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Chapter Twenty-Five

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« on: September 14, 2023, 11:44:14 am »

CYRIL BOLDERWOOD HAD at first viewed his prostrate son with considerably more surprise than alarm. He was immensely struck, that is to say, with the abundant quality of the verisimilar in Ivor’s presentation of one who has, in the handy American phrase, been “beaten up.” Ivor, indeed, looked, to the point of extravagance, a man who had been beaten down; he was now crawling across the room to prop himself, with a low groan, against the back of a chair. “The boy!” he gasped. “He’s been kidnapped.”

The scene was taking place hours before it was due; and, thanks to the efficiency of the London police, it was taking place in a context the wider reaches of which were vastly other than had been planned. Apart from this, Cyril Bolderwood had no fault to find with it. “Kidnapped?” he exclaimed. “Good heavens---it is just what we feared!”

The tone of this---much that of Lady Macbeth’s “What, in our house?”---produced in Ivor a sort of weak gasp of strangled fury. “By the people,” he said hoarsely, “who broke in last night. They got us in the cave before---before we had finished looking at it.”

And light dawned on Cyril Bolderwood. “You mean,” he shouted---a shade strangely to Mr. Thewless’s ear---“that Humphrey has been . . . kidnapped?”

“Of course I do. And snatched from us, it now seems, with the plan---the vital plan---actually in his pocket. . . . Get a bandage out of the cupboard there, will you? It’s only a hack on the scalp, but it makes me bleed like a pig.”

Ivor’s father did as he was bidden, but with the air of a man not at all knowing how to proceed. “Thewless,” he said suddenly, “would you, like a good fellow, go up to the bathroom beside your room, and fetch some lint and sticking-plaster from the cupboard? We must do what we can until the doctor comes.”

Mr. Thewless, although his concern was much more for the vanished Humphrey than for the injured Ivor, hurried away. When he returned it was to find Ivor sitting up in a chair. The young man, however, looked by no means better; he had turned yet paler and was breathing fast; it was clear that such intelligence as father and son had exchanged in the interval was far from having any composing effect. And one might, moreover, have formed the impression that something like a brief altercation had been in the air.

“Well,” Ivor was saying, “these people have taken the boy, haven’t they---after more shots at it than one? And the police must go after them for all they’re worth?”

“Certainly---certainly.” Cyril Bolderwood, glancing rapidly at Mr. Thewless now ministrant with the sticking-plaster, appeared to find difficulty in the easy expression of his feelings. “The police must go after them, of course. And I’ll telephone the moment we’ve fixed you up. The police, my dear boy, must investigate the whole affair from the start, you know; they must follow up whatever seems remotely connected with it. And they will do that. We can trust them, absolutely.”

Ivor received this for a moment in silence, and Mr. Thewless took the opportunity to speak. “I must get in touch with Sir Bernard at once. I feel about this quite terribly, since I was given his confidence in the matter. I wish to Heaven the other man had been able to come. He would probably have been far more competent than I in such a disaster.”

Cyril Bolderwood pounced upon this. “Another man?”

“Another tutor, who was Sir Bernard’s choice on the first place. But he was prevented at short notice from taking up the post----”

“Now, that’s just the sort of thing I mean.” Cyril Bolderwood, who had finished bandaging his son’s head, drew back, fixed him with an urgent gaze, and proceeded in a sort of rapid gabble. “Just before these plots begin---as a prelude to them, you may say---this other tutor suddenly drops out. Well, the police must go after that even, for what it’s worth. Find him, you know, alive or dead---and find out all about him. They must do it. Exploring every avenue. Leaving no stone----”

“Yes, of course.” Ivor held up an impatient hand, and at the same time uttered what, since it could scarcely have been an imprecation, Mr. Thewless took to be a muted exclamation of pain. “The police are bound to go right through the whole thing. And---well, you’d better get on to them now.”

“Exactly.” And Cyril Bolderwood---obscurely, it seemed to Mr. Thewless, as if he had carried some urgent point---turned to the telephone. Then he stopped. “But, Thewless---I wonder if you’d make the call? I don’t like Ivor’s look; I don’t like it a bit. I think I had better get out the car and drive him straight to the doctor’s. Ivor, wouldn’t that be best?”

And at this Ivor did unequivocally produce a murmur of weakness and agony. “Yes, I think it would. I have lost a shocking amount of blood.”

