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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 08:19:20 am



Title: Chapter Six
Post by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 08:19:20 am
MACDONALD decided to travel down to Devonshire by the night train. He calculated that it would be less crowded than the morning trains, and he would probably get a chance to sleep for a few hours instead of standing in the corridor. He was fortunate, for having taken a first-class ticket without any conviction that its possession would ensure him a first-class seat, he came across an old guard who knew and liked him: this worthy led Macdonald to a compartment where three naval officers occupied three corners, and the C.I.D. man gratefully took the fourth and asked no questions as the guard locked the door.

During the first hour of his journey Macdonald studied the report sent in by Superintendent Bolton and memorised the salient facts. Nicholas Vaughan, for four months tenant of Little Thatch, had last been seen alive on the evening of April 30th. Vaughan had gone out in his car at 6 o’clock in the evening---several witnesses vouched for this fact---and Vaughan had returned, according to old Reuben Dickon, at 9 o’clock. The road to Mallory Fitzjohn was a lonely one: on the two miles between the main Exeter road and Little Thatch there were only two houses built direct on to the road: one was Ridd’s farm, a mile and a half away from Little Thatch, one was Corner Cottage, inhabited by Reuben Dickon. Corner Cottage was well-named, for it stood just above one of those difficult blind corners hated by all motorists. Every driver had to change gear to crawl round the corner and to negotiate the steep gradient beyond, and every driver also sounded a horn and waited for a response before turning that corner. To meet another vehicle head-on on a steep gradient in a lane which was just wide enough for one car was an experience to be avoided. Reuben Dickon lived at the cottage with his wife and a boy of ten years named Alf. Alf had been billeted on the Dickons during the 1940 blitz, and there Alf had stayed. His parents, who had lived in Shoreditch, had both been killed. Mrs. Dickon had got fond of the small Cockney and found him increasingly useful as he grew larger and stronger. The Billeting Officer looked into the matter occasionally, but saw no reason to interfere with an arrangement which gave mutual satisfaction. Alf had almost forgotten his parents and he had no wish to return to Shoreditch: he had grown to like cows and calves and fields and farms. Life with the Dickons was “Oke.” The village school was “Oke.” The Billeting Officer wisely let well alone. Alf was a not unimportant witness in the matter of Nicholas Vaughan’s death. Dickon had attested that Vaughan had passed his cottage on the return journey to Little Thatch at 9 p.m. on April 30th. The interrogating sergeant had asked, “How can you be certain?” Dickon was very deaf, and his eyesight none of the best. For reply, Dickon had roared, “Alf! Come ’ere.”

Alf had come, an alert, comic-looking urchin in a cut-down pair of corduroy trousers which were hitched up to his arm-pits. Alf claimed---and demonstrated later that he could substantiate his claim---to be able to recognise the sound of every car and vehicle which passed Corner Cottage. He knew the sound of Colonel St. Cyres’ big Austin and of Anne St. Cyres’ small Morris: he could tell Mr. Gressingham’s Daimler and Mr. Hesling’s Ford, he could even tell whether the tractor which passed the cottage was the tractor from Hinton Mallory or that from Ridd’s Farm. Furthermore, Alf was an expert on Klaxons, horns, and hooters. He could hear any motor horn sounded at the road-bend half a mile away, and Alf, like many small boys, had a precocious memory for subjects which interested him. He gave the Superintendent a full and correct list of every vehicle which had passed Corner Cottage on Saturday, April 30th, plus the approximate time such vehicle had passed. The time of Vaughan’s journeyings were fixed very easily. Mrs. Dickon had an old wireless set (given to her by Anne St. Cyres) and the old lady tuned in to the news at 6 and 9 o’clock regularly---she had grandsons on most of the battle fronts and liked to hear the news from France and Italy, Burma and the Pacific. Alf bore out old Dickon in saying that Mr. Vaughan’s car had passed Corner Cottage at six, driving in the direction of the Exeter road, and that Vaughan had waved his hand, as he always did when he passed. Dickon and Alf had been working in their own garden at six. At nine Dickon was smoking his pipe at the gate and Alf was chewing a crust of bread and jam at his bedroom window. They both saw the car return and again Vaughan had waved to them. Some time later---about half-past ten, Alf thought---Mr. Gressingham’s car had passed, travelling in the direction of the main road, away from Hinton Mallory. Alf was in bed then, but he was as sure of the car and its direction as if he had seen it.

