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Chapter Twenty-Six

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« on: September 14, 2023, 12:45:31 pm »

TO CYRIL BOLDERWOOD nothing seemed to occur in this exigency but recourse to vituperation. “Why,” he exclaimed, “you horrible old hag, what----?”

“Don’t you dare to call Miss Liberty rude names!” Humphrey jumped from his chair, bounded across the room, and kicked his distant relative expertly on the shins. Cyril Bolderwood let out a howl of pain and grabbed at him; Humphrey dodged; the situation had all the appearance of being about to degenerate from melodrama into rough-and-tumble farce.

But Ivor was otherwise-minded. He put a hand on his father’s shoulder and shoved him into a chair; he strode to the door, closed it and, weapon in hand, faced Miss Liberty. “If you have a revolver, madam, you will give it up to me at once.”

“Don’t madam me, young man.” Miss Liberty walked composedly across the room and looked out at the window. “And, Humphrey, stop knocking people about.”

Humphrey blushed. “They’re quite horrid people; they’ve been wanting to kidnap me too, all the time; and they were going to shoot Mr. Thewless in cold blood.”

“I have no doubt that some of their ideas have been most foolish. But now that they are in so tight a corner we had better leave their shins alone. Particularly as we are in the tight corner too.”

Mr. Thewless, who had for some seconds found himself quite unattended to, had slipped over to the fireplace and possessed himself of the poker. “Miss Liberty,” he said courteously, “I suspect that these are matters in which you have some experience; and I should wish to defer to your judgement. But it appears to me that, if I were to make a resolute attempt to dash out this elder ruffian’s brains, the younger would be constrained to fire at me with his pistol, and this might give you the necessary opportunity of bringing out your own. Shall we proceed after that fashion?”

“Dear me! You are even more bloodthirsty than Humphrey. But the position is not quite so simple as that. Our friends here appear to have forgotten that they are not the only pebbles on the beach. It has really been very rash of them to suppose that their rivals were routed beyond recovery when Humphrey made one of his alarming attacks upon them in the cavern. That is not so. They are altogether more resolute than that. And they are, in fact, coming back at us now.”

“I don’t believe it!” Ivor Bolderwood spoke, but not with much conviction. “A gang of common kidnappers like that would never dream of actually assaulting----”

“But that is precisely where you have gone wrong. You suppose that you and your father alone breathe the high air of international intrigue; and that all that these other people fly at is a few thousand pounds extorted by menaces. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Their employers, I suspect, are, at a remote level, your employers too. But theirs has been an altogether more sensible plot.”

Humphrey jumped up, round-eyed, from the chair on which he had once more perched himself. “They want the plan too?”

“Certainly not. They know that the plan as you call it---the real plan---is utterly inaccessible to them. The papers with which you walked off, my dear boy, are, of course, important. But the notion that they are in any sense the vital thing is a stupid misconception into which the Bolderwoods must have been led by some confederate in your father’s house. You may be quite sure that the real thing is not, and never has been, in your father’s uncontrolled possession. And, equally certainly, as soon as Sir Bernard Paxton’s son was known to have been kidnapped, Sir Bernard himself would be very closely watched indeed. Your fear that he might be forced to part with something extremely confidential was quite groundless. And correspondingly”---Miss Liberty turned to the Bolderwoods---“your scheme was fantastic. But our bearded friend is after something altogether sounder. He knows just what he is going to have for sale as soon as Humphrey is in his hands and smuggled out of the country.” She paused. “For I am afraid, Humphrey, that if he gets you, you are due for quite a long trip.”

“What will he have for sale?” Cyril Bolderwood, who had been staring in distrust and dismay at his son, now peered uneasily out of the window.

“Simply Sir Bernard Paxton’s inactivity---his immobilisation. With his son in those hands, he could neither be trusted nor could he trust himself. On the sort of work for which he is needed he would crack up almost at once. It has been the position, as you must know, with scores of scientists on the Continent whose families are in alien hands. That is what our friends are after. I have been watching them through binoculars”---Miss Liberty patted her bag---“holding a sort of battle conference. Their zero hour will be in about ten minutes. And we have an hour or so in which survival is all our own affair.”

“An hour or so!” Mr. Thewless was aghast. “But surely the police----”

“The first thing I did in the village just now was to get through on the telephone to my brother, Sir Charles. He told me quite a lot. The London police have got entirely on the track of the affair, and one has been given permission to fly here direct. He is in the air now. Two senior officers of the Irish police are coming, also by air, from Dublin. And a local force, available about forty miles away, will be setting out any time by car. I had learnt just so much when I was cut off. The girl at the exchange investigated, and she says that the line must have come down outside Killyboffin. Well, we know what that means.”

“God bless my soul!” Mr. Thewless tightened his grip on the poker. “It means that we are completely cut off in this singularly isolated spot.”

