Chapter XXIV
 

Francis, in that pleasant half-hour before dinner which he spent in Margaret's sitting-room, told her of the dogs' home near Wardour Street. She listened sympathetically to his description of the place.

"I had never heard of it," she acknowledged, "but I am not in anyway surprised. My father spends at least an hour of every day, when he is down at Hatch End, amongst the horses, and every time a fresh crock is brought down, he is as interested as though it were a new toy."

"It is a remarkable. trait in a very remarkable character," Francis commented.

I could tell you many things that would surprise you," Margaret continued. "One night, for instance, when we were staying at The Sanctuary, he and I were going out to dine with some neighbours and he heard a cat mewing in the hedge somewhere. He stopped the car, got out himself, found that the cat had been caught in a trap, released it, and sent me on to the dinner alone whilst he took the animal back to the veterinary surgeon at The Walled House. He was simply white with fury whilst he was tying up the poor thing's leg. I couldn't help asking him what he would have done if he could have found the farmer who set the trap. He looked up at me and I was almost frightened. 'I should have killed him,' be said,--and I believe he meant it. And, Francis, the very next day we were motoring to London and saw a terrible accident. A motor bicyclist came down a side road at full speed and ran into a motor-lorry. My father got out of the car, helped them lift the body from under the wheels of the lorry, and came back absolutely unmoved. 'Serve the silly young fool right!' was his only remark. He was so horribly callous that I could scarcely bear to sit by his side. Do you understand that?"

"It isn't easy," he admitted.

There was a knock at the door. Margaret glanced at the clock.

"Surely dinner can't be served already!" she exclaimed. "Come in."

Very much to their surprise, it was Sir Timothy himself who entered. He was in evening dress and wearing several orders, one of which Francis noted with surprise.

"My apologies," he said. "Hedges told me that there were cocktails here, and as I am on my way to a rather weary dinner, I thought I might inflict myself upon you for a moment."

Margaret rose at once to her feet.

"I am a shocking hostess," she declared. "Hedges brought the things in twenty minutes ago."

She took up the silver receptacle, shook it vigorously and filled three glasses. Sir Timothy accepted his and bowed to them both.

"My best wishes," he said. "Really, when one comes to think of it, however much it may be against my inclinations I scarcely see how I shall be able to withhold my consent. I believe that you both have at heart the flair for domesticity. This little picture, and the thought of your tete-a-tete dinner, almost touches me."

"Don't make fun of us, father," Margaret begged. "Tell us where you are going in all that splendour?"

Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders.

"A month or so ago," he explained, "I was chosen to induct a scion of Royalty into the understanding of fighting as it is indulged in at the National Sporting Club. This, I suppose, is my reward--an invitation to something in the nature of a State dinner, which, to tell you the truth, I had forgotten until my secretary pointed it out to me this afternoon. I have grave fears of being bored or of misbehaving myself. I have, as Ledsam here knows, a distressing habit of truthfulness, especially to new acquaintances. However, we must hope for the best. By-the-bye, Ledsam, in case you should have forgotten, I have spoken to Hedges about the '99 Cliquot."

"Shall we see you here later?" Margaret asked, after Francis had murmured his thanks.

"I shall probably return direct to Hatch End," Sir Timothy replied. "There are various little matters down there which are interesting me just now preparations for my party. Au revoir! A delicious cocktail, but I am inclined to resent the Angostura."

He sauntered out, after a glance at the clock. They heard his footsteps as he descended the stairs.

"Tell me, what manner of a man is your father?" Francis asked impulsively.

"I am his daughter and I do not know," Margaret answered. "Before he came, I was going to speak to you of a strange misunderstanding which has existed between us and which has just been removed. Now I have a fancy to leave it until later. You will not mind?"

"When you choose," Francis assented. "Nothing will make any difference. We are past the days when fathers or even mothers count seriously in the things that exist between two people like you and me, who have felt life. Whatever your father may be, whatever he may turn out to be, you are the woman I love--you are the woman who is going to be my wife."

She leaned towards him for a moment.

"You have an amazing gift," she whispered, "of saying just the thing one loves to hear in the way that convinces."

Dinner was served to them in the smaller of the two dining-rooms, an exquisite meal, made more wonderful still by the wine, which Hedges himself dispensed with jealous care. The presence of servants, with its restraining influence upon conversation, was not altogether unwelcome to Francis. He and Margaret had had so little opportunity for general conversation that to discuss other than personal subjects in this pleasant, leisurely way had its charm. They spoke of music, of which she knew far more than he; of foreign travel, where they met on common ground, for each had only the tourist's knowledge of Europe, and each was anxious for a more individual acquaintance with it. She had tastes in books which delighted him, a knowledge of games which promised a common resource. It was only whilst they were talking that he realised with a shock how young she was, how few the years that lay between her serene school-days and the tempestuous years of her married life. Her school-days in Naples were most redolent of delightful memories. She broke off once or twice into the language, and he listened with delight to her soft accent. Finally the time came when dessert was set upon the table.