Sometime in the middle of the night Alf had woken up, and as he turned over he saw that his small window was aglow with light. For the first time for years an old fear had assailed the Cockney-bred boy. He had seen a light like that before and his reaction was “air-raid.” He had tumbled out of bed and gone to the window and realised there was a big fire burning somewhere. As his sleep-bemused mind cleared, he knew from the direction of the flare that it must be Little Thatch which was burning. Alf’s bedroom was a tiny slip of a room opening out of the main bedroom where old Dickon and his wife snored peacefully. The boy had gone into them and at length awoken them, yelling, “Mr. Vaughan’s ’ouse is afire. It’s burning like blazes.”

The old couple refused to believe him, or to get up and go to the window. Alf was fond of Nicholas Vaughan: the ex-sailor had been kind to Dickon’s “vaccy” and the small boy hero-worshipped Vaughan after his kind. Alf had put on his boots and coat and run down the lane to Little Thatch, and it was Alf whose shrill cries had roused the household at Manor Thatch at 3 o’clock on May morning.

---

DAY was dawning as Macdonald’s train ran along the Exe valley. The C.I.D. man stretched himself contentedly, not to say luxuriously. He had slept well in his corner seat: even the train stop at Taunton had only caused him a vaguely pleasant awareness, “Taunton . . . I needn’t wake up yet.” Now he looked out on lush green meadows where the first buttercups were shining, and saw the swift running river wending its devious way through the water meadows, fringed with willows in the glory of May time foliage. “A good world . . . and what a mess we do make of it,” meditated Macdonald. His three naval companions still slept peacefully, and continued to sleep as Macdonald alighted from the fuggy compartment and stepped in to the chill freshness of early morning as the station announcer gave out: “Exeter, St Davids. This is Exeter, St Davids. Change here for the Southern Railway.”

Suitcase in hand, Macdonald went to the barrier to ask about a train for Mallowton and saw a tall fellow in uniform.

“Chief Inspector Macdonald? I drove in to meet you. There isn’t a Mallowton train for nearly two hours, and it’s poor work waiting on a platform at this hour.”

“Jolly good of you,” said Macdonald as he shook hands. “Superintendent Bolton, is it?”

“That’s right, Chief. I’ve got a thermos of tea in the car. I expect you can do with it.”

“By jove I can!” said Macdonald. “This is a real Devonshire welcome.”

“We do our best, but the county’s shorn of its glories in war-time,” laughed the other. “Still, my missis will have a good breakfast waiting for you. The time-honoured ham and eggs, though the cream is missing.”

“Sounds like a dream to me,” said Macdonald. “My monthly egg was laid by a bantam—a long time ago.”

Bolton turned his car along the road parallel with the railway after Macdonald had put down the steaming cup of tea.

“Reckon you don’t want to see our ruins like most visitors do,” said Bolton. “Blitzed cities can’t be any new sight to you.”

“My God, no,” said Macdonald fervently. “Don’t mention bombs to me---but, by gad, I like your meadows and the river. That must be a bonny fishing river in the upper reaches.”

“You’ve said it. There’s a reach I’d like to show you between Bickleigh and Tiverton---and it looks as though I might have the pleasure. I didn’t want to put you off coming---only too glad to see you---but I can’t see there’s any room for a criminal in this Little Thatch business. That poor chap didn’t realise the danger from fire in these old thatched cottages. The same thing’s happened again and again when strangers have taken over old properties in this county. However, I don’t want to spoil your breakfast by talking shop at this hour. This village we’re coming to is Newton St Giles; pretty place---used to be much prettier when all the cottages were whitewashed. Someone said the white village made too good a target by moonlight, so they painted it mud-colour.”

