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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lion's Share - Chapter 37. Afloat
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The Lion's Share - Chapter 37. Afloat Post by :Florence Category :Long Stories Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2848

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The Lion's Share - Chapter 37. Afloat

CHAPTER XXXVII. AFLOAT

That night, which was an unusually dark night for the time of year, Audrey left the yacht, alone, to fetch Jane Foley. She had made a provisional plan with Jane and Aguilar, and the arrangement with Mr. Gilman had been of the simplest, necessitating nothing save a brief order from the owner to the woman whom Audrey could always amuse Mr. Gilman by calling the "parlourmaid," but who was more commonly known as the stewardess. This young married creature had prepared a cabin. For the rest little had been said. The understanding between Mr. Gilman and Audrey was that Mrs. Moncreiff should continue to exist, and that not a word as to the arrival of Jane Foley should escape either of them until the deed was accomplished. It is true that Madame Piriac knew of the probable imminence of the affair, but Madame Piriac was discretion elegantly attired, and from the moment they had left Flank Hall together she had been wise enough not even to mention Jane Foley to Audrey. Madame Piriac appreciated the value of ignorance in a questionable crisis. Mr. Gilman had been less guarded. Indeed he had shown a tendency to discuss the coming adventure with Audrey in remote corners--a tendency which had to be discouraged because it gave to both of them a too obvious air of being tremendous conspirators, Also Audrey had had to dissuade him from accompanying her to the Hall. He had rather conventional ideas about women being abroad alone after dark, and he abandoned them with difficulty even now.

As there were no street lamps alight in summer in the village of Moze, Audrey had no fear of being recognised; moreover, recognition by her former fellow-citizens could now have no sinister importance; she did not much care who recognised her. The principal gates of Flank Hall were slightly ajar, as arranged with Aguilar, and she passed with a suddenly aroused heart up the drive towards the front entrance of the house. In spite of herself she could not get rid of an absurd fear that either Mr. Hurley or Inspector Keeble or both would jump out of the dark bushes and slip handcuffs upon her wrists. And the baffling invisibility of the sky further affected her nerves. There ought to have been a lamp in the front hall, but no ray showed through the eighteenth century fanlight over the door. She rang the bell cautiously. She heard the distant ting. Aguilar, according to the plan, ought to have opened; but he did not open; nobody opened. She was instantly sure that she knew what had happened. Mr. Hurley had been to Frinton and ascertained that the Spatt story as to the tank-room was an invention, and had returned with a search warrant and some tools. But in another ten seconds she was equally sure that nothing of the sort could have happened, for it was an axiom with her that Aguilar's masterly lying, based on masterly listening at an attic door, had convinced Mr. Hurley of the truth of the story about the tank-room.

Accidentally pushing against the front door with an elbow in the deep obscurity, she discovered that it was not latched. This was quite contrary to the plan. She stepped into the house. The unforeseeing simpleton had actually come on the excursion without a box of matches! She felt her way, aided by the swift returning memories of childhood, to the foot of the stairs, and past the stairs into the kitchen, for in ancient days a candlestick with a box of matches in it had always been kept on the ledge of the small square window that gave light to the passage between the hall and the kitchen. Her father had been most severely particular about that candlestick (with matches) being-always ready on that ledge in case of his need. Ridiculous, of course, to expect a candlestick to be still there! Times change so. But she felt for it, and there it was, and the matches too! She lit the candle. The dim scene thus revealed seemed strange enough to her after the electricity of the Hotel du Danube and of the yacht. It made her want to cry....

She was one of those people who have room in their minds for all sorts of things at once. And thus she could simultaneously be worried to an extreme about Jane Foley, foolish and sad about her immensely distant childhood, and even regretful that she had admitted the fraudulence of the wedding-ring on her hand. On the last point she had a very strong sense of failure and disillusion. When she had first donned a widow's bonnet she had meant to have wondrous adventures and to hear marvellous conversations as a widow. And what had she done with her widowhood after all? Nothing. She could not but think that she ought to have kept it a little longer, on the chance....

