“LYING WIRES” (2/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents. Ed.]
Athelstan Digby was left to introduce himself to the Captain. He found in him nothing of the hectoring squire that his brother had described. On the contrary, he was more than a little attracted to the man.
“Tell me,” said Captain Aislaby, when they had talked together for some time, “do you know anything about this circus for which your brother has lent the Low Field?”
“I’m not well versed in these matters, but I should describe it as a first-rate show of its kind. Prue calls it perfectly ripping. We’re hoping to go this evening.”
“Then there’s nothing else that has struck you in connection with it?”
“Well,” said Mr. Digby, “I shouldn’t quite say that. I was thinking only yesterday that it is a surprising thing to meet so big a show in a place the size of Burton Pomeroy, and I told Byron himself that he would do better to spend more money on advertising.”
“And what did he say to that, may I ask?”
“That he had only recently acquired the business, and that he was hoping it would advertise itself.”
“H’m!” said Aislaby dubiously. “There was nothing else?”
“No, except that the whole equipment seemed to be extraordinarily good.”
“Exactly,” said the other. “And now, if you’ll allow me, I’ll tell you some of the things about this business that have struck me as being rather unusual. In the first place, we have this circus visiting Burton twice in three months. It is, as you say, splendidly equipped. There’s money behind it; and yet this man Byron seems content to go on losing hand over fist. He must be losing. The thing is obvious. Then there is this tight-rope stunt. It’s a first-class turn, of course; but, as a turn, there are a great many things to be said against it. It’s in the open air to begin with; and the rope is so high that the public can see everything that is happening without paying a single penny for admission.”
“I don’t quite see what you are driving at,” said Mr. Digby, perplexedly.
“I don’t quite know myself,” Captain Aislaby answered; “but I’ve taken the trouble to find out the itinerary of Byron’s circus during the last three months. They’ve kept to a string of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire towns within twenty miles or so of the coast. You don’t know these towns as I do. They are fast asleep; dreaming of Germans, if you like, but you may be sure that they realise they are dreaming. Now that tight-rope…”
“Ah!” said Mr. Digby, “I’m beginning to see what you are driving at.”
“You have an excuse straight away for your aerials,” Aislaby continued. “You have an excuse for your dynamos. Byron uses steam traction to draw his vans. He uses the same engines for lighting the show and for working the merry-go-rounds. I know next to nothing about wireless, but I should say you could have a plant there, installed under the very eyes of the police, that could easily keep in touch with German submarines in the North Sea.”
Mr. Digby burst out laughing.
“It’s not at your hypothesis,” he explained; “but I’ve just remembered that my little niece, Prue, God bless her, tells me that the monkey that walks along the middle wire is dressed up as John Bull. We take it as a compliment, when it might really be the dirty humour of the Lustige Blätter. Isn’t that typical of England?”
“Do you think there is anything in my idea, then?” asked Aislaby.
“I think,” said Mr. Digby, “that it is a very plausible theory, and it certainly explains these.”
He put his hand into his coat and took out the two dead swallows.
“Prue found them,” he said, “this morning close to the big marquee. I suppose if this man is a spy, he will send his messages by night. These birds must have been electrocuted. Certainly they have not been shot, and they don’t appear to be injured in any way. I thought at first it was last night’s frost.”
“It’s the luckiest bit of circumstantial evidence we’ve found so far,” exclaimed Captain Aislaby. “But what are we to do now? I can’t go to the local police with a tale like this. They’d only laugh at me.”
The problem certainly was anything but simple. The police, as Athelstan Digby observed, would very properly refuse to manufacture a German spy out of two dead swallows and a tight-rope. If, however, wireless messages were being sent, someone on this side would be tapping them and trying to trace their source. Who would that someone be? What official in what department of what office would it be necessary to approach?
“It’s time we both had breakfast,” said Aislaby at last. “No, I won’t come with you. Your brother and I don’t exactly hit it off. He thinks, you know, that I’ve been playing the village autocrat in not giving Byron the use of my field, whereas I did it to see how it would affect Byron’s plans, and to watch what the fellow would do. He lost no time, anyhow, in running up his tight-ropes on his new pitch. I think the best thing we can do is to wait. You go to the show this evening, as you have planned. I’ll nose round. It seems to me that the great thing in an affair of this kind is to avoid being premature. We want to bag the lot. Byron’s not the only one concerned in the matter.”
Mr. Digby ate his breakfast in silence with an excellent appetite, while Eldred over his grape-nuts expounded a theory he had recently adopted for stopping future wars by the repudiation of national debts.