Macdonald studied the layout of the village as they drove up the curving street between ancient thatched cottages, whose eaves seemed to huddle together as for company. How old were these cottages? Centuries old, he guessed---and they hadn’t caught fire...

Beyond Newton St Giles the road rose to an eminence which gave them their first wide view of the countryside, and Macdonald was almost dazzled by the vividness of its colour in the sunrise. Emerald green of river meadows, rose red of banks and soil, pink and white of fruit blossoms---the brief panorama glowed with an intensity of colour which could not be rivalled in England. It had a jewelled aspect, but Macdonald’s Scottish mind was not wholly given to admiration. Was it too vivid, too luxuriant, too flamboyant?---but at least it wasn’t battle-scarred: serene, peaceful, complacent perhaps, Devon glowed in the May sunshine.

The Superintendent drove his visitor to a pleasant little modern house on the outskirts of Mallowton: brick and tiles, Macdonald noted, with steel-framed windows.

“You don’t favour thatch and cob walls yourself, then?” queried Macdonald, and Bolton laughed.

“Not for me, thanks. You can have your picturesqueness---like Newton St Giles---but give me upright walls which don’t collapse when you put a book-shelf up, and a decent damp-course, and taps that run. If you’d like a wash you’ll find the water’s nice and hot in the bathroom.”

It was: and the bathroom, like the whole house, was immaculate---modern, hygienic, labour-saving. “How glad his wife must be that he doesn’t hanker for the county picturesqueness,” said the Chief Inspector to himself. “Yet this house might be anywhere---Eastbourne, Gorlestone or Hampstead Garden City: still, constant hot water is a pleasant asset.”

Mrs. Bolton gave Macdonald a very excellent breakfast, introduced him to her two charming round-faced infants, and saw to it that no “shop” was talked at her breakfast table. When Macdonald had eaten his fill she said firmly to her husband, “Take the Chief Inspector to your study, Frank. The room’s been done and no one will disturb you.”

Mrs. Bolton was undoubtedly a jewel of a wife.

The Superintendent led Macdonald to a sunny little room redolent of furniture polish, and said:

“I think I put everything germane to the case in my report. Now if there are any questions you’d like to ask?”

“Actually there are very few,” replied Macdonald. “Your report was admirable, and I congratulate you on the work you and your men put into it. I said all this to Commander Wilton---and he wasn’t quite so sceptical about the ability of the police to paddle their own canoe when I’d finished saying my bit.”

“Thank you for that, Chief. I admit he got my goat a bit, but I look at it this way, as I said to my missis. He’s certain his friend was murdered: he just feels that way. I feel the opposite, and each of us tends to read the evidence in a way which will support our own ideas.”

“Very fairly put,” said Macdonald. “Now tell me, if you can, why you feel that foul play is ruled out.”

Bolton sat and formulated his thoughts, and then he said: “This man Vaughan was a stranger to these parts. When he came nobody knew anything about him. The tendency was, as it always is in the country, to view him with some misgivings---criticise him and wait for him to make mistakes and come a cropper. Well, that didn’t happen. Folks liked him. The farmers liked him. They found he was unassuming and that he talked sense and was anxious to learn a bit about farming methods in vogue down here. He admitted to his own ignorance of the strains of cattle we raise in Devon, and to our methods of treating them. He wasn’t used to seeing dairy cattle out at pasture all the year round, and he admitted he tended to underrate the amazing fertility of the soil. But the farmers judged that he was a pretty shrewd and hard-working fellow. ‘Him was making a do of it,’ one old chap said to me, ‘and him’s a good judge of cattle.’ To put it shortly, he was generally liked, and folk were pleased that he was making a do of it in a modest way. It seems he was liked in the Navy, too. I went and talked to a young chap in hospital near Plymouth. Been on Vaughan’s ship---destroyer, wasn’t it? He was popular with his men, too. They liked him and trusted him. Now why on earth should a nice chap like that get himself murdered? It doesn’t make any sort of sense to me. He was quiet and modest---didn’t put people’s backs up by being pretentious: he was straight and steady-going, didn’t drink or carry on. It wasn’t a matter of robbery, I’m pretty certain of that. I just can’t see any sense in suggesting he was murdered.”

