The Opening of a Problem
Dominating that part of the Sussex Downs with which this story is concerned is Chanctonbury Ring. This oval cap of gigantic beeches may be seen, on fine days, from almost any point in the little parish of Washington. It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing—Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope. Farming is the main topic of conversation and most of the able-bodied men have taken to the plough as a kitten takes to milk. Scattered round the limits of the parish are farms whose owners have borne the same names for a score of generations.
Three generations of Rothers had inhabited the long, low farmhouse known as Chalklands, which lay under the Ring. The upper arable land petered out on to the short- turfed slopes of the down, where John and William Rother, the present occupants, grazed their shorthorns. The Rothers had not always lived at Chalklands. Before the shrinkage of a considerable family fortune, the Rothers had owned Dyke House, and a number of John’s and William’s ancestors had been buried in a vault at Washington Church. It was claimed, on the evidence of family portraits, that the present John Rother was the spit and image of his great-grandfather, old Sir Percival Rother, who had died in the North Room at Dyke House and occupied the last remaining space in the family vault. Since that event the Rothers had contented themselves with a farmhouse and a rectangle of good earth in the churchyard.
John and William were brothers, a fact which astounded strangers because they appeared to have nothing in common save their ancestry. John was bluff, rubicund, a stocky, rather loud-voiced, hail-fellow-well-met type of man; William slim, tall, and sensitive. John was practical, Wil- liam imaginative. John was content to farm as his father had farmed and his grandfather before him; William, the younger brother and partner, was a theorist who believed in experiment. It was natural that a certain antagonism should have sprung up between the brothers. And the village had been quick to note that this dissension was not lessened when William suddenly married Janet Waring, daughter of a retired colonel, who had recently died at East Grinstead. Had William’s finances been healthier it was rumoured that he would not have taken his wife back to Chalklands. But John was the capitalist of the concern and William had to cut his cloth accordingly.
The Rothers did not rely entirely upon farming for their income. They were lime-burners. Behind the house was a great white horseshoe of chalk, some forty feet high, into which the picks of diggers were for ever eating. To the side of the farmhouse were three lime-kilns, the creamy smoke of which eddied through a belt of shrubs and thinned out before reaching the gravel drive.
On July 20th, 193—, a Saturday, a Hillman Minx was drawn up before the long, white-trellised verandah which projected over the lower windows of the house. John himself, with a suit-case in his hand, stood at the front door talking to Janet and William.
“So it’s no use,” he was saying, “forwarding letters until I reach Harlech. I may break my journey at any point en route. I can’t stick being bound by an itinerary when I’m on holiday.” Janet smiled. “Like me, John. Have you packed everything?” Adding, “You know I don’t like to interfere on these occasions.”
John nodded, stuck a tweed cap on his head, kissed Janet on the cheek, and held out his hand to William.
“Well, you’re all set for three weeks, Will. Don’t forget Timpson’s order for that yard and a half, or Johnson’s load for Tuesday. See that he keeps up to scratch, Janet, and doesn’t me-ander about talking theories. There’s only one way of making lime, you know, Will, and that’s burning chalk. Well, good-bye.”
William nodded and muttered something conventional about having a good time, as usual ignoring his brother’s slights, realizing that John was always disappointed if he didn’t rise to the bait.
“Plenty of petrol?”
“Four gallons, thanks—in a clean tank. I want to make a test run.”
“Good—and you’ll reach Harlech…?”
“Wednesday, at the latest,” said John as he climbed into the driving-seat. “So you’ll have to wait until then if you want any good advice.”
Then, after several more clamorous good-byes and a great deal of waving, the Hillman shot off round the curve of the drive and vanished behind a hedge of clipped laurel.
At that moment two other disconnected events took place. The parish clock chimed the quarter past six, and Pyke-Jones, the eminent Worthing entomologist, threw himself with a sigh of content into an arm-chair at the vegetarian guest-house known as the Lilac Rabbit. Pyke-Jones had just returned from a gruelling ramble with his net and specimen-case over the downs near Findon. It was his wont to patronize the Lilac Rabbit during week-ends, making Findon—a village about half-way between Worthing and Washington—his headquarters for these spirited attacks upon the local butterflies and beetles. He little realized as he sat there sipping his tonic-water, preparatory to his evening meal of nut-cutlet, salad, and raw carrot, that John Rother’s departure from Chalklands was to interfere with his plans for the following morning.
