Chapter XXXV
 

Francis, glad of a moment or two's solitude in which to rearrange his somewhat distorted sensations, found an empty space in the stern of the launch and stood leaning over the rail. His pulses were still tingling with the indubitable excitement of the last half-hour. It was all there, even now, before his eyes like a cinematograph picture--the duel between those two men, a duel of knowledge, of strength, of science, of courage. From beginning to end, there had been no moment when Francis had felt that he was looking on at what was in any way a degrading or immoral spectacle. Each man had fought in his way to win. Young Wilmore, graceful as a panther, with a keen, joyous desire of youth for supremacy written in his face and in the dogged lines of his mouth; the budding champion from the East End less graceful, perhaps, but with even more strength and at least as much determination, had certainly done his best to justify his selection. There were no points to be scored. There had been no undue feinting, no holding, few of the tricks of the professional ring. It was a fight to a finish, or until Harrison gave the word. And the better man had won. But even that knock-out blow which Reggie Wilmore had delivered after a wonderful feint, had had little that was cruel in it. There was something beautiful almost in the strength and grace with which it had been delivered--the breathless eagerness, the waiting, the end.

Francis felt a touch upon his arm and looked around. A tall, sad-faced looking woman, whom he had noticed with a vague sense of familiarity in the dancing-room, was standing by his side.

"You have forgotten me, Mr. Ledsam," she said.

"For the moment," he admitted.

I am Isabel Culbridge," she told him, watching his face.

"Lady Isabel?" Francis repeated incredulously. "But surely--"

"Better not contradict me," she interrupted. "Look again."

Francis looked again.

"I am very sorry," he said. "It is some time, is it not, since we met?"

She stood by his side, and for a few moments neither of them spoke. The little orchestra in the bows had commenced to play softly, but there was none of the merriment amongst the handful of men and women generally associated with a midnight river picnic. The moon was temporarily obscured, and it seemed as though some artist's hand had so dealt with the few electric lights that the men, with their pale faces and white shirt-fronts, and the three or four women, most of them, as it happened, wearing black, were like some ghostly figures in some sombre procession. Only the music kept up the pretence that this was in any way an ordinary-excursion. Amongst the human element there was an air of tenseness which seemed rather to increase as they passed into the shadowy reaches of the river.

"You have been ill, I am afraid?" Francis said tentatively.

"If you will," she answered, "but my illness is of the soul. I have become one of a type," she went on, "of which you will find many examples here. We started life thinking that it was clever to despise the conventional and the known and to seek always for the daring and the unknown. New experiences were what we craved for. I married a wonderful husband. I broke his heart and still looked for new things. I had a daughter of whom I was fond--she ran away with my chauffeur and left me; a son whom I adored, and he was killed in the war; a lover who told me that he worshipped me, who spent every penny I had and made me the laughing-stock of town. I am still looking for new things."

"Sir Timothy's parties are generally supposed to provide them," Francis observed.

The woman shrugged her shoulders.

"So far they seem very much like anybody's else," she said. "The fight might have been amusing, but no women were allowed. The rest was very wonderful in its way, but that is all. I am still hoping for what we are to see downstairs."

They heard Sir Timothy's voice a few yards away, and turned to look at him. He had just come from below, and had paused opposite a man who had been standing a little apart from the others, one of the few who was wearing an overcoat, as though he felt the cold. In the background were the two servants who had guarded the gangway.

"Mr. Manuel Loito," Sir Timothy said--"or shall I say Mr. Shopland?--my invited guests are welcome. I have only one method of dealing with uninvited ones."

The two men suddenly stepped forward. Shopland made no protest, attempted no struggle. They lifted him off his feet as though he were a baby, and a moment later there was a splash in the water. They threw a life-belt after him.

"Always humane, you see," Sir Timothy remarked, as he leaned over the side. "Ah! I see that even in his overcoat our friend is swimmer enough to reach the bank. You find our methods harsh, Ledsam?" he asked, turning a challenging gaze towards the latter.

Francis, who had been watching Shopland come to the surface, shrugged his shoulders. He delayed answering for a moment while he watched the detective, disdaining the life-belt, swim to the opposite shore.

"I suppose that under the circumstances," Francis said, "he was prepared to take his risk."

"You should know best about that," Sir Timothy rejoined. "I wonder whether you would mind looking after Lady Cynthia? I shall be busy for a few moments."