"I have ordered coffee up in the little sitting-room again," she said, a little shyly. "Do you mind, or would you rather have it here?"

"I much prefer it there," he assured her.

They sat before an open window, looking out upon some elm trees in the boughs of which town sparrows twittered, and with a background of roofs and chimneys. Margaret's coffee was untasted, even her cigarette lay unlit by her side. There was a touch of the old horror upon her face. The fingers which he drew into his were as cold as ice.

"You must have wondered sometimes," she began, "why I ever married Oliver Hilditch."

"You were very young," he reminded her, with a little shiver, "and very inexperienced. I suppose he appealed to you in some way or another."

"It wasn't that," she replied. "He came to visit, me at Eastbourne, and he certainly knew all the tricks of making himself attractive and agreeable. But he never won my heart--he never even seriously took my fancy. I married him because I believed that by doing so I was obeying my father's wishes."

"Where was your father at the time, then?" Francis asked.

"In South America. Oliver Hilditch was nothing more than a discharged employe of his, discharged for dishonesty. He had to leave South America; within a week to escape prosecution, and on the way to Europe he concocted the plot which very nearly ruined my life. He forged a letter from my father, begging me, if I found it in any way possible, to listen to Oliver Hilditch's proposals, and hinting. guardedly at a very serious financial crisis which it was in his power to avert. It never occurred to me or to my chaperon to question his bona fides. He had lived under the same roof as my father, and knew all the intimate details of his life. He was very clever and I suppose I was a fool. I remember thinking I was doing quite a heroic action when I went to the registrar with him. What it led to you know."

There was a moment's throbbing silence. Francis, notwithstanding his deep pity, was conscious of an overwhelming sensation of relief. She had never cared for Oliver Hilditch! She had never pretended to! He put the thought into words.

"You never cared for him, then?"

"I tried to," she replied simply, "but I found it impossible. Within a week of our marriage I hated him."

Francis leaned back, his eyes half closed. In his ears was the sonorous roar of Piccadilly, the hooting of motor-cars, close at hand the rustling of a faint wind in the elm trees. It was a wonderful moment. The nightmare with which he had grappled so fiercely, which he had overthrown, but whose ghost still sometimes walked by his side, had lost its chief and most poignant terror. She had been tricked into the marriage. She had never cared or pretended to care. The primal horror of that tragedy which he had figured so often to himself, seemed to have departed with the thought. Its shadow must always remain, but in time his conscience would acquiesce in the pronouncement of his reason. It was the hand of justice, not any human hand, which had slain Oliver Hilditch.

"What did your father say when he discovered the truth?" he asked.

"He did not know it until he came to England--on the day that Oliver Hilditch was acquitted. My husband always pretended that he had a special mail bag going out to South America, so he took away all the letters I wrote to my father, and he took care that I received none except one or two which I know now were forgeries. He had friends in South America himself who helped him--one a typist in my father's office, of whom I discovered afterwards--but that really doesn't matter. He was a wonderful master of deceit."

Francis suddenly took her hands. He had an overwhelming desire to escape from the miasma of those ugly days, with their train of attendant thoughts and speculations.

"Let us talk about ourselves," he whispered.

After that, the evening glided away incoherently, with no sustained conversation, but with an increasing sense of well-being, of soothed nerves and happiness, flaming seconds of passion, sign-posts of the wonderful world which lay before them. They sat in the cool silence until the lights of the returning taxicabs and motor-cars became more frequent, until the stars crept into the sky and the yellow arc of the moon stole up over the tops of the houses. Presently they saw Sir Timothy's Rolls-Royce glide up to the front door below and Sir Timothy himself enter the house, followed by another man whose appearance was somehow familiar.

"Your father has changed his mind," Francis observed.

"Perhaps he has called for something," she suggested, "or he may want to change his clothes before he goes down to the country."

Presently, however, there was a knock at the door. Hedges made his diffident appearance.

"I beg your pardon, sir," he began, addressing Francis. "Sir Timothy has been asking if you are still here. He would be very glad if you could spare him a moment in the library."

Francis rose at once to his feet.

"I was just leaving," he said. "I will look in at the library and see Sir Timothy on my way out."