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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 11:14:42 am

Title: Chapter Eight
Post by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 11:14:42 am
“WHAT I want to know is this, Chief Inspector.”

It was Thomas Gressingham who spoke. He had answered a number of questions which Macdonald had put to him, and answered, apparently, without reserve or resentment. Now Gressingham considered it was time he asked a few questions himself, and Macdonald had said, “By all means. Ask anything you want to.”

Thomas Gressingham pointed a rather podgy, well-manicured finger to emphasise his query, “What proof have you got that the remains found in the embers of Little Thatch were the remains of Nicholas Vaughan?”

A sound of exasperation came from the third man in the room---this was Howard Brendon, who had been with Gressingham when Macdonald first called. Rather to the C.I.D. man’s interest, Gressingham had asked Brendon to remain and witness the conversation, and Brendon, to Macdonald’s eye, had something of a legal cut about him. He had sat in silence throughout the interview until now, when he gave an exclamation of disgust.

“My dear Gressingham, you’ve been reading an excess of detective fiction,” he said. “Your question savours too much of the cheaply sensational.”

Macdonald replied next, “Obviously, Mr. Gressingham, I have no proof. A man’s body is found in the burnt-out remains of a cottage. The first supposition is that the remains are those of the man who lived in the cottage. While the remains were not identifiable in the usual way, there were certain observations to be made---approximate age, height, build---all these tallied with the expected. Since you have raised the point, do you care to state if you have any reasons for believing that the remains were not those of Nicholas Vaughan?”

“Obviously, Chief Inspector, to follow your gambit, I have no evidence to offer. I never saw the remains, and it’s probable I shouldn’t have been any wiser had I done so, but that doesn’t debar me from using my reasoning powers.”

“Nor debar you from making a fool of yourself,” said Brendon acidly. “If you think you can teach the police their job, Gressingham, you are in process of making a very tidy-sized fool of yourself.”

“But I should be very much interested to hear Mr. Gressingham’s theories on the matter,” said Macdonald, and Gressingham needed no further encouragement to talk.

“Look here, Chief Inspector, I’ve told you my views. From the little I saw of Vaughan I judged him to be a man who was intent on avoiding observation. When I first saw him in his garden and called a perfectly polite ‘good morning,’ he replied by turning his back on me. Country people don’t do that---they always pass the time of day cheerfully. I put him down as a town lout---an artisan. Fellows of the factory-worker type are too above themselves to have any manners these days. When I finally came face to face with him and spoke to him I realised he wasn’t an artisan type, he was an educated man, but a man who had something to hide. One of the first things he did in that precious garden of his was to put up wattle screens inside the fences.”

“Got any hedges round your Surrey garden, Gressingham, or any walls? Or are your lawns and borders open to the public eye? Have you got notice boards up, ‘Come and look chaps! My flowers are for your pleasure’?”

Mr. Brendon’s sardonic tones pleased Macdonald. The thin man went on in his incisive voice, “The reason that Vaughan did put wattle screens was that you and your friends persisted in stopping and staring into his garden, Gressingham. Country people don’t do that, to quote your own words. This Nicholas Vaughan sounds a man of common sense to me. I’m only sorry I never met him.”

“I’m sorry too, Howard. I told you the chap reminded me vaguely of someone I’d once seen somewhere---but that eye-shade of his was good camouflage. Difficult to recognise a man with an eye-shade on---but he took it off when he was at home, so to speak. For public circulation only.”

Howard Brendon got to his feet. “It appears that the Chief Inspector has the patience to listen to you, Gressingham. Frankly, I have not. As I see it, there has been a case of very deplorable accident resulting in the death of a hard-working, decent-minded fellow. I’d like to remind you that this Nicholas Vaughan once protected your prosperity by sailing in Arctic convoys. Now he’s dead he has no protection against libel or slander----”

“But is he dead?” shouted Gressingham. “Prove to me he is dead! Somebody’s dead, but is it Vaughan?”

