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Chapter Twenty-Three

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« on: June 12, 2023, 05:46:32 am »

WITH a violent word Mr. Hacker flung away in the opposite direction.

Hugo stood where he was and considered the situation. How on earth was he to warn Loveday? And if she wasn’t warned, what would happen? The odds were that she would show that she recognized him when he came into the room. For his own part, he was warned. But if he hadn’t been warned---if he had come into Mme. de Lara’s drawing-room and found Loveday there---he couldn’t be sure that he would have escaped the trap that had been laid for him. A single look, a stammer, a change of colour---no, he couldn’t be sure. And if he couldn’t be sure of himself, he couldn’t be sure of Loveday. They must both pass Hacker’s test, or it was all up with his job.

There was a sound of flying footsteps, and Mme. de Lara passed him, running. Her cloak blew against him, and she ran on. He heard her call, “James! James! James!” in a panting whisper, and he heard Hacker come striding back. They met, and Hélčne said, still panting,

“Why did you go away like that? See how nice and forgiving I am. I’ll go up through the wood with you if you ask me nicely.”

“I won’t ask you at all.” Hacker’s voice was rough.

“Then I’ll come to see you don’t get into mischief, and we’ll talk about Hugo, for indeed, and really, I’ve lost a little bit of my heart to him.”

Hugo didn’t wait to hear any more. He stepped out upon the path and moved silently in the direction of the house. He had no plan, but the feeling that Loveday was there and that she must be warned drove him. If he were to slip in through the unlatched sitting-room door. . . No---far too dangerous. It would be ruin, sheer blank ruin, if he were seen.

He stopped by the steps and looked up to where he had seen the lighted square of her window. The curtains had been drawn across it, but they did not meet; a vertical shaft of light divided them. She was still awake. He thought of throwing up a pebble; and then he thought of Hélčne de Lara coming up soft-footed out of the shadows and finding him under Loveday’s window.

It was not as dark as it had been; the moon was near to topping the house. To do nothing might be dangerous; but anything that he could do might be more dangerous still. He could see the sitting-room door. Here too a line of light showed like a thin bright wire. He was looking at it, when in a moment it widened, showed the bright room within, and against the bright room---someone who stood there whilst he breathed twice. They were quick breaths, because the someone was Loveday.

She dropped the curtains behind her and came running forward for a dozen steps, then stopped, came on slowly, groped with her foot for the topmost step, and called,

“Hélčne!”

The sound died away as if it were afraid of the dark.

Hugo said, “Loveday! Loveday!” and she said, “Oh!” in a soft, glad, laughing, surprised way and ran right down the steps into his arms. There was just a rapturous moment of being together again, and then they both said, “Ssh!” and Loveday laughed her little whispering laugh and put her face against his shoulder so that no one else should hear.

At the foot of the steps on either side there was a tall yew pyramid. Hugo pulled Loveday behind the farther one and said “Ssh!” again.

“We haven’t a minute. I’ve got something frightfully important to tell you.”

Loveday was still quivering with laughter.

“We always seem to be running into each other in the dark! It’s so funny.

Hugo shook her.

“Don’t laugh! You must listen. I’m coming to dinner to-morrow night. It’s a put-up job to see whether we recognize each other. I was just wondering how I could warn you.”

“Oh! How exciting!

He had his arm round her shoulders. He shook her again.

“Listen! It’s frightfully important. It’s a put-up job. They want to see how we meet each other.”

Loveday rubbed her head against his cheek.

“Well---how do we meet each other?”

“Not like this. Loveday---listen! It really is frightfully important. You see, as far as they know, we’ve only met once---in the lane, when it was dark and we couldn’t see each other. That’s what you told Cissie---isn’t it?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well, what Cissie knows Hacker knows, and what Hacker knows Mme. de Lara knows. They know we met in the lane, and they know you wanted to see me again because you wanted to warn me about something. Did you tell Cissie just why you wanted to warn me?”

“No, I didn’t. I told her I’d heard things about Meade House, and that I didn’t think you ought to go there. And when I saw she really wanted to find out, I wouldn’t tell her. I said you might be blown up in an explosion---but of course she knew it wasn’t that. But I wouldn’t tell her what it was.”

