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Chapter Twenty-Two

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« on: September 14, 2023, 06:56:47 am »

HUMPHREY PAXTON’S DOUBTS had grown as he walked. But when he entered the cave he knew at once that this was where the thing must act itself out. It was a cave such as adventure stories own---and must have owned, indeed, from the beginnings of story-telling, so familiar was it, so much part of the already existing furniture of the dreaming or day-dreaming mind. The low orifice; the vast twilight chamber, vaulted and silent, with further dark penetralia, forbidden thresholds, beyond; the deep waters flowing, mysteriously and excitingly, inwards: these were part of the archetypal cave, recognized at a glance. And orthodox too, if at a more superficial level, were the smooth ledges that ran, like narrow and sinuous quays, on either side of the darkly gleaming water. One of these, a resolute man might hold against a whole gang of smugglers, a whole nest of spies; from such a narrow footing, a well-directed blow might send some pirate captain, his cutlass helplessly flailing the air, sheer into his own element. Such fancies were the natural promptings of the place.

Such fancies, too, Ivor Bolderwood designed. Walking behind Humphrey, and glancing at his watch by the last clear light from the open sky, he saw that in just eight minutes’ time the boy was to be kidnapped. His tutor---and the world, should it be disposed to enquire---might believe for a time that he had run away to sea. His father might guess the whole truth if he had a mind to. But the boy himself must guess no more than half of it---and, in a manner, events had conspired to just this end. Humphrey, returned crumpled and scared to the paternal roof in so many days’ time---or weeks, if that were needed---must have no story other than that of his brutal snatching from kindly relatives in Ireland. The crux of the plan lay in that. And did not this unexpected complication of rivals at the game, although it introduced a fresh hazard formidable enough---marvellously second what was aimed at? Something had happened on the Heysham train; something more had happened on the light railway---yes, and something yet further at Killyboffin Hall in the small hours. And in none of these things was a Bolderwood implicated or implicatable. Decidedly it all went well. And Ivor smiled to himself in the growing darkness---unconscious of his father, at this very moment (the girl at the telephone-exchange having consented to begin her day’s duties), listening to calamity on the line from London; unconscious of Bolderwood Hump, of gun for boy 1.15, of the fact that the late husband of the indigent Mrs. Standage had once coxed an eight at Cambridge, of the outraged moral feelings of Soapy Clodd, of Detective-Inspector Cadover now grim and silent in a police car hurrying out to Croydon. There had been ticklish moments, as in a design so fantastically intricate there were bound to be. The strange chance of Sir Bernard Paxton’s having chosen Cox for a tutor---Cox with whom he had had that uncomfortably revealing clash in Montevideo some years ago---that, as hurriedly revealed by Jollard, had required action swift, tricky and nasty. But it had gone off very nicely indeed. There was great advantage in being after something really big. The resources one could draw upon were enormous.

“Have you seen Plutonium Blonde?”

The boy’s question came out of the near darkness like a pistol-shot, and was followed to Ivor’s ear by his own sharply indrawn breath, his own voice raised a pitch in too swift answer. “What do you mean?”

“It just occurred to me to wonder. . . . I say, Ivor, old man, I suppose you’ve brought a torch? Does the sea go right in? Is the air all right? Ought we to have a candle-flame to test it with?”

He knew by now Humphrey’s trick of rapidly fired questions. They covered hard thinking. But this time they covered too his own first alarmed sense that, after all, there might have been some flaw in the design. It was simply impossible that this inconsequent question could be coincidental. Humphrey had framed it, hoarded it, and at last fired it off with what had been, perhaps, triumphant success. The boy suspected something---and that was bad. The boy, reported as immature, unstable, and apt for his part in the plan, proved to have a clear head and an ability to go on using it---which was surely worse. And Ivor began to wonder---as his father, had he known it, was desperately wondering now---whether there were not some alternative way of going to work that would better meet the situation as it had come to stand. But yet he must not exaggerate his misgivings---nor, in the boy, what were still, perhaps, no more than drifts of suspicion, forming only to dissipate themselves moments later, like the pockets of mist still at play on the hillsides when they had begun to descend the cliff. Moreover, the little drama about to be enacted ought to be convincing enough even to the keenest-witted boy, the more especially as it had, all unexpectedly and thanks to the bearded and bespectacled rival desperado---the immense advantage of kindred incidents affording an ample “working up” of the sort of responses required.

