Ferse’s disappearance was a holiday to the feelings of one who had suffered greatly since his return. That he had engaged to end that holiday by finding him was not enough to spoil Adrian’s relief. Almost with zest he set out for Hilary’s in a taxi, applying his wits to the problem. Fear of publicity cut him off from those normal and direct resorts — Police, Radio, and Press. Such agencies would bring on Ferse too fierce a light. And in considering what means were left he felt as when confronted with a cross-word puzzle, many of which he had solved in his time, like other men of noted intellect. From Dinny’s account he could not tell within several hours at what time Ferse had gone out, and the longer he left enquiry in the neighbourhood of the house, the less chance one would have of stumbling on anyone who had seen him. Should he, then, stop the cab and go back to Chelsea? In holding on towards the Meads, he yielded to instinct rather than to reason. To turn to Hilary was second nature with him — and, surely, in such a task two heads were better than one! He reached the Vicarage without forming any plan save that of enquiring vaguely along the Embankment and the King’s Road. It was not yet half past nine, and Hilary was still at his correspondence. On hearing the news, he called his wife into the study.
“Let’s think for three minutes,” he said, “and pool the result.”
The three stood in a triangle before the fire, the two men smoking, and the woman sniffing at an October rose.
“Well?” said Hilary at last: “Any light, May?”
“Only,” said Mrs. Hilary, wrinkling her forehead, “if the poor man was as Dinny describes, you can’t leave out the hospitals. I could telephone to the three or four where there was most chance of his having been taken in, if he’s made an accident for himself. It’s so early still, they can hardly have had anybody in.”
“Very sweet of you, my dear; and we can trust your wits to keep his name out of it.”
Mrs. Hilary went out.
“I’ve got a hunch, but I’d rather hear you first.”
“Well,” said Hilary, “two things occur to me: It’s obvious we must find out from the Police if anyone’s been taken from the river. The other contingency, and I think it’s the more likely, is drink.”
“But he couldn’t get drink so early.”
“Hotels. He had money.”
“I agree, we must try them, unless you think my idea any good.”
“I’ve been trying to put myself in poor Ferse’s shoes. I think, Hilary, if I had a doom over me, I might run for Condaford; not the place itself, perhaps, but round about, where we haunted as boys; where I’d been, in fact, before Fate got hold of me at all. A wounded animal goes home.”
“Where WAS his home?”
“West Sussex — just under the Downs to the north. Petworth was the station.”
“Oh! I know that country. Before the war May and I used to stay a lot at Bignor and walk. We could have a shot at Victoria station, and see if anyone like him has taken train. But I think I’ll try the Police about the river first. I can say a parishioner is missing. What height is Ferse?”
“About five feet ten, square, broad head and cheek-bones, strong jaw, darkish hair, steel-blue eyes, a blue suit and overcoat.”
“Right!” said Hilary: “I’ll get on to them as soon as May is through.”
Left to himself before the fire, Adrian brooded. A reader of detective novels, he knew that he was following the French, inductive method of a psychological shot in the blue, Hilary and May following the English model of narrowing the issue by elimination — excellent, but was there time for excellence? One vanished in London as a needle vanishes in hay; and they were so handicapped by the need for avoiding publicity. He waited in anxiety for Hilary’s report. Curiously ironical that he — HE— should dread to hear of poor Ferse being found drowned or run over, and Diana free!
From Hilary’s table he took up an A.B.C. There had been a train to Petworth at 8.50, another went at 9.56. A near thing! And he waited again, his eyes on the door. Useless to hurry Hilary, a past-master in saving time.
“Well?” he said when the door was opened.
Hilary shook his head.
“No go! Neither hospitals nor Police. No one received or heard of anywhere.”
“Then,” said Adrian, “let’s try Victoria — there’s a train in twenty minutes. Can you come rightaway?”
Hilary glanced at his table. “I oughtn’t to, but I will. There’s something unholy in the way a search gets hold of you. Hold on, old man, I’ll tell May and nick my hat. You might look for a taxi. Go St. Pancras way and wait for me.”
Adrian strode along looking for a taxi. He found one issuing from the Euston Road, turned it round, and stood waiting. Soon Hilary’s thin dark figure came hurrying into view.
“Not in the training I was,” he said, and got in.
Adrian leaned through the window.
“Victoria, quick as you can!”
Hilary’s hand slipped through his arm.
“I haven’t had a jaunt with you, old man, since we went up the Carmarthen Van in that fog the year after the war. Remember?”
Adrain had taken out his watch.
“We just shan’t do it, I’m afraid. The traffic’s awful.” And they sat, silent, jerked back and forth by the spasmodic efforts of the taxi.
“I’ll never forget,” said Adrian, suddenly, “in France once, passing a ‘maison d’aliénés,’ as they call it — a great place back from the railway with a long iron grille in front. There was a poor devil standing upright with his arms raised and his legs apart, clutching at the grille, like an orang-outang. What’s death compared with that? Good clean earth, and the sky over you. I wish now they’d found him in the river.”
“They may still; this is a bit of a wild-goose chase.”
“Three minutes more,” muttered Adrian; “we shan’t do it.”
