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Chapter Twenty

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« on: September 13, 2023, 11:16:12 am »

DAWN HAD FOUND Mr. Thewless fast asleep. The regular pulse of light flowing over his ceiling had grown faint before the early approaches of the sun and then had ceased---the lighthouse-keeper having first turned off his machine and then betaken himself to slumber. The day promised to be calm and bright. From far below, the sea murmured its suggestion of just such another obstinate refusal to come awake as that of Humphrey Paxton’s unconscious tutor; had one looked out at it, however, one would have judged it impossible that any sound at all could come from a sheet of silver so unflawed. No wind ruffled it, and in the little hamlet by its side the pale blue peat smoke was beginning to rise straight to the deep blue of heaven. No keel furrowed it, for the foreign trawlers were already gone from the harbour, and gone too was the motor-cruiser whose riding-light Mr. Thewless had remarked in the darkness not many hours before. Only on the horizon the brown sails of outward going fishing-smacks were already vanishing through the faint line between sea and sky.

This marine solitude at one distance was matched by a mountain solitude at another; indeed, the actual appearance of the sun had been delayed a full hour by the interposition, to the east, of a single peak, obtuse and massive, about the bare slopes and outcropping rocks of which clouds were still lazily disparting. Below this, where the white cottages in their invisible lanes glistened like sparsely-strung pearls flung down upon a mantle of brown and green, more tenuous vapours drifted, broke, fragmented themselves to a point at which, mere fleecy wisps, they matched the nibbling sheep now moving slowly up the hillsides to meet them. Nearer still, from little valleys yet lost in shadow, diminutive figures in bright homespun or sombre black climbed to the potato fields or set out, a donkey beside them, on the long trudge to the turf. Another day had begun.

And about Killyboffin itself there was some stir of life. The poultry, perhaps indignant at having been so unjustly cast under a cloud in the estimation of their owner, maintained a constantly augmented volume of angry cackle; the half-Ayrshire and several of her fellows, sequacious of the milkmaid, mooed impatiently outside a byre; dogs barked; Billy Bone clumped noisily about a cobbled yard; and through the house itself sundry servants, presumably released by their employer from their nocturnal segregation, bustled amid floods of lively conversation. And still Mr. Thewless slept.

When he was finally aroused, indeed, it was by olfactory rather than by auditory sensation. His eyes, prompted by some titillation of the nostril, opened upon a large and steaming cup of China tea. It was a composing sight; nevertheless, Mr. Thewless sat up with a celerity that spoke of a clearly returning consciousness of something untoward in his situation. A glance about the room told him that he had a visitor. Cyril Bolderwood, in an ancient and unassuming bath-robe made of turkish towelling, was sitting in his familiar position in the window embrasure. And now Cyril Bolderwood, observing that he was awake, gave him a cheerful smile. “Ah,” he said. “Good morning, my dear fellow.”

Mr. Thewless remembered with something of an effort that he was this genial person’s guest---his dear fellow, indeed---and that Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean lay around him. He stretched out his hand, secured the handsome cup, and sipped his tea. “Good morning,” he replied. He was aware of something circumspect---provisional, almost---in his own tone.

“A really nice day. In fact, I should say that we are in for a spell of fine weather. And in August, on the west coast of Ireland, that is something, I am bound to admit.”

Mr. Thewless considered this---and also certain matters now returning somewhat confusedly to his mind. “Um,” he ventured.

“And---what’s more---I have some rather good news.” Cyril Bolderwood got up and obligingly tested the temperature of a jug of hot water standing in Mr. Thewless’s wash-basin. He shook his head disapprovingly, picked up the jug, and, not without some splashing and accompanying imprecation, ejected it from the room. “Gracie,” he bawled down the corridor. “What good-for-nothing, idle, chattering chit brought this disgustingly tepid stuff to Mr. Thewless? Don’t they know what’s due to a man of his great learning? Don’t they know that in London there’s but the turning of a shining tap and you can scald yourself like a milk-pail at will? Send up a great jug, now, that won’t disgrace us all, you worthless woman.” And the master of Killyboffin, flushed and irate, banged the door to and returned to his perch in the window. “Yes, indeed,” he pursued with instantly recovered equanimity; “capital news. Last night, you know, I put my foot down. I made a real row.”

Mr. Thewless remembered a row---and although it had begun in dreams he was tolerably confident that it had indeed been a real row in the end. “Ah,” he said cautiously.

“The result is that at breakfast, I’m glad to say, there will be a couple of eggs all round. I was afraid, you know, that there would be nothing but champ.”

