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Chapter Thirty

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« on: June 13, 2023, 04:18:00 am »

MINSTREL was in the hall.

“Where’s Hacker? Yes, I said ‘Where’s Hacker?’ Get a move on and find him! Out? How do you mean out? Why should he be out?”

“I d-don’t know, sir.”

“You don’t know! No---you wouldn’t. When did he go out?”

“Oh, hours ago.”

“Hours ago---and not back? What does he mean by it? What does he think I pay him for?”

Hugo suppressed the temptation to say that he expected that Hacker was paid to keep out of the way when he wasn’t wanted. He said nothing, and was sworn at for a tongue-tied booby.

“Did he say when he was coming back?”

“N-no, sir.” He added innocently. “I d-don’t think he m-meant to come back till late.”

Minstrel stared at him. It was a cold, resentful stare.

“You don’t think! I don’t ask you to think---I don’t pay you to think---I pay you to do as you’re told. You’ll have to take the plans to town instead of Hacker. I’m not going to keep them back just because he’s out playing the fool, and have those cursed interfering busy-bodies at the Ministry come down here shoving their noses into what doesn’t concern them and interrupting my work just because Hacker’s played me a fool’s trick.”

So he was to go in Hacker’s place. He was expecting it; but all the same there was a sort of shock. He asked, “W-when?”

Minstrel took him up with a snort.

“When? Now---at once. Leonard’ll drive you. You’re to go straight to the Air Ministry and give the plans yourself to that ass Green.”

“I’m not to go by train?”

“No, you’re not---you’re to go by car---my car. And you’re going as soon as Leonard can bring the car round, so get a move on!”

Hugo got a move on. As he ran upstairs, he heard Minstrel’s rasping voice at the house-telephone calling Leonard. He came down in a minute or two; and there was Minstrel in the hall again, walking up and down with long impatient strides. He tugged at an old-fashioned gold watch-chain and jerked from a waist-coat pocket a large chronometer with a mass of dangling pencils and seals attached to it.

“Come along---come along!” he said. “Leonard’s bringing the car round. Go and see if he’s there.”

It was a physical impossibility in the time; but Hugo opened the door and looked out. Then, turning, he approached Minstrel with diffidence.

“W-would there be any objection----”

What?” snapped Minstrel. “Speak out, can’t you!”

“W-would you m-mind----”

Minstrel made a violent exclamation.

“Would I mind what? Haven’t you got a voice---haven’t you got a tongue? Can’t you say what you want and have done with it instead of following me round like a puppy-dog and blushing like a girl---only girls don’t blush nowadays. I suggest that you join some young ladies’ academy and learn how not to do it.” He laughed a short raucous laugh. “Well, what is it? What d’you want?”

“I w-wanted to know if---that is I m-mean w-would there be any objection to my going to a s-shop---after I had been to the Ministry of course?”

“Buy up the whole town if you like!” said Minstrel contemptuously. “What sort of s-shop do you want to go to?”

He mimicked the stammer in a way that made Hugo see red. Rage nerved him to a supreme act of self-sacrifice. He drew his flute from his pocket.

“My f-flute wants m-mending.”

Minstrel burst into a roar of laughter.

“Great Jupiter! He plays the flute! That finishes it! To a select academy for young ladies you must go! We’ll advertise for one---‘Genteel surroundings. A refined atmosphere. All the comforts of a home. Music a speciality!’ ” His voice changed suddenly to one of sharp command. “There’s the car. Get along!”

Hugo stood his ground.

“The p-plans, sir.”

“I’ll get them: Go and get in!”

Hugo went out on to the steps. It was colder; there was a little tingling breeze. He was glad of it. He got into the car with a word to Leonard and sat there leaning from the window, his eyes on the hall door.

