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Chapter One

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« on: June 10, 2023, 03:05:50 am »

THE lane was very dark; it was difficult to see where the tall hedgerow ended and the heavily clouded sky began. It was six hours since the sun had set, and during those six hours the darkness had deepened steadily until the cold, heavy air was saturated with gloom. An hour ago it had begun to freeze.

Hugo Ross stood for a moment by the Meade House entrance gates. The white posts just showed; the dark gate was invisible. Hugo leaned on it, staring into the impenetrable blackness of the drive. The trees on either side were moving a little, though he could feel no wind. The stripped branches and bare twigs that over-arched the drive were moving. They made small restless sounds hardly to be heard, sounds that would not have been heard at all if there had been anything else to hear.

Hugo turned from the gate and walked a little farther along the lane. The hedge on his left skirted the grounds of Meade House, and suddenly out of the darkness there sprang to view one lighted window---just one, high up in the black wall of the house. The window looked at Hugo with a square, bright eye; and then down came a blind like the dropping of a lid.

He walked another hundred yards, and then turned back again. It was rather odd to think that perhaps he was going to live in the house that had looked at him for a moment with that yellow staring eye. He wondered what the house was like. He could see it only as a black, blank wall running up into a black, blank sky. It had no substance nor content; it was just length and breadth, and a yellow staring eye. It reminded him of something that he couldn’t quite get hold of---something in a dream. He passed the gate with a glance over his shoulder and a faint thrill of the old “let’s pretend” feeling that had made the nursery a place of high adventure to Susan and himself.

He began to feel sure that he would get the job. Up to this moment he had been almost sure that he would not get it. Manning had said, “Why not have a shot at it?” But even Manning---very good fellow Manning---had certainly not been hopeful.

“Of course, my dear chap, you can but try. He’d be a jolly good man to get in with. And of course, as I say, if you can get in before the crowd who are sure to answer his advertisement---you see what I mean. Hacker told me about the advertisement, and I thought I’d give you the tip. It comes out first thing in the morning, and if you’re on the spot before anyone else, it might give you a bit of a pull, though of course, as I said, he may want someone . . .” He proceeded to enumerate the qualifications which Ambrose Minstrel might reasonably require in a secretary.

Hugo possessed none of them. He had no degree. He knew nothing about mechanics, engineering, electricity, or chemistry. He supposed vaguely that an eminent inventor like Minstrel might require such knowledge in a secretary. Manning seemed sure of it.

“Still, I should have a stab at it, you know.”

Hugo was having a stab at it; and quite suddenly and irrationally he began to feel that the job was his. To-morrow at nine-thirty---he had fixed on nine-thirty as the earliest hour at which he could decently present himself---well, at nine-thirty he would pass between the white gate-posts, walk briskly up the drive under those over-arching trees, and in the house that he had not seen, he would presently find himself Ambrose Minstrel’s secretary. He had not the slightest idea how this was going to happen; he had stopped bothering about it.

He turned his mind to the question of how to spend the next eleven hours. There is a lot of time in eleven hours, especially at night. He thought hopefully of haystacks. The proverbial needle in a bundle of hay would be easier to find than half a dozen haystacks in a pitch black field. It made him wild to think that there might be a perfectly good dry, warm haystack within a stone’s throw of him at this very moment. It tickled him to think of feeling for haystacks in unknown and frozen fields; it didn’t somehow seem rational. Like a great many people of strong and keen imagination, Hugo prided himself on being rational. He decided not to feel for haystacks but to go on walking.

It was growing steadily colder. The fog, which had been rising from the fields ever since the frost set in, had topped the hedges and came drifting down between them like the flow of some sluggish, impalpable stream.

Hugo turned back towards Meade House and began to run. The lane was quite straight here for three or four hundred yards, rising slightly and then sloping until it reached the gate. He ran up the rise and down the slope---and half-way down the slope he ran into the girl. It was very startling, because, somehow, it had never occurred to him that there might be anyone else afoot---the lane was his; and then not his, because he bumped heavily into someone and heard the girl’s faint scream. It was his shoulder that struck her, and she screamed just once, with a faint breathless sound; it was as if she had begun to scream and then her breath had failed.

Hugo swung round, groped, touched a shoulder, and said,

“I’m frightfully sorry! Did I hurt you? I’m most frightfully sorry!”