“That’s all right. Now, so far as they know, you never did see me or warn me. But they want to be quite, quite sure about it, because it’s tremendously important for them to be sure that I haven’t been warned; so they’ve put up this dinner-party business, and they’re going to spring us on each other and watch to see whether we give ourselves away.”

Loveday wasn’t laughing now. She gave a little shiver and said,

“Tell me what to do.”

“You mustn’t recognize me, of course---we mustn’t recognize each other---but when I’m introduced to you, you’d know my name, you see. So then you can just be all excited and interested and wanting to get an opportunity of speaking to me. You won’t get one of course---they’ll see to that. That’s your line, I think. Have you got it? You don’t recognize me, but you know my name and you get quite excited about it. My line’s a bit different. I don’t know you, and I don’t connect you with the girl in the lane even after I’ve heard your name, because, you see, I’m supposed to think Cissie is you.”

Loveday began to laugh under her breath. Then all at once she stopped and pinched him very hard.

Someone was coming along the shrubbery path---a light footfall and a voice that hummed a light and pleasant air, a shadow in a black cloak. It was Hélčne de Lara, and as she passed them by, she sang softly:

    “New hope may bloom, and days may come,
         Of brighter, purer beam;
     But there’s nothing half so sweet in life as
         Love’s young dream.
     Oh, there’s nothing half so sweet in life as
         Love’s young dream.”

She ran up the steps and was gone.

Loveday pinched Hugo harder.

“Oh, she’s gone in! Hugo, she’s gone in! I’m locked out! What on earth am I going to do?”

They peered round the pyramid and saw the curtains part and fall again. There was no shaft of light any more. The door was certainly shut, and Loveday on the wrong side of it. She began to laugh again.

“I’ll have to climb up the magnolia. If she goes into my room, I’m done. Oh, Hugo, what fun! Anyhow there’s no hurry now, and we can talk.”

“I say---I’m most awfully s-sorry.”

“You needn’t be---I’ll get in somehow. I’ve always wanted to be a burglar. It’ll be most frightfully amusing, but we’ll have to let Hélčne go to sleep first.”

“Loveday---how on earth did you get here? I thought you were at Ledlington. You went there, didn’t you?”

“I went there, but I didn’t stay there. Emily was in an awful fuss because she was just starting off to go and see a tremendously old uncle who sends for her about six times a year, and if she doesn’t come, he makes a new will and doesn’t leave her anything---and she didn’t think it proper to leave me with Andrew.”

She gave a gurgle of delight. “Darling, if you could only see Andrew! He’s so proper that if you were to cut him up small, there’d be enough properness in every little bit to last seven Mrs. Grundys for ever and ever. So I just rocked, and Emily was frightfully huffy and all stuffed up with the sermons she’d been getting ready to preach to me. It must be awful to be absolutely bunged up with sermons and not be able to get them off your chest because of having to go and stop your uncle from leaving you out of his will. I really did feel sorry for Emily. And right in the middle of all the fuss Hélčne blew in and said would I come to her for the week-end?”

“How do you know her?” said Hugo.

“She’s my cousin—and she’s Emily’s cousin too. My mother was Irish, you know, and Hélčne’s Irish, too. It’s frightfully funny her calling herself Hélčne, and de Lara; because of course she was just Ellen O’Brien, and she married a horrid little scallywag called Con Larrigan, and they went abroad and made some money somehow. And she came back de Lara, and she says Con’s dead. And Emily says it’s lucky for her he is. Emily’s frightfully funny about the whole thing, and any other time I might have cried my eyes out and she wouldn’t have let me go and stay with Hélčne.”

“How long is she going to be away?” said Hugo quickly.

“Why?”

“Because you oughtn’t to be here---I don’t like your being here.”

