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Chapter Twenty-Two

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« on: June 12, 2023, 02:51:34 am »

“I CAN’T see a thing,” said Hugo.

They had turned into very deep shadow, the shadow of the house and the shadow of overhanging trees. He felt Hélène de Lara lean towards him, and he felt the pressure of her hand high up on his arm, where it clung for support.

“I can see,” she said. “But no one can see us. There is something about being quite, quite in the dark that makes me feel very safe. Do you know what I mean? We are here; but we are not here, because no one can see us---we are like invisible ghosts. It makes me feel safe.” Her voice had a whispering sweetness.

“I like to s-see where I’m going,” said Hugo.

“How dull!” said Mme. de Lara.

They had some steps to mount, and came out upon a terrace. His feet felt gravel, and all at once he felt, rather than saw, the black mass of the house.

“Two more steps,” said Mme. de Lara. “The glass door is not latched. Push it!”

They came into a dark room with a glow of firelight in it. It was warm, and it smelt of violets. Hélène de Lara steadied herself against his shoulder and touched the wall. The light came on and showed a little room full of flowers and soft chairs with bright coloured cushions. The light itself came from three lamps with shades of blue and primrose and violet. A very large orange cat rose from before the fire, stretched himself, and fixed a cold regardful eye upon Hugo.

Mme. de Lara sank into a chair and let her head fall back against an emerald cushion.

“O-o-oh!” she said. It was a sigh of pain.

With a groping movement she undid her cloak and pushed it back. The black folds covered the chair; her head with its silver flaxen hair lay back on the emerald brocade; her eyes were closed. The light above her, filtered through a pale blue shade, made her look ghastly; only her lips were brightly, unnaturally red.

Hugo thought the play was very well staged---the silver hair and the silver dress, and the little silver slippers stained with woodland damp; the pale blue light, and the soft sigh of pain. He thought it very well done and he hoped that he carried his own part as well. It was quite an easy part really---up to a point. He had to be shy, to stammer a little, to seem stupid, to notice everything---and to keep his head.

Hélène de Lara opened her eyes.

“Shall I c-call someone?” said Hugo.

“Oh no.” She sat up. “I’m all right. I only want to sit still and not meet anyone for just a minute or two.” A smile touched her eyes. “I want a minute or two to come back---out of the woods. Sit down and we’ll come back together.”

Hugo remained standing.

“I m-must be g-going.”

“Ah, you don’t want to come back! And you’re lucky, because you needn’t. I---must! You don’t know how I envy you.”

She looked up at him and down again---the old trick that shows how long and dark the lashes are and gives just a hint of dark depths in the eyes.

Hugo began, “I m-must----” and she laughed a little sadly.

“I wanted you to stay---just for a little---just while I came back. It’s so lonely coming back alone.” Then she said quickly, “Will you get into trouble if you stay? Will Ambrose scold you for being late? Does he scold you much? He’s got a frightful temper---hasn’t he?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

She lifted her eyebrows.

“Don’t you? I do. He nearly strangled me once”---Hugo thought she turned a little paler---“he did really. You’d better not offend him---he’s a dangerous man to offend.” She was sitting up now and looking at him anxiously. “You’d better go. But will you come again in quite a respectable, ordinary way? I’ve got some people coming to dinner to-morrow. Will you come? And will you bring your flute?”

Hugo was furious because he felt himself blushing scarlet. The idea of being asked to play the flute at a dinner-party was inconceivably horrible. That the blush was most excellently in keeping with his part did not console him in the least. He said, “I c-couldn’t!” in such panic-stricken tones that she laughed.

“Then you shan’t---you shall only play to the moon and to me.” She put up her left hand with a graceful gesture. “You’ll come to-morrow? Ah, do now! I think we might be friends. You’ll come?”

As he took the hand, he wondered what he was to say. It might be dangerous to come; but it might be more dangerous to stay away and be suspected of being on his guard. He looked at the great diamond that almost hid a fragile wedding ring. It was curiously set in a circle of tiny emerald points. He thought it would be safer to seem the fool they thought he was and to come.

He said, “Th-thank you,” and felt the little hand press his before it slipped away.

He went out through the glass door and, looking back, saw Hélène de Lara standing there with her hand on the emerald curtain that hung before it. The light shone on her hair and on her silver dress. The curtains framed her for a moment before they fell. He was in the dark, and had to grope his way down the steps.