He little realized as he set out at nine o’clock on the morning of Sunday, July 21st, that he was walking slap-bang into the middle of a tragedy. He was making for Cissbury Hill along a winding, sun-bleached lane which ran under the foot of the downs and eventually petered out in a lonely farmyard some four miles from the village. About half-way along this glorified cart-track, Pyke-Jones unlatched an iron gate which gave on to the open downside and began the gentle ascent, at that point dotted with thick and haphazard clumps of gorse. A hundred yards from the lane, much to his astonishment, he came upon a parked car. It had been shunted back between two large gorse bushes. The near-side door of the saloon hung open, and a few paces from the running-board a tweed cap lay, lining upward, on the turf. Impelled by curiosity Pyke-Jones stopped a minute to investigate, rather puzzled that the owner of the car should have been so careless as to leave the door open and his cap on the ground.
Then a few feet away he stopped dead, uttered an exclamation of alarm and horror and went down on one knee. The inside of the tweed cap was covered with blood! There was blood on the running-board of the car, on the upholstery of the driving-seat, on the wheel itself. The triplex windscreen was starred in several places, whilst the floor of the saloon was littered with glass from the shattered dashboard dials. Not daring to touch the cap, he rose and called out in a high, quavering voice:
“I say—is there anybody about? Is anybody there?” There was no answer.
Thoroughly shaken, fearful of what might have taken place, Pyke-Jones hesitated a moment, wondering what he ought to do. Then pulling out a notebook he hastily jotted down the registration number of the car, and started off at a jog-trot for Findon.
Two hours later Superintendent Meredith, who had recently been transferred from Carlisle to Lewes, was closeted with William Rother in the old-fashioned drawing-room at Chalklands.
“There’s no doubt about it, Mr. Rother,” Meredith was saying, “it’s your brother’s car right enough. Your identification of this cap makes it even more certain. Have you any idea how the car could have got there, or where your brother is now?”
“None whatsoever. I can’t understand it. My brother left here about six o’clock yesterday evening on his way to Harlech in Wales. He was intending to break his journey at one or two places of interest on the way. You say the car was found under the north side of Cissbury?”
“Just off a cul-de-sac, Mr. Rother, which ends at Bindings Farm—four miles from Findon.”
William, paler than usual, was obviously suffering under the stress of the unexpected events.
“I know the place, yes. But why John should have taken his car down that lane is beyond my comprehension. You say the police have searched the surrounding part of the down and have found no sign of my brother?”
“None. Nobody had noticed anything at Bindings Farm either. The Findon sergeant made inquiries there at once. The search is still going on, of course. The usual police broadcast will have to be issued, so I should like to have a description of your brother, Mr. Rother—height, build, complexion, clothes, distinguishing marks, and so on. Can you let me have these details now?”
After the description had been taken down, Meredith closed his notebook and went on: “I know this must be a painful interview for you, Mr. Rother, but I’m afraid we must face up to facts. On the evidence to hand you can guess what we’re bound to suspect?”
“Foul play of some sort?”
“Exactly. There’s the possibility, of course, of attempted sui- cide, but I’ve a very strong reason for ruling out that explana- tion.”
“Confidential I take it?”
“I’m afraid so, Mr. Rother. There are certain bits of evidence which the police, you know, like to keep hidden in their pockets. At present everything points to assault. Though so far it’s impossible to say when and why your brother was attacked. You know of nobody, I suppose, who might have done him injury? Anybody, for example, who bore him a grudge or so on?”
William, after a second’s deliberation, shook his head. “My brother was, I think, pretty popular in the locality.
He was reserved over his private affairs. I was never really in his confidence. As a matter of fact we didn’t quite see eye to eye over things—farming in particular.”
“You’re in partnership here?”
“Yes—both in the farm and the lime-burning business.”
Meredith jotted down a couple of notes, looked up, and said after a moment’s thought:
“You realize that there is one rather confusing factor in this case, Mr. Rother?”
“I don’t quite—?” began William.
