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Chapter Twenty-Seven

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Seven  (Read 32 times)
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« on: June 12, 2023, 10:53:47 am »

HACKER made an early move, for which Hugo was sufficiently thankful. He shook hands with Mme. de Lara and felt her fingers cling to his for a moment whilst her lashes swept up and down again over darkly mournful eyes. They seemed to say, “Ah! If we were alone----”

Hugo turned to Loveday sitting on the rug beside the orange cat. He touched her hand, and she said, “You must say good-bye to Pif-paf-pouf---he is a very important person. Just feel how lovely and soft he is.”

He stroked the orange fur, and as he did so, Loveday’s hand slipped up to his and pushed a scrap of paper under his stroking fingers. Pif-paf-pouf gave a little sleepy growl as Hugo’s hand closed. He rolled over and stretched himself. Hugo got up with a beating heart. He slipped the scrap of paper into his pocket and went out with Hacker.

The night was dark, cloudy, and mild; a gusty wind blew overhead in the tree-tops. They were hardly clear of the house before Hacker began to talk with a curious suppressed energy that showed itself every now and then in a word suddenly jerked out or over-loud.

“I wish I could be sure----” he began and then broke off. “Sure---you can’t ever be sure of Minstrel. He’s supposed to be handing over those plans to-morrow. Well, I’ll bet anything you like that he’ll play something up and go back on it. He loathes parting, and he won’t part as long as he can invent an excuse---but he’s never been as bad as this. It’s getting on my nerves.”

“Does it m-matter?” said Hugo. He wondered why he was being confided in.

Hacker gave a jerky laugh.

“Matter? That’s good!”

“But why?”

“You heard what I said up there. The plans are too dashed valuable, and he leaves them lying about.”

“Well, I don’t s-see”---Hugo spoke in a slow, puzzled way---“I m-mean supposing the Ministry have the plans to start making the---the aeroplanes or whatever they are---well, you can’t keep things like that very s-secret. I don’t see it’s really worth anyone’s while to steal the plans.”

“Don’t you?” Hacker’s tone was one of open contempt.

“No, I d-don’t.”

Hacker laughed.

“They’re worth fifty thousand---the two secret processes alone---” He stopped with the air of pulling himself up.

“S-secret processes?”

“Well, you’d better forget that---I oughtn’t to have said it---and yet I don’t know that it matters. The thing’s on my mind. D’you know what it is to have a thing so much on your mind that you can’t help talking about it? No---I don’t suppose you do.” He walked for half a dozen yards in silence, and then said, low and abruptly, “It’s the two secret processes that are worth the money. They’re worth double---treble---but they’d fetch fifty thousand.” He laughed harshly. “They’d fetch more in the open market---they’d fetch anything you like to ask. I can’t tell you about them, but they’re going to revolutionize flying. I tell you there’s not as much difference between a toy balloon and the best modern plane as there will be between that plane and Minstrel’s. There!”

The last word was fired at Hugo like a shot. He said, “Oh, I s-say!” and waited for more.

There was no more.

On the step of the house Hacker shook himself and said gruffly, “Don’t talk about it.” Then he went across the hall and up the stairs at a run.

Hugo followed slowly. He found his room with the blinds up, and he pulled them down carefully before he took out the scrap of paper which Loveday had pushed into his hand. It was a little uneven piece torn from the margin of a book; a letter or two of print showed at the edge. Across it in a faint pencil scrawl he read: “Come to the scullery window.”

That was all. He stared at it, angry and perplexed. Loveday had taken a frightful risk, and she was asking him to take a worse risk still. If the slip of paper had been seen, the game would have been up. It was a frightful risk to take. Only the most urgent necessity could justify it. Was there any urgent necessity? They oughtn’t to risk a meeting unless a meeting was absolutely essential. Suppose Loveday only wanted to see him. What could have happened that could possibly justify their taking such a risk? He couldn’t think of anything. But there might be something. It was most difficult to decide what to do. He wanted to see Loveday so badly that he was afraid of doing what he wanted to do; and he was afraid of going in the opposite direction and staying away, just because he wanted so badly to go.