At the bottom of the steps he stood still and looked back at the house. The moon was behind it, not high enough to clear the roof. He was marking the position of the door through which he had come, when a window sprang into view, above it and a little to the right. Someone had opened the window and was pulling back the curtains; light streamed from it. A girl leaned out; and Hugo’s heart gave a sudden thump because the girl looked like Loveday. It was not Hélène de Lara. But how frightfully stupid of him to think of Loveday at Torring House! Loveday was at Ledlington with her cousin Emily Brown---Emily---featherbed---Brown. Loveday could not conceivably be here. He frowned because it would not do at all for him to start imagining things.

And then his heart gave another thump, because the girl turned back from the window. She had been leaning out of the corner of it, and as she turned back, the light inside the room fell on her slantwise and Hugo saw her face. And it was Loveday---beyond all mistake or cavil it was Loveday.

A bewildered moment passed. His mind would not work. Loveday was at Ledlington---Loveday was here---Loveday couldn’t possibly be here---Loveday was here. His mind simply would not work at all. His eyes stared at the window and saw Loveday pass slowly across it. She was there---and then she wasn’t there any longer. He felt the need to get away and think. He simply had to think.

He plunged into the deep shadow of the over-arching trees, walked a few paces, and then stood still. What did it mean? What could it possibly mean? The suddenness of the thing was like the suddenness of a blow that knocks all the sense out of you. He had to steady himself and recover; he had to think. And quite suddenly he was able to think again.

Mme. de Lara had asked him to her house. Why? He didn’t think it was for his beaux yeux. He didn’t think that she had come on him by accident. She had asked him to her house because Loveday was there---she had asked him to her house because she, or someone else, wanted to see him meet Loveday. That meant that someone wasn’t sure---He broke off and began again.

Daisy had come to him with a message from Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith had sent him a message to say that Maggie had held her tongue. If Maggie had held her tongue, no one knew that he had come to no. 50 in the dark and taken Loveday away. No one knew that he and Loveday had met since their first meeting in the lane. Cissie didn’t know, and Hacker didn’t know; so Mme. de Lara couldn’t know. They didn’t know that Loveday had warned him, or that she had had any opportunity of warning him. Why did they want him to meet Loveday? He went back farther for the answer.

If Hacker was planning to sell Minstrel’s invention, and planning to make a scapegoat of a convenient Hugo Ross, he would need to be absolutely sure that Hugo had no suspicions, because---the more Hugo thought of it the more certain he became on this point---if Hacker meant to make a scapegoat of him, Hacker would have to take a certain amount of risk. If Hacker meant to sell the plans of Minstrel’s invention and make it appear that it was Hugo who had sold them, then he would have to risk allowing the plans to pass through Hugo’s hands; there would have to be a moment when they were actually in Hugo’s possession, because unless there was some proof of this, it would be difficult to make a really satisfactory scapegoat of him. Every time he thought it over, he felt more certain that the moment would come when the plans would actually be in his hands. And it was obvious that Mr. Smith thought so too. Hacker would just have to take the risk; but before he took it, he would want to make sure that Hugo had not been warned. Maggie hadn’t spoken. But had Cissie spoken? Had Cissie told Hacker that she had seen Hugo---and had given him her address on the night of Loveday’s escape? If Cissie had told Hacker that, he might very well have suspicions, and take steps to confirm or remove those suspicions. It might be Hacker’s idea to bring Hugo and Loveday together and see what happened. It might be Hacker’s idea, or it might be just coincidence that made Mme. de Lara invite Hugo to dinner when Loveday Leigh was in her house.

Hugo didn’t think it was coincidence. He thought it was no more of a coincidence than the overtures of Mr. Rice, the odd behaviour of Mr. Miller, and the disappearance of Mr. Rice’s letter. He thought they were all exactly the same sort of coincidence. And he suspected Mr. Hacker of producing them, after the manner of a conjuror, out of his hat.

Well---what about Loveday? It was no use wondering how she had got to Torring House. At Torring House she was; and he felt quite sure that when he walked into the drawing-room to-morrow evening, he would find Loveday there, and that their meeting would be a matter of considerable interest to someone else who would be present.

