Chapter XV. A Vain Search
 

Tom Ssift's speedy little electric car was soon at the door in readiness to take him and Mr. Damon to the Nestor home. The electric runabout was a machine Tom had evolved in his early inventive days, and though he had other automobiles, none was quite so fast or so simple to run as this, which well merited the name of the most rapid machine on the road. In it Tom had once won a great race, as has been related in the book bearing the title, "Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout."

"Mary didn't telephone again, did she?" Tom asked his father, as he stopped at the house to get Mr. Damon, having gone out to see about getting the electric runabout in readiness.

"No," was the answer. "The telephone hasn't rung since."

"Then, I guess, Mr. Nestor can't have arrived home," said Tom. "It's a bit queer, his delay, but I'm sure it will be explained naturally. Only Mary and her mother are alone and, very likely, they're nervous. I'll telephone to let you know everything is all right as soon as I get there," Tom promised his father and Mrs. Baggert as he drove off down the road, partly illuminated by the new moon.

Rapidly and almost as silently as his Air Scout Tom Swift drove the speedy car down the highway. It was about three miles from his home to that of Mary Nestor, and though the distance was quickly covered, to Tom, at least, the space seemed interminable. But at length he drove up to the door. There were lights in most of the rooms, which was unusual at this time of night.

The sound of the wheels had not ceased echoing on the gravel of the drive before Mary was out on the porch, which she illuminated by an overhead light.

"Oh, Tom," she cried, "he hasn't come yet, and we are so worried! Did you see anything of father as you came along?"

"No," was Tom's answer. "But we didn't look for him along the road, as we came by the turnpike, and he wouldn't travel that way. But he will be along at any moment now. You must remember it's quite a walk from my house, and--"

"But he was on his bicycle," said Mary. "We wanted him to go in the auto, but he said he wanted some exercise after supper, and he went over on his wheel. He said he'd be right back, but he hasn't come yet."

"Oh, he will!" said Tom reassuringly. "He may have had a puncture, or something like that. Bicyclists are just as liable to them as autoists," he added with a laugh.

"Well, I'm sure I hope it will be all right," sighed Mary. "I wish you could convince mother to that effect. She's as nervous as a cat. Come in and tell us what to do."

"Oh, he'll be all right," declared Mr. Damon, adding his assurances to Tom's.

They found Mrs. Nestor verging on an attack of hysteria. Though Mr. Nestor often went out during the evening, he seldom stayed late.

"And he said he'd be right back if he found you weren't at home, Tom," said Mrs. Nestor. "I'm sure I don't know what can be keeping him!"

"It's too soon to get worried yet," replied the young inventor cheerfully. "I'll wait a little while, and then, if he doesn't come, Mr. Damon and I will go back over the road and look carefully. He may have had a slight fall--sprained his ankle or something like that--and not be able to ride. We came by the turnpike, a road he probably wouldn't take on his wheel. He's all right, you may be sure of that."

Tom tried to speak reassuringly, but somehow, he did not believe himself. He was beginning to think more and more how strange it was that Mr. Nestor did not return home.

"We'll wait just a bit longer before setting out on a search," he told Mary and her mother. "But I'm sure he will be along any minute now."

They went into the library, Mary and her mother, Tom and Mr. Damon. And there they sat waiting. Tom tried to entertain Mary and Mrs. Nestor with an account of his trial trip in the Air Scout, but the two women scarcely heard what he said.

All sat watching the clock, and looking from that to the telephone, which they tried to hope would ring momentarily and transmit to them good news. Then they would listen for the sound of footsteps or bicycle wheels on the gravel walk. But they heard nothing, and as the seconds were ticked off on the clock the nervousness of Mrs. Nestor increased, until she exclaimed:

"I can stand it no longer! We must notify the police--or do something!"

"I wouldn't notify the police just yet," counseled Tom. "Mr. Damon and I will start out and look along the road. If it should happen, as will probably turn out to be the case, that Mr. Nestor has met with only a simple accident, he would not like the notoriety, or publicity, of having the police notified."

"No, I am sure he would not," agreed Mary. "Tom's way is best, Mother."

"All right, just as you say, only find my husband," and Mrs. Nestor sighed, and turned her head away.

"Even if Mr. Nestor had had a fall," reasoned Tom, "he could call for help, and get some one to telephone, unless--"

And as he reasoned thus Tom Swift gave a mental start at his own use of the word "help."

