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3: Missing from his Home

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« on: August 07, 2023, 12:54:35 pm »

IT was fine but cold as the party set out. The sky was clear and a brilliant three-quarter moon blotted out all but the brightest stars and threw the shadows of the trees black as ink across the road. There was no wind and save for the purr of the car everything was still. A fitting night to follow so splendid a day.

Campion drove quickly and in a few minutes they turned into the gate of St. Kilda. Then while Ursula slowly disentangled herself from her seat, Campion got out and rang the bell. Julia opened the door.

“Oh, is it you, Dr. Campion?” she greeted him, and her voice was sharp as if from anxiety. “Is James there?”

“No, Mrs. Earle, I’ve not seen him. I was just running Miss Stone back, and Alice and Flo came for the drive. What about Earle?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “He’s gone out, or I think he must have. But he didn’t say he was going out and all his hats are in the hall.”

“Oh,” Campion returned, “he’s gone to see Dagger or the Forresters. When did this happen?”

A shadow cut across the light from the hall and Marjorie appeared.

“Is it James?” she asked.

“No,” said Julia. “It’s the Campions bringing back Ursula.”

By this time, hearing the discussion, all three women had got out of the car.

“What is it, Mrs. Earle?” asked Alice. “Is there anything wrong?”

“Earle’s gone out and they don’t know where he is,” Campion explained. “When did this happen, Mrs. Earle?”

“An hour and a half ago: at twenty minutes to nine. Marjorie and I were able to fix the exact time.”

“And what exactly happened? Tell us the details.”

Julia stepped back into the hall. “Won’t you come in?” she invited. “Come into the sitting-room, Miss Campion. Come in”---she turned to Flo. “It’s cold out here at the door.”

The party moved slowly in and stood grouped about Mrs. Earle.

“He said nothing? Just walked out?” the doctor questioned.

“We didn’t hear him go out,” Julia went on. “I’ll tell you. We were alone, he and Marjorie and I. On Sunday evening Lucy goes out and I get supper. Well, we had supper as usual and then Marjorie helped me to wash up: I never like to leave the dirty things for the maid. Supper was about eight and I suppose was over about half-past eight.”

“Just half-past eight,” Marjorie interposed.

“Yes. Then we washed up and Marjorie went into the sitting-room. Tell them, Marjorie.”

Marjorie took up the tale. “When we were finishing washing up I remembered that I had seen one of the cups we had used at tea on the piano in here. The Bannisters came to tea and someone had put this cup away and it had been forgotten. So I came in for it. James was sitting in that chair before the fire reading the Observer. I noticed particularly that he had his slippers on. He looked up as I entered and asked me had I read about a motor accident which had taken place the day before near Dorking. ‘It’s a regular death-trap, that corner,’ he said. ‘We were nearly sent to Kingdom Come ourselves at that very place. You can’t see, and as we were trying to cross the road a bus came charging down on us.’ I murmured something and took the cup out to the kitchen and washed it. I don’t suppose I was three minutes out of the room, certainly not more. As I came in again I went on talking about the accident. I said: ‘Is that the corner near the school where we met Janie Holt?’ There was no reply, and when I looked over, James was gone. His newspaper was there on the chair, but he was gone.”

She paused. “And what did you do?” Campion asked.

“I didn’t do anything. Why should I? I thought it funny just for a moment, you know, but I didn’t really pay any attention to it. I supposed he had gone upstairs. But then when he didn’t come down again Julia----”

“When I came in ten minutes later,” Julia interrupted, “I asked where he was, because once he sits down to read the paper he usually doesn’t move till he’s finished it. After another half-hour he hadn’t turned up and I said again, ‘Where can James be?’ At first we thought he had gone upstairs, but Marjorie said she had not heard him pass the kitchen door, and you know you could scarcely go upstairs without being heard. However, we supposed he must have done so, but as time still went by and he did not come down I got anxious and went up to look. He wasn’t upstairs: I both called and looked. Then we thought he must have gone out. But I looked and found that all his walking shoes were upstairs and all his hats in the hall. If he had gone out it must have been without a hat and in his slippers. All the same, we went round the place, calling, but we could find no trace of him. He was not in the garage nor the greenhouse, nor anywhere about.”