She had sprung away when he touched her. He could hear her breathing quickly with a little sobbing catch between the breaths.

He spoke again:

“I say, I’m afraid I did hurt you. Is there anything I can do?”

The answer was the most unexpected thing. She laughed, a long, pretty, shaken ripple of a laugh.

“No---it’s all right.”

“Are you sure? I was running to keep myself warm. It was most awfully careless of me to go barging along like that.”

“I’m not hurt. I was frightened---I thought you were a tramp.”

She had a very pretty voice, rather high, very young, clear, and unmodulated like a child’s voice. She went on:

“There was a tramp. I thought he had come back.” The clear voice shook.

“Oh, I s-say---I must have frightened you dreadfully!”

Hugo’s shyness and the little stammer which accompanied it were returning. They had been, as it were, knocked clean out of him when he bumped into the girl.

She came a step nearer.

“You didn’t frighten me---it was the tramp. I wasn’t frightened as soon as I heard your voice. The tramp had a horrid one---you know---beery.” Her voice shook again on the unromantic word.

Hugo wanted to laugh, and felt like a tongue-tied fool. He began,

“I’m s-so sorry,” and was interrupted.

“You haven’t seen him, have you? He went this way. I hid, and he went along here. That’s why I thought you were him.”

“I haven’t s-seen anyone.”

She came quite close.

“It’s too dark to see anyone. He might be there.” It was a very small whisper.

Hugo was not wanting in perception. He said, stammering very badly,

“Sh-shall I---w-would you---I m-mean---I---c-can’t I do anything?”

A hand slipped into his arm. “Would you---walk a little way---with me? Would you really?”

“Of course.”

“You were going the other way.”

“I wasn’t going anywhere really---I was just putting in t-time.”

There was a little irrepressible laugh.

“So was I. How funny! Oh, do you know what the time is---because I’m most dreadfully afraid I shall miss my train.”

Hugo turned up his wrist. The luminous dial showed like a faint moon.

“It’s half-past ten.”

“Then I shall catch it.” She began to walk, keeping her hand on his arm. “I got so frightfully cold waiting. And I thought I should miss the train, and I thought about the tramp, and---don’t you think when you’re simply dreadfully frightened of doing something, it’s better to do it?”

“S-sometimes,” said Hugo.

“Not sometimes---always, or else you just get so frightened that you can’t do anything---you can’t even run away.” The words came tumbling out. And then, with a sudden return of breathlessness, she demanded, “Do you live here?”

“No.”

She pulled away her hand.

“Do you live near here?”

“No.”

“Because I don’t want you to tell anyone you’ve seen me.”

Hugo gave his funny little laugh.

“But I haven’t.”

His arm was caught again.

“No, you haven’t---you haven’t seen anyone, because---you’re sure you don’t live here?”

“I s-swear it.”

“Do you know people here?”

“No, I don’t---really.”

“Not anyone?”

“Not a soul.”

“I’m running away. That’s why I asked. You won’t tell anyone---will you?”

Hugo stopped feeling shy. One might as well feel shy of a bird or a rabbit, or any other young, natural creature. He said quite seriously,

“I say, is that a good plan?”

“What?”

“Running away. Don’t you think you’d better go home again?”

He stood still as he spoke. But she tugged at his arm.

“No---no. Oh, I’ll miss my train! Do come on!”

Hugo began to feel rather middle-aged.

“Look here, what’s the good of running away? Much better go home---they’ll be in an awful state about you.”

“Let them! I’m not going back.” She laughed. “If I wouldn’t go back for the beery tramp, d’you suppose I’ll go back for you? Besides---Oh, anyhow, I’m not going back. You won’t tell---will you?”

“I don’t know,” said Hugo.

“Oh! You promised!

“Why are you running away?”

She laughed.

“I haven’t murdered anyone or stolen anything, and nobody’s going to break their hearts---they’ll be all fussed up and shocked, but they won’t worry, because I’ve got heaps of money and I know quite well how to look after myself, and I’ve told them I’m going to a job.”

“L-look here,” said Hugo.

“I won’t go back.”

“All right---don’t. Only don’t go telling strangers how much money you’ve got.”

“I don’t.”

“You told me.”

“Oh---you!

Hugo burst out laughing.

“You needn’t laugh! I can take care of myself. Why are you laughing? I did only tell you.”

