“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.”