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Chapter 31

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« on: March 15, 2023, 08:37:56 am »

ADRIENNE, the very smartest of French maids, in her neat black frock and white collar and cuffs, came swiftly but noiselessly across the great hall of Keynsham House in Grosvenor Square, as Rossiter was handing his coat and hat to a footman.

“Her ladyship is in her small sitting room, Sir Humphrey,” she announced. “May I take you there?”

Sir Humphrey nodded and followed his guide to a room cut off from the main reception apartments by a broad and heavily carpeted corridor. Louise welcomed him with a little cry of pleasure. She gave him her hands but her eyes watched his anxiously.

“So you have come to see me at last,” she said, as she led him to a comfortable chair, “and I am not feeling at all flattered.”

“Why not?” he asked. “I am a very busy man.”

“I know that,” she answered, “but I feel that you have only come because you want something.”

“Quite right,” he assented. “I do.”

She sank into a chair by his side.

“I hear that terrible things keep on happening,” she said sadly.

“Inexplicable things,” her visitor admitted. “However, my friends at Scotland Yard assure me that we are within sight of the end now.”

“Is it true,” she asked, “that the detective who has been doing so well was shot the other night at your house?”

Sir Humphrey stroked his chin and looked at her thoughtfully.

“How did you hear that?”

“No questions, please,” she begged. “Just tell me whether it is true?”

“He was shot, all right,” Sir Humphrey confessed, “but he had a remarkable stroke of luck. He crouched down when he realised what was happening, and he merely got a flesh wound on the top of the shoulder.”

“Oh, I am glad,” she declared, with an only half-stifled sob of relief.

“So am I,” Rossiter agreed. “The fellow meant murder, right enough, but as it happens Pank is not seriously hurt. He wouldn’t even stay in hospital. He is at the Yard again to-day. Now, shall I tell you what I came for?”

“Don’t hurry,” she pleaded. “It’s such a relief to have you here to talk to, and perhaps you will want to go away as soon as you have told me.”

He took her hand with an instinctively protective gesture.

“Louise, my dear,” he said, “don’t ever forget that I am your friend.”

“It’s a comfort to hear you say that,” she acknowledged, smiling at him. “At one time I used to believe it. Lately, well, of course, since these terrible things have been happening, one knows nothing. I have tried so hard, but what can one do?”

Her eyes had wandered away from him and he found himself studying her profile. She was leaning forward, gazing absently into the fire, beautiful in a new and remote sort of way, with her colourless complexion and her deep beringed blue eyes. He felt an added dislike for his errand, or rather the cause of it, when he saw their sudden bedimming, the slow forming of tears.

“I have been so sorry for you, Humphrey, and so worried---more than worried. I have been distracted.”

“My dear child----” he began.

“Leave off calling me ‘your dear child’,” she cried, swinging around in her chair. “Why do you always assume a great bridge of years between us? I know how old you are---you are forty; I am twenty-five. Surely that difference does not entitle you to address me paternally.”

“How shall I address you?” he asked, a little taken aback.

“Anyhow, so long as you are not so utterly repressive,” she went on passionately. “I am not a child in years, outlook or habit. Lately I have begun to feel positively elderly. I seem to be surrounded by most alarming things and every one leaves me out of their confidence. You have at last come to see me, it is true, and that would make me very happy except that I know that you want something.”

“I’m afraid that is so,” he admitted. “I do want something, Louise. I want you to tell me where your brother has disappeared to again.”

“I thought so,” she sighed.

She sat for a moment nervously twisting and untwisting her fingers. Rossiter took one of her hands in his and held it tightly.

“Louise,” he said, “I don’t, I can’t, believe that there is not some explanation for Edward’s extraordinary behaviour lately, but we have come to the point when we must face one fact. Edward is definitely concerned in these recent disgraceful happenings. He was concerned in the first assault upon me after I left your house, for which I shall find it hard ever to forgive him. He was concerned---benevolently concerned, I honestly believe---in the temporary retirement from the limelight of Mrs. Brandt and myself, and he is concerned also in this rigid determination on the part of a little company of men---who at any rate have murderers within their ranks---who are demanding possession of the key sent to me by Cecil Brandt before he was hung. You may not understand all this, but you must understand this main thing---Edward is involved with this company of brutes. The time has come when Scotland Yard is bound to take note of the fact. I daresay you’ve heard that they have been here to enquire for him. I have stopped their issuing a warrant, but only on condition that he appears and submits himself to examination. I have come to ask you where he is.”

