Chapter XII
 

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?"

She assented.

"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.

She nodded.

"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 alight 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.