In a moment Minstrel came out with a long envelope in his hand. Hugo’s heart jumped when he saw it. The envelope was like the one which had been sent him by Ananias. He had been afraid that it would be sealed. But it wasn’t sealed; the flap had been carelessly stuck down, and the gum was still wet. The papers had been just crammed in anyhow. They bulged, and the gum on the flap was wet and soft; it stuck to Hugo’s thumb as he took the envelope from Minstrel’s hand.

Personally to Green,” said Minstrel, still in that sharp voice of command. “And you’re to get a receipt from him, mind. And then “---he slipped into a drawl---“you can go and sack the City if you like.”

He stepped back and stood in the open door.

“Right, Leonard!”

They started down the drive. Hugo looked back through the little window in the rear of the limousine and saw Minstrel standing on the doorstep, tall, gaunt, and untidy, with one hand at his beard. The wind blew in his ragged hair. He was watching the car with hot, unquiet eyes.

As they turned out of the gates, Hugo settled himself and drew up the rug. The envelope which Minstrel had given him lay on his knees. He drew the rug across it and folded back the fringed end so that it made a loose, untidy heap. Then he sat back and looked through the partition at Leonard’s square shoulders and his neck with the black bristling hair growing rather low down.

Hugo had taken the right-hand corner; he was immediately behind Leonard. He stretched out his legs and leaned back. He was wondering whether Leonard could see him in the windscreen. It would depend upon the light---it had not been a bright day, and it was drawing towards dusk. He looked at his wrist-watch and saw that it was just on a quarter to four. He went on wondering about the wind-screen.

Presently he made a slight change in his position and drew the rug well up about him. Then he leaned back and shut his eyes.

It was nearly four o’clock. About five o’clock something was due to happen. He had plenty of time. But he wasn’t going to bank on having plenty of time; and he wasn’t going to bank on Leonard not being able to see him. Reflections were odd, chancy things; and he didn’t mean to take any chances.

Under cover of the rug he was opening the envelope that Minstrel had given him. The flap came up easily enough. He got the papers out and slid them gently down on to the seat beside him. Then, under cover of getting out his handkerchief, he extracted from an inside pocket the envelope sent him by Ananias. It took him about five minutes to get the papers out of this envelope and into the empty one, because he could only move his fingers and he had to be very careful not to jerk the rug.

When it was done, he changed his position a little and threw the envelope out on the seat beside him. It didn’t matter about Leonard seeing it; in fact it was quite a good plan that he should. He got the empty envelope back into his pocket, and came to the most difficult part of the whole job. He had to get out his flute and get Minstrel’s plans inside it, rolled up tight. It took a long time, and it was surprisingly hard work. He would never have believed what hard work it was to roll up a number of sheets of paper without moving anything except your fingers. He was as hot when he had finished as if he had run a mile, and the rug was insupportable.

As soon as the flute was safely back in his pocket, he threw the rug off and leaned out of the window. It was dark now. They passed through a straggly village street and began to climb a stiffish hill. At the top Leonard slowed down, and after running at a crawl for a few hundred yards stopped dead and came round to the window.

“She’s running very hot,” he said in a worried voice. “I’ll let her cool off a bit if you don’t mind, sir.”

“Is anything the matter?” said Hugo. “I don’t want to be late, you know. We’re running it pretty fine as it is. I don’t suppose anyone stays in a government office after six---do they?”

“I don’t know, sir. I’ll just let her cool down a bit.”

If this was a breakdown, Leonard was being a little previous.

“I don’t want to run a bearing, sir.”

“No, of course not. But Mr. M-M-Minstrel won’t like it if we’re late---he’ll be awfully f-fed up.”

Instead of answering, Leonard went forward and raised the bonnet. Five minutes later he got back into his seat and started again.

They ran over the brow of the hill and dipped down into a belt of woodland. The smell of damp leaves came up from it, cold and chill.

Hugo stopped feeling hot. For the first time he wondered, a little breathlessly, whether robbery with violence was to be the order of the day. The lonely wood had the air of having been especially designed as a setting for a little quiet highway business. Out of the recesses of his mind there poured a veritable mob of tales, in all of which valuables, a lonely traveller, and a dark forest played an uncheering part. In most of them the traveller was never seen again.

