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Title: A Sound in the Night
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200031.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
Date most recently updated: January 2012

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: A Sound in the Night
Author: Fred M. White

*

Published in The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld.), Thursday
18 February, 1937.

*


The man lay there dead and stiff and cold; he might have been beyond all
surgery for hours. Ayres had some surgical knowledge, and he recognised
at a glance that the dead man's neck was broken. His legs were curiously
twisted as if he had met with some tremendous accident, possibly in
connexion with a motor. He was well dressed, his clothes were smartly
cut, and the overcoat collar was turned up. A grey cloth cap lay a
little distance off, but obviously formed no usual part of the
unfortunate man's dress. He might have been a professional man, a
successful lawyer, perhaps, who found himself staying in that remote and
lonely part; he might have borrowed the cap with the intention of
replacing a more correct form of head-gear.

Ayres could come to no other conclusion than that murder had been done.
No man intent on suicide could have inflicted those terrible injuries on
himself. And the theory that he had been killed by a passing car would
not hold water. No car could have climbed up the slippery side of the
moor, and, besides, the spot where Ayres had made the discovery was a
kind of meadow surrounded by a stone wall. At one corner was a clump of
larches, under which Ayres had been camping out for the last few days.
He was absolutely alone there, nothing but a small bell tent, a supply
of provisions and a spirit stove, together with his naturalist outfit.
He had come to that lonely moor with the intention of securing a
specimen of one of the rarer Hawk moths.

It was past ten on the previous evening before he had finished his
'sugaring' and other lures for the elusive stranger, and a little later
he had put out his light and lay smoking in his tent with the flap
thrown back. At that time there had not been a soul in the meadow
besides himself. He had lain awake the whole of the night listening
intently for the jar of the wings which would tell him that the rare
feathered creature was in the trap. The brief night had spent itself,
and the first saffron flush was creeping up from the east before Ayres
rose and stretched himself, conscious that his had been a wasted vigil.
He had not heard a sound except once or twice the lour churning of a
nightjar. He was prepared to swear that he had not closed his eyes the
whole of the night, and yet within fifty yards of where he had lain a
brutal murder had been committed. He was not blind to his own position.
He was a stranger here, and no doubt awkward questions would be asked.
He knew the story that he would have to tell would sound a strange one,
but it would have to be told and the sooner the better. It was broad
daylight now, and a little way below Ayres could see a cowman driving
his flock towards the milking acre.

Ayres yelled again and again until he attracted attention. Presently the
peasant came lumbering up.

"What's the matter, gaffer?" he asked.

"That," Ayres said curtly, as he pointed to the dead body. "I have been
camping out here in search of rare moths. At ten o'clock last night
there was not a soul in the field but me. At daybreak I found this
unfortunate gentleman lying dead. I wonder if by any chance you might
happen to know him?"

The cowman backed away, palpably frightened. It was with considerable
difficulty that Ayres at length induced him to examine the dead man's
face.

"Never seen him before," he declared. "I knows everybody for miles
around, and that poor chap, 'e never lived about here. And you mean to
say, sir, as how you never heard nothing at all?"

"No, I didn't," Ayres replied. "The whole thing's an absolute mystery to
me. I cannot think how such a terrible crime could have been committed
without my hearing something of the struggle. And yet there was not one
sound except the churning of a nightjar."

The cowman shook his red head obstinately.

"That you didn't, sir," he exclaimed. "I've been a woodsman and a
shepherd and a cowman for forty odd year, and there's nothing about
anything that flies or creeps in these parts as you can teach me. And I
tell you this, sir, no living soul ever heard a nightjar nearer than
Felton, and that's fifteen miles away."

"Do you mean to tell me," Ayres demanded, "that I don't know the note of
a nightjar when I hear it? My good man, I have been a naturalist always.
It is my living. I heard that nightjar as plainly as possible, and, what
is more, I heard it three times at intervals. But all this is rather
callous, my friend. What we've got to think of now is the poor fellow
lying here and what to do with him. I am bound to stay here till the
police come, and I must ask you to go and look for them. Is there
anybody in the village who possesses a telephone!"

"Squire, at the Grange, 'e have," the cowman explained.

"Then go down to the Grange at once and explain to the squire exactly
what has happened. Ask him to telephone to Ixyridge and tell the
superintendent of the police there to come over here as soon as possible
and bring a doctor with him."

It was a long, dragging half-hour that followed before a figure on a
stout moorland pony came slowly up the hillside and approached Ayres.
The newcomer was evidently the squire of the parish. He introduced
himself as Thornton, and inquired somewhat abruptly to know what all
this trouble was about. Evidently he had gleaned something from the
cowman, and it was equally evident that what he had gathered had not
prejudiced him in Ayres' favour.

