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Chapter Twenty-Eight

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« on: June 12, 2023, 11:53:08 am »

FOR about ten minutes Loveday cried as if her heart would break. Hugo was going to be sent to prison---he was going to be led into some horrible trap and sent to prison for years and years and years---and they would never see each other any more. Perhaps Hugo wouldn’t come out of prison until he was quite old; and then she, Loveday, would be quite old too, and they would both have grey hair. It was a frightful thought.

Loveday tried to make a picture of herself with grey hair. She had once gone to a fancy dress party with her hair powdered, and everyone had said how becoming it was. Perhaps Hugo would like her, even if her hair had got as grey as Cousin Catherine’s before he came out of prison.

At this point she stopped crying. She began to try to think what Hugo would look like. It was frightfully difficult to think of Hugo looking old; she simply couldn’t imagine him any different from what he was. And then, all of a sudden, she knew that she couldn’t imagine him in prison, and she began to feel much better. Prison receded to an immense distance. Why should Hugo go to prison? He wouldn’t. “And oh, good gracious me, suppose Hélène goes into my room and finds I’m not there! I must fly!

She opened the door and crept through the kitchen and along a dark passage to the baize door which opened on the hall. Here she stopped to listen, pushed the door half an inch, and stopped to listen again. She was just going to open the door wide, when two things happened so quickly that she had no time to think or move.

There was the sound of an opening door; and, very nearly at the same moment, a vertical streak of light hung in the darkness before her. It was so unexpected that she almost cried out before she realized that Hélène’s sitting-room door had opened, and that someone had turned on the hall light.

Her heart thumped, and she let the baize door swing back until the line of light was only a thread. She could hear Hélène’s voice, and Mr. Miller’s voice---and they were coming towards her---they were coming nearer. She gripped the handle so hard that afterwards her fingers were stiff. But she could not have moved to save her life. Through the tiny crack that remained she saw Mr. Miller’s face---just the blur of a face in shadow, with red hair sticking up against the light. Mr. Miller made her feel quite sick.

He and Hélène went into the study, and after a moment they came out again. Mr. Miller was carrying a bag. They went back to Hélène’s sitting-room.

As they went away, Loveday made her crack a little wider by pushing the door. Mr. Miller was going away; he had fetched his bag, and he was going away. Loveday felt unreasonably glad about this. She didn’t like Mr. Miller at all, and she thought the house would feel much nicer when he wasn’t in it. She hoped Mr. Hacker had gone too, because then Hélène would go up to her room and the coast would be clear. Of course, she could go up the back stairs. But she didn’t want to go up the back stairs; for one thing they creaked, and for another, she just didn’t like them; there was a black-beetley feeling about them. She thought she would wait here until Hélène went up; and she hoped very much that Hélène wouldn’t be long, because she was beginning to feel most dreadfully sleepy---you do when you’ve been crying a lot. She yawned once or twice, and the darkness began to feel heavy and warm.

Hélène didn’t come.

Loveday found herself waking with a start. She hadn’t been asleep---she was sure she hadn’t been asleep; but all the same she woke up with a jerk and pushed the door half open. The sound of a man’s voice reached her. Mr. Hacker hadn’t gone. He was there, in Hélène’s sitting-room, talking to Hélène. And the sitting-room door was ajar; the hall was dark again, but she could just see the line of light where the door had fallen ajar. She remembered that Hélène had complained about the catch and had said she must have it seen to. She ought to have had it seen to before she had secret conversations with people in the middle of the night.

Before Loveday knew what she was going to do, she found herself halfway across the hall with her eyes on the chink of light and her ears straining to catch what Mr. Hacker was saying. She stopped with caught breath a yard from the door. If he and Hélène were talking about themselves, she would go away at once; but if they were talking about Hugo, she was going to listen. She didn’t care how dreadful it was to listen at doors; she was going to do it---if they were talking about Hugo.

She listened, and she heard Mr. Hacker say in a tone of suppressed fury, “If you’re going to risk spoiling everything at the last moment----”

Loveday hesitated, waited where she was, and heard Hélène say mournfully, “I think I’d be a good friend to you if I did.”

Were they talking about Hugo? She wasn’t sure. It was dreadful to listen if they weren’t.

Mr. Hacker spoke again: “Good heavens! Can’t you be reasonable?”

And Hélène, with the ghost of a laugh: “I don’t feel reasonable.”

Then Hacker, roughly: “You needn’t have told me that. Look here, Hélène, business is business. If you’re using this young ass to make me jealous, it’s a fool’s trick. You can play any trick you like when we’re not up to our necks in a business deal. It’s your way to play tricks, and I’ve put up with a damned sight more of them than most men would. But I won’t have a business deal spoilt because you take a fancy to see if you can’t make me lose my temper---I’m not taking any, and the sooner you understand that the better. This is business and don’t you forget it. If the thing goes well, you’ll get two thousand. And if anything goes wrong, you’ll be likely to find yourself in Queer Street.”

“Someone will hear you if you speak so loud,” said Mme. de Lara sweetly.

