Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 10

To Bombaccio, the first intimation that something had gone wrong in the house party of Terragena was brought by Miss Puppy Clarges. He had been putting out the English papers on the hall table and touching and patting the inkpots and pens and blotting-pads on the writing-tables in the southern recess of the hall and meditating on the just position of the various waste-paper baskets, and blessing and confirming all such minor amenities, when she came in. He wore a diamond ring, not one with an exceptional diamond like Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan’s, but just a diamond ring, and as he did things he exercised himself in a rather nice attitude with the hand upheld, that Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan affected. It seemed to Bombaccio a desirable attitude. She came in from the terrace towards the sea while he was posed in this way. She gave his hand a passing unintelligent glance and spoke brusquely. “Bombaccio,” she said, “I have to clear out at once. I’ve had a telegram that my half-sister in Nice is very ill.”

“But,” said Bombaccio. “I did not know the Signorina had had a telegram.”

“Nor anyone else. Wonderful how it got to me; isn’t it? But it did — and don’t you forget it. Don’t you give way to any weakening on that point. I’ve had a telegram that my half-sister in Nice is very ill and now I’ve told you — you know I’ve had it.”

Bombaccio bowed with grave submission.

“Off I go to pack and down I come to go. What car, Bombaccio?”

“I’ll ask Mrs. Rylands.”

“Don’t. Just get me that old Fiat in the village and I’ll clatter down to the station at Mentone right away. As soon as poss. It’s a case of life and death.”

“The next train for Nice,” reflected Bombaccio, “does not depart ——”

“Don’t go into figures,” said Miss Clarges. “Telephone and get that auto now.”

She reflected, knuckle to lip. “Wait a moment,” she said. “I’ll write a note — two notes.”

She went to a writing-table, placed a sheet before her, chose a pen and meditated briefly. Bombaccio waited. Then her pen flew. One note she addressed to her hostess. It was a note of exceptional brevity and it was unsigned. ”Sorry,” wrote Miss Clarges. ”I’m gone and I won’t worry you again.

“Sorry I got caught,” Miss Clarges remarked to herself, and licked the envelope. ”Fools we were.”

Then she directed a more elaborate epistle to Mr. Geoffry Rylands. ”Dear Geoff,” she scribbled. ”That Limitless Field Preacher has got on my nerves. Another meal of talk with him and Mr. Pantaloon Buchan and I shall scream. I’ve fled to the Superba at Dear Old Monty. Where my friends can find me, bless ’em. A rividerci, Puppy.

That got its swift lick also and a whack to stick it down.

“Here’s the documents!” she said.

Bombaccio was left developing a series of bows and gestures to express that all things in the world would be as the Signorina wished, while Miss Puppy vanished upstairs. Then he went slowly and thoughtfully to the telephone.

But he did not telephone. He hated the man who owned the old Fiat and there were two cars in the garage. One of them was booked for Monte Carlo after lunch, but that was no reason why Signorina Clarges should not have the other. In the well-known Terragena car she’d go through the French douane like a bird; in the hired car she wouldn’t. He would consult Signora Rylands. Or Signor Rylands.

And on reflection it became more and more distinctly unusual that a guest should depart in this fashion without some intimation from either host or hostess. There was something wrong in that. The fact of Signorina Clarges’ swift passage upstairs, originally a bare fact, became encrusted with interrogations; the brow of Bombaccio was troubled. She was giving all the orders. What should a perfect major-domo do?

Signora Rylands, he believed, was still in bed and inaccessible. Signor Rylands? Signor Rylands? But ——? Consider ——? He had gone off with Signorina Clarges to swim. Yes. Something must have happened. Where was Mr. Rylands now? Why was he not ordering the car for the Signorina Clarges? Had he by any chance insulted her — and was she departing insulted?

But then, was it possible to insult the Signorina Clarges?