Brendon turned to Macdonald. “You need patience in your trade, Chief Inspector.”

Macdonald laughed. “In the words of a forgotten novelist, sir, I have the patience of innumerable asses. Not that I need to exercise it now. I am genuinely interested in Mr. Gressingham’s theories.”

Brendon snorted. “You can hand that sort of blarney to those who’re dense enough to take it at its face value,” he said. “I recognise the good old technique---get a man talking and let him make a fool of himself. Fortunately Gressingham is too palpably foolish on this occasion to be taken seriously---but I underline my protest. Vaughan’s death shouldn’t be used as material for sensational balderdash.”

“All right, old chap,” replied Gressingham, quite unnettled. “You come over again in a month or two, and we shall see what we shall see.”

Howard Brendon nodded to Macdonald, and with a curt, “Good day to you,” to Gressingham, he left the room.

“Vitriolic customer,” said Gressingham placidly, “but I never mind a bit of vituperation. Amuses me in fact. Brendon’s a very astute fellow and a very good judge of landed property. He often gets mad with me, but he soon gets over it. I watch his interests on the market, and he finds it worth while. Where were we? I know. I’d been making the point that Vaughan behaved as though he had something to hide.”

“A very interesting point, Mr. Gressingham,” said Macdonald, “but do you think you can substantiate it? You say that Vaughan avoided you, but he didn’t avoid everybody. The St. Cyres knew him pretty well. The farmers around met him at market, and he certainly did not avoid them. He went out of his way to talk to them and to discuss the farming methods in vogue hereabouts.”

“Admitted, but how far afield do any of these farmers go? They go to their market town, certainly, but no farther. Similarly with Colonel St. Cyres and his daughter, they live here and here they stay. When it came to myself, and my own friends, fellows who get around, Vaughan avoided us like poison. It was the same with young Mrs. St. Cyres---June---if he saw her coming he edged off.”

“So you suggest that Vaughan had something to hide, Mr. Gressingham? I take it you didn’t risk making that suggestion to Commander Wilton, who was Vaughan’s friend?”

“Of course I didn’t. I should never have raised the point at all if it hadn’t been for the fact of your own appearance on the scene, Chief Inspector. If the Coroner’s jury were satisfied with the verdict of accidental death, it wasn’t up to me to cast aspersions. But---and it’s a pretty large but---since Scotland Yard has put in an appearance it’s plain there’s stinking fish somewhere. If there weren’t more in it than meets the eye you would not be here. Isn’t that a fair assumption?”

“It’s rather an over-statement of the case,” replied Macdonald. “I am not here because any new evidence has emerged, nor yet because there is any official disagreement with the verdict of the Coroner’s court. I am here to reaffirm that verdict if possible.”

“So you may say,” replied Gressingham, “but if there weren’t some sound reason for querying the verdict the Yard wouldn’t have sent a big gun down here to investigate things.”

Macdonald paused a moment and then said, “Your friend, Mr. Brendon, saw the point more clearly than yourself, I think. Nicholas Vaughan was a very gallant seaman, and when his senior officer demanded a more detailed enquiry into his death, the Commissioner’s Office was glad to do its best, if only to honour the Royal Navy.”

“Sez you,” replied Gressingham imperturbably. “I see all that---and very nice too---but I see a bit further.”

“And what exactly do you see?” persisted Macdonald.

“This. I see that there has been an opportunity of fraud and crime,” replied Gressingham. “Mark you, I say opportunity. I should like to make three points. In the first place, is there any proof that the man who took Little Thatch was the Nicholas Vaughan who earned such a reputation on the Arctic convoys? A man came here and examined the property, hustled old St. Cyres into letting him have the tenancy and came into residence living entirely by himself and keeping aloof from observation. No friends of Vaughan’s ever turned up. The lawyer who acted for him down here had never seen him before, nor had the banker at Mallowton, where his account was moved to. Mark you, I’m not making rash statements: I’m not even making allegations, but you’ll find my observations are reliable.”

