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Chapter Twenty

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« on: June 11, 2023, 12:20:10 pm »

HUGO went back to Meade House in the morning. A curious incident happened when he was saying good-bye to Mrs. Miles. He had shaken hands with her and was picking up his suitcase, when the red-haired Mr. Miller came running down the stairs. Mrs. Miles opened the door, and when Hugo said, “Good-bye, Mrs. Miles,” she said she was sure it was a pleasure and she hoped it wouldn’t be no time before they were seeing him again. It was just at this moment that Mr. Miller reached the third step from the bottom. He leant on the banister and called out in a familiar tone,

“Hullo! Are you off? Well, so long---and I expect you’ll get your price all right, though I must say you pitched it pretty high. Still there’s nothing like asking---is there?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hugo; and as he shut the door, he thought to himself that he knew very well. Mr. Miller could now bring Mrs. Miles as well as Ella to testify that he had had conversations with Hugo as to the price of some unnamed article. It was a crude device, and its crudity showed plainly how low they rated him. He hoped that they would continue to rate him insultingly low. He went back to Meade House in extraordinarily high spirits. The whole thing had become a great adventure.

He found a letter from Mr. Rice waiting for him. He read it up in his own room. Mr. Rice wrote:

“Dear Sir,
“I see no reason whatever why we should not be at an agreement. As I have said to you before, if the price that you ask is a high one, still those for whom I am acting are quite willing to pay a high price, because, as I have said, they put a very high value on what you have to sell. The matter must be concluded within a short time. I should be glad to hear from you whether you are satisfied with what we have offered.”

That was all the letter.

Hugo read it three times. It contained just one piece of useful information---something was due to happen quite soon, or as Mr. Rice put it, “within a short time.” He hoped that Mr. Rice was right, for he wanted the adventure to go ahead.

Minstrel and Hacker returned at dusk; Hacker very much pleased with himself, Minstrel morose and acid. He vanished into his laboratory, emerged to bolt a horrible meal consisting of tinned mackerel and greasy cocoa, and then disappeared for good. Hacker, in a genial mood, regaled Hugo with scandalous stories about prominent personages, becoming steadily more patronizing and well informed as the evening wore on. Hugo allowed himself to stammer a good deal.

Next day was dry and windy. Minstrel remained locked in his laboratory until noon, when he burst out and demanded music; after which he walked to and fro between the two rooms scowling and pulling at his beard. As he walked, he muttered to himself. Once he stopped by the gramophone and spoke through the tumult of the Flying Dutchman Overture:

“Does he speak to you? Or are you deaf and idiotic like Hacker? Hacker likes noise---jazz---a storm in a teacup. No, not a teacup---he hasn’t any use for tea---a storm in a champagne glass and plenty of silly tinkling laughter---that’s Hacker’s taste! Is it yours?”

“N-no, sir.”

Minstrel’s lip lifted.

“The virtuous apprentice!” he sneered. “Do you think that commends itself to me? I hate a prig!” He stopped suddenly and held up his hand. The tumult and the storm had melted into an enchanted calm. He seemed to listen with caught breath till the record ended with the grating of the needle in an empty groove. Then he fetched a deep sigh, looked past Hugo for a moment, and with an abrupt turn stalked back into the laboratory and banged the door.

In the afternoon Hugo went down to the post with some letters. After some consideration he had decided to leave Mr. Rice’s communication unanswered. He burnt it to a fine ash, and wondered what they would make of his silence.

The letters he took to the post were Minstrel’s. One of them was addressed to the Air Ministry. If it was not a holograph letter, it must have been taken down by Hacker; certainly it had not been dictated to Hugo.

He posted the letters and began to walk back. The distance was about three-quarters of a mile. He had gone about half the way and had reached a long straight stretch of lonely road, when a girl on a bicycle passed him slowly and then, with an exclamation, jumped off her machine and began to feel the back tyre. It was certainly very flat. She poked it, made a vexed little sound, and then in a very fumbling manner she began to do something incompetent with her pump. The tyre remained flat. Hugo received a glance of appeal, and before he quite knew how it happened, he was pumping the tyre.

The girl had a London look; her shoes were thin, and so were her stockings; she had pretty fluffy fair hair and pretty blue eyes, which she used with some effect. She thanked Hugo profusely:

“I’m so stupid with a cycle. I can ride it, you know, but if anything goes wrong---well, I’m in the soup as sure as my name’s Daisy.”

Hugo gave ever so slight a start. It was a coincidence of course; if he were not all strung up and on the lookout for things to happen, he would never have noticed it. If Mr. Smith wanted to send him a message, it would be signed Daisy. But then Daisy was a very common name. It was just a coincidence.

