THE MYSTERY OF THE DEVIL'S FOREST
by Anon. (adapted by Mark Hodder)
The Missing Peer
Tinker, assistant to Sexton Blake, the world-famous criminologist, opened his eyes and rubbed them sleepily. Then he sat up, stretched his arms over his head and smacked his lips.
"This," he muttered drowsily, "is an occasion for Mrs B's scrambled eggs."
Somewhere outside the window a clock struck eleven — eleven in the morning.
It was not often that Tinker slept until eleven! But on the previous night he and Blake had been hard at work until the early hours, compiling evidence for the case of the notorious Black Trinity. After two encounters with this organisation, things had gone quiet — but the two detectives didn't even consider the possibility that that the villainous threesome might have ceased operations. They both knew that they were being watched. They both knew that they were at the top of the Trinity's hit list. And they both knew that their enemy might strike at any moment.
So Blake and Tinker had worked tirelessly these past weeks to gather evidence; hoping for a clue that might reveal the identity of the criminals.
By five o'clock of this morning, they had finally been in a position to furnish Scotland Yard with a dossier containing a set of clues and suppositions which, if acted upon, might make life difficult for the 'Nameless Three'. They had then gratefully made their bleary-eyed way to their bedrooms and turned in.
Tinker still felt sleepy but his wits returned with a snap when he realised that Blake himself was standing beside his bed.
"What is it, guv'nor?" he asked quickly.
Something in Blake's face showed him that there was work afoot.
"Shake a leg, young 'un!" ordered Blake. "We've got to catch the eleven-fifty from Paddington to Wales!"
Sexton Blake, although he had already been up some hours, looked as fresh as paint, in spite of his hard night.
"Wales?" exclaimed Tinker eagerly, as he tumbled out and grabbed his sponge and towel before making off to the bathroom. "What's wrong in Wales, guv'nor?"
"A queer case — a disappearance," explained Blake briefly. "Lord Bridgestock has vanished from his ancestral castle. They want us to look into it. I think we deserve a change of scenery, don't you?"
"Not half!" enthused Tinker.
An hour later the detective and his assistant were in the long express train racing for Wales. It had been rather a rush and so far Tinker had heard no further details of Lord Bridgestock's disappearance. Now, leaning back in the corner of the first-class carriage, in which he and Blake were alone together, the youngster received more information.
"Bridgestock Castle is on the borders of Morfran Forest," explained Blake, drawing at his curved briar pipe. "I expect you've heard of Morfran?"
Tinker nodded eagerly.
"Rather, guv'nor! There was a bit in the paper about it only the other day. I filed it in the Index. 'The Devil's Forest' — that's what it's known as, isn't it? Supposed to be haunted by hobgoblins or something." He chuckled. "All rot, of course, but — "
"I wouldn't care to say that it is all rot," answered Blake unexpectedly.
Tinker stared at him.
"Crumbs, guv'nor, you're always surprising me, I know, but it'll be a thundering big surprise to hear that you believe in ghosts!"
"No, I can't say I believe in ghosts, Tinker. But a place could be haunted by things other than ghosts, you know. The more one learns of this rum old world the more one realises that there is a mighty lot in it that one never even dreams of. Strange things! I've learnt not to scoff at anything of the so-called 'supernatural' variety until I've firmly established evidence of its true nature."
He leaned back in his corner.
"There are very queer tales told of Morfran Forest, as you know. It's the remotest virgin forest in Britain — mile on mile of barely explored hills, thick with age and ancient trees. Except for one or two tracks used by the villagers, no one ever treads beneath those trees. And even the villagers, believing it haunted as they do, penetrate scarcely at all into the secret heart of the forest. Without being particularly gullible, I'm not going to contradict without evidence a man who tells me that strange things have been seen in the dark shadows of Morfran!"
"There are queer tales all right," he agreed. "There are flint-pits in the forest, all over the shop, where prehistoric men are said to have quarried stone for axe and spear-heads. Some of the old villagers in the hamlets at the outskirts of the forest swear that at night bent, dwarfed figures creep about by the pits — ghosts of the prehistoric men, they say. None of the villagers of the district would dare set foot far outside their homes after dark — at least that's what I read in the paper."
"It's true — they wouldn't!" exclaimed Blake.
"But you don't mean you believe their stories?" the youngster asked.
Blake shrugged his shoulders. "No, I don't say I believe them. I only say I am not prepared to discredit them without evidence to the contrary. I have come across such strange things in this world, Tinker! You remember that time in Africa with Spots Losely and Lobangu when you and I saw living dinosaurs with our own eyes? After that, I'm not going to scoff at the Morfran villagers' fears until I have assured myself that they are not justified."
"But that was Africa!" exclaimed Tinker. "We're talking about Wales!"
Blake smiled then pulled thoughtfully at his pipe.
"But to get back to our missing peer," he resumed, "Lord Bridgestock is not the only man who has disappeared in the neighbourhood of the Devil's Forest. One might almost say that disappearances are frequent — there is a long history of men and women who were last seen walking beneath those gnarled trees but who were never seen again. The police hold that the dark, mysterious pools that are scattered everywhere in the forest claim these people as victims. Bottomless pools, Tinker, that are said to be made by the shafts to the flint mines of prehistoric men. But the frightened villagers declare, of course, that the dwarfish ghosts have carried these missing folk away."