But as if animated by its national character the taxi gathered unnatural speed, and the traffic seemed to melt before it. They pulled up at the station with a jerk.
“You ask at the first class, I’ll go for the third,” said Hilary as they ran. “A parson gets more show.”
“No,” said Adrian; “if he’s gone, he’ll have gone first class; YOU ask there. If there’s any doubt — HIS EYES.”
He watched Hilary’s lean face thrust into the opening and quickly drawn back.
“He HAS!” he said; “this train. Petworth! Rush!”
The brothers ran, but as they reached the barrier the train began to move. Adrian would have run on, but Hilary grabbed his arm.
“Steady, old man, we shall never get in; he’ll only see us, and that’ll spill it.”
They walked back to the entrance with their heads down.
“That was an amazing shot of yours, old boy,” said Hilary: “What time does that train get down?”
“Then we can do it in a car. Have you any money?”
Adrian felt in his pockets. “Only eight and six,” he said ruefully.
“I’ve got just eleven bob. Awkward! I know! We’ll take a cab to young Fleur’s: if her car’s not out, she’d let us have it, and she or Michael would drive us. We must both be free of the car at the other end.”
Adrian nodded, rather dazed at the success of his induction.
At South Square Michael was out, but Fleur in. Adrian, who did not know her so well as Hilary, was surprised by the quickness with which she grasped the situation and produced the car. Within ten minutes, indeed, they were on the road with Fleur at the wheel.
“I shall go through Dorking and Pulborough,” she said, leaning back. “I can speed all the way after Dorking on that road. But, Uncle Hilary, what are you going to do if you get him?”
At that simple but necessary question the brothers looked at each other. Fleur seemed to feel their indecision through the back of her head, for she stopped with a jerk in front of an imperilled dog, and, turning, said:
“Would you like to think it over before we start?”
Gazing from her short clear-cut face, the very spit of hard, calm, confident youth, to his brother’s long, shrewd face, wrinkled, and worn by the experiences of others and yet not hard, Adrian left it to Hilary to answer.
“Let’s get on,” said Hilary; “it’s a case of making the best of what turns up.”
“When we pass a post-office,” added Adrian, “please stop. I want to send a wire to Dinny.”
Fleur nodded. “There’s one in the King’s Road, I must fill up, too, somewhere.”
And the car slid on among the traffic.
“What shall I say in the wire?” asked Adrian. “Anything about Petworth?”
Hilary shook his head.
“Just that we think we’re on the right track.”
When they had sent the wire there were only two hours left before the train arrived.
“It’s fifty miles to Pulborough,” said Fleur, “and I suppose about five on. I wonder if I can risk my petrol. I’ll see at Dorking.” From that moment on she was lost to them, though the car was a closed saloon, giving all her attention to her driving.
The two brothers sat silent with their eyes on the clock and speedometer.
“I don’t often go joy-riding,” said Hilary, softly: “What are you thinking of, old man?”
“Of what on earth we’re going to do.”
“If I were to think of that beforehand, in my job, I should be dead in a month. In a slum parish one lives, as in a jungle, surrounded by wild cats; one grows a sort of instinct and has to trust to it.”
“Oh!” said Adrian, “I live among the dead, and get no practice.”
“Our niece drives well,” said Hilary in a low voice. “Look at her neck. Isn’t that capability personified?”
The neck, white, round and shingled, was held beautifully erect and gave a remarkable impression of quick close control of the body by the brain.
For several miles after that they drove in silence.
“Box Hill,” said Hilary: “a thing once happened to me hereabouts I’ve never told you and never forgotten, it shows how awfully near the edge of mania we live.” He sunk his voice and went on: “Remember that jolly parson Durcott we used to know? When I was at Beaker’s before I went to Harrow, he was a master there; he took me a walk one Sunday over Box Hill. Coming back in the train we were alone. We were ragging a little, when all of a sudden he seemed to go into a sort of frenzy, his eyes all greedy and wild. I hadn’t the least notion what he was after and was awfully scared. Then, suddenly, he seemed to get hold of himself again. Right out of the blue! Repressed sex, of course — regular mania for the moment — pretty horrible. A very nice fellow, too. There are forces, Adrian.”
“Daemonic. And when they break the shell for good . . . Poor Ferse!”
Fleur’s voice came back to them.
“She’s beginning to go a bit wonky; I must fill up, Uncle Hilary. There’s a station close here.”
The car drew up before the filling station.
“It’s always slow work to Dorking,” said Fleur, stretching: “we can get along now. Only thirty-two miles, and a good hour still. Have you thought?”
“No,” said Hilary, “we’ve avoided it like poison.”
Fleur’s eyes, whose whites were so clear, flashed on him one of those direct glances which so convinced people of her intelligence.
“Are you going to take him back in this? I wouldn’t, if I were you.” And, taking out her case, she repaired her lips slightly, and powdered her short straight nose.
