Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 18

The temperament and training alike of Mrs. Rylands disposed her to shirk this startling charge that fate had thrust upon her. Never in all her life before had she been in a position in which she could not turn to someone else to relieve her of danger or inconvenience. Her disposition now was to summon Bombaccio and the servants, tell them to order the Fascists out of the garden and take Signor Vinciguerra, give him refreshments, make him comfortable for the night and send him over the frontier in safety by the accepted route for fugitives, whatever that route happened to be, to-morrow. She realised the absurdity of this even as it came into her consciousness. She had no knowledge of Bombaccio’s political views and still less of his susceptibility and the susceptibility of his minions to the Terror. This time she couldn’t call upon Bombaccio. Even if he proved willing to help, it would not she perceived be fair to him to make him a party to the adventure. He and the rest of the Casa Terragena household were in Italy and had to go on living in Italy under a Fascist government. She was, the fact came up to her quite startlingly, doing something against the government under which she was living. For the first time in her life, the powers of social order and control would not be on her side.

The way of the lady, born safe and invincibly assured, would not do here. She who had always been quietly and surely respected and authoritative!

And if Casa Terragena was caught out at so directly an anti-Fascist exploit as this, what would be its worth to the Rylands family for the next few years?

Startling to think that the proper course before her, consistent with all the rest of her life, consistent with the lives of all the respectable people in the world, would be to go in and go to bed and just leave that frightened man in the hole to his fate, his probably highly disagreeable fate.

This thing was no mere adventure. It was a challenge, the supreme challenge of her life. She must risk herself, risk her home, risk failure and humiliating discovery. If she saved or did her utmost to save this man, she broke with limitations that had restricted and protected all her life thus far.

She clenched her hands together very tightly, for her fibre was nervous timid stuff. Then for an instant, one brief instant, her sense of her God who had been so near a quarter of an hour ago, returned to her. Wordlessly, in a breathing moment she prayed. She stepped across the boundary and transcended State and government.

“We must save that man,” she said.

No moral doubts about Mrs. McManus. “I’m thinking how. It’s no light matter, M’am.”

Mrs. Rylands stood up, with her heart beating fast and her head quite clear. She looked towards the house.

“I don’t think they will come back by this path. They believed us that there is no one this way. They will take the way by the lily pond to the bridge across the gorge. They are sure to go west in order to block the escape to the French frontier. They will scatter up and down the rocks and spend the night there. I hope none of them catch cold. I think they have started already. I heard — something. Listen. Look up there; that’s a flashlight. Along the path above us. Bombaccio is showing them — or one of the men. Very well. Now ——”

She weighed her words. “There is only one place to put him where he will be safe from gardeners, servants, everyone. Except perhaps Frant. . . . Mr. Philip’s bedroom. Locked up — next to my little sitting-room. We can turn the key on the service stairs.”

“We could do that.”

“It is all we can do.”

“But to get him there!”

“If he could walk in — in your hood and cloak. That cloak of yours with a hood. We can get the men out of the way. Listen. I am going to be very, very, very frightened. Hysterical. You are afraid for me. Very well, you go in and get Bombaccio to bring brandy here. He’ll want brandy badly enough. Brandy and one glass; no tray. Take it off the tray and bring it yourself. And get your cloak and bring wraps for me. Oh! — and bring a pair of your shoes and stockings among the wraps. What? Yes — for him. I will be sitting here, terrified. ‘Take those men away!’ I shall repeat over and over. I shall be in terror at the idea of more people coming into the gardens from above. I shall be dreadfully shaken. You won’t answer for the consequences if I see another strange man. . . . Will Bombaccio believe that?”

“Men will believe anything of that sort,” said Mrs. McManus.

“Suppose he hangs about — sympathetically.”

“No man ever yet hung about an ailing woman if he had any chance or excuse of getting away from her.”

“Insist that he goes up to stop people at the gates and takes the men-servants with him. You cannot bear to think of his going alone and — unless I’m mistaken in him, he won’t bear to think of his going alone.”

“He shall take them.”

“Have as many lights as possible put out. Say they upset me. Tell the women not to be frightened on any account. Then they will be. It’s just one very, very desperate man, tell them. Tell them to keep together and keep to their own quarters. Then when it’s all clear he puts on your shoes and stockings and cloak and we just walk into the house and up to my room.”

