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Chapter Thirty-Six

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« on: June 13, 2023, 11:41:56 am »

Hélène de Lara went back slowly to the house. Once she turned and stood as if she were listening. On the threshold of her room she waited for a long minute looking into the darkness.

Mr. Hacker spoke behind her from the lighted room.

“Hélène! What on earth are you doing? For Heaven’s sake, come in and shut the door!”

She came in then, but slowly. The lighted, scented room looked strange; she felt as if it was far away from her. She was still out there on the dark stage of the terrace, a broken-hearted woman sending her young lover away, perhaps for ever. Her face was tear-stained and her eyes tragic.

Ambrose Minstrel, with his back to the fire, cocked an eyebrow and pulled his beard. James Hacker, sitting carelessly on the sofa end, swung his legs and tried to look indifferent.

“A most effective scene!” said Minstrel. “Effective and affecting! I was touched to the quick. My compliments, Hélène!”

Hacker’s black eyebrows drew together.

“Well, he’s gone,” he said---“to the devil, I hope.”

“France will do,” said Ambrose Minstrel. “I hope he realizes what a vindictive person I am, and that the only way he can escape penal servitude is by putting the Channel between us without a moment’s delay. I don’t think he’s got much brain, but he’d better not have time to use what he’s got. I hope you bustled him, Hélène.”

Hélène threw back her head.

“He is gone. Is that not enough for you?”

“Come off it!” said Hacker roughly.

She turned on him with a sob.

“Is it not enough that I have done what I said I would do? What do you care how much it has cost me to do it? What does any man care so long as he has what he wants? I tell you I am sick of men and their ways. Oh yes---sick at heart and tired---so tired that I should like to sleep until the world has grown a kinder place for women.”

“Chuck it!” said Hacker. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Look here, Hélène, you make me sick when you gas like that. You’ve done your job---at least I hope you have. Is he going to France?”

Hélène nodded.

“Then that’s all right. I told you he’d stampede if you pitched it good and strong. Well, he’s off the map, and I think we’ll give him twelve hours’ start before we notify the police. We’ve left our telephone off the hook, so the respectable Green won’t be able to get at us to-night. Now are you going to feed us?”

“No,” said Hélène in a choked, passionate voice.

“I wish you would! I’m fed to the teeth with sardines and cocoa. Give us a decent meal for a change---just to celebrate the occasion.”

“The poor boy’s ruin and my broken heart---shall we celebrate that?” said Hélène de Lara.

The hand that was on her shoulder closed in a grip that made her cry out, and as the cry left her lips, the front door bell rang in a hurried violent peal which was immediately repeated.

Hacker’s grasp tightened for a moment. Then he jumped down and made a stride towards the door.

“Hullo! What’s that?”

“It seems to be the front door bell,” observed Minstrel. He appeared to derive considerable amusement from the obviously disturbed condition of his assistant’s mind. “Perhaps you would like to go and see who it is,” he added.

“I have a butler,” said Mme. de Lara.

Ambrose Minstrel laughed; and to the sound of his laughter the hall door opened, and at once there came voices, footsteps, the rattle of a handle, and the vehement entrance of Mr. Miller unannounced.

He banged the door behind him and stood up against it out of breath.

“Where is he? Where is he?”

“What is it?” said Ambrose Minstrel sharply.

Hacker was staring incredulously.

“What’s up? Speak, can’t you!”

Mr. Miller’s face was pale and glistening, his red hair rumpled; he seemed half choked with rage and hurry.

“Where is he?” he said, and lapsed into another language. He appeared to be cursing very fluently.

Hacker caught him by the arm.

“Here, what’s the good of that? What’s happened?”

Miller pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket and flung it furiously on to the floor.

“See what the dash, dash, dash, dash blank has given me! See how he has us fooled!”

What?” said Minstrel.

The one word carried so much violence that Mr. Miller with a gasp stopped swearing.

“He has us betrayed---bamboozled! He has the trick on us played, that cursed secretary of yours!”

What?” said Minstrel again.

He glared first at Miller, and then at the crumpled envelope. Two of his great strides brought him to the door.

“What’s this? What are you saying? Pick it up!” he said, and stirred the paper with his foot. “D’you hear what I say? Pick it up and give it to me properly! And don’t come using your filthy foreign oaths to me! Do you hear? Pick it up and speak with respect, or out you go! You’re not in your damned Leningrad now, Mr. Miller, and you’d do as well to remember it and mind your manners. Thank you---that’s better.”

