The slave of the lamp, p.19
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       The Slave of the Lamp, p.19

          
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  CHAPTER XVII

  A RETREAT

  It was quite early the next morning when the Vicomte d'Audierne lefthis room. As he walked along the still corridor and down the stairs itwas noticeable that he made absolutely no sound, without, however,indulging in any of those contortions which are peculiar to latearrivals in church. It would seem that Nature had for purposes of herown made his footfall noiseless--if, by the way, Nature can be creditedwith any purpose whatever in her allotment of human gifts and failings.

  In the hall he found a stout cook armed for assault upon the front-doorstep.

  "Good morning," he said. "Can you tell me the breakfast-hour? I forgotto inquire last night."

  "Nine o'clock, sir," replied the servant, rather taken aback at thethought of having this visitor dependent upon her for entertainmentduring the next hour and a half.

  "Ah--and it is not yet eight. Never mind. I will go into the garden. Iam fond of fruit before breakfast."

  He took his hat and lounged away towards the kitchen-garden which laynear the moat.

  "And now," he said to himself, looking round him in a searching way,"where is this pestilential village?"

  The way was not hard to find, and as the church clock struck eight theVicomte d'Audierne opened the little green gate of the cottage whereSignor Bruno was lodging.

  The old gentleman must have been watching for him; for he opened thedoor before the Vicomte reached it.

  He turned and led the way into a little room on the right hand of thenarrow passage. A little room intensely typical: china dogs, knittedantimacassars of a brilliant tendency, and horse-hair covered furniture.There was even the usual stuffy odour as if the windows, half-hiddenbehind muslin curtains and scarlet geraniums, were never opened from oneyear's end to another.

  Signor Bruno closed the door before speaking. Then he turned upon hiscompanion with something very like fury glittering in his eyes.

  "Why did you not come last night?" he asked. "I am left alone to contendagainst one difficulty on the top of another. Read that!"

  He drew from his pocket a thin and somewhat crumpled sheet of paper,upon which there were two columns of printed matter.

  "That," he said, "cost us two thousand francs." The Vicomte d'Audierneread the printed matter carefully from beginning to end. He hadapproached the window because the light was bad, and when he finished helooked up for a few minutes, out of the little casement, upon the quietvillage scene.

  "The _Beacon_," he said, turning round, "what is that?"

  "A leading weekly newspaper."

  "Published--?

  "To-day," snapped Signor Bruno.

  The Vicomte d'Audierne made a little grimace.

  "Who wrote this?" he inquired.

  "Christian Vellacott, son of _the_ Vellacott, whom you knew in the olddays."

  "Ah!"

  There was something in the Vicomte's expressive voice that made SignorBruno look at him sharply with some apprehension.

  "Why do you say that?"

  The Vicomte countered with another question.

  "Who is this Mr. Bodery?"

  He gave a little jerk with his head in the direction of the house he hadjust left.

  "I do not know."

  "I was told last night that he was a friend of this ChristianVellacott--a protector."

  The two Frenchmen looked at each other in silence. Signor Bruno wasevidently alarmed--his lips were white and unsteady. There was a smileupon the bird-like face of the younger man, and behind his spectacleshis eyes glittered with an excitement in which there was obviously nofear.

  "Do you know," he asked in a disagreeably soft manner, "where ChristianVellacott is?"

  Across the benevolent old face of Signor Bruno here came a very evilsmile.

  "You will do better not to ask me that question," he replied, "unlessyou mean to run for it--as I do."

  The Vicomte d'Audierne looked at his companion in a curious way.

  "You had," he said, "at one time no rival as a man of action--"

  Signor Bruno shrugged his shoulders.

  "I am a man of action still."

  The Vicomte folded the proof-sheet carefully, handed it back to hiscompanion, and said:

  "Then I understand that--there will be no more of these very cleverarticles?"

  Bruno nodded his head.

  "I ask no questions," continued the other. "It is better so. I shallstay where I am for a few days, unless it grows too hot--unless I thinkit expedient to vanish."

  "You have courage?"

  "No; I have impertinence--that is all. There will be a storm--anewspaper storm. The embassies will be busy; in the English Parliamentsome pompous fool will ask a question, and be snubbed for his pains. Inthe _Chambre_ the newspaper men will rant and challenge each other inthe corridors; and it will blow over. In the meantime we have got whatwe want, and we can hide it till we have need of it. Your Reverence andI have met difficulties together before this one."

  But Signor Bruno was not inclined to fall in with these optimisticviews.

  "I am not so sure," he said, "that we have got what we want. There hasbeen no acknowledgment of receipt of the last parcel--in the usualway--the English _Standard_."

  "What was the last parcel?"

  "Fifty thousand cartridges."

  "But they were sent?"

  "Yes; they were despatched in the usual way; but, as I say, they havenot been acknowledged. There may have been some difficulty on the otherside. Our police are not so easy-going as these coastguard gentlemen."

  "Well," said the aristocrat, with that semi-bantering lightness ofmanner which sometimes aggravated, and always puzzled, his colleagues,"we will not give ourselves trouble over that: the matter is out of ourhands. Let us rather think of ourselves. Have you money?"

  "Yes--I have sufficient."

  "It is now eight o'clock--this newspaper--this precious _Beacon_ is nowcasting its light into some dark intellects in London. It will takethose intellects two hours to assimilate the information, and one morehour to proceed to action. You have, therefore, three hours in which tomake yourself scarce."

