Chapter XVIII
 

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.

"With me?"

"With you."

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 use 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.