Aguilar made a practice of sleeping in the kitchen; he considered that a house could only be well guarded at night from the ground floor. There was his bed, in the corner against the brush and besom cupboard, all made up. Its creaselessness, so characteristic of Aguilar, had not been disturbed. The sight of the narrow bed made Audrey think what a strange existence was the existence of Aguilar. ... Then, with a boldness that was half bluster, she went upstairs, and the creaking of the woodwork was affrighting.

"Jane! Jane, dear!" she called out, as she arrived at the second-storey landing. The sound of her voice was uncanny in the haunted stillness. All Audrey's infancy floated up the well of the stairs and wrapped itself round her and tightened her throat. She went along the passage to the door of the tank-room.

"Jane, Jane!"

No answer! The door was locked. She listened. She put her ear against the door in order to catch the faintest sound of life within. But she could only hear the crude, sharp ticking of the cheap clock which, as she knew, Aguilar had supplied to Jane Foley. The vision of Jane lying unconscious or dead obsessed her. Then she thrust it away and laughed at it. Assuredly Aguilar and Jane must have received some alarm as to a reappearance of the police; they must have fled while there had yet been time. Where could they have gone? Of course, through the garden and plantation and down to the sea-wall, whence Jane might steal to the yacht. Audrey turned back towards the stairs, and the vast intimidating emptiness of the gloomy house, lit by a single flickering candle, assaulted her. She had to fight it before she could descend. The garden door was latched, but not locked. Extinguishing the candle, she went forth. The gusty breeze from the estuary was now damp on her cheek with the presage of rain. She hurried, fumbling as it were, through the garden. When she achieved the hedge the spectacle of the yacht, gleaming from stem to stern with electricity, burst upon her; it shone like something desired and unattainable. Carefully she issued from the grounds by the little gate and crossed the intervening space to the dyke. A dark figure moved in front of her, and her heart violently jumped.

"Is that you, madam?"

It was the cold, imperturbable voice of Aguilar. At once she felt reassured.

"Where is Miss Foley?" she demanded in a whisper.

"I've got her down here, ma'am," said Aguilar. "I presume as you've been to the house. We had to leave it."

"But the door of the tank-room was locked!"

"Yes, ma'am. I locked it a-purpose.... I thought as it would keep the police employed a bit when they come. I seen my cousin Sarah when I went to tell Miss Ingate as you instructed me. My cousin Sarah seen Keeble. They been to Frinton to Mrs. Spatt's, and they found out about _that_. And now the 'tec's back, or nearly. I reckon it was the warrant as was delaying him. So I out with Miss Foley. I thought I could take her across to the yacht from here. It wouldn't hardly be safe for her to walk round by the dyke. Hurley may have several of his chaps about by this time."

"But there's not water enough, Aguilar."

"Yes, madam. I dragged the old punt down. She don't draw three inches. She's afloat now, and Miss Foley's in her. I was just a-going off. If you don't mind wetting your feet----"

In one minute Audrey had splashed into the punt. Jane Foley took her hand in silence, and she heard Jane's low, happy laugh.

"Isn't it funny?" Jane whispered.

Audrey squeezed her hand.

Aguilar pushed off with an oar, and he continued to use the oar as a punt-pole, so that no sound of their movement should reach the bank. Water was pouring into the old sieve, and they touched ground once. But Aguilar knew precisely what he was about and got her off again. They approached the yacht with the slow, sure inexorability of Aguilar's character. A beam from the portholes of the saloon caught Aguilar's erect figure. He sat down, poling as well as he could from the new position. When they were a little nearer he stopped dead, holding the punt firm by means of the pole fixed in the mud.

"He's there afore us!" he murmured, pointing.

Under the Maltese cross of electric lights at the inner end of the gangway could clearly be seen the form of Mr. Hurley, engaged in conversation with Mr. Gilman. Mr. Hurley was fairly on board.

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