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Chapter Eighteen

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« on: June 11, 2023, 11:15:07 am »

LOVEDAY was the first to recover. She drew a long unsteady breath and said,

“Have I got a smut on my nose?”

“N-not on your nose,” said Hugo.

“Where? Oh! How horrid of you!”

“There’s one on your chin, and one up near your eyelashes.”

He could hear her rubbing vigorously.

“You’ll only m-make it w-worse,” he said.

“I always get smudges,” said Loveday. “Some people never do; but if there’s one single smut in a whole town, it gets on to my nose.”

“It wasn’t on your nose.”

“Why don’t you get smuts? You were simply horribly clean.”

“I know.” He spoke despondently. “It’s one of the things that make people think I’m a m-mug.”

Loveday nodded in the dark.

“And you blushed,” she added most unfairly.

Hugo blushed again.

“S-so did you.”

“Lots of people can’t blush,” said Loveday---“lots of them. I think it’s rather dull to be the same colour always. James was always exactly the same colour---rather like soap, you know---and I got awfully bored with it.”

Hugo felt a certain impatience of James. He looked at the dial of his watch and saw that it was nearly eleven. He wondered how soon it would be safe to try and get away, and he wondered, quite suddenly he wondered, what on earth he was to do with Loveday. The thought rushed into words:

“Loveday---do stop talking about James.”

“Why?”

“Why do you w-want to talk about him? I w-want to talk about you. I w-want to talk about what we’re going to do with you.”

“With me?”

“Yes. It’s eleven o’clock. By the time we get anywhere it’ll be about midnight. What are we going to do with you?”

“I don’t know.” She did not sound seriously concerned.

“Have you got any f-friends in London?”

“Only Cissie.”

“Cissie’s not a f-friend. Look here, Loveday, I don’t want to f-frighten you---but you mustn’t make f-friends with girls like Cissie.”

“She wasn’t as nice as I thought she was,” said Loveday mournfully.

“I c-can’t think how you ever thought she was nice.”

“It was James.”

“J-James?”

“Yes---because he was so dull. That’s the awful part of James. It’s like being driven to drink---he’s so deadly that anyone who isn’t deadly seems to be most frightfully nice. That’s why I thought Cissie was nice.”

“What am I going to do with you?” said Hugo.

He felt her come a little nearer.

“You won’t let them!” Her hand touched his and clung to it.

“Of c-course not.”

She came closer still, her shoulder touched his shoulder.

“It sounds silly, but I got frightened of Cissie. She said such odd things, and she wouldn’t let me go out alone, and she gave me such a horrid feeling sometimes”---he felt her hand tremble---“the sort of feeling you get when horrid things are going to happen. I’ve really only had it in dreams before---the horrid sort where quite nice things suddenly turn into something frightening. I used to get that sort of feeling with Cissie, and it was horrid.”

Hugo put his arm round her.

“I shouldn’t think about it. I’ll find somewhere safe for you,” he said.

They stayed like that quite silently for a time. Loveday felt very safe, and Hugo very sure that he could keep her safe. The silence and the peace of the sleeping house seemed to rise up around them. The attic was a friendly place. They sat quite still.

At last Hugo said, “Loveday----” and then, “Are you awake?”

“Is it time to go?”

“I think so.” He lit a match. The light showed a sloping roof, a packing-case or two, the corner of a cistern, and rows of pots, some just bare earth, and others pierced with the green shoots of growing bulbs. A second match discovered a trap-door a yard or two from where they sat.

“What shall we do if it’s bolted?” said Loveday in a whisper.

Hugo had no idea. He could only hope that it would not be bolted, and found his hope rewarded; the trap came up and showed a ladder running down to a bathroom below.

They crawled down the ladder and opened the bathroom door. It was like opening the door into a new adventure. Here was a strange house full of strange people---people who were not really there at all, because their thoughts were wandering in some far-off dream.

Hugo struck one match, and made out the staircase; after which they went down in the dark, step by step, waiting with held breath to hear if any of those dreaming people had been called back through the ivory gate.

No one moved but themselves; no one waked or stirred. The house had a sleepy, peaceful, friendly feeling. They went down, and down, and down to the foot of the stairs and along a yard or two of passage to the bolted and locked front-door. The bolt creaked once, and they stood there with a most dreadful sense of guilt until the silence had settled again.

The key turned easily in the lock, and the door swung open and let in the warm wet air.

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