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Chapter Twenty-Three

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« on: September 14, 2023, 09:22:41 am »

IT WAS TEN o’clock. Mr. Thewless had retired to his bedroom and was finishing his unpacking. The operation was not exacting, and it need hardly be said that he performed it in almost complete absence of mind. His chief concern---apart from the almost intolerable one of simply waiting---was to decide whether the situation demanded any immediate initiative on his own part. By this he meant, say, action within the next half-hour. For it was quite clear to him (and he marvelled, indeed, that it was not quite clear to his host) that the sensational situation now admitted and to be faced decidedly forbade the whole morning’s passing without the taking of some quite obvious steps. He himself, he saw, had been extraordinarily obtuse; but he was by no means now---as the elder Mr. Bolderwood appeared to be---markedly confused and dilatory. His initiation into the guardianship of Humphrey had been, thanks to the boy’s seemingly bizarre behaviour at Euston, a matter of wild and blundering suspicions; from this he had passed into a phase of stubborn scepticism; and that phase his host, until not much more than a few minutes ago, had sustained him in with what might appear, to a scrutiny more leisured than that which Mr. Thewless now commanded, a positively mysterious answering obtuseness. But the events of the night had constituted a fence stiffer than any reassuring interpretation could readily take. And Mr. Bolderwood, after what appeared in the retrospect a merely muddled endeavour to do so, had come round---dramatically and, to Mr. Thewless’s recollection, upon no fresh presentation of argument or evidence---to the view that Humphrey was, and had been, very startlingly in danger. This being so, certain necessities were clear. The police must be told, and their protection claimed---a proceeding that doubtless involved calling upon forces considerably more substantial than the hamlet of Killyboffin could provide. If there was likely to be delay here, the making of some immediate appeal was only the more desirable. And, again, Sir Bernard Paxton must be communicated with at once. And this in particular, Mr. Thewless thought, was his own responsibility. Only it raised one issue the undetermined nature of which would sound awkwardly on a trunk-line to London. Was the threat against Humphrey merely impending still? Or had it accomplished itself?

The boy had gone out early, perhaps accompanied, perhaps only followed, by Ivor Bolderwood. And neither the boy nor the young man had returned for breakfast. This, looked at squarely, was occasion for the blankest dismay; and the mounting irritation that Mr. Thewless felt at something obscurely equivocal in the attitude of his host was for the moment swamped by an even larger tide of self-reproach. The very moment of his waking up from the heavy sleep that had unfortunately followed upon his night’s adventures should have seen him hurrying to his charge’s side, should have seen him raising a hue and cry when the boy was discovered to have made off. Instead of which, he had allowed himself to be half cajoled and half bullied into some hours of passive spectatorship. What ought he now to do?

He was at the immense disadvantage, had he known it, of having never had other than the most respectable persons within, so to speak, view-halloo; and it was thus his instinct, when a rat was scented, to peer rather remotely at the horizon. He did this in sober fact now, crossing to his window for perhaps the twentieth time and gazing out as if in the expectation of discerning a band of cut-throats on the farthest hill-top. Suspicions altogether more domestic were, indeed, dimly awake in him, but they had as yet taken no effective grip on his mind. He knew simply that he was perturbed by more than he could bring to the surface. He knew, for instance, that he had distinctly failed---had, unaccountably, over the last few minutes so failed---in taking some effective measure which it had been open to him to take. His inability at all sharply to focus this perception agitated him physically, and this agitation now had a small but fateful consequence. He let slip from his hands a small note-book which he had taken from his suitcase a moment before. And as it fell to the floor he was vividly reminded of an incident of the previous evening. Just so had Humphrey, while still occupying the room next door, dropped a note-book upon his tutor’s entering. But Humphrey had done something further. He had then kicked the note-book deftly beneath the carpet.

It might well be there still. And Mr. Thewless---the tiny episode showing vaguely portentous in the light of subsequent events---resolved at once to retrieve it. He slipped into the next room, pulled back the carpet, and found that the note-book indeed lay to his hand. He carried it back with him, glancing at it the while. Why should Humphrey have been embarrassed when discovered having dealings with it? It was a plain exercise book such as one might buy for sixpence, with the name “H. E. H. Paxton” written in a bold if inelegant hand in one corner. Presumably, Mr. Thewless thought, it served as a private diary. He opened it gingerly at the first page and found this surmise amply confirmed:

    DAIRY
    (cont.)
    Seecret!
    Confidential!
    Stranger, do not read!
    H. E. H. P.