Perhaps the best thing would be to consult Frant, Mrs. Rylands’ maid, a stupid English person who mistook secretiveness for discretion, but still the only possible source of indications just at present. . . .

These questionings were abruptly interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan coming through the front hall, with the vague, prowling air of a guest who has found nothing to do with his morning. He was wearing a new suit of tussore silk and wasting much neatness upon solitude. The wave in his hair was in perfect condition.

He brightened at the sight of Bombaccio. ”Dove e tutto?“ he asked. He liked to address every man in his own language, as a good European should, and this was his way of saying “Where’s everybody?”

Bombaccio replied with the most carefully perfect English intonation, “Colonel Bullace, Saire, is at the tennis.”

E l’altri?

Bombaccio expressed extreme dispersal by an expansive gesture and disowned special knowledge by a deprecatory smile. “Others are at the tennis,” he said.

“Lady Catherine?” asked Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, trying to be quite casual in his tone.

“She loves the garden!” said Bombaccio and began a respectful retreat.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan hovered vaguely for a moment and then turned his face towards the front entrance. Abruptly the retreat of Bombaccio was accelerated and Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan looking round for a cause, became aware of Miss Clarges, clothed now with unusual decorum, at the bend of the staircase.

“How about that car, Bombaccio?” cried Miss Clarges.

Bombaccio, not hearing with all his might, disappeared, and the door that led to the domestic mysteries clicked behind him. “Damn!” said Miss Clarges. “Hullo, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan!”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan moved to show that he was hullo all right.

“I’ve got a half-sister dangerously ill — in Monaco, and I want a car. I’m all packed up and ready to go. Leastways I shall be in ten minutes.”

“Can I be of any assistance?” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan unhelpfully.

“Naturally,” said Miss Puppy. “I want some sort of car got and some of the minions to carry my bags up to the gates. Everyone seems to be out of the way.”

“Anything I can do,” said Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, looking entirely ornamental.

“If you’d just warm Bombaccio’s ear a bit,” said Miss Clarges. “What’s wanted is movement. Getting a move on.”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan felt the reproach in her tone. “I will stir things up. I do hope your half-sister ——”

But Puppy had vanished upstairs again.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan reflected. He would go to the bell and ring and when somebody came he would say in a gentle masterful way: ”La Signorina Clarges e nervosa da la sua automobiglia. Prega de l’accelerato prestissimo.

But he would have much preferred to have gone on straight into the garden to look for Lady Catherine. He felt they went better together.

He found some difficulty in putting matters right with the minion who responded to his ring. The fellow did not seem to understand his own language and evidently missed the purport of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan’s communication altogether. He seemed to think Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was complaining of the manner in which Mrs. Rylands’ English chauffeur discharged his duties and expressed himself, with some vivid and entertaining pantomime, as being in the completest agreement. He repeated the expression “molto periculoso” several times with empressement. Now the Italian driver was a model of discretion. Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was still trying, without too complete an admission of a linguistic breakdown, to mould the conversation nearer to Miss Clarges’ heart’s desire, when Lady Catherine appeared in the low oblong blaze of sunshine beyond the dark pillars of the portico. He dismissed the minion with a gesture and walked forward to meet her.

The hall behind him was left for a moment in silence and shadow, and then its ceiling and central parts resonated to the rich voice of Miss Clarges. “What the hell?” the voice of Miss Clarges inquired, passionately but incompletely, and her door slammed. She must have been listening on the landing. A few moments later, the muffled wheeze of a distant electric bell was audible from the servants’ quarters, a bell that kept on ringing persistently. Miss Clarges was ringing.

Before Lady Catherine became aware of Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan in the dim coolness of the entrance, her face betrayed a certain perturbation and she was hurrying. At the sight of him, she slackened her gait and became a sauntering queen, ruddy in the halo of the green umbrella.

“So hot,” she said, chin up and smiling. “Too hot! I’m coming in to write letters. Are you for Monte Carlo this afternoon?”

