herself for a shock. Sir Timothy looked over his shoulder towards the door which opened upon the sanded space.
"You can bring your men along," he directed.
One of the attendants promptly made his appearance. He was holding tightly by the arm a man of apparently thirty years of age, shabbily dressed, barefooted, without collar or necktie, with a mass of black hair which looked as though it had escaped the care of any barber for many weeks. His complexion was sallow; he had high cheekbones and a receding chin, which gave him rather the appearance of a fox. He shrank a little from the lights as though they hurt his eyes, and all the time he looked furtively back to the door, through which in a moment or two his rival was presently escorted. The latter was a young man of stockier build, ill-conditioned, and with the brutal face of the lowest of his class. Two of his front teeth were missing, and there was a livid mark on the side of his cheek. He looked neither to the right nor to the left. His eyes were fixed upon the other man, and they looked death.
"The gentleman who first appeared," Sir Timothy observed, stepping up into the sanded space but still half facing the audience, "is Guiseppe, the Lothario of this little act. The other is Jim, the wronged husband. You know their story. Now, Jim," he added, turning towards the Englishman, "I put in your trousers pocket these notes, two hundred pounds, you will perceive. I place in the trousers pocket of Guiseppe here notes to the same amount. I understand you have a little quarrel to fight out. The one who wins will naturally help himself to the other's money, together with that other little reward which I imagine was the first cause of your quarrel. Now... let them go."
Sir Timothy resumed his seat and leaned back in leisurely fashion. The two attendants solemnly released their captives. There was a moment's intense silence. The two men seemed fencing for position. There was something stealthy and horrible about their movements as they crept around one another. Francis realised what it was almost as the little sobbing breath from those of the audience who still retained any emotion, showed him that they, too, foresaw what was going to happen. Both men had drawn knives from their belts. It was murder which had been let loose.
Francis found himself almost immediately upon his feet. His whole being seemed crying out for interference. Lady Cynthia's death-white face and pleading eyes seemed like the echo of his own passionate aversion to what was taking place. Then he met Sir Timothy's gaze across the room and he remembered his promise. Under no conditions was he to protest or interfere. He set his teeth and resumed his seat. The fight went on. There were little sobs and tremors of excitement, strange banks of silence. Both men seemed out of condition. The sound of their hoarse breathing was easily heard against the curtain of spellbound silence. For a time their knives stabbed the empty air, but from the first the end seemed certain. The Englishman attacked wildly. His adversary waited his time, content with avoiding the murderous blows struck at him, striving all the time to steal underneath the other's guard. And then, almost without warning, it was all over. Jim was on his back in a crumpled heap. There was a horrid stain upon his coat. The other man was kneeling by his side, hate, glaring out of his eyes, guiding all the time the rising and falling of his knife. There was one more shriek—then silence only the sound of the victor's breathing as he rose slowly from his ghastly task. Sir Timothy rose to his feet and waved his hand. The curtain went down.
"On deck, if you please, ladies and gentlemen," he said calmly.
No one stirred. A woman began to sob. A fat, unhealthy-looking man in front of Francis reeled over in a dead faint. Two other of the guests near had risen from their seats and were shouting aimlessly like lunatics. Even Francis was conscious of that temporary imprisonment of the body due to his lacerated nerves. Only the clinging of Lady Cynthia to his arm kept him from rushing from the spot.
"You are faint?" he whispered hoarsely.
"Upstairs—air," she faltered.
They rose to their feet. The sound of Sir Timothy's voice reached them as they ascended the stairs.
"On deck, every one, if you please," he insisted. "Refreshments are being served there. There are inquisitive people who watch my launch, and it is inadvisable to remain here long."
People hurried out then as though their one desire was to escape from the scene of the tragedy. Lady Cynthia, still clinging to Francis' arm, led him to the furthermost corner of the launch. There were real tears in her eyes, her breath was coming in little sobs.
"Oh, it was horrible!" she cried. "Horrible! Mr. Ledsam—I can't help it—I never want to speak to Sir Timothy again!"
One final horror arrested for a moment the sound of voices. There was a dull splash in the river. Something had been thrown overboard. The orchestra began to play dance music. Conversation suddenly burst out. Every one was hysterical. A Peer of the Realm, red-eyed and shaking like an aspen leaf, was drinking champagne out of the bottle. Every one seemed to be trying to outvie the other in loud conversation, in outrageous mirth. Lady Isabel, with a glass of champagne in her hand, leaned back towards Francis.
"Well," she asked, "how are you feeling, Mr. Ledsam?"
"As though I had spent half-an-hour in Hell," he answered.
She screamed with laughter.
