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Chapter Nineteen

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« on: September 13, 2023, 08:10:27 am »

IT WAS AN hour later, and a coffee-pot now stood between the two men. Cadover glanced at it and saw again the scared face of the parlour-maid who had brought it in. The gong, the disappearance of Jollard, this mysterious matutinal conference in Sir Bernard’s study: all these must be occasioning a fine whispering in the servants’ quarters. The conjecture was doubtless that Master Humphrey had been kidnapped. And the conjecture was doubtless right. Cadover, thus gloomily concluding, glanced up at Humphrey’s father as the latter set down the telephone receiver.

“Yes, Inspector, you were right about that. There can have been no question of Humphrey’s going to his dentist on Thursday. Partridge is down with influenza. And I fear that his wife didn’t thank me for the early call. The first step in the affair was my unfortunate boy’s practising a foolish deceit.”

“You can put it like that if you like, sir.” Cadover saw no profit in the introduction of this particular moral note. “He took the best means he had for securing a last meeting with his sweetheart”---here Cadover took some satisfaction at observing Sir Bernard wince at a word echoing, as it were, across a vast social gulf---“before he was hurried off to Ireland. I don’t see much harm in it myself. And it is possible that in going out with the girl again he was showing that he wasn’t going to be scared by the abominable Clodd.”

Rather pathetically, Sir Bernard brightened. “Yes,” he said, “there may be something in that.”

“And there’s another thing. It may be very important. If your son had not made this covert visit to the Metrodrome he wouldn’t have sat beside himself---as he undoubtedly did. He must have been aware of it, you know. There is no other reasonable explanation of his leaving in the hurry that he did. Now, just think of it. He knows that Captain Cox (whom he may have had a peep at when he was here) has sent that telegram crying off, and that another tutor is to take him away. And now here beside him are two people addressing each other, no doubt, as Captain Cox and Humphrey, and indicating, maybe, that they are off to Ireland that evening. And at that Humphrey grabs his girl and bolts from the cinema. A very healthy bolt, I should call it. But what happens then?”

Sir Bernard took a moment to answer this. His eye, so apt to converse with astronomical distances, looked as if it might be discovering some unexpected horizon nearer home. “What happened next? I don’t think we know.”

“I hope we do.” And Cadover in his turn took up the telephone and made a call. Getting the number he wanted, he asked a brief question and then for the space of a minute intently listened. Then he put down the receiver. “We’ve taken only half an hour to get hold of that.” He spoke with the satisfaction of a man whose organisation has served him well. “I’ve been a little anxious about that telegram from Thewless at Killyboffin. We’ve had one fake telegram already, after all. But I think it’s all right. At least those two set out for Ireland. They picked up Humphrey’s baggage at Euston, and there was some sort of little scene over the gun---the gun that Cox bought along with his bogus pupil, and that he had sent on to the station by messenger. It served to fix our two in the memory of a fellow in the Left Luggage. . . . So there you are.” And Cadover paused, as with a decent sense of the magnitude of the moment. “Your boy, Sir Bernard, went to Ireland. That’s what happened next.”

Humphrey’s father was at his most cautious. “You judge that to be surprising, Inspector?”

“Come, come, sir. I take it that Humphrey is not a densely stupid boy?”

“Certainly not.”

“Nor abnormally phlegmatic?”

“He is abnormally sensitive and imaginative.” Sir Bernard’s voice had risen a pitch. “And of late he has actually been beset by obscure anxieties---by all sorts of baseless and fantastic fears.”

“And you have been anxious about this?”

“Certainly I have.”

“Would it be fair to say that you suffer from that sort of thing yourself?”

“I don’t understand you.”

“Would it be fair to say that what you have called your obstinately rational mind would not in itself have taken you a tenth of the way you have gone; and that you are at bottom abnormally sensitive and imaginative; and that you pay for this by being frequently beset by all sorts of baseless and fantastic fears?”

Sir Bernard had risen to his feet, and for a moment Cadover thought that he was going to flare into anger. The great man, however, looked merely surprised---as he well might do at this sudden transmogrification of the policeman before him into a modish psychological inquisitor. “What you say is of great interest. But I suggest that it is a little more speculative than is appropriate to the present occasion.”