“Good. I’ll get it out straight away.” Cyril Bolderwood made for the door, checked himself, seized from beneath his desk a bulging leather bag. “Brandy,” he said. “And that sort of thing. Kept for an emergency. Get the police, Thewless, and insist on being put straight through to the county office. I’ll have the car round for Ivor in a couple of minutes.”

Again he made for the door. But it opened before he reached it.

“Ivor!”

Humphrey Paxton, his face alive with amazement and joy, ran across the room and threw himself into his cousin’s arms.

+++

To Mr. Thewless the sheer relief of this apparition was so great that it was a moment before he could identify in himself the further pleasurable sensation arising from the affecting nature of the scene; arising, basically, from all that was generous in his pupil’s character. Twenty-four hours before Humphrey would not have known Ivor Bolderwood from Adam; but in the interim his cousin had fought for him against superior odds; and now Humphrey felt for the bandaged figure before him as Hamlet might have felt for a wounded Horatio. And at the sight Mr. Thewless turned to Cyril Bolderwood, as if from an impulse to share with him something so decidedly worth sharing. What this movement brought into his field of vision was a state of affairs so entirely unexpected that an appreciable interval elapsed before it made, so to speak, any intelligible statement. His host was still standing by the door through which he had proposed to depart to fetch out the car. He had, however, laid down his bag---and what first dawned on Mr. Thewless, oddly enough, was the extremely unlikely appearance that this receptacle presented as the repository of a bottle of brandy. And in place of the bag Cyril Bolderwood was now handling something else. It was some small contrivance of gleaming metal. Mr. Thewless placed it provisionally as being---what seemed in itself unlikely enough---a species of surgical instrument. But now Cyril Bolderwood was advancing it, pointing it, in the oddest way---in what was surely the most threatening way. . . . Thus laboriously did Mr. Thewless analyse out the wholly unfamiliar experience of finding himself covered with a revolver.

The boy understood first. His disillusionment, if even sharper, was almost instantaneous. He let his hand fall from Ivor’s arm very gently and reluctantly, like a child who perforce abandons what he cannot, after all, “take away.” And then he sat down on the edge of a chair. “Yes,” he said. “Yes . . . I see.”

And Ivor Bolderwood squared his shoulders---a man who had been roughly handled, indeed, but who by no means urgently required medical aid. His cheeks were faintly flushed. “My dear father,” he said, “I think you make it all rather unnecessarily dramatic. But, no doubt, we had better proceed to business.”

“We certainly better had.” Cyril Bolderwood kicked the door shut behind him. “The police may be here in half an hour.”

“That is distinctly unlikely. But half an hour will be time enough, I don’t doubt.” And Ivor turned to Mr. Thewless. “It’s a great shame,” he said with a faint grin, “but I’m afraid we shan’t be able to show you that defensive earthwork at Ballybags, after all.”

“I think it very unlikely that either of you will be in a position to show anybody anything for a great many years to come.”

Ivor’s grin widened, as if in amiable acknowledgment of the very proper spiritedness of this reply. “That’s as maybe---and I won’t deny we take a risk. But you ought to be grateful to us, Thewless. We took much our biggest risk simply in order to ensure that you should come on this nice trip---or that somebody else shouldn’t come. And things certainly haven’t gone quite right. My father and I are obliged to quit these ancestral halls for good to-day. We certainly didn’t envisage that. Nor did we envisage that the game of kidnapping this delightful Humphrey would become so deplorably popular with the underworld of which we are ourselves, so to speak, honorary members. I wonder who that bearded fellow is? And so you think that all he has been after is cash? That isn’t our object, I need hardly say.”

“Not”---Cyril Bolderwood interrupted---“that with things going well we mightn’t have taken it out a bit in cash as well. Poor Bernard would have been in no position to refuse.”

Mr. Thewless looked from father to son. “You strike me as two singularly foolish, as well as two singularly wicked and contemptible, men. The bearded ruffian of whom you speak is, after all, a ruffian merely. He could not, in fairness, be described as basely treacherous. Nor has he concocted a futile and elaborate plot such as yours. He has simply tried to grab---and he has come uncommonly near being successful. The same cannot be said for you. And you don’t cover the complete failure of your design by whipping out and brandishing a revolver. Your servants, who are as numerous as they are clearly innocent, must many of them be within hail. You haven’t a card in your hand. My blindness has been great. But I can see that.”

