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Chapter Twenty-Five

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« on: June 12, 2023, 07:53:24 am »

HUGO walked over to Torring House with Hacker that evening. He found it rather a strange walk. Hacker did not speak once, and the menace which had been present in the night was with them in the dark woods. It seemed to fill them. It seemed as if Hacker was always on the edge of speech, always just about to say something, to do something. There was a sense of violence just controlled.

They came into the hall at Torring House, and all at once Hugo began to feel elated. The feeling puzzled him because, in the ordinary way, a dinner-party reduced him to a state of stammering alarm. Now he felt elated. He followed Hacker with a sense of pleased expectancy.

They came into the little room where he had talked with Mme. de Lara, and saw her standing under the tall lamp with the pale blue shade. The light gave her an elfin look, with her flaxen silver curls and a dress of moonlight blue.

Hugo’s eyes went past her to Loveday. He looked at her because he couldn’t help it. They had met in a dark lane, in a dark room, on a dark roof, and in a dark garden. He had seen her by the light of a street lamp, pale, ruffled, and dusty. He couldn’t keep his eyes from her now. There was colour in her cheeks, and she wore a pink frock. She looked very young. She made his heart beat terribly, and under the eyes of Hacker and Hélène de Lara he felt himself blushing.

With a desperate effort he transferred his gaze and his blush to Mme. de Lara. If he had met Loveday’s gaze, the disaster might have been complete. But Loveday was not looking at him at all. She said something to Hélène and she laughed quite naturally. And then Hélène de Lara had her hand on his arm.

“Well, my friend, you have come. Shall I tell you how pleased I am to see you?”

She kept her hand on his arm and just touched Hacker.

“James, you haven’t met my cousin. Chérie, this is Mr. James Hacker, who is a very dangerous person for you to know, because he invents explosives and things like that, and our dear Emily would not approve of him at all. And this----” She drew Hugo forward and paused. “This, my dear----” She paused again, and Loveday turned and looked at Hugo.

Hugo admired her very much; she did it ever so much better than he; her eyes were as innocently unaware as a kitten’s. She saw a pleasant boy, who was a stranger, and she waited for Hélène to introduce him. She could not have done it better.

Hélène introduced Mr. Hugo Ross.

Mr. Hugo Ross said “How do you do?” and Miss Loveday Leigh, who had not been given any name except Chérie, looked at him with an air of startled interest and said “Oh” in a very natural girlish manner.

“Oh---is your name Ross?” said Loveday. Then she said “Oh” again, with the effect of being a little out of breath. It was very well done.

Quite suddenly Hugo wanted to laugh. He and Loveday playing at being solemnly introduced! He turned to Mme. de Lara and said, stammering a good deal, that it was a fine night.

“Is it?”

Hélène de Lara still had her hand upon his sleeve. She withdrew it now, rather slowly.

“Perhaps there’ll b-be a f-fog later.”

Hugo didn’t want to laugh any more. He was making an ass of himself, and his cheeks burned.

They went in to dinner, Loveday with Hacker and Hugo with Hélène, and from the time that they were seated Mme. de Lara kept up a soft, unceasing flow of talk---about music---about flying---about jazz---about the Schneider Cup---about all the cities in Europe---about the world’s record flights. Her talk rippled like any stream that runs down an easy slope to an untroubled sea.

The little dinner was perfect in every way. Even Hacker’s gloom lifted, and by the time coffee was served he had vouchsafed at least one observation. Loveday was plainly enjoying herself. Emily never gave parties like this. Emily only had people to tea. It was thrilling to wear a pink dress for Hugo to see, and to eat the most amusing things with names that kept you guessing.

Hélène stopped talking about record flights. As the servants left the room, she lit a cigarette, looked through the faint veil of smoke at Hacker, and asked,

“Now why didn’t you bring Ambrose?”

“You didn’t ask him,” said Hacker rudely.

“Didn’t I?” She laughed. “Did he expect that I would? He’s like royalty---he says he will come, or he says he won’t come---one doesn’t ask him---especially when he is inventing something. What is it now?”

Hacker leaned back in his chair.

“Don’t you read the papers?”

“Never. Why should I? They contain all the things which are not true, or which one knows already. When they are indiscreet, they lie---and when they tell the truth, they are as dull as ditch-water.”

“How picturesque!” said Hacker with a sneer.

She turned to Hugo.

“He is rude because he is afraid of me. He is afraid that I shall ask him to be indiscreet. He is in the sulks, so I shall ask you instead. Tell me about Ambrose’s invention.”

“I don’t know anything to tell,” said Hugo.

“And do you think that I believe that?”

“It’s t-true.”

She waved away the smoke that hung between them and made an odd little monkey face.

“Then I shall tell you---and you shall tell me whether I’m telling true or not.” She kept her eyes on him; dark, sad, malicious eyes. “I’ll tell you this, but I won’t tell you how I know---Ambrose has invented something that is going to sweep all the other flying things out of the air and leave it bare for him. Now isn’t that true?”

“I don’t know,” said Hugo.

“Isn’t it true, James?”

“Ask Minstrel.”