He put out his light and opened the door of his room. There was still a light under Hacker’s door. Then, as he looked at it, the door opened and the light went out.

Hugo stepped back and stood still, listening. He heard Hacker cross the landing and go down the stair, he heard him cross the hall below. He came out on the landing and stood at the head of the stairs looking over. There was the flash of a torch in the hall, and then the sound of the front door being opened softly. Hacker went out, and the door closed behind him.

Hugo went out too, by the back door. He put the key in his pocket and walked back to Torring House. He wondered a good deal whether Hacker was going there. It was lighter than it had been, because the moon had risen and the cloudy heavens showed faintly luminous above the black mass of woodland that surrounded the house. The wind went sighing overhead, and every now and then a gust bent the branches and set up a creaking and a straining.

Hugo came along the path which led from the drive to the foot of the terrace steps. The house was just a blur in the dark; the only light came from the veiled, dim sky. He skirted the house cautiously, and crossed the paved yard at the back of it. His outstretched hands touched the wall and he groped along it. Here was a door, and here a window. The scullery window should come next. He reached it and heard the sound, the only just audible sound of a gasp; then Loveday’s voice, faint and shaky:

“Who---who is it?”

“M-m-me,” said Hugo.

This time the gasp was louder.

“You’ve been years and years and years! I thought you weren’t coming. And there are black beetles---one ran over my foot. This is an awful place. I’m coming out.”

“No---I’ll come in. It’s safer.”

He was considering that inside they would hear a step soon enough for him to get away. He climbed in, and found Loveday in his arms, cold and shaking. She had on a coat with a fur collar over her thin dress and the fur tickled his chin.

“Why didn’t you come before? A scullery in the middle of the night is a most dreadfully frightening place.”

“I couldn’t. I couldn’t read your message till I got back. I can’t stop---it’s frightfully dangerous. What’s up?”

Loveday rubbed a cold, soft cheek against his.

“Aren’t you pleased to see me? Aren’t you glad you came?”

Hugo frowned in the dark.

“What’s up? Why did you write that message?”

She gave a little whispering laugh.

“I tore a piece out of a revolting French novel of Hélène’s. Ooh! Such a nasty book!”

“You shouldn’t have read it.”

“I didn’t. I tore a corner off, and I went behind the piano and wrote on it.”

“But why?”

“Because I wanted to see you. Don’t you want to see me?”

Hugo frowned again, quite ferociously this time.

“Do you mean to say----”

She drew back an inch or two.

“How ferocious you sound! Are you going to be ferocious? Because if you are, I shall go away. I’m feeling frightfully weak after being trodden on by a black beetle and having to talk to your awful Hacker all the evening.”

“I’m not being ferocious. But it’s too dangerous.”

“Don’t you like dangerous things? I do. I was just smothering with dulness---a little more Hacker, and I should have been asphyxiated. Isn’t it funny his name being James too? Isn’t it awful to know two Jameses who are both simply smotheringly dull? I think the Hacker one’s the worst though---because the other one does propose to me, and there’s a sort of faint gleam of human interest about being proposed to, even by James.”

“Loveday, d-do be serious.”

“I am---i’m frightfully serious. It’s a frightfully serious thing, because if I see much of Mr. Hacker, I might get to feel that I quite loved James. And if I got to feel that, I might say ‘Yes’ next time he asked me to marry him. He is better than Hacker.”

“Loveday, stop talking nonsense! I mustn’t stop---it’s much too dangerous. If you haven’t got anything to tell me, I must go.”

“I’ve got millions of things to tell you.”

“Not that sort of thing.”

“How d’you know what sort of thing I mean?” She pulled away from him a little.

“I must go,” said Hugo.

“All right---go!”

“Loveday!”

“I wish you would go. You’re making me feel quite fond of James. He never wants to go away when he’s talking to me.”

“Loveday!”

Dear James!” said Loveday.

Hugo shook her.

“Darling, do stop being such an ass!”

“I’m not!” She disengaged herself and receded somewhere into the darkness. “Why don’t you go?”

Hugo was very angry. He put a hand on the wall and a knee on the sink. Loveday could just see him blocking the window.

