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Chapter Twenty-One

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« on: September 13, 2023, 12:23:07 pm »

I SUPPOSE YOU know,” Ivor Bolderwood had said quietly as soon as he and Humphrey had gained the open air, “what those fellows in the night were after?”

“Oh, yes---I know. Look, Ivor---is that a kestrel?”

And Ivor Bolderwood had stared upwards at the small black shape poised above the dawn---but not before his glance had travelled curiously over the lad at his side. Humphrey, he thought, was in some uncertain stage of development, and ready to take a push either way. It would not, surely, take much to thrust him back into childhood and its helpless fears; correspondingly, it would not take so very much to make a man of him. “A sparrow-hawk,” he said. “It’s looking for something small and defenceless to pounce on, and carry off, and deal with at leisure. . . . I was talking about these men that are after you.”

But Humphrey was still looking into the sky. “Did you ever,” he asked, “see an eagle fighting with a snake---high up, like that?”

“No, never.”

“Do you think Shelley did?”

“Shelley!” exclaimed Ivor. “And what has Shelley got to do with it?”

Humphrey turned to him in surprise. “Got to do with what, Ivor?”

“Why, this that you’re up against. This situation.”

“Oh, that!” Humphrey’s gaze went seawards. “Are there any gannets?”

“Gannets? If we went along the cliffs we might see some now.” And for some minutes Ivor obligingly talked about gannets---and only the more coherently because he was aware of the unexpected appearance of something imponderable in the situation. Was it possible that the boy’s fantasy life had led him to a point at which he was a little astray in his wits? Or---a totally contrary hypothesis---had somebody already been on that job of making a man of him? Ivor paused to fill a pipe. It was a disordered thing to do long before breakfast, but the last few minutes had made him feel oddly in need of steadying. Much more so than the mere fact that, as things had turned out, it was necessary to keep a revolver next to his tobacco-pouch, and to scan every hedgerow as he neared it. That sort of thing was part of the day’s work with him; he had made his life of it. But this. . . .

He let the subject of gannets, sufficiently explored, easily drop. “You are fond of Shelley?” he asked.


There was a silence. The subject seemed one upon which Humphrey was indisposed to be communicative. But for a moment Ivor kept it up. “I don’t know much about him,” he said. “But I seem to remember that he once lay down on the bottom of a pool just to see what it would be like to drown. And, if somebody hadn’t interfered, drowned he would in fact have been. I suppose people do sometimes court danger even of quite a deadly kind just to know what it feels like.”

“Oh, yes---I’m sure they do.” Humphrey’s reply was entirely ready. “In fact, Ivor, I’d say you were rather the type yourself.”

“We go down this little path.” Ivor glanced first warily about him, and then with an almost equal wariness at his companion. “But look here, Humphrey, would you like to go back? The truth is, you know, that we’re courting danger ourselves, and I don’t know that I ought to do it.”

“Do you think this might be gold?” Humphrey had picked up a stone and was pointing with childish naïveté at a streak of copper pyrites. With an inconsequence that was equally childish, he threw the stone away, and it bounded down the cliff they were now approaching. “But you are armed, aren’t you?”

“I certainly am. I have a revolver in my pocket.”

“Then I think we may perfectly reasonably go on. How green the sea is between the rocks!”

“Good. That at least means that you trust me.” Ivor paused for another of his wary reconnaissances. “You do trust me, don’t you?”

And at this Humphrey stopped. His glance---as a glance should do upon such a question---met Ivor’s direct. It was wholly candid. “Of course I do,” he said. “I trust you as much as I trust any man.”

The reply had an oddly mature ring, and for a moment it held Ivor up. But Humphrey, he realised, did mean what he said. “Good!” And he touched the boy lightly on the shoulder. “Then we can face it out quite comfortably. Be careful at this next corner; there’s a pretty sheer drop.”

“I don’t mind heights. What I do hate is the dark. Sometimes it can make a kid of me at once.”

“Is that so?” For an instant Ivor might have been detected bearing the appearance of one who makes a useful mental note. “Don’t you like the headland straight in front? And there’s a big cave beneath it. We might just have time to get to it now. You might as well see what you can while you can.”

“While I can?” Humphrey was startled.

“Well, you see, this can’t go on. There has been an attempt to kidnap you, and that is a very serious thing. My father and I couldn’t possibly take the responsibility of not letting Sir Bernard know at once; and Mr. Thewless is certain to feel just the same. It will certainly mean policemen investigating, and that sort of thing. And I am afraid it is likely to mean the end of your Irish holiday as well.”

“I see. I’m glad I saw the gannets.”

Ivor received this with a glance askance; it was too like a remote irony to be altogether comfortable to him. But presently he spoke again. For the right ideas had to be injected, and moreover he was increasingly curious about this out-of-the-way boy. “It all sounds more like America than England or Ireland, doesn’t it? But there it is. You are the son of a very rich man. And somebody wants to kidnap you and extort, no doubt, a very large sum of money. You understand that that’s it?”