“Some patient,” Campion suggested. “Are you sure the telephone didn’t ring?”

“Absolutely certain. We couldn’t have helped hearing it. Besides, with slippers and no hat!”

“He’s gone in to Dagger or the Forresters, as I said,” the doctor remarked again. “Ring them up on the ground that he’s wanted on the telephone.”

“Yes, do, Mrs. Earle,” Alice exclaimed. “You’ll find that’s what happened. You see, it’s such a lovely night that he might easily walk a short distance in slippers and without a coat or hat. You’ll find he’ll turn up directly.”

“I don’t want to make a fuss about it,” Julia declared, “because he’d be so annoyed. What you suggest is a good idea, Dr. Campion. I’ll ring up.”

“I don’t like it,” said Alice in a low voice as Julia left the room. “I don’t like it all. I never liked his colour. You know; heart. That high florid sort of colour always means something wrong with the heart. He’s gone out and fallen somewhere and not been able to get up again. You’ll have to search, Howard.”

The doctor made a gesture of impatience. “My dear Alice,” he grumbled, “do for pity’s sake control your imagination. Can’t a man go in to pass the time of day with a neighbour without raising the entire country? He’s all right. Don’t make such an unholy fuss.”

“It’s not making a fuss to take reasonable precautions.” She turned from her brother. “Don’t you see, Ursula? Don’t you see, Flo? What I say is not making a fuss; it’s most likely. No one goes off like that without a word. You wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Even Howard wouldn’t do it. Would you, Howard? Would you go----”

“He’s not at the Forresters,” came Julia’s voice from the hall. “I’ll try Colonel Dagger.”

Campion moved out into the hall, possibly to escape his sister’s catechism. The others slowly followed.

“Oh, is that Colonel Dagger?” they heard. “Is James there by any chance? Someone wants to speak to him on the telephone. He’s gone out and I rather imagined he was going in to see you. No? Oh well, it doesn’t matter. Thanks. So sorry to have troubled you.”

“He hasn’t been there,” Julia went on as she replaced the receiver.

“Where else could he have gone?” Campion asked. “What about the golf club?”

“He would never have gone to the club in his slippers,” declared Julia, “but I’ll ring up all the same. No,” she went on a few seconds later. “He’s not been there.”

“Is there no other place close by at which he might have called?”

“I don’t think so,” Julia returned anxiously. “No, I don’t understand it. What do you think about it yourself, Dr. Campion?”

“I don’t think you need be in the least anxious, Mrs. Earle. He’s gone out for a stroll, and the night’s so fine it has tempted him further than he intended. At the same time, if it would be an ease to your mind, we might have another look round. Of course it’s just conceivable that he has tripped and fallen and perhaps not been able to walk home. If you would go through the house thoroughly again, I’d have a look outside.”

“Hadn’t we better divide and do the thing properly?” Alice suggested. “If you, Julia, and Ursula would do the house, the rest of us could help Howard outside. What do you think?”

This was agreed to and the two little parties set to work. Julia was now looking very frightened, and even Ursula was beginning to fear some mishap. Alice’s theory did not seem at all impossible to her, and she would not have been very surprised to come on Earle at any moment, unconscious or even dead. She herself had often thought how like a heart subject he was.

Carefully she and Julia went from room to room. When they had finished no doubt remained. Earle definitely was not in the house.

They put on wraps and went out and joined the other searchers. The out-offices had been done without result---garage, car, electric power hut, green-house, tool-shed and summer-house. So had the lawn and garden.

“When we’re here,” the doctor said (Ursula could see that he was making light of it to Julia), “when we’re here we might as well look into the wood a little way. Are there any paths through it that Earle was accustomed to use?”

