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Chapter Twenty-Nine

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« on: June 12, 2023, 12:29:41 pm »

HUGO took his way back to Meade House for the second time that night. The light still showed through a chink in the curtains as he looked back at Mme. de Lara’s sitting-room window. He stood for a moment on the terrace and watched the gleam. Hacker, Hélčne de Lara, and---Miller---they were in there together, and he would have given a good deal to know just what they were talking about.

He went on his way with a certain impatience. Waiting for things to happen was the hardest job in the world. Ever since he had come to Meade House he had been waiting for something to happen. If it would only begin, it would be so much easier. He walked quickly, because he had the feeling that Hacker might be behind him; but when he came to the Meade House drive he stepped aside into the shrubbery that bordered it and groped his way to an oak that rose above the other trees. About six feet from the ground there was a hole in the trunk. From this hole Hugo took out the envelope which Daisy had given him.

He entered the house, as he had left it, by the back door, and reached his room without incident. He locked the door, sat down on the bed, and took out the contents of the envelope. He looked at them, frowning. Sheets of tracing paper; diagrams; formulć that reminded him of his schooldays and rags in the “lab”---why did one always rag the “Stinks” master?

He could not make head or tail of the papers, so he put them away again and went to sleep with the envelope pinned inside the pocket of his pyjamas. He woke once, clutching them; and between waking and sleeping he thought he heard the door shut. He did not sleep again until the hour before the dawn. He lay awake and revolved endless plans which led nowhere. In the end he had no plan; and having decided not to have a plan at all, but to wait and see what turned up he fell asleep.

He woke an hour later with a most extraordinary sense of expectancy. It really was an extraordinary sense; he couldn’t remember anything like it since the glamour had passed from waking up on his birthday and on Christmas Day. This feeling took him back to dark, bright wakings that seemed to be about a hundred years ago. It puzzled him very much.

He dressed, went down, and met the postman with a sheaf of letters. They were nearly all for Minstrel---nearly all but not all. At the bottom of the pile there was one for Hugo Ross, Esq. He went into the study, put Minstrel’s letters down, and opened his own. It was from his uncle’s solicitor, and it was quite short. It said:

“Dear Mr. Ross,
“I am pleased to be able to inform you that our further search for your uncle’s will has been successful. The will has been found. You are the sole legatee and executor. I suggest that you should come down without delay, as you will naturally wish to obtain probate as soon as possible.”

Hugo read the letter through twice. After the second time he drew a long breath and looked about him. A change seemed to have passed upon everything. He could not have defined the nature of this change, but he was acutely conscious of it. Everything seemed to be a long way off and to have nothing to do with him at all. He wasn’t Minstrel’s secretary; he was Ross of Treneath. He folded the letter up and put it away.

Nobody else was down. He went out into the garden and began to walk up and down under the bare trees. He knew now why he hadn’t been able to make a plan. It was because he needn’t make one. He needn’t stay here another minute; he had only to go to Minstrel and show this letter; he could be off by the midday train to town and catch the afternoon express. He felt a great flood of affection for Uncle Richard, who hadn’t forgotten him after all. Uncle Richard hadn’t forgotten, and Treneath was his. And Loveday was his. The heavy grey sky and the bare apple-trees looked a good deal like the Garden of Eden.

And then, with a crash like sudden thunder, the gate of the garden slammed in Hugo’s face. He couldn’t go in. He couldn’t take Loveday by the hand and go into the garden and live happily ever after. He couldn’t stop being Minstrel’s secretary and catch the midday train and be off to Treneath. He had got to follow the Adventure to the bitter end. And all the savour had gone out of the Adventure; there was no romance in it any more; it was a horrid sordid business with a police-court at the latter end of it---a dirty, drab affair that was going to come between him and Loveday, and between him and Treneath. The letter in his pocket was his last chance. If he took it, everything was easy. If he didn’t take it, he would never take an easy, pleasant road again. On the other hand----

Here he pulled himself up with a jerk. What was the good of arguing? He had certainly got to stay, because he had certainly got to save the plans, if there was any possible way of saving them. He turned his back quite resolutely on Treneath and went in.

Ambrose Minstrel was in the worst of tempers. He made a horrible breakfast of cold underdone mutton and cocoa, and swore at Hugo for an effete young pup because he refused to join him. After breakfast he kept looking at his watch and inveighing against the sloth, dilatoriness, and general incompetence of government departments.