Mr. Thewless frowned---partly at Humphrey’s orthography, which was deplorable in so capable a boy; partly at the moral problem which he was himself confronting. But his perplexity lasted only for a moment and was resolved with great good sense. He opened the diary and scanned it rapidly.

+++

While Mr. Thewless was unpacking---slowly and in some absence of mind---his host, oddly enough, was engaged in the inverse operation---and if with an equal absence of mind certainly with much greater speed. This, he was reflecting, was it. To this his cherished and inimitable son, venturing at length too high a flight, had brought them both at last. In all probability there was nothing for it but a quick get-away and a going underground for good. One can, of course, engage in espionage and sundry related activities without cutting oneself off from the possibility of retiring, upon any discomfiture, to a number of pleasant asylums in one or another part of the civilised, or approximately civilised, world. But when one has been masterfully concerned in a murder in a London cinema one is almost certainly at the troublesome necessity of changing one’s identity for good. The dubious South American magnate, the eccentric Irish squire, were both personæ from which the last grains of sand were falling. Or so, at least, to the elder Mr. Bolderwood it appeared. Ivor, when he returned, might yet contrive a more hopeful view of the matter.

But Ivor---such was the necessity of their plot---was not to return for a good many hours yet. Bloody but unbowed, he was to stagger in with the news of his own near-murder and the snatching away of Humphrey. And in the interim---such still had been the plan---the dimly perceptive Thewless was to have been put off with vague speculations of the boy’s mere truancy---a truancy from which Ivor was to be represented as no doubt busily recovering him. . . .

Thus did Cyril Bolderwood, nervously stuffing bank-notes and negotiable securities in a convenient grip, doubtfully recapitulate to himself the plot that had seemed so admirable so short a time ago. Abundantly wishing for his son’s return, he yet felt with some misgiving that it might not be easy to justify his own deplorably abrupt and implausible change of front to the wretched Thewless hard upon the shattering telephone call from Jollard. Up to that moment he had played heavily (and in the light of the night’s events even absurdly) on the “run-away” theme which was to keep the tutor quiet for a vital twelve hours, and which was to be exploded only by the reappearance of a grievously battered Ivor. But when it had become apparent that the police of two countries must know enough to be moving against them now, and at the best they would find themselves faced with the closest questioning, it had appeared to him essential to drop at once an attitude that cool enquiry must inevitably brand as grossly irresponsible. Moreover, he had at last fully seen the advantage, the blessed hope of safety, resident in the fact that others besides themselves were “after” Humphrey. That was the card that they should have played for all it was worth as soon as ever the truth of it was apparent to them. For its astonishing interlocking with their own design, its vast scope as both corroboration and obfuscation, surely by far outweighed the few hours’ grace that the pretended belief in a mere truancy was designed to secure them.

But where were they now? Just how far did the news from London carry them? Was he perhaps precipitate in his feeling that all, or nearly all, was lost? And Cyril Bolderwood looked at the preparations for panic flight which lay around him with something like embarrassment. Conceivably this was just the sort of mistake that, in Ivor’s absence, he was prone to make. . . . He sat down to think it out.

Murder is always undesirable. And the fatal mischance that had befallen them was the necessity Ivor had discovered for arranging the liquidation of Peter Cox. The police had moved on that rapidly. They had identified the dead man. And they had traced his connection with Humphrey Paxton.

And now Humphrey Paxton had been kidnapped while staying with his cousins, the Bolderwoods. That was by this time an accomplished fact. There was no going back on it. Even if they were to cry off now, and present the appearance of the boy’s having been freed by his misdoubting captors, stringent enquiry would inevitably follow. That, of course, they had always envisaged; the whole elaboration of their plot was designed to withstand it. So---after all---were things so very much altered?

Cyril Bolderwood paused on this flicker of hope, and in a moment saw that it was delusive. Cox had been killed on the eve of his setting out with Humphrey for Ireland. The police knew this. And the police would ask why.