“There are paths of course; the usual mere tracks that cover the heath, but none that James would have gone along at night. In fact, he didn’t like being in the wood at night; I’ve often heard him say so.”

“Few people do,” Campion returned. “All the same, the fine night might have tempted him. We’ll just have a look.”

He divided the surrounding wood into areas and his party into twos, allocating an area to each party. He himself undertook the road.

“I think we’d better have the car,” he said to Ursula, who chanced to be his partner. “If I ran slowly you could examine the near side of the road while I looked at the other. He might have gone for a walk and felt faint and be resting on the bank.”

They went for a couple of miles in each direction, returning to find that a search of the wood surrounding the house had yielded no better result. None of the party now made any pretence of being free from anxiety.

“There’s half-past eleven,” said Julia, “and he disappeared at twenty to nine; nearly three hours ago. Something dreadful has happened. I’m frightened. What should we do?”

It was easy to ask the question; it was anything but easy to answer it. Everyone thought of the police; no one liked to suggest calling them in.

“Has he ever gone out like this before?” Flo Campion asked, as if in an effort to postpone the inevitable suggestion.

“Never,” Julia declared. “James is good that way. He always says when he’s going out and when I may expect him back. And if he can’t come he always telephones.”

“I cannot help thinking he has gone into some house,” Campion put in. “Is there no one who could have called for him, say with a car?”

“Yes, Julia.” Alice nodded emphatically. “That would explain the whole thing. Who might have called for him with a car?”

Julia shook her head. “No one,” she declared. “That wouldn’t account for it at all. James would not have gone off in a car without telling me. Besides, there was no car. I was in the kitchen at the time and the window was open, and if there had been a car I should have heard it.”

“You mightn’t have noticed it,” Alice urged.

“Oh yes I should. The night was calm and everything was quiet. I should certainly have heard it. Marjorie agrees with me.”

“Oh yes,” said Marjorie, “there wasn’t a car. I should have heard it too, and there simply wasn’t one.”

“Don’t you lock the french-window at night, Mrs. Earle?” Campion asked. “You’re sure it was open when he disappeared?”

“Oh yes, it was open. That was one of the first things we tried. We do lock it, of course, but not necessarily at dinner-time. Often it lies unfastened in the evening, but James always locks it before going to bed.”

Campion cleared his throat nervously.

“I hardly like to suggest it, Mrs. Earle,” he said, “but I’m not sure that it mightn’t be well if I were to run into Farnham and tell the police. We mustn’t shut our eyes to the possibility of Earle’s falling over something in the dark and perhaps twisting his ankle and being unable to return. The police would help in making a search in case something of that kind had happened. What do you all think?”

“I think he should go, Mrs. Earle,” Alice said at once. “I think we all felt that the police should be told, but none of us liked to say so. What do you think?”

Julia appeared unwilling to take so drastic a step. “I’d simply hate having the police in,” she declared. “But if you all think it’s the right thing, let’s do it. You haven’t said anything, Ursula. What do you think?”

For a moment Ursula did not reply. An unpleasant suspicion had for some time been shaping itself in her mind, a suspicion founded on the knowledge she had so unexpectedly gained during her visit to London. Had Earle really left St. Kilda, but voluntarily? Had he slipped away according to some prearranged plan, to join the woman of the car? Was it really a case of desertion that they were considering? This solution had not occurred to the others, because they didn’t know what she knew.

But if she were right, if Earle had quietly departed, would Julia want the police to be called in? Would she not rather wish to keep the unhappy affair private? Would she not prefer to give out that Earle had been called away on business, and perhaps afterwards herself move to some other locality where she would be a stranger?

Ursula saw that she was letting her imagination run away with her. She had no real reason to suppose her idea correct: Alice’s theory of a heart attack was much more probable. However, she thought she ought to put the point to Julia before this decision about the police was taken. Could she get her alone?