Francis stepped across the deck towards where Lady Cynthia had been sitting by her host's side. They had passed into the mouth of a tree-hung strip of the river. The engine was suddenly shut off. A gong was sounded. There was a murmur, almost a sob of relief, as the little sprinkling of men and women rose hastily to their feet and made their way towards the companion-way. Downstairs, in the saloon, with its white satinwood panels and rows of swing chairs, heavy curtains were drawn across the portholes, all outside light was shut out from the place. At the further end, raised slightly from the floor, was a sanded circle. Sir Timothy made his way to one of the pillars by its side and turned around to face the little company of his guests. His voice, though it seemed scarcely raised above a whisper, was extraordinarily clear and distinct. Even Francis, who, with Lady Cynthia, had found seats only just inside the door, could hear every word he said.

"My friends," he began, "you have often before been my guests at such small fights as we have been able to arrange in as unorthodox a manner as possible between professional boxers. There has been some novelty about them, but on the last occasion I think it was generally observed that they had become a little too professional, a little ultra-scientific. There was something which they lacked. With that something I am hoping to provide you to-night. Thank you, Sir Edgar," he murmured, leaning down towards his neighbour.

He held his cigarette in the flame of a match which the other had kindled. Francis, who was watching intently, was puzzled at the expression with which for a moment, as he straightened himself, Sir Timothy glanced down the room, seeking for Lady Cynthia's eyes. In a sense it was as though he were seeking for something he needed--approbation, sympathy, understanding.

"Our hobby, as you know, has been reality," he continued. "That is what we have not always been able to achieve. Tonight I offer you reality. There are two men here, one an East End coster, the other an Italian until lately associated with an itinerant vehicle of musical production. These two men have not outlived sensation as I fancy so many of us have. They hate one another to the death. I forget their surnames, but Guiseppe has stolen Jim's girl, is living with her at the present moment, and proposes to keep her. Jim has sworn to have the lives of both of them. Jim's career, in its way, is interesting to us. He has spent already six years in prison for manslaughter, and a year for a brutal assault upon a constable. Guiseppe was tried in his native country for a particularly fiendish murder, and escaped, owing, I believe, to some legal technicality. That, however, has nothing to do with the matter. These men have sworn to fight to the death, and the girl, I understand, is willing to return to Jim if he should be successful, or to remain with Guiseppe if he should show himself able to retain her. The fight between these men, my friends, has been transferred from Seven Dials for your entertainment. It will take place before you here and now."

There was a little shiver amongst the audience. Francis, almost to his horror, was unable to resist the feeling of queer excitement which stole through his veins. A few yards away, Lady Isabel seemed to have become transformed. She was leaning forward in her chair, her eyes glowing, her lips parted, rejuvenated, dehumanised. Francis' immediate companion, however, rather surprised him. Her eyes were fixed intently upon Sir Timothy's. She seemed to have been weighing every word he had spoken. There was none of that hungry pleasure in her face which shone from the other woman's and was reflected in the faces of many of the others. She seemed to be bracing herself for a shock. Sir Timothy looked over his shoulder towards the door which opened upon the sanded space.

"You can bring your men along," he directed.

One of the attendants promptly made his appearance. He was holding tightly by the arm a man of apparently thirty years of age, shabbily dressed, barefooted, without collar or necktie, with a mass of black hair which looked as though it had escaped the care of any barber for many weeks. His complexion was sallow; he had high cheekbones and a receding chin, which gave him rather the appearance of a fox. He shrank a little from the lights as though they hurt his eyes, and all the time he looked furtively back to the door, through which in a moment or two his rival was presently escorted. The latter was a young man of stockier build, ill-conditioned, and with the brutal face of the lowest of his class. Two of his front teeth were missing, and there was a livid mark on the side of his cheek. He looked neither to the right nor to the left. His eyes were fixed upon the other man, and they looked death.

"The gentleman who first appeared," Sir Timothy observed, stepping up into the sanded space but still half facing the audience, "is Guiseppe, the Lothario of this little act. The other is Jim, the wronged husband. You know their story. Now, Jim," he added, turning towards the Englishman, "I put in your trousers pocket these notes, two hundred pounds, you will perceive. I place in the trousers pocket of Guiseppe here notes to the same amount. I understand you have a little quarrel to fight out. The one who wins will naturally help himself to the other's money, together with that other little reward which I imagine was the first cause of your quarrel. Now ... let them go."