The train was rushing through the ring of London's outer suburbs now. Soon the long vistas of roof and gardens gave place to the fresh green of the open country.
"In about a couple of hours we are due at Bridgestock Station," said Blake.
Tinker nodded absently. His thoughts were far away, in the mysterious heart of Morfran Forest, with its ancient flint-pits, bottomless meres, and its uncanny legends, whispered down the years by generations of frightened villagers.
And with every minute the long express was bearing them nearer, nearer, to the Devil's forest!
The Smoke Signal
At Bridgestock Station a car was waiting to meet them, driven by a smartly liveried chauffeur. Their luggage was placed on top — only one suitcase between them — and away up the hilly road on its way to the castle the car went speeding.
Blake leaned forward and addressed the chauffeur.
"The police have been at the castle, of course?"
"Have they discovered anything that might throw light on Lord Bridgestock's disappearance?"
"Something has been found, yes, sir." The man seemed to hesitate. "Oh, but I don't like it!" he burst out suddenly. "It's all so weird! Flint spear-heads, sir, found at dawn in the castle grounds! The prints of naked feet in the forest — "
He broke off with a shudder. Blake and Tinker glanced at one another.
"I dare say you'll laugh at me, sir," the chauffeur went on, "but though I'm a level-headed man, I've grown to be scared when near Morfran Forest after dark. I used to laugh at the tales when first I was taken on by his lordship. Somehow up to date high-power cars don't fit in with ghosts. But I know too much now — "
Again he broke off. He glanced at his passengers in the rear-view mirror, then continued:
"It's my belief that the forest is inhabited by something unnatural, sir. Something that is responsible for his lordship's disappearance. He was last seen on his horse, riding off down one of the tracks into it. His horse came back but he didn't! Bloodshot it's eyes were, and covered with a lather of foam, and there was a strange wound on its flank, such as would be made by a flint spear-head — "
"What makes you suggest a flint spear-head?" put in Blake sharply.
"Because, like I said, sir, that's what they find in the forest and around the castle," came the dogged answer, as though the chauffeur expected to be disbelieved. "Not old ones, but new-made! That's the honest truth!"
His earnestness was unmistakable. Even as he was speaking the powerful car topped a rise and they were in sight of both the castle and the mysterious forest.
Bridgestock Castle stood on a hummock of rising ground across a shallow valley, through which the road wound like a white ribbon. Beyond, the vast sea of stirring greenery could be seen stretching away over the undulating ground farther than the eye could reach. Morfran Forest!
"There are thousands of acres of that forest, sir," muttered the chauffeur, slowing the car so that they could see the striking view. "Who's to find my missing master in all that horrible place? They've been searching ever since he vanished, but nothing's found. They couldn't even trace the tracks of the horse."
It was another quarter of an hour before they reached the castle.
Lord Bridgestock was a bachelor and it was his secretary, a young, pleasant-looking man named Michael Peel, who had sent for Blake.
There was very little that he could tell the detective. As the chauffeur had already explained, Lord Bridgestock had gone riding into the forest. His horse had come back, and he had not. The animal had been in a strangely exhausted, excited state, and there was a curious wound in its left flank, which it could scarcely have got through scraping itself against a tree. Search-parties had scoured the corner of the forest in which the missing peer had last been seen, but to no avail.
"By the way, what's all this I hear about flint spear-heads and naked footprints in the forest?" asked Blake casually.
The secretary glanced at him sharply. "Oh, that's just wild gossip, most of it," he said. "Spear-heads have been found, even in the grounds of the castle. But that's natural enough. Prehistoric men quarried for their flints hereabouts, as you know. It's said that some of the flints found have been judged by experts to be of modern make, but that only shows that dealers in fakes have been sowing wild oats around here, ready to reap 'em next day, I suppose. As for the naked footprints — " The young man shrugged his shoulders. "I've never seen one. It's all rot!"
Blake went to the stables shortly afterwards, and there examined the horse that Lord Bridgestock had last been seen riding. The wound on its flank was certainly rather odd looking — a jagged, deep cut that might well have been made by a flint spear-head, as the chauffeur had suggested.
"But there must be some other explanation, guv'nor!" said Tinker. The local police, whom Blake had a long consultation with, were of opinion — though they had not given it out publicly — that the vanished peer was somewhere at the bottom of one of the water-filled shafts that were scattered through Morfran Forest. In his heart, Tinker was inclined to agree with them.
"Let me show you one or two of these spear-heads we talking about," suggested Peel, the secretary, when Tinker and the detective had returned to the castle that evening after their preliminary investigations. He led them into the library, and there in a glass case were displayed over a dozen flaked flints, labelled with the spots in which they were picked up.
"See that big chap there?" said Peel. "That was found by a stable-boy over in one of the paddocks. He swore at the time — it was seven months ago — that it hadn't been there the day before, or he must have seen it. Not that I believe that! The ancient people quarried all about here, and the flint heads, probably lightly covered by soil, are washed visible by the rain."
