Chapter XIX
 

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.

"Is no one else breakfasting?" Francis asked.

"Sir Timothy and Mrs. Hilditch are always served in their rooms, sir. Her ladyship is taking her coffee upstairs."

Francis ate his breakfast, glanced through the Times, lit a cigarette and went round to the garage for his car. The butler met him as he drove up before the porch.

"Sir Timothy begs you to excuse him this morning, sir," he announced. "His secretary has arrived from town with a very large correspondence which they are now engaged upon."

"And Mrs. Hilditch?" Francis ventured.

"I have not seen her maid this morning, sir," the man replied, "but Mrs. Hilditch never rises before midday. Sir Timothy hopes that you slept well, sir, and would like you to sign the visitors' book."

Francis signed his name mechanically, and was turning away when Lady Cynthia called to him from the stairs. She was dressed for travelling and followed by a maid, carrying her dressing-case.

"Will you take me up to town, Mr. Ledsam?" she asked.

"Delighted," he answered.

Their dressing-cases were strapped together behind and Lady Cynthia sank into the cushions by his side. They drove away from the house, Francis with a backward glance of regret. The striped sun-blinds had been lowered over all the windows, thrushes and blackbirds were twittering on the lawn, the air was sweet with the perfume of flowers, a boatman was busy with the boats. Out beyond, through the trees, the river wound its placid way.

"Quite a little paradise," Lady Cynthia murmured.

"Delightful," her companion assented. "I suppose great wealth has its obligations, but why any human being should rear such a structure as what he calls his Borghese villa, when he has a charming place like that to live in, I can't imagine."

Her silence was significant, almost purposeful. She unwound the veil from her motoring turban, took it off altogether and attached it to the cushions of the car with a hatpin.

"There," she said, leaning back, "you can now gaze upon a horrible example to the young women of to-day. You can see the ravages which late hours, innumerable cocktails, a thirst for excitement, a contempt of the simple pleasures of life, have worked upon my once comely features. I was quite good-looking, you know, in the days you first knew me."

"You were the most beautiful debutante of your season," he agreed.

"What do you think of me now?" she asked.

She met his gaze without flinching. Her face was unnaturally thin, with disfiguring hollows underneath her cheekbones; her lips lacked colour; even her eyes were lustreless. Her hair seemed to lack brilliancy. Only her silken eyebrows remained unimpaired, and a certain charm of expression which nothing seemed able to destroy.

"You look tired," he said.

"Be honest, my dear man," she rejoined drily. "I am a physical wreck, dependent upon cosmetics for the looks which I am still clever enough to palm off on the uninitiated."

"Why don't you lead a quieter life?" he asked. "A month or so in the country would put you all right."

She laughed a little hardly. Then for a moment she looked at him appraisingly.

"I was going to speak to you of nerves," she said, "but how would you ever understand? You look as though you had not a nerve in your body. I can't think how you manage it, living in London. I suppose you do exercises and take care of what you eat and drink."

"I do nothing of the sort," he assured her indignantly. "I eat and drink whatever I fancy. I have always had a direct object in life--my work--and I believe that has kept me fit and well. Nerve troubles come as a rule, I think, from the under-used brain."

"I must have been born with a butterfly disposition," she said. "I am quite sure that mine come because I find it so hard to be amused. I am sure I am most enterprising. I try whatever comes along, but nothing satisfies me."

"Why not try being in love with one of these men who've been in love with you all their lives?"

She laughed bitterly.

"The men who have cared for me and have been worth caring about," she said, "gave me up years ago. I mocked at them when they were in earnest, scoffed at sentiment, and told them frankly that when I married it would only be to find a refuge for broader life. The right sort wouldn't have anything to say to me after that, and I do not blame them. And here is the torture of it. I can't stand the wrong sort near me--physically, I mean. Mind, I believe I'm attracted towards people with criminal tastes and propensities. I believe that is what first led me towards Sir Timothy. Every taste I ever had in life seems to have become besmirched. I'm all the time full of the craving to do horrible things, but all the same I can't bear to be touched. That's the torment of it. I wonder if you can understand?"

"I think I can," he answered. "Your trouble lies in having the wrong friends and in lack of self-discipline. If you were my sister, I'd take you away for a fortnight and put you on the road to being cured."

"Then I wish I were your sister," she sighed.

"Don't think I'm unsympathetic," he went on, "because I'm not. Wait till we've got into the main road here and I'll try and explain."

They were passing along a country lane, so narrow that twigs from the hedges, wreathed here and there in wild roses, brushed almost against their cheeks. On their left was the sound of a reaping-machine and the perfume of new-mown hay. The sun was growing stronger at every moment. A transitory gleam of pleasure softened her face.

"It is ages since I smelt honeysuckle," she confessed, "except in a perfumer's shop. I was wondering what it reminded me of."

