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Chapter Thirty-Four

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« on: June 13, 2023, 08:30:02 am »

IT was nearly half an hour later that Mme. de Lara’s sad-faced foreign butler opened the door of her little room and announced Mr. Ross.

Mr. Ross came in in a hurry, heard the door close behind him, and beheld Hélène all in misty grey. She was bending over a great bowl of Parma violets; the attitude was one of extreme grace. For a moment she did not move, then turned slowly with half a dozen violets in her hand.

She said, “So you have come,” and her voice was low and sweet.

Hugo found himself stammering her name.

“M-M-Madame de Lara!”

“Yes---Hugo?”

Hugo held out her note.

“You asked me to c-c-come.”

“Yes---Hugo.”

It was a boiling fury that was making him stammer. He had been quite cool until he came into the scented room and saw her; then suddenly he was angry with an anger that shook him, all of him---his speech, his thought, his self-control. He looked away from her and saw the flute.

It was lying on a little polished table guarded by a pair of Chinese dogs, fierce in white china which had withstood the changes and chances of four hundred years. A frail jar full of carnations made a delicately coloured background.

Hugo saw the flute, and the fury went out of him, leaving him cold and quiet. If she had the papers, she had them. He would soon know. He said, “You told me to come for my flute. Why did you take it, Mme. de Lara?”

She sighed and touched her lips with the violets.

“Perhaps I wanted to see you---Hugo.” Then after a little pause, “Are you angry?”

Hugo said “No” quite truthfully. He wasn’t angry any more.

“I should not like you to be angry with me. People get angry so easily and for such little things. They do not always know how much even a foolish anger may hurt. I---Hugo, I have been hurt so often. I should not like to think that you would ever hurt me.” Her voice dwelt on the “you” with the same sound that it had when she said his name; there was a sort of softening of her whole aspect, as if she grew younger, simpler.

Hugo walked to the table and picked up the two halves of his flute. Had she taken it for his sake, or for the sake of the plans? Everything turned on that. If the plans were there, if the plans were safe----

He turned the flute in his hand. The plans were gone.

He laid the flute back on the table and walked across to where Hélène was standing watching him.

“I came here because I wanted to ask you a question.”

“Yes, Hugo.” She spoke like a girl who is shy of her lover.

“I came to ask you where my papers are.”

Hélène de Lara gave a cry of surprise.

“Your papers! Ah now, what do you mean---Hugo?”

“You know what I mean.”

I---know?

“Yes, Mme. de Lara.”

“But I know nothing. What papers?”

“Mr. Minstrel’s plans. I was taking them to town. I missed them at The Wheatsheaf. Where are they?”

A look of horrified distress crossed her face.

“Hugo---you do not mean it! It is not true!”

“I missed them at The Wheatsheaf.”

Mme. de Lara caught him by the arm. The few sweet violets she had been holding fell to the floor.

“Hugo---my poor boy! If it is true, it is---what is it for you? Oh, it cannot be true!”

“I missed them at The Wheatsheaf. Where are they?”

“My poor boy! Hugo, it is dreadful! Those plans---gone! It is ruin---disgrace. Oh, my poor boy!”

Hugo pulled his arm away.

“You were at The Wheatsheaf when I got there. I drank coffee with you. I went to sleep. After that the plans were gone.”

His very bright blue eyes were fixed on her face. They read agitation, pity, sweet concern.

“Oh, my poor boy! Then it was my fault. What can I do? You looked so tired. And how was I to know?” Her hands were clasped at her breast, her eyes were full of tears. “How was I to know? You were so tired---I had not the heart to wake you. And I was not out of the room for more than three or four minutes. If the plans were taken, it must have been then, when I was out of the room.”

Hugo smiled. She found an irony that startled her in his eyes.

She said “Oh!” and as the little sound left her lips, the door opened.

“Mr. Minstrel---Mr. Hacker,” said the butler in his sad monotone.

The two men came in, and Hacker banged the door.

Hugo had turned. He saw Minstrel grimly furious, Hacker, the bully confessed, with an air of triumph, as who should say, “The rat’s in the trap. Now for some sport!”

Minstrel opened his overcoat with twitching fingers, glared through a silent minute. Then with an abrupt and nervous gesture,

“Well, Ross---well?”

That he was in the wrong, and badly in the wrong, Hugo knew well enough. He had left Leonard to tell the tale he should have told himself. But there had been just the one faint chance of finding the flute unrifled. On that frail chance he had risked everything and lost. He looked steadily back at Minstrel and spoke quietly.

“Leonard has told you.”

Ambrose Minstrel came out with a word which is not usually heard in drawing-rooms.

“Leonard!” he said. “Leonard has told me! Why is it left to Leonard to tell me, whilst you skulk here behind a woman? You’ve your lying story, no doubt, but you haven’t the guts to stand up to me with it, you miserable, white-livered thief!”

Ambrose!” said Hélène de Lara in a shuddering voice.

Hacker said “Sir---sir!” and put a hand on Minstrel’s arm.

Minstrel turned on him snarling.

“Are you in with him? Are you going to take his part? If you are, I’ll have no mercy on you---I warn you of that, Hacker. He’ll rot in prison, and you can rot with him.”

“I don’t take his part---I don’t take anyone’s part---I want to get at the facts. You ought to hear what he’s got to say.”

