Meanwhile, by H. G. Wells

§ 17

The serenity of the night was broken.

Distant shouts ugly with anger and the crack of a pistol.

She stopped still and returned to the world of fact. The silence recovered, but now it was pervaded by uneasiness and clustering multiplying interrogations. What was it? The path she was on wound down among rocks and pines below the tennis court to where the work-sheds of the gardens showed dimly, near the old Roman road. The noise had come out of the blackness in which the road was hidden.

Suddenly again — voices!

And then little phantom beams of light, minute pale patches of illumination amidst the black trees. These flicked into existence and as immediately vanished again. There were people down there, a number of men with electric flash lamps, looking for something, pursuing something, calling to one another. As they moved nearer they passed out of sight below the black bulks of the garden houses, leaving nothing but faint intermittent exudations of light beyond the edges of the walls.

Then something appeared very much nearer, a crouching shape on the path below, moving, coming towards her, beast or man. A man with stumbling steps, running. He was so near now that she heard his sobbing breathing, and he had not seen her! In another moment he had pulled up, face to face with her, a middle-sized, stoutish man who stopped short and swayed and staggered. He put up his hand to his forehead. Her appearance, blocking his path, seemed the culmination of dismay for him. “Santo Dio!” he choked with a gesture of despair.

“Coming!” came the voice of Mrs. McManus out of the air.

“What is it?” asked Mrs. Rylands, though already she knew she was in the presence of the Terror.

“I Fascisti m’inseguono! Non ne posso piû. . . . Mi vogliono ammaazzare?” gasped the fugitive and tried to turn and point, and failed and stumbled and fell down before her on hands and knees. He coughed and retched. She thought he was going to be sick. He did not attempt to get up again.

“Coraggio!” said Mrs. Rylands, rallying her Italian, and took his shoulder and made an ineffective effort to raise him to his feet.

She thought very quickly. This man had to be saved. She was on his side. It did not matter who he was. She knew Fascismo. No man was to be chased and manhandled in the garden of Terragena. The pursuers were still beating about down in the black gully of the sunken road. They had not as yet discovered the little stone steps that came into the garden near the bridge, up which their victim must have stolen. He had got some moments’ grace. But he was spent, spent and pitifully wheezing and weeping. He was sitting now on the path with one hand pressed to his labouring chest. He could make no use of his respite to get away.

He must hide. Could he be hidden? She surveyed the ground about her very swiftly. She remembered something that had happened just here, a caprice of her own. A little way back ——

Mrs. McManus was beside her with her hand on her shoulder.

“Them Fascists,” she remarked, with a complete grasp of the situation. “Is he badly hurt?”

“Help him up,” whispered Mrs. Rylands. “Listen! Just a few yards back. Behind the seat. There is a hole between the rocks, where the romarin hangs down. One can be hidden there. I hid there once from Philip. Push him in. Oh! Oh! What is the Italian for hide? But he will know French. ‘Faut cacher. Un trou. Tout preso!’”

“Inglese!” said the fugitive, helped to his feet and peering closely at their dim faces as he clung to the stalwart arm of Mrs. McManus. “Hide! Yes hide. Mes poumons.”

“You help him there. I will delay them,” said Mrs. Rylands, “if they come.”

She showed the way to Mrs. McManus in eager whispers.

“Come,” said Mrs. McManus.

The two dim figures, unsteady and undignified, retreated. The man seemed helplessly passive and obedient, and Mrs. McManus handled him with professional decision.

Mrs. Rylands turned her attention to the hunt again. It was still noisy down there in the trench of the road. It was just as well, for Mrs. McManus seeking the hiding-place and having to reassure her charge kept up a very audible monologue, and a considerable rustle of bushes and snapping of sticks were unavoidable. “But where the divil is it?” she asked.

The rustle and disturbance grew louder and ended in a crashing thud. “Ugh!” she cried very loudly and suddenly ceased to talk.

“Damn!” she said after a moment, spent apparently in effort. Mrs. Rylands saw only vaguely but it seemed that Mrs. McManus was bending down, busily occupied with something. What had happened? Had she found the proper hiding-place?

Mrs. Rylands abandoned her idea of standing sentinel and flitted up the path.

“He’s fainted,” said Mrs. McManus on her knees. “Or worse. We’ll have to drag him in. Let me do it. Can you show me exactly where this hole of yours is? It’s all so dark.”

For a minute, a long minute, Mrs. Rylands could not find it. “Here!” she cried at last. “Here! To the right.”

More crackling of branches. Loose stones rolled over and started off, as if to spread the alarm, down the slanting path. The two women spoke in whispers but the noises they made seemed to be terrific. It was wonderful that the Fascists had not discovered them minutes ago. How heavy a man can be!

A Fascist down below was yelping like a young dog. “Ecco! Ecco! E passato di qui!” He had discovered the steps.

“Come on with you!” said Mrs. McManus stumbling amidst the rocks and gave a conclusive tug.

“Pull that rosemary down on his boots,” said Mrs. Rylands. “I can see the gleam of them from here.”

