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Chapter Twenty-One

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« on: June 11, 2023, 12:33:11 pm »

THE wood was a very nice place. The notes of the flute dropped into the wind like water, and the wind went on, now loud, now soft, with great rushes and sudden lulls. From where Hugo sat he could see a little glade opening before him. The trees stood all round it in a ring. It was carpeted with dry leaves that rustled in the wind. Overhead there were branches, and then a space of clear moonlit sky.

Hugo began to feel very happy. He had opened a door and walked right out of his adventure into a place which was full of wind and music and the rustle of leaves. Presently he would go back through the door and go on with the adventure again. He did not know that the door had opened of itself, and that the adventure was following him.

He began to think about Loveday. He felt immensely happy when he thought about her. He did not mind not being able to go and see her---she was here. His thought was so full of her, and he was so uplifted by it, that he wanted to shout with the wind and make better music than he had ever been able to make before. It was a most exhilarating feeling.

He began to play a tune that he had picked out for himself. He and Susan had an Irish nurse who had crooned them to sleep with it, and if he had ever known the words, he had lost them again. It was just a tune that reminded him of Loveday, and he played it and played with it, and put little turns and twirls to it, and quite forgot to play in a whisper for fear of being overheard. Then all at once, just as he was beginning the tune again, he had the most curious sensation; the flute seemed to be playing by itself. He stopped in the middle of a bar, and the air went on, very sweet and clear but rather far away. The hand that held the flute dropped down upon his knee; the other hand gripped the branch on which he sat. The clear fluting sound came from the other side of the glade. He heard a twig snap. The wind blew and the leaves rustled. The tune took words to itself:

   “New hope may bloom, and days may come,
        Of milder, calmer beam;
    But there’s nothing half so sweet in life as
        Love’s young dream.
    Oh, there’s nothing half so sweet in life as
        Love’s young dream.”

Hugo leaned forward on his branch. The far side of the glade was in black shadow. On the edge of the shadow something moved and came out into the misty moonlight. There it stood still, a small dark shadow. A high, clear voice called, “Where are you?”

It wasn’t Loveday. Hugo had known all along that it wasn’t Loveday; and yet he felt the queerest sense of disappointment. What was anyone else doing to come into this enchantment of wind and shadow and moonlight and call to him? It should have been Loveday; and it wasn’t Loveday.

He stayed still, leaning forward, holding on to the branch on which he sat.

“Where are you?” asked the clear, high voice.

Hugo remembered his manners. He dropped to the ground and said,

“I’m here;” and then as he walked towards her, “D-d-did you w-want anything?”

He could hear her humming the air he had played. As he came nearer, he saw that she was wrapped in a long velvet cloak. He thought it was velvet because it looked so black and soft, blacker and softer even than the shadow out of which she had come. The wind blew the cloak and showed a gleam of silver, the turn of a bare arm, the flash of a ring where she held the folds together.

“C-can I do anything for you?”

He stopped a couple of yards away, and got a queer half glance.

“You can tell me who you are.”

No one could have said that she had a brogue, but there was just the least soft Irish touch on the words; it was rather like the something that isn’t quite rain in the West of Ireland breeze. The voice was not without its charm.

“My n-name is Ross.”

The little cloaked lady sketched a curtsey.

“Mine is Hélène de Lara. And now we’re introduced, and you’re wondering what in the world I’m doing interrupting you like this.”

She pushed back the hood as she spoke. The moonlight showed him a curious little face which reminded him of a monkey, and the palest hair he had ever seen. The monkey was rather a pretty monkey, and it had a pair of eyes like black pools; altogether an elfin apparition and quite at home in a forest glade.

“I heard you playing,” she said.

Hugo said nothing. One bit of him was feeling shy and tongue-tied, and another bit suspicious and alert. He wondered what Mme. de Lara wanted, and he thought he would wait and see. She went on speaking, and all the time that she was speaking, the big dark eyes looked him over mournfully.

“I heard you playing, and I came because I’ve done mad things all my life when I’ve wanted to---and sometimes when I haven’t.” She paused and laughed a little laugh as mournful as her eyes. “Ah well, if you’ve never done a mad thing just to please yourself, you won’t know what I’m talking about, and I’ll just say goodnight and go home.” All at once her voice changed; she went on without any pause, “Who taught you to play Irish melodies? For you’re not Irish---are you?”

“N-no. I didn’t know it was an Irish tune---at least----”

“Didn’t you know that you were playing Love’s Young Dream?” She laughed again. “Perhaps we none of us know till it’s over and the dream is gone.”

“My nurse used to s-sing it---n-not the words---just the tune. She called it The Old Woman.”

Hélène de Lara nodded. Her cloak slipped and showed a silver dress.

“That’s the name of the tune. Tommy Moore wrote sentimental words to it and called it Love’s Young Dream. He was an arch sentimentalist, you know, and everyone laughs at him now. I laugh at him by daylight or lamplight; but he goes very well with the moon, and I’ve a soft spot somewhere for him and his sentimentalities. Won’t you go on playing?”

The idea filled Hugo with horror; it also touched his sense of humour.

“I’m af-f-fraid----” He did not try to stammer, but he did not try not to stammer.

