Chapter XXVII
 

The car stopped in front of the great house in Grosvenor Square. Lady Cynthia turned to her companion.

"You must come in, please," she said. "I insist, if it is only for five minutes."

Sir Timothy followed her across the hall to a curved recess, where the footman who had admitted them touched a bell, and a small automatic lift came down.

"I am taking you to my own quarters," she explained. "They are rather cut off but I like them--especially on hot nights."

They glided up to the extreme top of the house. She opened the gates and led the way into what was practically an attic sitting-room, decorated in black and white. Wide-flung doors opened onto the leads, where comfortable chairs, a small table and an electric standard were arranged. They were far above the tops of the other houses, and looked into the green of the Park.

"This is where I bring very few people," she said. "This is where, even after my twenty-eight years of fraudulent life, I am sometimes myself. Wait."

There were feminine drinks and sandwiches arranged on the table. She opened the cupboard of a small sideboard just inside the sitting-room, however, and produced whisky and a syphon of soda. There was a pail of ice in a cool corner. From somewhere in the distance came the music of violins floating through the window of a house where a dance was in progress. They could catch a glimpse of the striped awning and the long line of waiting vehicles with their twin eyes of fire. She curled herself up on a settee, flung a cushion at Sir Timothy, who was already ensconced in a luxurious easy-chair, and with a tumbler of iced sherbet in one hand, and a cigarette in the other, looked across at him.

"I am not sure," she said, "that you have not to-night dispelled an illusion."

"What manner of one?" he asked.

"Above all things," she went on, "I have always looked upon you as wicked. Most people do. I think that is one reason why so many of the women find you attractive. I suppose it is why I have found you attractive."

The smile was back upon his lips. He bowed a little, and, leaning forward, dropped a chunk of ice into his whisky and soda.

"Dear Lady Cynthia," he murmured, "don't tell me that I am going to slip back in your estimation into some normal place."

"I am not quite sure," she said deliberately. "I have always looked upon you as a kind of amateur criminal, a man who loved black things and dark ways. You know how weary one gets of the ordinary code of morals in these days. You were such a delightful antidote. And now, I am not sure that you have not shaken my faith in you."

"In what way?"

"You really seem to have been engaged to-night in a very sporting and philanthropic enterprise. I imagined you visiting some den of vice and mixing as an equal with these terrible people who never seem to cross the bridges. I was perfectly thrilled when I put on your chauffeur's coat and hat and followed you."

"The story of my little adventure is a simple one," Sir Timothy said. "I do not think it greatly affects my character. I believe, as a matter of fact, that I am just as wicked as you would have me be, but I have friends in every walk of life, and, as you know, I like to peer into the unexpected places. I had heard of this man Billy the Tanner. He beats women, and has established a perfect reign of terror in the court and neighbourhood where he lives. I fear I must agree with you that there were some elements of morality--of conforming, at any rate, to the recognised standards of justice--in what I did. You know, of course, that I am a great patron of every form of boxing, fencing, and the various arts of self-defence and attack. I just took along one of the men from my gymnasium who I knew was equal to the job, to give this fellow a lesson."

"He did it all right," Lady Cynthia murmured.

"But this is where I think I re-establish myself," Sir Timothy continued, the peculiar nature of his smile reasserting itself. "I did not do this for the sake of the neighbourhood. I did not do it from any sense of justice at all. I did it to provide for myself an enjoyable and delectable spectacle."

She smiled lazily.

"That does rather let you out," she admitted. "However, on the whole I am disappointed. I am afraid that you are not so bad as people think."

"People?" he repeated. "Francis Ledsam, for instance--my son-in-law in posse?"

"Francis Ledsam is one of those few rather brilliant persons who have contrived to keep sane without becoming a prig," she remarked.

"You know why?" he reminded her. "Francis Ledsam has been a tremendous worker. It is work which keeps a man sane. Brilliancy without the capacity for work drives people to the madhouse."

"Where we are all going, I suppose," she sighed.

"Not you," he answered. "You have just enough--I don't know what we moderns call it--soul, shall I say?--to keep you from the muddy ways."