“In this blaze?” he doubted and shrugged his shoulders.

She hovered over him for a moment, not quite sure what to do with him.

“Lucky man!” she said. “You’ve got nothing to do but read the English papers and keep cool.”

She made her way round him to the staircase, smiling him down.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan was left in the silent hall. He went to the table on the terrace side where the freshly-opened newspapers were displayed. He threw them about almost petulantly. He felt he had never seen less attractive newspapers. Even the head-lines of the Daily Express seemed dull. He sat down at last to The Times, to learn who had died and who had gone abroad.

Then came an interruption of Geoffry, very hot, moist and open-necked, in search of Bombaccio and drinks and ice for the tennis court. At his appearance on the terrace Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan shrank deeper into his arm-chair beside the pillar.

“Hullo!” said Geoffry. “Papers come?”

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan made a gesture of his newspaper to express anything Geoffry liked except an inclination to talk, and Geoffry passed on. He came back presently, followed by Bombaccio with a jingling tray and passed across the terrace and down the marble steps towards the tennis court. Then after a large interval of silence, came footsteps on the staircase. He turned hopefully and saw Miss Clarges in travelling dress. He stood up in spite of a faint disappointment. At any rate she was going.

“I’m off,” she said. “No chance of saying ta-ta all round. You’ll have to do it for me.”

“I hope it’s all right about the automobile.”

“God knows,” she said. “I’m going up the garden after my bags to see. Have to fuss round up there if it isn’t. Extraordinary they don’t bring a motor road right down to the house. Sacrificing comfort to gardening, I call it.”

She smiled conventionally and turned towards the entrance. Then she stopped short and became rigid. She had seen something outside there that as yet Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan could not see. ”Glory!“ she gasped.

She had forgotten Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan for an instant. Then she turned to him and saw his inquiring face. “I’ve left something in my room,” she explained, and turned tail and fled upstairs. The next moment the feet of two people became visible and then the all of them in the sunlit space uphill beyond the portico. Mrs. Rylands was approaching, and she walked like a woman in a trance and beside her in silence, looking very large and awkward and uncomfortable, was Mr. Sempack. Before the entrance, they parted without a word; Mr. Sempack stood irresolute and Mrs. Rylands came on in.

She did not seem to see Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan standing still beside the newspaper table.

She walked to the staircase and then, after a momentary pause, made her way up it, helping herself with a hand upon the banister.

For some seconds Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan remained lost in thought, and then, still thinking, he seated himself upon the newspaper table. Presently Miss Clarges appeared descending the staircase with an unwonted softness. She looked as though she might say almost anything to Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, but what she did say simply and almost confidentially was, “So long.” Then she went out into the sun-glare and vanished up the hill towards the gates upon the road.

Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan shook his head slowly from side to side, disapprovingly, took counsel with his diamond ring, struggled off the table, and made his way, still thinking deeply, to his own room in the turret.

He paced his floor obliquely. It had become plain to him what had happened.

He was glad to have a little time to himself to consider the situation before facing the world. What exactly ought a fine-minded, thoroughly Europeanised American gentleman to do? Not simply that. He was really fond of his hostess. Fond enough to put his pose into a secondary place. What could he do for her?

The turret room had four windows that looked east and west and north and south and as Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan paced up and down from corner to corner, he would ever and again lift his downcast eyes, first to this pretty sunlit picture and then to that. And presently he became aware of something white, minute in perspective, something moving, far off, among the red sun-scorched rocks of the headlands to the west that came out like a scenery wing to frame the distant view of Mentone. He took a pocket monocular that lay upon his toilet table out of its case, focused it and scrutinised this distant object. It was a man in flannels scrambling along a little precipitous path that led round the cape. He moved with every symptom of haste and irritation. He slipped and recovered himself, and stood still for a moment in profile looking up at the shiny rocks, with an expression of reproachful inquiry. Unmistakably it was Philip Rylands.

He was making off. To nowhere in particular.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30