“You said that just like James. James doesn’t like my being here at all---James disapproves of Hélčne very much. He did quite a lot of disapproving yesterday---he disapproved about me, and about Hélčne, and about Emily going off to her uncle. James thought she ought to let Uncle Richard change his will and stay at home to chaperone me whilst he was being frightfully moral and high-minded and forgiving about my escapade---that’s what he called it, you know, escapahd. It sounds dreadfully snoopy that way. I felt quite sorry for James, because I know he’d planned a whole week-end of forgiving me and overlooking my escapahd, and it was simply snatched away from him. I think he meant to lecture me on Saturday and forgive me on Sunday and finish up with a nice magnanimous proposal after supper, when Andrew and Emily always go to sleep.”

“Loveday, do stop talking nonsense! When does your cousin Emily come home?”

“Well, as a rule she gets wired for one day, and the next day Uncle Richard tells her he’s dying every five minutes and wants someone to telephone for his solicitor about three times an hour, and the day after, he begins to get bored with Emily, and he says he doesn’t think he’s going to die this time. So I think she’ll be back on Monday. She always comes back very cross, because Uncle Richard’s housemaid gives her a lukewarm hot-water bottle and doesn’t screw the top on tight.”

“I don’t like your being here,” said Hugo gloomily.

“Fuss!” said Loveday. “I’m frightfully glad I’m here, and you ought to be frightfully glad too, because if I wasn’t here, you couldn’t---but perhaps you don’t want to.”

Hugo kissed her, but only once.

“I’ve got to get you into the house,” he said.

“I don’t want to go in a bit. You are like James, you know.”

“You’ve got to go in. We shall have to see if we can open a window.”

Loveday followed him meekly. She didn’t in the least want to go in; she wanted to stay out in the moonlight, and be made love to, but when Hugo said “You’ve got to go in,” she heaved a resigned sigh and followed him. She had a dreadful suspicion that Hugo would always make her do what he wanted.

They crossed the terrace and tried the sitting-room window very gently. The room was dark and the door bolted. Hugo began to be very seriously disturbed. If they couldn’t get in---they must get in. They tried other windows, and found them all fastened.

“I shall have to go in with the milk,” said Loveday in an almost soundless whisper that yet contrived to be gay. “I am glad I came out.”

“What made you come?”

“I was looking out of my window, and I saw Hélčne run down the steps---at least I thought it was Hélčne. And I went to her room, and she wasn’t there. And I went down to her little sitting-room, and the door was open, so I came out to look for her.”

They had reached the back premises. A row of windows looked into a paved courtyard. Hugo fished out a pocket-knife and, standing in the shadow, managed to move the catch of one of them. He opened the window softly inch by inch and found himself looking in upon a scullery sink. Loveday had to climb over it.

She dropped lightly down and whisked round with a smothered laugh.

“I hope Hélčne doesn’t keep black beetles---I do hate them!”

It was not a romantic place for a lovers’ parting; but as they leaned together across the sink and kissed, romance was there. Loveday clung to him.

“You haven’t said you loved me---not once.”

“That’s because I do love you. You mustn’t stop.”

Loveday’s clasp relaxed; she began to draw back. And then she was holding him tighter than ever.

“Hugo, I’m sure there are black beetles!”

“Nonsense!”

“I heard one---rustle. I’m sure I did.”

“Nonsense!”

“It isn’t. Hugo, it’s so dark---and if I stepped on a black beetle and it squelched----”

Hugo detached her fingers---they were very cold. He heard a little sob in the dark.

“Darling, don’t be a goose!”

“I do hate the dark and---and places where there isn’t anyone, but you feel there might be.”

“There won’t be.”

“There wouldn’t be if it was you, but there might be when it’s me. It’s---it’s a long way up to my room in the dark. Couldn’t you---couldn’t you just come part of the way?”

“No,” said Hugo firmly, “I couldn’t. You’re being s-silly.” He gave her a little shake, kissed her again, and pushed her away. “Shut the latch your side, and when you get up to your room open the curtains and look out. I’ll wait till I see you.”

The window shut between them. He heard her latch it and went cautiously back to the terrace. He had to keep close to the house now, for the moon was clear of the roof, and the path, the steps, and half the terrace were in moonlight. He waited a minute or two, and then ran for the steps and got behind one of the yew pyramids. From there he watched Loveday’s window until the curtains moved. She looked out with the light behind her and kissed her hand.

Hugo took the path under the trees.

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