“I don’t think you have the situation quite clear.” Ivor spoke in a reasonable voice. “Our boats are burnt, you know. And our strength lies precisely in that. By noon Cyril and Ivor Bolderwood will simply have ceased to exist. And the question is just this: Will anyone else have ceased to exist as well? For instance, there are Billy Bone and Denis. It seems most unlikely that they would regard anything you started shouting at them as other than the outcries of madmen. But if they did come in on your side, so to speak, it would cost us nothing to shoot our way out. It would cost us nothing, for that matter, to shoot our way out through the whole of Killyboffin.” Ivor paused. “But I think it is with Humphrey that we had better do the talking at present. He strikes me, my dear Thewless, as having a much clearer head than his tutor can boast of. Come, Humphrey, are you ready to talk?”

Humphrey was still perched on the edge of his chair, like a very small boy uneasily present upon the fringes of a grown-up party. But he answered with a strange tranquillity. “Yes, Mr. Bolderwood, I’ll talk.”

“Very well.” Ivor had faintly flushed again at this address. “I think you and I can still be very good friends.”

“And I think you are almost as reliable a friend now as any I shall ever again be able to feel that I have.” Humphrey was tranquil still as he enunciated this rather complicated belief. And he turned to his tutor. “Do you know, this must be what I came for, really? Not to discover if I could keep the stiff upper lip of a great big boy while being chased by thugs through horrible caves. But to see what I could salvage out of---well, of being utterly betrayed. And I do salvage something---although it’s a very little something, I suppose. The power, you know, to take it quietly.” The boy paused, and for a moment he might have been thought to be anxiously listening. “Well, Mr. Bolderwood, talk away. You do it very well. Better, really, than you arrange bogus kidnappings in caverns. They had you caught out nicely, hadn’t they? And---by the way---what happened to the chaps you must have had lurking and ready to go through their act? I seem to remember them now, uncomfortably trussed up in a corner. Did the rival gang pitch them into the sea as well; and did they have poorer luck than you?”

“The point is this.” Ivor had stood up rather unsteadily and now planted himself before the boy. “We were going to have you held as by persons quite independent of us---were they not to have knocked me out in that cave?---and while there was the appearance of their demanding money from your father we were quite quickly and quietly going to get from him---well, something else. That has all broken down. And, as a result, we should have completely failed but for one fact. You yourself, with incredible folly, my poor child, brought that something else away with you from London. And so my father and I are in a position very nicely to retrieve our fortunes. You understand?”

It was evident that Humphrey understood. And in the little silence that followed Mr. Thewless had his worst moment in the affair. “Humphrey,” he said, “it is my fault. I found your diary, and I felt, since you had disappeared, that it was proper to read it for the sake of any light it might give.”

“You were quite right.” Humphrey had flushed, but his eyes went straight to his tutor’s. “You did just what you ought.”

“Unfortunately, mistrusting nothing, I confided what I discovered there to the elder of these base men. And now they both know.”

“And now we all know.” Ivor’s grin had returned. “We all know precisely where we are. Humphrey has really been very fortunate. He does not need to suffer the inconvenience of being kidnapped, after all.”

“I should have thought”---Humphrey’s voice, interrupting, was still curiously mild---“that I am kidnapped now.”

“Not at all. It is simply the second day of your Irish trip, and we are having a friendly family talk. Before my father and I are unexpectedly called away. Kidnapping is definitely off. The circumstances of our retreat, I can frankly tell you, are such that a reluctant small companion would be definitely embarrassing. But there will be no objection to our taking a small sheaf of papers. And the only question is this. Have you, my dear Humphrey, actually got them on you now, or have you hidden them somewhere about the house?”

Humphrey was silent, again like one who listens for a distant sound.

“Come, boy, you must see how the thing stands. We win---at least your father falls into no disgrace. He cannot be held accountable for a disastrous domestic theft by an imaginative small boy. Everything, you see, really falls out quite nicely.”

“You are awfully considerate. But I think, you know, that these papers may be rather too important to be used as a sort of challenge cup in the Killyboffin annual sports.” Humphrey paused, evidently rather taken by this image. “You win, and we all shake hands, and then it will go to the shop to be engraved ‘Cyril and Ivor Bolderwood.’ These papers---let’s call them simply the plan---are quite unsuitable for that. And I’ve thought so, Mr. Bolderwood, for some time. You just can’t have the plan.”