Ambrose!” said Hélène again.

“The plans are gone,” said Ambrose Minstrel. His voice was like a cold east wind; the fury in it had frozen to a cutting edge. “My plans are gone.”

He stared with his bloodshot eyes at Hugo.

“What have you got to say for yourself? My plans are gone.”

“They were stolen,” said Hugo.

He said this because he had to say something. He had to take his cue and play the part for which he had been cast. The play was set.

“Yes---stolen,” said Minstrel with an oath. “Stolen by you and sold by you. D’you think you can humbug us? D’you think you can get away with it, you rabbit?” He laughed harshly and pushed Hacker forward. “Come on, Hacker! Tell him what you told me! Give him powder and shot and see how he stands up to it! How many shots does it take to kill a rabbit---or to make it squeal? Get on to him, Hacker, get on to him! And you, Hélène, come over here! Come along over here and see how he takes it! Now, Hacker! Now, Mr. Secretary rabbit!”

Hacker came forward. His air was sober, but his voice had the bully’s note.

“You’d better make a clean breast of it,” he said.

“It would be v-very convenient for you, Hacker---wouldn’t it?”

Hugo had a fancy to re-write his part. He saw Hacker stare.

“Are you going to pretend you don’t know? You’re caught out. As it happens, I’d business at the post office, and the girl asked me about the telegram you sent---something about having over-charged you. Well, I thought it a very funny telegram, and I thought it my duty to take a copy of it for Mr. Minstrel.”

“What telegram do you mean?”

“Are you going to pretend you don’t know? It won’t do, Ross. You wired to a fellow called Miller to meet you at five-thirty. As you didn’t specify any place, it’s obvious that this had already been arranged between you. You did meet Miller at The Wheatsheaf, on the London road about five miles this side of Frayling. You met him there, and you gave him the plans. You needn’t trouble to lie, because Leonard’s evidence can’t be explained away.”

Hugo looked at Minstrel.

“Are you going to say you didn’t dictate that telegram to me?”

Minstrel swore again.

“You young pup! Is that your line? If it is, you’d better drop it.” He laughed his rasping laugh. “So I told you to wire to Miller, did I? Perhaps I told you to sell the plans!” He laughed again. “Tell that to a jury and see if they’ll believe you! Go on, Hacker!”

“It’s not the first time I’ve come across this fellow Miller. He came nosing round here a few months back, and we sent him off with a flea in his ear. He’s some sort of a Bolshevist agent and a thorough bad lot. When I went to your rooms in town and found Miller there, I thought it my duty to inform Mr. Minstrel. But he wouldn’t listen to me---he said he knew when he could trust a man, and he damned me into heaps for interfering.”

“That’s true---I did.” Minstrel was scowling, his hand at his beard. “I don’t often say I’m sorry about anything, but I was a damned fool not to kick you out then and there. I was a fool, and I’ve got to pay for it.”

“I don’t think it would really have suited you to kick me out then, sir,” said Hugo.

He had the satisfaction of seeing Minstrel explode.

“What d’you mean by that? What the blank, blank, blank d’you mean by that?”

“Something that may interest the jury,” said Hugo.

He felt Hélène’s hand on his arm.

“Don’t---don’t! Why will you irritate him? You are making it all so much worse. Ambrose---he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Minstrel glared at her.

“Go on, Hacker,” he said. “So I sent the telegram! Let’s see if he’ll say I wrote the letter you’ve got in your pocket.”

“You’d better chuck it, Ross,” said James Hacker. “The game’s up. When Leonard came in with his story, we searched your room. This letter was found there.”

He took out of his pocket a folded sheet, opened it, held it out.

“It’s from a man called Rice, offering you five thousand pounds for the plans.”

“I don’t think he mentions plans,” said Hugo. “The jury won’t like it if you exaggerate, you know, Hacker. Did you find that letter to-night? Do you know, I thought you’d had it longer than that. And when did you add the noughts to Rice’s fifty?”

Hacker was betrayed into bluster.

“Here---none of that! That won’t go down.”

“I’ll keep it for the jury,” said Hugo.

Minstrel caught Hacker by the arm.

“That’s enough,” he said---“that’s enough and to spare. Let him talk to the police if he wants to talk---I’ve heard enough. Hélène, may we use your telephone? . . . Ring up Ledlington, Hacker---tell them what’s happened and ask them to send someone along with a warrant. No, I’d better speak myself---I’ll have to make the charge. And meanwhile---Here, Hélène, those shutters of yours lock, don’t they?  . . . I thought so. Lock ’em, Hacker, and then we can leave Mr. Ross to devise a few more ingenious fairy tales---he’ll need ’em.” He spoke with extraordinary energy and bitterness. His “Mr. Ross” cut more effectively than any term of abuse.

The fury had passed from his aspect; he was the wronged man, efficient in his appeal to the law. With a look of contempt he turned on his heel and opened the door for Hélène to pass out.

Hacker had drawn the white painted shutters across the garden door. He locked them now and came back with the key in his hand, speaking to Hélène.

“The other windows---what about them? Are the shutters locked?”

Hugo heard Hélène catch her breath.

“Always---at sundown,” she said.

Then the three of them went out. The door closed, a key turned. Hugo was alone.

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