"In one of the paddocks?" murmured Blake. "That is pretty near."
"Yes, it's seldom the flints are found so far from the edge of the woods. Generally it is deep in the forest that they are picked up. But lately people seem to have been finding them more frequently. Only the other day an old woman from the village found one lying outside her back door. It's my opinion some boy had picked it up the forest and dropped it there. He wouldn't claim it because he would've had to explain what he was doing in her garden — stealing apples, I expect!"
After dinner that evening Blake retired to his room and sat by the open window, smoking a pipe and frowning thoughtfully. Tinker played chess in the library with Peel. But it was hard to concentrate on the game — especially when Blake quietly entered the room, perused the books as if searching for a particular volume, then, with a grunt of satisfaction, took one from the shelves and disappeared again.
"I wonder what that book was?" muttered Tinker.
An hour or so later he found out when Blake made another fleeting appearance to return the volume. As the door silently closed behind his master, Tinker got up and padded across to the shelf where he saw that Blake had borrowed an ephemaris; a book of tables giving the positions of astronomical objects in the sky at any given time.
The youngster scratched his head. "What the dickens did he need that for?" he exclaimed.
The evening wore on. A queer atmosphere of disquiet seemed to be in the air of Bridgestock Castle; seemed to pervade every room. That was natural enough, with the cloud of its master's strange disappearance hanging over it like a dark shadow. But it made the youngster restless, and when finally he went to his room it was not to sleep.
A door opened from Tinker's bed-room on to the old ramparts of the castle, and Tinker went out on to the leads and paced up and down in the shadow.
The night was very warm and clear. A breeze was blowing carrying strange sounds with it — creaks and groans, knocks and snaps; the whispered words of the vast forest. The youngster could see by the light of the starry sky the dark swaying tree-tops at the edge of the castle's grounds. Morfran seemed alive; a pool of seething black into which a person could disappear forever, as if swallowed. Despite the warmth, Tinker shivered.
He sat down on the battlements, staring towards the brow of a nearby hill. What was the secret of Morfran Forest? Could it really be that there were strange, undreamed of things existing in its secret heart? It was hard for Tinker to believe that. And yet Blake had not been prepared to ignore the possibility.
Suddenly Tinker's eyes fixed themselves on something. He leaned forward, staring out from the ramparts into the starlit night.
In a moment he had darted back into his room. Out into the corridor he hurried, and entered Blake's room.
Half a minute later Tinker was back on the ramparts, accompanied by the detective.
"Look, guv'nor, over there! See?"
Blake's keen face, outlined sharply against the sky, peered in the direction of the youngster's outflung arm. He drew a sharp breath.
Miles away, far beyond the nearby hill, a thin ribbon of ghostly smoke could be seen rising. The breeze was dropping but the gusts still turned the smoke-pillar into a sinuous zigzag against the stars.
But what had brought the eager, intent look into the faces of both the watching figures on the battlements of Bridgestock Castle was the fact that every now and again the trail of smoke would be cut off, so that long and short puffs were rising into the sky.
"Morse code!" whispered Tinker.
Blake nodded without speaking.
He was spelling out the letters as they rose, and the word that they made was:
In the Heart of the Devil's Forest
The gentle breeze moaned through the restless branches of Morfran Forest as Blake and Tinker, with the horses lent them from the castle stables, pressed on down a narrow track in the heart of the forest of mystery. All day they had been penetrating deeper and deeper into the untrodden glades of Morfran. Both were as good as cowboys in the saddle, having 'ridden the range' in America on more than one occasion, but as a rule the branches grew so low here that it was necessary to lead their horses.
They had covered nearly twelve miles, working by compass in the direction of the spot from which that far-off smoke signal had risen on the night before. And now dusk was setting in.
"Well, I've not seen any of these spear-heads there's been so much talk about," said Tinker. "Nor a single naked footprint, guv'nor! And as for hobgoblins, not a solitary! I almost feel like asking for my money back, so to speak!"
"We must be pretty near the place where the smoke signal came from, young 'un," said Blake thoughtfully. "I wonder if it really did come from Lord Bridgestock, or whether it was just some Boy Scouts practising for their signaller's badge?"
"If it was, they're pretty far off the beaten track," noted Tinker.
The trees seemed to be growing less dense now, and they mounted their horses again, trotting over the turfy ground. A sloping ridge rose before them, on which a copse of thin firs grew from the carpet of bracken.
Suddenly Tinker pointed off to the right.
"Look, guv'nor, there's one of those prehistoric quarries!"
A yawning grass-grown pit lay a few hundred yards away. Blake nodded.
"Yes, that looks like one of the ancient quarries right enough," he agreed. "A nasty place to encounter in the dark! I don't wonder people come a cropper in this forest with things like that to break their necks in!"
Tinker turned his horse's head.
"Carry on, guv'nor! I'll catch you up, I just want to have a look at it," he said, and quickened his horse's pace.
It was a sudden cry from the youngster that brought Blake round, too; the detective trotted swiftly to Tinker's side.
"What's up, lad?"
"Guv'nor, look at that!"