"That," he said, as they turned out into the broad main road, with its long vista of telegraph poles, "is because you have been neglecting the real for the sham, flowers themselves for their artificially distilled perfume. What I was going to try and put into words without sounding too priggish, Lady Cynthia," he went on, "is this. It is just you people who are cursed with a restless brain who are in the most dangerous position, nowadays. The things which keep us healthy and normal physically--games, farces, dinner-parties of young people, fresh air and exercise --are the very things which after a time fail to satisfy the person with imagination. You want more out of life, always the something you don't understand, the something beyond. And so you keep on trying new things, and for every new thing you try, you drop an old one. Isn't it something like that?"

"I suppose it is," she admitted wearily.

"Drugs take the place of wholesome wine," he went on, warming to his subject. "The hideous fascination of flirting with the uncouth or the impossible some way or another, stimulates a passion which simple means have ceased to gratify. You seek for the unusual in every way--in food, in the substitution of absinthe for your harmless Martini, of cocaine for your stimulating champagne. There is a horrible wave of all this sort of thing going on to-day in many places, and I am afraid," he concluded, "that a great many of our very nicest young women are caught up in it."

"Guilty," she confessed, "Now cure me."

"I could point out the promised land, but how, could I lead you to it?" he answered.

"You don't like me well enough," she sighed.

"I like you better than you believe," he assured her, slackening his speed a little. "We have met, I suppose, a dozen times in our lives. I have danced with you here and there, talked nonsense once, I remember, at a musical reception--"

"I tried to flirt with you then," she interrupted.

He nodded.

"I was in the midst of a great case," he said, and everything that happened to me outside it was swept out of my mind day by day. What I was going to say is that I have always liked you, from the moment when your mother presented me to you at your first dance."

"I wish you'd told me so," she murmured.

"It wouldn't have made any difference," he declared. "I wasn't in a position to think of a duke's daughter, in those days. I don't suppose I am now."

"Try," she begged hopefully.

He smiled back at her. The reawakening of her sense of humour was something.

"Too late," he regretted. "During the last month or so the thing has come to me which we all look forward to, only I don't think fate has treated me kindly. I have always loved normal ways and normal people, and the woman I care for is different."

"Tell me about her?" she insisted.

"You will be very surprised when I tell you her name," he said. "It is Margaret Hilditch."

She looked at him for a moment in blank astonishment.

"Heavens!" she exclaimed. "Oliver Hilditch's wife!"

"I can't help that," he declared, a little doggedly. "She's had a miserable time, I know. She was married to a scamp. I'm not quite sure that her father isn't as bad a one. Those things don't make any difference."

"They wouldn't with you," she said softly. "Tell me, did you say anything to her last night?"

"I did," he replied. "I began when we were out alone together. She gave me no encouragement to speak of, but at any rate she knows."

Lady Cynthia leaned a little forward in her place.

"Do you know where she is now?"

He was a little startled.

"Down at the cottage, I suppose. The butler told me that she never rose before midday."

"Then for once the butler was mistaken," his companion told him. "Margaret Hilditch left at six o'clock this morning. I saw her in travelling clothes get into the car and drive away."

"She left the cottage this morning before us?" Francis repeated, amazed.

"I can assure you that she did," Lady Cynthia insisted. "I never sleep, amongst my other peculiarities," she went on bitterly, "and I was lying on a couch by the side of the open window when the car came for her. She stopped it at the bend of the avenue --so that it shouldn't wake us up, I suppose. I saw her get in and drive away."

Francis was silent for several moments. Lady Cynthia watched him curiously.

"At any rate," she observed, "in whatever mood she went away this morning, you have evidently succeeded in doing what I have never seen any one else do--breaking through her indifference. I shouldn't have thought that anything short of an earthquake would have stirred Margaret, these days."

"These days?" he repeated quickly. "How long have you known her?"

"We were at school together for a short time," she told him. "It was while her father was in South America. Margaret was a very different person in those days."

"However was she induced to marry a person like Oliver Hilditch?" Francis speculated.

His companion shrugged her shoulders.

"Who knows?" she answered indifferently. "Are you going to drop me?"

"Wherever you like."

"Take me on to Grosvenor Square, if you will, then," she begged, "and deposit me at the ancestral mansion. I am really rather annoyed about Margaret," she went on, rearranging her veil. "I had begun to have hopes that you might have revived my taste for normal things."

"If I had had the slightest intimation--" he murmured.

"It would have made no difference," she interrupted dolefully. "Now I come to think of it, the Margaret whom I used to know--and there must be plenty of her left yet--is just the right type of woman for you."

They drew up outside the house in Grosvenor Square. Lady Cynthia held out her hand.

"Come and see me one afternoon, will you?" she invited.

"I'd like to very much," he replied.

She lingered on the steps and waved her hand to him--a graceful, somewhat insolent gesture.

"All the same, I think I shall do my best to make you forget Margaret," she called out. "Thanks for the lift up. A bientot!"