"Hear this man," she called out, "who will send any poor ragamuffin to the gallows if his fee is large enough! Of course," she added, turning back to him, "I ought to remember you are a normal person and to-night's entertainment was not for normal persons. For myself I am grateful to Sir Timothy. For a few moments of this aching aftermath of life, I forgot."
Suddenly all the lights around the launch flamed out, the music stopped. Sir Timothy came up on deck. On either side of him was a man in ordinary dinner clothes. The babel of voices ceased. Everyone was oppressed by some vague likeness. A breathless silence ensued.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Sir Timothy said, and once more the smile upon his lips assumed its most mocking curve, "let me introduce you to the two artists who have given us to-night such a realistic performance, Signor Guiseppe Elito and Signor Carlos Marlini. I had the good fortune," he went on, "to witness this very marvellous performance in a small music-hall at Palermo, and I was able to induce the two actors to pay us a visit over here. Steward, these gentlemen will take a glass of champagne."
The two Sicilians raised their glasses and bowed expectantly to the little company. They received, however, a much greater tribute to their performance than the applause which they had been expecting. There reigned everywhere a deadly, stupefied silence. Only a half-stifled sob broke from Lady Cynthia's lips as she leaned over the rail, her face buried in her hands, her whole frame shaking.
Francis and Margaret sat in the rose garden on the following morning. Their conversation was a little disjointed, as the conversation of lovers in a secluded and beautiful spot should be, but they came back often to the subject of Sir Timothy.
"If I have misunderstood your father," Francis, declared, "and I admit that I have, it has been to some extent his own fault. To me he was always the deliberate scoffer against any code of morals, a rebel against the law even if not a criminal in actual deeds. I honestly believed that The Walled House was the scene of disreputable orgies, that your father was behind Fairfax in that cold-blooded murder, and that he was responsible in some sinister way for the disappearance of Reggie Wilmore. Most of these things seem to have been shams, like the fight last night."
She moved uneasily in her place.
"I am glad I did not see that," she said, with a shiver.
"I think," he went on, "that the reason why your father insisted upon Lady Cynthia's and my presence there was that he meant it as a sort of allegory. Half the vices in life he claims are unreal."
Margaret passed her arm through his and leaned a little towards him.
"If you knew just one thing I have never told you," she confided, "I think that you would feel sorry for him. I do, more and more every day, because in a way that one thing is my fault."
Notwithstanding the warm sunshine, she suddenly shivered. Francis took her hands in his. They were cold and lifeless.
"I know that one thing, dear," he told her quietly.
She looked at him stonily. There was a questioning fear in her eyes.
"I know that your fattier killed Oliver Hilditch."
She suddenly broke out into a stream of words. There was passion in her tone and in her eyes. She was almost the accuser.
"My father was right, then!" she exclaimed. "He told me this morning that he believed that it was to you or to your friend at Scotland Yard that Walter had told his story. But you don't know you don't know how terrible the temptation was how—you see I say it quite coolly—how Oliver Hilditch deserved to die. He was trusted by my father in South America and he deceived him, he forged the letters which induced me to marry him. It was part of his scheme of revenge. This was the first time we had any of us met since. I told my father the truth that afternoon. He knew for the first time how my marriage came about. My husband had prayed me to keep silent. I refused. Then he became like a devil. We were there, we three, that night after you left, and Francis, as I live, if my father had not killed him, I should have!"
"There was a time when I believed that you had," he reminded her. "I didn't behave like a pedagogic upholder of the letter of the law then, did I?"
She drew closer to him.
"You were wonderful," she whispered.
"Dearest, your father has nothing to fear from me," he assured her tenderly. "On the contrary, I think that I can show him the way to safety."
She rose impulsively to her feet.
"He will be here directly," she said. "He promised to come across at half-past twelve. Let us go and meet him. But, Francis—"
For a single moment she crept into his arms. Their lips met, her eyes shone into his. He held her away from him a moment later. The change was amazing. She was no longer a tired woman. She had become a girl again. Her eyes were soft with happiness, the little lines had gone from about her mouth, she walked with all the spring of youth and happiness.
"It is marvellous," she whispered. "I never dreamed that I should ever be happy again."
They crossed the rustic bridge which led on to the lawn. Lady Cynthia came out of the house to meet them. She showed no signs of fatigue, but her eyes and her tone were full of anxiety.
"Margaret," she cried, "do you know that the hall is filled with your father's luggage, and that the car is ordered to take him to Southampton directly after lunch?"
Margaret and Francis exchanged glances.
"Sir Timothy may change his mind," the latter observed. "I have news for him directly he arrives."
On the other side of the wall they heard the whinnying of the old mare, the sound of galloping feet from all directions.
