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Chapter Twenty-Seven

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Author Topic: Chapter Twenty-Seven  (Read 97 times)
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« on: September 14, 2023, 01:12:37 pm »

IRELAND, A BRILLIANT disk of many greens, circled, tilted, side-slipped beneath Cadover’s eyes. The pilot had slightly altered course and was now pointing straight ahead. There, beyond the shoulder of a mountain and an arm of ocean, a tiny speck of white showed dazzling in the sun. It was the lighthouse. Cadover took a deep breath and a little relaxed the pressure of his toes on the metal bar beneath them. Like a lover in an overdue train, he had been absurdly employing his muscles to urge the aeroplane on. He peered downwards and, leaning forward, pointed in his turn. On a long white ribbon of road his eye had caught the dark shape of three large cars. A trail of dust behind them told of their headlong speed. That would be the Irish police.

The mountain melted on their flank and in its place he saw cliffs, sea, a village like a scatter of white pebbles on grass, a single isolated house. These all dipped and swung away; the mountain had taken their place and was charging at him; again the mountain vanished and his ears were singing. He glimpsed the house again, close beneath him, in a violent foreshortening capped by expanses of ribbed lead. Then his horizon contracted to a rushing river of green and he bounced gently in his seat. They taxied on grass, their wing-tip almost brushing a hedge. On the other side a flow of darker green slowed and took form. Fleetingly Cadover’s mind essayed comparisons with the back garden in Pinner. They knew about potatoes; there could be no doubt about that. He clambered out. His pilot came behind him, tugging off gloves, pulling out a revolver. They had polished off queer jobs between them before now. But this time their wireless had told them of astonishing things. They ran. A black-thorn hedge was before them and they burst through it. The lane led straight to the village. Everything was very still. Far away they could hear the cry of gulls and a wash of waves. The sunshine was warm on the fields, hard and brilliant on the white cottages ahead.

The peacefulness of it sharply taxed belief as to what could lie in front. As to what did lie in front---for suddenly the air was torn by a rapid fusillade. Cadover gave a gasp of relief as he ran. They were holding out.

The village stretched out two lines of straggling cottages and received them. But it might have been a village of the dead. Its doors were closed; many of its windows were shuttered; it was as if the Troubles had come again and pacific folk kept indoors when the gunmen were abroad. And the nearer fields were deserted. Only on the farther hillsides, a mile or more away, scattered figures in their bright homespuns were going about their rural tasks. This gave, as it were, the scale of the affair. And it was a scale formidable enough. And now---as if to enforce this---Cadover’s companion grabbed him by the arm and drew him sharply into the hedge.

They had been told of astonishing things; they saw them now. At a turn of the lane before them two large grey cars were parked, and on guard beside them was a man armed with a revolver. But it was to something else that Cadover’s pilot pointed. Close beside them, on rising ground, was a tall white barn. Straddled on its thatched gable a hazardously perched figure slowly swept the countryside through field-glasses. Below him, two more men crouched on stationary motor-cycles, like competitors at the start of a road-race.

Cadover felt himself tugged through a hedge, and heard his companion’s voice in his ear. “Can they have missed us coming down?”

“I doubt it. They saw the size of our plane, and feel they can still stick it out a bit.”

“And when the Irish chaps come?”

“It will be a score of men with tommy-guns and a wireless transmitter. They’ll know they’re done for then, all right. Listen! They’re still fighting back from the house.”

Another fusillade had reached them. Stooping low, they pressed forward. The firing grew more rapid. But behind it now was another sound---explosive too, but accompanied by a low, deep roar, a dry crackling. . . .

“It’s on fire!”

They had pressed on regardless and scrambled through another hedge, so that Killyboffin Hall was full in front of them. From now one and now another upper window came an intermittent flash from some species of small arms; this was drawing an answering fire from various points about the grounds; and inside the house, too, there appeared to be shooting. But more startling was the fact that a large part of the structure was indeed blazing---whether as the consequence of accident or design it was impossible to say. One wing, indeed, was almost consumed, and showed as a mere glowing shell against which was oddly silhouetted a line of broken statuary which lined a terrace in front. The effect of outrage and mutilation was sufficiently bizarre to hold Cadover for a moment at a pause. And upon this new sounds broke: the roar of an aeroplane engine overhead, and an answering roar, scarcely less loud, of powerful motor-cars rapidly approaching the village behind.