“Champ?” said Mr. Thewless. The constitution of this dish was not one of the matters upon which he felt any urgent wish to be informed. But for the moment he was at a loss how to broach more relevant topics.

“Yes, champ. I won’t say that I haven’t had a very tolerable champ in the north---and particularly in County Down.” Cyril Bolderwood was judicial. “But here in the south I don’t recall anybody as being able to make it really palatable. They’re too lazy, I should say, to pound it properly with the beetle. That means that it comes out sloppy. And nobody, you’ll agree, could pretend to enjoy a sloppy champ.”

“No,” said Mr. Thewless. “Nobody could do that.”

“But I expect young Humphrey---a nice lad, I’m bound to say, although his father is said to be uncommonly stiff---I expect young Humphrey will enjoy his couple of eggs. If he turns up for them, that is to say.”

“If he turns up for them!” Mr. Thewless set down his cup in frank dismay.

“He was off and away hours ago. Exploring, I don’t doubt. There’s a strong streak of wanderlust in Humphrey, if you ask me.”

Mr. Thewless was fleetingly conscious that this suggestion---in which he saw no special cogency---had been made to him before. “You think he will be all right?” he asked. “I am bound to say I feel a little anxious for his safety.”

“As right as rain.” Cyril Bolderwood’s reassurance was so confident as to have no need of being emphatic. “Of course, this countryside is full of every sort of rascal, as I think I’ve told you. But they wouldn’t harm a lad---and especially an English lad. It’s astonishing how popular the English are in Eire. Just the same as in India, nowadays. Nothing too good for them. And all because they’ve climbed down and cleared out. Why, if it wasn’t for the presence of yourself and Humphrey, it would probably be champ this morning after all---and that in spite of all the fuss I made yesterday.”

Mr. Thewless had by this time finished his tea, got out of bed, and wrapped himself in a dressing-gown. It ought to have been pleasant to shave while enjoying the society of one so informally companionable as his host. But somehow he felt slightly intruded upon---he was growing old and secretive, he supposed---and in an endeavour to dissipate this churlish feeling he too moved over to the window. “Ah,” he said; “I see that the motor-cruiser has gone.”

“It has---and I don’t think we’ll see it again.”

“I don’t see any sign of Humphrey.” Mr. Thewless, dazzled by the morning light, was peering vaguely at the distant mountain, rather as if his charge might appear in infinitesimal silhouette on the summit of it. “And I am rather anxious, I must repeat.”

“The boy will be quite all right, you may be sure.” Once more Cyril Bolderwood was soothing. “As a matter of fact, I rather think that Ivor must have gone with him---or, at any rate, that Ivor has followed him out. They had some plan, you may remember, of going off early together.”

“Yes, of course.” Mr. Thewless wished that he could be certain of just what he did remember. That the night had held wild doings he was well assured. But there might, he judged, be humiliating reasons for his preserving only a somewhat distorted recollection of them. “I am afraid,” he pursued, “that---after last night, you know---I am in a decidedly nervous state of mind.”

“Last night?” Cyril Bolderwood looked momentarily puzzled. Then he laughed heartily. “To be sure---and I am afraid you really had rather a bad time. It’s not being used to nonsense of that sort.”

“I see.” But Mr. Thewless was very certain that he did not see. “Nonsense?” he queried diffidently.

“Atrocious and rascally criminals,” said Cyril Bolderwood. He spoke with the greatest good humour. “Abominable and thieving ruffians, breaking in in the middle of the night. And yet one can’t be angry with them for long. Children, my dear fellow---mere children. And, of course, you must remember their religion.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Thewless. He was beginning to feel slightly unnerved.

“I’ve had them break in before. It’s why I shut up so carefully at nights. But the tiresome villains managed to get in somehow. They were after the whisky, you know---nothing but the whisky. How could they tell that you and I hadn’t left much of it, eh?” And Cyril Bolderwood laughed more boisterously still.

Mr. Thewless’s discomfort increased. He took his host’s last reference to be by way of tactful reminder that any distorted picture of the night’s adventures which he might cherish had its origin in potations which could not with delicacy be more specifically referred to. It was true that he had drunk rather a lot of whisky---and, moreover, to Irish whiskey he was quite unused. Conceivably it had some quite special hallucinatory power. Yet by all this he was not, in his heart, quite convinced. “My impression,” he said boldly, “was decidedly different. I thought they were after not the whisky, but Humphrey.”

“Humphrey? Good lord!” And Cyril Bolderwood delightedly chuckled. “Why, that’s just the sort of notion the dear, fanciful lad would think up himself.”

