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Title: A Sound in the Night
Author: Fred M. White
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1200031h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
Most recent update: Aug 2014

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A Sound in the Night


Fred M. White

Published in The Central Queensland Herald, Rockhampton, This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014

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.


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