He took the envelope with a certain lofty air, drew out the papers which it contained, unfolded them, glanced them rapidly over, and burst into savage laughter.

“He’s right! By gum, he’s right! Here, Hacker---here’s for you!”

He rolled the papers into a rough ball and tossed it to Hacker.

“Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest! It’s the old moral---‘Despise not thine enemy.’ We’ve been done, my dear Hacker---done brown by an innocent, lisping fool of a boy!”

Hacker was smoothing the papers out. He was darkly flushed, but his big hands were steady.

“What is it?” said Hélène de Lara. “What has happened---James?”

Hacker held out the envelope.

“Is this what you took from him at the inn?”

“Yes---it is.”

“Your envelope?” He addressed Minstrel.

“My envelope, Hacker---not my plans. Our young friend has most ingeniously extracted the plans. What you have there is rubbish.”

“He must have had it ready.” Hacker spoke in a dull, brooding voice. There was something alarming about his restraint. “How did he know?”

He took Hélène by the arm with violence.

“Did you tell him? Did you give us away? Because if you did----”

Hélène cried out, “I did not---oh, I did not! Ambrose---he is hurting me! James!”

“Let go of her!” said Minstrel contemptuously. He pulled his beard, frowning.

Miller looked from one to another. He was wiping his face with a dirty silk handkerchief.

“Where is he? And where are my plans?” he burst out. “I come here because at the hotel they tell me that he has gone away in your car, with your chauffeur. It was in that car he came---isn’t it? And in that car he go---and what is that? Is it your car---or what is it? What makes this? Where is he? Am I played false with? Do you betray me too? Do you give, and take away? It is your envelope, and not your plans---wasn’t they? It is your secretary that gives them, and that goes away in your car---haven’t he? And I ask, where are the plans and the young man? And you say---what do you say? I ask where is he---this cursed Ross? And where are my plans?”

“Dry up!” said Hacker.

He left Hélène and came to Minstrel’s side.

“Why did he come back?” he said.

Minstrel nodded. “You have some gleams of intelligence!” He rolled a red, baleful eye at Miller. “That chattering monkey appears to have run to tongue. Yes---you said; why did Ross come here? That’s it---why did he?”

“He came here?---he came back?” said Miller excitedly. “And why did he do so---and where are my plans?”

“Hold your tongue!” said Minstrel. “You’d better.” He dropped to a low confidential tone. “He changed the plans in the car---got the false ones off on Miller---and then he came back here. Great Jupiter! Why did he do that? Why didn’t he get away with the plans? He could have given Leonard the slip easily enough.”

He put out a gaunt, stained hand and beckoned Hélène.

“Come here! And mind you tell the truth. Stop acting if you can, and see if you can throw any light on this. Ross came here to you. Now tell the truth---why did he come?”

“Oh!” said Hélène. It was a sharp cry of protest.

“He followed you. Why did he follow you?”

An odd quivering smile broke the line of her lips.

“I think you’d better answer,” said Minstrel.

Hélène flung out her hands.

“Oh, you men!” she said. She looked at him through her eyelashes. “Have you never followed a woman, Ambrose?”

Minstrel showed his teeth in an ugly grin.

“You invited him here?”

She laughed.

“How dreadfully obvious! If you want to know, I played a little trick on him---when he was asleep at the inn. I took his flute, and I left a note to tell him that if he wanted it----” She smiled and looked down; her small foot tapped the floor.

“I see. And he came---for---his---flute----”

He stared across her at the table where the flute lay between the grinning china dogs—stared, then went over and picked the two halves up, one in each hand. He came back as he had gone, slowly. Then all at once, with an indescribable ferocity of manner,

“He came for his flute, did he? Then why did he go away without it? You little play-acting liar!”

“Ambrose!” It was a frightened gasp.

“Hélène!” There was a frightful mockery in voice and manner.

She put her hands to her face and shivered.

“Ambrose---don’t! James!” She took a step towards Hacker, but Minstrel’s long arm came out and plucked her back; the bony fingers clamped her wrist.

“Ambrose---it is true. I would be afraid to tell you anything that was not true---Ambrose.”

He gave his raucous laugh.