“That’s certainly it.” Humphrey paused, apparently in hopeful inspection of another ore-bearing stone. “And precisely it, isn’t it?”

A stone rattled on the cliff-path behind them, and Ivor swung round upon it. Nothing was visible, and its dislodgement must be a delayed effect of their own passage. But had something else startled him as well? “We should hate to think of your father having to pay up some enormous sum,” he said.

“Yes---it would be too bad.”

Was there, for a fraction of a second, something like a secret smile about Humphrey’s mouth? Ivor was prompted to heartiness. “Well, we jolly well won’t let them get away with it.”

“No, they won’t get away with it---whatever it is.”

“That’s the spirit!” But, to a greater extent than before, Ivor was sensibly troubled. The peculiar confidence with which the boy had spoken might be mere childishness---but could it be something else? “I’m glad you’re quite sure of it, Humphrey.”

“Oh, I’m sure, all right. It comes of not playing the game.”

“Not playing the game! I don’t think I understand you.”

“I suppose they’ve told you that I am a problem-child?” And Humphrey turned upon his companion a glance of which the innocent seriousness was decidedly baffling. “It’s been going on for some years---and, of course, one of the grand signs is that I don’t play the game. If I get a hack at rugger I think they’re being nasty to me, and I bite. If I’m bowled at cricket I say it isn’t fair, and I throw the bat at them.”

“How very odd.” Ivor found himself quite unable to decide whether these shocking revelations were fact or fantasy. “But I don’t see what they have to do with----”

“Just that I’ve cheated this time too. They think I’m playing the game according to the idiotic rules they’ve thought up for it---the sort of rules that mean that they’re bound to win. But I’m jolly well not. You see, I’ve kept the ace up my sleeve. Or rather----”


This prompting word had escaped Ivor in spite of himself. Almost certainly, Humphrey was now delivering himself of no more than the meaningless boasts of infancy. And yet----

“Yes, Humphrey?”

It dried the boy up at once. “Where’s the cave?” he asked. “Does the sea go right inside? Do you need a torch for it?”

“You’ll see in a few minutes. But you were telling me how you were going to cheat them. I’m awfully interested. Do go on.”

Humphrey laughed. “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery, Ivor.” He paused, suddenly frowning. “Hamlet said that, didn’t he? Who did he say it to? Was it a friend? Can you remember?”

“I think it was to a thoroughly bad hat.” Humphrey, Ivor realised, was momentarily suspicious of him after all; some drift of association from Shakespeare’s play---the false professions, presumably, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern---had disturbed him.

“I know! It was one of the men that Hamlet thought was on his side, but who took him away to England to be murdered.” Humphrey had stopped on the perilous little track they were following down the cliff, and now he looked at Ivor with what really was swift distrust. “Shan’t we be late for breakfast?”

“Good gracious, no! We got up ever so early. But of course, if you like, we can turn back. Look! There’s the first of the trawlers going out.”

“And the motor-cruiser’s gone already. It’s a terribly lonely sea. From up here it looks like a single toy steamer on an enormous pond.” Humphrey moved to the very edge of the track and gazed down. “We’re still tremendously high up. Like one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade.” He repeated the line, and his spirits seemed to rise. “Come along, Ivor! Does the cave have an echo in it? Is it very cold?”

They climbed down steadily. The face of the cliff now screened them entirely on the land side. Below them, where first a line of tumbled rock and then a long, thin sickle of sand separated the base of the cliff from the sea, the prospect was utterly deserted at this early hour---and looked, indeed, as if it might commonly remain so all day. They walked in shadow; the rock face was cold as they pressed against it; with the smell of brine there was as yet only faintly mingled any of the awakening scents of heath and ling. But already the sea was a sheet of silver under the sun, its surface disturbed only by the long, lazy undulations in the wake of the vanishing trawler, or by the sudden plummet-fall of a gannet from the sky. Lesser gulls were wheeling above and below them as they walked, making the still air vertiginous to the eye, exploiting in shrill cries their power to evoke haunting suggestions of loneliness, desolation, pain. The path turned and for a few yards ran through the cliff like a cutting. Ivor, who was ahead, walked with one hand always in his jacket-pocket. His expression, as soon as his face was averted from Humphrey, had hardened into that of one whose senses are on the stretch for tiny physical things. And Humphrey too, when he ceased to converse, had a look not altogether ordinary. Sometimes his glance rested on the figure immediately before him, and in these moments a spectator would have found it readily interpretable, for it was the glance of one who sees, and would fain solve one way or the other, a known and finite problem. But at other times his eyes changed focus and glinted upon something very far away; his breath came faster through parted lips; his chin went up; he trod with a certain automatism the rough path beneath his feet. The swooping gulls, had they been anthropologically inclined, might have reflected that here was a stripling warrior advancing upon unpredictable rites. And thus this odd pair picked their way---having nothing but the appearance, to an intimate regard, of persons proposing a before-breakfast stroll to a place of local curiosity. They were almost at sea-level now, and could hear the flap and murmur of small waves stealing in from an ocean still half asleep---an ocean wholly and vastly indifferent to what transacted itself upon its verge. Ivor turned his head for a moment. “It will be dark in the cave. Did you say darkness frightens you?”