That weird cry on the lonely meadow came back to him with startling distinctness.

"Come on, Mr. Damon!" cried Tom, in a voice he tried to make cheerful. "We'll find that Mr. Nestor is probably walking along, carrying his disabled bicycle instead of having it carry him. We'll soon have him safe back to you," he called to the two women.

"I wish I could go with you, and help search," observed Mary.

"Oh, I couldn't bear to be left alone!" exclaimed her mother.

"We'll telephone as soon as we find him," called Tom to Mrs. Nestor, as he and Mr. Damon again got into the runabout and started away from the place.

"What do you think of it, Tom?" asked the eccentric man, when they were once more on the road.

"Why, nothing much--as yet," Tom said. "That is, I think nothing more than a simple accident has happened, if, indeed, it is anything more than that he has delayed to talk to some friends."

"Would he delay this long?"

"I don't know."

"And then, Tom--bless my spectacles! what of that cry we heard? Could that have been Mr. Nestor?"

There! It was out! The suspicion that Tom had been trying to keep his mind away from came to the fore. Well, he might as well race the issue now as later.

"I've been thinking of that," he told Mr. Damon. "It might have been Mary's father calling for help."

"But we looked, Tom, near the trees, and couldn't discover anything. If he had been calling for help--"

Mr. Damon did not finish.

"He may have fallen from his wheel and been hurt," said Tom, as he turned the electric runabout into the highway that Mr. Nestor would, most likely, have taken on his way from Shopton. "Then be may have called for help, and some autoists, passing, may have heard and taken him away."

"Yes, but where, Tom? Whoever called for help was taken away, that's sure. But where?"

"To some hospital, I suppose."

"Then hadn't we better inquire there? There are only two hospitals of any account around here. The one in Shopton and the one in Waterfield. My wife is on the board of Lady Managers there. We could call that hospital up and--"

"We'll look along the road first," said Tom. "If we begin to make inquiries at the hospitals there will be a lot of questions asked, and a general alarm may be sent out. Mr. Nestor wouldn't like that, if he isn't in any danger. And it may turn out that he has met an old friend, and has been talking with him all this while, forgetting all about the passage of time."

They were now driving along the highway that led from the little suburb where Mr. Nestor lived, to the main part of Shopton, just beyond which was Tom's home. This section was country-like, with very few houses and those placed at rather infrequent intervals. The road was a good one, though not the main-traveled one, and Mr. Nestor, as was known, frequently used it when he rode his bicycle, an exercise of which he was very fond.

As Tom and Mr. Damon drove along, they scanned, as best they could in the light from the young moon and the powerful lamps on the runabout, every part of the highway. They were looking for some dark blot which might indicate where a man had fallen from his wheel and was lying in some huddled heap on the road. But they saw nothing like this, much to their relief.

"Do you know, Tom," said Mr. Damon, when they were nearing the town, and their search, thus far, had been in vain, "I think we're going at this the wrong way."

"Why, so?"

"Because Mr. Nestor may have fallen, and been hurt, and have been carried into any one of a dozen houses along the road. In that case we wouldn't see him. We've passed over the most lonely part of the journey and haven't seen him. If the accident occurred near the houses his cries would have brought some one out to help him. He is well known around here, and, even if he were unconscious and couldn't tell who he was, he could be identified by papers in his pockets. Then his family would be notified by telephone."

"Perhaps you are right, Mr. Damon. We may be wasting time this way. What do you suggest?" asked Tom.

"That we don't delay any longer, but call up the hospitals at once. If he isn't in either of those he must be in some house, and in such condition that his identity cannot be established. In that event it is a case for the police. We haven't found him, and I think we had better give the alarm."

Tom Swift thought it over for a moment. Then he came to a sudden decision.

"You're right!" he told Mr. Damon. "We mustn't waste any more time. He isn't along the road he ought to have traveled in coming from my house to his home--that's sure. But before I call up the hospitals I want to try out one more idea."

"What's that, Tom?"

"I want to go to the place where we heard that cry for help."

"Do you think that could have been Mr. Nestor?"

"It may have been. We'll go and take another look around there. Some man was evidently hurt there, and was taken away. We may get a clew. The lights on the runabout will give us a better chance to look around than we had by the little pocket lamp. We'll try there, and, if we don't find anything, then I'll call up the hospitals."