Ivor became aware that he had permitted a silence, conceivably sinister in effect, to fall upon the tail of Humphrey’s questions. “A candle?” he said. “No, we need nothing like that. I’ve been through here scores of times. It was my favourite hide-out when I was a boy. But here’s a torch.” He let the beam play past Humphrey’s bare legs. “Straight ahead.”

“Am I to walk in front of you still?” There was a touch of resignation in the boy’s voice.

“Yes---straight forward. It’s a perfectly secure path. But, if you don’t want a ducking, don’t take too big a jump when anything startles you.” Ivor was gay. “And one or two things can</i> do that. Look”---and he flashed the torch upwards---“the roof is stalactitic, as you can see. That means an occasional drop of very cold water on your nose or down the back of your neck. And do you notice how we have started whispering?”

“I certainly do.”

“It’s because any noise multiplies itself quite astoundingly. For instance, fish swim right in, and sometimes they leap. The row is quite surprising. It might be the body of the murdered man going overboard in a sack.”

“I see.” Humphrey’s tone acknowledged the perfect appropriateness of this image to the spirit of the place. He halted and peered down at the water a few feet below him. “What I don’t understand,” he said, “is why it flows. It’s like a subterranean river.”

“It’s the flow that makes a little current of air all through, and keeps the atmosphere pure. And it flows because the whole cave is in the form of a horseshoe, with a second, rather smaller, entrance at the other wide of the headland. That the sea goes slowly through is some trick of the currents here.”

“Don’t you feel that the whole place is a trick?”

“The whole place?” Ivor was again disconcerted.

“A papier-mâché cave in a fun-fair. You pay sixpence to drift slowly through in a boat, and there are all sorts of prepared surprises. Romantic views of Venice behind dirty gauze, and luminous skeletons that drop down from the roof. I don’t think I’d feel it out of the way if we met one or two prepared effects here. It’s in the air, as you might say.”

“I doubt the romantic view of Venice.” Ivor answered readily, but he was now more conscious still of the boy’s power to set him guessing. He was relieved to think that in five minutes the present ticklish phase of the affair would be over.

“Well, I think I’d have more stomach for the skeleton not on an empty stomach. Do we turn back presently, or go right through?”

“I’m all for breakfast too. But it will be just as quick, now, to go right through, and up another track through the cliff. Only”---Ivor’s voice was regretful---“we shan’t have time to look into any of the little caves.”

“Little ones?”

“They ramify out from this. We’ll pass several entrances presently. Some are quite long; others are odd little places, rather like side chapels in a cathedral. You must never explore them by yourself, though.” Ivor delivered this caution with benevolent emphasis. “Not all of them are safe, as the main cave is. Some have crevasses you can’t easily see, with stalagmites like needles at the bottom. Others have deep pools, with smooth sides, like wells. And in some the roof is unsafe, and one might be walled up.”

Humphrey laughed softly. “To be entombed in papier-mâché----what a horrid fate!” For the first time the boy glanced round. And Ivor, glimpsing his face, felt considerably relieved---for the boy’s expression was not that of one taking matters so lightly as his mocking words suggested. He was---rather magnificently, Ivor acknowledged---keeping up a part: a part out of some favourite book, perhaps, in which the hero marched insouciant upon his fate. But he was as pale as a sheet in the torch’s beam, and his lower lip faintly trembled. Better still, he was puzzled; he had found, in whatever conjecture he had formed, no absolute certainty. And, so long as his mind hung in the balance between one interpretation of his situation and another, the event now imminent could scarcely but take it down on the desired side in the end. Reassured as to this, Ivor could spare a little admiration for the boy’s performance. And how superb the intuition of the papier-mâché, the factitious and contrived, essence of the scene!

