Chapter XXVI




Bored and listless, like a tired and drooping lily in the arms of her somewhat athletic partner, Lady Cynthia brought her dance to a somewhat abrupt conclusion.

"There is some one in the lounge there to whom I wish to speak," she said. "Perhaps you won't mind if we finish later. The floor seems sticky tonight, or my feet are heavy."

Her partner made the best of it, as Lady Cynthia's partners, nowadays, generally had to. She even dispensed with his escort, and walked across the lounge of Claridge's alone. Sir Timothy rose to his feet. He had been sitting in a corner, half sheltered by a pillar, and had fancied himself unseen.

"What a relief!" she exclaimed. "Another turn and I should have fainted through sheer boredom."

"Yet you are quite wonderful dancing," he said. "I have been watching you for some time."

"It is one of my expiring efforts," she declared, sinking into the chair by his side. "You know whose party it is, of course? Old Lady Torrington's. Quite a boy and girl affair. Twenty-four of us had dinner in the worst corner of the room. I can hear the old lady ordering the dinner now. Charles with a long menu. She shakes her head and taps him on the wrist with her fan. 'Monsieur Charles, I am a poor woman. Give me what there is--a small, plain dinner--and charge me at your minimum.' The dinner was very small and very plain, the champagne was horribly sweet. My partner talked of a new drill, his last innings for the Household Brigade, and a wonderful round of golf he played last Sunday week. I was turned on to dance with a man who asked me to marry him, a year ago, and I could feel him vibrating with gratitude, as he looked at me, that I had refused. I suppose I am very haggard."

"Does that matter, nowadays?" Sir Timothy asked.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I am afraid it does. The bone and the hank of hair stuff is played out. The dairy-maid style is coming in. Plump little Fanny Torrington had a great success to-night, in one of those simple white dresses, you know, which look like a sack with a hole cut in the top. What are you doing here by yourself?"

"I have an engagement in a few minutes," he explained. "My car is waiting now. I looked in at the club to dine, found my favourite table taken and nearly every man I ever disliked sidling up to tell me that he hears I am giving a wonderful party on Thursday. I decided not to dine there, after all, and Charles found me a corner here. I am going in five minutes."

"Where to?" she asked. "Can't I come with you ?"

"I fear not," he answered. "I am going down in the East End."

"Adventuring?"

"More or less," he admitted.

Lady Cynthia became beautiful. She was always beautiful when she was not tired.

"Take me with you, please," she begged.

He shook his head.

"Not to be done!"

"Don't shake your head like that," she enjoined, with a little grimace. "People will think I am trying to borrow money from you and that you are refusing me! Just take me with you some of the way. I shall scream if I go back into that dancing-room again."

Sir Timothy glanced at the clock.

"If there is any amusement to you in a rather dull drive eastwards--"

She was on her feet with the soft, graceful speed which had made her so much admired before her present listlessness had set in.

"I'll get my cloak," she said.

They drove along the Embankment, citywards. The heat of the city seemed to rise from the pavements. The wall of the Embankment was lined with people, leaning over to catch the languid breeze that crept up with the tide. They crossed the river and threaded their way through a nightmare of squalid streets, where half-dressed men and women hung from the top windows and were even to be seen upon the roof, struggling for air. The car at last pulled up at the corner of a long street.

"I am going down here," Sir Timothy announced. "I shall be gone perhaps an hour. The neighbourhood is not a fit one for you to be left alone in. I shall have time to send you home. The car will be back here for me by the time I require it."

"Where are you going?" she asked curiously. "Why can't I come with you?"

"I am going where I cannot take you," was the firm reply. "I told you that before I started."

"I shall sit here and wait for you," she decided. "I rather like the neighbourhood. There is a gentleman in shirt-sleeves, leaning over the rail of the roof there, who has his eye on me. I believe I shall be a success here--which is more than I can say of a little further westwards."

Sir Timothy smiled slightly. He had exchanged his hat for a tweed cap, and had put on a long dustcoat.

"There is no gauge by which you may know the measure of your success," he said. "If there were--"

"If there were?" she asked, leaning a little forward and looking at him with a touch of the old brilliancy in her eyes.

"If there were," he said, with a little show of mock gallantry, "a very jealously-guarded secret might escape me. I think you will be quite all right here," he continued. "It is an open thoroughfare, and I see two policemen at the corner. Hassell, my chauffeur, too, is a reliable fellow. We will be back within the hour."

"We?" she repeated.

He indicated a man who had silently made his appearance during the conversation and was standing waiting on the sidewalk.

"Just a companion. I do not advise you to wait. If you insist --au revoir!"

Lady Cynthia leaned back in a corner of the car.

Through half-closed eyes she watched the two men on their way down the crowded thoroughfare--Sir Timothy tall, thin as a lath, yet with a certain elegance of bearing; the man at his side shorter, his hands thrust into the pockets of his coat, his manner one of subservience. She wondered languidly as to their errand in this unsavoury neighbourhood. Then she closed her eyes altogether and wondered about many things.

