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Chapter Twenty-Four

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Four  (Read 13 times)
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« on: September 14, 2023, 10:51:20 am »

WITH HUMPHREY the first flush of returning consciousness had been sheerly pleasurable, like waking up on his birthday. He had behaved in a heroical manner; he had been extremely clever; he had eluded, confounded, mocked his enemies. It was matter to compose a song about, full of thrasonical brag. Not Toad himself, when he had outwitted the barge-woman and sold her horse, was more outrageously pleased with himself than was Humphrey in these seconds during which his faculties were coming back to him.

But he was extremely cold, extremely bruised, extremely stiff. And there was something like a tiger gnawing at his right knee. Opening his eyes with some idea of investigating this phenomenon, Humphrey realised that it was dark.

Naturally it was dark. Lying quite still, he summoned hasty argument on the matter. This was the little cave---the one into which the entrance was a mere slit---and beyond that was the big cave; and of the big cave there was perhaps as much as a hundred yards before its gentle curve admitted a first gleam of daylight. . . . So naturally it was dark.

But this, although it located him, orientated him, really helped very little. A box of matches, or the nursery night-light for which he had never entirely shed a lingering regard, would have helped a great deal more. He shut his eyes once more---it was absolutely his only means of dealing with the darkness---and thought again. His pursuers, if they had been outwitted and adequately insulted by himself, had yet been finally routed by some exterior agency. There had been a police whistle which had sent them, already rattled as they were, pell-mell to their motor-boat waiting at the other end of the cave. But what had happened after that? Not---his recollection, although it was dim, told him---any massive irruption of the blue-clad (or here, rather, green-clad) forces of the law. And certainly no comfortable tramp of constabulary feet echoed in the cavern now. There were noises---and noises reverberating so that he by no means had to strain his ears to hear them. But they were only the murmurs and lappings, the dull explosions, the odd and muted musical notes, that the place contrived, as it were, on its own steam.

He must wait. Quite simply, he must do that. He had suggested to his enemies that their best chance was to retire a little and lurk---and might they not be doing so now? Whatever had disturbed them was apparently departed, and the possibility that they were themselves still a force actively in the field was at least something too substantial to take chances with. He had practically told them so, given his assurance that he would in no circumstances emerge until substantial and authentic succour had appeared. And it would appear; there could be no doubt of that. Let a man and a boy disappear in this district, and such a cavern as this would suggest itself as one of the first places to be hunted through. Even were he to fall unconscious again where he lay---or, worse, in that corner of the little cave inaccessible to inspection from without---competent searchers would not neglect the possibility. Ultimately, he was entirely safe. . . . And thus Humphrey comforted himself, as he was so frequently able to do, by the slightly complacent exercise of his own good brain. Only, of course, he was neglecting the factor of the dark.

And it was dark. Here in the little cave the very most attenuated quiver of the sense of sight was absent. This was something he did not at all like. And in a flash he realised that there was still danger. Or rather there was a choice of dangers. Another five minutes here and he would have lost his nerve, would be battering himself wildly against the rock in a panic so catastrophic as to deprive him of all chance of finding and negotiating the narrow cleft leading to ultimate sunlight. That was one, and a very horrid, danger. The other danger, of course, was simply that they were waiting. He had said that he would die rather than fall into their hands, and he had abundantly meant it. But to die was one thing; to buffet himself into madness against invisible rock was quite another. . . . He got to his feet---it was an action surprisingly difficult of accomplishment---and felt his way cautiously round the little cave. It occurred to him that there might be bats. He resolved to keep on remembering this, because a bat when one was thinking of bats would be rather less upsetting than, as it were, a bat from the blue. And, now, here was the narrow slit.

It was the worst thing yet. When he had come through it from without it had been in blind escape from imminent seizure; and, although bruised and breathless, his fund of nervous energy had been sufficient to honour the draft. Now he was stiff all over; danger lay on either side of the cleft; and danger lay, too, in it. Surely, surely, it was now narrower by far! He squeezed and strained himself to a dead stop, crushed in a brutal vice of stone, with nothing but his sense of touch to help him, with even that sense hopelessly crippled as his arms, his wrists, his very fingers seemed no longer to have an inch’s play. Terror rose and lipped the threshold of his strained possession of himself. Panic here and he was done for. All that rescuers would find here---pinned in the rock---would be the wreck of a small boy, irretrievably insane. Or so it seemed to Humphrey, who was prone, as we know, to dramatic views. He gave a last shove---it would certainly mean one thing or the other---and found himself outside. He found himself, too, seeing something: the ghost of a glint of water. And this meant that he must be reeling crazily on the narrow ledge’s verge, the sea flowing between its fatally smooth walls below. He took a step backwards and sat down.