“Poor romance!” said Hélène de Lara. “It has been killed, like all beautiful things, by fear. Everyone to-day is afraid of romance and poetry and beauty and youth and love---I’m afraid of them myself. Just for this moment, of course, I am mad, so I am not afraid---mad people are never afraid of being ridiculous---but when I am not mad I am just as much afraid as anybody else---I ask just as carefully, ‘Is it done?’ And if it is not done---Fi donc! I do not do it. And if it is done, it does not matter in the least how ugly and stupid and dull it is---I do it, and everybody else does it too, and we are bored. Only every now and then I have a mad moment, and I please myself and say what I think, or run out into the moonlight to listen to an old Irish song.” She spoke at first in a light, soft tone that gradually fell away into sadness. Her voice had an extraordinary charm, the charm of laughter and tears.

Hugo did not know what to say. For the matter of that, it was best to say nothing---to be stupid and shy was the safest rôle in the world.

“Ah well,” she said, and pulled her cloak about her---“we mustn’t be mad for more than just a moment---must we?” Just above her breath she sang:

    “Oh, the days are past when beauty bright
         Our hearts’ chain wove,
     When our dream of life from morn to night
         Was love—still love.”

She put out her hand---a little hand with a great diamond that caught the light.

“Good-bye, Mr. Ross.”

He saw her turn to go with the swirl of the wind in the full black cloak; and then she looked round at him over her shoulder.

“You’re at Meade House, aren’t you? How is Ambrose?”

The question was, as it were, tossed at him, lightly and as if the answer mattered less than nothing; yet she turned back for the answer, and he saw that the hand with the diamond on it was pressed against her throat. He spoke as if he noticed nothing, but he thought perhaps he need not stammer any more; he was feeling too much interested to be shy. He said, “Oh, he’s just as usual.”

Mme. de Lara caught him up.

“As usual? What do you mean by that now?”

Hugo said, “Oh---I don’t know,” and she took her hand from her throat to make a little gesture with it.

“What is usual with him---now? Is he ill? Is he well? Is he sad---or cross---or mad? Or is he only trying to drive everyone round him into Bedlam?” She laughed, a hard little laugh with an edge to it. “Any of these things might be usual with Ambrose.”

Hugo was very decidedly interested. Mr. Smith had hinted at something more than a friendship between these two odd people. He wondered why the lady should be at so much pains to give the fact away. And then it seemed to him that it was clever of her, because Hugo might have heard rumours, and she was conveying the impression of a complete breach. He did not think it necessary to say anything.

Mme. de Lara came a step nearer.

“How discreet you are! You won’t talk about Ambrose. I see. Am I allowed to inquire for Mr. Hacker? Or is that also pays défendu?”

Hugo looked puzzled. He still held his flute, but he began now to take it apart and slip it into his pocket. He said doubtfully,

“Are they friends of yours?---Mr. Minstrel. I mean, and Hacker?”

He saw her lift her chin. She had the monkey’s trick of sudden grimace. The odd, pretty face became vividly ugly for an instant.

“Perhaps we were friends---once. Ah now, there’s a bad word!” Her face wrinkled again. She said, “Once” on what sounded like an angry sob; and then, very quickly and passionately, “I was young---once. And I was gay---once. And once---once---once---oh, once I was loved!”

Hugo felt like an actor who is suddenly carried away by his part---and he had forgotten that it was his part to be stupid and tongue-tied. He said, speaking quickly and low,

“Why not ‘I was sad once’?”

She brushed her hand across her mournful eyes and laughed.

“Only once? Fortunate Mr. Ross! But you are young. What a lot of time there is for you to be sad in!” She laughed again. “Ah now, that’s unkind of me---I’ll take it back. And I’ll go before we quarrel. It’s so stupid to quarrel---but one doesn’t think of that until it’s too late. We’ll be wiser. Good-bye.” The last word had a sort of sober sadness.

Hugo said good-bye, and watched her walk away. The acting had moved him. He had never watched acting that had moved him more. If the world was Hélène de Lara’s stage, she brought to it a surprising gift.

She went slowly away down the glade, moving with a grace that touched the imagination. Hugo watched her, and wondered if the curtain were really going to fall. He thought not.

It seemed that he was right, for just short of the deep shadow at the edge of the glade the lady tripped, cried out, and fell. When Hugo reached her, she was trying to rise, but not making much of a success of it. She laughed up at him.

“This is what comes of being mad! I’ve twisted my foot. That is to teach me not to run out in the moonlight, I expect. Ouf! How stupid of me! Will you give me your arm?”

He had to do more than that; he had to put his arm round her waist. She was incredibly small and light and soft to hold. He could have carried her, and said so; but she laughed again and protested that she could walk.

“Just your arm---yes. How clever you are! Like that---so that I need not put my weight on the foot.”

Her weight! He could have laughed. She didn’t seem to have any; she was as soft and light as thistledown. This part of the play was decidedly pleasant. He wondered what came next. He would see her home, she would ask him in, and---Mr. Smith’s words came back warningly: “It might be very dangerous for you to go to Mme. de Lara’s house; but on the other hand it might be very advantageous.”

“Am I very heavy?” said Hélène de Lara. “We’re just on the path. I think I can manage once I get to the path---unless you are going to be so kind as to see me home.”

Hugo made the answer that was expected of him. He was thanked very prettily and allowed to afford just as much support as was graceful and agreeable. The feeling of being in a play became stronger and stronger.

The path wound gently down between the trees. The moon looked through upon it, and the woods were full of the sighing noises of the night. He lifted her down half a dozen steps, unlatched a rustic gate, and came out upon the drive of Torring House.

“We will go round to the side,” said Mme. de Lara. She laughed, and caught her breath in the middle of the laugh. “I do not always tell my butler when I do mad things---he is as proper as Mrs. Grundy. Come round to the side of the house.”

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