Chapter XXI
 

It was a day when chance was kind to Francis. After leaving his rooms at the Temple, he made a call at one of the great clubs in Pall Mall, to enquire as to the whereabouts of a friend. On his way back towards the Sheridan, he came face to face with Margaret Hilditch, issuing from the doors of one of the great steamship companies. For a moment he almost failed to recognise her. She reminded him more of the woman of the tea-shop. Her costume, neat and correct though it was, was studiously unobtrusive. Her motoring veil, too, was obviously worn to assist her in escaping notice.

She, too, came to a standstill at seeing him. Her first ejaculations betrayed a surprise which bordered on consternation. Then Francis, with a sudden inspiration, pointed to the long envelope which she was carrying in her hand.

"You have been to book a passage somewhere!" he exclaimed.

"Well?"

The monosyllable was in her usual level tone. Nevertheless, he could see that she was shaken:

"You were going away without seeing me again?"' he asked reproachfully.

"Yes!" she admitted.

"Why?"

She looked up and down a little helplessly.

"I owe you no explanation for my conduct," she said. "Please let me pass."

"Could we talk for a few minutes, please?" he begged. "Tell me where you were going?"

"Oh, back to lunch, I suppose," she answered.

"Your father has been up, looking for you," he told her.

"I telephoned to The Sanctuary," she replied. "He had just left."

"I am very anxious," he continued, "not to distress you, but I cannot let you go away like this. Will you come to my rooms and let us talk for a little time?"

She made no answer. Somehow, he realised that speech just then was difficult. He called a taxi and handed her in. They drove to Clarges Street in silence. He led the way up the stairs, gave some quick orders to his servant whom he met coming down, ushered her into his sitting-room and saw her ensconced in an easy-chair.

"Please take off that terrible veil," he begged.

"It is pinned on to my hat," she told him.

"Then off with both," he insisted. "You can't eat luncheon like that. I'm not going to try and bully you. If you've booked your passage to Timbuctoo and you really want to go--why, you must. I only want the chance of letting you know that I am coming after you."

She took off her hat and veil and threw them on to the sofa, glancing sideways at a mirror let into the door of a cabinet.

"My hair is awful," she declared:

He laughed gaily, and turned around from the sideboard, where he was busy mixing cocktails.

"Thank heavens for that touch of humanity!" he exclaimed. "A woman who can bother about her hair when she takes her hat off, is never past praying for. Please drink this."

She obeyed. He took the empty glass away from her. Then he came over to the hearthrug by her side.

"Do you know that I kissed you last night?" he reminded her.

"I do," she answered. "That is why I have just paid eighty-four pounds for a passage to Buenos Ayres."

"I should have enjoyed the trip," he said. "Still, I'm glad I haven't to go."

"Do you really mean that you would have come after me?" she asked curiously.

"Of course I should," he assured her. "Believe me, there isn't such an obstinate person in the world as the man of early middle-age who suddenly discovers the woman he means to marry."

"But you can't marry me," she protested.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because I was Oliver Hilditch's wife, for one thing."

"Look here," he said, "if you had been Beelzebub's wife, it wouldn't make the least difference to me. You haven't given me much of a chance to tell you so yet, Margaret, but I love you."

She sat a little forward in her chair. Her eyes were fixed upon his wonderingly.

"But how can you?" she exclaimed. "You know, nothing of me except my associations, and they have been horrible. What is there to love in me? I am a frozen-up woman. Everything is dead here," she went on, clasping her hand to her heart. "I have no sentiment, no passion, nothing but an animal desire to live my life luxuriously and quickly."

He smiled confidently. Then, with very little warning, he sank on one knee, drew her face to his, kissed her lips and then her eyes.

"Are you so sure of all these things, Margaret?" he whispered. "Don't you think it is, perhaps, because there has been no one to care for you as I do--as I shall--to the end of my days? The lily you left on your chair last night was like you--fair and stately and beautiful, but a little bruised. You will come back as it has done, come back to the world. My love will bring you. My care. Believe it, please!"

Then he saw the first signs of change in her face. There was the faintest shade of almost shell-like pink underneath the creamy-white of her cheeks. Her lips were trembling a little, her eyes were misty. With a sudden passionate little impulse, her arms were around his neck, her lips sought his of their own accord.

