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Chapter Twenty-Six

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« on: June 12, 2023, 08:34:54 am »

“DO you like looking at photographs, Mr. Hacker?” said Loveday.

“Not especially.”

“I thought you didn’t.” She shut the album with a snap. “I think it’s one of the most boring things in the world---so now we needn’t do it any more. Why don’t you go and talk to Hélène and let Mr. Ross come and talk to me?”

“I didn’t know you knew him,” said Hacker.

“I didn’t say I knew him. He looks nice.” She began to get up. “Let’s go over to the fire.”

Hacker pulled himself together. It was his business to keep Loveday from talking to Hugo. He said,

“I believe you do know Ross all the same. Where did you meet him?”

Loveday hesitated.

“Well---I don’t know. I didn’t say I had met him.”

“But you have.”

“Oh---well----”

“Is it a secret?”

“Yes, it is. No, I don’t mean that. I can’t think why you should think I know him.”

“Well, you jumped when he was introduced to you.”

“Did I?” Her eyes opened very wide.

“Yes, you certainly did.”

“How clever of you to notice! It was only---only---well, I did know his name.”

“Did you? I say, this is getting exciting!”

Loveday pursed up her lips.

“It isn’t really.”

“You knew his name, but you didn’t know him by sight.”

Her eyes opened still wider.

“How frightfully clever of you! How did you know?”

“Well, I was looking at you, and you didn’t jump until you heard his name.”

“How frightfully clever! Why were you looking at me?”

“Because you’re rather nice to look at.” He said it with the ease born of considerable practice.

Loveday’s finger-tips pricked and tingled. It was not only Hugo who wished to box the ears of the person he was talking to. Her colour rose.

“I’m not the only person who’s told you that, I’m sure,” continued Mr. Hacker.

Loveday got up and walked over to the fire. The orange cat lay curled up on the hottest part of the hearth-rug. She knelt down and began to pull its whiskers. The cat woke up and sneezed. Hugo turned round to look, and Loveday addressed him.

“His name is Pif-paf-pouf. Isn’t he beautiful?”

Mr. Hacker had apparently ceased to exist.

It was at this moment that the butler came in. He approached Mme. de Lara and said in a low voice,

“Miss Dumaresq is on the telephone.”

“Ask her to give you a message.”

He hesitated.

“Miss Dumaresq hoped you would be able to come for a moment.”

Mme. de Lara jumped up.

“Why does one have a telephone?” she said, and ran out of the room.

Mr. Hacker strolled across to the fire. He frowned absently for a moment at Loveday on her knees beside the orange cat. Then, with the air of a man who has suddenly remembered something, he went quickly out of the room and shut the door. Hugo and Loveday were left alone, and Loveday opened her mouth to speak.

It was a most horrible moment, because Hugo was quite sure that they were not really alone; he was quite sure that they would never have been left alone; the telephone message and Hacker’s departure were according to plan; they were being watched and tested.

Hugo did not think these things one after another; there was a sort of mental flash, and he just saw them. The flash did not take up an instant of time. He saw Loveday opening her lips to speak, and he knew that if she said so much as a single word, if she even said “Hugo,” he would have failed, utterly and miserably. He could not warn her; she was going to speak---she was speaking.

She said, “Isn’t Pif-paf-pouf a nice name?”

“V-v-very nice,” said Hugo.

“Are you Mr. Minstrel’s secretary?” said Loveday.

“Yes, I am.”

“Do you like it?”

“V-v-very much.”

Loveday looked down because she was afraid she would laugh if she went on looking at Hugo; he looked so embarrassed, and he sat on the edge of Hélène’s comfortable sofa as if it had been a hard wooden bench. It was very funny. She wondered how long they would have to make silly remarks to each other, and she thought how awful it would be if she got the giggles. She tickled Pif-paf-pouf under the chin and said in a fluttered voice,

“Do you really like it?”

“Yes, v-very much.”

Loveday said “Oh!” and took a plunge: “Oh, Mr. Ross---there’s something I want to say.”

“Is there?”

“Yes---I think I ought to---but I don’t know---perhaps----” She hesitated, and before she could say another word the door opened and Mme. de Lara came in a little out of breath.

“I knew it wouldn’t be anything,” she said in a vexed voice. “Marie Dumaresq is the limit, and every time she makes a mystery and drags me to the telephone I swear I’ll not be taken in again. Would you believe what she wanted? An address that I’ve given her one dozen times already! She tires me!” She gave the cushion with the silver roses an angry pat. “Where’s James? Still sulking?”

Mr. Hacker appeared as if this had been his cue---perhaps it was. He came over to the group by the fire, and seemed to have recovered his temper.

Mme. de Lara looked at him teasingly.

“Have you thought of something to say? It’s half an hour since you said anything, I believe.”

“As bad as that? How dull of me! I’ve really got rather a lot on my mind just now, if that’s any excuse. I shall be glad when Minstrel’s got rid of this job.” He laughed a little. “You think I’m bad-tempered---but you should see him. The fact is, after innumerable delays the Ministry have pinned him down, and he’s sworn to hand over the plans and specifications to-morrow. They’re sending a man down, and Minstrel’s like a volcano in consequence—he does hate parting. You’d think he’d be glad to be rid of the whole thing---I know I shall be. It’s a most infernal responsibility having the plans of a thing like that knocking about. He’s so dashed careless too---as often as not he forgets to lock the safe, and when he does lock it, he leaves the keys lying about.”

Hélène laughed airily.

“Well, it’s safe enough. No one’s going to steal his old plans.”

Hacker frowned.

“Aren’t they? Do you realize that they’re worth fifty thousand pounds? Fifty?” He laughed. “They’re worth a hundred or a thousand times that if you work it out in terms of cities. What’s the City of London worth?” He laughed again.

Hélène lifted her eyebrows.

“What are you talking about, my friend?”

“L.S.D.,” said Hacker---“and Minstrel’s infernal carelessness. I shall sleep a good deal better when the Ministry has got those plans in their own official safe, and that’s a fact.”

Hugo found this very interesting. He began by wondering why Hacker’s tongue had suddenly loosened; and then he decided that this also was according to plan. If it were to appear that Hugo Ross had sold the plans, it might be useful to be able to prove that Hugo Ross had knowledge of certain things---as that the plans were carelessly kept, and that they were due to be handed over to-morrow. He wondered when he was going to be afforded an opportunity of becoming a criminal.

He continued to sit on the edge of the sofa and to look very shy.

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