Chapter XV
 

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 car 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 g 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.