Perhaps it was to secure the boy’s going with some other tutor, a tool of the kidnappers? Very little investigation of the blameless Thewless, Cyril Bolderwood grimly saw, would eliminate any such hypothesis as that. And only one other explanation was reasonable. Cox was killed because Cox must not go. Why? Because he would discover something. What? The crux lay here.

If the kidnappers were indeed persons working, as it were, from the dark, mere anonymous conspirators without identity, they would have no reason to fear anything that a particular man might know. And what Cox had known must be something at the very heart of the design; not something that some minor variation of it could get round. For---once more---murder is undesirable; one does not perpetrate it as a matter of minor convenience. What should it be, then, that Cox so fatally knew; what should it be but something compromising about persons who had identity; who, somewhere, stood, and were bound to stand, openly in the picture? And so (the police would say) we must cast about. What, to begin with, of those distant cousins in a remote and wild country, with whom the boy, so conveniently, had gone to stay? Is their respectability, their integrity, as unchallengeable as it seems? And is there conceivably some point at which their history, traced back, would be found to cross with the history, similarly traced back, of Peter Cox?

And Cyril Bolderwood, who in this analysis knew himself to have captured something of the cool intelligence of his son, once more reached for the bank-notes. For it was all up. This, precisely, was the degree of investigation that they could by no means stand up against. So now----

At this point he broke off, hastily thrusting the so convenient and bulging grip out of sight. For his study door had opened and Mr. Thewless had entered---very pale, very quiet, with a small note-book in his hand.

+++

“It’s much worse than we thought---or, at any rate, much more complicated.”

Mr. Thewless, as he spoke, sat down and looked gravely at his host---looked at him, Cyril Bolderwood swiftly noted, entirely without distrust.

“They are after the boy, without a shadow of doubt. He is in deadly danger. But I judge that your son---if he is endeavouring to guard the boy---is in graver danger still. You see, Humphrey they must have alive. But about others---the rest of us---their ruthlessness would be absolute. Already there has been murder. And the thing is so---so big.”

“Murder, Thewless? Good God---what do you mean?”

“In a cinema. I can’t quite make it out. But it certainly connects up. Humphrey, you see, has been keeping a diary. This is it.” And Mr. Thewless held the little note-book up in the air.

“Good heavens! Let me look at it.”

But Humphrey’s tutor, though apparently in no distrust, put it quietly in his pocket. It was still a private diary, after all. “I think I can sufficiently explain. He went to a cinema. He went to see a film called Plutonium Blonde. There’s a kind of irony in that.”

“An irony?” Cyril Bolderwood looked blank.

“You’ll understand in a moment. The film is about atomic warfare---that sort of thing.”

“Well?” said Cyril Bolderwood. “Well?

“And what these villains are really after---- But I’ll come to that. He went to this cinema just before joining me at Euston. And something disturbed him. Actually, he talked to me about it on the Heysham steamer, and I took it to be all moonshine. It must have been this mysterious shooting---probably you noticed it---that was reported in yesterday morning’s papers. I bought one in Belfast.”

“But I don’t see----”

“The point is this. What he saw, or heard, in the cinema gave him an inkling---it’s not made clear how---that there was some plot against him; that in coming to Ireland he was walking straight into danger. And, all the same, he came.”

“What!” Cyril Bolderwood had paled. “You mean that he came as a sort of decoy; that the police----”

“Not that at all.” Mr. Thewless too was very pale. “He came because he read it all as a sort of challenge, as a test of his power to control himself, to grow up. It’s all in the last pages of this queer little book. But there was something else as well. He seems to have had some idea---not a very rational one, surely---that he was drawing the danger away from his father; that he was protecting him.”

“What extraordinary nonsense!”

“I don’t know. Humphrey appears to have formed one idea in which there is a good deal of sense. Sir Bernard is extremely wealthy, as you know; and it would be natural to suppose that the kidnappers would be after money. But, of course, Sir Bernard is something else as well---one of the key men, at present, in the---well, in the country’s power to wage war. And he has in his possession some sort of plan of an extremely vital sort. Humphrey has concluded that what the kidnappers would be after---privately, as it were, and beneath any more overt demand for money---would be that.”

Cyril Bolderwood, who had been standing rigidly before his guest, sank into a chair much as if his legs had been knocked from under him. “The boy worked that out?”