At this moment the car stopped and Leonard once more approached the window. Hugo experienced a number of sensations in rapid succession, the first of which was a most horrible stab of fear. He suppressed the impulse to shout for help, reflecting that if Leonard wanted to do him in, he had every chance of succeeding, as he could certainly give him three stone, and---this as Leonard put his hand on the door---he suddenly stopped being afraid and began, instead, to feel a sort of tingling excitement.

“What’s the matter, Leonard?” he said.

“Well, I don’t know, sir. I wish I did. She’s running red hot and very lumpy. I’d like to get her into a garage where I can have a look at her.”

“But there isn’t a g-garage,” said Hugo innocently.

“Well, sir, there’s one about half a mile farther on. There’s an inn there, ‘The Wheatsheaf,’---a biggish place with a good garage, and if we pass it, there’s nothing for ten miles. I don’t like to risk going on like this---there’s something wrong with the lubrication and we might run a bearing any moment.”

“I don’t want to be l-late.”

“Perhaps you could ring up from the hotel.”

“Well---I c-could.”

“Yes, sir,” said Leonard.

He climbed back, started the car, and proceeded to crawl between the lines of black shadowing trees.

Hugo sat up and did some thinking. It was just on five o’clock. The Wheatsheaf was Miller’s rendezvous. Hugo was to go into the hotel to telephone, and there he would meet, or be met by, the red-haired Mr. Miller with the accent which Mrs. Miles considered to be Russian. He felt a very lively interest in what was going to happen after he and Miller met. Up to this point everything had been very well arranged. If he were really the unsuspicious fool they thought him, it would be the most natural thing in the world to go into the inn and ring up the Air Ministry to explain that he had been delayed upon the road.

He felt very curious to know what was going to happen at The Wheatsheaf, and he had to consider whether it was still necessary for him to play the mug. He thought that it was. He thought that it was not only necessary, but essential.

Minstrel---he had no proof that Minstrel wasn’t on the straight. Strong suspicion and moral certainty are not proof. He couldn’t disobey Minstrel’s instructions on suspicion. He had got to go on in Minstrel’s car and deliver his papers to Mr. Green. He thought the sooner he allowed himself to be robbed the better. He hadn’t the least idea how Miller meant to get hold of the papers; but once he’d got them, he’d have no further use for Hugo---his idea would be to get across the Channel as quickly as possible.

Hugo rather thought it was up to him to smooth the ingenious Mr. Miller’s path. Let Miller steal the wrong papers and get away with them as quick as possible. Hugo, with a clear coast and clear conscience, could then take any way he liked to town with his flute; whereas, if he dodged Miller here, he would certainly have to continue to dodge him all the way to town.

They emerged from the trees and saw the inn as a black blur set with little lighted windows. It had the look of a toy at that distance and against the sweep of lonely open country. There was not another light to be seen; only a formless landscape under a formless sky. The cloudy dark smothered everything except those little twinkling windows.

“Well---we’ve g-got here,” said Hugo as the car drew up.

“Yes, sir,” said Leonard. He didn’t say anything more.

Hugo poked him a little---just to see.

“How l-long do you think you’ll be?”

“I couldn’t say, sir.” He raised his voice a little as the hotel door opened. “How long will you be, sir?”

“I’ll j-just put that call through.”

The hall-porter must have heard both question and answer, for he met Hugo with, “You wish to telephone, sir?” And then, without waiting for an answer, “This way, sir. Mind the step. Allow me, sir.”

Half a dozen feet of dark passage-way, rather stuffy; a step that was a real trap; a glimpse of himself in a huge old-fashioned mirror with a frame of tarnished gilt; and the porter was opening a door and standing aside to let Hugo pass him. He took two steps into the room and heard the door close behind him.

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