"Let me forget," she sobbed. "Kiss me let me forget!"

Francis' servant was both heavy-footed and discreet. When he entered the room with a tray, his master was standing at the sideboard.

"I've done the best I could, sir," he announced, a little apologetically. "Shall I lay the cloth?"

"Leave everything on the tray, Brooks," Francis directed. "We will help ourselves. In an hour's time bring coffee."

The man glanced around the room.

"There are glasses on the sideboard, sir, and the corkscrew is here. I think you will have everything you want."

He departed, closing the door behind him. Francis held out his hands to Margaret. She rose slowly to her feet, looked in the glass helplessly and then back at him. She was very beautiful but a little dazed.

"Are we going to have luncheon?" she asked.

"Of course," he answered. "Did you think I meant to starve you?"

He picked up the long envelope which she had dropped upon the carpet, and threw it on to the sofa. Then he drew up two chairs to the table, and opened a small bottle of champagne.

"I hope you won't mind a picnic," he said. "Really, Brooks hasn't done so badly--pate de foie gras, hot toast and Devonshire butter. Let me spread some for you. A cold chicken afterwards, and some strawberries. Please be hungry, Margaret."

She laughed at him. It occurred to him suddenly, with a little pang, that he had never heard her laugh before. It was like music.

"I'm too happy," she murmured.

"Believe me," he assured her, as he buttered a piece of toast, "happiness and hunger might well be twins. They go so well together. Misery can take away one's appetite. Happiness, when one gets over the gulpiness of it, is the best tonic in the world. And I never saw any one, dear, with whom happiness agreed so well," he added, pausing in his task to bend over and kiss her. "Do you know you are the most beautiful thing on earth? It is a lucky thing we are going to live in England, and that these are sober, matter-of-fact days, or I should find myself committed to fighting duels all the time."

She had a momentary relapse. A look of terror suddenly altered her face. She caught at his wrist.

"Don't!" she cried. "Don't talk about such things!"

He was a little bewildered. The moment passed. She laughed almost apologetically.

"Forgive me," she begged, "but I hate the thought of fighting of any sort. Some day I'll explain."

"Clumsy ass I was!" he declared, completing his task and setting the result before her. "Now how's that for a first course? Drink a little of your wine."

He leaned his glass against hers.

"My love," he whispered, "my love now, dear, and always, and you'll find it quite strong enough," he went on, "to keep you from all the ugly things. And now away with sentiment. I had a very excellent but solitary breakfast this morning, and it seems a long time ago."

"It seems amazing to think that you spent last night at The Sanctuary," she reflected.

"And that you and I were in a punt," he reminded her, "in the pool of darkness where the trees met, and the lilies leaned over to us."

"And you nearly upset the punt."

"Nothing of the sort! As a matter of fact, I was very careful. But," he proceeded, with a sudden wave of memory, "I don't think my heart will ever beat normally again. It seemed as though it would tear its way out of my side when I leaned towards you, and you knew, and you lay still."

She laughed.

"You surely didn't expect I was going to get up? It was quite encouragement enough to remain passive. As a matter of fact," she went on, "I couldn't have moved. I couldn't have uttered a sound. I suppose I must have been like one of those poor birds you read about, when some devouring animal crouches for its last spring."

"Compliments already!" he remarked. "You won't forget that my name is Francis, will you? Try and practise it while I carve the chicken."

"You carve very badly, Francis," she told him demurely.

"My dear," he said, "thank heavens we shall be able to afford a butler! By-the-bye, I told your father this morning that I was going to marry you, and he didn't seem to think it possible because he had two million pounds."

"Braggart!" she murmured. "When did you see my father?"

"He came to my rooms in the Temple soon after I arrived this morning. He seemed to think I might know where you were. I dare say he won't like me for a son-in-law," Francis continued with a smile. "I can't help that. He shouldn't have let me go out with you in a punt."

There was a discreet knock at the door. Brooks made his apologetic and somewhat troubled entrance.

Sir Timothy Brast is here to see you, sir," he announced. "I ventured to say that you were not at home--"

"But I happened to know otherwise," a still voice remarked from outside. "May I come in, Mr. Ledsam?"

Sir Timothy stepped past the servant, who at a sign from Francis disappeared, closing the door behind him.