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Authors: Michael Innes

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Pooh didn’t seem to mind. Like a man who knows his dream has faded, he obediently attended Judith as she poked about. She found, of course, nothing at all. But at least she had completed her assignment – and at no greater cost than that of a single moment of panic that it was already a little embarrassing to remember.

The thunder growled harmlessly in the middle distance. The storm had passed over Splaine Croft.

 

 

4

It was after dinner when Judith gave her husband a full account of her adventure. Although he was looking more careworn than she had known him for years, he professed to find a great deal of entertainment in it. She didn’t take this too well.

‘It was pretty futile, anyway,’ she said. ‘The place, after all, is a small estate. There’s a lodge, and probably several cottages. Naturally, I couldn’t get round to them. And your missing scientist might be lurking in any of them.’

‘Yes – I suppose he might.’ Appleby fiddled tiresomely with his empty coffee cup. ‘Still, you got quite a lot of fun out of it.’

‘I’m glad you feel I had a lovely time.’ Judith looked at him wrathfully. ‘What a strain it must be, having to find me lovely things to do, and lovely ladders to climb, and lovely puppies to be pestered by, and lovely smells to smell.’

Appleby continued to be amused. In fact he seemed genuinely to cheer up. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘you’ve brought back some very interesting information. Something I quite missed. It shows that two pairs of eyes are better than one. I’m not sure that it precisely fits in. But, of course, additional data can be all the better for that. One is compelled to some rearrangement. Do you know, I have a feeling I’ve got this whole thing wrong? A completely false picture? But I’m blessed if I can see just how.’

‘I hadn’t gathered you had a picture at all.’ Judith hesitated. ‘Incidentally, haven’t you fixed up something pretty risky?’

‘In persuading Miles Juniper to stand in for his brother? Well, yes – I suppose I have. There are circumstances in which it might become extremely awkward, however well I was backed up by the Minister, and so forth. But one takes these risks.’

‘And hands them out too, surely? If this Howard Juniper is in some sort of danger – and also in some way immensely dangerous to others – wouldn’t it be better to have an open and comprehensive search for him?’

‘It’s a thing just not easy to calculate.’ Appleby got up and paced the room. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m giving myself just twenty-four hours more. If I haven’t found Howard Juniper by this time tomorrow, I pack off his brother to Splaine again, and have the disappearance announced. Meantime, I’m just hoping – if rather against hope – that the whole thing is a mare’s nest, more or less. You remember Marchbanks?’

Judith nodded. ‘Of course I remember Marchbanks.’

‘Well, I think there may be a similar explanation here. And I’ve been having inquiries on appropriate lines made today. Some results have been negative. I’m waiting for the last batch now. There should be a telephone call from the Yard within the next half-hour.’ Appleby paused before the Christopher Wood that hung above the fireplace. He might have been studying his favourite greys in the ballet-dancer’s tights. ‘Damn all top scientists!’ he said with sudden vehemence.

Judith looked at him quickly. John didn’t often resort even to the mildest imprecation. ‘They do complicate life,’ she said. ‘But just why is this tiresome scientist so crucial? Or oughtn’t I to know?’

‘Everybody knows – although most people have no doubt forgotten again. The eminent Professor Juniper has been “featured”, as they say, in all sorts of rags. Damn all newsprint too.’ Appleby turned away from the little watercolour and faced his wife. ‘If you wanted to exterminate the inhabitants of these islands – or, for that matter, of much larger areas of the earth’s surface – this Juniper would be the chap to hire. And, as soon as he’s known to be missing, that’s what the banner headlines will point out.’

‘There oughtn’t to be such a man.’ Judith was suddenly grave. ‘He oughtn’t to have lent his abilities to such madness. He oughtn’t to have been required to.’

‘That’s pretty obvious, I’d suppose.’ Appleby was restless again. ‘It’s what his brother thinks. It’s what Clandon probably thinks. It’s what we think, and what every sane man thinks. But there it is. It’s just part of the rat race… Why doesn’t that telephone call come through?’

They went up to the drawing-room. In London, too, there had been a storm, but now the windows were open on the warm summer night. Big Ben struck the hour close by, and the heavy sound tumbled into the room like a physical thing. Judith got out some brandy, but neither of them poured any. They sat down to wait.