“Exactly so. I went round to find the local guarda, for what his help might be worth, and discovered that he has been called away---no doubt on some fool’s errand. The two cars one can hire have gone too. Your own car---it must have happened last night---has its tyres slashed to ribbons.” Miss Liberty had turned to Cyril Bolderwood. “And, if you wonder how I managed to walk straight in, it was because your servants seem to have made themselves scarce as well.”

“The good-for-nothing rascals! The dishonest----” Cyril Bolderwood, about to launch upon his old star turn as the irascible squire, thought better of it. “Ivor,” he demanded, “whatever are we to do?”

Ivor said nothing, his brows knitted in thought. And Miss Liberty answered for him. “It is quite fantastic, is it not? Here is your son pointing a revolver at me---and knowing that, through this convenient tweed pocket, I am pointing one at him. Here is Mr. Thewless standing over you with a poker. And here is Humphrey, who has had a very rough time, with the light of battle beginning to show again in his eye. One possible way of proceeding is, of course, clear.”

“Clear?” said Mr. Thewless.

“To our friends here, that is to say. They can try to do a deal with their rivals. Mr. Ivor is thinking that out now. But you can see from his expression that he regards it as not altogether promising. Earlier this morning they attacked him in the cave and pitched him into the sea as dead. It was not a good prelude to any relationship of confidence. He knows these people to be as treacherous and dishonourable as himself. . . . I think, Mr. Ivor, that that expresses the situation?”

“Certainly.” Ivor remained calm. “It expresses it tactlessly, Miss Liberty, but accurately enough.”

“Whereas you know equally well that Mr. Thewless and Humphrey and myself are fowl of another feather. We subscribe to the old-fashioned idea of keeping promises, and that sort of thing.”

“That is true enough.” Ivor was positively handsome. “And the conclusion is that my father and I had better make our bargain with you.”

“Then I will make a proposal to you. Our interests are different, are they not? We, on our part, are simply concerned to hold on until help arrives. You, on the other hand, are anxious to go while the going is good. I suspect that your normal course would be to get away in your car to somewhere along this coast where you keep a sea-going boat. But your car is out of action, and you must take what other means you can. Well, my suggestion simply is that you set about it.” Miss Liberty was brisk, colloquial. “In fact, that you clear out.”

“And you?”

“We shall endeavour to hold Killyboffin, or some part of it, until help does arrive. And we definitely don’t want you as part of the garrison.”

Ivor considered. “Just how are those people disposed?”

“They are assembling in surprising numbers in the village, where they have two large cars. And, of course, somewhere or other there is their motor-cruiser.”

Ivor Bolderwood’s eyes for a moment sought his father's---but less for counsel, it appeared, than in command. “Very well---we’ll go. But we must have another revolver from the drawer of that desk, and also the grip that my father is pleased to describe as holding brandy.”

“Agreed.”

Mr. Thewless, who was still grasping the poker, had listened to these exchanges with some reluctance. “I am bound,” he said, “to express my heartfelt hope that you will both be in gaol before sunset. And it must be understood clearly that our engagement to let you go terminates two minutes after you leave this house. Thereafter we shall hold ourselves at liberty to assist in your apprehension and subsequent condign punishment by any means in our power.”

“Dear old Thewless, full of choice eloquence to the last!” And from beneath his bandages Ivor Bolderwood gave his last malicious grin. “Well, you have about five minutes left to polish a period or two for our bearded friend. Goodbye.”

The door closed and they were gone. There was a moment’s silence. “I say,” said Humphrey, “do you think they’ll really beat it?”

Miss Liberty nodded. “I think they will---as long as the son stays in charge.”

Mr. Thewless demurred. “It struck me as being the father who is in a panic.”

“Precisely. And it is he who might lose his head and senselessly turn and fight. Ivor is prepared to cut his losses and start life again elsewhere.”

“Life? It strikes me as a grave responsibility to let him loose again on what he calls that.”

“Our responsibility at the moment is towards Humphrey.” Miss Liberty was grim.

Humphrey produced a rather battered smile. “I’m afraid,” he said, “that I have a grave responsibility towards you. I did start all this.”

“You must not be too hard on yourself.” Miss Liberty too smiled. “After all, you were very young then, weren’t you?”

“So I was.” Humphrey, offering this reply with perfect seriousness, crossed to the window. “They are going. I think they’re making for the shore. They’re doubled up behind a dyke. Now they’ve vanished.”

“Capital.” Miss Liberty paused to consider. “One revolver, Humphrey’s shot-gun---and, no doubt, other sporting weapons if we have time to hunt them up. A large and rambling house to defend against at least half a dozen armed men. A hamlet not far off, but with a population chiefly disposed to keep out of trouble. Rescue on its way, but uncomfortably far off still. Those seem to be the terms of the problem.”

“Just so.” Mr. Thewless too had moved to the window, and was scanning a prospect that already seemed wholly familiar. “It might be called a problem that requires a little imagination in the solving. And that, of course, ought to be Humphrey’s province. But do you know”---and Mr. Thewless looked at his companions in mild surprise---“do you know that, although my own mind is so desperately prosaic, I positively believe myself to have got there before him?”

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