“Would you like to state exactly why you made the enquiries you evidently made?” asked Macdonald, and Gressingham nodded.

“Certainly. I’m an easy-going chap by and large, not irritable or quick-tempered, but I do admit I was a bit nettled over the letting of Little Thatch. I wrote to Colonel St. Cyres, and I made him a very generous offer for the tenancy, or for purchase---very generous. He replied with a curt announcement that the property was not on the market. When I came down here, I found that big tough already in possession, and I tell you I was a bit mad. I did make some enquiries---why not? No one knew the chap and he looked a queer guy to me. I did no more about it---obviously there was nothing I could do, but I’ve always believed there was more to it than met the eye.”

Again Macdonald sat and pondered. It was all very well for Howard Brendon to deride Gressingham’s ideas, but Macdonald did not believe that Gressingham was any sort of fool. He was much more astute than Colonel St. Cyres, for instance. Thoughts flashed through Macdonald’s mind very swiftly: Vaughan had typed all his letters . . . he had had no friends to visit him . . . his relatives were not sufficiently interested in him to come to his funeral . . .

“Well, Chief Inspector?” asked Gressingham, and Macdonald replied:

“I note your point, Mr. Gressingham: you postulate both fraud and crime. The man who lived at Little Thatch was not Nicholas Vaughan at all---so presumably the latter had been disposed of at an earlier date. Is that it?”

“I don’t know. All I’m doing is to ask questions in return for some of those you asked me. Can you tell me this? When was the last date that Nicholas Vaughan was seen by someone who really knew him?”

Macdonald was very wary: he needed to consider his answer, because it was quite probable that Gressingham knew the right answer.

“I think I require notice of that question, Mr. Gressingham, but, broadly speaking, the answer is in December last.”

“December, eh? I don’t expect you study the West of England newspapers, do you? No reason why you should. I like local papers myself, they’re well worth reading. There’s a cutting I kept from the North Devon Observer, of January 20th last. I’ll show it to you later. It describes the coroner’s inquest on the body of a man washed up from the sea on the Devon-Cornwall borders. The police surgeon gave it as his opinion that the body had been in the sea for at least three weeks---quite unrecognisable, of course, and not a shred of clothing left on it: the corpse was that of a big man, probable age between thirty and forty. Well, there it was. Nothing to be made of it. Corpses are washed up these days, nothing to be surprised at in that. An order for burial was given and the poor chap interred. An open verdict, of course. See?”

“Yes. I see,” replied Macdonald. “You’ve quite a feeling for correlating events, Mr. Gressingham.”

“If that’s a polite way of saying I’m fond of making up stories I don’t resent the imputation, Chief Inspector, but bear the old saying in mind: ‘Truth is stranger than fiction.’ ”

“I’m well qualified to know that,” rejoined Macdonald. “I have been interested in your ideas, Mr. Gressingham---they will be looked into. Now, have you any more suggestions?”

“Lashings of ’em,” replied Gressingham cheerfully, “but I’m thirsty. Will you join me in a drink? Listening, like talking, is much easier when you’ve got a glass in your hand.”

“Not for me, thanks,” replied Macdonald. “I’m on duty, you know, and you could report me for drinking on duty.”

Gressingham grinned. “That’s a really nasty back-hander, Chief Inspector. I don’t deserve that one. I’m a good-natured chap, taking me all round. Better natured than our Colonel Ramrod up yonder.” He was pouring himself out a good generous whisky, and he turned and waved it gaily at Macdonald. “Here’s how! If I were asked to lay a bet on the reason why you have a tendency to believe I’m a liar, I wouldn’t mind risking a fiver on the guess that somebody in the Manorial Thatching gave their opinion that one Thomas Gressingham is a very dirty dog. I don’t expect you to affirm or deny that; I’ll save you the trouble, but, believe me, I’m not a liar, nor yet a hundred per cent fool. I’ve a great respect for intelligence, and you are an intelligent man. The---er---corollary is obvious! Good word that.”


