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Chapter Twenty-Four

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« on: June 12, 2023, 07:16:03 am »

WHEN he turned in at the gate of Meade House, it occurred to him for the first time that he was likely to find himself locked out too; but as he came round the turn of the drive, he saw the hall door standing wide and light streaming out from the hall. Even for Meade House this seemed odd and a trifle disconcerting.

He came across the gravel sweep, and saw Hacker in the doorway like a black shadow. There was a momentary effect of menace; then Hacker’s voice:

“That you, Ross?”

It was Hacker’s voice, but not quite his ordinary voice. Hugo had the impression that Hacker was trying very hard to be ordinary. He did not quite succeed.

Hugo said, “Yes---I’m l-late.” And then, as he came up close, Hacker began to speak, to say something that never got farther than a single rough sound. With a sudden break he swung round and went striding across the hall and up the stairs.

Hugo waited to shut and bolt the door and put out the hall light. Then as he went up the stairs in the dark, the feeling of menace was there. He was conscious of it to the point of shocked expectancy. Something---some force of anger---something violent, horrible, malignant was there---waiting. If Hacker had sprung upon him with murderous intent, it would have been a sheer relief. The unseen menace was a subtler and more horrible thing.

The turn of the stair showed him Hacker’s door with a line of light beneath it. He felt his way to his own room and lit a candle. Five minutes later he was calling himself a fool; but he locked the door and pushed a tin bath against it before he went to sleep.

He dreamt that he was dancing with Mme. de Lara in a fairy ring in the moonlight. The ring was a ring of scarlet toadstools, and Hélène de Lara wore silver slippers with scarlet heels. Someone was playing the flute, and away in the outer darkness he could hear Loveday crying. She was crying bitterly. But he couldn’t go to her, because he couldn’t get out of the fairy ring; the toadstools grew as tall as trees and burned with a red scorching fire; the wind blew over them and burnt him. But Hélène de Lara danced on. The heels of her shoes were scarlet flames, and her silvered hair was full of dancing fiery sparks.

He woke up hot and panting, and as he woke, he heard the handle of his door turn and the latch click. He called out at once, “Who’s there?” and there was no answer, only a faint, faint sound of withdrawal. It was so very faint that he could not have said that he heard it, or that it was really a sound at all.

He jumped out of bed and went to the open window. The air of the house was heavy with menace. He did not sleep again that night.

Next day there was a comedy played at breakfast, the comedy of Hélène de Lara’s invitation to dinner. There was a letter for Hacker and a letter for Hugo, sent over by hand.

Hugo opened his letter with a good deal of amusement. It smelt of violets, and began without a beginning:

“You are coming to me to-night, are you not? A quarter to eight. I rely on you. Au revoir.

“H. de L.”

He looked up and saw Hacker’s hand clenched on a torn envelope, Hacker’s face forced to a dark indifference.

It was Minstrel who asked with a rasp, “What’s Hélène writing about?”

“Asking me to dinner,” said Hacker with a shrug.

Minstrel laughed.

“An olive branch! She hasn’t asked me. You are favoured---or are you, I wonder? She hasn’t the impudence to write to me, so she writes to you. Is that it?” He was tormenting Hacker, and knew that he was tormenting him.

He turned with a sneer to Hugo.

“You also have a billet doux! Are you also asked to dinner?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Admirable! The lady is particularly charming and particularly hospitable, and particularly fond of novelty---ladies are, I’m told---this one has a passion for it---hence the olive branch. Hacker and I were out of favour, but as soon as you appear on the scenes we are forgiven---that is, Hacker is forgiven---she throws him a nice little bone---she invites him to dinner. He ought to show gratitude, but I doubt if he will---eh, Hacker? Gratitude’s not much in your line---is it? I suppose you won’t go?”

“Why not?”

Hacker got up scowling.

“Why not indeed? Why be proud? Why not crawl in behind Ross and lick the hand that throws the bone? I only wish she’d asked me too. I should have enjoyed myself---a most edifying spectacle.”

The door banged behind Hacker. Minstrel pushed back his chair.

“Come and write letters! Hacker’s got a damnable temper. Some day it’ll get him into trouble. Come along and do a job of work. You won’t earn your salary by going out to dinner. I suppose you think you oughtn’t to work on Sunday---eh? Well, I can tell you this---my secretary works when I want him to work, if it’s in the middle of the night, or forty-eight hours at a stretch. He’s a machine, and he works when I want him to work---or he goes.”

There was not, after all, very much work to do. Hacker came in presently and lounged in one of the big chairs with a novel and a cigarette. Minstrel dictated a couple of letters and began a third; but halfway through the first sentence he stopped.

Hugo looked round. He had got used to Minstrel’s restless ways and quite expected to see him lost in a book or disappearing into his laboratory. What he saw was this---Minstrel looking at Hacker with an angry questioning stare, and Hacker---no, he was just too late to catch Hacker off his guard. When he looked, Hacker’s eyes were on his book. But Hugo knew very well that they had not been there a second before; they had been looking at Minstrel, saying something to Minstrel. It was all over in a moment.

Minstrel swung round, pulling at his beard.

“I can’t dictate. Finish the letter yourself, and keep out of my way, or I shall find myself sacking you.”

“Do you want to s-sack me, sir?”

Minstrel swore at him.

“No, I don’t. I shouldn’t tell you to keep out of my way if I did. It’s not you; it’s those damned interfering busybodies who think that because they sit in a government office and fatten on red tape they can come down here and hustle me.”

He picked a paper-weight off the table at Hugo’s elbow, balanced it a moment, and sent it crashing into the book-case. It splintered the middle panel and fell with a heavy thud. He went striding up the room and stood staring at the damage. Then he laughed his rasping laugh and came swinging back.

“They rouse me. It’s folly---but they rouse me. I’d like to smash them---like that!”

He turned on Hugo.

“Did you know we were having company to-morrow?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh, you didn’t? You don’t know very much---do you? D’you still think I’ve been inventing a submarine?”

“Haven’t you, sir?”

Minstrel pursed up his mouth and echoed him in a sort of snarling whine. “Haven’t you, sir? Haven’t you, sir? How discreet! How secretarial! No, sir, I haven’t. And what’s more you know very well that I haven’t, unless you’re even more of a fool than I ever took you for. A submarine!” He ran his hands through his hair and left it wild. “Does one correspond with the Air Ministry about a submarine? Does the Air Ministry send down its experts to haggle with me about a submarine? How much of a fool are you? Why, I believe----” He paused, caught Hugo by the shoulder and pushed him back, looking down at him with a hot, unwinking stare. “Are you fool enough to believe what you see in print? Why, upon my soul, I believe you are---I believe you are!”

Hugo felt his colour rise.

Minstrel went on looking at him for a moment, and then burst out laughing.

“My submarine flies, Master Ross! Put that in your pipe and smoke it!” he said and turned on his heel. The laboratory door banged on him, and the key turned harshly.

Hacker shrugged his shoulders.

“Sometimes I think he’s mad,” he said.

Hugo spent the rest of the morning wondering what method there was in Minstrel’s madness. That the outburst had been calculated, he was sure. He thought it was to Hacker’s order; and he thought that Hacker, for some reason, wished him to know, first, that Minstrel’s invention was of the nature of an aeroplane, and next, that there was to be an official visit in connection with it on the following day.

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