Sir Timothy resumed his seat and leaned back in leisurely fashion. The two attendants solemnly released their captives. There was a moment's intense silence. The two men seemed fencing for position. There was something stealthy and horrible about their movements as they crept around one another. Francis realised what it was almost as the little sobbing breath from those of the audience who still retained any emotion, showed him that they, too, foresaw what was going to happen. Both men had drawn knives from their belts. It was murder which had been let loose.

Francis found himself almost immediately upon his feet. His whole being seemed crying out for interference. Lady Cynthia's death-white face and pleading eyes seemed like the echo of his own passionate aversion to what was taking place. Then he met Sir Timothy's gaze across the room and he remembered his promise. Under no conditions was he to protest or interfere. He set his teeth and resumed his seat. The fight went on. There were little sobs and tremors of excitement, strange banks of silence. Both men seemed out of condition. The sound of their hoarse breathing was easily heard against the curtain of spellbound silence. For a time their knives stabbed the empty air, but from the first the end seemed certain. The Englishman attacked wildly. His adversary waited his time, content with avoiding the murderous blows struck at him, striving all the time to steal underneath the other's guard. And then, almost without warning, it was all over. Jim was on his back in a crumpled heap. There was a horrid stain upon his coat. The other man was kneeling by his side, hate, glaring out of his eyes, guiding all the time the rising and falling of his knife. There was one more shriek--then silence only the sound of the victor's breathing as he rose slowly from his ghastly task. Sir Timothy rose to his feet and waved his hand. The curtain went down.

"On deck, if you please, ladies and gentlemen," he said calmly.

No one stirred. A woman began to sob. A fat, unhealthy-looking man in front of Francis reeled over in a dead faint. Two other of the guests near had risen from their seats and were shouting aimlessly like lunatics. Even Francis was conscious of that temporary imprisonment of the body due to his lacerated nerves. Only the clinging of Lady Cynthia to his arm kept him from rushing from the spot.

"You are faint?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Upstairs--air," she faltered.

They rose to their feet. The sound of Sir Timothy's voice reached them as they ascended the stairs.

"On deck, every one, if you please," he insisted. "Refreshments are being served there. There are inquisitive people who watch my launch, and it is inadvisable to remain here long."

People hurried out then as though their one desire was to escape from the scene of the tragedy. Lady Cynthia, still clinging to Francis' arm, led him to the furthermost corner of the launch. There were real tears in her eyes, her breath was coming in little sobs.

"Oh, it was horrible!" she cried. "Horrible! Mr. Ledsam--I can't help it--I never want to speak to Sir Timothy again!"

One final horror arrested for a moment the sound of voices. There was a dull splash in the river. Something had been thrown overboard. The orchestra began to play dance music. Conversation suddenly burst out. Every one was hysterical. A Peer of the Realm, red-eyed and shaking like an aspen leaf, was drinking champagne out of the bottle. Every one seemed to be trying to outvie the other in loud conversation, in outrageous mirth. Lady Isabel, with a glass of champagne in her hand, leaned back towards Francis.

"Well," she asked, "how are you feeling, Mr. Ledsam?"

"As though I had spent half-an-hour in Hell," he answered.

She screamed with laughter.

"Hear this man," she called out, "who will send any poor ragamuffin to the gallows if his fee is large enough! Of course," she added, turning back to him, "I ought to remember you are a normal person and to-night's entertainment was not for normal persons. For myself I am grateful to Sir Timothy. For a few moments of this aching aftermath of life, I forgot."

Suddenly all the lights around the launch flamed out, the music stopped. Sir Timothy came up on deck. On either side of him was a man in ordinary dinner clothes. The babel of voices ceased. Everyone was oppressed by some vague likeness. A breathless silence ensued.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Sir Timothy said, and once more the smile upon his lips assumed its most mocking curve, "let me introduce you to the two artists who have given us to-night such a realistic performance, Signor Guiseppe Elito and Signor Carlos Marlini. I had the good fortune," he went on, "to witness this very marvellous performance in a small music-hall at Palermo, and I was able to induce the two actors to pay us a visit over here. Steward, these gentlemen will take a glass of champagne."

The two Sicilians raised their glasses and bowed expectantly to the little company. They received, however, a much greater tribute to their performance than the applause which they had been expecting. There reigned everywhere a deadly, stupefied silence. Only a half-stifled sob broke from Lady Cynthia's lips as she leaned over the rail, her face buried in her hands, her whole frame shaking.