“Why, yes---so it would appear.” Mr. Thewless looked momentarily puzzled at the form this question had taken. “And then there’s a most remarkable thing. Humphrey---who must have been scribbling all this under my very nose, on that interminable light railway---Humphrey really has the queerest insight into character. He writes that his father, in his opinion, pays for his towering intellect in not having much guts.”

“Guts?”

“He appears to mean will-power, moral fibre---things like that. And he thinks that that was part of the calculation.”

“You mean that Humphrey worked it out that the---the criminals would rely----”

“Precisely. Humphrey himself is the one point at which Sir Bernard has an emotional life worth a tinker’s curse. That, I may say, is the boy’s very turn of phrase. He has, you know, streaks of extraordinary intellectual maturity.”

Cyril Bolderwood gave a sort of groan. “If only we’d remembered,” he said, “that he was Bernard’s son and Ivor’s cousin!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing---nothing, my dear Thewless. I am becoming utterly confused. But, for Heaven’s sake, go on.”

“Humphrey judged that his father, secretly receiving unnerving threats as to what would happen to his kidnapped son, would simply crack up and part with anything he had---not with anything he had of his own, you understand, but with what he had, so to speak, of his country’s. It was a thought unbearable to the boy. And he felt that he had to protect his father; that it was his job to protect him. He has the notion, you see, that he is the strong member of the family, and that he must always give his father a hand.”

“I wish to heaven Ivor were here!” Cyril Bolderwood, by an association of ideas not altogether obscure, came out with this with considerable vehemence. “But I don’t see---I can’t for the life of me see---how it was going to help his father to---to----”

“To come to Ireland and put his head into the lion’s jaws?” And suddenly Mr. Thewless brought out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. “Well, it’s here we come to the bit that’s really grim; to a point”---for a moment Mr. Thewless was vaguely magniloquent---“where all these personal issues, Humphrey’s fate and ours---are transcended. At this point the boy’s faculties---terribly at a stretch, after all---seem to have broken down. He makes an obscure, rather childish note to the effect that he has cheated, broken the rules, taken some underhand way of baffling his enemies. What he means by that isn’t quite clear, but I’m afraid it’s something pretty appalling. He had access to the plan.”

What!” Cyril Bolderwood was suddenly trembling all over.

“With some sort of child’s cunning, and in the pursuance, one may suppose, of an innocent fantasy of secret service work and that sort of thing, he had possessed himself of the combination of a safe in which the thing is kept.”

“I can’t believe it! It’s incredible! You mean---simply in Paxton’s own house?”

“So it would appear. And the boy resolved that, before coming to Ireland and running the risks of which he’d had so odd a warning, he would put it out of his father’s power to comply with the demand that might be made on him. So he went straight home from the cinema, possessed himself of this vital document, and brought it along with him.”

Cyril Bolderwood made a choking noise in his throat, so that his companion positively thought for a moment that he had suffered an apoplexy. “Do you mean that---that it’s in this house now?”

“It may be, if he has hidden it cunningly. I have come straight from ransacking his room---I took that responsibility at once---and I could find no sign of it. He may simply be carrying it on his person. The diary, you understand, breaks off without being specific on the point. It is only apparent that as he sat opposite me yesterday in the little train, scribbling this astounding matter in his note-book, the document may have been somewhere within a yard of us. Or that is how I read the matter. And you see how catastrophic is the situation that confronts us.”

“Quite---oh, quite so, quite.” Cyril Bolderwood was staring with an almost glassy eye into space. The sudden, enormous hope in the thing had actually dazed him. What would the disappearances of the South American magnate, the Irish squire, matter if he and Ivor, in disappearing, took the thing with them after all---the whole speculative business of the pressure upon Sir Bernard short-circuited, obviated, by his son’s crazy act? “Quite---it’s too terrible for words. But I still can’t see why the child did it. It’s quite mad.”

“I judge that he is not capable of thinking in terms of a nation’s safety; that he has no realisation of the vast public issues involved. His vision stops short with his father’s honour. And he had saved that. If caught---and he was going to do his best not to be caught---he had the document to hand over and cry quits with. The thing then could not be charged against his father’s weakness, but only against his own childish folly.”

“I see. I see.” Cyril Bolderwood was almost impressed.

“And I see too.”

The voice was a weak whisper. Both men turned in surprise. The study door was open. And just inside it lay Ivor Bolderwood in a pool of blood.

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