Ivor shrugged his shoulders. “You foolish child! Will you force us to give this talk a really unpleasant turn---to think of the really nasty things that might presently happen to you?”

It was at this point that Mr. Thewless saw what seemed likely to become his necessary course of duty. That the Bolderwoods were utterly desperate and utterly ruthless he could see. And it might well be that their household would not be rapidly or readily convinced of their criminality. Nevertheless, some definitely criminal deed, if accompanied by sufficient uproar, would probably finish them; in such circumstances they would simply have to go while the going was good. It was his business to see that the uproar occurred; to sell his life if not dearly at least noisily. And no sooner had this thought come to him than he saw that he might have to hurry if he was to have the chance. For Ivor had walked over to his father, taking from his hand the revolver which he had been holding during these exchanges, and was now aiming it directly at his, Mr. Thewless’s heart. “Listen, Humphrey.” Ivor’s voice was now very quiet. “We have got to have that plan. It means the difference for us between penury and a fortune. So we are not likely to boggle at a little bloodshed.”

“You can’t have it.” Humphrey spoke stoutly, but with fear creeping into his eyes. “It might mean far too big a difference for far too many other people as well.”

“We have got to have it, all the same---and within a few minutes now. Well, we’ll make a very fair bargain. We’ll swop it for poor old Thewless here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t, myself, think he’s worth much. But it is possible that you think he is worth a good deal. I fancy he’s been quite decent to you, and that you have grown rather fond of him. Well, unless you tell us at once where to find the plan----”

Ivor left his sentence expressively in air. And Humphrey looked piteously at his tutor. “Do you think he means it?” he asked.

“Never mind whether he means it or not, Humphrey. This plan is much more important than my life. And it is my duty to tell you that it is much more important than your life too. You ought not to have taken it, and your notion that by doing so you might be protecting your father’s integrity was a mistake. You made a bad mistake, even if an honourable one. And I have made equally bad mistakes at every turn. If we are to be killed, my dear, dear lad, we must put up with it. These villains must on no account be told where the plan now is.”

“As a matter of fact, I couldn’t tell them, even if I wanted to.”

“What’s that?” It was Cyril Bolderwood who spoke, and as he did so he advanced threateningly upon Humphrey. “What’s that, you horrible little rascal?”

“So that if you do any killing---of one or other of us, or both---it will be mere spite.” Humphrey paused; and it might have been evident that if he was facing death he was also, in a manner, enjoying his moment. “Of course, I can tell you approximately where it is.” And he glanced at the clock on Cyril Bolderwood’s mantelpiece. “It must be somewhere between Preston and Crewe.”

Ivor Bolderwood cursed, and a dark flush overspread his pale face. “You little brute! Do you mean you posted it back to London?”

“But of course! I only meant to hold on to it till I could think. And after what happened on the Heysham train I knew I hadn’t much time. So I posted it back to London yesterday afternoon when we were changing trains at Dundrane. Only my diary hasn’t got so far as to say so.”

“By heaven, we’re back where we were!” Cyril Bolderwood was pacing agitatedly about the room. “Bernard has the plan, and we have his boy. We must hang on to him. We must take him with us by hook or----”

“Oh, my father won’t have the plan. I didn’t post it back to him. Then we certainly would be back where we were.” Humphrey was looking from one to the other of his captors as if almost amused by the simplicity of their minds.

“You mean that you posted it to somebody else?”

“Of course I do. I wrote a little note---what they call a covering note, I think---and posted the thing off to the Prime Minister.”

“To the Prime Minister?” Cyril Bolderwood’s voice held a strangled note.

“Why not?” And Humphrey looked mildly surprised at the sensation he had achieved. “He is---don’t you know?---a terribly nice man. He’ll quite understand.”

At this Cyril Bolderwood, always inclined to display less finesse than his son, appeared about to hurl himself on the boy with a howl of fury. But in the same instant Humphrey himself gave a sudden shout. “Danger, Miss Liberty! Danger! Run!”

But this call, if heard, was without effect. The door opened and Miss Margaret Liberty walked into the room. Her eye travelled briskly round it, and evidently told her much. “Ah,” she said. “Keep on distrusting everybody; I was remarking to Humphrey that it is the only safe rule. Mr. Ivor, I see, has a revolver. Well, so have I. And that does just give us a chance.”

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