Tinker had reined in his horse and, with eyes wide, was pointing down at a sandy patch near the lip of the flint-pit.
Among the bracken, clear enough on the sandy soil, was the imprint of a small naked foot!
Night had fallen.
With their horses tethered near at hand, Sexton Blake and Tinker were stretched full length in the bracken. It was useless to attempt to keep on now that night had come. It was pitch-black beneath the trees, despite the starlight, and in consequence progress would have been too slow to be worthwhile.
Tinker, with one of the blankets they'd brought, had rolled himself up comfortably and was dropping into a doze, dog-tired. Sexton Blake was smoking his pipe, wakeful still. With his head on his pack, Tinker began to breathe deeply.
Sleep came to him — a ghastly, shadow-haunted slumber.
Ghostly figures flitted through his dreams — bent, dwarfish forms, crawling up out of the grass-grown quarries that had been worked thousands of years ago by men of the prehistoric ages. Gnarled creatures, skin-clad, that crept through the gloomy depths of the Devil's Forest.
One of them seemed to be bending over him. He felt its brown hand touch his face, slip down to his throat, tighten! He was fighting for breath, choking —
Tinker awoke with a strangled gasp.
He tried to sit up — only to find that a hand really was clutching at his throat! He saw the crooked figure that crouched above him — the very figure of his nightmares!
With a choking cry the youngster yanked his pistol from beneath the blanket only to have it knocked from his hand by a bony fist. He hit up at the face that was glaring down into his own. The creature, whatever it was, went reeling back. Tinker sprang to his feet.
Then he saw that the clearing was filled with little dark figures. Blake was struggling with a surging crowd that had fallen upon him as he slept. And now a score of others closed upon Tinker.
He fought wildly — grappling, clawing, punching and kicking as the strange men swarmed over him. They were small of build and very dark of complexion — scarce above four feet stood the tallest — and their eyes were black like tiny beads glittering with malevolence. Many were tattooed from head to foot in ocher and woad, and in posture they were stooped, as if from a lifetime spent in crouching and hiding. They were armed with spears, bows and arrows, and daggers, all pointed with flint.
What sort of men were they? If they were, indeed, men!
He hit out savagely and the little scurrying creatures dropped before his lashing fists. Then Sexton Blake suddenly burst from their midst, throwing two of them high into the air. He grabbed Tinker's arm and cried, "Run, lad! Run for your life!"
Blake yanked his assistant from the clutching, claw like hands of their assailants and dragged him into the trees. Regaining his balance, Tinker took to his heels, running beside his master, his legs pumping, his heart pounding, his lungs gasping for air. In the darkness, roots snagged at both men's ankles, causing them to fall again and again. Twigs and leaves slapped across their faces and once the youngster ran into a branch which hit him square between the eyes so hard that he reeled and saw stars. Blake grabbed him and pushed him on, running, running, and ever behind them the scurrying rustle of close pursuit.
On, on, their breath coming in great sobs.
"Keep going Tinker!" panted Sexton Blake. "We have to stay out of their hands at least until seven o'clock!"
Amidst the nightmarish chase, this strange statement seemed to Tinker like weirdness piled upon weirdness. Seven o'clock? What had seven o'clock to do with anything?
Fingers dug into his wrist as one of the creatures caught up with him. Desperately, without thinking, he whirled, swinging the gnarled little figure around, allowing its momentum to carry it with a sickening crunch into the bole of a tree.
"This way!" cried Blake, veering to the left and running up a slope. Tinker followed, vaguely aware that he had somehow acquired the creature's spear.
Up they raced, over the summit and down again, with leaves and twigs cascading down around their ankles. They both stumbled over the uneven ground, fell, and rolled into a dried creek bed. Up, again, running, the susurrous pad of many pairs of bare feet close at their backs.
Following the course of the creek, the detectives sped as fast as they could through the darkness, their pace never slackened, though their bodies were wracked with agony. Tinker was beyond thought. He was focused on just two things: keeping moving and staying at his guv'nor's side.
Sexton Blake was slightly more conscious of the environment. He could hear that the primitive man-things were close behind and getting closer. He could see that the banks of the dried creek were growing higher and rockier. This latter fact gave him cause for hope and, as he ran, he peered through the gloom, scanning the banks.
At last he saw what he had hoped to see; a blacker patch of darkness in a steep, root-entangled rock face.
"Follow!" he barked.
Blindly, unthinkingly, Tinker obeyed.
They dodged through stony outcrops, grabbed at the roots and hauled themselves up. Ahead of Tinker, Blake seemed to suddenly vanish.
Lack of oxygen had reduced Tinker's eyesite to tunnel vision. He turned his head this way and that, deperately trying to locate his guv'nor. A hand reached out of the shadows and grasped his collar, pulling him up. He slithered over the hard stone and into a small cave, collapsing into an exhausted heap.
"Lie still!" hissed Blake
The youngster needed no second telling. He lay prone, sucking in huge draughts of air. Dimly, he felt something sliding out of his hand.
"A spear," came Blake's whisper. "Good lad! I lost my pistol back there."