“If we assume that your brother was assaulted—where is he now? A wounded man would not get far without causing attention, particularly in a country district.”
“Perhaps he was attacked late last night,” suggested Wil- liam, “and then wandered off and collapsed somewhere on the downs.”
Meredith shook his head.
“I thought the same thing at first, sir—but the trail of blood ends a few paces from the car. That’s pretty pointed, isn’t it?”
“Why? I don’t quite see—?”
“Surely it suggests the assailant worked with a second car and possibly a confederate. Your brother must have been driven off, unconscious perhaps, in order to remove him as far as possible from the scene of the attack.”
“But for what reason, Mr. Meredith?” William had grown more and more agitated as the Superintendent’s level voice dealt with the official possibilities of the tragedy. “The whole thing seems senseless! Why was my brother attacked? Who attacked him? How the devil did his car get under Cissbury Ring when it should have been en route for Harlech?”
“If I could answer those questions, sir, the police investigation would be at an end. There is one fairly feasible explanation of his removal by a second car. Kidnapping, with the idea of extracting ransom-money.” Meredith gave a crooked smile. “An unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported to this country from the United States. But that’s theory only. There’s nothing so far to suggest that this is the case.”
There was a long pause during which William rose uneasily, strode to the french windows and stared out over the lawn.
“Tell me, Superintendent,” he asked, obviously finding it difficult to control his emotion, “what are the chances?”
“Of what, sir?”
“Of my brother still being alive?”
Meredith hesitated, shrugged his shoulders and then said with typical caution: “It’s too early, sir, to say anything definite. I suppose it’s about fifty-fifty. We may know considerably more inside the next twenty-four hours when these particulars of your brother have been issued to the police. There’ll probably be an S O S broadcast as well, if nothing comes to light within the next few days. Until then, Mr. Rother, I should hang on to the old saying: ‘No news is good news.’’’
He rose, took up his peaked cap from the piano, and added: “By the way, Mr. Rother—what was your brother’s mood when he left you last evening? Did he seem depressed, apprehensive, nervous?”
“No—I should have said he was in a perfectly normal frame of mind.”
“What did you talk about—anything in particular?”
“Oh, just trivial matters—about some orders for lime which had to be sent off. I remember asking John if he was all right for petrol.”
Meredith registered this detail, pondered, and then sud- denly demanded: “Did he answer that question?”
“You remember what he said?”
“Perfectly. He said, ‘Four gallons, thanks—in a clean tank.’’’
“Meaning, I suppose, that he had emptied his tank and filled up with exactly four gallons?”
“That’s the idea. It was a fad of his on long journeys to estimate his exact mileage per gallon.”
“Have you any idea what his car did to the gallon?” “About forty, I think. Perhaps less.”
“Thanks,” said Meredith. “I won’t keep you any longer, Mr. Rother. You may depend on me to let you know the results of our investigations at once. Are you on the ’phone?”
William shook his head.
“We’re rather off the beaten track here, I’m afraid.” “Well, I’ll ring through to your local station and the constable can cycle up if anything comes to light.” William took the proffered hand and shook it warmly. “Thank you, Mr. Meredith,” he said as he escorted him towards the door. “I’m naturally worried to death over this affair. Your consideration is a great help. I don’t know how I am going to break the news to my wife. She’ll be back from church at any minute now.”
“She was fond of your brother?” inquired Meredith as he edged diplomatically through the door.
“Very,” said William dryly. “They had a great deal in common. In fact I’ve always upheld—” He broke off with an apologetic laugh. “But, look here, Superintendent, I mustn’t waste your time with family affairs. This way—to the left.”
As Meredith sat beside the police chauffeur on his way back to Findon, he felt he had gained little from his interview with William Rother. He hoped that the missing man would turn up within the next twenty-four hours and thus put an end to an annoying routine case. The only original factor present at the moment was Rother’s disappearance, and should he turn up, the case and the mystery would auto- matically come to an end. If he didn’t turn up—Meredith smiled to himself—but that was ridiculous! You couldn’t spirit a man away, alive or dead, with the ease of a conjuror disposing of a rabbit in a top-hat. Rother would turn up right enough, and the case would resolve itself into the usual “assault by a homicidal maniac” or something of the sort—a motiveless, callous crime, yet all the more unpleasant because accidental in origin.
