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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Fool Errant

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Fool Errant

A Benbow Smith Mystery

Patricia Wentworth

CHAPTER I

The lane was very dark; it was difficult to see where the tall hedgerow ended and the heavily clouded sky began. It was six hours since the sun had set, and during those six hours the darkness had deepened steadily until the cold, heavy air was saturated with gloom. An hour ago it had begun to freeze.

Hugo Ross stood for a moment by the Meade House entrance gates. The white posts just showed; the dark gate was invisible. Hugo leaned on it, staring into the impenetrable blackness of the drive. The trees on either side were moving a little, though he could feel no wind. The stripped branches and bare twigs that over-arched the drive were moving. They made small restless sounds hardly to be heard, sounds that would not have been heard at all if there had been anything else to hear.

Hugo turned from the gate and walked a little farther along the lane. The hedge on his left skirted the grounds of Meade House, and suddenly out of the darkness there sprang to view one lighted window—just one, high up in the black wall of the house. The window looked at Hugo with a square, bright eye; and then down came a blind like the dropping of a lid.

He walked another hundred yards, and then turned back again. It was rather odd to think that perhaps he was going to live in the house that had looked at him for a moment with that yellow staring eye. He wondered what the house was like. He could see it only as a black, blank wall running up into a black, blank sky. It had no substance nor content; it was just length and breadth, and a yellow staring eye. It reminded him of something that he couldn't quite get hold of—something in a dream. He passed the gate with a glance over his shoulder and a faint thrill of the old “let's pretend” feeling that had made the nursery a place of high adventure to Susan and himself.

He began to feel sure that he would get the job. Up to this moment he had been almost sure that he would not get it. Manning had said, “Why not have a shot at it?” But even Manning—very good fellow Manning—had certainly not been hopeful.

“Of course, my dear chap, you can but try. He'd be a jolly good man to get in with. And of course, as I say, if you can get in before the crowd who are sure to answer his advertisement—you see what I mean. Hacker told me about the advertisement, and I thought I'd give you the tip. It comes out first thing in the morning, and if you're on the spot before anyone else, it might give you a bit of a pull, though of course, as I said, he may want someone …” He proceeded to enumerate the qualifications which Ambrose Minstrel might reasonably require in a secretary.

Hugo possessed none of them. He had no degree. He knew nothing about mechanics, engineering, electricity, or chemistry. He supposed vaguely that an eminent inventor like Minstrel might require such knowledge in a secretary. Manning seemed sure of it.

“Still, I should have a stab at it, you know.”

Hugo was having a stab at it; and quite suddenly and irrationally he began to feel that the job was his. To-morrow at nine-thirty—he had fixed on nine-thirty as the earliest hour at which he could decently present himself—well, at nine-thirty he would pass between the white gate-posts, walk briskly up the drive under those over-arching trees, and in the house that he had not seen, he would presently find himself Ambrose Minstrel's secretary. He had not the slightest idea how this was going to happen; he had stopped bothering about it.

He turned his mind to the question of how to spend the next eleven hours. There is a lot of time in eleven hours, especially at night. He thought hopefully of haystacks. The proverbial needle in a bundle of hay would be easier to find than half a dozen haystacks in a pitch black field. It made him wild to think that there might be a perfectly good dry, warm haystack within a stone's throw of him at this very moment. It tickled him to think of feeling for haystacks in unknown and frozen fields; it didn't somehow seem rational. Like a great many people of strong and keen imagination, Hugo prided himself on being rational. He decided not to feel for haystacks but to go on walking.

It was growing steadily colder. The fog, which had been rising from the fields ever since the frost set in, had topped the hedges and came drifting down between them like the flow of some sluggish, impalpable stream.

Hugo turned back towards Meade House and began to run. The lane was quite straight here for three or four hundred yards, rising slightly and then sloping until it reached the gate. He ran up the rise and down the slope—and half-way down the slope he ran into the girl. It was very startling, because, somehow, it had never occurred to him that there might be anyone else afoot—the lane was his; and then not his, because he bumped heavily into someone and heard the girl's faint scream. It was his shoulder that struck her, and she screamed just once, with a faint breathless sound; it was as if she had begun to scream and then her breath had failed.