“I don’t need to---it’s true. And I’ll tell you what I heard, and that’s this---they sent experts down from London to see a test, and he showed them a little model that they laughed at for a child’s toy, and home-made at that---for it’s true, isn’t it, that he and you and Leonard made the parts?”

“Some of them,” said Hacker.

Loveday was listening with all her ears and looking with all her eyes. Hélène laughed at her.

“Look at this child! Her eyes will fall out. She’s admiring you, James, and thinking how clever you are. And she’s wondering how your great clumsy fingers can make anything so fine and delicate as the sort of toy that Ambrose plays with.”

Hacker looked at his hands with a certain complacency. Hélène blew him a mocking kiss.

“How nice to be so pleased with oneself! Perhaps, now that you are pleased, you will tell me if what I have heard is true. I have heard that the experts laughed until they saw what the little toy could do, and that then they didn’t laugh any more. I have heard that they came away with long, grave faces. I have heard----”

Hacker frowned again.

“What have you heard?”

“What I have heard comes straight out of a fairy-tale. But that is just what inventors are doing, is it not? They are stealing all the things out of the old wonder-tales and making them come real. One day we say it’s impossible, and the next day we are buying the magic over the counter and taking it all as a matter of course.” She put her elbows on the table and leaned forward whispering, “James---is it true that it rises up quite straight without a run? Ah now, tell me!”

Hacker laughed.

“That’s nothing!”

“Isn’t it now? Listen to him, Chérie! Ah, James, be indiscreet and tell us about it! What can it do?”

Hacker pushed back his chair and stood up.

“What can’t it do?”

“Tell us.” She was whispering again.

“Not a word.” He went to the door and opened it. “If you want to know anything, you’ll have to ask Minstrel yourself.”

“But we’ve quarrelled.”

“Make it up.” There was contempt in his tone; and all at once there was offence in hers---offence and dignity.

“I think we will go into the next room. Mr. Ross, has Ambrose ever shown you his collection of Chinese snuff bottles? He hasn’t? Well, they’re worth seeing---and if you can catch him in a really good temper, he likes showing them. But of course that’s only when the sun shines in the middle of the night. You wouldn’t expect him to have artistic tastes---would you?”

“I don’t know,” said Hugo.

She laughed.

“What a lot of things you don’t know!” Then, on the threshold of her little room, she patted Loveday on the shoulder. “Go and talk to James. I am offended with him. Talk, or play the piano, or show him photographs---whichever he likes least. I wish to punish him.”

“Thank you,” said Loveday. She dropped a little curtsey, made a schoolgirl grimace, and went over to where Mr. Hacker frowned savagely at an innocent water-colour.

“Hélène says I am to show you photographs,” she said, and forthwith picked up a little book of snapshots.

Hélène sat down on the sofa by the fire.

“I want more cushions. Yes, that blue one—and the one with the silver roses. Thank you. And now come and sit down and tell me why you blushed when you came in?”

Hugo did it again.

“Did I b-blush?”

She looked at him with an air of mournful reproach.

“Did you? Is that what you’re asking me?”

Hugo went on doing it. The mournful look lifted; something sparkled and glanced.

“You might tell me why. Everybody tells me things except that sulky, obstinate James. Isn’t he detestable? Do tell me why you blushed.”

“It was very stupid.”

“Was it? Why did you?”

“I s-saw you----”

“And you blushed for me?”

“It was very s-stupid.”

Hugo hoped earnestly that she would believe him and talk about something else. He hoped earnestly that she really thought him a singularly stupid young man. If only he hadn’t been ass enough to look at Loveday! He was aware of her now out of the tail of his eye, sitting up primly and turning the leaves of an album which Hacker made hardly a pretence of looking at. He wanted to punch Hacker’s head; he wanted to throw the furniture about; he wanted to smash something and shout.

Mme. de Lara hadn’t done with him.

“You might tell me,” she said, and her eyes teased and promised.

“I had a m-most awfully f-funny dream last night,” said Hugo.

“So bad that you had to blush for it?”

Hugo would have given about ten years of his life to have boxed her ears. He supposed she thought she was being attractive. He controlled himself sufficiently to look as if he thought so too.

He said, “Oh---no,” and found a hand upon his arm. It clung there for a moment with a delicate pressure.

“Did you dream about me?”

“Yes, I d-did.”

“Tell me! Ah now, do tell me! If I was in it, it’s my dream as well as yours. What did we do in our dream?”

“We d-danced,” said Hugo. He was looking down at the big diamond with its circle of tiny emeralds; it shone most amazingly bright. She had a little skinny hand. He thought how much nicer the ring would have looked on Loveday’s finger. And then quite suddenly he hated the idea of Loveday wearing the ring, and he hated the ring.

“We danced----” echoed Hélène de Lara. Her voice sank and was sad; her hand fell from his arm. “We danced. . . . Go on.”

“We just d-danced.”

He had a vision of the fiery toad-stools and of Mme. de Lara’s burning heels and the sparks that flew from her hair. The wild dream and his own banal phrase shook him with inward laughter.

“Where were we?”

“It was a f-funny sort of place.”

“Ah, tell me now! You’re not telling me.”

Hugo looked blank.

“We just d-d-danced.”

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