This was disturbingly true; it cohered absolutely with Mr. Thewless’s own obstinate reading of much in his recent experience. Nevertheless, he tried again. “I have a recollection---really quite a distinct recollection---of these intruders dogging me through the house. I was convinced that they were trailing me to Humphrey’s room.”

“Odd,” said Cyril Bolderwood easily. “A very odd trick for the mind to play. But, of course, we must remember that you had been thoroughly fatigued.”

“And my recollection stretches further. I had, just before the general alarm, a direct encounter with one of the prowlers. He was wrapped in a sheet.”

“A sheet!” Cyril Bolderwood looked blankly at his guest.

“And I threw something at him. I think it was a candlestick. The sheet fell and I had a moment in which I recognised him. He had travelled with me on the train from Euston to just before Heysham.”

“Dear me.” This time Cyril Bolderwood was not amused. He was mildly embarrassed, as a man must be to whom a guest obstinately propounds fantasies that have come to him in vino. “That is very curious, to be sure---very curious, indeed. But I must really leave you, my dear fellow, to finish dressing. Breakfast will be in a quarter of an hour. I think you may find that a cup or two of strong coffee may do you a world of good. And---don’t forget!---champ is off and eggs are on. Now I’ll go out for a stroll and try if I can see the others.”

And thus, with a smile of more than customary joviality, the master of Killyboffin left the room. Mr. Thewless, before turning to his shaving water, remained for some moments staring out of the window. He was browbeaten, bewildered, worried. He was also, had he known it, on the verge of being extremely angry.

The breakfast-table was generously appointed for four. But only the elder Mr. Bolderwood and Mr. Thewless faced each other across it. A massive silver contraption, which opened at a touch upon at least a dozen boiled eggs, emphasised the depleted condition of the company.

“Ivor,” said Mr. Bolderwood, “must still be hunting Humphrey up. I took a turn in the grounds, but there was no sign of either of them. A bit odd, eh? One would expect two hungry young people---guns or no guns---to be waiting for the gong. I hope that egg isn’t too hard for your liking.”

“It is quite excellent; a great treat.” Having made this eminently conventional response, Mr. Thewless was silent for some moments. Then, rather abruptly, he spoke again. “I suppose, sir, you will inform the police?”

Cyril Bolderwood looked mildly startled. “You mean if Humphrey runs away? I hardly think so. It would be my inclination to get in touch with his father first.”

“I certainly mean nothing of the sort.” Mr. Thewless was as emphatic as he was surprised. “What I refer to is last night’s housebreaking.”

“Oh, that!” Cyril Bolderwood’s laughter---and with a quality now really irritating to his auditor---rang out anew. “Yes, I suppose I better had. Yes, I must ring up Sean Cushin, and he must go round and give the horrible scoundrels a talking to.” He glanced at his watch. “I could do it in about ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes?”

“When the girl opens the telephone exchange in the village for the day. At night, you know, we are quite cut off from the world. In all these ways, my dear chap, we are shockingly unprogressive here in the south. This ruffianly Government in Dublin dislikes anything it can’t find an ancient Irish word for. Telephones must be included. For the purpose of getting news about the country those fellows would probably prefer beacons on the top of Slieve League and Ben Bulben.” And Mr. Thewless’s host, as he offered this political information, chipped the top off his second egg.

There was silence for a minute. Mr. Thewless was conscious that he was listening with some eagerness for the sound of approaching voices. The vehement tones of Humphrey Paxton, even if raised in some tiresome chronicle of fictitious perils, would at this juncture have been music to his ears.

But were the perils with which Humphrey tortured or entertained himself indeed merely----? Mr. Thewless, before the half-apprehended threat of something like a Copernican revolution in his thinking---or better, perhaps, of a return to the primitive, the monstrous, the Ptolemaic hypothesis, the Humphrey-centric theory, as it might be called, of his own first alarms on the Heysham train: Mr. Thewless, confronted by this, wisely suspended speculation for a while and sought the material recruitment of another egg.

Cyril Bolderwood, too, ate silently. There was now a slight frown, as of the first dawn of anxiety, on his normally candid brow. He rose, walked to the window and stared out at the limited prospect commanded from the ground floor. Then he moved to the door, flung it open, and fell to his familiar shouting to invisible retainers. His instructions, it seemed, were for some sort of search to be made for the late-comers. Then he crossed to a sideboard, poured himself out a second cup of coffee, and returned to the table. But immediately he was back at the window. “Those foreign trawlers,” he said abruptly. “Did you notice if they’ve sailed or not?”

Mr. Thewless looked up in surprise. His host’s tone forbade the supposition that this question was asked merely in a conversational way. “Why, yes,” he answered. “I noticed that they had sailed.”