Hugo swung round, groped, touched a shoulder, and said,

“I'm frightfully sorry! Did I hurt you? I'm most
frightfully
sorry!”

She had sprung away when he touched her. He could hear her breathing quickly with a little sobbing catch between the breaths.

He spoke again:

“I say, I'm afraid I did hurt you. Is there anything I can do?”

The answer was the most unexpected thing. She laughed, a long, pretty, shaken ripple of a laugh.

“No—it's all right.”

“Are you sure? I was running to keep myself warm. It was most awfully careless of me to go barging along like that.”

“I'm not hurt. I was frightened—I thought you were a tramp.”

She had a very pretty voice, rather high, very young, clear, and unmodulated like a child's voice. She went on:

“There was a tramp. I thought he had come back.” The clear voice shook.

“Oh, I s-say—I must have frightened you dreadfully!”

Hugo's shyness and the little stammer which accompanied it were returning. They had been, as it were, knocked clean out of him when he bumped into the girl.

She came a step nearer.

“You didn't frighten me—it was the tramp. I wasn't frightened as soon as I heard your voice. The tramp had a horrid one—you know—
beery
.” Her voice shook again on the unromantic word.

Hugo wanted to laugh, and felt like a tongue-tied fool. He began,

“I'm s-so sorry,” and was interrupted.

“You haven't seen him, have you? He went this way. I hid, and he went along here. That's why I thought you were him.”

“I haven't s-seen anyone.”

She came quite close.

“It's too dark to see anyone. He might be there.” It was a very small whisper.

Hugo was not wanting in perception. He said, stammering very badly,

“Sh-shall I—w-would you—I m-mean—I—c-can't I do anything?”

A hand slipped into his arm. “Would you—walk a little way—with me? Would you really?”

“Of course.”

“You were going the other way.”

“I wasn't going anywhere really—I was just putting in t-time.”

There was a little irrepressible laugh.

“So was I. How funny! Oh, do you know what the time is—because I'm most dreadfully afraid I shall miss my train.”

Hugo turned up his wrist. The luminous dial showed like a faint moon.

“It's half-past ten.”

“Then I shall catch it.” She began to walk, keeping her hand on his arm. “I got so frightfully cold waiting. And I thought I should miss the train, and I thought about the tramp, and—don't you think when you're simply dreadfully frightened of doing something, it's better to do it?”

“S-sometimes,” said Hugo.

“Not sometimes—
always
, or else you just get so frightened that you can't do anything—you can't even run away.” The words came tumbling out. And then, with a sudden return of breathlessness, she demanded, “Do you live here?”

“No.”

She pulled away her hand.

“Do you live near here?”

“No.”

“Because I don't want you to tell anyone you've seen me.”

Hugo gave his funny little laugh.

“But I haven't.”

His arm was caught again.

“No, you haven't—you haven't seen anyone, because—you're sure you don't live here?”

“I s-swear it.”

“Do you know people here?”

“No, I don't—really.”

“Not anyone?”

“Not a soul.”

“I'm running away. That's why I asked. You won't tell anyone—will you?”

Hugo stopped feeling shy. One might as well feel shy of a bird or a rabbit, or any other young, natural creature. He said quite seriously,

“I say, is that a good plan?”

“What?”

“Running away. Don't you think you'd better go home again?”

He stood still as he spoke. But she tugged at his arm.

“No—
no
. Oh, I'll miss my train! Do come on!”

Hugo began to feel rather middle-aged.

“Look here, what's the good of running away? Much better go home—they'll be in an awful state about you.”

“Let them! I'm not going back.” She laughed. “If I wouldn't go back for the beery tramp, d'you suppose I'll go back for you? Besides—Oh, anyhow, I'm not going back. You won't tell—will you?”

“I don't know,” said Hugo.

“Oh! You
promised!

“Why are you running away?”

She laughed.

“I haven't murdered anyone or stolen anything, and nobody's going to break their hearts—they'll be all fussed up and shocked, but they won't worry, because I've got heaps of money and I know quite well how to look after myself, and I've told them I'm going to a job.”

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