When she looked down the path again, the noiseless beams of the flash lamps were scrutinising the white walls of the garden house. The Fascists, some or all of them, had come up into the garden. A group of four heads was defined for an instant against the pale illumination of the wall.

“We’d better go down towards them slowly,” said Mrs. McManus. “And if you should happen to be feeling a little upset by all the hubbub they’ve made, well, don’t conceal it.”

“They’ve three paths to choose from at the corner of the sheds,” said Mrs. Rylands. “The main one goes up to the house.”

“So they’ll send only a scout or so this way.”

“But this way leads to the frontier.”

Abruptly they were facing the scrutiny of the bright oval eye of a hand-lamp; its holder a shock-headed blackness. “Perche questa battaglia nello mio giardino?” said Mrs. Rylands in her best Italian, blinking and shrinking.

“Mi scusino, signore!” A boyish not unpleasant voice.

“Pardon me indeed,” came the indignation of Mrs. McManus. “What are you after in this garden, troubling an invalid lady in the night and all?”

“Troppo di — what’s light? it blinds me,” Mrs. Rylands complained, and the white oval breach of the darkness vanished. “Che volete?”

The young man said something about the flight of a traitor.

“Don’t bandy Italian with him,” advised Mrs. McManus.

“You can speak French perhaps; Parlate Franchese?” said Mrs. Rylands and so got the conversation on a linguistic level.

The young man’s French was adequate. That traitor to Italy, Vinciguerra, she learnt, had been trying to escape out of his native country in order to injure her abroad. He had been watched and nearly caught in Ventimiglia two days ago, but he had got away. Now he was making his dash for liberty. He had fled through this garden. He had run along the Via Aurelia and come up the steps by the little bridge. The young man was desolated to invade the lady’s garden or cause her any inconvenience but the fault was with the traitor Vinciguerra. Had she by any chance seen or heard a man passing through her domain?

Mrs Rylands found herself lying with the utmost conviction. No one had passed this way. But she had seen someone hurrying up the central path to the house — perhaps five minutes ago.

“It would be about five minutes ago.”

She had thought it was one of the gardeners, she said. In the darkness the young man made an almost invisible but evidently very profound bow. And turned back to his friends. “I must sit down,” said Mrs. Rylands still in French and taking the arm of Mrs. McManus, wheeled her round. “Sit on that seat,” she explained.

“Sit right on him,” said Mrs. McManus. “Exactly.”

At the same time the trees about them were suffused by an orange glow, that increased in a series of gradations. The two women halted. Looking up the hill they saw Casa Terragena, which had been slumbering in the night, growing visible and vivid, as Bombaccio and his minions put on the lights. Evidently they had become aware of the uproar and were illuminating the house preparatory to sallying forth in search of their mistress. The framework and wire netting of the tennis enclosure became vividly black and clear against the clear brightness of the hall. A rapid consultation occurred at the garden sheds and then the whole body of Fascists went up towards the marble steps below the terrace. The voice of Bombaccio could be heard like the challenge of a sentinel, and replies, less distinct, in a number of voices.

“So it’s Signor Vinciguerra we’ve got,” said Mrs. Rylands speaking very softly. “He used to be a minister.”

“I’ll go back to him. I wish I had some brandy for him.”

“We’ll go back together,” said Mrs. Rylands. “If they make for the French frontier they may pass back along this path.”

They returned to the hiding-place. “Sit you down,” said Mrs. McManus, and groped under the bushes towards the cleft in the rocks. She fumbled and produced a flash lamp of her own. Mrs. Rylands for the first time in her life saw the face of a horribly frightened man. He was crouched together in the hole with not a spark of fight left in him. His hand clutched his mouth.

“Sicuro,” said Mrs. McManus with surprising linguistic ability. “Restate acqui.”

“Put out that light,” said the fugitive in English. ”Please put out that light.”

Darkness supervened with a click.

“Stay here until the way is clear,” said Mrs. McManus.

“Sure,” said Signor Vinciguerra.

“The garden is full of them,” she said.

Inaudible reply.

She rearranged the trailing rosemary and returned cautiously to the bench. She sat down by her charge in silence.

“He must stay here until the way is clear,” she said, and paused and added reflectively —“And then ——?”

A silent mutual contemplation.

“What are we going to do with him?” said Mrs. Rylands in a low voice, glancing over her shoulder at the faint sound of a boot shifting its pose on the rock behind her.

Mrs. McManus also peered at their invisible protégé. “It’s a very great responsibility to have thrust upon two peaceful women just as they are taking the air before bedtime. I hardly know what to advise. . . . We can’t leave him there.”

“We can’t leave him there.”

“He’s done.”

“He’s done.”

Mrs. Rylands contemplated the situation with immense gravity for some moments. Then she was seized with a violent and almost uncontrollable impulse to laugh at the amazing change of mood and tempo ten minutes could effect. But she felt that the fugitive would never understand if she gave way to it. Extreme seriousness returned to her.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02