“That’s them! The police and the Dublin men too!” And Cadover leapt forward with an impetuosity quite beyond his years. His companion followed. Bullets sang about their heads; from somewhere a whistle blew shrilly; they ran up a flight of shallow stone steps and dashed into the house through a broken window. The place was full of smoke through which they could see several forms in rapid retreat. It was clear that all effective siege was already over. From somewhere quite close at hand came the crash of a falling beam. Cadover, his eyes smarting, blundered out into a long corridor. “A staircase!” he shouted. “If we can’t get them down in five minutes it will be all up with them.”

They pushed along the corridor and found the smoke clearing; they passed through a baize door and found themselves in a part of the house not immediately threatened by fire. Presently they came to a narrow service staircase and climbed. They paused on a small landing, their eyes drawn to a window in which every pane had been shattered. Glass and splintered wood lay everywhere, and a white-painted chest of drawers, apparently tumbled down from some further floor above, lay sprawled before them, its drawers fantastically spilling a profusion of housemaids’ aprons and caps. Cadover glanced out, and glimpsed a number of men disappearing round a group of out-buildings, shooting as they went; glimpsed too, advancing across the park, a grim sickle of green-coated figures---police or soldiers---with formidable automatic rifles in their hands. Eire, he reflected, had done the situation proud. . . . And then he heard once more the crackle of flames and the roar of a ceiling coming down. Humphrey Paxton’s kidnappers were a menace no more. The remnant of that astonishing organisation was in flight. But another enemy, quite as lethal, was advancing fast.

He turned to mount higher---and suddenly paused, aware that he himself was in new danger. For the top of this further staircase was roughly barricaded with wardrobes, cupboards, upholstered chairs; and the place reeked of powder. Here the real battle had been fought out. And it seemed only too likely that the defenders would still shoot at sight. “Hold your fire!” he shouted. “We are the police.”

There was no reply. He heard instead only the crackle of the advancing fire, and the diminishing tumult outside, and his own voice strangely echoing in distant corridors.

“Answer!” he shouted. “Answer---whatever you think. The place is on fire. You must get out.”

Again there was only silence---silence that bred a sudden and horrible suspicion. He thrust his revolver away and ran up the remaining stairs, his companion behind him. Together they heaved at the barricade, tore at it, broke the banisters, heaved cupboard and wardrobe pell-mell down the stairs behind them. Cadover, straining to dislodge a chair, slipped and put down a hand to save himself. He looked at it and found it smeared with blood. Blood was trickling over the topmost tread and forming a little pool below.

But now they were through. Beyond a narrow landing two doors were open upon two small rooms. Their several windows showed beyond---and of these also every pane was shattered. A shot-gun lay on the floor of each. It was not to this, however, that Cadover’s eye first went. Supine beside the barricade lay an elderly man, a revolver in his outflung right hand, his face blackened by smoke, blood welling in an ominous pulse from a long gash on his wrist. Cadover dropped on this like a plummet. “Look after the others,” he called. “I’ll fix this.”

He busied himself with his task of first aid, for it was more urgent even than getting the wounded man out of the burning building. Intent on it, he heard sounds of rapid search around him. Then his companion’s voice came for the first time since they had entered the house. “The others?” it said. “There aren’t any others here.”


Mr. Thewless opened his eyes, aware of the fresh air, of a cool breeze from the sea on his-temples, of brandy sharp on his lips. He saw, first swimmingly and then coming into clearer focus, the face of a man of his own age, sombre in cast, crowned by close cropped white hair. With considerable effort, Mr. Thewless spoke. “You look,” he said, “like an honest man.”

“And you have behaved like one.”

<p class="q">Mr. Thewless made nothing of this. He felt very dizzy, very weak. “The house,” he asked, “is it burning?”