Adrian watched her with a sort of awe. Youth, up to date, did not come very much his way. Not her few words, but the implications in them impressed him. What she meant was crudely this: Let him dree his weird — you can do nothing. Was she right? Were he and Hilary just pandering to the human instinct for interference; attempting to lay a blasphemous hand on Nature? And yet for Diana’s sake they must know what Ferse did, what he was going to do. For Ferse’s sake they must see, at least, that he did not fall into the wrong hands. On his brother’s face was a faint smile. He at least, thought Adrian, knew youth, had a brood of his own, and could tell how far the clear hard philosophy of youth would carry.
They started again, trailing through the traffic of Dorking’s long and busy street.
“Clear at last,” said Fleur, turning her head, “if you really want to catch him, you shall;” and she opened out to full speed. For the next quarter of an hour they flew along, past yellowing spinneys, fields and bits of furzy common dotted with geese and old horses, past village greens and village streets, and all the other evidences of a country life trying to retain its soul. And then the car, which had been travelling very smoothly, began to grate and bump.
“Tyre gone!” said Fleur, turning her head: “That’s torn it.” She brought the car to a standstill, and they all got out. The off hind tyre was right down.
“Pipe to!” said Hilary, taking his coat off. “Jack her up, Adrian. I’ll get the spare wheel off.”
Fleur’s head was lost in the tool-box, but her voice was heard saying: “Too many cooks, better let me!”
Adrian’s knowledge of cars was nil, his attitude to machinery helpless; he stood willingly aside, and watched them with admiration. They were cool, quick, efficient, but something was wrong with the jack.
“Always like that,” said Fleur, “when you’re in a hurry.”
Twenty minutes was lost before they were again in motion.
“I can’t possibly do it now,” she said, “but you’ll be able to pick up his tracks easily, if you really want to. The station’s right out beyond the town.”
Through Billingshurst and Pulborough and over Stopham bridge, they travelled at full speed.
“Better go for Petworth itself,” said Hilary, “if he’s heading back for the town, we shall meet him.”
“Am I to stop if we meet him?”
“No, carry straight on past and then turn.”
But they passed through Petworth and on for the mile and a half to the station without meeting him.
“The train’s been in a good twenty minutes,” said Adrian, “let’s ask.”
A porter had taken the ticket of a gentleman in a blue overcoat and black hat. No! He had no luggage. He had gone off, towards the Downs. How long ago? Half an hour, maybe.
Regaining the car hastily they made towards the Downs.
“I remember,” said Hilary, “a little further on there’s a turn to Sutton. The point will be whether he’s taken that or gone on up. There are some houses there somewhere. We’ll ask, they may have seen him.”
Just beyond the turning was a little post-office, and a postman was cycling towards it from the Sutton road.
Fleur pulled the car to a walk alongside.
“Have you seen a gentleman in a blue coat and bowler hat making towards Sutton?”
“No, Miss, ‘aven’t passed a soul.”
“Thank you. Shall I carry on for the Downs, Uncle Hilary?”
Hilary consulted his watch.
“If I remember, it’s a mile about to the top of the Down close to Duncton Beacon. We’ve come a mile and a half from the station; and he had, say, twenty-five minutes’ start, so by the time we get to the top we should have about caught him. From the top we shall see the road ahead and be able to make sure. If we don’t come on him, it’ll mean he’s taken to the Down — but which way?”
Adrian said under his breath: “Homewards.”
“To the East?” said Hilary. “On then, Fleur, not too fast.”
Fleur headed the car up the Downs road.
“Feel in my coat, you’ll find three apples,” she said. “I caught them up.”
“What a head!” said Hilary. “But you’ll want them yourself.”
“No. I’m slimming. You can leave me one.”
The brothers, munching each an apple, kept their eyes fixed on the woods on either side of the car.
“Too thick,” said Hilary; “he’ll be carrying on to the open. If you sight him, Fleur, stop dead.”
But they did not sight him, and, mounting slower and slower, reached the top. To their right was the round beech tree clump of Duncton, to the left the open Down; no figure was on the road in front.
“Not ahead,” said Hilary. “We’ve got to decide, old man.”
“Take my advice, and let me drive you home, Uncle Hilary.”
“Shall we, Adrian?”
Adrian shook his head.
“I shall go on.”
“All right, I’m with you.”
“Look!” said Fleur suddenly, and pointed.
Some fifty yards in, along a rough track leaving the road to the left, lay a dark object.
“It’s a coat, I think.”
Adrian jumped out and ran towards it. He returned with a blue overcoat over his arm.
“No doubt now,” he said. “Either he was sitting there and left it by mistake, or he tired of carrying it. It’s a bad sign, whichever it was. Come along, Hilary!”
He dropped the coat in the car.
“What orders for me, Uncle Hilary?”
“You’ve been a brick, my dear. Would you be still more of a brick and wait here another hour? If we’re not back by then, go down and keep close along under the Downs slowly by way of Sutton Bignor and West Burton, then if there’s no sign of us anywhere along that way, take the main road through Pulborough back to London. If you’ve any money to spare, you might lend us some.”
Fleur took out her bag.
“Three pounds. Shall I give you two?”
“Gratefully received,” said Hilary. “Adrian and I never have any money. We’re the poorest family in England, I do believe. Good-bye, my dear, and thank you! Now, old man!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50