Sir Timothy and his companion walked along the crowded, squalid street without speech. Presently they turned to the right and stopped in front of a public-house of some pretensions.

"This is the place?" Sir Timothy asked.

"Yes, sir!"

Both men entered. Sir Timothy made his way to the counter, his companion to a table near, where he took a seat and ordered a drink. Sir Timothy did the same. He was wedged in between a heterogeneous crowd of shabby, depressed but apparently not ill-natured men and women. A man in a flannel shirt and pair of shabby plaid trousers, which owed their precarious position to a pair of worn-out braces, turned a beery eye upon the newcomer.

"I'll 'ave one with you, guvnor," he said.

"You shall indeed," Sir Timothy assented.

"Strike me lucky but I've touched first time!" the man exclaimed. "I'll 'ave a double tot of whisky," he added, addressing the barman. "Will it run to it, guvnor?"

"Certainly," was the cordial reply, "and the same to your friends, if you will answer a question."

"Troop up, lads," the man shouted. "We've a toff 'ere. He ain't a 'tec--I know the cut of them. Out with the question."

"Serve every one who desires it with drinks," Sir Timothy directed the barman. "My question is easily answered. Is this the place which a man whom I understand they call Billy the Tanner frequents?"

The question appeared to produce an almost uncomfortable sensation. The enthusiasm for the free drinks, however, was only slightly damped, and a small forest of grimy hands was extended across the counter.

"Don't you ask no questions about 'im, guvnor," Sir Timothy's immediate companion advised earnestly. "He'd kill you as soon as look at you. When Billy the Tanner's in a quarrelsome mood, I've see 'im empty this place and the whole street, quicker than if a mad dog was loose. 'E's a fair and 'oly terror, 'e is. 'E about killed 'is wife, three nights ago, but there ain't a living soul as 'd dare to stand in the witness-box about it."

"Why don't the police take a hand in the matter if the man is such a nuisance?" Sir Timothy asked.

His new acquaintance, gripping a thick tumbler of spirits and water with a hand deeply encrusted with the stains of his trade, scoffed.

"Police! Why, 'e'd take on any three of the police round these parts!" he declared. "Police! You tell one on 'em that Billy the Tanner's on the rampage, and you'll see 'em 'op it. Cheero, guvnor and don't you get curious about Billy. It ain't 'ealthy."

The swing-door was suddenly opened. A touslehaired urchin shoved his face in.

"Billy the Tanner's coming!" he shouted. "Cave, all! He's been 'avin' a rare to-do in Smith's Court."

Then a curious thing happened. The little crowd at the bar seemed somehow to melt away. Half-a-dozen left precipitately by the door. Half-a-dozen more slunk through an inner entrance into some room beyond. Sir Timothy's neighbour set down his tumbler empty. He was the last to leave.

"If you're going to stop 'ere, guvnor," he begged fervently, "you keep a still tongue in your 'ead. Billy ain't particular who it is. 'E'd kill 'is own mother, if 'e felt like it. 'E'll swing some day, sure as I stand 'ere, but 'e'll do a bit more mischief first. 'Op it with me, guvnor, or get inside there."

"Jim's right," the man behind the bar agreed. "He's a very nasty customer, Bill the Tanner, sir. If he's coming down, I'd clear out for a moment. You can go in the guvnor's sitting-room, if you like."

Sir Timothy shook his head.

"Billy the Tanner will not hurt me," he said. "As a matter of fact, I came down to see him."

His new friend hesitated no longer but made for the door through which most of his companions had already disappeared. The barman leaned across the counter.

"Guvnor," he whispered hoarsely, "I don't know what the game is, but I've given you the office. Billy won't stand no truck from any one. He's a holy terror."

Sir Timothy nodded.

"I quite understand," he said.

There was a moment's ominous silence. The barman withdrew to the further end of his domain and busied himself cleaning some glasses. Suddenly the door was swung open. A man entered whose appearance alone was calculated to inspire a certain amount of fear. He was tall, but his height escaped notice by reason of the extraordinary breadth of his shoulders. He had a coarse and vicious face, a crop of red hair, and an unshaven growth of the same upon his face. He wore what appeared to be the popular dress in the neighbourhood--a pair of trousers suspended by a belt, and a dirty flannel shirt. His hands and even his chest, where the shirt fell away, were discoloured by yellow stains. He looked around the room at first with an air of disappointment. Then he caught sight of Sir Timothy standing at the counter, and he brightened up.

"Where's all the crowd, Tom?" he asked the barman.

"Scared of you, I reckon," was the brief reply. "There was plenty here a few minutes ago."

"Scared of me, eh?" the other repeated, staring hard at Sir Timothy. "Did you 'ear that, guvnor?"

"I heard it," Sir Timothy acquiesced.

Billy the Tanner began to cheer up. He walked all round this stranger.

"A toff! A big toff! I'll 'ave a drink with you, guvnor," he declared, with a note of incipient truculence in his tone.

The barman had already reached up for two glasses but Sir Timothy shook his head.