“I think not. For we shall get at this most quickly, you know, by having some idea of how the minds of the people concerned are working. Now, sir, you have been fussing and over-protecting this only boy of yours---and particularly so, I should guess, since his mother’s death. That is no more than to say that you have been letting your own hidden fears loose on him; that you have been using him as a channel for the discharge of your own anxieties. It is a considerable burden to impose on a lad.”

Sir Bernard Paxton had walked to the window and was staring out at a morning sky still darkly red in the east. “Well?” he asked.

“The boy is aware of this situation---or say, rather, that he is sensitive to it. You are worried, scared; you plainly need support. Being your son, he feels bound to stand by you; to take on his own shoulders as much of the burden as he can. That, Sir Bernard, is the Paxton family situation. There’s nothing occult about it. It must be evident to your parlour-maid or your knife-boy, if they have an ounce of brains and observation. And it is decidedly one of the facts in the situation confronting us.”

“You have a considerable power, Inspector, of succinct exposition.” Sir Bernard paused as if to inspect this defensive irony, and found it unsatisfactory. “We get back to what Humphrey did on leaving the cinema.”

“Yes, sir. Imaginative boys know a hawk from a handsaw, and he knew very well the difference between the insubstantial fears he obscurely shares with yourself and the tip of an actual, down-to-earth threat to your security.”

“To my security, Inspector? It would strike him essentially in that way?”

“Of course it would! The picture that emerges of him is of an extremely intelligent boy. He knows very well that, although enormously interesting to Humphrey Paxton, he is nevertheless only an unknown small boy, of no interest whatever to the great outer world. If anyone looks at him twice it is because he is Paxton’s son. More than commonly, the father-image towers above him. At the same time, as you and I know, he has the job of giving that image a hand”---Cadover paused---“of shoring it up, in fact, with whatever he can lay his hands on.”

Sir Bernard Paxton walked back across the room, peered into the coffee-pot, and rang a bell. He was, in a way, taking all this with flying colours. And now he turned to Cadover. “So Humphrey came out of that cinema feeling the need of a stouter prop than usual?”

“He must certainly have had a more than usually urgent feeling that something must be done. But, chiefly, he felt the challenge in the thing.”

“Challenge?” Sir Bernard turned to the parlour-maid who had entered the room. “Coffee,” he said briefly.

“Exactly---but excuse me for a moment.” The telephone bell had rung, and now Cadover grabbed the instrument. He listened for a moment. “I see. . . . I see. Well, I think we ought to have been told. They should never play that sort of lone game. . . . Unofficial?---stuff and nonsense! And what name did you say? . . . Never heard of her. But it’s better than nothing, I suppose. . . . Yes, not later, I hope, than ten o’clock. And look here!---the Dublin people simply must be kept right. Go and get the Commissioner himself out of bed and make him telephone through. . . . No; don’t worry; he’ll thank you in the end. The main point is that it must be quite clearly explained as something big, but quite without political colouring. Otherwise they may take fright, and hold us back while they hunt up their own big-wigs. . . . Yes---ten o’clock.”

Cadover put down the receiver. “I think it may be said we’re starting to move.”

“I hope in the right direction.” Sir Bernard had returned to the window and was staring sombrely out at distant chimney-pots. “What was that about a challenge?”

“Your son realised that, quite accidentally, he had been warned. What he had heard in the cinema said, ‘Ireland means danger.’ It must also have said, ‘Get home as quick as you can and tell Daddy’---something like that. But the boy decided to meet Thewless, all the same, and set off. He is seeing the thing through himself. I think it may be said that he is seeing to it that danger and you have the Irish Sea stretched between you. But we won’t exaggerate. We’ll put it simply that Humphrey has seen the chance of an adventure and has taken it.”

Sir Bernard Paxton made a noncommittal noise, and as he did so the parlour-maid returned with the replenished coffee pot. She set it down, retreated, hesitated by the door. “If you please, sir,” she said, “is it Master Humphrey?”