Tinker opened his mouth to say 'me too' but, now that the running was done, the crack he'd taken between the eyes registered — and he slipped into merciful oblivion.
He dreamed of chanting; a distant, repetitive dirge that sounded something like "Thoo loo faa tang! Thoo loo faa tang!", sung over and over.
A hand shook his shoulder.
"Scrambled eggs," he mumbled thickly.
"Tinker!" snapped Sexton Blake. "Wake up lad!"
Painfully, the youngster sat up. "We're safe?" he croaked.
"No," answered Blake. "We're surrounded."
Tinker rubbed his eyes. He tried to stretch his arms over his head but there wasn't room. He smacked his lips. He was terribly thirsty.
"I dreamed they were chanting." he said.
"Not our pursuers," answered Blake, "but others. Very distant. Maybe it came from their village. It started with the dawn and ended about a quarter of an hour ago."
The detective was outlined against the small entrance to the tiny, cramped cave. Beyond him, pale yellowish light was filtering through the trees.
"As for our friendly neighbourhood hunting party, well they poked in their noses a few times and those noses got pricked with this spear," said Blake. "But for the past couple of hours, they've just been waiting. We've no scrambled eggs I'm afraid, young 'un, or any other food for that matter — and they know it. They intend to starve us out."
"Then they'll have a long wait!" growled Tinker resolutely.
Blake chuckled. "That's the spirit, old son. But on this occasion I think we'll wait until seven o'clock-ish then give ourselves up."
"Seven o'clock? What happens at seven o'clock?" asked Tinker, puzzled.
"Nothing, young 'un. I just want to be sure the sun is well over the horizon."
"But — !"
And with that, Sexton Blake withdrew into himself, and Tinker, so familiar with his master's unique personality, knew that, for the time being, he would gain no better response from the detective than if he tried to converse with the cave wall.
Why they were going to give themselves up to the creatures, why they were waiting, what seven o'clock and the position of the sun had to do with it, these things he simply couldn't understand. But in Sexton Blake he had absolute, unwavering trust.
And so he waited.
The forest was silent. The breeze had passed; the air was still. No birds sang.
Shafts of sunlight lanced through the trees, blinking through the branches. Thin whorls of mist rolled at the foot of the trunks and flowed into the creek bed in which the man-things crouched, resting on their haunches, watching the mouth of the cave.
It was not long before the creatures' patience was rewarded.
A spear dropped from the gloomy gap in the rock and clattered down over the roots and stone. Two figures emerged, their clothes ragged, stained with earth and blood.
One of the dwarfish hunters stood and broke the silence with a howl of triumph — but it was cut short as, to his evident amazement, the two figures, rather than seeking escape, calmly clambered down the rock face towards the gathered throng.
Sexton Blake and Tinker stepped onto the creek bed. There was a sudden explosion of movement as the creatures pounced. Tinker, offering no resistance, was dragged to earth by his horrible assailants, and a minute later he lay with his hands lashed behind him, a helpless prisoner.
He looked to his right and saw Blake receiving the same treatment.
A skin-clad dwarf spoke in a queer gabbling voice. The detectives were each lifted by a dozen little figures and felt themselves being carried off swiftly through the trees.
In Tinker's brain a wild, half-impossible idea was forming.
What if prehistoric man was not the extinct creature he was supposed to be? What if in this wild corner of the Welsh hills a little band of them had lived on through the changing years, themselves unchanging, cut off from the rest of the world, hiding in the secret depths of Britain's remotest forest?
What if these were the descendants of the old Picts, driven westward into their forest retreat when the Ancient Britons invaded our island thousands of years ago? The Picts, Tinker knew, had been little men like these. What if the ancient Picts still lived today in Morfran Forest?
And while the strange thought built up in his mind, Tinker was borne on swiftly through the flickering shadows of the dense trees. Behind came a second party, bearing the bound figure of Sexton Blake.
They had fallen into the hands of the devils of Morfran Forest!
Sacrifice at Dawn!
Nearly an hour's march. Then they came to a part of the forest where the trees thinned suddenly, revealing a grassy hill before them. A winding path led to the summit.
And on the summit, outlined black against the sky like jagged, hungry teeth, stood a circle of huge stones, roughly hewn.
A cold thrill ran down Tinker's spine as his eyes fell upon that grim circle. He knew well enough the story of that other circle of stones erected in the dim past by men, that we now call Stonehenge; knew that sacrificial rites were held within it.
What if this circle served the same purpose for these primitives?
Around the base of the hill there nestled a village of huts, constructed from tree branches and conical in form; reminiscent of indian teepees. The procession marched through this village, along the path and up the hill, around the stones and back down again. The detectives were then carried to one of the huts and unceremoniously pushed inside. They were left, bound, thirsty and uncomfortable, laying on the flattened earth floor.
Some minutes passed before either of them spoke. Then Sexton Blake quietly muttered, "Mission accomplished, though not the way I'd have liked, young 'un."
"Accomplished, guv'nor?" said Tinker, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"See if you can push yourself over here, lad. Look through the door from where I am."