"Here he comes!" Lady Cynthia exclaimed. "I shall go and meet him."
Francis laid his hand upon her arm.
"Let me have a word with him first," he begged.
"You are not going to say anything—that will make him want to go away?"
"I am going to tell him something which I think will keep him at home."
Sir Timothy came through the postern-gate, a moment or two later. He waved his hat and crossed the lawn in their direction. Francis went alone to meet him and, as he drew near, was conscious of a little shock. His host, although he held himself bravely, seemed to have aged in the night.
"I want one word with you, sir, in your study, please," Francis said.
Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders and led the way. He turned to wave his hand once more to Margaret and Lady Cynthia, however, and he looked with approval at the luncheon-table which a couple of servants were laying under the cedar tree.
"Wonderful thing, these alfresco meals," he declared. "I hope Hedges won't forget the maraschino with the melons. Come into my den, Ledsam."
He led the way in courtly fashion. He was the ideal host leading a valued guest to his sanctum for a few moments' pleasant conversation. But when they arrived in the little beamed room and the door was closed, his manner changed. He looked searchingly, almost challengingly at Francis.
"You have news for me?" he asked.
"Yes!" Francis answered.
Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders. He threw himself a little wearily into an easy-chair. His hands strayed out towards a cigarette box. He selected one and lit it.
"I expected your friend, Mr. Shopland," he murmured. "I hope he is none the worse for his ducking."
"Shopland is a fool," Francis replied. "He has nothing to do with this affair, anyway. I have something to give you, Sir Timothy."
He took the two papers from his pocket and handed them over.
"I bought these from John Walter the day before yesterday," he continued. "I gave him two hundred pounds for them. The money was just in time. He caught a steamer for Australia late in the afternoon. I had this wireless from him this morning."
Sir Timothy studied the two documents, read the wireless. There was little change in his face. Only for a single moment his lips quivered.
"What does this mean?" he asked, rising to his feet with the documents in his hand.
"It means that those papers are yours to do what you like with. I drafted the second one so that you should be absolutely secure against any further attempt at blackmail. As a matter of fact, though, Walter is on his last legs. I doubt whether he will live to land in Australia."
"You know that I killed Oliver Hilditch?" Sir Timothy said, his eyes fixed upon the other's.
"I know that you killed Oliver Hilditch," Francis repeated. "If I had been Margaret's father, I think that I should have done the same."
Sir Timothy seemed suddenly very much younger. The droop of his lips was no longer pathetic. There was a little humourous twitch there.
"You, the great upholder of the law?" he murmured.
"I have heard the story of Oliver Hilditch's life," Francis replied. "I was partially responsible for saving him from the gallows. I repeat what I have said. And if you will—"
He held out his hand. Sir Timothy hesitated for one moment. Instead of taking it, he laid his hand upon Francis' shoulder.
"Ledsam," he said, "we have thought wrong things of one another. I thought you a prig, moral to your finger-tips with the morality of the law and the small places. Perhaps I was tempted for that reason to give you a wrong impression of myself. But you must understand this. Though I have had my standard and lived up to it all my life, I am something of a black sheep. A man stole my wife. I did not trouble the Law Courts. I killed him."
"I have the blood of generations of lawyers in my veins," Francis declared, "but I have read many a divorce case in which I think it would have been better and finer if the two men had met as you and that man met."
"I was born with the love of fighting in my bones," Sir Timothy went on. "In my younger days, I fought in every small war in the southern hemisphere. I fought, as you know, in our own war. I have loved to see men fight honestly and fairly."
"It is a man's hobby," Francis pronounced.
"I encouraged you deliberately to think," Sir Timothy went on, "what half the world thinks that—my parties at The Walled House were mysterious orgies of vice. They have, as a matter of fact, never been anything of the sort. The tragedies which are supposed to have taken place on my launch have been just as much mock tragedies as last night's, only I have not previously chosen to take the audiences into my confidence. The greatest pugilists in the world have fought in my gymnasium, often, if you will, under illegal conditions, but there has never been a fight that was not fair."
"I believe that," Francis said.
"And there is another matter for which I take some blame," Sir Timothy went on, "the matter of Fairfax and Victor Bidlake. They were neither of them young men for whose loss the world is any the worse. Fairfax to some extent imposed upon me. He was brought to The Walled House by a friend who should have known better. He sought my confidence. The story he told was exactly that of the mock drama upon the launch. Bidlake had taken his wife. He had no wish to appeal to the Courts. He wished to fight, a point of view with which I entirely sympathised. I arranged a fight between the two. Bidlake funked it and never turned up. My advice to Fairfax was, whenever he met Bidlake, to give him the soundest thrashing he could. That night at Soto's I caught sight of Fairfax some time before dinner. He was talking to the woman who had been his wife, and he had evidently been drinking. He drew me on one side. 'To-night,' he told me, 'I am going to settle accounts with Bidlake.' 'Where?' I asked. 'Here,' he answered. He went out to the theatre, I upstairs to dine. That was the extent of the knowledge I possessed which enabled me to predict some unwonted happening that night. Fairfax was a bedrugged and bedrunken decadent who had not the courage afterwards to face what he had done. That is all."