“If you’d been in the Civil War in Ireland, you couldn’t have made a better plan,” said Mrs. McManus.

“There’s Frant? She’ll be sitting up for me. She’s the weak point.”

“That maid of yours can hold her tongue,” said Mrs. McManus, “I’ve got great confidence in her. I’ve heard Bombaccio trying to get things out of her. I’ll just drop her a hint not to be surprised at anything she sees and keep mum. Maybe she’ll have to be told about it. Later. But she’s English and keeps herself to herself. You can risk Miss Frant.”

“And Miss Fenimore?”

“She’ll be in bed perhaps. Or maybe botanising.” Mrs. McManus reflected. “We’ll have to take the chances of that Miss Fenimore.”

“The rest of it will work?”

“Please God.”

The two women peered at each other in the darkness.

It was alarming but exciting. They felt a great friendship for each other. “If you could look a bit dishevelled and sickish,” said Mrs. McManus. “Instead of looking all braced up like a little fighting cock.”

She reflected. “And when he’s in that room ——? But one thing at a time.”

She departed towards the house almost jauntily. Mrs. Rylands, tingling not unpleasantly, returned to her seat. Seven years perhaps in a Fascist prison. But that would make a stir in England. The government of course was much too hand-in-glove with Mussolini to insist on her liberation. And yet Rylands stood for something in England. . . . Why think of such things?

There was a faint rustling and a painful grunting.

“Have they gone?” came a voice out of the blackness behind her.

She answered in a loud whisper: “Not yet. Have patience. We are going to hide you in the house.”

Then she stood up and bent down towards the unseen refugee. “You prefer to speak English or French?” she asked and began to sketch out his part in her plan in French. But he insisted on English. “In America five years,” he said. He asked various questions. “I shall sleep in a bed,” he noted with marked satisfaction. “I have not slept in a bed for four nights. Possibly I may wash and shave? Yes?”

The plan worked. Presently came the brandy and Mrs. McManus. Much hurrying movement and quick whispers. He had to have his shoes and stockings put on him like a baby. But the brandy heartened him.

There were heart stopping moments. As Mrs. Rylands turned the corner of the landing with her cloaked and hooded refugee beside her and holding to her arm, Miss Fenimore came out of the little downstairs sitting-room with a book in her hand. “Going to bed?” said Miss Fenimore, yawning. “Good ni!”

“Good night, dear,” said Mrs. Rylands and pushed her companion on.

“Good night, Mrs. McManus,” cried Miss Fenimore.

“Put the sitting-room lights out, dear,” said Mrs. Rylands instantly, with great presence of mind. And then as Signor Vinciguerra stumbled up the next flight of steps she whispered: “The door to the left and we are safe!”

Frant was in the ante-room immersed in a book and didn’t even look up as they passed across it.

Mrs. McManus too had her disconcerting moment. Following discreetly, she discovered Miss Fenimore, just too late, in the sitting-room entrance. “I never did!” cried Miss Fenimore. “Why! I said good night to you on the staircase just a moment ago?”

“There’s no harm in saying it again,” said Mrs. McManus.

“But you went upstairs?”

“And came down again.”

“It’s not half a minute.”

“I’m that quick,” said Mrs. McManus, and left her still wondering.

“It’s like second sight or having one of those doppelgangers,” said Miss Fenimore. “I just went into the sitting-room to switch off the light. I hardly did more than turn round. Hasn’t there been some sort of trouble in the garden?”

“I heard a noise. Shouting and running it was,” said Mrs. McManus. “We’ll have to ask Bombaccio to-morrow. Good night to you,” and she disappeared above the landing.

Alone with her God so to speak, Mrs. McManus made a hideous grimace at the invisible Miss Fenimore.

She found Mrs. Rylands in her husband’s room, having her hands kissed effusively by a weeping dishevelled middle-aged man with a four days’ beard. He had discarded the nurse’s cloak and her much too tight shoes, but he still wore her stockings pulled over the ends of his trousers so that up to the waist he looked like a brigand and above that, a tramp. “Brave and kind,” he sobbed over and over again. “I was at my ooltimate garsp.” Mrs. McManus became aware that Frant had followed from the ante-room attracted by the rich sounds of the kissing and praise. “Miss Frant,” said Mrs. McManus closing the door on her, “We’ll have to trouble you with a secret. Look at him there! A great political senator he was, and see what they have made of him! A friend of Mr. Rylands. He was being hunted to his death by them Black Shirts and we’ve got to hide him from them. None of the servants must know. They aren’t safe, not a single one of them. They may be Black Shirts themselves for all we know. We’ll have to hide him and get him out of this country somehow or Murder it will be.”