"It seems almost incredible, sir," he said stiffly. "You are asking me
to believe that this tragedy----"

"I am not asking you to believe anything," Ayres said curtly. "Your
views on the subject are nothing to me. I have no more to say. We must
await the police."

A full hour elapsed before the arrival of the superintendent, who was
accompanied by a doctor. A brief examination confirmed the fact that the
unfortunate man's neck was broken, and that both his legs were injured.
There was nothing about him to lead to his identity.

"I can't find anything," the doctor said at length. "There is nothing
but this sheet of tracing paper, which would not help us much. As far as
I can make out, it represents the skeleton of a bird and various
sections of the same fowl."

"I know," Ayres said. "It is that of a nightjar. Very strange."

He took the thin paper in his hand and unfolded it. The sheet was
practically covered with a series of drawings from a sketch of the bird
in its natural state down to the skeleton and the bones of the wings. As
a naturalist Ayres was profoundly interested. But there was another side
to the matter which puzzled him: Why had his brother naturalist gone to
all this trouble, and why were there so many drawings of the wings of
this bird? It was very strange that nothing else but this should have
been found on the dead man's body.

"The mystery deepens," Thornton said. "It looks very much as if this
unfortunate man was a rival of yours, Mr. Ayres. Do you suppose by any
chance that he also was looking for the Striped Hawk?"

"I neither like your question nor the way that you ask it," Ayres
snapped. "Here is my card, by which you will see that I am Professor
Ayres, of University College. Several of my friends knew that I was
coming here and--well, it does not in the least matter. When we can find
out who this poor fellow is it will be fine enough to draw deductions.
We are neither of us detectives."

It might have been assumed that it was an easy matter to discover the
identity of the murdered man. The whole thing was a mystery which
appealed to the popular imagination, and was largely mentioned in the
Press. But nothing came out at the inquest, which was adjourned for a
fortnight, and during that time there appeared to be no inquiry whatever
for any missing individual. The cap found by the body had been
identified by a Plymouth hosier as one he had sold two or three days
before, to a casual customer, who had come into his shop just on closing
time with a story of having lost his hat on a quay, and had expressed
the desire to buy a cap as he was leaving hurriedly by a train. The
shopkeeper viewed the dead body and identified the man as the person who
had purchased the cap. This was the only piece of definite evidence, and
there was, therefore, nothing for it but to adjourn the inquiry for a
fortnight. At first there had been a certain amount of feeling
antagonistic to Ayres. Local gossip quite openly attributed the crime to
him, and the county police seemed to share the same opinion, but all
this was considerably discounted by the appearance of Sir James Silver,
the eminent entomologist, who came down to prove that he and several of
his colleagues knew all about Ayres' moth hunting holiday, and listened
scornfully to the suggestion that he had had a hand in the mysterious
crime. Ayres was loth to leave the neighbourhood; he had no intention of
running away, and, besides, he had not yet discovered the origin of his
search.

"You stay where you are," Sir James suggested. "These local police are
past praying for. I had a great mind to remain in the village for a day
or two and help you in your search. No, I am just a bit too old to sleep
under canvas or I would accept your offer of a shake-down in the tent.
Oh, yes, I will come up and lunch with you now if you like. I think I
have made a discovery which is likely to interest you."

The two scientists partook of a modest lunch, then Sir James sat down
under the shadow of the larches and filled his pipe.

"I know you have made a closer study of the hawks than I have," he said,
"but I do not quite agree with you that this is the only spot in England
where the Striped Hawk is to be found."

"Produce one from somewhere else," Ayres smiled.

"Am I to accept that as a challenge?" Sir James asked.

"If you put it in that way, yes. But I am absolutely certain that you
won't find the moth anywhere else."

"Really I shall be obliged if you'll examine the contents of a little
case which I have in my pocket; and here it is."

As he spoke Sir James handed over to his companion a small deal box,
such as collectors use for the safe carriage of specimens. Inside,
neatly pinned to the strip of cork, was a gorgeous moth, the sight of
which caused Ayres to give a gasp and a cry of surprise. He turned
eagerly to Sir James.

"The Striped Hawk beyond a doubt," he cried. "But this conveys nothing
to me. For all I know to the contrary, this may be a cultivated
specimen, or, perhaps, imported from Holland. It is rather a poor
specimen too, and I should say, had been somewhere where there was a lot
of grease about. At any rate, it was not taken in a net or with the aid
of syrup."