“Um.” Cyril Bolderwood reached gloomily for the marmalade. “And Ivor is usually so very discreet. If anything, he is a young man too much to the circumspect side. May I offer you the marmalade? I shouldn’t have thought it of him.”

To Mr. Thewless this was, for the moment, altogether mysterious. He possessed, however, very considerable intelligence---was he not eminently capable with capable boys?---and this fact (which conceivably had not become apparent to his host) did now result in a dim apprehension of being “got at.” But at least the marmalade was excellent, and he helped himself to a little more of it.

“All that talk,” pursued Cyril Bolderwood presently, “about the North Cape and the Midnight Sun. Unwise, I fear, with so imaginative and restless a boy.”

“My dear sir”---Mr. Thewless was suddenly impatient---“I must say, quite frankly, that I judge you to be indulging a bee in your bonnet. For you are apparently apprehensive of Humphrey’s attempting to run away to sea, or something of the sort. And it seems to me entirely unlikely.” Here Mr. Thewless paused, abruptly visited by suspicion. “But your anxiety is really about that? You are not attempting to divert my mind from the consideration of risks of a different order? For a number of things that have happened do make me occasionally feel----”

“Other risks?” Cyril Bolderwood interrupted with brisk incredulity. “Of course not! Mere fancies, my dear fellow---like your odd notions about the whisky-thieves last night. But about Humphrey’s perhaps cutting and running I am a little anxious, I admit.”

At this Mr. Thewless felt so exasperated that he paused before framing a reply. And in the resulting silence the sound of a telephone bell was heard shrilling in the next room. Cyril Bolderwood jumped to his feet. “Ah,” he said, “that worthless girl has opened her exchange at last. And here’s somebody been waiting to get through, I’ll be bound, this last half-hour. Excuse me, my dear Thewless, while I take the call myself.”

Cyril Bolderwood hurried out. He was absent for a long time. Mr. Thewless looked at his watch, looked out of the window, took another piece of toast. Could his host, conceivably, be right? His own acquaintance with Humphrey Paxton was brief---hardly sufficiently substantial, certainly, for the hazarding of any very confident opinion. But Cyril Bolderwood’s acquaintance with the boy was briefer still; and there was no sign that of this distant connection he had previously known very much by hearsay. Yet Cyril Bolderwood had been talking as one might do from a settled familiarity with Humphrey’s character. There was surely something artificial in this; there was, as it were, a perceptible forcing of the pace. . . .

Mr. Thewless paused on this conception, and as he did so his host returned to the breakfast-room. He looked, Mr. Thewless thought, oddly pale---and moreover it was visibly with a trembling hand that he now poured himself out a third cup of coffee. Could he have had some calamitous news, and was he now nerving himself to break this to his guest? Mr. Thewless took another look, and was convinced, by indefinable but powerful signs, that he was in the presence of a man in a panic. And at this, inevitably enough, all his own repressed anxieties surged up in him. Could Humphrey really have run away to sea in a trawler? He nerved himself to speak. “Mr. Bolderwood,” he said, “I hope you have not had bad news?”

“No, no---nothing of the sort.” And the owner of Killyboffin Hall sat down heavily. “The telephone call was about something entirely trifling. A mere matter of domestic economy, nothing more. I must really apologise for having left you so abruptly. But none of the servants is reliable with the telephone. The miserable rascals----” But here Cyril Bolderwood’s voice tailed off, as if he had not the heart for entering upon one of his familiar imprecations. “The fact is, I have been thinking.” He broke off again, and stared into his cup. It was, Mr. Thewless thought, demonstrably true that his host was thinking very hard indeed---much as if, on the issue, his whole life depended.

“I beg your pardon. You struck me as rather upset.” Mr. Thewless hesitated. “For a moment I had a horrid feeling that you might have been right, and that Humphrey had really bolted.”

“Dear me, no.” In Cyril Bolderwood’s glance as he looked up there was a momentary gleam that told of swift decision. “To tell you the honest truth, my dear fellow, I have never really been afraid of that. In fact you were more or less in the target area a few minutes ago. I have anxieties about Humphrey that I was anxious to conceal from you. And being unable altogether to conceal my feelings, I rather played up the run-away notion.”

At this Mr. Thewless set down his cup and presented his entertainer with an expression that was altogether new. “Explain yourself,” he said sternly.

“Well, my dear chap, we must admit, to begin with, that you had a deuced queer experience yesterday afternoon. The more I think of it, the odder does that affair in the railway tunnel appear to be. And then consider last night. Consider the fellows masquerading as whisky-thieves. I didn’t want to alarm you, you will understand, and I made light of it as far as I could. Still, it was a bit sinister, wasn’t it? Trailing you like that in order to get at the lad. And one of the criminals having been on your train the day before. I don’t like that---I don’t like it at all. It is suspicious, my dear Thewless; positively suspicious.”