“It is burning to ashes. Nothing can save it.” The white-haired man paused to speak briefly to somebody behind him, and Mr. Thewless was uncertainly aware of a background still of revolver shots, of shouted orders, of running men. “But what about the others?” The white-haired man had turned to him again and his voice was urgent. “What about Humphrey Paxton? What about Sir Charles Liberty’s sister? Did they get the boy, after all?”

“I was extremely obtuse.” Words still came painfully to Mr. Thewless, but he felt that this was an important point to make. “I was a sadly inadequate person for coping with such a situation . . . although I did, to be sure, have this odd flash of imagination at the end. But even that was---well, literary and derivative. Poe . . . a very well-known story by Poe.” He paused, reading in the expression of the face before him that this was judged to be mere delirium. “I think it is called The Purloined Letter---- What’s that?”

“That?” The white-haired man paused while the rattle of firing died away. “There were a lot of them, you know---quite an amazing gang. And they’re still rounding them up.”

“All of them?”

“Only the small fry so far. Apparently the leader----”

“The bearded man?”

“Yes, the bearded man. He turns out to be somebody pretty big. And he’s got down to the shore---somewhere under the cliffs---so that they haven’t got him yet. But I want you to tell me----”

“He has a motor-cruiser!” Mr. Thewless struggled into a sitting posture. “In a cave down there. If he is allowed to reach that he will get away.”

“The devil he has!” And once more the white-haired man turned and talked rapidly to someone behind him. “We may get him, all the same. And I think we’ll get the others.”

“The Bolderwoods? I most unfeignedly hope so.” And this time Mr. Thewless did get firmly upright. “For I must confess to grave misgiving, Mr.----”

“Cadover. Detective-Inspector Cadover.”

“Ah. Now, what was I saying? But yes, of course! I was a good deal troubled by the morality of the bargain that Miss Liberty found it necessary to make with them. I should like to think that they had been laid by the heels.”

“They have a boat too—somewhere on the other side of the headland. But they have been headed off from it and driven back here. It is thought that they must be in hiding not far away. Perhaps they----”

Here the police officer called Cadover checked himself---and with an exclamation so startled that it brought Mr. Thewless swaying to his feet. They had brought him, he found, a considerable way from the burning building, and he stared unbelievingly for a moment at the flames still licking through those upper windows from which he had fought his strangely epic fight. But this scarcely detained him. For all eyes, he saw, were elsewhere.

It was like a little battle station pitched near the edge of the cliff. Green-uniformed men were around him---one with binoculars, one crouched over what he conjectured to be a field telephone. Below them he could see a line of cliff, a segment of beach on which more uniformed men were running, a great splash of sea. And it was the sea at which all were looking. There, from behind the headland where lay the farther entrance to Humphrey’s cave, a gleaming craft had appeared hurtling through the water, the roar of its engines reverberating still among the rocks. And it was impossible to mistake that curbed and leaping prow, that low-cut stern. . . . “It’s him!” Mr. Thewless cried. “He’s got away!”

There were bursts of firing from the beach below, and little lines of cascading water marked the path of the bullets. But the motor-boat held on its course, heading at a tremendous pace for the open sea. In a matter of seconds it would be out of range. And Mr. Thewless felt his shoulder gripped by the man beside him, heard an altogether new anxiety in that level London voice.

“The boy, man! Where is he? Don’t tell me he can have got him out there?”

“The boy? I hope----”

Mr. Thewless heard his own voice drowned in a new clamour, in the roar of an engine yet more powerful directly above him. A shadow skimmed the grass beside him; a wind tugged at his sparse hair; he looked up and promptly ducked---ducked in fear of sheer decapitation by the aircraft passing overhead. From a field behind them there came shots and the sound of men shouting, running. And from close beside him came an answering shout.

“Great heavens, it’s my plane!”

And the London policeman grimly nodded. “We ought to have thought to set a guard on it. The Bolderwoods take the last trick.”

Mr. Thewless gasped. “The Bolderwoods . . . they’re in that?”</p>

“They’ve stolen it.” Suddenly the grip that was still on Mr. Thewless’s shoulder tightened. “Look! I believe he can’t----”

Cadover’s voice died away. Steeply climbing, the little aircraft was now out beyond the cliffs; climbing more steeply still, it slipped, staggered, spun. . . . There was a moment’s complete silence, broken by a soft Irish voice from the man with the field-glasses. “And no more he can, by all the saints! It’s a mortal certainty he never held the controls of a plane before this fearful day.”