"It was not cultivated, neither was it imported from Holland. It was
caught, if I may put it that way, by myself----"

"But not here," Ayres interrupted.

"Which is precisely my point, my dear fellow. Now, as you know, before I
came on here, I was staying with Girton near Salisbury Plain. I was on
the Plain a day or two ago, and there I found the Striped Hawk which you
have at the present moment in your hand."

"If any other man had told me that I would have refused to believe it,"
Ayres cried. "Now, perhaps, you can tell me how a moth, short-flighted
and practically indigenous to this locality, found itself so far away
from its natural food. Why, on Salisbury Plain a hawk could derive no
sustenance whatever. Somebody must have carried the creature there. But
you have not told me yet how you caught it. If you were on the Plain at
night----"

"I didn't say I was on the Plain at night," Sir James said, dryly. "We
were crossing the Plain when a monoplane appeared over our heads and
came to the ground within half a mile of where we were standing.
Naturally we hurried to the spot, curious to see what had happened and
ready to render assistance if necessary. Nothing really had happened,
the pilot of the monoplane had descended of his own accord and was
merely out on an experimental flight. That plane was not a bit like any
I have ever seen before. It was exactly like a bird. It had no
propeller, motion being established by the vibration of the wings. As I
was examining the plane I noticed a tiny object adhering to some part of
the machinery, which was dripping with oil. When I came to examine the
object closely I found that it was nothing more or less than a specimen
of the Striped Hawk Moth, and you have that specimen in your hand at the
present moment."

Ayres sat silent for a little time.

"Very, very singular," he said presently. "Of course, what you say
disposes of the suggestion that the Striped Moth is to be found in
ordinary circumstances on Salisbury Plains. This specimen must have come
in contact with that strange aeroplane in the darkness. I should very
much like to see the pilot of that aeroplane. Did you find out his name?
Is he likely to be there for any time?"

"I think so," Sir James said. "At any rate, he told us that he was
conducting a series of experiments, and that there was no place like the
Plain for his purpose. I didn't ask what his name was, but I dare
say--here, where are you going?"

"To send a telegram to Girton," said Ayres. "A telegram asking him if he
can put us up for the next two or three days."

Sir James knew Ayres well enough to be sure that there was something
more than idle curiosity behind the suggestion. Two days later the
scientists were quartered in Girton's house a few miles from Stonehenge.
There was a good deal of flying going on as usual, but most of the
attention of the visitors was concentrated upon the Angus August
monoplane, which had caused quite a sensation. The owner and inventor,
who called himself Angus August, had appeared apparently out of nowhere;
indeed, he had not a mechanic of his own.

The invention itself was a remarkable one, and seemed to indicate quite
a departure in aerial navigation. In the main it had devolved from the
ordinary methods, inasmuch as it was not propelled in the usual manner,
but was worked with wings precisely as a bird flies. In a wind its
behaviour was remarkable. It appeared to defy all the laws of gravity,
and could move with dazzling rapidity at practically any angle.

For the best part of two days Ayres watched these flights in silent
admiration. He was waiting his opportunity for a quiet chat with Angus
August.

Ayres dispatched a telegram or two and half a dozen letters. The replies
to these seemed to satisfy him. It was late on Saturday afternoon before
he found the opportunity which he was seeking. He caught the airman
alone on his way back to the roadside inn, where he was putting up for
the moment. The man called Angus August looked just a trifle annoyed at
the intrusion.

"I am afraid I must detain you for a moment or two," Ayres said. "Here
is my card. I am an entomologist, as you may know, and most of my
friends are scientists. Do take a cigarette. Shall we sit on the stile
for a few minutes?"

The airman signified an ungracious assent. His dark eyes regarded Ayres
almost menacingly.

"What do you want with me!" he demanded. His English was good but
slightly guttural.

"Merely a little information. I want you to tell me where you got your
idea for that remarkable monoplane. I am interested, because two years
ago a man named Miller applied to me for sectional drawings, if I may so
phrase it, of the bird which is called the nightjar. This Miller had an
idea for an aeroplane. The request was somewhat out of my line, so I
turned Mr. Miller over to a fellow professor who is a well known
ornithologist. I believe he supplied all the drawings; in fact, I know
he did. By the way, have you ever heard of this Miller? Did you get your
idea from him? I am not asking out of curiosity."

For quite a long time no reply came from the famous airman. He appeared
to be turning over some problem in his mind. He smiled as if he were
about to give Ayres his confidence.