Frant’s thin face expressed understanding and solicitude. She was a white-faced, wisp-haired woman with much potential excitement in her small bright blue eyes. “Have you locked the valet’s door beyond the bathroom?” she asked pallidly aglow. “I’ll see nobody comes in from the passage.”

One might have imagined that the rescue of fugitives was a part of her normal duties.

Mrs. McManus skilfully but tactfully disengaged Mrs. Rylands’ hands from the gratitude of Signer Vinciguerra. “The great thing here is Silence,” she whispered, shaking him kindly but impressively. “There’s Fascists maybe in the rooms above and Fascists maybe downstairs and they’re almost certain to be listening outside the window. If you’ll just sit down in that chair and collect yourself quietly I’ll give you some biscuits and a trifle more brandy.”

Signor Vinciguerra was wax in her hands.

Mrs. Rylands, disembarrassed, was free to make a general survey of the situation. She put two towels in the bathroom and found Philip’s shaving things and a sponge. From the wardrobe she got a dressing-gown and in the chest of drawers were pyjamas. The man seemed to be famished. Miss Frant could get some sandwiches without remark. Or bovril. Bovril would be better. Unless Signor Vinciguerra made too much noise or talked too loudly in his sleep he could with reasonable luck be safe here for some days. Philip’s room opened into the little sitting-room that gave on the balcony and into which her own bedroom opened on the other side. No one was likely to go into it. Signor Vinciguerra could lock himself in and answer only to an agreed-on tap. She could profess to be ill until definite action was called for and Miss Frant could make up a bed for Mrs. McManus on the couch in the ante-room, barring all intrusion of the maids. Food could be brought up; not much but sufficient to keep the good man going. And so having provided for the temporary security of Signor Vinciguerra the next problem was how to get rid of him.

He was left to his toilet in Philip’s apartment. Miss Frant, after a whispered consultation with Mrs. McManus in the ante-chamber, went downstairs to order and wait for a large cup of bovril and toast and learn how things in general were going on. Mrs. Rylands drifted to the balcony and discovered the old moon creeping up the sky above the eastward promontory, picking out the palm fronds and patterning the darkness of the garden.

Extraordinary! It was long past her customary bedtime and everything was most improper for a woman in her condition, and yet instead of feeling distressed, fatigued and dismayed, she was elated. It was, to be frank with herself, a great lark. It would be something to tell Philip. It was still extremely dangerous and it might become at any time horrible and tragic, but it no longer appeared a monstrous and unnatural experience. She believed that on the whole she was likely to succeed in this adventure. Things so far had gone amazingly well. If one kept one’s head they might still go well. The frontier was not half an hour’s walk away. Being outside the law, fighting the established system of things, was after all nothing so very overwhelming.

Problem: to get him away.

That was going to be an anxious business.

There in sight were the lights of Mentone, France, freedom and security. The real Civilisation. And against that a dark headland, the edge of captive Italy. Where to-night the Fascists would be watching. Where always perhaps there were watchers, now that Italy was a prison.

Such a very middle-aged man he was!

In romances and plays a fugitive was at least able to run. Most fugitives in fiction were high-grade amateur runners. One thought of a young handsome white face, with a streak of hair across it and perhaps blood, a white shirt torn open — a tenor part. If only this were so now, one might give him a rest, smuggle him down to the beach to-morrow night and set him off to swim across that dark crescent of water, to sanctuary. What could it be altogether? Four miles? Five miles? Or put him in the bathing boat. But that might be difficult. At times there were searchlights. Odd there were none just now! Perhaps that put swimming or a boat out of court even for heroes. A really good swimmer might dive as the light swept by. Or one could have packed him off up the gorge to clamber into the hills and escape by precipitous leaping and climbing. But for that a Douglas Fairbanks would be needed. Her mind struggled against an overbearing gravitation towards the prosaic conclusion, that the most suitable role for Signor Vinciguerra would be that of a monthly nurse, into which he had fallen already. In that guise she could see herself taking him across the frontier with the utmost ease in the well-known and trusted Terragena car, and she could imagine no other way that was not preposterously impracticable.

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