MACDONALD was in no hurry to get Mr. Gressingham back to the main subject of their conversation: he was too much interested in the man himself. Obviously Tommy Gressingham was not the type of man to inspire Colonel St. Cyres with anything but repugnance: he was too complacent, too impudent, too blatantly well-off, but Macdonald had met many men of the same type before. The manner which St. Cyres would have described as “bounding” was in one sense a camouflage. It served to conceal the speaker’s thoughts. No one could have guessed the thoughts behind that persistently amiable countenance. Nevertheless, Macdonald knew enough about such men to know that it was a mistake to assume that they were either dishonest or ill-natured au fond---they simply left you guessing, they might be anything.

“I wish you’d answer a purely personal question, Mr. Gressingham,” said Macdonald, and the other said:

“Ask away. ‘There’s nothing I have done yet, o’ my conscience deserves a corner.’ Can you place that one, Chief Inspector?”

“Shakespeare. Henry VIII,” replied Macdonald. “You won’t misunderstand me when I say I never accept that statement at its face value.”

Gressingham laughed---a cheerful roar: “A pity you won’t have a drink, old man. The more I see of you the better I like you. What’s your question? Double or quits I can guess.” He tossed half-a-crown on the table. “What made you so anxious to come to live in these remote parts, Mr. Gressingham?”

Macdonald allowed himself to laugh that time. The mimicry of Colonel St. Cyres was so excellent, even to the little nervous cough which punctuated so many of his sentences.

“Yes, you have won, but I didn’t take the bet,” said Macdonald. “What’s the answer?”

Mr. Gressingham sighed, and then put down the larger part of his drink. “Haven’t you all got one-way minds?” he asked. “Here am I, Tommy Gressingham, a Londoner, born and bred there, brought up on stock markets and tape machines, sucking in sophistication with my mother’s milk. If I want to live in the country, there’s Surrey and Berks and Bucks and Herts---nice and snug and suburban, eh? I tell you there’s no snob in the world like your country snob. To him, the City man’s a nasty smell, something the cat brought in. It’s all wrong, you know. Whatever I’ve bought it’s always been genuine and good of its kind. My Surrey place is good of its kind---hundred per cent gent’s suburban resort plus a little larch wood, a garden designed by a Chelsea snob landscape wallah, and central heating throughout. Now what’s to prevent me wanting a real country property, primitive and robust, redolent of farmyard stinks, no refinery nonsense about it? Why not? I like experience: I believe in doing everything once, even to spreading muck in a sou’westerly gale. But I like to see a friend or two about. I’ve known that pretty little girl, June St. Cyres, since she was fifteen---and a damn’ pretty fifteen, too. She wrote and said she was lonely and bored, Why not come down here? So I came. She was glad to see me, and believe me she looks a hundred per cent happier since I came and imported a spot of life into the place.”

He finished his drink and took up his story again: “One more bit of the confidential, old boy, and I’m through. Then I’ll get on with the shorter catechism again. Why wouldn’t old Colonel Ramrod let me have Little Thatch? I’ll tell you for why. Because he’s got a very nice-minded daughter. God defend me from nice-minded women with Puritanism in their blood. They’ve got really nasty minds. That one---Sweet Anne of Manor Thatch---decided I wasn’t a nice person to know. Familiar, y’know. A born seducer of young wives. God save the King! Did I need to come down here to seduce young wives? Queues of ’em in London if I’d been that way disposed. I tell you it was Anne put a spoke in my wheel. Do I bear a grudge? Not I! She just makes me laugh. Well, that’s that. On with the dance, let joy be unconfined! I’m not drunk, y’know. Not on one whisky.”

“No. I’m quite sure you’re not,” said Macdonald. “I put down the effervescence to what Bergson called the élan vital.”

“I say---you’re not getting intellectual, are you? Take my advice and don’t. Intellectuality leaves me stone-cold. Well, I’ve given you Solution No. 1---the chap who got the lease of Little Thatch was not Nicholas Vaughan at all.”