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. I see your point of view. You have looked into his affairs to some extent and found that he was a business-like fellow, everything straight and in order. You know he was liked and respected in the district, and you can learn nothing of any enmities or disputes.”

“That’s so. I can’t find a soul who’s got a grudge against him. Vaughan achieved a difficult thing: he came to a district as hide-bound in tradition as any in England, and in four months he’d earned the respect of his neighbours.”

“Duly noted. Now about this wiring for his house. I take it, it wasn’t inspected by anybody since it was a private plant?”

“That’s so. He bought the plant second-hand and a lot of the wiring and insulating pipe second-hand. The plant came from old Lord Bodley’s house: the rest of the stuff was bought from a builder and electrician who is retiring from business. Now I ask you---isn’t there a good chance of a short circuit when you buy wiring that isn’t new?”

Macdonald nodded. “Admitted, but I think Wilton made a point when he urged that Vaughan was a very competent engineer as well as a very careful chap. A man like that would have tested every bit of his wiring and seen to it his fuses did the job they were meant to do. However, to look at another aspect of it: did Vaughan have anybody in to help him with the job?”

“He had only two people working for him at any time. One was old Dickon, who helped in the garden and lent a hand occasionally in lifting stuff which was awkward for one man to lift: the other was Mrs. Warren, who did Vaughan’s laundry---the straightest old dame who ever ‘obliged’ a lonely bachelor. No, if there was a fault, Vaughan was the man responsible for it.”

“Did he have any neighbours in to show them the place?”

“It’s difficult to say he had any neighbours---barring the St. Cyres at the big house. I do know this: Vaughan wasn’t the sort of man to encourage passers-by to come in and have a look-see. He believed in the adage about the Englishman’s house being his castle, and the country folk respected him for it.” Bolton paused for a while and then added: “See here. That cottage---Little Thatch---hadn’t been overhauled for goodness knows how long. Miss St. Cyres told me that Vaughan had been up his kitchen chimney and found some bricks out of place, which made the fire smoke. Doubtless he removed the bricks, and how do we know he didn’t bare a beam, which smouldered for days, maybe? I tell you it’s not safe for any man, naval engineer or otherwise, to monkey with chimneys in thatched cottages in Devon. Those old buildings require specialist attention from builders who’ve known such fabrics all their lives.”

Macdonald laughed. “I’m beginning to feel I’ve got a trip on false pretences: you haven’t left me much to do. Now what about this suggestion concerning petrol and paraffin.”

“Yes, Chief. The arson-raiser’s delight. We had the Fire Service wallahs on to it. The fire started at the west end of the cottage, in the kitchen. The room Vaughan slept in was over the kitchen and his camp bed stood by the chimney wall. The stairs from kitchen to bedroom were comparatively modern---about seventy years old, not made of old oak like the main staircase. Vaughan kept a four-gallon drum of paraffin in a cupboard under the kitchen stairs. We know that, because the man from the stores which supplied his paraffin told us so. His store of petrol was in drums outside, but he had had a gallon tin of petrol in the kitchen some time. Here is the most probable explanation of what happened. A beam in the chimney smouldered and eventually the smoke seeped through the upper part of the chimney into Vaughan’s room while he was asleep. Then the floor caught: that floor was a light wood floor put in when the kitchen stairs were built. Then some wooden packing cases caught fire, then the wood round the window, then the thatch. After that it was all UP. The bedroom floor crashed down fairly early on, the paraffin drum burst, and the petrol can, and thereafter the thing was a raging inferno. It was three o’clock when young Alf woke up the Manor Thatch people---probably five hours since Vaughan had gone to bed. The thatch was burning from end to end like merry hell then. What could they do? The farm men came up with ladders from Hinton Mallory, hoping to tear the thatch down, but the kitchen ceiling had fallen in and the bedroom floor, and the paraffin was ablaze. The sparks got on to the linhey and part of the outbuildings blazed up. My God, when that Naval Commander came and told me that houses don’t burn unless someone sets fire to them, I asked him what he knew about old thatched cottages, after a month’s drought, if you’ll believe it. We had no rain in April---a thing unknown hereabouts. There had been a dry east wind blowing for three weeks and a hot sun shining the last few days as well.”