“I think you should look again in his room before you make a move. There might be a note in an engagement book or something.” She got up. “Come along, Julia, and I’ll help you. We won’t keep you others a moment.”

Alice and Marjorie stared, but neither spoke, and Julia suffered herself to be led from the room. They went into Earle’s study and Ursula, summoning all her courage, closed the door and turned to her friend.

“Dear Julia,” she said, “I asked you to come away from the others because there’s something that you should know before you decide about calling in the police.” She hesitated. In spite of Julia’s own little failings it wasn’t going to be easy to suggest to her that her husband was unfaithful. Nor that he was callous enough to leave her in this cruel doubt as to his fate and her own. Suddenly Ursula saw that she had been wrong. Earle would never have done it. If he were infatuated with that other woman he might desert Julia for her, but he would at least have left a note telling his wife the truth.

But it was too late to change her mind now. Besides, Julia ought to know in any case.

“I’m afraid, my dear, you’ll be very much hurt and upset by what I have to tell you, but I do think you ought to know. I don’t think it has any connection with this affair, but it just possibly might have. When I went up to London last Wednesday”----And she went on and told in the simplest and most direct way just what she had seen. “What I thought, Julia, was this,” she went on. “If by any chance he was momentarily overcome by his infatuation, it’s just conceivable he might have gone off to see this woman, and in that case, would you like the police to be brought in? I thought you should know about it, so that you might be able to decide.”

Ursula was surprised at the way her friend took the news.

“Dear Ursula,” she said, “how you must have hated telling me that! But you needn’t have minded. I didn’t suspect anything of the kind, I admit. But I can’t blame him. I may tell you now that we’re talking in confidence that our marriage was a mistake. I don’t think it was our fault; just we didn’t suit each other.” She paused, then went on in a burst of confidence: “If he hadn’t looked elsewhere, I might have.” Again she paused, as if regretting her admission, then continued in a tone of greater conviction: “But, Ursula, you’re wrong. It’s not that. If he had wanted to go to another woman he could have done so at any time without making a mystery about it. I do appreciate your telling me, but I’m sure you’re wrong. No, what I’m really afraid of is his heart. His heart is not strong. He has gone out and got an attack and he’s not able to come back. I think we should tell the police and I think we should organise a more thorough search.”

Ursula, so far as she was concerned herself, was profoundly thankful. She had done a horrible duty because she believed it was her duty, and she had not lost her friend.

“Then by all means ask Dr. Campion to go at once,” she agreed. “If you feel that way, there’s no time to be lost.”

They returned to the others.

“We’ve not found anything,” Julia told them, “and I think if you, Dr. Campion, would be so good, the police should be told. As I was saying to Ursula, James’s heart is not very strong and he may have become faint and be unable to come back. But I don’t like your going off to Farnham at this hour. Why not telephone?”

“I thought it would be quicker if I had the car there to drive the men out, but of course they can get their own car. Yes, I’ll telephone.” Campion disappeared into the hall and they heard his muffled voice as he put through the call.

“I rang up Margaret also,” he said to his sister, returning presently.

“Our servant, Mrs. Earle,” Alice explained. “She needn’t wait up for us.”

After what seemed an age, but what was really only a few minutes, the sounds of an approaching car became audible. It stopped at the door. Campion went out and the murmur of voices followed. Then he returned with two police officers, a sergeant and a constable. The sergeant saluted as they entered.

“This is Mrs. Earle,” said Campion. “Sergeant Sheepshanks has very kindly come out to help us.”

“Dr. Campion has told me what has taken place, madam,” Sheepshanks began. “He says that while not diseased, Dr. Earle’s heart was not strong, and that you think he may have had an attack which would have prevented him returning?”

“That’s putting it a little strongly,” Julia answered. “I only suggested a heart attack because I can’t explain his disappearance in any other way. I don’t, of course, know anything about it.”

