Chapter XXXIII
 

It would have puzzled anybody, except, perhaps, Lady Cynthia herself, to have detected the slightest alteration in Sir Timothy's demeanour during the following day, when he made fitful appearances at The Sanctuary, or at the dinner which was served a little earlier than usual, before his final departure for the scene of the festivities. Once he paused in the act of helping himself to some dish and listened for a moment to the sound of voices in the hall, and when a taxicab drove up he set down his glass and again betrayed some interest.

"The maid with my frock, thank heavens!" Lady Cynthia announced, glancing out of the window. "My last anxiety is removed. I am looking forward now to a wonderful night."

"You may very easily be disappointed," her host warned her. "My entertainments appeal more, as a rule, to men."

"Why don't you be thoroughly original and issue no invitations to women at all?" Margaret enquired.

"For the same reason that you adorn your rooms and the dinner-table with flowers," he answered. "One needs them--as a relief. Apart from that, I am really proud of my dancing-room, and there again, you see, your sex is necessary."

"We are flattered," Margaret declared, with a little bow. "It does seem queer to think that you should own what Cynthia's cousin, Davy Hinton, once told me was the best floor in London, and that I have never danced on it."

"Nor I," Lady Cynthia put in. "There might have been some excuse for not asking you, Margaret, but why an ultra-Bohemian like myself has had to beg and plead for an invitation, I really cannot imagine."

"You might find," Sir Timothy said, "you may even now--that some of my men guests are not altogether to your liking."

"Quite content to take my risk," Lady Cynthia declared cheerfully. "The man with the best manners I ever met--it was at one of Maggie's studio dances, too--was a bookmaker. And a retired prize-fighter brought me home once from an Albert Hall dance."

"How did he behave?" Francis asked.

"He was wistful but restrained," Lady Cynthia replied, "quite the gentleman, in fact."

"You encourage me to hope for the best," Sir Timothy said, rising to his feet. "You will excuse me now? I have a few final preparations to make."

"Are we to be allowed," Margaret enquired, "to come across the park?"

"You would not find it convenient," her father assured her. "You had better order a car, say for ten o'clock. Don't forget to bring your cards of invitation, and find me immediately you arrive. I wish to direct your proceedings to some extent."

Lady Cynthia strolled across with him to the postern-gate and stood by his side after he had opened it. Several of the animals, grazing in different parts of the park, pricked up their ears at the sound. An old mare came hobbling towards him; a flea-bitten grey came trotting down the field, his head in the air, neighing loudly.

"You waste a great deal of tenderness upon your animal friends, dear host," she murmured.

He deliberately looked away from her.

"The reciprocation, at any rate, has its disadvantages," he remarked, glancing a little disconsolately at the brown hairs upon his coat-sleeve. "I shall have to find another coat before I can receive my guests--which is a further reason," he added, "why I must hurry."

At the entrance to the great gates of The Walled House, two men in livery were standing. One of them examined with care the red cards of invitation, and as soon as he was satisfied the gates were opened by some unseen agency. The moment the car had passed through, they were closed again.

"Father seems thoroughly mediaeval over this business," Margaret remarked, looking about her with interest. "What a quaint courtyard, too! It really is quite Italian."

"It seems almost incredible that you have never been here!" Lady Cynthia exclaimed. "Curiosity would have brought me if I had had to climb over the wall!"

"It does seem absurd in one way," Margaret agreed, "but, as a matter of fact, my father's attitude about the place has always rather set me against it. I didn't feel that there was any pleasure to be gained by coming here. I won't tell you really what I did think. We must keep to our bargain. We are not to anticipate."

At the front entrance, under the covered portico, the white tickets which they had received in exchange for their tickets of invitation, were carefully collected by another man, who stopped the car a few yards from the broad, curving steps. After that, there was no more suggestion of inhospitality. The front doors, which were of enormous size and height, seemed to have been removed, and in the great domed hall beyond Sir Timothy was already receiving his guests. Being without wraps, the little party made an immediate entrance. Sir Timothy, who was talking to one of the best-known of the foreign ambassadors, took a step forward to meet them.

"Welcome," he said, "you, the most unique party, at least, amongst my guests. Prince, may I present you to my daughter, Mrs. Hilditch? Lady Cynthia Milton and Mr. Ledsam you know, I believe."

"Your father has just been preparing me for this pleasure," the Prince remarked, with a smile. "I am delighted that his views as regards these wonderful parties are becoming a little more--would it be correct to say latitudinarian? He has certainly been very strict up to now."