“Stick to that---you’ll find it safer. So you took his flute. Why?”

She spoke from behind her hands in a sobbing whisper.

“I wanted---him---to come---and get it.”

“A youthful idyll in fact! Strephon and Phyllis!” He pushed her to arm’s length, pulled down her hands roughly enough, and laughed again. “Phyllis! Great Jupiter---Phyllis! Well, you took the flute, and he came for it. He---came here---for his flute---at a moment when everything---everything depended on his getting clear away. He came---back here---for his flute.”

He had slipped the two halves into his left hand. He tossed them now into the air and saw them fall.

“I don’t think he came back for your beaux yeux, Hélène. He came back for his flute because---the plans were in the flute.”

“By gum!” said Hacker. The dark flush ran up to the roots of his hair. “By gum---you’re right!”

He caught up one of the halves and shook it.

“It’s empty---now,” said Minstrel. “The plans were in the flute, and we left him alone with it and helped him to get away.”

“What is this---what is this?” said Miller. “What is it that you say? What have he done?”

Hacker made a plunge at the door.

“He hasn’t gone far. If he’s made for the station, I’ll catch him with the car.”

“No!” said Hélène. “No, James---wait! You’re wrong. Listen! No---really. Oh, you must listen to me! I was here when he came in. He went straight to the flute, and he picked it up. And when he turned it in his hand, I could see into the halves of it, and they were empty.”

“You’re not making this up? You’d better not.” This was Minstrel with a rasp in his voice.

“No---it is true---really true. And besides----”

She hesitated.

“Besides? Go on!”

“Ambrose! How rough you are! I am telling you. Just before he came in, I was looking at the flute, you know. I put it together---I tried to play it. Then I took it apart again. There was nothing in it---really, except----”

“Except what?

“A little shred of paper dropped out---on to the table---oh, the smallest piece. I heard him coming and----”

Minstrel and Hacker were at the table. They spoke low to each other. Hacker moved the china dogs, went down on his hands and knees, searched the carpet, and found what Hugo had dropped---a shred of tracing paper. He got up, holding it out on his palm.

“The plans were there---the plans are gone. Will you swear the flute was empty when you handled it?”

“Yes, it was empty. It was empty before Hugo came in.”

“The plans were there. This is a piece of the paper. You brought the flute here, and then---what happened then?”

“I brought it in here. I put it on the table.”

“What is all this?” said Mr. Miller. “I cannot understand what happens. And where is Ross? That is what I ask---haven’t I? Where is that cursed Ross?”

Hacker went on without taking any notice.

“You put it on the table. Was anyone here?”

“Loveday! Oh!” said Hélène. She gave a little scream. “Oh!”

Minstrel and Hacker were close on either side of her. Miller made a sound, and then stopped because Minstrel jerked about and looked at him.

Loveday?” said Hacker. Then quickly, “Did you leave her alone? Could she have got the papers out?”

“I went to the telephone,” said Hélène.

“And left the flute?”

“Yes---I left it. How could I know?”

“Then she stole the plans.”

“Great Jupiter!” said Minstrel quite softly.

Hacker broke in again.

“Where is she?”

“Gone home---gone back to Ledlington---to Emily Brown.”

None of them had heard the door open. The sad-faced butler stood there looking apologetic.

“It is Mrs. Brown on the telephone, madame.”

“Mrs. Brown!” Hélène’s hand went to her throat.

“Yes, madame.” He stood there bowing.

Minstrel nodded, and Hélène de Lara went out quickly.

They heard her cross the hall, and then the door closed behind Antoine. Miller began to say something, and stopped. Hacker stood with the two halves of the flute in his hand; he turned them this way and that awkwardly. Minstrel jerked an impatient shoulder and, walking to the fire, thrust at it with his foot. The log fell over flaring, and a shower of sparks went up. Miller looked from Hacker to Minstrel, met a hot resentful stare, and shifted his gaze. The dirty handkerchief came out again. No one spoke until, with the sound of running feet, Hélène came back, opening the door with a push and slamming it behind her. Her eyes were really frightened.

“She’s gone!” she said.

“Gone?”

“Loveday---she’s gone!”

“Pull yourself together.”

“She’s gone!” said Hélène in a shaken voice.

“Emily says---they found her suitcase in the porch---nobody has seen her---she’s gone.”

“Then she did take the plans!” said Hacker with an oath.

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