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Chapter Thirty-One

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Author Topic: Chapter Thirty-One  (Read 31 times)
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« on: June 13, 2023, 05:03:57 am »

HE was looking for Mr. Miller, but he did not see him. He saw walls covered with old sporting prints, a clutter of outrageously incompatible furniture---an old warming pan, a fine tallboy, a staring Brussels carpet, a suite upholstered in crimson plush, white lace antimacassars, and---Mme. de Lara.

It was Hélène de Lara who gave the last touch of incongruity. She had an air of exquisite aloofness, a mournful elfin air, as she sat on the edge of one of the vast crimson armchairs pouring out coffee.

She looked up, exclaimed in a soft fluttered way, and almost dropped the heavy and much discoloured coffee-pot.

“You! Oh, my dear, how nice!

Hugo crossed the room warily. He was still looking for Mr. Miller. Hélène de Lara’s little cold fingers clung to his for a moment.

“To see a friend in this desolate spot! Isn’t that just the very nicest thing that ever happened? I was so cold and so vexed, because I have been to town, and I should have been back at Torring House by now. Actually I have someone coming to dinner---an old friend---so I was feeling---oh, all at sixes and sevens, and wishing I had gone up by train---because trains don’t ever have anything wrong with their engines---do they? And then, just when I was so cross---to see you! How nice!”

She had a way of looking out of those big dark eyes that suggested a great many things. Hugo, for instance, had to resist the pleasant suggestion that he was the one person in the world Hélène de Lara wished to meet, and that this was very natural because he was without doubt the most delightful, attractive, and charming young man of her acquaintance. Such suggestions, even if resisted, are not altogether without some effect on the atmosphere.

Hugo blushed.

“I want to put a c-call through,” he said.

“Ah now, and I’ve just asked for one! And I’m afraid it may take some time---but they promised to tell me as soon as ever it comes through. Are you in a terrible hurry? Or are you waiting for your car like me?”

“W-well---I am.”

“Ah! How nice it is to have a companion in misfortune! Does it console you a little to feel that you are consoling me---a great deal? And you’ll have a cup of coffee now---won’t you?” She was pouring one out as she spoke.

It was the second cup on the tray that made Hugo’s gaze continue to travel round the room in search of Mr. Miller. The grinning mask of a fox set on the wall immediately above a case of dilapidated stuffed birds was the nearest approach to the red-headed gentleman with the Russian accent.

Mme. de Lara was holding out a coffee-cup.

“Black?” she said.

Hugo put some milk into it and took two lumps of sugar. He was wondering about the coffee. Mme. de Lara was drinking hers. He put the cup to his lips and pretended to sip from it. After that he stopped wondering. The coffee was certainly drugged. He had a very keen sense of smell, and this sense informed him that there was something in the cup besides milk, sugar, coffee and---possibly---chicory.

He began to wander round the room looking at the old prints and still pretending to sip the coffee.

Hélène de Lara never took her eyes off him.

“You like these queer old pictures?”

“V-very much.”

He came to a standstill under the grinning fox. There was a rose-wood table on his right; a magazine or two had been thrown down on it; there were two metal ashtrays, a bright blue jar containing soiled calico daffodils; and a plant, which might also have been artificial, spreading stiff striped green and white leaves above a furiously shiny yellow pot.

Hugo gazed lovingly at the pot. As a receptacle for drugged coffee which one didn’t want to drink, it was quite perfect. If Hélène would only look away for a second.

“Do you think that t-tallboy is really old?” he said.

Mme. de Lara did not look at the tallboy; she continued to look at Hugo. Her unwavering gaze said how clever it was of him to know that it was a tallboy and that it was old. He felt a schoolboy desire to pick up the case of stuffed birds and heave it at the lady. He repressed this desire; but his finger-tips tingled.

“That one over there,” he said, pointing.

She did turn her head for a moment then; but only for a moment.

“I expect so,” she said languidly.

Hugo had been very quick indeed; the stripy plant had received a lethal dose, and the empty cup was at his mouth. He tilted it, felt the last drugged drop against his lips, and then, with a half-suppressed yawn, he came across and put the cup down on the tray.

“It’s w-warm in here.”

He thought he had better go to sleep and let them get away with the papers---it would save a lot of trouble.

“Are you too warm? Why don’t you take your coat off and be comfortable?”

“Well, I’ve got some p-papers of Mr. M-Minstrel’s that I oughtn’t to leave about---but I can put them in another p-pocket.”

He took off his overcoat, hauled out the envelope, and put it into his jacket pocket. He didn’t want Miller pawing him all over. If they were going to have the papers, they might just as well know where to look for them. He folded the overcoat, and for a moment the flute showed.

Hélène exclaimed, “You take your flute when you go to see other people, but you wouldn’t bring it when you came to see me.”

“I’m only taking it up to be m-mended.” He yawned again. “I b-beg your pardon.”

“You do look tired,” said Hélène. “Why don’t you have a little sleep? I’m sure Ambrose works you quite cruelly---he is cruel, you know. I told you we were friends once; but cruelty is the thing I can’t bear.” She put both hands to her breast. The diamond in her ring shone like a wonderful tear. “He is cruel---and I can’t bear cruelty. There is something here that weeps when I see anyone being cruel. But men are all cruel, I think. I have had to weep so often.” She put her hand across her eyes for an instant, then smiled sadly. “I don’t think you’re cruel, you know---not yet, Hugo.”