"It is the first time I have been vouchsafed an invitation," Margaret confessed.

"You will find much to interest you," the Prince observed. "For myself, I love the sport of which your father is so noble a patron. That, without doubt, though, is a side of his entertainment of which you will know nothing."

Sir Timothy, choosing a moment's respite from the inflowing stream of guests, came once more across to them.

"I am going to leave you, my honoured guests from The Sanctuary," he said, with a faint smile, "to yourselves for a short time. In the room to your left, supper is being served. In front is the dancing-gallery. To the right, as you see, is the lounge leading into the winter-garden. The gymnasium is closed until midnight. Any other part of the place please explore at your leisure, but I am going to ask you one thing. I want you to meet me in a room which I will show you, at a quarter to twelve."

He led them down one of the corridors which opened from the hall. Before the first door on the right a man-servant was standing as though on sentry duty. Sir Timothy tapped the panel of the door with his forefinger.

"This is my sanctum," he announced. "I allow no one in here without special permission. I find it useful to have a place to which one can come and rest quite quietly sometimes. Williams here has no other duty except to guard the entrance. Williams, you will allow this gentleman and these two ladies to pass in at a quarter to twelve."

The man looked at them searchingly.

"Certainly, sir," he said. "No one else?"

"No one, under any pretext."

Sir Timothy hurried back to the hall, and the others followed him in more leisurely fashion. They were all three full of curiosity.

"I never dreamed," Margaret declared, as she looked around her, "that I should ever find myself inside this house. It has always seemed to me like one great bluebeard's chamber. If ever my father spoke of it at all, it was as of a place which he intended to convert into a sort of miniature Hell."

Sir Timothy leaned back to speak to them as they passed.

"You will find a friend over there, Ledsam," he said.

Wilmore turned around and faced them. The two men exchanged somewhat surprised greetings.

"No idea that I was coming until this afternoon," Wilmore explained. "I got my card at five o'clock, with a note from Sir Timothy's secretary. I am racking my brains to imagine what it can mean."

"We're all a little addled," Francis confessed. "Come and join our tour of exploration. You know Lady Cynthia. Let me present you to Mrs. Hilditch."

The introduction was effected and they all, strolled on together. Margaret and Lady Cynthia led the way into the winter-garden, a palace of glass, tall palms, banks of exotics, flowering shrubs of every description, and a fountain, with wonderfully carved water nymphs, brought with its basin from Italy. Hidden in the foliage, a small orchestra was playing very softly. The atmosphere of the place was languorous and delicious.

"Leave us here," Margaret insisted, with a little exclamation of content. "Neither Cynthia nor I want to go any further. Come back and fetch us in time for our appointment."

The two men wandered off. The place was indeed a marvel of architecture, a country house, of which only the shell remained, modernised and made wonderful by the genius of a great architect. The first room which they entered when they left the winter-garden, was as large as a small restaurant, panelled in cream colour, with a marvellous ceiling. There were tables of various sizes laid for supper, rows of champagne bottles in ice buckets, and servants eagerly waiting for orders. Already a sprinkling of the guests had found their way here. The two men crossed the floor to the cocktail bar in the far corner, behind which a familiar face grinned at them. It was Jimmy, the bartender from Soto's, who stood there with a wonderful array of bottles on a walnut table.

"If it were not a perfectly fatuous question, I should ask what you were doing here, Jimmy?" Francis remarked.

"I always come for Sir Timothy's big parties, sir," Jimmy explained. "Your first visit, isn't it, sir?"

"My first," Francis assented.

"And mine," his companion echoed.

"What can I have the pleasure of making for you, sir?" the man enquired.

"A difficult question," Francis admitted. "It is barely an hour and a half since we finished diner. On the other hand, we are certainly going to have some supper some time or other."

Jimmy nodded understandingly.

"Leave it to me, sir," he begged.

He served them with a foaming white concoction in tall glasses. A genuine lime bobbed up and down in the liquid.

"Sir Timothy has the limes sent over from his own estate in South America," Jimmy announced. "You will find some things in that drink you don't often taste."

The two men sipped their beverage and pronounced it delightful. Jimmy leaned a little across the table.

"A big thing on to-night, isn't there, sir?" he asked cautiously.

"Is there?" Francis replied. "You mean--?"

Jimmy motioned towards the open window, close to which the river was flowing by.