But the cave itself---or rather the vast cavern that, in fact, it was---stretched sufficiently substantially around them. It had now taken in its course a turn entirely excluding the daylight, and the water flowing perceptibly through it, together with the unintermitted unfolding before their torch’s beam of the gentle curve from which it took its essential form, gave it all the suggestion of some interminable subterranean river projected from the imagination of Humphrey’s favourite poet. The rock face was damp and chill as they brushed it; and neither chill nor damp would wax or wane, whatever change befell external nature---for here the varying cycle of the year had no power to probe. Owning thus no pulse, no rhythm, the place was lifeless and ungenial, propagating only an unnatural and abundant brood of sounds. The waters, that were now, as they climbed to a greater height, almost invisible beneath them, whispered ceaselessly like conspiring maniacs in some Tartarean bedlam. Single drops of water, falling from the fretted vault, exploded on polished stone with a strange resonance, like that of a distant harp string snapping in an empty house at night. And their very footsteps, as if each in alarm at the other’s tread, fled before them and behind them in a constantly repeated diminuendo of frenzied escape. When they spoke their voices, like every other sound, were distorted strangely, so that it was as if they were beset by their own travestied images in some hall of misshapen mirrors. And above them, as perceptibly present as if some muscular effort of their own must hold it off, was the vast suspended burden of living rock, so that one could think up through it until at length, at what might be almost an aeroplane’s elevation, one came upon sheep nibbling the turf directly overhead.

“Here’s the first of the smaller caves.” Ivor’s voice called Humphrey back to what was no more than a narrow slit in the rock face. The torch, thrust through at the length of an extended arm, played upon a blank surface only some yard ahead---the meagre aperture making it impossible to see what lay on either side. Ivor laughed softly. “I haven’t been in there since I was a kid---for obvious reasons! It’s not exciting, though---just a small, almost square chamber, like a cell. I think you could just get in, although I certainly could not. If we thrust you in, Humphrey, and fattened you up on nourishing dishes, or just left you till you’d grown a bit----” He broke off, again laughing softly---laughter through which there for the first time incautiously sounded as it were the overtones of an unlicensed and sinister imagination.

“I think,” said Humphrey, “that’d we better go on.” They moved forward again. “How soon do we see daylight?”

“I should say it’s just a little more than as far again. . . . Hold hard! Here’s another one.”

This time the aperture was larger, and gave upon an oval chamber, low-roofed, down the longer axis of which the light of Ivor’s torch led the eye to two further openings, set close together, that led apparently to further cavities or passages. And of this place the form was at once unreasonably alarming and mysteriously compelling or attractive; it seemed to tug at the very roots of the mind. “And behind,” said Ivor, “there’s a sort of maze of interconnected tunnels. One could bring a picnic and play hide-and-seek.”

“I still think we’d better go on.” There was now a tremor in the boy’s voice, and he pushed forward even before Ivor had swung his torch back to the ledge---it was perhaps three feet broad---which had now climbed to something more than a tall man’s height above the water below. He walked for some moments in silence. Then his voice came back---and this time it was once more level, but very serious. “Ivor,” it asked, “why have you brought me here?”

The direct challenge was curiously difficult to meet. There really seemed, for the moment, to be no colourable reason. And, because of this, Ivor, it may be, a little over-pitched his reply. “Why? Because it’s such tremendous fun!”

“Of course I see that.” Humphrey’s reply was now not so much level in its tones as drowsy, and it was almost as if he spoke with some ambiguity he scarcely understood. “I can see you find it that; I can see . . . the fascination. But it’s . . . well, so decidedly underground and isolated.”