“Suspicious?” Mr. Thewless would probably have recognised within himself a rising tide of indignation had this not been overtopped for the moment by bewilderment and dismay. “You surely don’t think----”

“Ivor and I noticed at once that your mind was quite at rest. The significance of your adventure had quite escaped you. And we were most anxious not to spoil your holiday. But we have ourselves been uneasy---very uneasy. It is why we shut up the house so carefully last night. But the criminals managed to break in. Had we not changed the boy’s room---an excellent thought of Ivor’s, since information of where he was first put no doubt leaked out through the servants---they would have got him, you know; they would infallibly have got him. Tell me---did anything else out-of-the-way happen on your journey?”

“Humphrey certainly told me a very odd story. The suggestion seemed to be that he had been kidnapped on the train, shut up in a dark, confined space, and then in some mysterious fashion rescued or released again. It seemed an extremely tall tale.”

“Not at all. It would be the fellow you saw last night, you know, when you made such an excellent shot with the candlestick.”

“I see.” Mr. Thewless was a good deal put to a stand by this incontinent promotion to a secure reality-status of what his host had so lately aspersed as mere vinous imaginings. And now a thought struck him. “Good heavens! I’ll tell you rather a significant thing. The man who was with us in the carriage---a bearded man with glasses, whom I really am sure I saw again last night---left the train at Morecambe---the stop, that is, just before Heysham Harbour. He appeared to be a fisherman, and he had a rod and so forth with him in the compartment. But when he did get off, and I saw him on the platform, he had a case containing some enormous musical instrument. It seemed quite unnaturally heavy. It could almost----”

“Have held Humphrey!” Cyril Bolderwood, triumphant for a moment, paused perplexed. “But it didn’t hold Humphrey so how?”

Mr. Thewless answered this abrupted question as by sudden inspiration. “In the luggage-van, when I come to think of it, as well as this double-bass or whatever it was, there was a weighing machine with a set of pretty heavy looking weights. So somebody----”

“Exactly!” Once more Cyril Bolderwood interrupted. “Somebody could have released Humphrey---it would tally perfectly with the story he told you---and tricked your friend for a time by shoving in the weights instead. I don’t like it---I don’t like it at all. The whole situation that is revealing itself, that is to say. Here is a responsibility that we ought positively not to have undertaken. Our invitation was ill-advised. And Bernard ought certainly not to have accepted it.” Cyril Bolderwood shook a severe and judicial head. “The son of a man in his position, not only immensely wealthy, but doing secret work of the utmost national importance, ought not to have been sent off into the blue---not even to quiet relations like ourselves; not even under the guardianship of so responsible a person as you, my dear fellow. And I’m surprised---indeed I’m positively astounded---that the English authorities don’t provide a lad in such a position with a bodyguard. Now, in South America----”

Mr. Thewless had risen and taken yet another prowl to the window. “Still nobody to be seen,” he said. “Oh dear, oh dear!” He turned back again. “I fear I have been extremely remiss.”

“And in this countryside, of all places in the world!” Cyril Bolderwood spoke from out of the deepest gloom. “Full of lawless wretches, ready to cut your throat as soon as look at you. Danger on every side.”

“On every side?” Mr. Thewless’s alarm grew greater still. “You think there might be more than one---gang, organisation, or whatever it’s to be called---plotting against Humphrey?”

“Oh, no---oh, dear me, no!” Cyril Bolderwood was more swiftly emphatic than he had yet been. “That would be a most extravagant suggestion. One gang, my dear fellow, led by this abandoned desperado with the glasses and the beard. And quite enough, too, in all conscience. He probably had that motor-cruiser we saw in the bay. Any amount of resources, you know, agents of that sort have.”

“Agents?” Mr. Thewless stared. “You mean emissaries of a foreign power?”

“No, no---nothing of the sort.” And Cyril Bolderwood violently shook his head. “Quite the wrong word. Straightforward kidnappers, I should say, out for a big ransom.” He looked at his watch. “This is bad---really bad, is it not? I wish these two would come back. I wish I could contact Ivor and have his advice!”

Mr. Thewless, for whom the excellent Killyboffin marmalade had ceased to have any savour, pushed away his plate and looked in sudden, perplexed speculation at his host. It struck him that in this last cry of the elder of the Bolderwoods there had been more sincerity than had sounded in anything uttered to him for some time.

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