“On the other hand,” he thought, “that wouldn’t explain away the presence of John Rother’s car under Cissbury Ring. Four gallons of petrol in his tank, eh? Exact. That’s about the one valuable bit of evidence I’ve got from this interview, I reckon.” He turned to the constable at the wheel. “I want you to take me back to the scene of the crime, Hawkins. Can you empty a petrol tank for me and measure the contents?” “Easy sir—if we pick up some two-gallon cans at the Findon garage.”
At the Findon Filling Station the cans were placed in the car and the two men turned off the main road, swung left into what was known locally as Bindings Lane, and drove along under the downs. A constable was standing guard over the Hillman, and already a small knot of sensation-seekers, mostly children, was grouped round the car. There was nothing further to report and so far all the searchers in the locality had drawn a blank. Hawkins loosened a union-nut on the carburettor feedpipe, therefore, and carefully drained off the petrol into the cans.
“I’ll take an accurate measure of that back at headquar- ters,” said Meredith. “How much is there roughly?”
“About a can and a half, sir,” said Hawkins.
Meredith, after arranging with the constable for the Hillman to be taken to the Findon garage, jumped into the police car and was driven back to Lewes—a matter of some twenty-five miles.
Once in his office he got to work with a graduated beaker and made an accurate measurement of the petrol from Rother’s tank. Just as he had completed the job, there was a brisk rap on the door, and the Chief Constable, Major Forest, stumped into the room. He stumped everywhere—a brusque, stocky, energetic little man with a bristly moustache and semi-bald head. Although curt to the point of rudeness he was liked by his staff, who recognized his almost demo- niac efficiency.
“Hullo, Meredith. What’s the game? Don’t you ever have a day off?”
“It’s this Rother case, sir.”
“Oh, that abandoned car affair. I saw your report on my desk. Make anything of it?”
“Not yet. It looks like assault.” Major Forest agreed.
“And what the devil are you up to here? The whole place reeks of petrol. Trying to burn down the station as a protest against long hours, eh?”
Meredith explained what he had learned from William Rother at Chalklands.
“Well—what’s the result? Come on, Meredith, don’t look cunning. You’ve found out something.”
“There’s about three and a quarter gallons unused, sir. Rother left Chalklands with exactly four in the tank. His car does about forty to the gallon. So by a simple deduction—”
“All right! All right!” cut in the Chief. “You can cut out the mathematics. What you’re trying to tell me is that Rother had done about thirty miles before he parked his car under Cissbury.”
“Exactly, sir. And it’s about four and a half miles direct from Chalklands.”
“Which proves?” “Nothing, sir.”
“Umph—that’s a great help!”
“Nothing at the moment. The data may be useful later on. You see, sir—”
“Oh, well, go about the job in your own pig-headed way. I never could understand your methods. You’re thorough but finicky. Like a bally woman over details. But far be it from me to interfere. It’s your case. If Rother doesn’t turn up within three days we’ll have his description broadcast from London.”
Three days later the unemotional voice was announcing:
“Before I read the general news bulletin, here is a police message. Missing since Saturday, July 20th, John Fosdyke Rother, aged thirty-nine, height five feet eight inches, of stocky build, ruddy complexion, hair greying at the sides, blue-grey eyes and clean shaven. When last seen Mr. Rother was wearing a light brown plus-four suit, light brown hose, and brown brogue shoes. Probably hatless. His car was found abandoned under Cissbury Ring a few miles inland from Worthing early on Sunday, July 21st. It is believed that Mr. Rother may be wandering with loss of memory. Would anybody who can give any information as to his present whereabouts please communicate with the Chief Constable of the Sussex County Constabulary—Telephone Lewes 0099—or with the nearest police station.”
That was Wednesday, July 24th.
A week later John Fosdyke Rother was still missing and the Superintendent had not advanced a single step along the path of his investigation. It seemed, for all Meredith’s ridicule, that the missing man’s assailant had achieved the impossible—the rabbit had been spirited away out of the top-hat.
“And that,” thought Meredith, “scarcely argues the work of a homicidal maniac.”
Already it looked as if the police were up against a care- fully planned and cleverly executed murder, and, what was more, a murder without a corpse!