"You going down, sir?"

Francis shook his head dubiously.

"Where to?"

The bartender looked with narrowed eyes from one to the other of the two men. Then he suddenly froze up. Wilmore leaned a little further over the impromptu counter.

"Jimmy," he asked, "what goes on here besides dancing and boxing and gambling?"

"I never heard of any gambling," Jimmy answered, shaking his head. "Sir Timothy doesn't care about cards being played here at all."

"What is the principal entertainment, then?" Francis demanded. "The boxing?"

The bartender shook his head.

"No one understands very much about this house, sir," he said, "except that it offers the most wonderful entertainment in Europe. That is for the guests to find out, though. We servants have to attend to our duties. Will you let me mix you another drink, sir?"

"No, thanks," Francis answered. "The last was too good to spoil. But you haven't answered my question, Jimmy. What did you mean when you asked if we were going down?"

Jimmy's face had become wooden.

"I meant nothing, sir," he said. "Sorry I spoke."

The two men turned away. They recognised many acquaintances in the supper-room, and in the long gallery beyond, where many couples were dancing now to the music of a wonderful orchestra. By slow stages they made their way back to the winter-garden, where Lady Cynthia and Margaret were still lost in admiration of their surroundings. They all walked the whole length of the place. Beyond, down a flight of stone steps, was a short, paved way to the river. A large electric launch was moored at the quay. The grounds outside were dimly illuminated with cunningly-hidden electric lights shining through purple-coloured globes into the cloudy darkness. In the background, enveloping the whole of the house and reaching to the river on either side, the great wall loomed up, unlit, menacing almost in its suggestions. A couple of loiterers stood within a few yards of them, looking at the launch.

"There she is, ready for her errand, whatever it may be," one said to the other curiously. "We couldn't play the stowaway, I suppose, could we?"

"Dicky Bell did that once," the other answered. "Sir Timothy has only one way with intruders. He was thrown into the river and jolly nearly drowned."

The two men passed out of hearing.

"I wonder what part the launch plays in the night's entertainment," Wilmore observed.

Francis shrugged his shoulders.

"I have given up wondering," he said. "Margaret, do you hear that music?"

She laughed.

"Are we really to dance?" she murmured. "Do you want to make a girl of me again?"

"Well, I shouldn't be a magician, should I?" he answered.

They passed into the ballroom and danced for some time. The music was seductive and perfect, without any of the blatant notes of too many of the popular orchestras. The floor seemed to sway under their feet.

"This is a new joy come back into life!" Margaret exclaimed, as they rested for a moment.

"The first of many," he assured her.

They stood in the archway between the winter-garden and the dancing-gallery, from which they could command a view of the passing crowds. Francis scanned the faces of the men and women with intense interest. Many of them were known to him by sight, others were strangers. There was a judge, a Cabinet Minister, various members of the aristocracy, a sprinkling from the foreign legations, and although the stage was not largely represented, there were one or two well-known actors. The guests seemed to belong to no universal social order, but to Francis, watching them almost eagerly, they all seemed to have something of the same expression, the same slight air of weariness, of restless and unsatisfied desires.

"I can't believe that the place is real, or that these people we see are not supers," Margaret whispered.

"I feel every moment that a clock will strike and that it will all fade away."

"I'm afraid I'm too material for such imaginings," Francis replied, "but there is a quaintly artificial air about it all. We must go and look for Wilmore and Lady Cynthia."

They turned back into the enervating atmosphere of the winter-garden, and came suddenly face to face with Sir Timothy, who had escorted a little party of his guests to see the fountain, and was now returning alone.

"You have been dancing, I am glad to see," the latter observed. "I trust that you are amusing yourselves?"

"Excellently, thank you," Francis replied.

"And so far," Sir Timothy went on, with a faint smile, "you find my entertainment normal? You have no question yet which you would like to ask?"

"Only one--what do you do with your launch up the river on moonless nights, Sir Timothy?"

Sir Timothy's momentary silence was full of ominous significance.

"Mr. Ledsam," he said, after a brief pause, "I have given you almost carte blanche to explore my domains here. Concerning the launch, however, I think that you had better ask no questions at present."

"You are using it to-night?" Francis persisted.

"Will you come and see, my venturesome guest?"

"With great pleasure," was the prompt reply.

Sir Timothy glanced at his watch.

"That," he said, "is one of the matters of which we will speak at a quarter to twelve. Meanwhile, let me show you something. It may amuse you as it has done me."