At ten o’clock he told Hugo to ring up the Air Ministry. As soon as the call came through, he took over the telephone.

“I want to speak to Mr. Green,” he began in his most disagreeable voice. “Oh---is he? Well, my time happens to be of value. . . . No, I don’t choose to give my name. . . . No, certainly not. . . . My good fellow, if you think I’ve the slightest intention of dancing attendance on a stall-fed, comatose, government flunkey, I can only assure you that you’d better think again. . . . No, I can-not wait. But you can tell your Mr. Green from me that it’s waste of time for anyone to come down to Meade to-day, because the plans are not ready. I’ve decided to make certain alterations. . . . Yes, I did say alterations. If you can’t hear me, say so and send someone to the telephone who isn’t deaf. . . . Are you there? . . . Tell Mr. Green it’s no use anyone coming down to-day. . . . Are you there? . . . Oh, it’s you, is it, Green? Have you had my message? . . . Yes---Minstrel speaking from Meade. It’s no use your sending down to-day, because the plans aren’t ready. I’m making an alteration. . . . What’s the matter with your line? . . . Oh, you did hear. I said I wasn’t ready. When I am ready, I’ll send Hacker up with the plans. I won’t have people down here. D’you hear? I’m busy. . . . Yes, I know it’s difficult for you to grasp that. We’re not all government officials---some of us work. Have you got that? … When? I told you when. When I’m ready.” The last words were almost shouted.

He thrust the receiver back upon the hook and turned on Hugo.

“That’s the way to treat ’em. Treat ’em rough---treat ’em rough---treat ’em like dirt. Mud-brained asses, who think because they sit in a government office that they can dictate to me---me! I’ll show them!”

He went off into the laboratory.

Hacker looked up from his table.

“What does he want to put their backs up for? He makes me wild.”

“I expect they know him,” said Hugo.

“They ought to. But he’s getting worse. Of course he’s a genius---but even so, there are limits to what they’ll stand.”

He yawned, stretched, and got up.

“Hanged if I’m going to work to-day! You can tell him I said so if you like---and if he blows up, let him blow up.”

He went out of the room whistling and left Hugo wondering what was going to happen next.

The morning dragged. He had to stop himself thinking about Treneath, and he had to stop himself thinking about Loveday. Loveday wasn’t an inspiration any more; she was a most frightful temptation. Loveday and Treneath---just to take Loveday’s hand and go into his kingdom and shut the door and live happy ever after was so frightfully easy---and it was impossible---he couldn’t do it. The bit of him that wanted to do it came very near hating the bit that couldn’t do it.

The morning dragged interminably. At about two o’clock Minstrel stalked out of the laboratory and into the bleak fireless dining-room, where he partook of tinned salmon, pâté de foie gras---slabs of it on hunks of bread with the salmon---and a really fearful looking cup of cocoa which had grown cold with waiting. He scowled as he ate, and did not speak until he had finished, when he got up with a jerk that sent his chair sprawling.

He called back over his shoulder to Hugo as he left the room:

“Hurry up---I want you to take a telegram.”

In the study Hugo asked tentatively, “Am I to telephone it?”

He had his head snapped off for his pains.

“I said take---T-A-K-E---take. You don’t understand the English language, I suppose!” He strode to the study door and slammed it. “The trouble about you, Ross, is not so much that you haven’t got a brain, as that occasionally some impulse from the great Inane prompts you to act as if you had some kind of thinking apparatus. Get a telegraph form and a pencil! Take this down! ‘Green, Air Ministry.’ That is the address. This is the telegram---‘Am sending assistant with plans this afternoon. Do not send anyone down here. My time is valuable. Minstrel.’ Have you got that? Read it over to me!”

Hugo read it over. He stammered a little over the word assistant. Was Hacker to take the plans? Hacker hadn’t come in. He had gone out whistling more than three hours ago, and he hadn’t come in. Hugo didn’t think that Hacker meant to come in, and he didn’t think that Hacker was meant to take the plans. His heart began to beat rather fast, and he coloured under Minstrel’s contemptuous stare.