In spite of everything, the thrill in her voice when she said his name did move him. It stirred the springs of his imagination, as acting has the power to stir them even when we know that we are being played upon. Hugo knew, and was stirred. He was glad when the door opened.

The porter stood there.

“Just a moment, sir, if you please.”

As he went to the door, Hugo wondered what was coming.

“About your call, sir---the lady has one first---they say at the exchange that it may take time. Perhaps she wouldn’t object to yours being put through first.”

Hugo hesitated, then suddenly decided not to ring the Air Ministry, but to shed Leonard and take the plans to Mr. Smith. The embargo on a visit might now be considered to be off. Mr. Smith would know where Mr. Green was to be found after office hours.

He said, “No---it’s all right---it doesn’t matter---it’s too late to catch the p-people I wanted to.”

He hoped he had done the right thing. The whole affair was like a game of devil-in-the-dark. He and Susan used to play it with the Carnabys---a frightful breath-catching game in which you crept about shoeless, noiseless, in a dark room waiting to be pounced upon by the unseen “He.”

He went slowly back to the red plush sofa where his coat was lying. He yawned again, said “I b-beg your pardon,” and sat down. He thought the time had come when he might stare vaguely before him and desist from conversation. He was aware of a most sympathetic glance.

“My dear boy, you look dead tired. Do have a little nap. I’ll wake you at once if your car comes round.”

Hugo mumbled something and allowed his eyes to close. This was really a great relief, because he found it very embarrassing to have Mme. de Lara looking at him in that intense sort of way. He shut his eyes, let his head give a drowsy jerk, and was aware of a cushion where no cushion had been a moment before. Through his lashes he caught a glimpse of Mme. de Lara bending over him. The glimpse puzzled him; she was still looking at him as if---as if. . . . There was a murmur of “Poor boy!” and something touched his cheek. He burrowed furiously into the cushion and threw out one hand.

Hélène de Lara stepped back with a caught breath that sounded like a sob. Then she went and sat down again on the edge of the big armchair.

Hugo began to breathe as if he were very fast asleep. The cushion hid most of his face. It was horribly soft and hot and feathery, and the feathers smelt of mould; but it was certainly useful.

The moments passed into minutes. There was a heavy stillness in the room, broken only by Hugo’s own breathing and the sound of a clock ticking somewhere out of sight; he thought it must be in the passage. It ticked with a heavy irregular tick---dot dash---dot dash—dot dash. Hugo began to count the ticks, and then stopped because he was afraid of sending himself to sleep. He wished to goodness that something would happen. And as the thought passed through his mind, Hélène de Lara gave a little sigh and got up.

She came round the back of the sofa, leaned on it, and put a soft fluttering touch on Hugo’s hair. It was most frightfully difficult not to move, but he kept still and went on taking those long deep breaths. At last his face was hidden---or nearly hidden. She stroked his hair two or three times, and then bent down and kissed him. It was really the most frightful moment of the whole adventure, because he felt the blood rush to his face.

But Hélène had turned away with another of those sobbing breaths. She went to the door and opened it. After a moment he heard it close again. There was someone else in the room.

He heard Hélène say in her low mournful voice, “He is fast asleep. I touched him just now and he did not wake. The papers are in his pocket.”

“How do you know?”

This was Mr. Miller. Hugo wondered again if the accent was really Russian.

“I saw him put them there. They are in a long envelope. He is very ingenuous of course---he showed them to me and told me what they were.”

“Which pocket?”

They were quite close to him now; Hélène’s dress brushed his knee; he felt her hand touch him lightly.

“Here---this is it.”

The envelope came out easily. If he had been really asleep, the light touch would never have waken him. There was the faint sound of paper being folded; Mr. Miller was putting the envelope away. Then he spoke:

“You had better get away---as quick as possible. I congratulate you, madame.”

“Don’t!” said Hélène. “I---poor boy---I could wake him---now.”

“You’d better not,” said Mr. Miller. “You wouldn’t like what you’d get for doing that.” He laughed a little and said, very slowly and distinctly, “Two---thousand---pounds. That is much better---eh?”

“Don’t!” said Hélène de Lara.

She turned and went out of the room. Mr. Miller followed her. They left the door ajar. The ticking of the clock was much louder now.

Hugo stayed just where he was for what seemed like a very long time. He heard a car go off in the direction from which he had come. That would be Mme. de Lara going down to Torring House to keep her dinner engagement. A minute later another car went off towards London. Mr. Miller was also on his way.

He got up, stretched himself, and rang the bell.

“Ask if my car’s ready,” he said.

As soon as the man was gone, he allowed himself to laugh. The car would be ready now---unless Mr. Miller was afraid of being followed. It would be rather interesting to see whether the transfer of the plans had cured the odd something which Leonard found amiss with the lubrication.

He picked up his overcoat and put it on. Just for one moment he had a sense of something wrong, something missing. And then he knew what the something was. He thrust a cold hand into an empty pocket.

The flute was gone.
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