The three moved back towards one of the arched openings which led into the ballroom.

"Observe, if you please," their host continued, "the third couple who pass us. The girl is wearing green--the very little that she does wear. Watch the man, and see if he reminds you of any one."

Francis did as he was bidden. The girl was a well-known member of the chorus of one of the principal musical comedies, and she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying both the dance and her partner. The latter appeared to be of a somewhat ordinary type, sallow, with rather puffy cheeks, and eyes almost unnaturally dark. He danced vigorously and he talked all the time. Something about him was vaguely familiar to Francis, but he failed to place him.

"Notwithstanding all my precautions," Sir Timothy continued, "there, fondly believing himself to be unnoticed, is an emissary of Scotland Yard. Really, of all the obvious, the dry-as-dust, hunt-your-criminal-by-rule-of-three kind of people I ever met, the class of detective to which this man belongs can produce the most blatant examples."

"What are you going to do about him?" Francis asked.

Sir Timothy shrugged his shoulders.

"I have not yet made up my mind," he said. "I happen to know that he has been laying his plans for weeks to get here, frequenting Soto's and other restaurants, and scraping acquaintances with some of my friends. The Duke of Tadchester brought him--won a few hundreds from him at baccarat, I suppose. His grace will never again find these doors open to him."

Francis' attention had wandered. He was gazing fixedly at the man whom Sir Timothy had pointed out.

"You still do not fully recognise our friend," the latter observed carelessly. "He calls himself Manuel Loito, and he professes to be a Cuban. His real name I understood, when you introduced us, to be Shopland."

"Great heavens, so it is!" Francis exclaimed.

"Let us leave him to his precarious pleasures," Sir Timothy suggested. "I am free for a few moments. We will wander round together."

They found Lady Cynthia and Wilmore, and looked in at the supper-room, where people were waiting now for tables, a babel of sound and gaiety. The grounds and winter-gardens were crowded. Their guide led the way to a large apartment on the, other side of the hall, from which the sound of music was proceeding.

"My theatre," he said. "I wonder what is going on."

They passed inside. There was a small stage with steps leading down to the floor, easy-chairs and round tables everywhere, and waiters serving refreshments. A girl was dancing. Sir Timothy watched her approvingly.

"Nadia Ellistoff," he told them. "She was in the last Russian ballet, and she is waiting now for the rest of the company to start again at Covent Garden. You see, it is Metzger who plays there. They improvise. Rather a wonderful performance, I think."

They watched her breathlessly, a spirit in grey tulle, with great black eyes now and then half closed.

"It is 'Wind before Dawn,'" Lady Cynthia whispered. "I heard him play it two days after he composed it, only there are variations now. She is the soul of the south wind."

The curtain went down amidst rapturous applause. The dancer had left the stage, floating away into some sort of wonderfully-contrived nebulous background. Within a few moments, the principal comedian of the day was telling stories. Sir Timothy led them away.

"But how on earth do you get all these people?" Lady Cynthia asked.

"It is arranged for me," Sir Timothy replied. "I have an agent who sees to it all. Every man or woman who is asked to perform, has a credit at Cartier's for a hundred guineas. I pay no fees. They select some little keepsake."

Margaret laughed softly.

"No wonder they call this place a sort of Arabian Nights!" she declared.

"Well, there isn't much else for you to see," Sir Timothy said thoughtfully. "My gymnasium, which is one of the principal features here, is closed just now for a special performance, of which I will speak in a moment. The concert hall I see they are using for an overflow dance-room. What you have seen, with the grounds and the winter-garden, comprises almost everything."

They moved back through the hall with difficulty. People were now crowding in. Lady Cynthia laughed softly.

"Why, it is like a gala night at the Opera, Sir Timothy!" she exclaimed. "How dare you pretend that this is Bohemia!"

"It has never been I who have described my entertainments," he reminded her. "They have been called everything--orgies, debauches--everything you can think of. I have never ventured myself to describe them."

Their passage was difficult. Every now and then Sir Timothy was compelled to shake hands with some of his newly-arriving guests. At last, however, they reached the little sitting-room. Sir Timothy turned back to Wilmore, who hesitated.

"You had better come in, too, Mr. Wilmore, if you will," he invited. "You were with Ledsam, the first day we met, and something which I have to say now may interest you."

"If I am not intruding," Wilmore murmured.

They entered the room, still jealously guarded. Sir Timothy closed the door behind them.