“You will now take that telegram to the post office and send it off. The word ‘take’ in this connection means ‘convey’---it doesn’t mean ‘telephone.’ Oh, by the way, there’s a second telegram. You needn’t write it down if it doesn’t stretch that---er---thinking apparatus of yours too much to remember three words---or, to be quite accurate, four.”

“Yes, sir?”

What was coming? And why wasn’t he to write the second telegram down?

“The name is Miller,” said Minstrel. “Can you remember that? M-I-double L-E-R---Miller. And as the address is the one at which I understand you stayed when you were in town, perhaps you can remember that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Hugo thought that he might allow himself to look modestly surprised. He was in fact surprised into a condition of tingling expectancy. Miller---he was to wire to Miller, and he wasn’t to write the telegram down. That is to say he was to walk into the village post office and write the telegram there as if it came from himself. He felt a natural impatience to know what he was going to wire to Miller.

He looked round at Minstrel and said,

“M-M-Miller? What am I to s-say?”

“I won’t tax your memory. The message consists of three words—‘Five o’clock to-day.’ Kindly repeat it.”

Hugo repeated the words. He felt sure that Hacker wouldn’t return. It was he, Hugo, who would be given the plans to take to town. And somewhere on the way---at five o’clock to be accurate---the obliging Mr. Miller would contrive to relieve him of them. A subsequent inquiry at the post office would establish the fact that Hugo had met Mr. Miller by appointment, and that the appointment had been made as soon as he knew when the plans were to go to the Air Ministry.

He looked again at Minstrel, and found him dragging at his beard.

“Any s-signature?”

“No---it’s not necessary. May I inquire whether this is what you call thinking?---because if it is, desist. Now get along!”

Hugo got along. What was he going to do about the telegram to Miller? He could send it, and send it unsigned, and pile up another damning bit of evidence against himself. Or he could send it signed with Minstrel’s name, in which case Minstrel would merely repudiate the signature, as he undoubtedly meant to repudiate the message. Or he could omit to send the telegram. All the way to the post office he considered this alternative, only to reject it in the end as too dangerous. Supposing he altered the telegram, or didn’t send it, or added a signature, and Minstrel rang up the post office. It was just the sort of thing that Minstrel might do---if he had the smallest lurking doubt of Hugo, it was what he was almost certain to do.

Hugo decided that it would be too dangerous to depart by a hair’s breadth from the strictest path of muggishness. A single spark of intelligence would be fatal to his being entrusted with the plans. What was one more bit of evidence, however damning, if he could only leave Meade with the plans in his pocket?

The post office was also a general shop. It was kept by Mrs. Parford’s brother, whose name was Alfred Dibbin. There were a good many people in the shop when Hugo entered it. Mr. Dibbin wore a worried air, and his hair was standing on end.

“No, we haven’t any,” he was saying. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Marsh, we don’t stock it---No, sir, I’m sorry I can’t change a five-pound note, not this afternoon---Now, Bobby, you just run along ’ome and ask your mother what sort of stamps she wants---and don’t you go and forget the answer this time.” He looked back over his shoulder, raised his voice, and called, “Chrissie!” and then began to weigh out fruit-drops with a slightly distracted air. After a moment he called, “Chrissie” again.

Hugo stood back to wait his turn. There were now three village women and a little girl waiting to be served. Mr. Dibbin went to the door at the back of the shop, opened it, and again called to the absent Chrissie. He came back, leaving the door open. It was just at Hugo’s elbow. He wondered vaguely what Chrissie was doing; and as he wondered, he heard a giggle and the sound of hurrying footsteps.

Miss Chrissie came in rather flushed, patting her hair. She was a pretty girl with a bold rolling eye and a fine pair of rosy cheeks. She pushed the door with her foot, but before it shut Hugo heard something that he had not expected to hear. It brought him up with a round turn, and it settled the matter of the telegrams. He sent them both off and walked briskly back to the house.

The adventure was certainly afoot. He had done well not to take any chances over the telegrams, for what he had heard through the open door was the sound of a man whistling idly. The air that he whistled was the air that Hacker had been whistling when he walked out of the study. Hugo had heard him whistle it half a dozen times in half a dozen days, and he felt perfectly certain that he had just heard him whistle it again. He whistled flat, and always took a wrong note in the same place.

Hugo was very glad that he hadn’t taken any chances over the telegrams.

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