Ivor felt the torch twitch in his hand, felt indeed his whole body twitch as if a touch had been set to his mainspring. It was true that he had for long---and for no very pressing exterior necessity---found his fun in a world uncompromisingly subterraneous. But now, blessedly, the definitive moment had come, and he could neatly enough introduce it by elaborating upon his reply. “Rather fun,” he repeated. “And at the same time quite safe for us in our present odd situation. Not that this wouldn’t be rather a neat place for an ambush.” He let the torch play idly around them as he spoke. “But it’s only the local people who really know about the caves. The kidnapping crowd would never find their way in here.” He laughed lazily---injecting into the tone of it all the suggestion of unweariness, of relaxed vigilance, that he could. “By the way, there’s another little side-cave just here.” For a second his torch touched a dark concavity beside them. “And it’s here that there’s an echo. If we stand with our backs to the little cave”---and he swung Humphrey round---“we’ll just catch it. . . . Cooee!

There was certainly an echo---although no very remarkable one, perhaps, in this home of echoes. They listened to it die away. “Yes,” said Humphrey doubtfully. His voice was almost that of one who catches from the air some hint of defeated expectation.


In its turn, too, Ivor’s second call ebbed away. There was a second of something as near to silence as the place allowed. And Ivor received it rigidly, his every muscle quivering. He turned---his motion was at once swift and indecisive, blundering---and strode into the small cave behind them. Humphrey---driven by darkness, led by curiosity and the full store of courage he had brought into these recesses---followed.

The boy followed---and it was as if he had dived head foremost into a maelstrom of violence whose buffeting made all mental process impossible, made observation as discontinuous, as phantasmagoric, as it was terrifying. Immediately before him was a flailing octopus-shape, uncertainly resolvable into the locked bodies of struggling men. From amid them Ivor’s torch, as if in a clenched hand forced upwards, circled wildly on the dripping, gleaming roof. From some farther corner another torch was at play upon the scene, and through its beam Humphrey dimly glimpsed two further figures that seemed to be of men bound, gagged and thrust out of the way, like supers whose moment was past in the advancing play. Then all his attention was swept to Ivor’s face, sprung into fierce illumination, as by some searing light thrust hard against it. Desperation and rage glared from it, and with these emotions were mingled still the mere surprise of the wary man, betrayed against all expectation. His head went back, blinded; and from amid the confusion of pants, and groans, and blows driven hard upon a human body---grievous sounds multiplied and distorted into indeterminable agonies by the configuration of the place---Humphrey heard his companion’s voice straining for a command of articulate words. “They’ve got us! Run, Humphrey, r----” A fist came up hard against the working jaw. He saw blood spurt from Ivor’s crushed mouth. The panting and groaning grew of heavier respiration more desperate.

For a moment Humphrey stood motionless---paralysed by his fear, paralysed by the vast injustice of the road his thoughts had lately been travelling. For here was revelation. Here was his cousin Ivor---whom he had monstrously suspected, whom he had even believed himself by cunning questions to have lured into self-betrayal---here was Ivor straitly beset by his, Humphrey’s, true enemies; here was Ivor literally defending him to the death. . . . And Humphrey’s legs, which for some seconds had been no legs at all, but clammy columns rooting him to the rock---Humphrey’s legs became compact of nerve and muscle. Even his lungs obeyed him, so that it was with a shout of passionate anger, admirably calculated to wake the remotest echoes of the caves, that he charged into the fight, raining blows where he could.

And the struggling mass of heaving limbs and straining torsos gave for a moment under this fresh impetus, gave sufficiently for Ivor to heave himself partly free and snatch out his revolver. But they were upon him again in an instant, and it was without aim or any effective control that the weapon, twisted into air, now again and again spat fire---spat fire and vomited thunder, cataclysm, chaos as of the ruining down of the very pillars of the world. For this rapid succession of reports, which would have been sufficiently ear-splitting in itself, the caves in their farthest extension, their remotest and most intricate honeycombing, rose to nobly, as to a challenge. Second after second the uproar only grew, as if straining to some hideous consummation, some final shattering of the ear, the begetting of some last, all-embracing Noise by which, as by the angel’s terminal trumpet, all noises should be ended. . . . It ebbed; hearing, exhausted, slept even in the midst of continued turmoil; another, and sluggish sense took over; the universe was all gunpowder and sweat.