Mr. Hacker swore.

“Someday you’ll get yourself murdered,” he said; and Loveday shivered.

She wanted to go away, and she wanted to stay. She wanted to go to sleep and forget all about people like Mr. Hacker and Mr. Miller and Hélène; they made her feel very tired.

Then she heard Hélène laugh gently, and Mr. Hacker said,

“Are you going to be reasonable?”

“Are you reasonable? You see, it all depends on the point of view. To you it seems reasonable to ruin the poor boy; but to me it does not seem reasonable at all. I ask myself and I ask you---why should not Miller simply take the papers from him? I believe he can pick a pocket very well---he certainly looks as if he could. Let him then pick Hugo’s pocket, and there we are---he has the plans, we have the money, Ambrose preserves his reputation, and all that anyone can say about our poor Hugo is that he was stupid enough and innocent enough to fall among thieves. To me this seems a perfectly reasonable plan.”

Hacker swore again.

“How many times are we to go over the same ground? I tell you Miller won’t steal the plans---that is to say he won’t take them unless there’s someone else to take the blame. His position is quite simple. He is acting as an agent in a perfectly bona fide transaction---he is buying from Minstrel through Minstrel’s secretary. Minstrel’s position is quite simple too. He is selling to Government, and his secretary is taking the plans up to hand them over. With Miller and Minstrel both so careful about their reputations, I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but to sacrifice your poor Hugo. Minstrel won’t sell to Miller openly, and Miller won’t put himself on the wrong side of the law---so I’m afraid your poor Hugo must go to the wall.”

“He isn’t my poor Hugo,” said Hélène sadly.

“You’d like him to be.”

“Would I? Ah well, perhaps I would. Perhaps I’m tired of tricks and byways, and all the old stale things that I’ve hated for years. Perhaps I’d like to be young again. Do you know what that boy was playing on his flute when I went up through the woods?”

“Chuck it!” said Mr. Hacker succinctly.

“He was playing Love’s Young Dream,” said Hélène with a whispering thrill in her voice. She sang the words over softly as if to herself:

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

“Perhaps I’ve a fancy to go back into the dream again.”

“Come off it!” said Mr. Hacker.

Hélène made a little sound of protest.

“I tell you, he touched my heart---yes, more than a little, with his youth and his music and his blush. Did you see how he blushed when he came in this evening? Poor boy! Ah, James---to be as young as that again! I tell you there were tears in my heart when he blushed.” All at once her voice changed. “If you go on sneering at me like that, I shall tell him everything,” she said.

Loveday remained standing a yard from the door. She heard Mr. Hacker make an explosive sound of rage, and she heard Hélène give a little gasp as if she were being shaken. Loveday rather hoped she was being shaken. Hélène’s championship of Hugo infuriated her.

Hélène cried out, and Mr. Hacker said in a hard matter-of-fact way,

“Do you want that two thousand pounds?”

“You hurt me!” said Hélène.

“You want hurting when you talk like that. Besides, what’s the good of it with me? You ought to know by now just how much ice all that rotten sentimentality cuts. You can amuse yourself with it as much as you please---but keep it out of business. Do you want the money---or don’t you?”

“What a stupid question!”

Mr. Hacker laughed.

“In other words, you want it. Well, you’ll get it if you’re good.”

Hélène yawned.

“I’m so sleepy. You must go.”

“In a minute. Remember---to-morrow afternoon, and don’t be late. And don’t play the fool, or you’ll be sorry for it.”

Loveday shivered with cold. She ought to get away, because if they came into the hall, she’d be caught. She began to feel her way towards the stairs and, groping, touched the great bronze gong which stood a little to the right of where they began. She drew back her hand, quick and frightened, and the gong swung and struck against the wall. The dull booming note which it gave out seemed to Loveday to be the loudest and most dreadful sound that she had ever heard.

She was halfway up the stair before she knew that she had begun to run, and she had reached the turn before the door of the sitting-room was flung open. The light streamed out into the hall. She caught at the balustrade and stood there leaning over. She couldn’t run any more, because she couldn’t breathe. She felt as if she wouldn’t ever be able to move again. They would put on the light in the hall. They would find her. And then. . . . She couldn’t look past being found. That was what made it so horrible. She would be found and---there wasn’t anything more. It was a grey, dreadful blank.

She stared at the light and she heard voices---Hélène’s voice, and Hacker’s voice---and she saw Hélène’s hand go up to the switch of the hall light. Hélène was standing in the doorway, and she put up her hand to find the switch.

Mr. Hacker said, “The door was ajar,” and Hélène said “Oh!” and put her hand to the light.

Loveday winced as if someone were going to strike her. And then all of a sudden Pif-paf-pouf emerged from behind the gong. He gave a loud and joyful mew and walked into the light with his beautiful orange tail held high. He mewed again and rubbed his head against Hélène’s ankle. Loveday heard her laugh.

“It was only Pif-paf-pouf!” she said.

Her hand dropped from the switch. They went back into the room and shut the door.

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