“I’m sure it’s ever so stupid of me. You are clever at it---aren’t you? And I’m keeping you, and perhaps you’re in a hurry. Do you live near here?”

“N-not very far. I’ll pump the other one whilst I’m at it.”

“Oh, thank you! You are clever at it, Mr. Ross.”

This time Hugo’s start was a very definite one.

“Why do you think m-my name is Ross?” he said, and stopped pumping to stare at her.

The blue eyes opened very wide.

Isn’t it? I thought it was. Mine’s Daisy.”

They looked at each other.

Daisy?” said Hugo.

“Isn’t it a pretty name?” said the damsel.

Daisy?” said Hugo again.

She nodded. “You’re Hugo Ross, aren’t you?”

He saw no harm in admitting it, so he said “Yes.”

“Good gracious! What a fuss about saying so! You’ve got a sister, haven’t you? What’s her name?”

“S-Susan,” said Hugo.

“And what’s the parrot’s name?”

It wasn’t a coincidence; it was a message from Mr. Smith.

Hugo said, “Ananias,” and the girl nodded.

“Just as well to be on the safe side, though I recognized you from your photograph.”

“My photograph?”

“The one in your sister’s wedding group---only you don’t look so cross in real life. Well, I’ve got a message for you. He thought you’d better know that Maggie Plane didn’t give you away.”

“I didn’t know her name,” he began, and then he remembered that Loveday had called the woman across the landing at no. 50 Maggie. It was a great relief to be sure she had held her tongue.

“He thought you’d better know,” said Daisy. “Oh---and Ananias thought you’d better have this---he thought it might be useful.” She put a long envelope into his hand. “Don’t open it now—there’s no particular point in anyone coming along and seeing us. Well, I must be getting along. And thank you ever so for pumping my tyre. The front one isn’t really flat, you know.”

Hugo watched her ride away. He pushed the envelope down inside his pocket and walked back through the dusk. When he reached the house he went up to his own room. After the first glance at the contents of the envelope he went and stood with his back against the door. They were not at all what he wished Hacker or anyone else in the house to see. He looked at them for a minute or two, turned them over, and finally put them back into the envelope and put the envelope back into his pocket. Then he slipped down the stairs and went out again. It was dark enough on the drive, but it was darker still in the shrubbery. It took him five minutes or so to find what he was looking for.

He returned to the house, to find Minstrel angrily demanding of heaven, earth, and Mr. Hacker why he paid a secretary if that secretary was not to be there when he was wanted. He began to dictate letters with great volubility; one to a Swedish professor concerning several extremely abstruse and technical matters, another to a publisher, and a third to an American agent refusing a lecture tour.

This last was so exceedingly vituperative that Hugo wondered whether Minstrel really meant to send it. He walked about all the time that he was dictating and appeared to be in a state of extreme nervous tension. When the letters were written, he made Hugo read them over. In the end he tore up two out of the three and began all over again. Then, suddenly breaking off, he said.

“They can wait! Why should I answer letters? Fools with all the time in the world on their hands write to me and expect me to answer them. They expect me to waste time which is worth, not just money, but ideas---unminted, unrealized, and unassayed ideas worth more than any wretched sordid gold that was ever mined. They expect me to take these ideas and pay them out---sweat for them, work for them, and then pay them out to any fool who writes to me and begs. Pah! They make me sick!”

He walked down the room and back again.

“What’s the good of you if you can’t answer this sort of pettifogging stuff without bothering me?”

He picked up the American’s letter and thrust it into Hugo’s face.

“Like to like! Tell him I’ll see him dead before I’ll cheapen my wits to put money in his pocket!”

He flung over to the bookshelf, plucked forth a book, and opening it, stood there reading, his back to the room.

Hugo wrote briefly that Mr. Ambrose Minstrel could not at present contemplate a lecture tour in the United States. It was nine o’clock before he was free.

He went up to his room and looked out at the night. There was a strong, warm wind blowing; clouds that had hung low all day were piled high in the east. The south and west were clear, and there was moonlight, though he could not see the moon. The house oppressed him. He put his flute into his pocket and went out. The front-door shut behind him with a bang.

He was perhaps halfway down the drive, when the door opened and shut again noiselessly. Mr. James Hacker took the same way. He wore tennis shoes and moved with caution.

Hugo went on, and presently climbed to the top of the wooded hill which had become his place of refuge. He liked being high up, and he liked the trees. The wind blew through them to-night, and their many moving shadows made patterns in the moonlight. He settled himself in the crook of a branch and began to play.

Mr. Hacker turned and went over the hill towards Torring House.

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