Chapter XXII
 

After his first glance at Sir Timothy, Francis' only thought was for Margaret. To his intense relief, she showed no signs whatever of terror, or of any relapse to her former state. She was entirely mistress of herself and the occasion. Sir Timothy's face was cold and terrible.

"I must apologise for this second intrusion, Mr. Ledsam," he said cuttingly. "I think you will admit that the circumstances warrant it. Am I to understand that you lied to me this morning?"

"You are to understand nothing of the sort," Francis answered. "I told you everything I knew at that time of your daughter's movements."

"Indeed!" Sir Timothy murmured. "This little banquet, then, was unpremeditated?"

"Entirely," Francis replied. "Here is the exact truth, so far as I am concerned. I met your daughter little more than an hour ago, coming out of a steamship office, where she had booked a passage to Buenos Ayres to get away from me. I was fortunate enough to induce her to change her mind. She has consented instead to remain in England as my wife. We were, as you see, celebrating the occasion."

Sir Timothy laid his hat upon the sideboard and slowly removed his gloves.

"I trust," he said, "that this pint bottle does not represent your cellar. I will drink a glass of wine with you, and with your permission make myself a pate sandwich. I was just sitting down to luncheon when I received the information which brought me here."

Francis produced another bottle of wine from the sideboard and filled his visitor's glass.

"You will drink, I hope, to our happiness," he said.

"I shall do nothing of the sort," Sir Timothy declared, helping himself with care to the pate. "I have no superstitions about breaking bread with an enemy, or I should not have asked you to visit me at The Sanctuary, Mr. Ledsam. I object to your marriage with my daughter, and I shall take what steps I can to prevent it."

"Why?"

Sir Timothy did not at once reply. He seemed to be enjoying his sandwich; he also appreciated the flavour of his wine.

"Your question," he said, "strikes me as being a little ingenuous. You are at the present moment suspecting me of crimes beyond number. You encourage Scotland Yard detectives to make asses of themselves in my stream. Your myrmidons scramble on to the top of my walls and try to bribe my servants to disclose the mysteries of my household. You have accepted to the fullest extent my volunteered statement that I am a patron of crime. You are, in short--forgive me if I help myself to a little more of this pate--engaged in a strenuous attempt to bring me to justice."

None of these things affects your daughter," Francis pointed out.

"Pardon me," Sir Timothy objected. "You are a great and shining light of the English law. People speak of you as a future Chancellor. How can you contemplate an alliance with the widow of one criminal and the daughter of another?"

"As to Margaret being Oliver Hilditch's widow," Francis replied, "you were responsible for that, and no one else. He was your protege; you gave your consent to the marriage. As to your being her father, that again is not Margaret's fault. I should marry her if Oliver Hilditch had been three times the villain he was, and if you were the Devil himself."

"I am getting quite to like you, Mr. Ledsam," Sir Timothy declared, helping himself to another piece of toast and commencing to butter it. "Margaret, what have you to say about all this?"

"I have nothing to say," she answered. "Francis is speaking for me. I never dreamed that after what I have gone through I should be able to care for any one again in this world. I do care, and I am very happy about it. All last night I lay awake, making up my mind to run away, and this morning I actually booked my passage to Buenos Ayres. Then we met--just outside the steamship office--and I knew at once that I was making a mistake. I shall marry Francis exactly when he wants me to."

Sir Timothy passed his glass towards his proposed son-in-law.

"Might one suggest," he began--"thank you very much. This is of course very upsetting to me. I seem to be set completely at defiance. It is a very excellent wine, this, and a wonderful vintage."

Francis bent over Margaret.

"Please finish your lunch, dear," he begged. "It is perhaps just as well that your father came. We shall know exactly where we are."

"Just so," Sir Timothy agreed.

There was a queer constrained silence for several moments. Then Sir Timothy leaned back in his chair and with a word of apology lit a cigarette.

"Let us," he said, "consider the situation. Margaret is my daughter. You wish to marry her. Margaret is of age and has been married before. She is at liberty, therefore, to make her own choice. You agree with me so far?"

"Entirely," Francis assented.

"It happens," Sir Timothy went on, "that I disapprove of her choice. She desires to marry a young man who belongs to a profession which I detest, and whose efforts in life are directed towards the extermination of a class of people for whom I have every sympathy. To me he represents the smug as against the human, the artificially moral as against the freethinker. He is also my personal enemy. I am therefore naturally desirous that my daughter should not marry this young man."

"We will let it go at that," Francis commented, "but I should like to point out to you that the antagonism between us is in no way personal. You have declared yourself for forces with which I am at enmity, like any other decent-living citizen. Your declaration might at any time be amended."

Sir Timothy bowed.

"The situation is stated," he said. "I will ask you this question as a matter of form. Do you recognise my right to forbid your marriage with my daughter, Mr. Ledsam?"

"I most certainly do not," was the forcible reply.

"Have I any rights at all?" Sir Timothy asked. "Margaret has lived under my roof whenever it has suited her to do so. Since she has taken up her residence at Curzon Street, she has been her own mistress, her banking account has known no limit whatsoever. I may be a person of evil disposition, but I have shown no unkindness to her."

"It is quite true," Margaret Admitted, turning a little pale. "Since I have been alone, you have been kindness itself."

"Then let me repeat my question," Sir Timothy went on, "have I the right to any consideration at all?"

"Yes," Francis replied. "Short of keeping us apart, you have the ordinary rights of a parent."

"Then I ask you to delay the announcement of your engagement, or taking any further steps concerning it, for fourteen days," Sir Timothy said. "I place no restrictions on your movements during that time. Such hospitality as you, Mr. Ledsam, care to accept at my hands, is at your disposal. I am Bohemian enough, indeed, to find nothing to complain of in such little celebrations as you are at present indulging in--most excellent pate, that. But I request that no announcement of your engagement be made, or any further arrangements made concerning it, for that fourteen days."

"I am quite willing, father," Margaret acquiesced.

"And I, sir," Francis echoed.

"In which case," Sir Timothy concluded, rising to his feet, lighting a cigarette and taking up his hat and gloves, "I shall go peaceably away. You will admit, I trust," he added, with that peculiar smile at the corner of his lips, "that I have not in any way tried to come the heavy father? I can even command a certain amount of respect, Margaret, for a young man who is able to inaugurate his engagement by an impromptu meal of such perfection. I wish you both good morning. Any invitation which Margaret extends, Ledsam, please consider as confirmed by me."

He closed the door softly. They heard his footsteps descending the stairs. Francis leaned once more over Margaret. She seemed still dazed, confused with new thoughts. She responded, however, readily to his touch, yielded to his caress with an almost pathetic eagerness.

"Francis," she murmured, as his arms closed around her, "I want to forget."