“Are you going?” The whisper was a little fluttered.

Hugo made no answer. Loveday’s voice reached him, defiant but shaky:

“You don’t want to hear the really frightfully important thing I’ve got to tell you?”

He spoke over his shoulder.

“Is there something important---really?”

“Yes, there is.” Her voice went off into a faint scream. “Hugo, I’ve trod on a beetle! It crunched!”

Hugo came back slowly.

“Where are you?”

“Here. Ooh! Hugo, don’t go away!” She was holding tightly to his sleeve. “I shall really scream if you go---and I have got something to tell you.”

“What is it?”

He put his arm round her, but he was still angry. Loveday snuggled up to him.

“I do hate you! But black beetles are worse.” Then, as he jerked impatiently, “I can’t tell you anything unless you keep still---and I have got something to tell you.”

“What is it?”

She murmured, “I do hate you!” and then went on quickly, “I can’t tell you anything while you fidget---and it is important. Oh, very well---I am telling you, only you don’t let me.”

“Loveday!”

“Pouf!” said Loveday. “Cross-patch!” Then she put her lips against his ear. “It’s rather a frightening thing. That’s why I don’t want to begin---it frightens me.”

Hugo patted her.

“Tell me.”

“I came down---and it was all dark---and the black beetle trod on me like I told you---and I heard more of them. And when you didn’t come, I thought you weren’t coming, and I began to go back to my room.”

“Yes?”

“I came out of the baize door that shuts off the kitchen part of the house, and I was standing in the back of the hall listening, and not sure whether it would be most frightening to go up the front stairs or up the back. I was afraid the back stairs would creak because of not having any carpet on them.”

“Yes?”

Loveday pressed close to him.

“Someone came down the front stairs,” she whispered.

“Who was it?”

“It was Hélène---but I didn’t know it was Hélène then. I sat down on the floor, because my knees went like jelly. It was horrid!

“What happened?”

“Hélène came straight down the hall towards me, and I thought I was going to scream, because I didn’t know it was Hélène, and it might have been---anything. Ooh!”

He felt her shiver.

“Go on---you’re not telling me.”

“I am.” She shivered again. “She came down, and just when I thought she was going to tread on me, like the black beetle, she opened the door of the study, and there was a light there---that’s when I saw it was Hélène---and she spoke to someone---and it was a man.”

“Hacker?”

“No, it wasn’t. She said, ‘Come along---he’ll be here in a minute,’ and a horrid man like a weasel with red hair came out of the room. And she said, ‘Put out the light---I’ll guide you,’ and the light went out with a snap, and the man said----” She stopped.

She did not shiver, but pressed close to him, rigid.

“Go on.”

“He said, ‘Well? How did it go? How is our young Dreyfus?’ And Hélène said, ‘Poor Hugo!’ in the weepy way she’s got when she doesn’t mean anything; and then they went into her sitting-room and put on the light.”

“Go on!”

“I hate it!” said Loveday breathlessly. “I hate it frightfully. They went in, and she pushed the door, but it didn’t quite shut, and I was so frightened I nearly died. And when I’m as frightened as that, I just have to do something, because sitting still’s worse---so I crawled along till I got near the door. And Hélène said, ‘He’s coming!’ And that frightened me worst of all, because I thought she meant you.”

“Who did she mean?”

“She meant that awful Hacker, because she went to the door---the outside one---and she opened it, and someone came in, and she said, ‘Well, James---he’s here!’ And Mr. Hacker said, ‘Hullo, Miller!’ ”

Miller!

“That’s what he said---‘Hullo, Miller’ ”

“Good Lord!” said Hugo.

“And Hélène said, ‘Ssh! The door’s open.’ And she ran and shut it, so I didn’t hear any more. And I thought perhaps you’d had to wait till Mr. Hacker was out of the way, so I came back to the scullery---and then you came.”

She began to tremble very much.

“Loveday---don’t. What’s the matter?”

“I’m frightened. Why am I so frightened? What does it mean? Why did that horrid little red-haired weasel say that? Why did he call you a young Dreyfus? Who was Dreyfus? Do you know?”