Humphrey’s arms were pinioned. There were shins before him and he kicked; there was some fleshly part, straining through stretched cloth, and he bit it---deep. He felt himself lifted bodily and pitched through space; he might have been in mid-air still when his reawakening ear heard what was surely Ivor’s last shuddering cry; he fell shatteringly on rock and for a moment lay still, knowing only that the pain he would presently feel would be deep and sickening in belly and groin. But the fight, he realised, continued after all; gasps and grunts attested it to his ear even while nothing but a swimming blackness hung before him. He staggered up on one knee, and as his eyes cleared saw standing before him, looking dispassionately down, the bearded man of the Heysham train. The man smiled at him---a sweet, evil smile, far more terrifying than any expression of ferocity could have been. The man smiled and then---expertly, with cold brutality---kicked the boy’s raised knee, so that he tumbled again, as through a wave of agony, to the ground. His consciousness mercifully flickered; he was fadingly aware of the fight rolling out of the little cave to the narrow ledge beyond, and then of a reverberating splash, as of some inert body being pitched into the dark waters below. Instantly, as if it were his own fate, some cold element closed over him.

Ice-cold water deluged him. But it was not that they had thrown him in too; it was simply that they had found means to give him a good soaking by way of restoring him to consciousness. And at least it worked. His mind suddenly was very clear; he lay on his back and stared up into dazzling torchlight; beyond this hung the faces of his bearded enemy and two other men. They looked down on him in grim proprietorship, like people who had run some troublesome pest to earth. The bearded man spoke. “He’s cost us a good deal,” he said. “But there he is. Bring him along.”

Humphrey was in great pain. In the attempt to smother it, he rolled over on his stomach. One of the men bent down and took him hard by the hair, dragging him up upon his hands and knees. Weakly, he began to crawl. The second man kicked him hard behind.

Had it not been for this last savagery it would all have been over with Humphrey, for he had believed himself---and with substantial reason---to be beaten. But in this there was sheer indignity as well as pain; it confronted him with obscure memories he had resolved never again to entertain; a flame of anger rose in him and brought him supernaturally to his feet; he saw the dark cave and the men around him through a milky mist. And he found that he had a weapon in his hand. It was no more than a short length of heavy rope, brought by his antagonists for their own sinister ends. But involuntarily he had grasped it---and now, straight before him, was the bearded man’s face. He put all his strength into the lash; he heard a scream that went through his veins like wine. He swung round and one of the other men confronted him---surprised, straddled, vulnerable. Humphrey praised God for his stout shoes and kicked. The man went down howling. Humphrey jumped his body as it fell and ran out of the little cave.

He was in darkness and on the narrow shelf that led---but over interminable distances, as it seemed to his memory---to daylight and the possibility of freedom. A dozen feet below him, and flowing between walls of sheer rock, was the sea; and somewhere down there the dead body of Ivor drifted. Behind him were two ruffians recovering from unexpected overthrow, and a third, uninjured, who must be coming hard after him now. They would have torches. He had only eyes which---from sheer necessity and the love of dear life---had at least some apparent power of distinguishing between the greater and the lesser darkness of rock and air. But this served him only as he stood and with concentration peered. Whereas his only chance---his only ghost of a chance---lay in the rapid flight that might gain him a flying start. He must race along this winding ledge in blind precipitance, with nothing to guide him but his finger-tips stretched out and brushing the rock face beside him as he ran. Yes, that was decidedly his single hope: to wring from his sheer desperation a speed more hazardously headlong than any his enemies, equipped with torches though they were, would willingly venture on.