"I suppose you think you have got some sort of a claim," he said. "Now
let me ask you a question. What do you know personally as to the man you
are speaking of?"

"Nothing," Ayres admitted frankly. "I have never seen the man in my
life. But I have my own reasons for being deeply interested in his
welfare. He was your partner----"

"You seem to be very sure of your ground."

"Are you going to deny it!" Ayres asked. "If so, I will apologise for
detaining you, and at once."

"Oh, not so fast," August muttered. "As a matter of fact, Miller and
myself worked out the scheme together; I don't mind admitting that his
was the finer brain of the two, and that without him the monoplane would
never have been the success that it is today. He had the brains and I
the small necessary capital. In addition, he was the finest mechanic I
have ever seen. We worked on the models for a long time in London, and
as soon as we were satisfied that we were sure of success, we went off
to a place called High Tor, which is Devonshire way. We found a deserted
hut on the moor miles away from the nearest house, and this we
provisioned. We managed to get all our materials up there without
arousing curiosity, and there we worked for months at the machine. From
the start everything went well, we had practically no disappointment,
and at the end of nine months we were actually flying. As you know, the
monoplane is practically silent, so it is quite easy for us to take
quite long flights in the dusk without anybody being at all the wiser.
If anybody did hear they would take it for a nightjar; indeed, for all
practical purposes the machine is one. You see, Miller and myself----"

"Yes, but where is Miller?" Ayres asked. "You can carry a passenger, but
you came here quite alone."

"I was coming to that," August explained. "I am on delicate ground now,
but I know that you will respect my confidence. Miller got into trouble
some time ago in Paris. Something to do with forgery, I believe. The
night before we started he was in Plymouth, where he received an
intimation that the police were after him. There was nothing else for it
but for him to get out of the country without delay. I believe he
reached New York in safety, en route for the West. I am afraid he will
never be able to return to this country again, but, of course, it will
be up to me to see that he gets his share of the fortune which we have
in this monoplane of ours. I have told you this----"

"That was very good of you," Ayres said dryly. "And now let me tell you
a little story which I think you will find quite as interesting as the
one which you have just related to me. Did you ever hear of a rare
specimen of a moth called the Striped Hawk."

"I don't know anything about moths."

"No. Well, you are going to. Let me tell you that when my friend Sir
James Silver saw your monoplane for the first time he found a Striped
Hawk attached to some part of your machinery. Now, from my point of
view, that is a most remarkable discovery. I knew for a cold scientific
fact that the Striped Hawk could not possibly exist on Salisbury Plain.
Again, the insect only flies after dusk, and therefore must have become
attached to your machinery during your night flight from High Tor here."

"It doesn't sound very interesting."

"My dear sir, I am just coming to the interesting part. Look at this
map. Here is High Tor and here is the Plain. Now just where my finger is
lies some high ground where for some days I was camping out, hunting the
Striped Hawk. On the night of your flight here I was on duty and did not
close my eyes. I saw nothing and heard nothing beyond a loud noise which
I took to be the note of a startled nightjar. But I was mistaken, for it
was proved to me on the highest local authority that no nightjars had
ever been seen within miles of the place. What I heard beyond a doubt
was the churning of your monoplane's machinery. You must have passed
just overhead; indeed, this is proved by the Striped Hawk which Sir
James found attached to your machinery. Now do you begin to understand?"

August's eyes were blazing.

"Go on," he said hoarsely. "Go on, curse you."

"You know just what I found the next morning," Ayres proceeded. "You
must have seen it in the papers. I discovered a man lying dead not more
than fifty yards from my tent. Directly I knew about that moth and heard
the peculiar noise your monoplane makes, I knew exactly what had
happened. As you passed over my tent you threw your companion out."

"Prove that it is Miller," August cried.

"That can safely be left in the hands of the police," Ayres said.
"Miller had no friends, and you gambled on the certainty of his not
being identified. You were working in secret together and nobody, so far
as you know, had seen you with the murdered man."

"A fairy tale," August sneered. "Of course, I have read all about that
business the papers. There was absolutely nothing on the body of the
dead man likely to lead to his identification."

"There was," Ayres said quietly. "Something you had overlooked. You were
just a trifle careless. For obvious reasons the police made no mention
of their discovery, but in the dead man's pocket they discovered the
original drawings of the nightjar which I had procured for the
unfortunate Miller through my friend. And now if you have any questions
to ask me----"

August had no questions to ask. He turned away with a snarl and a curse,
something gleamed dully blue in the sunshine. There was a whip-like
crack, a flash, and August lay white and silent on the grass with a
bullet in his brain.



THE END



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