“Thank God, I don’t know,” she declared fervently.

Sir Humphrey was silent for a moment.

“You have no idea?”

“Yes, I have an idea,” she admitted. “I think he flew back to France in the plane he keeps at Keynsham, last Monday. I expect him home almost at once. I’m sure that he is coming back.”

“Well, that’s something, at any rate,” Sir Humphrey muttered.

“He went back to France full of determination,” Louise continued. “And here is some more news for you. He has promised that on his return he will tell me everything. I told him that I could not bear the thought that he was planning evil things against one of my dearest friends---that I should go away, unless he told me what it all meant. He assured me that his one desire, the one thing he was working for all the time, was to save you.”

“To save me from what?” Sir Humphrey demanded. “Whom have I offended? Where have I done ill in the world?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t know a single thing,” she sobbed.

“Somewhere in France,” Rossiter mused. “Bordeaux way, I suppose, if there was any truth in what Topps told us. Scotland Yard could find him, of course, but they could do no good without a warrant.”

“Don’t let them issue a warrant,” she implored. “I know that Edward has gone to make the effort of his life. Give him the chance! Nothing has happened for the last few days, has it?”

“Nothing at all,” Sir Humphrey acknowledged.

“The papers this morning,” she went on eagerly. “One or two said such nice things about your speech last night. One of them said what a relief it was to every one to have you back in harness and your old self again.”

Rossiter smiled grimly.

“I recognise the official note there,” he remarked. “They want to make sure that I’m not playing any more pranks.”

“Oh, you are not,” she declared vigorously. “Humphrey,” she added, springing to her feet, “I am perfectly certain of one thing---Edward means at all risks to break up this business. He can do it better than the police, whatever it is. Those are his own words.”

“Louise, my dear,” he begged, “can’t you stop, or at any rate appease, this furious curiosity which is really eating up my brain? Tell me what on earth the affair is which he’s going to break up. Where do I come in?”

“I believe I have guessed,” she confessed, “but I’m not going to tell you. Don’t ask me, Humphrey. I might spoil everything. You might look at the thing the wrong way, and the trouble then would be worse than ever. Edward will be back this week, I am sure of that. Something will happen then. You admit that things are quite quiet now: wait a few more days.”

A servant entered with a tea tray—perhaps to both of them a somewhat welcome interruption. Sir Humphrey ate muffins, drank rare China tea with an appreciative air, and talked of lighter subjects. Just as the inevitable resumption of their discussion seemed imminent, Adrienne made quiet entrance. She carried a telegram upon a small salver and presented it to Lady Louise, who waved her away.

“I will send a reply if there is one,” the former said.

Louise opened the despatch after a glance at Sir Humphrey, read it eagerly, then passed the form to him. It was handed in at a small town somewhere in the southwest of France.

Please do your utmost induce Humphrey take no action of any sort until Monday. I undertake if alive to present myself in London on that day. Love---Edward.

“ ‘Take no action of any sort’,” Humphrey repeated thoughtfully. “I suppose he means he doesn’t want me to use the key.”

She shook her head.

“I know nothing about that,” she said, “but I do believe in Edward and I know that he is desperately in earnest. Please do as he asks, Humphrey.”

She came to him appealingly. He took her into his arms, smoothed her hair for a moment and kissed her on both checks.

“Hideously paternal,” she complained.

“A shy man,” he replied, “must have a beginning. I will wait. I had better go down to the Yard from here.”

She lit his cigarette, linked her arm through his and led him down the corridors and across the hall to the front steps, below which his car was waiting. The servants fell discreetly back. They stood there for a moment, the fresh south wind carrying a drizzle of rain blowing in their faces.

“There’s a lump in my throat, Humphrey, and I can’t talk,” she said. “I only pray that waiting won’t mean trouble for you officially.”

He smiled, bent over her fingers and kissed them.

“My dear,” he said, as he turned away, “I am not at all sure that I am a very good Home Secretary.”

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