“Sometimes I could follow it like a dream.”

Ivor was silent for a moment. He found Humphrey’s unabashed---his positively monarchal---raids upon English poetry very little to his taste. “And all this,” he said presently, “doesn’t that frighten you a bit?”


“The fact of these desperate and unscrupulous people being on your trail.”

“It frightened me most terribly.”

They moved on again mutely, Humphrey with some obtrusiveness offering no elucidation of the tense into which he had cast this statement. Presently, however, he did speak: “And I’m very glad I’m not taking this walk alone.”

There was a lurking appeal for reassurance in this. Ivor laughed. “We certainly can’t have you scouring the country by yourself just at present. That ambulance would roll up again, and away you’d go. They wouldn’t bag the tutor instead of the pupil a second time.”

“It was odd they did that, wasn’t it?”

This brought Ivor up. “Yes,” he said. “It was odd.”

“And I had another escape on the Heysham train that was odd too.”

“Did you, indeed?” And Ivor’s eyes came swiftly upon his companion. “Tell me about it.”

But again prompting proved to be a mistake. Something---it seemed three parts mischief and one part caution---held Humphrey back from pursuing the theme. Instead, he returned to a confidence of another sort. “I suppose,” he said thoughtfully, “that some people are brave and some cowardly in a settled way. I mean the one thing or the other all the time. They’re usually like that in books. But with me it’s intermittent.” He paused on this impressive word. “Last night, you know, when I heard old Thewless yell, and I grabbed my gun in the dark and ran out, I think I was more terribly scared than I’ve ever been before. There seemed to be no safety . . . anywhere. But then, when I saw that he’d had a rough time again, poor old chap, and I was afraid he might be badly hurt, and I got my arm round him and told him to cheer up, I just stopped being frightened without so much as noticing that I had stopped. Of course you and your father were about by then. That must have been it.”

“That must have been it. Mr. Thewless is an excellent man. But I don’t think he’d cut much of a figure in a crisis.”

“Oh, no---you’re wrong there.” Humphrey’s eyes went off into distance, so that he looked for a moment very like Sir Bernard conversing with the æther. “You ought to be right, but I’m sure you’re wrong. Perhaps he really----” Humphrey abruptly broke off. They had reached the bottom of the cliff, and beyond a strip of boulders, rock-pools and shingle the long beach stretched before them. “What wizard sands! I’ll race you, Ivor.” And the boy went off at a bound.

For a second Ivor was irresolute, his eye on the firm, shining surface, printless save for the criss-cross tracks of gulls; he might have been a man recognizing in a situation some factor of which account ought to have been taken long ago. “Stop!” he called. “Come back at once!” And he himself advanced a few paces, as if meditating pursuit.

Humphrey turned back in surprise. “What’s wrong, Ivor? You---you haven’t spotted the enemy?”

“No, not that. But those sands are dangerous. We must keep along the rocks. Rather a shame, isn’t it? This way! Look, the cave is over there.”

“Dangerous! You mean it’s quicksand?” Humphrey’s eye travelled swiftly over the long beach, and his intelligence was working swiftly behind it. “Why, it looks impossible! I’ve seen----”

“Not all over, of course. Just in patches. And that makes it thoroughly treacherous.”


The word, as Humphrey echoed it, hung upon the air rather longer than Ivor liked, making him wish that he had phrased his warning differently. “But it’s rather fun going by these pools. There are crabs, and sea-anemones, and some astonishing seaweeds.”

Perceptibly, Humphrey hung back. Perhaps it was merely that the proffer of these interesting marine exhibits struck too juvenile a note---as if the graduate in Biggles, the student of Captain Hugh Drummond, the explorer of the pastoral loves of Daphnis and Chloe had been questioned on a forgotten command of the creations of Miss Enid Blyton. Or perhaps it was something else. . . . “We’ll be there in five minutes now,” Ivor said. “You can see the opening. It’s that dark patch just before the next headland.”

“It’s going to be a long way back to breakfast. And I’m hungry. I’m tired, too.” The corners of Humphrey’s mouth were dropping, and his mental age was clearly threatening to drop with them. For a moment he dragged one foot after another across the rock---a gesture very sufficiently childish. “I want to go----” He checked himself, and was evidently confronting the fact that Killyboffin Hall was not precisely his native ground. His shoulders squared themselves. “Then come on!” he said. “But straight to the cave. Never mind the beastly seaweeds and jellyfishes.” And he scrambled his way forward, avoiding further talk---and also, perhaps, a little heartening himself---by whistling some altogether vulgar tune. But every now and then his glance went out across the empty sands, and his high forehead grew puckered under its crown of untidy black hair.

The gulls wheeled around them, crying out as if in some futile warning. The mouth of the cave, foreshortened to a jagged slit in the face of the cliff, lay in front---obscurely sinister, like an unsutured wound.

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