The opening performance of Daniel Byron’s Travelling Circus made Monday to Prue, a red-letter day. She and her uncle had entered the ground a quarter of an hour before Madame Politza and the marvellous Mac performed on the wire, while half Burton Pomeroy looked on from the wrong side of the turnstiles.
“I don’t think it’s very fair,” she said. “There’s Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Conway. I’m quite sure they can afford to pay, if they want.”
Prue rode on the merry-go-rounds, while Mr. Digby weighed himself on an automatic machine. Prue threw sticks at Aunt Sally for cocoa-nuts; Mr. Digby patronised the less strenuous hoopla and won an embarrassing prize of a China shepherdess dancing on a field of green velvet. Later they sat in the very front row of the great marquee. Klack, the clumsy clown, did irreparable damage to plates and saucers, while somewhere in the back seats the kitchen-maid at the Hall sat fascinated. Mendez, the moody Spanish minstrel, introspectively accompanied himself in his one-man orchestra; Eva Evans, in her latest London success, repeatedly asked Mr. Digby if he wished to spoon with her; the Three Jingling Jigsaws emphatically declared their intention of marching immediately on Berlin. The performance went without a hitch; but there was no sign of Daniel Byron.
As they made their way out of the tent at the conclusion of the performance, Mr. Digby caught sight of the short, horsey figure of Captain Aislaby elbowing his way towards them in the crowd.
“Good evening, Digby,” he said, “I’d like a few words with you, if I may. You are going up to the Hall? Perhaps, Prudence, you wouldn’t mind going on ahead, while I speak with your uncle.”
“What’s the news?” said Athelstan.
“The news,” said Captain Aislaby, “is that I passed Daniel Byron, seated with your brother in his car scarcely an hour ago. They must have been going a good thirty miles an hour, and if I hadn’t skidded, I’d have been in the ditch. Byron was driving. What the devil does it mean? You got my note, I suppose?”
“No,” said Mr. Digby, “I have received no note or letter of any sort. What did it say?”
“I merely scribbled a few lines to let you know that, on thinking the matter over, I had determined not to leave that rascally showman undisturbed; that you could do what you liked, but that I was going off to Yorborough to try and get in touch with the right authorities there. I didn’t know your Christian name, so I sent it by messenger addressed to Mr. Digby, Junior.”
“But that’s Eldred,” said Athelstan. “He’s nearly six years younger than I am.”
“Then it’s my mistake, of course; but how the deuce was I to know it? It’s his manner, I suppose. He must have taken the note as a direct challenge and gone straight to Byron with it. After all, it doesn’t matter. I washed my hands of the whole business after the way they treated me at Yorborough. They were exceedingly polite, thanked me profusely, and informed me that the matter would be inquired into. I could see they didn’t believe a word of what I said.”
“We must make allowances for the absence of imagination in the official mind,” said Mr. Digby. “But come up to the Hall and have some supper. If Eldred is not already back, Mrs. Digby may be able to tell us where he went.”
Mrs. Digby, with embarrassed politeness, was indeed able to give them the information they required. With some difficulty she explained that her husband had thought it right to let Mr. Byron know that Captain Aislaby was determined to do all he could to hinder him. The circus proprietor had thanked him, explaining that in the practice of his calling he was accustomed to meet with prejudice. Her husband had then assured him of his help, if at any time it should be required; and, by a strange coincidence, Mr. Byron had come up to the Hall a couple of hours later to claim the fulfilment of his promise. It seemed that he had heard by telegram of the sudden illness of his wife. There was no train from Burton Pomeroy, but by motoring to Hocklington he could just manage to catch the express. Her husband, Mrs. Digby said, had left with the car soon after four.
Captain Aislaby courteously declined her invitation to await his return. In his own mind he was uncertain whether Eldred Digby would return at all.
It was nearly twelve when Athelstan, who had undertaken to sit up for his brother, heard the car draw up on the gravel drive.
“Sorry to have been so late,” said Eldred, as he threw off his coat, “but I had no end of trouble with the tyres on the way back. Byron, poor fellow, is a most interesting man. I found that he shares my views in regard to vivisection. He is a true animal-lover. His wife, it seems, was taken suddenly ill with diphtheria, and he is most anxious to prevent the doctors treating her with antitoxin. Statistics show that…”
“It is after midnight,” interrupted Athelstan. “Eldred, you are a bigger fool than I took you for. You owe Captain Aislaby an apology, and some time to-morrow I will see that you pay it.”
Eldred looked up with surprise from his glass of milk and digestive biscuit, as Athelstan wished him a “good-night,” which for mid-September was unusually cold.