At least the bearded man and his associates had not simply been lurking there, ready to pounce. And, if they were still lurking at all, would it not be here rather than in the open air beyond the cavern---a place which, however lonely, was yet within possible observation from the cliff, and from the sea, and by possible wanderers on the shore? Humphrey, taking fresh heart from this, got to his feet again and groped his way painfully forward.

It was incredible that along this ledge, that through this utter darkness, he had actually run headlong less, as it must be, than a couple of hours ago. Now, he could achieve nothing that could be called a walk, a crawl; he edged his way forward, fumbling and shuffling, as his very grandmother, similarly placed, might have done. And his heart was in his mouth throughout every instant of his progress. It was almost as if he were enjoying the luxury of manageable, of assessable fear.

And then he saw the light. Incredibly, alarmingly almost, like the first appearing sliver of the sun’s orb after the long arctic night, it filtered in from distance and reached him; another moment only, and it distinguishably lit the remaining path before him. At this he paused, irresolution taking him like a strong hand. Would it not be best to wait at this spot---here, with the nursery night-light comfortably glimmering in its corner? Then, should his enemies appear, he could retreat to the fastness from which he had just issued. But he had no sooner made this proposition to himself than he knew it to be nonsense; knew, that was to say, that he would never enter that little cave again. It had been the scene of his greatest triumph, of his most vulgar exultation. And it had been the scene of his life’s most staggering scare. That, decidedly, was enough. Humphrey walked rapidly forward and out of the cavern.

The sea had been silver and now it was blue, a deep, deep blue; it had stirred into life, moreover, and there were little ridges of dazzling foam, whiter than any white thing had ever been before. The sky, too, was blue and brilliant; it was dressed with incredible clouds; gulls in enormous freedom cut it with their passionate geometry. Humphrey ran forward, let himself be received again into the abundant world, tumbled himself out upon its bosom with the tears streaming down his cheeks. Straight before him was the gleaming, empty beach. Across it---the only sign of change he could discern---a double row of footprints led to and from the cavern, traversing the lovely sand that poor Ivor had deemed so treacherous. And where they had gone Humphrey could go. He took them as a line and ran---a limping run with a stab of pain in every stride. He would have shouted---why ever should he not?---had he not preferred to keep all his breath for joyous speed. The footprints---they were as small, almost, as a child’s---ended in a little eddy or sortie of others in a familiar spot. It was the place where he had himself made that brief dash across the sand before Ivor had called out to him to halt. And now before him there was only the path that slanted up the cliff. When he had climbed that the strange, the blessed populousness of rural Ireland would lie before him: tiny fields dotted with the bright homespuns of the labouring folk; dykes and hedgerows along which were strewn the same bright colours of the drying wool; white cottages with their open eyes and pricked ears; donkeys, sheep, goats; the absurd and suspect poultry of Killyboffin Hall.

He climbed, and that really hurt his knee badly. He braced himself against the pain by thinking, not very laudably, of the deep weal that must now lie across the bearded man’s face. Perhaps that would help the police to nobble him. And perhaps the man whom he had kicked---Humphrey, wallowing in atrocious satisfactions, reached the top of the cliff. Everything was as he had imagined it, with one addition. At the end of the commanding headland to which the cliff here rose there stood the solitary figure of his friend, Miss Margaret Liberty. He took to his heels and ran to her as if she offered all the security of the Brigade of Guards. Then, becoming aware that this was a childish performance, he slowed down to an exaggerated saunter. “Hullo,” he said---and his tone was extravagantly casual. “It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it?” He paused, reading in her faint amusement an indication that this had been a little overdone. He gave a sudden incongruous sob. “They’ve killed my cousin.”

But behind her moment’s relaxation Miss Liberty had been grave. And at this, indeed, her gravity scarcely increased; it merely became shot with surprise, with the rapid recasting of some picture with which she was preoccupied. “In the cave?” she asked.

Humphrey looked at her with answering surprise. “You know about the cave?”

“I have been watching you come across the sands from it. Why didn’t you answer me, Humphrey? Where were you hiding?”

The boy was now open-mouthed. “You?

Miss Liberty smiled. But at the same time her eye was attentively studying the boy’s battered condition. “I took a walk quite early and noticed your cousin and yourself. Later I noticed your footprints where you had stepped for a moment on the sands. I followed the shore and came to the cave. And when I had gone a little way in I heard something that persuaded me it might be wise to do a little clearing of the air.”

“Clearing of the air?”

By way of answer, Miss Liberty took a small object from her bag and raised it to her mouth. And faintly, as for their private edification only, Humphrey heard the note of a police-whistle. “It is,” Miss Liberty said modestly, “one of the prescriptive devices. We have often come across it, my dear Humphrey, in our common reading. And it certainly had an effect. But when the air had cleared, and I went further in to look for you, I got no reply. What had happened?”

