CUT AND RUN
by Rupert Penny, writing as Martin Tanner
f I hadn’t stopped on the Portsmouth Road for half an hour that November morning, I should have missed the most exciting fortnight of my life. It might so easily not have happened, too, but an unexpected burst of sunlight tempted me, and as I am still alive I will tell the story.
My name is Arnold Dane, and at the time I shall speak of I was just twenty-eight years old. Six months previously I had been left fifty thousand pounds by a relation of my mother, and since then had wandered about Europe enjoying my freedom. I had always suspected that teaching Latin in preparatory schools wasn’t the work for which I was best suited; the moment I was in a position to do so I bade farewell to Arthur Milsom, M.A., his £120 per annum in addition to board-residence and laundry, and his stultifying ideas about discipline. When I agreed to relinquish my salary he was more than pleased to see the last of me, and within a week I was in Belgium. From Antwerp I walked to Lyons, which took me the whole of June. Thence, for no particular reason, I made my way by train to Budapest, looked in at Belgrade and Tirana, crossed to Otranto from Valona, and returned at a snail’s pace in the heat of the year.
I had now been back in England five weeks, and was beginning to wonder what to do with myself. All sorts of vague plans were tentatively formed in my head, examined, and thrown aside, most of them because they were too fantastic. One day I would be for buying an aeroplane, learning to fly it, and then attempting a true round-the-world flight, the full 25,000 odd miles. The next it occurred to me that I might do worse than engage a cricket professional in the hope of attaining my county side the following summer. Averagely selfish speculations, it will be perceived, and foolish too: yet never in my maddest moments did I think of arranging to be hunted for my life by—among others—a distinguished mental specialist, an American gunman, and a classically-proportioned artists’ model. Fate must take the credit for that.
I had spent the week-end with friends just the other side of Haslemere, and was now on my way back to town alone in a hired car. My own had been “borrowed” by my host’s sister the previous evening, Sunday, and badly damaged, which explains how I came to be driving an old-fashioned Rolls-Royce. It was the best the local garage could do, and—as events proved—a satisfactory best.
The sunlight, I repeat, induced me to draw up just the London side of Ripley, where the Portsmouth Road is bounded on both sides by open moorland. I got out, stretched my legs, looked round, and noticed away to the right a pond, reed-grown and lifeless. Now, ever since I chased butterflies as a child I’ve always liked the smell of reeds in marshland, and I resolved suddenly to find out if after a lapse of years the scent had changed.
I was gone about twenty-five minutes, I suppose, or rather more. Upon my return I climbed into the car again, pressed the self-starter, and heard the engine stir into obedient activity. Then I became aware that my feet were not only muddy but really damp. (I should say, perhaps, that other people frequently tell me I am absent-minded, and I agree that in general I am, if less so than they imagine.) For a moment I thought about changing my shoes, but decided not to: I had only the haziest recollection of where to find the keys of my case. The renewal of a childhood memory—the reeds, or perhaps it was the marsh, smelt just the same—had unaccountably made me thoroughly pleased with life, and I declared my decision aloud.
“I don’t care twopence about wet feet,” I informed the windscreen. “I’m grown up, aren’t I?”
The only answer I detected was the well-bred purr of the engine, and it was all I looked for.
I began the remainder of the journey home at a leisurely rate, but a mile or two further on I halted again. In front of me, but on the opposite side of the road, had been another car drawn up, a blue Chrysler saloon, and three people standing by it. Two were men, and the third a girl in a fur coat and a close-fitting brown hat. They had glanced up from their conversation at my approach, and one of the men stepped forward with his hand upraised as I went by.
I pulled up a little way past him and waited, expecting to be asked for petrol, and quite willing to fetch him some if he behaved nicely. At a nearer view he proved to be an elderly man of medium height, dressed in a black coat with an astrakhan collar and a wide-brimmed black hat which caused his face to be deeply shadowed. His features were not easy to make out, and that I noticed them in fair detail means, I think, that I must have gazed at him with considerable rudeness.
“I apologize for troubling you, sir,” he started, in a soft cultured voice, “but the fact is that I’m in rather a difficulty.”