Using the heels of his feet, Tinker heaved himself across the earth until he was laying at Blake's side. From this vantage he looked through the opening in the side of the hut and saw two of the short, thick-set tribesmen standing guard outside. Beyond them, more of the strange villagers were milling around, obviously excited by the arrival of the hunting party and its captives. Past them, there were more huts and, towering above those, the dark forest trees. It was an object in one of these that caught the youngster's eye. It appeared to be a platform of some sort, constructed from branches lashed together and affixed high off the ground amidst the top-most boughs of a tall tree. Though he could not see what was on it, the presence of a great many crows, cawing and fighting among themselves, made the muscles of his jaw tighten. He had travelled in many of the remotest regions of the world; had encountered primitive tribes and seen the ages-old customs of Indians and other non-civilised races — and he had seen before constructions exactly like this.
It was a funeral platform, upon which lay the mortal remains of a human being, left for the scavanger birds to dispose of.
"D-do you mean to say — " gulped Tinker.
"Yes," answered Blake. "It's my unhappy opinion that we're looking at the last resting place of Lord Bridgestock."
"But couldn't it be one of these weird man-creatures? Maybe one who died of old age or disease or in an accident?" Tinker suggested.
"Possibly," answered Sexton Blake. "But as we were carried through the village I noticed that one of the creatures wore a riding jacket which, undoubtedly, had belonged to Bridgestock. Another was wearing his hat. But there is something else — something which convinces me that the poor man's remains are up on that platform."
"Look at the soil here, by the wall."
Tinker strained his neck and managed to turn his head in the direction Blake had indicated. There, scratched into the hard earth, was a message:
ESCAPED. SENT SMOKE SIGNAL. RECAPTURED. IF YOU SAW AND CAME FOR ME, I AM SORRY. MAY GOD SAVE YOU.
"And," added Blake, "the stone altar at the center of the circle up there; it was stained with blood. Fresh blood."
Tinker gasped. "Good Lord! You mean they sacrificed him?"
"I rather think that's what the chanting was this morning. You can see from the excitement of those birds that the body has been put up there very recently — probably within the last couple of hours. In which case the sacrifice coincided with the sunrise, so I think it's fair to make the supposition that we find ourselves among sun worshippers, whose god prefers human offerings."
There was a short silence as Tinker considered this shocking revelation. Then he said, in a low voice: "Thus seven o'clock."
"Exactly," answered Blake. "If this is anything like other sun-worshipping cultures, the sacrifices are only made while the sun is rising. By avoiding capture until the bottom edge of the orb was well above the horizon, we bought ourselves another day. Sunrise is early at this time of year, about five-thirty, so we had a wide margin ... but better safe than sorry."
"Phew, well that's something!" said Tinker. "But hold on a minute, guv'nor, how in blue blazes did you know we were going to encounter sun worshippers?"
"I didn't know, Tinker. However, in light of all those flint spearheads, I suspected that some sort of primitive tribe might exist in these woods, and if it did and it really was at such a low level of civilisation, then there was a high probability that it would be a tribe of sun-worshippers."
Tinker nodded. Then he frowned and said, "What I don't understand, though, is why — if that chanting was part of the sacrifice — they waited until this morning? Lord Bridgestock vanished four days ago. Why didn't they kill him straight away?"
"The various disappearances in this part of the world all have something in common, Tinker."
"Yes. They all occurred around this time of year."
"You mean in the summer?"
"I mean, young 'un, in the days leading up to the solstice!"
Tinker shifted his weight to one side, trying to bring some relief to his tightly bound arms.
"And today is the solstice!" he reasoned.
"Precisely!" answered Blake.
"Does that mean we're safe? After all, we've managed to miss the main event! The sun has risen!"
"True. But they can't let us go, since we'd reveal their presence, and they can't keep us prisoner until next summer — too impractical — so they probably intend to make of us a belated offering."
"So we have until the morning to escape!" exclaimed Tinker. "How are your bonds?"
"Fiendishly tight," answered Blake.
"Mine too. We're in it up to our necks this time, guv'nor!"
Blake gave a grim smile and, as he did so, Tinker was astonished to see a twinkle in his master's eye. To the youngster, this was a sure sign that the great detective had something up his sleeve — but what that something could be, the lad couldn't fathom!
They dozed fitfully and the day seemed interminable. Brief respite came halfway through the afternoon when a hideous female entered the hut and poured water down their throats from a carved wooden bowl before then pushing some poorly cooked meat into their mouths. They chewed and swallowed but it did little to abate their hunger.
They spoke little, knowing that it was important to conserve their energy.
And the day wore on, darkened, and drained into night.
Neither of them had slept and they both noted that the sky was growing lighter and the village was astir. It was, therefore, no surprise when the men-things came for them.
Blake and Tinker were dragged out of the hut and hoisted aloft. A procession carried them through the village and up the hill towards the stone circle that crowned it.
"Have courage, young 'un!" called Blake.
"Don't worry about me, sir!" cried Tinker. "I just hope they free my hands long enough for me to thump a few of the blighters on the nose!"