  "I have arranged that," replied the old man calmly. "There is a smallFrench potato-ship lying at Exmouth. In two hours I shall be one of hercrew."

  "That is well. And the others?"

  "The others left yesterday afternoon. They cross by this morning's boatfrom Southampton to Cherbourg. You see how much I have had to do."

  "I see also, my friend, how well you have done it."

  "And now," said Signor Bruno, ignoring the compliment, "I must go. Wewill walk away by the back garden across the fields. You must rememberthat you may have been seen coming here."

  "I have thought of that. One old man saw me, but he did not look at metwice. He will not know me again. And your landlady--where is she?"

  "I have sent her out on a fool's errand."

  As they spoke they left the little cottage by the back door, as SignorBruno had proposed, through the little garden, and across some low-lyingfields. Presently they parted, Signor Bruno turning to the left, whilethe Vicomte d'Audierne kept to the right.

  "We shall meet, I suppose," were the last words of the younger man, "inthe Rue St. Gingolphe?"

  "Yes--in the Rue St. Gingolphe."

  For so old a man the pace at which Signor Bruno breasted the hill thatlay before him was somewhat remarkable. The Vicomte d'Audierne, on theother hand, was evidently blessed with a greater leisure. He looked athis watch and strolled on through the dew-laden meadows, wrapt inthought as in a cloak that hid the sweet freshness of the floweryhedgerows, that muffled the broken song of the busy birds, that killedthe scent of ripening hay. Thus these two singular men parted--and ithappened that they were never to meet again. These little things _do_happen. We meet with gravity; we part with a smile; perhaps we make anappointment; possibly we speak of the pleasure that the meeting seems topromise: and the next meeting is put off; it belongs to the greatpostponement.

  Often we part with an indifferent nod, as these two men parted amidstthe sylvan peace of English meadow on that summer morning. They belongedto two different stations in life almost as far apart as two socialstations could be, even in a republic. They were not, in any sense ofthe word, friends; they were merely partners, intensely awake, aspartners usually are, to each other's shortcomings.

  The Vicomte d'Audierne probably thought no more of Signor Bruno from themoment that he raised his hat and turned. A few moments later histhoughts were evidently far away.

  "The son of Vellacott," he muttered, as he took a cigarette from a neatsilver case. "How strange! And yet I am sorry. He might have donesomething in the world. That article was clever--very clever--curse it!He cannot yet be thirty. But one would expect something from the son ofa man like Vellacott."

  It was not yet nine o'clock when the Vicomte entered the dining-room bythe open window. Only Hilda was there, and she was busy with the oldleather post-bag. Among the letters there were several newspapers, andthe Vicomte d'Audierne's expression underwent a slight change onperceiving them. His thin, mobile lips were closely pressed, and hischin--a very short one--was thrust forward. Behind the gentle spectacleshis eyes assumed for a moment that singular blinking look which cannotbe described in English, for it seemed to change their colour. In hiscountry it would have been called _glauque_.

  "Ah, Hilda!" he said, approaching slowly, "do I see newspapers? I love anewspaper!"

  She handed him the _Times_ enveloped in a yellow wrapper, upon which wasprinted her brother's name and address.

  "Ah," he said lightly, "the _Times_--estimable, but just a trifleopaque. Is that all?"

  His eyes were fixed upon two packets she held in her hand.

  "These are Mr. Bodery's," she replied, looking at him with someconcentration.

  "And what newspaper does Mr. Bodery read?" asked the Frenchman, holdingout his hand.

  She hesitated for a moment. His position with regard to her wassingular, his ascendency over her had never been tried. It was anunknown quantity; but the Vicomte d'Audierne knew his own power.

  "Let me look, little girl," he said quietly in French.

  She handed him the newspapers, still watching his face.

  "The _Beacon_," he muttered, reading aloud from the ornamented wrapper,"a weekly journal."

  He threw the papers down and returned to the _Times_, which he unfolded.

  "Tell me, Hilda," he said, "is Mr. Bodery connected with this weeklyjournal, the _Beacon?_"

  Her back was turned towards him. She was hanging up the key of thepost-bag on a nail beside the fireplace.

  "Yes," she replied, without looking round.

  "Is he the editor?"

  "Yes."

  The Vicomte d'Audierne turned the _Times_ carelessly.

  "Ah!" he muttered, "the phylloxera has appeared again."

  For some time he appeared to be absorbed in this piece of news, then hespoke again.

  "I knew something of a man who writes for that newspaper--the _Beacon_.I knew his father very well."

  "Yes."

  The Vicomte glanced at her.

  "Christian Vellacott," he said.

  "We know him also," she answered, moving towards the bell. He made astep forward as if about to offer to ring the bell for her, but she wastoo quick.

  When the butler entered the room, Hilda reminded him of some smallomission in setting out the breakfast-table. The item required was inthe room, and the man set it upon the table with some decision and aslightly aggrieved cast of countenance.

  The Vicomte d'Audierne raised his eyes, and then he looked very grave.He was a singular man in many ways, but those who worked with him wereaware of one peculiarity which by its prominence cast others into theshade. He possessed a very useful gift rarely given to men--the gift ofintuition. It was dangerous to _think_ when the eyes of the Vicomted'Audierne were upon one's face. He had a knack of knowing one'sthoughts before they were even formulated. He looked grave--almostdistressed--on this occasion, because he knew something of which Hildaherself was ignorant. He knew that she was engaged to be married to oneman while she loved another.

 
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