‘No’ I thought, ‘no petrol for you. I don’t like the shape of your nose, the yellowish colour of your cat’s-eyes, nor the length of your front teeth. I wish I hadn’t stopped—you’ll spoil my mood if I see very much of you, my man.’
“The position is,” he went on, as I said nothing, “that I’ve had the misfortune to lose my ward. She’s a dear girl, but subject to loss of memory upon occasion, and when that happens she’s liable to do the most erratic things. Last night, for instance, she crept out of the house in her sleeping attire, and I’m really desperately anxious about her. The police have been informed, but they don’t somehow take the same interest in the matter as myself. I wonder”—here pausing to regard me with a cold scrutiny which went ill with his garrulous way of talking—“yes, I wonder if you would happen to have seen her? A young lady with red hair, probably arrayed in blue pyjamas and bedroom slippers.”
“I’m sorry, but I certainly haven’t seen anyone like that about,” I told him curtly.
“Oh dear, I’m disappointed—I was hoping you might have done.”
He nodded solemnly to himself, delicately scratched the end of his nose with a gloved hand, and gave me another speculative look.
“May I be unconventional?” he asked with unexpected vigour. “May I suggest that you allow me a glance inside your car? I do hope you understand?”
“Of course,” I said, though in truth I was annoyed. Why should he think I was harbouring his halfwitted, half-apparelled ward?
“You’d better come round the other side,” I added. “That door doesn’t open.”
Saying nothing, but again nodding his broad black hat, he began to move round the front of the Rolls with small shuffling steps: and at that moment the apparently impossible took place.
The car had at some time been fitted with a glass partition dividing front and rear, and a speaking-tube arranged between, one end just behind the driver’s head. As the soft-tongued stranger rounded the silver bonnet, and I slightly turned my face to follow his progress, an agonized voice spoke into my left ear.
“Please don’t let him in!” it implored in a distorted whisper. “Please!”
For a fraction of a second there leapt into my mind a sentence from Milsom’s First History Primer: ‘The maiden Joan of Arc became daily more troubled by the Voices, which were all about her in the air, she said, twittering like little birds’. I had stopped thinking about that before black-coat’s body was more than half way towards me, though, and tackling the problem. Would I let him in or wouldn’t I? If the entreaty not to do so were imaginary, then presumably I had gone mad, since I knew I wasn’t drunk; but if it was real—though I didn’t see how it could be, having forgotten all about the speaking-tube—then I was being asked for help by someone who sounded urgently in need of it, and had only a moment to make my decision.
Had the stranger been less displeasing to me as a person, I’m sure I should never have been quick enough; but I definitely didn’t like him, and almost before I realized what I was doing the gear-lever slipped into place, my hand released the brake, and the Rolls lurched forward. I caught one glimpse of startled eyes and open mouth, and then he was yards away.
“And now drive like hell!” came the voice down the tube. “You’ve got about a minute’s start while he turns, but he can do eighty.”
I nodded agreement as the car gathered speed, and began to feel the conversation was one-sided. I could be spoken to but I couldn’t answer, and to remedy this I put one hand behind me, sliding back the glass panel which shut off my unseen passenger. This immediately provoked a response.
“Do go faster!” commanded the girl, her sex now recognizable in her tones. “Burn the road up.”
“Why, are they after us already?” I enquired: it seemed an apposite question.
“Not yet, but they soon will be if you don’t hurry.”
“All right, all right!” I said. “I’m doing my poor best. If you happen to be real, will you please pull my hair so I’ll know? Not too hard.”
“Yes, thanks. And who is it we’re running away from?”
“Dr. Paul,” came the unhelpful answer. “Lord, I can see them! Are you flat out?”
As a matter of fact, I was rather proud of this: the owner had assured me that he was the only person alive who could get more than sixty-three out of the old car.
“Damn—not enough! They’re creeping up—what can we do?”
“Sixty-nine,” I replied. “I’m doing it, though I’m sure I don’t know why. Is it important to get away?”
At this the girl laughed, but a little unsteadily, I thought.
“Was there a small man in a slouch hat and glasses?” she asked in turn.
“Yes,” I agreed: the description fitted the person to whom the man she called Dr. Paul had been talking by the blue Chrysler.