A large crowd of the primitives — the whole village, it seemed — had gathered around the stones. They began chanting: "Thoo loo faa tang, thoo loo faa tang ... "
Through them and into the circle the procession passed, under a high stone arch made from three blocks of granite, one laid across the great posts formed by the others. The prisoners were borne in and placed side by side upon a great block of granite in the centre; the altar stone. Their bonds were cut and their limbs held down; each man at full stretch with two of the primitives grasping each limb.
A gnarled figure, wearing Lord Bridgestock's riding jacket and grotesquely ornamented with flowers and chains of leaves, advanced through a little group of men who seemed to be priests. He held in his hand a long flint knife; smoothed and polished. He halted beside the sacrificial stone where the two prisoners lay helpless. He was staring out through one of the square arches towards the east.
Already a grey light was flooding up into the sky.
The night was almost over. Soon the first golden ray of the sun would come striking through the arch on to the sacrificial stone.
That, Tinker realised, would be the signal. He had read all about Stonehenge, and the ancient, horrible rites once practised there. When the sun's first ray touched the stone in the center of the great circle, it would be the signal for the human sacrifice.
The watching throng sang its slow, rhythmic dirge: "Thoo loo faa tang ... Thoo loo faa tang ... Thoo loo faa tang ... "
It was all so fantastic, so unreal, that Tinker, half delirious with thirst and discomfort, could barely grasp that this was actually happening, that when the sun rose the end would come.
All around the grassy hill the trees began swaying softly as a dawn breeze arose — the British trees he had always known, oak and ash and beech! Was it possible that among those British trees he could meet death at the hands of men who were unchanged since the dawn of time?
"Stonehenge was years and years ago — hundreds and thousands of years ago!" he told himself, almost wonderingly. "It can't all be happening today as it used to happen then!"
But as he breathed the words he remembered what Sexton Blake had said:
"The more one learns of this rum old world, the more one realises that there is a mighty lot in it that one never even dreams of!"
He heard Blake's voice again now: "Keep your chin up, young 'un! We're not dead yet!"
Tinker twisted his head round until he could see the prone, bound figure of his master. He smiled faintly. "This is too much, guv'nor," he muttered. “Give me the likes of Zenith the Albino any day of the week! But this!”
"It does seem too weird to be true!" muttered Blake. "A modern Stonehenge, hidden away for centuries in these lonely wilds! Amazing — but apparently true enough."
"There's one thing, guv'nor — we've at least got the satisfaction of knowing we did our job! We tracked Lord Bridgestock down all right, didn't we? The poor fellow. I wish we could have saved him!"
Sexton Blake pursed his lips and there was something in his expression that Tinker recognised; a look his master often got after a criminal had been hoisted by his own petard.
A rosy light was flushing the clouds above them. Dew sparkled on the grass. The wind could be heard whispering in the trees of Morfran Forest, and Tinker could see the tree-tops stretching away like the waves of the sea for mile on mile, as far as the eye could reach. These men who had them in their power lived in solitude utter and complete.
No wonder they had lived their lives, shunning the rest of mankind, without more than an occasional glimpse being caught of them, when they ventured to the farthest fringes of their forest domain!
And those glimpses had always been put down as being the superstitious imaginings of credulous villagers!
The outside world had scoffed, in its superior way — even Tinker himself had been inclined to scoff, he remembered now, and a bitter smile curled his lips for a moment.
The swarm of little misshapen figures, each one staring towards the east, seemed to have entered an almost trance-like state. Lit by the coming dawn, they were immensely strange to look upon. And gazing at them, it was still that numbed sense of bewildered curiosity that took the place of fear in Tinker's heart.
The group of priests, with their garlands of flowers and leaves, were silent. While beside the great sacrificial stone, the high-priest with the knife was glaring with a fanatical light in his eyes at the brightening glory of the dawn.
And then, above the far horizon, the rim of the sun came rising like a thread of burnished gold.
The chanting suddenly ceased and a sigh seemed to whisper through the watching throng. Then every man flung himself face down, prostrate. Only the priests remained standing.
The hand of the high-priest rose, clutching the slim knife of polished flint. He stepped forward until it hovered over the prone form of Tinker — then flashed down!
The Darkening Sun!
Instantly a loud, weird cry broke from Blake. It was a horrible, uncanny sound that he had uttered, and instinctively the high-priest started back, still holding his knife, its suddenly deflected descent causing the sharp tip to merely scrape across Tinker's chest rather than plunging deeply into it. The youngster gave a gasp.
Blake had got one hand free, and now he flung it out, pointing at the rising sun. Strange sounds were coming from the detective's lips — a crooning, wailing chant: "Faah tang! Faah tang! Faah tang!"
Tinker watched the detective with startled eyes.
Blake took no notice, but went on with his strange, wild chant. He was gesticulating now, twisting his fingers, writhing his arm, eyes fixed, wide and staring, at the sun's disc.
The group of priests had hurried towards the center stone, and stared in consternation at their strange prisoner. The high-priest raised his knife again, uncertain, then let it fall. He shot a questioning glance at his companions.
And from one of them broke a shrill scream of fear as he pointed at the sun.
The flaming disc was half in sight now. And at one corner of it, a black segment was slowly encroaching.