The hand slipped from Francis' shoulder. Francis, with a smile, held out his own. They stood there for a moment with clasped hands—a queer, detached moment, as it seemed to Francis, in a life which during the last few months had been full of vivid sensations. From outside came the lazy sounds of the drowsy summer morning—the distant humming of a mowing machine, the drone of a reaper in the field beyond, the twittering of birds in the trees, even the soft lapping of the stream against the stone steps. The man whose hand he was holding seemed to Francis to have become somehow transformed. It was as though he had dropped a mask and were showing a more human, a more kindly self. Francis wondered no longer at the halting gallop of the horses in the field.
"You'll be good to Margaret?" Sir Timothy begged. "She's had a wretched time."
Francis smiled confidently.
"I'm going to make up for it, sir," he promised. "And this South American trip," he continued, as they turned towards the French windows, "you'll call that off?"
Sir Timothy hesitated.
"I am not quite sure."
When they reached the garden, Lady Cynthia was alone. She scarcely glanced at Francis. Her eyes were anxiously fixed upon his companion.
"Margaret has gone in to make the cocktails herself," she explained. "We have both sworn off absinthe for the rest of our lives, and we know Hedges can't be trusted to make one without."
"I'll go and help her," Francis declared.
Lady Cynthia passed her arm through Sir Timothy's.
"I want to know about South America," she begged. "The sight of those trunks worries me."
Sir Timothy's casual reply was obviously a subterfuge. They crossed the lawn and the rustic bridge, almost in silence, passing underneath the pergola of roses to the sheltered garden at the further end. Then Lady Cynthia paused.
"You are not going to South America," she pleaded, "alone?"
Sir Timothy took her hands.
"My dear," he said, "listen, please, to my confession. I am a fraud. I am not a purveyor of new sensations for a decadent troop of weary, fashionable people. I am a fraud sometimes even to myself. I have had good luck in material things. I have had bad luck in the precious, the sentimental side of life. It has made something of an artificial character of me, on the surface at any rate. I am really a simple, elderly man who loves fresh air, clean, honest things, games, and a healthy life. I have no ambitions except those connected with sport. I don't even want to climb to the topmost niches in the world of finance. I think you have looked at me through the wrong-coloured spectacles. You have had a whimsical fancy for a character which does not exist."
"What I have seen," Lady Cynthia answered, "I have seen through no spectacles at all—with my own eyes. But what I have seen, even, does not count. There is something else."
"I am within a few weeks of my fiftieth birthday," Sir Timothy reminded her, "and you, I believe, are twenty-nine."
"My dear man," Lady Cynthia assured him fervently, "you are the only person in the world who can keep me from feeling forty-nine."
"And your people—"
"Heavens! My people, for the first time in their lives, will count me a brilliant success," Lady Cynthia declared. "You'll probably have to lend dad money, and I shall be looked upon as the fairy child who has restored the family fortunes."
Sir Timothy leaned a little towards her.
"Last of all," he said, and this time his voice was not quite so steady, "are you really sure that you care for me, dear, because I have loved you so long, and I have wanted love so badly, and it is so hard to believe—"
It was the moment, it seemed to her, for which she had prayed. She was in his arms, tired no longer, with all the splendid fire of life in her love-lit eyes and throbbing pulses. Around them the bees were humming, and a soft summer breeze shook the roses and brought little wafts of perfume from the carnation bed.
"There is nothing in life," Lady Cynthia murmured brokenly, "so wonderful as this."
Francis and Margaret came out from the house, the former carrying a silver tray. They had spent a considerable time over their task, but Lady Cynthia and Sir Timothy were still absent. Hedges followed them, a little worried.
"Shall I ring the gong, madam?" he asked Margaret. "Cook has taken such pains with her omelette."
"I think you had better, Hedges," Margaret assented.
The gong rang out—and rang again. Presently Lady Cynthia and Sir Timothy appeared upon the bridge and crossed the lawn. They were walking a little apart. Lady Cynthia was looking down at some roses which she had gathered. Sir Timothy's unconcern seemed a trifle overdone. Margaret laughed very softly.
"A stepmother, Francis!" she whispered. "Just fancy Cynthia as a stepmother!"