“I’m afraid I had---well, gone to sleep. In a little cave in which they were besieging me.” Humphrey paused. “Please, may I ask a question now?”

“Certainly, my dear boy. This is scarcely a cosy spot for a little chat. But it has advantages. We are in full view of a good many of the people working in those nearer fields. And if I stand so, and you face me---yes, just so---then you will be keeping an eye open this way, and I that. I think you scarcely need to be told by now that keeping an eye open in this part of the country is an excellent thing.”

“Indeed I don’t!” Humphrey’s tone was grim. “But listen, please. I think it must have been you who rescued me on the Heysham train. And it was you who talked---well, so as to put guts in me. And it was certainly you---I see it now---who fixed it so that poor Mr. Thewless found himself in the place meant for me in that ambulance. And then you turn up in a most frightful crisis, blowing a police-whistle like mad. And a police-whistle, after all, isn’t a thing that old”---Humphrey blushed and stammered---“that ladies commonly carry about with them. So---well, what I mean is, you’re not, are you, just an accident?”

“No, Humphrey; I must admit to being distinctly intentional. You see, my brother, Sir Charles, has the duty of keeping an eye on certain most important matters; and he had grown a little uneasy. So when he found difficulty in the way of taking official action, he just asked me to come along---to keep half an eye, you know, on your little holiday.”

“Gosh!” Humphrey, round-eyed and awed, stared at his friend. “It must be pretty hot when you get both eyes on the job.”

“Well, that precisely describes the position now.” Miss Liberty glanced at her watch. “There doesn’t seem to be much chance of your tutor’s turning up.”

Humphrey could only stare again. “Mr. Thewless was to turn up here?”

“I endeavoured to convey to him a hint that he should do so---at ten o’clock. It seemed time that he and I had a quiet little talk. But he must have failed to take my implication. And now I think you had better tell me just what has happened this morning.”

Humphrey did his best. Miss Liberty listened with the steady and unstrained attention of a judge. “And so,” she said when she had heard him out, “for a time you almost suspected your cousin himself?”

“I’m afraid I did.”

“But there can be no doubt of the fact? He was attacked---genuinely attacked, and overpowered, and thrown---dead, you think---into the sea?”

“There’s no doubt of it. And the same chaps---at least the bearded man again and somebody else---raided us last night in Killyboffin Hall itself.” And Humphrey recounted the history of this too.

Miss Liberty listened and nodded, frowning slightly. “The basis of success in this trade,” she said, “is to keep on suspecting everybody all the time. But, of course, there has to be a limit to it.”

“This trade? Is what you tell me about your brother Sir Charles not quite all the story?” Humphrey’s wonder still grew. “Have you been at it---often?”

“Ah, my dear Humphrey---we all have secrets in our past. I expect you have some that are quite dark to me still. Had you better tell me some of them---in so far, that is, as they may relate to this exciting affair?”

And Humphrey told---or told much. Miss Liberty, as she listened to these further disclosures, had moments of undisguised perplexity. “And another requisite of success,” she said when he had finished, “is that one should recognise when the waters become too deep for one. But I think our next step is clear.”

“The police?”

“Decidedly the police. As a romantic adventure designed to exercise the faculties of Humphrey Paxton the affair definitely ended when your cousin went into the waters of that cave. And my brother’s apprehensiveness has certainly been amply vindicated. We shall walk together as far as the Hall, still with our eyes extremely wide open. You must go straight inside. But you need not tell your uncle about his son’s probable death if you feel unequal to it, my dear boy. For as soon as I have walked on to the village and made one or two telephone calls I shall come straight back, bringing the local police with me. And then we can have it all out while waiting for more substantial help to arrive.”

Humphrey nodded. “Yes,” he said. “That seems all right. And I don’t think I shall too much mind telling. It has to be faced, after all.” He spoke with the sober confidence of one who had himself faced a good deal. They walked on for a time in silence, their senses alert to what was happening round about them. It was only when they had taken a cut through the ragged park, and were within hail of the front door of the house, that he spoke again. “I suppose I had better go in?”

And for an instant Miss Liberty hesitated, caught by something in the boy’s tone of which he was himself, perhaps, unconscious. Then she nodded. “Yes; I think you had better go. The sooner the facts are spread beyond just our two selves the better. I shall follow you in less than a quarter of an hour.”

Humphrey watched her go---a slight, quick, upright figure glancing alertly from side to side as she walked. He noticed how she kept her right hand in one roomy pocket, much as Ivor had done on their walk to the cave. But at the thought of Ivor, Humphrey’s eyes misted with tears.

He turned and once more entered Killyboffin Hall.

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