Her employer stared at her in surprise---altogether, indeed, as if something out of nature had transacted itself. “You may go,” he said. “And tell your fellows not to gossip.”

Beneath this displeasure, the girl trembled visibly. But she held her ground. “It was only that, if it is Master Humphrey, there is something the policeman ought to know.”

Cadover, who had hardly supposed himself to have been identified after this manner, promptly took the matter in hand. “In that case,” he said, “you had better speak up.”

“When Master Humphrey went away before lunchtime on Thursday he told us he wasn’t coming back. He was going to Mr. Partridge, he said, and after that straight to Euston. But he did come back. And he can’t have been leaving himself very much time to catch his train.”

“I see.” The movements of the son of the house, Cadover realised, must be of considerable interest in the servants’ hall. “But was there anything very remarkable in that?”

“It was the way he came home, sir. It was only Mary saw him.”

“Mary?” Sir Bernard Paxton interrupted rather as if this was a particularly opprobrious name.

“Mary, if you please sir, is Evans, the second housemaid. She was in Master Humphrey’s room, sir, taking down some curtains that were to go to the cleaners. And she saw a taxi stop at the end of the mews, and Master Humphrey get out and come up the mews and in at the back. And she says he was looking like a ghost, poor lamb.”

“That he was looking like a ghost is conceivable. But that he is reasonably to be described as a poor lamb is a proposition that we seem hourly more able to controvert.” And Sir Bernard, in whom paternal vanity, like almost everything else, seemed apt to take decidedly polysyllabic form, glanced swiftly at Cadover. “You may, however, proceed.”

“Well, sir, there was Master Humphrey creeping into his own house no better than a thief. And for a while Mary waited, thinking that he might have been taken ill, and didn’t want everybody to know it, and would be coming up to his room. So she went down, and through to the little door at the back, the one that isn’t used even by the tradespeople any more, and there was Master Humphrey slipping out again. He gave a terrible start at seeing her. And then he gave her a----” The parlour-maid hesitated.

“Do you mean”---Sir Bernard was displeased---“that Master Humphrey gave Evans a sum of money?”

“No, sir. It was a hug and a kiss, sir. And then he made her swear by all sorts of things that shouldn’t rightly be mentioned that she wouldn’t say a word about it to anyone.”

Master Humphrey, it seemed to Cadover, was not un-possessed of some knowledge of the world. “And after that?” he asked.

“That was all, sir---only Mary and me felt we ought to mention it. Master Humphrey went straight out after that, and Mary heard him drive away in his taxi.”

“Thank you.” Cadover waited until the girl had left the room. “Now, sir, what do you make of that?”

Sir Bernard considered. “Perhaps he did mean to come home and tell his story, after all. His covert manner of entering may have been a boy’s natural reaction to the atmosphere of melodrama in which he found himself. And then he may have changed his mind and decided to go through with it after all.”

Cadover shook his head. “That leaves the taxi unaccounted for. I mean his apparently having kept the taxi waiting at the end of the mews. He meant to go off again. In fact, he came home to fetch something. And that something wasn’t in his own room, since the housemaid, it seems, was there until she went down and found him leaving.” Cadover paused. “Well, let us take up another point. The Bolderwoods---what about them? I understand that they are cousins of yours. Are they reliable people?”

“I have gathered that Cyril Bolderwood---who, actually, is only a distant connection of mine---is a person of substantial means and considerable position. His interests have been mainly in South America. His son, Ivor, has called upon me. He appeared a very sensible young man.”

Cadover scratched his jaw. “Does it occur to you----”

“Of course it does!” Sir Bernard, for the first time, was vehement. “I have been criminally careless. The boy is a problem during the holidays. He and I are, at present, obscurely out of sympathy. This chance of dealing with a difficult period came along, and I snatched at it. I considered that if I found a reliable man to go with him---Cox or Thewless---then nothing could go radically wrong. But I acted rashly. I ought to have considered that these people’s manners and morals were virtually unknown to me. I ought even to have taken into consideration the special risks---one may call them professional risks---to which my position might conceivably expose not only myself but my child.”

