by Captain W. E. Johns



IX.           INTO THE FIRE  (Pages 168 – 200)


I   -   When Biggles looked in the window, to his utmost surprise, he sees not just an empty room but a vast chamber with a large carved table in the centre.  Chairs are arranged around it with a large one at the head.  In front of this chair is a blotting-pad, bound in red leather, with a large silver ink-stand an on the pad he sees the sealed package of jewels with the seals still unbroken!  He climbs in to go and get it.  Suddenly, a door opens so Biggles hides behind the door.  “The plan was a forlorn hope at the best, and like most forlorn hopes it failed”.  Biggles is seen by a “flunkey” dressed in medieval style.  “Biggles’s clenched fist shot out like a piston in a vicious upper-cut, which made contact with that vulnerable spot known in boxing circles as the solar plexus.  The recipient of this unpleasant salutation uttered a spasmodic gasp; a spasm of agony convulsed his face, and he collapsed like a pricked balloon on to the floor”.  Biggles conceals the unconscious man in a small room off the main chamber but then hears several people walking into the room he has just vacated.  Biggles wonders what to do with the man, who will no doubt soon recover.  “In fiction he could, of course, have been bound and gagged, and Biggles was prepared to inflict both these indignities on him” but he has nothing with which to bind him.  Biggles decides to put on his clothes in order to walk to the door and leave.  In the main room, nine or ten feet away, four men are seated at the table.  “The room itself was more of a museum than a living-room.  At one time it had evidentially been the banqueting-hall of the castle, for a minstrels’ gallery ran the entire length of one end; below it was a small door that appeared to give access to it”.  Biggles walks out just as the man at the head of the table opens the package of jewels.  The package is empty.  Biggles “stopped dead, staring at the case incredulously, for once shaken completely off his guard.  He forgot where he was and what he was doing.  He forgot everything except the one inexplicable, unbelievable fact that the case was empty”.  Biggles felt “his gaze drawn to the leader’s eyes.  As it came to rest upon him he felt the blood drain from his face as his entire system reacted violently to such a shock as he had never before experienced.  It was not the round muzzle of the automatic that appeared over the edge of the table that caused it; it was the shock of recognition.  For the face into which he was staring was that of a man who, he thought, was buried deep in the arid sand of Palestine.  It was Erich von Stalhein, once second in command of German Intelligence in the Middle East”.  It was von Stalhein who broke the silence.  ‘Major Bigglesworth,’ he said quietly, ‘years ago I reported to my Higher Command that you had more nerve than any other officer in the British Flying Corp – no, don’t move, please”.  Von Stalhein introduces Biggles to his comrades and allows him to change back into “his hastily discarded suit”.  “Better put them on again; we shall then be able to discuss the situation with the dignity it demands,” suggested the German.  They discuss the jewels.  Biggles gives his word that he thought the diamonds were in the box and says he didn’t come into the room trying to recover an empty box.  Biggles places two fingers in his mouth and blows a shrill whistle.  There is a pause, where von Stalhein says, “Well, nothing appears to have happened” – then the lights go out.  Von Stalhein immediately opens fire in the darkness.  Biggles makes for the minstrels’ gallery.  Through the door, and in total darkness, Biggles just wants to find Algy.  He trips over armour.  At that moment, the lights come back on again.  Biggles is in a long corridor furnished as an armoury and he grabs an antique rifle and one cartridge.  By an open window, Biggles can hear sounds of pursuit round the castle and can hear the baying of a hound.  “Suffering Icarus, I certainly have stirred up a hornet’s nest and no mistake”.  Working his way through the castle, Biggles reaches a magnificent flight of stairs and scouts around various rooms.  In due course, he comes upon a room where von Stalhein is in a cold fury.  A look through the partially open door reveals seven men, the four from the dining-room, two guards and – Algy!  In front of von Stalhein is the empty jewel case but also a similar one.  “Biggles had learnt a little German during his previous affair with von Stalhein; his knowledge was rusty from lack of use, but he was able to gather that the German was calling attention to the seals on both cases, presumably for the purposes of comparison”.  Biggles carefully and quietly puts his hand into the room and takes the key from the other side of the lock and inserts it into his side of the lock.  Then aiming his gun at the light bulb, he pulls the trigger.  Click.  Nothing happens.  But he has now drawn the attention of those in the room.  “Your powder seems to be a trifle damp, Bigglesworth,’ von Stalhein observes dryly.  Then the rifle goes off.  The bullet hits the chandelier and creates a distraction.  Algy swipes the lamp onto the floor and plunges the room into darkness.  He runs to the door and then Biggles slams it and locks it.  A bullet is fired from inside the room and rips a splinter out of a door panel.  Biggles and Algy run for it.


II   -   They reach the top of the main staircase and hear people coming up.  They are forced to run up a narrow set of stairs in order to get away.  Here they find a chain of rooms, each leading into the other until in the last room they see a crude ladder fixed perpendicularly to the wall.  They climb up and find it gives access to a flat roof.  They shut the trap behind them and then find they are by the top of a large chimney; Biggles sees it has rungs at the side.  “Are you proposing to go down that black hole of Calcutta?” asks Algy.  (This is a reference to an infamous incident in India when 146 British and Anglo-Indian soldiers were held overnight in a small dungeon, 14 by 18 feet, in Fort William, Calcutta, India, following the capture of that fort on 20th June 1756.  123 died from suffocation, heat exhaustion and crushing).  Biggles says they only need to go down far enough to be out of sight.  Biggles goes first and Algy follows.  They go some twenty foot down.  Men come onto the roof and one drops a lighted match down the chimney.  The hot match-stalk goes down Algy’s neck.  The men go and Algy and Biggles climb out.  They don’t know the time as both of their (wind up) watches have stopped.  “The moon disappeared behind the distant forest, and the Stygian (a reference to the mythical River Styx in Hades) darkness enveloped them”.  They rest and Algy sleeps.