“Yes,” said Hugo---“my uncle had a book about him.” He spoke slowly, reluctantly.

“I knew I’d heard the name before. Who was he? Why does it frighten me? Hugo---tell me---please.”

Hugo spoke in a quiet, dry voice: “He was a French Jew who was sent to penal servitude for selling French military secrets.” He felt Loveday give a little gasp. He went on, “He didn’t do it, you know. It was a put-up job. He was quite innocent, but he was sent to Devil’s Island, and I think he was there about four years. And then there was a most frightfully famous case and the whole thing came out. It was a put-up job, and all sorts of highly placed people were in it.”

Loveday clutched him.

“I knew I wouldn’t have been so frightened if it hadn’t been something horrid. It is horrid. And it’s something to do with you, because that red-haired weasel person meant you when he said ‘our young Dreyfus.’ Hugo, I’m frightened---I’m frightened. It does mean something horrid. What are they going to do to you? Don’t let them!” The words came pouring out helter-skelter; they were like little terrified things that were running away.

“Loveday---don’t. It’s all right.”

He had stopped being angry; he was trying to comfort her.

“It isn’t all right---I know it isn’t. You say they sent that man to prison. Are they going to try and send you to prison?”

Hugo kissed her.

“It’s all right---it really is.”

“It isn’t. They’re trying to do something to you---I know they are. It’s those plans---isn’t it? I know it is. They’re going to steal them themselves, and make out it was you, and send you to prison! Hugo---Hugo!

The words had stopped tumbling over each other; they came slower and slower and at last stood still. It was as if they were afraid of being heard. Suddenly Loveday burst into tears.

“Hugo---don’t let them! Go away! Why do you stay here for them to do dreadful things to you? Promise me you’ll go right away at once.”

She pulled his face down to hers, and he felt it wet and quivering.

“Darling, don’t cry---p-p-please don’t cry. I c-can’t run away.”

“Why can’t you? What’s the use of your staying here?”

“I want to save the plans---I might be able to, you know.”

“What does it matter about the wretched old plans? I can’t bear it if they hurt you---I can’t.”

Hugo hugged her.

“I won’t let them hurt me. And it does matter. I can’t tell you about it, but it matters frightfully. It---it matters so much that it would be worth going to prison for if I could save them. But you needn’t worry, because I’m not going to prison. You see, I’m well up on them, because they think I’m just an innocent mug who hasn’t got a suspicion in the world. I s-say, darling, you were topping this evening---you really were. You did it most awfully well---much better than I did.”

Loveday sniffed and began to look for her handkerchief.

“I didn’t feel topping---I felt like a melting jelly.” She dabbed her eyes and gave the ghost of a laugh. “You blushed.

“That’s my modest disposition.”

“Why did you? Hélène thought it was because you were struck all of a heap by her. She said so when you’d gone---she made me frightfully angry. Why did you?”

“Never mind.”

“But I want to know. Was it because of Hélène or---was it because of me?”

“Never m-mind.”

She put her cheek against his.

“It might cheer me up a little if you told me. Was it because of me?”

“Yes, it was.”

“Did you like my pink dress? Did you think I looked nice? You hadn’t ever seen me properly before. Did---you---like me?” She ended on a little sob.

Hugo held her tight and said nothing. She felt his heart beat. They kissed rather breathlessly.

“I must go,” said Hugo. He hoped she wouldn’t cry again. It was dreadfully difficult to go away and leave her unhappy.

She drew away with a sigh.

“You won’t let them hurt you?”

“Of course I won’t.”

“You’re much cleverer than they are---that’s one comfort.”

Hugo felt immensely fortified.

“It’s frightening---but it’s exciting too,” said Loveday in the dark. “It’s---oh, Hugo, please, please don’t let them hurt you.”

She flung her arms round his neck, gave him two quick kisses, and was gone. He heard her feeling for the door.

“Loveday---you’ve got to shut the window after me.”

There was no answer.

He turned resolutely and climbed out.

After a moment he heard the window shut.

Inside the little dark, close room Loveday groped her way to the door and leaned against it, blind and dizzy with tears.

“Don’t---don’t let them hurt him!” she said.

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