Blake continued his chant, more wild and weirder than ever. He had forced himself up into a sitting posture, and still his eyes glared at the sun's disc. He was waving his free arm like a madman. Slowly the black segment grew, sliding deeper and deeper with ever passing minute across the flaming gold.
A wail of terror rose from the priests as a strange gloom swept across Morfran. The knife dropped from the nerveless fingers of the man beside the great stone.
And from Tinker there broke a bubbling laugh.
An eclipse of the sun! — and Sexton Blake had known all along that it was coming! Now it all made sense! Why the detective had consulted the ephemeris! Why he had delayed their capture yesterday morning!
Now, in the eyes of their captors, it seemed as though Blake had cast a magic spell over the rising sun, and panic seized them.
The detective's chant went on in the stillness, unceasing. He glanced around, saw the prostrate figures of the priests and for a moment his eyes met Tinker's.
Solemnly, he winked at his assistant. For the first time he paused in his crooning, to mutter: "Mighty magic, eh, young 'un? It's not a total eclipse, but it's enough to scare the beggars!"
The grovelling priests were still pressing their faces into the turf. But a loud, imperious cry from Blake caused them to glance up fearfully.
He made a motion of command. His meaning was plain enough.
Teeth chattering with terror, the high priest staggered to his feet. He was trembling in every limb. He cried out something and his fellow priests crawled backwards away from Blake and his assistant.
Blake swung himself off the stone and touched Tinker on the arm.
"Come on! We'll exit stage left while the going is good! I don't fancy we shall be molested. They think I'm the most powerful magician on earth, I'll bet!"
They crossed slowly from the centre of the stone circle, and passed out under one of the rough arches. No one attempted to stop them. The little cowering figures all lay with their faces pressed into the damp grass, moaning and wailing.
Down the hillside towards the shelter of the trees the detectives went.
"Mustn't hurry; it would look bad!" chuckled Sexton Blake.
They passed into the shadows of the leaft canopy. Tinker glanced back.
Looming blackly against the eldritch twilight, the great jagged teeth of the sacrificial circle rose grimly to the sky. He saw the squat figures of the men at the base of the stones; the 'devils' of Morfran Forest.
"Stone Age men!" he muttered below his breath.
But as it later turned out, he was wrong.
A day and a night passed. Then, shortly after dawn on the day following, a man and a youth came riding out of the fringe of Morfran Forest.
Sexton Blake and Tinker!
Blake and the youngster had lost their packs when they were captured by the forest-dwellers, and now their faces were drawn and hungry-looking, their clothes ragged, their limbs and faces scratched. Across Tinker's forehead a huge bruise was yellowing.
But they had come back. They had found their horses where they had been left tethered — for some reason their captors hadn't touched the animals.
They had come back. Back out of the secret heart of Morfran.
At first, no one would believe their incredible story. But when Blake stuck to it, even after he and Tinker had returned to the civilised normalcy of London, and it was seen that it was not some elaborate 'leg-pull' on his part, the entire country was soon afire with it. When the story was subsequently proven, when Morfran Forest was scoured from end to end and the strange dwellers were driven out into the open, then too came other truths; hitherto hidden facts now exposed by the tireless investigator of Baker Street.
Sexton Blake discovered that Lord Bridgestock had, as a young man, stumbled upon a vein of gold in a rocky outcrop deep within Morfran. Believing that there were large quantities of the precious metal in the forest, and being unable to purchase the land from the Government, since it was the property of the nation, he had adopted an amazing plan.
The young peer had imported secretly a band of primitive savages from Karadjhem Island, north of Lapland. With these wretched slaves and the help of a few unscrupulous white men, he had attempted to mine the gold he had discovered — only to find that the streak soon exhausted and was worthless.
He had given up the project but, heartlessly, had not returned the savages to their homes.
They had lived on in the secret depths of the Welsh hills, in terror of the white men they had learnt to hate, hiding from the eyes of the outside world, living their own, primitive life in utter solitude.
The indignation aroused when the truth came out was so intense that the public donated money to finance the return of the savages to their Northern home. Missionaries went with them to 'discourage' their sacrificial rites and to educate them in the worship of not the sun, but the Son. However, this was not an entirely successful undertaking; two of the zealous missionaries were never seen again!
Some weeks after their narrow escape in Wales, Tinker and Blake, together with Pedro, the great bloodhound, made a point of visiting Stonehenge.
As he stood by the sacrificial stone in the center, Tinker drew a deep breath.
"They used that thousands of years ago, guv'nor! Amazing isn't it? Thousands of years — think of it! That's a long time — but I know jolly well just how those chaps felt who were trussed up and laid on here to wait for the sun to rise!"
"When I first visited this place, years ago," he murmured, "I never thought that one day I should find myself prone on an altar stone just like this one!"
"We certainly have a knack for getting into bizarre situations!" exclaimed Tinker. "But as you told me in the train that day, guv'nor, there's a mighty lot in this world that one never even dreams of!"
"On the other hand, there are some very important things that I, for one, certainly do dream about!"
"Oh?" said Sexton Blake, raising an eyebrow. "Like what?"
"Like Mrs Bardell's scrambled eggs!" laughed Tinker. "Let's get back to Baker Street!"