“And I---how many years have you known me?”

Something curious happened---silence; darkness; and a queer electric thrill. A whispering voice broke the silence. It spoke in the darkness quite close to him, and it said,

“I---don’t---know.”

Hugo went on trying to feel middle-aged, and become very much aware that he was only twenty-six and that for the first time in his life he was speaking to a girl without feeling shy. Susan, of course, didn’t count.

They walked on.

She was quite right---you couldn’t reckon by time.

She said, with a quick note of indignation, “Of course I told you.”

“I see.”

“You won’t tell---will you?”

“Why did you run away?”

“Oh---because----”

She was walking about a yard away from him. Every now and then she turned in his direction---he could tell that by the sound of her voice. Her movements were all quick; her step was quick and springy; when she held his arm, her hand moved, quivered, and was alive. The yard of darkness between them was full of little live, warm, dancing things. Her voice was full of them too.

“I just had to run away. You know, she’s only my cousin. She says it’s second cousin three times removed, and you can’t really count that sort of relation---can you?”

Hugo had not the faintest idea who she might be. He said so.

“Her name’s Brown---Emily Brown. Isn’t that frightful? And she’s almost the only relation I’ve got. And her husband is a solicitor, and they’re both most frightfully respectable and worthy, and managing and kind in a feather-bedy sort of way. If I’d stayed, they’d have smothered me into a sort of swoon, and I’d have waked up to find I’d married James.”

“Who is James?”

“Another feather bed, just like them. They love him---he’s Andrew’s cousin. He used to come and play bridge every night and sing Onaway, awake beloved! and Somewhere a voice is calling. I suppose you think I ought to have married him?” The question came swiftly, lightly, eagerly.

There seemed to be nothing between marrying James and running away. All the cousins in the world cannot drag a girl to the altar.

“They couldn’t have made you,” said Hugo.

She laughed.

“They could have. But they can’t now!” There was an excited triumph in the words. “What’s the good of saying they couldn’t make me? If you live on ditchwater and dulness, with feather beds all round you, and someone saying ‘Oh!’ in a shocked voice every time you want to do anything at all, and James asking you to marry him about seven times a week and twice on Sundays, and cold beef and pickles every day for lunch because Andrew likes them---and Emily would murder anyone if it would please Andrew---well, you wouldn’t talk nonsense about their not being able to make you. I believe Emily said ‘Oh!’ at me a thousand times every day. And I used to wake up at night dreaming I was being married to James---you know, the perfectly awful sort of dream where everybody else talks and you can’t say a word. And when the parson said, ‘Speak now, or else forever hereafter hold your peace,’ I couldn’t. And the next thing I knew, he was saying, ‘I pronounce you man and wife’---only just then I woke up. It was so frightful that I wrote straight off to Cissie and said I’d run away. Oh, look here, this is where I left my bag. I must just see if it’s safe.”

She made a dart into the hedge, then came running back.

“It’s all right. The station’s just round the corner. And I don’t want to go there till the very last minute, till the train’s in, because, you see, Emily will think I’ve gone to Ledlington---she’ll never, never dream of me walking seven miles across the fields. You see, trains stop here because of Mr. Minstrel at Meade House. I don’t want anyone to see me and tell Emily. We’ll walk up and down till we see the train coming, and then just make a dash.”

They had reached the corner; the lights of the tiny station showed below them at the foot of a sharp slope. The girl put a hand on his arm and pulled Hugo round.

He said, “Who is Cissie?” and did not stammer over the name.

“She was a girl I knew when I lived with old cousin Catherine---she went to London. And I wrote and told her about James, and she said, had I any money? And when I said I’d got lots, she said come along and she’d find me a job.”

“How much money have you got?” said Hugh.

“Twenty pounds.”

“Did you tell her how much you’d got?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Who is she? What does she do?”

“I don’t know. Cousin Catherine didn’t like me to know her---but she was a very disapproving sort of person. I think Cissie was on the stage, or danced, or something like that. I should love to dance.”

Hugo began to feel appalled. Twenty pounds---I told her I had lots of money---Cousin Catherine didn’t like me to know her----

“I say, you know----”

“I can dance a little,” the eager voice went on. “Of course I don’t know if Cissie is dancing. I really knew her awfully little---only just for a fortnight last winter when Cousin Catherine and I were at Brighton. I got to know her because she dropped her bag and I picked it up, and she told me then she could get me a job if I ever wanted one. And she gave me an address to write to, so when I got desperate about being pronounced man and wife with James---James, I wrote.”