It is not easy to run full-tilt through any pitch darkness; it outrages an instinct against which the will can scarcely urge the muscles on. Much less is it easy in the knowledge that ice-cold waters, through which a corpse is drifting, await one at the length of an extended arm. But Humphrey, having come at the intellectual necessity of running, ran. He remembered that the path, worn smooth whether by generations of smugglers or by the operation of the sea, had presented a reasonably level surface underfoot, so that there was comparatively little danger of a stumble. But in places, and even when he had been moving with care the other way, it had been too slippery for comfort; and in this there lay one of the dangers that he could afford now only to ignore.

For now they were after him. The cave was alive with their footfalls---footfalls that appeared to recede from him with miraculous speed, others that with an equal speed overtook him, but died away as they came. He was skilled to interpret this echoing confusion now; he knew that all three men were in the pursuit; and he knew that they were failing to gain on him as they ran. Hope in him grew suddenly strong. They could of course, pinning him down in the beam of their torches, shoot. But there was no reason to suppose that a dead boy would be of any use to them, and he knew enough of firearms to realise that only an exceptional marksman could, under such conditions, with any confidence fire only to maim. Certainly it was not unlikely that, if their pursuit failed them they would shoot to kill rather than let him carry his story out of the cave. But this was simply another of the dangers about which nothing could be done.

His path was sloping downwards now, and an occasional glint from the water came up to him as he ran. His breath was coming very short and his heart was pounding; he had the swift, horrible knowledge that, unexpectedly soon, his strength was going to fail. He had been pretty roughly handled in the little cave; his knee as he ran hurt in a fashion quite outside his experience, and it was this that took it out of him most. Hitherto, moreover, he had thought of his danger and this hideous subterraneous place as being coterminous. But now he realised that there was only childish instinct behind this coupling of daylight and safety. He remembered the long beach, the long climb across the face of the cliff. Barring the unlikely chance of some sufficiently numerous assemblage of persons in that solitary spot, he had really no hope at all. He was simply giving the creatures behind him a run for their money.

Meanwhile, he was still heading them. But his start, after all, had been of the slenderest, and they were so close that, on rounding a bend, the torch-light they cast before their own feet afforded him, too, some illumination as he ran. And now one of them, realising this, advanced his beam, for an instant let it rest on him, and then made it dance in rapid zigzags immediately before him. It was a cunning move, so bewildering as almost to take him into the water at once, and for the time he could only reduce speed so that he knew that they were gaining on him---so that he expected to feel, indeed, at any moment the hot breath of a pursuer on his neck. But still he ran, for the good reason that there was nothing else to do. They were not even the sort of urbane kidnappers who had frequently entertained him in fiction; if he was not to be booted and wrenched and tugged---treated worse than one might be treated at the most horrid of schools---he must keep out of their heavy hands. Particularly, he grimly thought, after having so gloriously landed that wallop with the rope’s end, that extremely ungentlemanlike kick. . . . One of them had begun to shout. The sound, although in itself alarming, raised his spirits once more, since it seemed the distinctly futile expedient of an angry and baffled man. But this luxury he enjoyed only for a second; there was an answering shout from straight ahead, and the darkness was cut by a dazzling ray that leapt up and took him full in the eyes like a blow. It brought him up dead. And as the torches behind him advanced, and as the first blinding effect subsided, he saw enough to know that any faint hope of its being succour that lay ahead of him was vain. For here was simply another ruffian of the deepest dye.

The man advanced. The footsteps behind were now only a score of yards off. Only one resource was left to him: to take a header into the black waters below. But, even so, he could not swim away; he could swim only up or down, and most certainly not so fast as his enemies could run. They would only have to wait, and presently haul him out like a half-drowned rat. . . . And now from in front and from behind they were upon him; their hands were stretching out to clutch, to wrench. Terror pouring over him, he cowered, shrank back against the face of the rock as if in very pity it might open and receive him. His shoulders were crushed as in a vice; he twisted, thrust, squirmed---and the rock had received him. He was through. In a fraction of a second’s complete clarity he realised what had happened. This was the little cave into which Ivor had not been since he was a kid. This was the little cave through the narrow cleft to which no grown man could hope to penetrate. He fell on his hands and knees, and a strange new clamour was all around him. He listened to it with curiosity, but without alarm. It was, he discovered, his own wildly pealing laughter.