"I think not," he said.

There was a moment's silence. The barman made despairing signs at Sir Timothy. Billy the Tanner was moistening his lips with his tongue.

"Why not?" he demanded.

"Because I don't know you and I don't like you," was the bland reply.

Billy the Tanner wasted small time upon preliminaries. He spat upon his hands.

"I dunno you and I don't like you," he retorted. "D'yer know wot I'm going to do?"

"I have no idea," Sir Timothy confessed.

"I'm going to make you look so that your own mother wouldn't know you--then I'm going to pitch you into the street," he added, with an evil grin. "That's wot we does with big toffs who come 'anging around 'ere."

"Do you?" Sir Timothy said calmly. "Perhaps my friend may have something to say about that."

The man of war was beginning to be worked up.

"Where's your big friend?" he shouted. "Come on! I'll take on the two of you."

The man who had met Sir Timothy in the street had risen to his feet. He strolled up to the two. Billy the Tanner eyed him hungrily.

"The two of you, d'yer 'ear?" he shouted. "And 'ere's just a flick for the toff to be going on with!"

He delivered a sudden blow at Sir Timothy--a full, vicious, jabbing blow which had laid many a man of the neighbourhood in the gutter. To his amazement, the chin at which he had aimed seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Sir Timothy himself was standing about half-a-yard further away. Billy the Tanner was too used to the game to be off his balance, but he received at that moment the surprise of his life. With the flat of his hand full open, Sir Timothy struck him across the cheek such a blow that it resounded through the place, a blow that brought both the inner doors ajar, that brought peering eyes from every direction. There was a moment's silence. The man's fists were clenched now, there was murder in his face. Sir Timothy stepped on one side.

"I am not a fighter," he said coolly, leaning back against the marble table. "My friend will deal with you."

Billy the Tanner glared at the newcomer, who had glided in between him and Sir Timothy.

"You can come and join in, too," he shouted to Sir Timothy. "I'll knock your big head into pulp when I've done with this little job!"

The bully knew in precisely thirty seconds what had happened to him. So did the crowds who pressed back into the place through the inner door: So did the barman. So did the landlord, who had made a cautious appearance through a trapdoor. Billy the Tanner, for the first time in his life, was fighting a better man. For two years he had been the terror of the neighbourhood, and he showed now that at least he had courage. His smattering of science, however, appeared only ridiculous. Once, through sheer strength and blundering force, he broke down his opponent's guard and struck him in the place that had dispatched many a man before--just over the heart. His present opponent scarcely winced, and Billy the Tanner paid the penalty then for his years of bullying. His antagonist paused for a single second, as though unnerved by the blow. Red fire seemed to stream from his eyes. Then it was all over. With a sickening crash, Billy the Tanner went down upon the sanded floor. It was no matter of a count for him. He lay there like a dead man, and from the two doors the hidden spectators streamed into the room. Sir Timothy laid some money upon the table.

"This fellow insulted me and my friend," he said. "You see, he has paid the penalty. If he misbehaves again, the same thing will happen to him. I am leaving some money here with your barman. I shall be glad for every one to drink with me. Presently, perhaps, you had better send for an ambulance or a doctor."

A little storm of enthusiastic excitement, evidenced for the most part in expletives of a lurid note, covered the retreat of Sir Timothy and his companion. Out in the street a small crowd was rushing towards the place. A couple of policemen seemed to be trying to make up their minds whether it was a fine night. An inspector hurried up to them.

"What's doing in 'The Rising Sun'?" he demanded sharply.

"Some one's giving Billy the Tanner a hiding," one of the policemen replied.

"Honest?"

"A fair, ripe, knock-out hiding," was the emphatic confirmation. "I looked in at the window."

The inspector grinned.

"I'm glad you had the sense not to interfere," he remarked.

Sir Timothy and his companion reached the car. The latter took a seat by the chauffeur. Sir Timothy stepped in. It struck him that Lady Cynthia was a little breathless. Her eyes, too, were marvellously bright. Wrapped around her knees was the chauffeur's coat.

"Wonderful!" she declared. "I haven't had such a wonderful five minutes since I can remember! You are a dear to have brought me, Sir Timothy."

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"Mean?" she laughed, as the car swung around and they glided away. "You didn't suppose I was going to sit here and watch you depart upon a mysterious errand? I borrowed your chauffeur's coat and his cap, and slunk down after you. I can assure you I looked the most wonderful female apache you ever saw! And I saw the fight. It was better than any of the prize fights I have ever been to. The real thing is better than the sham, isn't it?"

Sir Timothy leaned back in his place and remained silent. Soon they passed out of the land of tired people, of stalls decked out with unsavoury provender, of foetid smells and unwholesome-looking houses. They passed through a street of silent warehouses on to the Embankment. A stronger breeze came down between the curving arc of lights.

"You are not sorry that you brought me?" Lady Cynthia asked, suddenly holding out her hand.

Sir Timothy took it in his. For some reason or other, he made no answer at all.



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