The plane rose again, for a second hung sluggishly in air, turned over, fell. It fell, Mr. Thewless thought, much as a gannet dives. . . . And directly beneath it was the hurtling motor cruiser. There was a single blinding flash, a single deafening detonation. Mr. Thewless shut his eyes. When he opened them the man with the field-glasses was crossing himself, was muttering a prayer. And the sea was utterly empty. Where the bearded man, where Cyril and Ivor Bolderwood, had been urging their flight a moment before, there was only a sullen and spreading pool of oil, circled by a single screaming gull. It was an end at once horrifying and grotesquely theatrical---as if some trap-door had opened and incontinently swept half the dramatis personæ from the stage.

“Somewhere up there?” The officer with the field-glasses swept the hillsides before turning a puzzled face to Mr. Thewless. “We don’t quite see how----”

“How The Purloined Letter comes in.” Cadover too had binoculars, and he spoke without taking them from his eyes. “I think you did say The Purloined Letter?”

“Certainly.” Mr. Thewless---rather to his own surprise---was biting hungrily into a sandwich which he held in his uninjured left hand. “You see, the ruffians were advancing to attack us in force; and the only thing seemed to be to get the boy away---and, of course, Miss Liberty as well. But there seemed no chance that they could slip away unseen, since the gang would almost certainly have the countryside under observation just as you have it now. So it occurred to me that they must be positively obtrusive---positively staring, so to speak---and find a sort of invisibility in that. And that was just how the letter in Poe’s story----”

The man with the field-glasses exclaimed softly, his instrument focused upon one of the highest fields beyond the village. “And when you were after thinking all this, Mr. Thewless---what then?”

“We had noticed how brilliantly many of the peasantry show up against the green grass because of the rich colours in which they dye their homespun cloth. You can see them there”---and Mr. Thewless pointed---“tiny splashes of red and blue right out on the mountain-side. So we hunted quickly through the servants’ quarters and found a sufficiency of such things---for Miss Liberty a deep blue skirt, and for Humphrey some really brave claret-coloured trousers. Then Miss Liberty took a basket to balance on her head, and the boy a bundle for his back. Once they were a little beyond the house, and simply plodding openly across the fields, there was a good chance that they would be all right; that they would pass through whatever cordon the enemy had out. The danger was that the enemy might already have got into a position from which they were bound to spot them actually leaving. But it was necessary to risk that. And when they had gone---and I was never so glad of anything in my life---I prepared to give the effect of several people standing siege at the top of the servants’ staircase. It proved to be excellently adapted for the purpose.” And Mr. Thewless nodded with an assurance that almost touched complacency. “I really believe I could scarcely have chosen better.”

Cadover and the green-uniformed man now both had their glasses fixed on the same distant spot. It was again the latter who spoke. “Yes---to be sure! You’ll be remarking, Mr. Thewless, how they put out the long skeins of dyed wool to dry in the fields and along the hedges? Well, there’s two folk at that up there now---and I’d say that one of them had claret-coloured trousers that are brave enough.” He laughed softly. “Now, I wonder who he’d have persuaded to give him all that wool?”

Cadover too laughed---a short, deep laugh that spoke of a long strain broken. “And he is entering into the deception with a will. He’s laying the stuff out on the grass like anything.” He paused. “Hullo! I’m blessed if he hasn’t formed letters with it. He. Now, why should the lad want to write He?”

Mr. Thewless smiled. “Not He, Inspector. H. E.

“You’re quite right. And he’s going on. H. E. H. . . .”

H. E. H. P. . . . Humphrey has a string of names, of which he is inclined to be rather proud. It’s his way of letting us know, you see, that all is well with them up there. I wonder if we can send some signal back? I believe he would be quite glad to think that things have gone not too badly with me down here.”

The green-uniformed man called out an order; there was a sharp report; a green Very light burst in the air. Mr. Thewless watched it and judged it entirely beautiful.

“A capable boy,” he said. “Really, a thoroughly capable boy.”


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