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Chapter Thirty-Two

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« on: June 13, 2023, 07:15:20 am »

HE stood there with his hand in his pocket. He didn’t move it, because he couldn’t move it. For a moment he could only stand there. He couldn’t move; and, as certainly, he couldn’t think. The flute was gone. This presented itself, not as a thought, but as a horrible concrete fact which he had suddenly run up against, and which had knocked all the thinking out of him. He felt very much as if he had run into a brick wall and been stunned.

The moment passed. He withdrew his hand slowly, and slowly he began to think again. The flute might have fallen out of his pocket.

He looked on the sofa and on the floor; but even as he looked, he knew that he wouldn’t find it. It hadn’t fallen out; it had been taken out. The only question was, who had taken it? Miller had gone to London, and Mme. de Lara to Meade. One of them had taken the flute and the plans that were inside the flute---the real plans. There wasn’t any question that one of them had taken it. But which of them? Good heavens! Which---which---which?

Hugo began to steady from the shock. It wasn’t Miller who had taken the flute---Miller couldn’t have taken it. For one thing, he didn’t know it was there---and Hélène de Lara did. For another, Hélène de Lara had had the opportunity of taking it whilst he was speaking to the porter, and Miller couldn’t have taken it without his knowledge, because the coat was behind him and half under him all the time he was pretending to be asleep. Hélène had taken it.

Then, quick and sharp, “What a fool you are! If she took it, that’s not to say she kept it. She’d give the plans to Miller---wouldn’t she, you fool?”

The fool hesitated, and wasn’t sure. It was of his folly that he had a doubt. She must have given them to Miller. She wouldn’t take them back to Meade. Why, that was the plot---to give Miller the plans and to let it seem that it was Hugo who had given them away. It would certainly seem like that now. It could be shown that he had met Miller by appointment, and that Miller had gone away with the plans in his pocket. Had he? The fool wasn’t sure---remained obstinate and immovable in not being sure. Suppose---Hugo opened the door and went into the hall.

The porter told him what he knew already. The lady had gone, and the red-headed gentleman had gone. They had gone in different directions. Then a surprise---“The lady left a note for you, sir.”

The most ardent lover could not have snatched a love-letter more eagerly. The note was on the hotel note-paper, and it was very short. It began:

“My Dear,
“If you want your flute, come and get it. And if you want help, well---perhaps---I’m going home.”

The signature was, “Hélène.”

Hugo ran out of the front door and round to the garage. He found the car, and he found Leonard; they were at opposite ends of the rather ramshackle place.

Leonard didn’t turn a hair. He said respectfully, “I think she’s all right now, sir. I was just coming in to tell you.” And that was that. What was the good of giving him the lie? Nothing mattered except to get back to Meade and to get there quickly. But would Leonard take him back to Meade?

He put this to the touch.

“Look here, I’ve got to get back.”

“Back, sir!”

“Back to M-Meade. I’ve had my papers stolen.”

“Stolen, sir!”

Leonard wasn’t really a very good actor. He was too stolid.

“Yes, I must get back as quick as p-possible.”

“Very good, sir.”

There seemed to be an interminable delay before they got off. This was, of course, to be expected---Miller was to get as good a start as possible. Well, Miller had got his start. But had he got the real plans? Or had Mme. de Lara got them? Hélène de Lara had the flute. But did she know that the plans were in the flute? Or had she just taken it to tease him and to bring him to Torring House again? For the life of him Hugo could not be sure; and for the life of him he could not help remembering that Hélène de Lara had kissed him. How could she have known that the papers were in the flute? Perhaps she didn’t know. Perhaps----

They started. The long interminable road stretched between him and Torring House. His thoughts pursued Hélène de Lara with an ardent intensity which might, or might not, have pleased her. Even if she had not known that the papers were in the flute, she would find them in a moment if she began to fiddle with it. Women never could keep their fingers off things. She might be finding the plans at this very moment.

They passed through the dark wood. But now it was most unromantically void of glamour; it was just another stage on the long, interminable road. If Hélène found the plans, what would she do with them? Would she try to catch Miller? Or would she take them back to Minstrel? Or would she try to drive with them some private bargain of her own? He stared into the darkness for the lights of any car that might hold Hélène de Lara and the plans.

Leonard drove slowly; it was half-past seven before they passed Meade Station. In another five minutes they were turning in at the gates of Meade House. Hugo tapped on the glass.

“You needn’t drive up to the house. I’ll get out here, and you can go straight to the garage.”

Leonard nodded. He brought the car to a standstill, and Hugo got out. Then he drove slowly on, keeping straight ahead instead of turning to the right to take the gravel sweep. Huge saw the red light going away and, turning, ran back down the drive and out into the road.

He had burnt his boats.

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