“Perhaps you ought.” And Cadover again scratched his jaw. “By the way, Sir Bernard, to whom are you responsible for the work you are doing at present?”

“I am directly responsible to a committee of the Cabinet---that is to say, to the Prime Minister and three of his colleagues.”

“I see.” Cadover’s lips formed themselves into what might have been the position for a low whistle. “Do you think that, about that, they would mind if you told me a little more?”

Sir Bernard Paxton looked grim. “I should certainly need permission before speaking another word.”

Cadover looked grim too. He pointed to the telephone. “I suspect,” he said, “that they won’t keep you waiting long at Number 10.”

Sir Bernard made the call. Cadover faintly heard first an unfamiliar and then a familiar voice; he heard, too, the tiny ticking of the watch on his own wrist---it suddenly suggested to him the remorseless effluction of time in the heart of a delayed-action bomb. . . . Sir Bernard explained himself. The answering voice came incisive and faint, like a political broadcast almost tuned out. The watch ticked---but now there was a voice in it too. Amorous-arrogant-armed, amorous-arrogant-armed: the voice in the watch was an urgent and imbecile whisper. Vaguely apprehended masses formed themselves in Cadover’s vision, took intelligible shape as a scantily-clothed female form, no more substantial than plywood but with the power to flex in a lascivious languor its grotesquely elongated limbs. . . . Cadover jerked himself awake. He had hours of vigilance ahead of him yet.

Sir Bernard had rung off and was talking to him; his brain cleared and he was listening with narrowed eyes. “I see,” he said; “. . . yes, I see.”

“And I collate the reports once a month, Inspector, and revise the plan in the light of them. The plan exists in a unique copy that stays with me. And when I have completed each revision I appear before the committee in person and report. It all requires, as you may imagine, a great deal of interpretation to the lay mind.”

“No doubt.” Cadover had turned slightly pale. “But that sort of thing will require singularly little interpretation when one day somebody drops it out of a plane on London or Moscow or New York. The understanding of the lay mind will be instantaneous and complete.”

“May the world’s cities be spared that understanding, Inspector.” Sir Bernard looked for a second so like a lost child---so like, conceivably, the missing boy---that Cadover almost repented the grimness of his pleasantry.

There was a moment’s silence. “Now---Cox,” Cadover said abruptly. “We’ve got no nearer to why he was a threat against which such violent means had to be taken. He couldn’t, in any way, belong to this world you have been telling me of?”

“Good heavens, no! The poor young man possessed, as I have said, only the most moderate share of brains. I had the impression, indeed, that he had been in on some queer affairs about the world---but definitely, I should think, as a reliable subordinate. Good physique, no nerves, and a straight eye.”

“He probably had no precise notion of the sort of work you do?”

“His ideas on that would almost certainly be of the vaguest.”

Cadover thought for a moment. “And there is nothing---absolutely nothing---further of any significance about him, or about your interview with him, that occurs to you?”

“I think not.” Sir Bernard Paxton frowned. “And yet---at luncheon, I think---there was something----” He broke off. “There was something, and it just eludes me. And yet something, connected with yourself a few moments ago----”

“Something about me?” Cadover was surprised.

And suddenly Sir Bernard snapped his fingers. “You offered a pleasantry---something about atomic warfare and the world’s cities. It was not---you will forgive me---quite to my liking. Now, that was what happened with Captain Cox at luncheon. He said something that I took to be intended as a jest, and it displeased me for the moment. I judged it to be somewhat familiar and a little fatuous.” Sir Bernard paused, aware that in this there might be an implication not altogether polite. “I need hardly say that in your jest it was not similar qualities that disturbed me. Yours, far from being fatuous, held a little too much salt.”

Cadover could still hear his watch ticking. But, even with his adored son’s safety at unknown hazard, this august personage had his own tempo.

“I was proposing to give Captain Cox some sketch of the Irish household in which he would find himself, and I began---I recall the word precisely---by saying that the Bolderwood family was most respectable. Whereupon the young man said, ‘Ah, they wouldn’t be the Bolderwoods I know.’ I supposed him to be making the facetious suggestion that he himself was without respectable connections and moved only in rag-tag and bobtail circles.” Sir Bernard Paxton hesitated. “I even suspected mockery of what I am aware of in myself as a certain stiffness of manner to which, by persons uncharitably inclined, the name of pomposity might be given.”