“Well, his name’s Nick, and when they get close enough he’ll shoot your tyres in. Then you’ll know it’s important. Have you got a gun with you?”
“No—sorry. How far are they?”
(By now, gradually, I was entering into the spirit of the thing. This talk of guns and shot tyres made it seem that we really were being chased. Previously I had not quite believed it, in spite of the rushing roadside and the weight of the car against my hands on every curve.)
“Can’t see—they’re round a corner. No, here they come. About three hundred yards—you’re keeping the distance. I say, you know how to drive!”
“Don’t be too sure,” I answered. “I never set eyes on this bus till this morning, and I was brought up on a two-seater Morris.”
Nevertheless, I wasn’t displeased with my performance so far. We had roared through Esher without mishap, taking not the least account of built-up areas and speed-limits, but not long after I was set a momentary poser by two carts going in opposite directions and a parked lorry. I managed things to my own satisfaction if not to theirs, to judge by the snatch of shouting which reached my ears as the girl finished, but I lost a certain amount of my lead.
“I’m afraid I can’t keep this up,” I said. “We’ll be getting into the Kingston traffic soon, though, and he’d never dare shoot then, would he?”
The reply was an urgent yell to swerve: I did so instantly, and then came a venomous crack which sounded very like a rifle. Instinctively I ducked, but in the midst of the action realized that it would do me no good: what I had to guard against was the effect of a bullet through one of the back wheels, not through my head. I found myself gripping the wheel as if it were a life-belt, and I needed nobody to tell me that my forehead was moist.
“Missed!” exclaimed my passenger triumphantly, and then gave a gasp. At the same moment, it seemed to me, there was another report, followed immediately by a tinny thud.
“That wasn’t you he hit, was it?” I asked.
“No—petrol tank, I think. I only wish I’d got a gun too—I’d show them something. God, mind that bus!”
Again I swerved as a double-decker appeared suddenly from a side turning, rounded it with an inch to spare and a squeal of protesting rubber, and breathed again. There would have been a nasty mess if I had hit the thing.
“Oh, good!” exclaimed the voice behind a second later. “It’s got in their way now—he can’t shoot for a bit. Keep going and we may be all right, but we’re losing a lot of petrol. Does it matter?”
“Not yet,” I answered. “There’s six gallons to play with, according to the gauge.”
“Still, don’t take the by-pass—get into Kingston. If we’re far enough ahead at the market square we can probably slip them. I say, this is rather fun—do you mind?”
“Not yet,” I repeated, regretfully braking to negotiate the roundabout at the beginning of the by-pass. In doing this I lost a few precious seconds, and then whirled onwards beneath a bridge, past a recreation-ground on the left, and soon along by the reservoirs. My ears were strained for the sound of another shot, but none came, and what attention my eyes could spare from the road ahead was directed to the possible presence of policemen. I saw none, but that didn’t entirely reassure me, especially as we were still touching fifty when we swept by the river and began the entrance to the town itself.
“You’re doing all right!” I was told. “They’re a long way off—you’ll easily get round. Now, follow my directions, and don’t make any mistakes.”
For five minutes I submitted myself to her orders, and at the end of that time she declared that I could slow to normal pace.
“There’s a garage on the left about two hundred yards away. Drive straight in and dump the car, and then we’ll make for the station—I know a short cut. At least, you needn’t come, but you’ll have to lend me some money. Will you, please? I haven’t got a penny.”
“I could let you have one,” I admitted. “Maybe more if you look honest, but I haven’t seen you at all yet. That’s the worst of these outside driving-mirrors—they don’t satisfy one’s curiosity. Tell me, have you got red hair?”
“Yes, only I call it auburn.”
“And blue pyjamas?”
“Yes, but they don’t show. I’m quite respectable, really, except that I haven’t any shoes.”
“Good lord! Aren’t your feet sore?”
“Very. They’re still bleeding a bit.”
Something in what she said, either the words or the tone, made me fully comprehend at last that this business was deadly serious, for her if not for me. I suddenly felt glad that I had not refused to help, whoever she might be and whatever the cause and nature of her trouble.
Return to Ramble House Page