It was amazing to see her here, opposite the man of whom she had told him that ghastly story, mistress of his house, to all appearance his consort, apparently engrossed in his polished conversation, yet with that subtle withholding of her real self which Francis rather imagined than felt, and which somehow seemed to imply her fierce resentment of her husband’s re-entry into the arena of life. It was a situation so strange that Francis, becoming more and more subject to its influence, was inclined to wonder whether he had not met with some accident on his way from the Court, and whether this was not one of the heated nightmares following unconsciousness.
“Tell me,” he asked his host, during one of the brief pauses in the conversation, “have you ever tried to analyse this interest of yours in human beings and crowded cities, this hatred of solitude and empty spaces?”
Oliver Hilditch smiled thoughtfully, and gazed at a salted almond which he was just balancing between the tips of his fingers.
“I think,” he said simply, “it is because I have no soul.”
The three diners lingered for only a short time over their dessert. Afterwards, they passed together into a very delightful library on the other side of the round, stone-paved hall. Hilditch excused himself for a moment.
“I have some cigars which I keep in my dressing-room,” he explained, “and which I am anxious for you to try. There is an electric stove there and I can regulate the temperature.”
He departed, closing the door behind him. Francis came a little further into the room. His hostess, who had subsided into an easy-chair and was holding a screen between her face and the fire, motioned him to, seat himself opposite. He did so without words. He felt curiously and ridiculously tongue-tied. He fell to studying the woman instead of attempting the banality of pointless speech. From the smooth gloss of her burnished hair, to the daintiness of her low, black brocaded shoes, she represented, so far as her physical and outward self were concerned, absolute perfection. No ornament was amiss, no line or curve of her figure other than perfectly graceful. Yet even the fire’s glow which she had seemed to dread brought no flush of colour to her cheeks. Her appearance of complete lifelessness remained. It was as though some sort of crust had formed about her being, a condition which her very physical perfection seemed to render the more incomprehensible.
“You are surprised to see me here living with my husband, after what I told you yesterday afternoon?” she said calmly, breaking at last the silence which had reigned between them.
“I am,” he admitted.
“It seems unnatural to you, I suppose?”
“You still believe all that I told you?”
She looked at the door and raised her head a little, as though either listening or adjudging the time before her husband would return. Then she glanced across at him once more.