There was clamour from outside too, and for the moment it was merely bewildered. The speed of what had so unexpectedly happened had given to his disappearance all the effect of something out of Nature, and his adversaries were utterly at a stand. But his laughter had betrayed him; there was a shout of comprehension; once more torch-light was playing full upon him as he crouched. And like a minnow in a tank Humphrey started into movement and scurried to the most inviolate corner of his fastness. There he huddled, his heart pounding with the force of hammer strokes in his chest. Had Ivor’s calculation been correct? Or could one of these men, if not too bulky, actually, fatally, squeeze through? There was a sickening sound from the aperture of successful heave and shove; then an exclamation of discomfort, of pain; there was a grunt as somebody freed himself from the constricting rock; there was imprecation, hurried and murmured talk. Humphrey waited, and this process repeated itself---again with no ill result. And at this Humphrey stretched himself out in utter luxury on the ground, his every limb relaxed. And as he did so the possibility of an ease yet more exquisite dawned on him. He could allow himself the extravagance of speech. “Hullo,” he said. “Hullo, you silly asses---won’t you come in?”

At his words, the murmur outside stopped. He heard heavy and exhausted breathing, and realised that the condition of these great brutes was altogether inferior to his own; it was out of them that the headlong chase had really taken it. The knowledge went wildly to his head; his sprawled body curled itself like a spring; he was once more doubled up, dissolved, in helpless laughter. Through this he struggled again for speech, and presently it gloriously came---a torrent of childish mockery, rude epithets, snatches of verse, lavatory humour, farmyard imitations, puns. And when he had done himself this ease he was suddenly serious, practical, assured. There was a stick of chocolate in his pocket; he took it out and ate a piece with slow deliberation. Then again he spoke. “Hullo, chaps---you still there?”

“We are here, Humphrey.” It was the voice of the bearded man; Humphrey remembered it as it had sounded on the Heysham train.

“Don’t you think you’d better be cutting along, you great ugly, stupid, incompetent, clumsy brute? You’ve lost, you know---and that’s that. If you hang about in this very unintelligent way you only increase your chances of an early appointment with the gallows.” Humphrey paused, pleasurably savouring this superior flight of rhetoric. “The others realise that, you know. Just have a look at them; they’re dead scared at what they’ve done---the dirty, murdering swine.” Exultation had suddenly left the boy; he was shaken from head to foot by what he realised was hatred and rage. “You killed my cousin, you low maggots! You killed him when he was fighting to get me out of this. And if you do cut off now, if you bolt to the furthest corners of the earth, I’ll never rest until I know that the law has brought you back and snapped your filthy necks.”

This speech was evidently not without effect. The murmuring outside was renewed, and this time it held a note of altercation. Presently, however, there was silence, and then the bearded man spoke. “We are going to wait for you, Humphrey. We are going to wait until you come out.”

“And whatever is going to bring me out?”

“Thirst might, for one thing.”

“Never believe it. The moisture coming down these walls isn’t even brackish. Besides, the idea’s absurd. Ivor and I have been missed by now. And it’s very likely that the racket those pistol-shots made has been heard over half the countryside. Look at your low friends again. They feel that. They’ll be off without you, if you don’t quit. And I’m not absolutely convinced that they won’t put a bullet in you first---just for luck, you big stinker.”

“We can smoke you out.”