‘Mid-August,’ she said vaguely. ‘I suppose we’re the only people left in London.’

‘The only people left in London?’ He took up the words oddly. ‘We might be, I suppose. Any two people might be, if one or another thing happened.’

‘Oh – that!’ She shook her head. ‘I’ve always been impatient – haven’t I? – with people scared about our all going up together. I’ve felt it to be only a kind of phobia. But perhaps that’s irresponsible.’

‘Perhaps it is.’

‘Do you think there are people who would welcome it – nobody left in London? Is there that sort of pathologically destructive mind?’

‘It’s a question one sometimes hears asked.’ Appleby shook his head. ‘I suppose there may be.’

‘There was Richard Jefferies. You remember
After
London
? He thought the city had killed him, and was killing all England as well. So he wrote a fantasy in which he killed London. It was a sort of revenge.’

‘And, of course, there’s Macaulay’s New Zealander.’ Appleby, restless still, did his best to keep up this desultory talk. ‘In the midst of a vast solitude, taking his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s. Something like that.’

‘Yes.’

The clock ticked. ‘As I say,’ Appleby said, ‘there’s a hope that the whole thing’s a baseless scare.’

‘And just what is the position, if it isn’t? I mean, is Professor Juniper potentially so lethal just because of what he keeps under his hat, or has he–’

‘Possibly both.’ Appleby didn’t wait for Judith to finish. ‘There’s certainly what he
knows
, just as there’s what the top flight nuclear people
know
. And there may be what he
has
– more or less literally in his pocket. A culture – or whatever they call it – of almost inconceivable virulence. Clandon says he can’t be sure. He hopes and thinks not. But he can’t be sure.’

‘And there’s been no trace of him – not even a trail picked up for a bit and then lost?’

‘Absolutely not. He walked out – without a word, it seems, and without so much as a briefcase. The earth might have swallowed him.’

‘Or the waters.’

‘Quite so. And the waters wouldn’t be too bad. Sooner or later, they’d render up something, and we’d know where we were.’

Judith was silent for a moment. She had the resource of darning socks. ‘There must be lots of ways,’ she said presently, ‘in which a clever man can commit suicide without leaving a trace of himself.’

‘Lord, yes. But why should Juniper do that? In his circumstances, it would be a most devilish trick. What motive would he have?’

‘That’s easy, surely. Suppose it has all got him down far more than anybody suspected. Suppose he has suffered indescribably in his conscience simply because of working in that field. He can’t face it, and he takes his own life. But he does it in a way that gets him a little of his own back on authority and government and so on. He’s not prompted to go so far as scattering his microbes or whatever they are. But he does fix things so that a good many of you don’t sleep too well.’

Appleby shook his head. ‘Yes – but he doesn’t seem to have been quite that sort of person. Nervous and erratic, perhaps – but not even incipiently malignant. I’ve had all this out with medical chaps thoroughly reliable in their field. They incline to the view – naturally they won’t be dogmatic – that a theory like yours posits a personality change that doesn’t come on a man suddenly and without his associates being aware that something’s going wrong. And there’s not the slightest record that Howard Juniper has had what could reasonably be called a psychiatric history.’

‘But isn’t it something that a man can have on the quiet? Not everybody revels in broadcasting their experiences on a psycho-analyst’s couch. Although certainly some do.’

‘Yes – it has to be admitted as a possibility. But it’s not a substantial one during recent years. Farther back, it’s a different matter… Ah, there’s the doorbell. Cudworth must have decided to come round. Too complicated for the telephone. I’m not sure that isn’t hopeful.’

 

Superintendent Cudworth was a large man, and he seemed to occupy a disproportionate space in the cubbyhole that served Appleby as a study in the small Westminster house. He was in uniform and his silver-braided cap lay on the desk; he himself stood by the window turning over a sheaf of notes. From the deliberation with which he continued to do this for a moment, Appleby knew that he was excited. ‘Out with it, Cudworth,’ he said.

‘You got on a winner, sir. Birds it is. Or at least it looks uncommonly like it. Bit of a relief, you might say, if it really turns out that way.’

‘Oh, quite.’ Appleby was perfectly capable of matching Cudworth’s power of understatement. ‘Just how has it worked out?’