For perhaps the first time since he had seen Peter Cox’s dead body, Cadover felt a momentary disposition to laughter. Genius apparently had its naďf side, and nothing could be more exquisitely pompous in itself than the complicated cadence in which Sir Bernard had framed this confession. He checked himself. “But actually, sir, you think----?”

“It now comes to me that he may have meant exactly what he said. He happened to know some disreputable Bolderwoods, and he was dismissing the supposition that I could have anything to do with them. Viewed in that light, the unfortunate young man’s observation was a perfectly proper one.”

“Perfectly proper. But I don’t see----” Cadover broke off with a sudden exclamation. “Could that fellow Jollard have heard all this?”

“Assuredly he could. He was waiting table at the time.”

“And after this happened Cox remained with you for a substantial interval? There would have been an opportunity, I mean, for Jollard to contact his associates on the telephone and arrange for the bogus Humphrey to waylay Cox when he left?”

Sir Bernard thought for a moment. “I am fairly sure there would. We had coffee together, and then we spent about an hour in going over Humphrey’s school reports.”

“That would certainly be time enough. And now I think we may be said to have got quite a long way.” Cadover paused. “It would be nearly all the way, indeed, but for one thing. You remember, sir, my mentioning the blackmailer, Clodd? He hoped to make a victim of your son, and recently he seems to have had little that was more hopeful on his hands. As a result, he has had your household under pretty close observation. You might call it professional observation, so far as a knowledge of crooks and their ways goes. And Clodd---who is probably dead by now---came to the conclusion that it was not a matter of one gang or organisation being interested in your affairs. He was convinced that there are two. If that is true, and if we now go all out in one direction, we may simply be leaving Humphrey---and in some danger, let us admit---farther and farther behind. And there is something else that I am uneasy about as well. You have spoken of this vital plan which you revise monthly as existing in a single copy that stays with you. Does that mean here in your own house?”

Sir Bernard raised his eyebrows. “Good heavens, no! I mean simply that, so long as the present organisation of things holds, nobody ever sees it except myself. It stays in a place of security---of quite fantastic security, I may say---to the innermost part of which I alone have access, and access that is very strictly controlled at that.”

“That sounds good enough.”

“But it is true that I do keep one file of highly confidential ancillary papers here in the house. It is an essential time-saving convenience when I am visited by any of the people with whom I am permitted to discuss---well, the project in general. That file tends to get known, quite inaccurately, as the plan. And it is important enough, goodness knows.”

“It might have been known to, say, Jollard as the plan?”

“Quite possibly. And he has seen it in my hands half a dozen times.”

Cadover considered. “I think I should like to see it myself.”

“See the file, my dear Inspector? I hardly think----”

“I mean, see it in your hands---safe and sound. Where is it kept?”

“In a strong-room in the basement, which was put in for me by the Government during the war. It opens on a combination known only to myself, and I am given to understand that it represents about the last work in security available today.”

“Well, sir, I think I’ll just ask you to make sure. Would you mind? And I’ll stop here and make one or two more telephone calls.”

Without a word, Sir Bernard Paxton left the room. Cadover made two quick calls, and then walked to the window. Broad daylight had flooded this prosperous part of London long ago. The vista disclosed was unexciting, but it spoke of a security so massive as to be almost smug. Here and there one could perhaps spy signs that it was on the down grade; nevertheless, it was civilisation’s (as Plutonium Blonde was art’s) supreme achievement to date. Taking civilisation, that was to say, as meaning the commercial civilisation built up in the nineteenth century. It had all, Cadover reflected, come out of the spout of James Watt’s kettle. And the probability was that it would all dissolve again in some more extensive manufacture of steam contrived by Sir Bernard Paxton and his kind.

Cadover turned round at the sound of a door thrown violently open behind him. Sir Bernard stood framed in it, pale and trembling.

“It’s gone!” he said. “The strong-room was locked as I left it. But the file has gone.”

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