“Absolutely useless.” Humphrey was in command of the situation, and he knew it. “I only got in with a tremendous effort and all my wits about me. Do you think I’d ever manage to get out again when half-stupefied? Besides, you sadistic moron, I’d rather die than fall into your hands. You know that---don’t you? And it goes for shooting, too. Fire often enough into this little cave and, sooner or later, a ricochet would get me. But it wouldn’t do you much good, would it? . . . Do I hear people coming?”

This last stroke was admirably calculated; it produced a moment’s near-panic in the enemy. On the strength of it Humphrey had another piece of chocolate.

“Your only real chance is to clear out now and try again to-morrow. Or why not pretend to clear out now, and lurk somewhere for the innocent lad as he breaks cover and makes for home?” And Humphrey laughed comfortably. “I expect you can answer that one. I’m not going to break cover; not until they’ve come down from the house to hunt for me. And not then either; not until they’ve sent for half a dozen armed policemen. I’m through with this as private fun, you great big ugly maggot. You’ve done something too jolly beastly. I’ll have detectives and all the rest of it now. So be off, and crawl back into the woodwork. After the rotten show you put up last night, creeping all round Killyboffin and getting nothing but a clip on the ear from Thewless, I wonder you have the face to stay in business. And besides, you know, that feeble performance hasn’t gone for nothing. It means that the police and the madhouse folk are out by now, scouring the country for a pack of half-wit, yellow, incompetent crooks.”

If there was much in all this of Humphrey’s that was deplorably lacking in elevation of thought and dignity of tone, it was a speech nevertheless persuasively grounded in solid sense. The assistant ruffians were now audibly for immediate retreat; only the bearded man was obstinate---was, indeed, whipped up to fury. There was a moment’s silence and then Humphrey was startled to hear the old heaving and straining begin again. The most formidable of his adversaries was having another try. But the boy was confident now. He crept up close to the aperture and substituted for his late loud tone a bloodcurdling whisper! “Come on, old mole---work away! Do you know what I’ve got here? A really nice lump of jagged rock. And when your rotten head comes six inches nearer I’ll pound and pash it into a pulp.”

There was a moment’s stillness, followed by a sound of rapid extrication. The bearded man had given up. And Humphrey---who was undoubtedly behaving very childishly---had just begun to cast about in his mind for some further contumelious strain when the silence was cut, to positively electrical effect, by the shrill blast of a powerful whistle. The sound came apparently from that larger of the entrances to the long cavern by which Humphrey and Ivor had entered, but in a fraction of time its echoes were everywhere, so that it was impossible to tell by how many actual pairs of lungs the wild alarm was being sounded. By the ruffians without---whose morale, indeed, must have been considerably undermined by the implacable eloquence of their young antagonist---it was taken as a plain signal of whole cohorts advancing to the vindication of law and order. Humphrey glimpsed the torch-light through that blessedly narrow cleft waver and fade. Then he heard, first, a single, deep, panic-stricken curse; and, second, the sheer music of four heavy men taking to their heels. Again, and this time nearer, the whistle shrilly blew; and again echo wrought the same rich confusion of effect. With surprising speed the pounding footsteps---themselves augmented and distorted to render effects as of a whole herd of buffalo in stampede---faded and ceased. There was a second’s silence and then, from the direction in which they had departed, the roar of a powerful marine engine starting into life. Perhaps, Humphrey thought, it was the motor-cruiser. They would have had it lurking at that farther opening of the cavern by which Ivor had proposed that they should themselves leave it.

Anyway, they were gone. And---quite suddenly---Humphrey felt queer; far queerer than he had ever felt in his life before. There was now only darkness round him, but it was a darkness that danced and sickeningly swam. He had believed himself to be standing firmly on his feet. But to his surprise---the dim surprise of an already fading consciousness---he found that he was really crumpled up in a deflated, a quite desperately small and weary, heap. He had an uncertain impression of light footsteps near at hand; of his own name being called, and called again, in a familiar voice. But his bruised and exhausted body had already curled in upon itself. He lay in a posture of infancy, a thumb stolen to his mouth. Perhaps he had fainted. Perhaps he was simply asleep.

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