“Yes,” said Macdonald. “It was just the moment for a thatch to burn. Now I’ve got two questions to ask---not connected with the fire. First, have you been able to learn anything of the woman Vaughan was to have married?”

“No. Nothing. Personally I don’t believe he meant what Colonel St. Cyres thought he meant. You ask him---he’s a very exact old chap. Vaughan did not say he was engaged. He only said he hoped---or meant---to get married.”

“Right. The second question is this: where did he go that last evening of his life, when he was away for three hours on a fine light evening at a season of the year when most gardeners toil till dusk?”

“Yes,” admitted Bolton. “There you have me. I don’t know, and nobody has offered to tell me. We’ve tried to trace his car and failed.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve left me some pretext for earning my keep. Now I think I’ll go out and view the ruins---not a cheerful job.”

“You’ve said it. I hate fires. Gave me the pip to see that place . . . Would you like a car?”

“No, but I’d like a push-bike. It’s only three miles.”

“Good for you! I’ll lend you mine---but you can have a car if you’d like it.”

“No need. I haven’t had any decent exercise for months. Thank your wife again for my good breakfast and say I’ll be seeing her before I go back to London town.”

“Don’t be in too much hurry---there’s a nice bit of fishing for you up Bickleigh way...”

---

HAVING studied his map, Macdonald mounted his borrowed bike and pedalled off along the Tiverton road on his way to Mallory Fitzjohn. It was a glorious morning and the Devonshire orchards were at their gayest: Macdonald’s only grouse was that he couldn’t see over the hedges, the road was too deep set between its banks. When he reached the signpost which pointed to Mallory Fitzjohn, Hinton Mallory, and Upton Mallory, he turned left as directed, and found himself in the Devonshire lane proper, a narrow, twisting roadway deep sunk between hawthorn hedges: the effect of the snowy blossom and the prolific cow parsley which brushed his handle bars was bridal in its gaiety, though the Scots inspector found the heavy fragrance and balmy air made him sleepy. He would have liked to take his coat off and roll up his shirt sleeves, but decorum forbade such indulgence. He soon passed Corner Cottage, and noted the old man working in the garden: that would be Reuben Dickon, but, remembering that the old man was very deaf, Macdonald decided to leave any conversation with him until some future occasion. After negotiating the corner he saw the tower of Mallory Fitzjohn Church rising above the hedgerows, but with characteristic Devonshire complexity the road turned away from its destination and wandered leisurely round the borders of several eccentric fields before it made another bid for its objective. A steep hill and a couple more turns brought him into a straight stretch of lane and to the charred ruins of Little Thatch.

Macdonald was inured to charred ruins---he had worked in many since 1940, seeking the remains of not one human being but many, yet the pathos of this ruin caught at his throat. The house was but a heap of shapeless cob walls, with a stone buttress and open chimney at one end. The rest had fallen in, but apple blossom swayed within a few yards of the ruin and thrushes called in the garden. The garden seemed the saddest sight of all: close to the house the neatly dug beds were trampled to mud: farther down, towards the hedges, every bed clearly defined and neatly edged. Cottage tulips still bloomed in the borders, Arabis and Aubretia spread gay carpets of colour: wallflowers scented the air. Young Brassicas grew bravely in orderly rows, potatoes were well forward, broad beans and carrots. Looking from ruined house to trampled garden, Macdonald found himself saying, “Damnation . . . It’s not fair. That chap must have worked so hard.” It was as though the ghost of Nicholas Vaughan haunted the garden, and Macdonald visualised him as a big broad-shouldered chap happily putting in pea-sticks and planting those neat rows of young lettuces. “A sorry sight”: the futile words echoed in his mind, and their rejoinder, “A foolish thought to say a sorry sight,” while a big marmalade cat came and rubbed hopefully round his ankles. “Well, Nicholas Vaughan, if there was any dirty work here I’ll damn well see that somebody gets what he deserves,” said Macdonald to himself, and bent to caress the optimistic cat.