“Quite so, madam.” The sergeant nodded sagely. “Now before we go any further I should like a word or two with you. Perhaps you could give me an interview in another room? Just you, madam.”

Campion moved forward. “But what about a search, sergeant?” he said. “If Dr. Earle really is ill, every moment might be of value.”

“I’ve not overlooked that, sir,” Sheepshanks answered civilly; “but we’ll get on better if we know just how we stand. Will you come along, madam?”

They disappeared, accompanied by the constable.

“He’s got it into his mind that Earle has gone off voluntarily,” Campion explained. “He said, ‘You’ll hear of him all right. He just wants a change of establishment. You’ll find there’ll be a letter from him in a day or two.’ ”

“Nonsense,” Alice declared sharply. “If it were that, why didn’t he leave a note? Besides, I don’t think Dr. Earle’s that way inclined. And again, why didn’t he take a hat and outdoor shoes?”

“That’s what I said,” Campion returned, “but it didn’t seem to convince Sheepshanks. Well, he’s here at all events. I wonder what he’ll do.”

Before anyone could reply the sergeant reappeared.

“We’re going to have a search round the place,” he said, “and if we find nothing we’ll come out and have a better one as soon as it’s daylight. Perhaps, sir, you could stay and give us a hand? The ladies may go to bed; there’s nothing that they can do. Have you a torch in your car?”

This programme was carried out. Both sergeant and constable were quick and thorough. Armed with powerful torches they went over the entire ground surrounding the house, as well as following for a considerable distance the various paths through the wood. The sergeant also carefully examined the path from the french window and the road near the gate, but nowhere could they find any traces of either Earle or anyone else. If the man had dissolved into thin air he could not have more completely vanished.

It was getting on to two in the morning when Campion drove his party home. Nothing more could be done but wait for the morning, and though Julia declared she would not undress, all agreed there was no use in sitting up.

Before starting on his round next morning Campion drove back to St. Kilda, to find the sergeant and three policemen already at work. But no faintest clue had so far rewarded their efforts. Earle had simply vanished without trace.

The search was kept up till nearly midday, and then Sergeant Sheepshanks took formal statements from each member of the household, with Julia’s permission looking through Earle’s papers. One of the questions he asked Ursula was whether she had ever had any suspicion that Earle might have been attached to or had relations with any other woman, and in view of the direct question, she very unwillingly told him what she had seen in London. Somewhat to her relief he didn’t seem to think much of it, though he took details of the story. He left with a civil word of thanks for her information, but without any expression of his own opinion.

Slowly the hours of that day dragged away without bringing to light the slightest information about the missing man. Earle had utterly and completely vanished—vanished instantaneously. At one moment seated in his chair, settled down for the evening, entirely normal, dressed for the house: three minutes later, gone. Neither sight nor sound of his going: no trace left: no hint either of cause or method: no suggestion of motive: no explanation anywhere of any part of it. Spirited away! The old phrase seemed to take on a new meaning. It was like seeing the impossible happen before one’s eyes.

Nor did the sergeant’s prognostication prove correct. There was no letter from Earle, neither that day nor the next. No intimation of any kind was received to prove that he was still alive. Julia indeed was convinced that he was dead. She said that whatever her husband might or might not do, he would never have left her in such a painful state of doubt. Marjorie held the same view, and even Ursula found herself forced to a similar conclusion. Ursula had cancelled her departure, deciding to stay on with Julia for a few days longer.

What the police were doing, if anything, the ladies did not know. The sergeant had returned after lunch to Farnham, saying that he would keep them advised how things went on. But he had told them nothing.

Two days later, however, they found that the police had not been idle after all. A pleasant-looking, keen-eyed man of slightly under medium height called. He presented a card bearing the legend, “Detective-Inspector French, C.I.D., New Scotland Yard,” and said he wished to ask some questions relative to the disappearance of Dr. Earle.

Instantly to the inmates of the house the mystery grew darker and more sinister.

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