“I say, you know, twenty pounds isn’t such a lot of money.”

“Oh it is---for me---it’s a tremendous lot. Cousin Catherine gave it to me out of her silver teapot the night before she died. Emily got everything else because she was a niece and I was only an umpteenth cousin. Emily got the teapot. But I didn’t mind about that, because it was a frightfully ugly one. I didn’t tell her about the twenty pounds, and I didn’t tell Cissie how much it was. So you see I don’t tell everything, though you think I do.”

“Why do you tell me?”

They turned and began to walk back towards the station.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, does it? You don’t mind?”

“No, I don’t mind. But----”

“I don’t even know your name, and you don’t know mine. And if you met me to-morrow, you’d never, never know who I was. And perhaps some day you’ll see me dance, and you’ll never know that you nearly knocked me down in a dark lane and carried my bag and were very, very kind.”

It was frightfully embarrassing; the whole situation was frightfully embarrassing.

“L-look here----”

“I’ve taken you frightfully out of your way. You needn’t come any farther---there won’t be any tramps now. I’ll go close up to the station and wait. And you can go to wherever you’re staying. They’ll think you’re lost.”

“I’m not staying anywhere.”

“You must be.”

“I’m not. I’ve come down to look for a job. I came down to-night because I wanted to get in before anyone else to-morrow morning; but I had my pocket picked in the train, so I haven’t any money till I get back to town.”

He would not have any then, but this was a fact which he did not feel bound to explain. The lost pocket-book had contained his last fiver.

“They left my return ticket,” he concluded cheerfully.

“Oh, I hope you’ll get your job.”

“So do I.”

“What is it?”

“Secretary to an inventor.”

He heard a little startled gasp:

“Not Ambrose Minstrel! Oh---you mustn’t!”

“I say----”

“You mustn’t! Oh, what shall I do? There’s my train---I can’t miss it! Quick---my bag!”

She was off. He heard the bag bump on the road; his hand, groping for it, met hers, bare like his own. He caught at the bag, and they began to run.

The train was coming into view along a raised embankment; the lighted windows seemed high up and very far away. A cloud of orange rosy smoke was blown backwards from the engine; it hung above the dead whiteness of the low fog.

“Run!” said the girl.

She took his left hand, and they raced down the hill. They reached the station whilst the train was still some hundreds of yards away.

“Get my ticket! Oh, I’m so glad I thought of that! Here’s a pound---get it quickly!”

When he came back to her with the ticket, the train was in the station. Two men got out.

The girl took her ticket and the change, snatched up her bag, and ran across the platform. Hugo followed. The door slammed on her. The train began to move. She leaned out.

He felt an overwhelming desire to see her face. But she was only a slim black silhouette against the carriage lamp; it shone behind her head like a yellow aureole. She leaned out.

“Don’t go there---you mustn’t go there!”

“Why not?”

He walked beside the train, walked faster, began to run.

“I heard---there’s no time---what’s your name?”

He was being left behind. The engine snorted, and a great puff of steam came drifting back.

“Hugo Ross.”

He seemed to be shouting it, but the wind took the words away. He heard her voice very faintly:

“You mustn’t.”

The steam hid her. The train went on.

Hugo turned and walked out of the station into the darkness. How astonishing! How extraordinary and astonishing! What on earth did she mean?

He walked to the corner from which they had seen the train. Its row of lighted windows had for a moment lighted up the sloping field from which the embankment rose. Six foot of fog and two black humps rising out of it---barns or haystacks. He thought he would go and prospect.

They were haystacks. Coldish comfort, but better than walking about all night. He sat down in the warmest spot he could find, leaned his back against the hay, and fumbled in an inside pocket.

There came out the two halves of a flute, his pride and his despair, practised by stealth, often abandoned, and as often resumed. The secret passion which drove him to make music was outraged by his lack of skill. Yesterday’s exercise had been a teaser. He determined to get the better of it. For half an hour slow, melancholy notes followed one another into the fog.

At the end of half an hour he stopped playing the exercise and began to copy the high clear notes of a girl’s laugh.

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