She rose to her feet and leaned over the rails. Sir Timothy watched her thoughtfully. Her figure, notwithstanding its suggestions of delicate maturity, was still as slim as a young girl's. She was looking across the tree-tops towards an angry bank of clouds--long, pencil-like streaks of black on a purple background. Below, in the street, a taxi passed with grinding of brakes and noisy horn. The rail against which she leaned looked very flimsy. Sir Timothy stretched out his hand and held her arm.

"My nerves are going with my old age," he apologised. "That support seems too fragile."

She did not move. The touch of his fingers grew firmer.

"We have entered upon an allegory," she murmured. "You are preserving me from the depths."

He laughed harshly.

"I!" he exclaimed, with a sudden touch of real and fierce bitterness which brought the light dancing into her eyes and a spot of colour to her cheeks. "I preserve you! Why, you can never hear my name without thinking of sin, of crime of some sort! Do you seriously expect me to ever preserve any one from anything?"

"You haven't made any very violent attempts to corrupt me," she reminded him.

"Women don't enter much into my scheme of life," he declared. "They played a great part once. It was a woman, I think, who first headed me off from the pastures of virtue."

"I know," she said softly. "It was Margaret's mother."

His voice rang out like a pistol-shot.

"How did you know that?"

She turned away from the rail and threw herself back in her chair. His hand, however, she still kept in hers.

"Uncle Joe was Minister at Rio, you know, the year it all happened," she explained. "He told us the story years ago--how you came back from Europe and found things were not just as they should be between Margaret's mother and your partner, and how you killed your partner."

His nostrils quivered a little. One felt that the fire of suffering had touched him again for a moment.

"Yes, I killed him," he admitted. "That is part of my creed. The men who defend their honour in the Law Courts are men I know nothing of. This man would have wronged me and robbed me of my honour. I bade him defend himself in any way he thought well. It was his life or mine. He was a poor fighter and I killed him."

"And Margaret's mother died from the shock."

"She died soon afterwards."

The stars grew paler. The passing vehicles, with their brilliant lights, grew fewer and fewer. The breeze which had been so welcome at first, turned into a cold night wind. She led the way back into the room.

"I must go," he announced.

"You must go," she echoed, looking up at him. "Good-bye!"

She was so close to him that his embrace, sudden and passionate though it was, came about almost naturally. She lay in his arms with perfect content and raised her lips to his.

He broke away. He was himself again, self-furious.

"Lady Cynthia," he said, "I owe you my most humble apologies. The evil that is in me does not as a rule break out in this direction."

"You dear, foolish person," she laughed, "that was good, not evil. You like me, don't you? But I know you do. There is one crime you have always forgotten to develop--you haven't the simplest idea in the world how to lie."

"Yes, I like you," he admitted. "I have the most absurd feeling for you that any man ever found it impossible to put into words. We have indeed strayed outside the world of natural things," he added.

"Why?" she murmured. "I never felt more natural or normal in my life. I can assure you that I am loving it. I feel like muslin gowns and primroses and the scent of those first March violets underneath a warm hedge where the sun comes sometimes. I feel very natural indeed, Sir Timothy."

"What about me?" he asked harshly. "In three weeks' time I shall be fifty years old."

She laughed softly.

"And in no time at all I shall be thirty--and entering upon a terrible period of spinsterhood!"

"Spinsterhood!" he scoffed. "Why, whenever the Society papers are at a loss for a paragraph, they report a few more offers of marriage to the ever-beautiful Lady Cynthia."

"Don't be sarcastic," she begged. "I haven't yet had the offer of marriage I want, anyhow."

"You'll get one you don't want in a moment," he warned her.

She made a little grimace.

"Don't!" she laughed nervously. "How am I to preserve my romantic notions of you as the emperor of the criminal world, if you kiss me as you did just now--you kissed me rather well--and then ask me to marry you? It isn't your role. You must light a cigarette now, pat the back of my hand, and swagger off to another of your haunts of vice."

"In other words, I am not to propose?" Sir Timothy said slowly.

"You see how decadent I am," she sighed. "I want to toy with my pleasures. Besides, there's that scamp of a brother of mine coming up to have a drink--I saw him get out of a taxi--and you couldn't get it through in time, not with dignity."

The rattle of the lift as it stopped was plainly audible. He stooped and kissed her fingers.

"I fear some day," he murmured, "I shall be a great disappointment to you."