‘Well, sir, it didn’t seem to me to be too promising, as you know. I remembered your fellow who was found trout fishing, all right. Well, they say that’s the contemplative man’s recreation. You don’t normally go off to it in a crowd. And it seemed to me that the same would apply
a fortiori
to birdwatching. A thoroughly solitary employment. One tucks oneself away in some out-of-the-way country pub, and one’s only companion is one’s binoculars. And I’m sure, in fact, that most birdwatching is done that way. On the other hand, there does turn out to be a certain amount of organization.’

Appleby nodded. ‘I knew there was. My wife subscribes to an affair somewhere on the Severn.’

‘The Wildfowl Trust, that would be. An important concern in the field of ornithological science. And there are one or two others. They even have hostels for members, and so on. A fellow at Burlington House briefed me about the whole thing in no time, and we’ve had the local police making inquiries. They all drew blank. But that, I’m glad to say, was only Phase One.’

‘Phase Two,’ Appleby said.

‘Phase Two, sir, has been concerned not with public bodies but with private individuals. And it has been a bigger job. Particularly, of course, since it was necessary to take in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. There are a good many owners of large estates who maintain sanctuaries, reserves, and what have you – and who are perfectly willing to admit, and even entertain, well-accredited students of the thing. All as you might imagine.’

‘Quite,’ Appleby said.

‘Professor Juniper, if he really had this interest in birds, would know about all that pretty well. I mean that a fellow with a highly trained mind, and so forth, would naturally get a grip of the entire set-up. And he’d have the entrée, as they say. Get in, I mean, wherever he wanted to.’

‘Obviously,’ Appleby said.

‘Well, no – that’s just the point. There are one or two landowners with the relevant interests who don’t welcome anybody.
Keep Out. This Means You
. That sort.’

‘In which case, no doubt, the enthusiast lurks on the fringes and observes what he can?’

‘Just that. And the most notorious of them is the Earl of Ailsworth. Would you have heard of him?’

Appleby shook his head. ‘I can’t say I have.’

‘No more you would have. A backwoodsman, as they say. Not much on view over
there’
– and at this Superintendent Cudworth jerked a thumb in what was presumably meant to be the direction of the House of Lords – ‘but well known if you happen to be interested in birds. Particularly on account of the Tibetan Donkey Duck.’

‘The Tibetan Donkey Duck? There can’t be such a creature. The name’s absurd.’

‘Well, sir, the point is there
nearly
wasn’t such a creature. The species had almost died out. But Lord Ailsworth led an expedition in search of them, and actually found a couple–’

‘In Tibet?’

‘Certainly in Tibet. And he brought them home and has managed to breed from them. But he keeps them, it seems, very much to himself.’

Appleby smiled. ‘One can understand a somewhat proprietary attitude in the circumstances. And now, let us have it, Cudworth. You’ve established a link between this Lord Ailsworth, and the missing man?’

‘Well, sir – yes and no. Ailsworth is a small market town, and I got on to the police there straight away. They were uncooperative, I’m sorry to say. Scared of bothering the local bigwig.’

‘Common enough.’

‘There’s no doubt of that. So I wasted no time on them, but contacted their Chief Constable. Name of Colonel Pickering. Well, that seemed all right. Probably accustomed to drinking his lordship’s port, and all the rest of it. And he sounded a very nice fellow. Told me he’d do what he could, but that I’d landed him with a stiff assignment. Lord Ailsworth’s quite mad, he said. Can think of nothing but the Donkey Ducks.’ Cudworth broke off. ‘Did you say the name troubled you? A matter of markings on the breast, it seems. Like the head of a donkey.’

‘Bother the bird and its idiotic name. What came of all this?’

‘A thoroughly negative report, as far as Colonel Pickering was concerned. He had managed to see Lord Ailsworth, but came away with nothing but a flea in his ear. Lord Ailsworth had never heard of anybody called Juniper. And anybody who came disturbing his birds would be shot. Just that.’

‘Forthright.’

‘Forthright, as you say. But I had a feeling that this Ailsworth line should be followed up. Lord Ailsworth and his Donkey Ducks suggest a sort of challenge, wouldn’t you say? And I remembered Professor Juniper’s reputation for queer exploits as a young man. There was food for thought in it.’

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