He had got as far as this, when he heard a sound. It came from the direction of the house. He couldn’t put a name to it---it was just a sound, and he stopped his thoughts to listen. It came again, and it was nearer---a whisper of voices, a footfall on the path, the sound of the wind blowing the dry leaves, and then voices again; a man’s voice and a woman’s, coming nearer.

Hugo was in black shadow. He had stepped off the narrow winding path and stood in a deep recess between dark holly and darker yew. The wind blew among the leaves, and he heard Mme. de Lara say, “I must go back.”

It was Hacker’s voice that answered---Hacker’s voice, but a different voice to the voice of the everyday Hacker; its tones were deep and angry, and charged with some violence of feeling which Hugo did not understand at all.

“Go back then!”

“How angry you are,” said Hélène de Lara. The words came mournfully from her unseen lips.

She stood a bare yard from Hugo.

Hacker, beyond her, answered roughly: “Some day you’ll push a man too far and he’ll swing for you.”

She gave a little cry of protest that was half a laugh: “Come, come, my friend----”

He broke in, “Are you going back to him?”

She laughed again.

“You know very well that he went ten minutes ago. Alas! I shall not see him till to-morrow. I’ve lost my heart to him, you know. He has such innocent eyes, and he blushes so divinely.”

For once Hugo found himself in one mind with Mr. Hacker; he felt that Mme. de Lara was the sort of person who might very easily get herself murdered. He heard Hacker take a stride forward, and he heard Hélène say quickly,

“Don’t eat me, James! Oh! How rough you are! No, I will not kiss you if you are rough. Put me down!”

Hugo had not bargained for this. It was frightfully embarrassing. To his relief the interlude was of the briefest. There was a kiss or two, and then the lady said,

“Come, James---enough! Let me go, and attend! To-morrow I will send you a formal invitation---one to you and one to him. You will open yours when he is there. And you will say what a pleasant neighbour I am, and any other politesse that may occur to you---not too empressé, you understand. And you will say what a bear Ambrose is, and what a pity there has been a quarrel, but that, for your part, you mean to accept the olive branch and dine with me. Then you can watch with your own jealous eyes to see how Master Hugo meets my cousin Loveday. For my part, I believe you have found a mare’s nest.”

“I don’t know.” The violence had gone from Hacker’s voice; it was merely puzzled. He went on quickly, “You haven’t said anything to her?”

“Not a word. I have not said his name. She does not even know that I have ever heard of him. It will be a complete surprise.”

“It must be, or it’s no good. We come in together, and she must be there. I want to see---I must see---if there’s the least recognition. If they only met the once in that dark lane, there won’t be any recognition. But if, somehow, they’ve contrived to meet since, one of them’s bound to show some sign.”

“Well---they meet. And then? What next?”

“You introduce him. If he’s really innocent, he’ll be just mildly struck with the name, and no more. But she’ll be taken aback and excited. She’ll want a chance of speaking to him, and it’s up to you to see that she doesn’t get it. If he’s really innocent, then he believes that the girl he met in London was Miss Leigh. You see?”

Hélène de Lara laughed her mournful laugh.

“Ah, James,” she said, “I think I’d give the world and all to be as innocent. Wouldn’t you?”

Mr. Hacker grew impatient.

“Don’t talk such nonsense! Who wants to be innocent? The point is---is he a fool, or isn’t he? And is it safe to bank on his being just the fool he seems?”

“He’s not a fool---he’s a boy.”

“The same thing.”

“You mean it will serve you as well.” Her voice was a little scornful.

“Come, Hélène, be rational for once! You always say you can read men---you’ve certainly had plenty of practice. I want to know, seriously, whether you think it’s safe to bank on his being a fool.”

Her answer came a thought indignantly:

“Yes---I’ve had practice. And I tell you, just as seriously as you want, that your Hugo Ross isn’t a fool at all. He’s a boy. He doesn’t suspect people, because he’s friendly like a boy, and shy like a boy. And I think you are safe---oh yes, quite safe---to bank on being able to ruin this friendly boy.” Her voice lost its rather tragic note and became light with laughter. “I will tell you something else---something that you haven’t asked me. I will tell you that Hugo Ross will make a most adorable lover, and that I think that’s a better use for him than to be mixed up in your dirty affairs.”

She blew him a kiss and began to run away.

“Good-night, James!” she said and was gone.

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