“Duly noted---but who was the corpse?” enquired Macdonald.

“You can pay your money and take your choice. If you care to disregard the shipwrecked mariner washed ashore at Morwinstow, you can make a good case for the corpse being Vaughan himself. It was probably conveyed in one of those crates which arrived on the coal lorry or in farm carts at regular intervals.”

“I see---but while admitting the ingenuity of the idea, I am not convinced. You see, the man who took Little Thatch knew that Commander Wilton, for instance, might arrive to look him up any time, and then the band would have played.”

“Oh, rather,” said Gressingham, “but don’t you think it’s probable these Naval wallahs have a very good idea about how long their cruise will last? Wilton probably said, ‘So long, dear old boy. See you again on May Day,’ or words to that effect, and by May Day the balloons had gone up. However, I have an open mind. Take your own idea on the subject, and postulate that Vaughan was the tenant of Little Thatch. I still maintain he had reasons for secrecy. He did not want to be observed by anyone outside the Mallorys. Very good. We return to my original question: ‘How do you know the corpse found at Little Thatch was the corpse of Nicholas Vaughan?’ ”

“And I have admitted that I have no irrefutable proof,” rejoined Macdonald.

“Then you’ve got to admit that the possibility exists that Vaughan took a comparatively simple way of paying off an old score,” persisted Gressingham. “He left a corpse in the ashes which he could bet would be taken for his own, and off he goes to some other nice little tenancy elsewhere. I bet he never foresaw the snag that his dear old pal, Wilton, would mess the whole show up by demanding a further police enquiry. That’s what I call a bit hard.”


At this stage in Gressingham’s narrative, another person strolled into the room. Macdonald had observed him hovering about in the garden for some minutes past---a preposterously fat man, one of those men who seem fated to look ridiculous.

“I say, forgive me if I’m butting in,” he said. “Hate to interfere, but could I possibly get to the phone. I want to book a long-distance call.”

“Come in and get on with it, Rummy. Sorry we’ve kept you out. This is Chief Inspector Macdonald---Raymond Radcliffe.”

Radcliffe surveyed the C.I.D. man through the enormous lenses of his glasses, and Macdonald found himself thinking, “This one isn’t stupid either, he only looks stupid.”

“I’m honoured, Chief Inspector. I’ve always wanted to meet one of you big noises at the Yard. I hope you haven’t been taking Tommy too seriously. He’s got imagination, I’ll say that for him---but he overdoes it. By the way, Tommy, did you tell the Chief Inspector about Vaughan’s telephone code? I think he’d be interested.”

“I certainly should,” said Macdonald. “What’s the story?”

“Well, it’s my story, really,” said Radcliffe. “You see, if Vaughan wanted to have a telephone message left for him, he got Mrs. Hesling to take down the message and send one of the farm boys up with it. I answered the phone one day and a lady asked for Mrs. Hesling. I said she was out, could I take the message, and she said, ‘Will you ask her to be kind enough to send a message to Mr. Vaughan at Little Thatch and say that Mrs. Jones would be glad if he could leave the ducks’ eggs at six to-morrow.’ I asked where he was to leave them and she said, ‘Oh, he knows the address,’ and rang off. Well, that seemed all plain and above board and I thought no more about it until a fortnight later I answered the phone again, and the same voice said that Mrs. Jones wanted her eggs left at half-past seven that day. Well---I ask you---nice neat bit of code work. Neat and not noticeable. You ask Mrs. Hesling if she often got messages from Mrs. Jones.”

The fat man lighted a cigarette (it was a Churchman, Macdonald noted) and added, “Mind if I use that phone? it’s in the cupboard there. Rum place to have a phone, but there it is.”

Macdonald got up to go. He felt he had had his money’s worth. Gressingham walked to the door with him and said, “Come in again some time. Always glad to see you. Don’t play bridge by any chance?”

“Not by any chance,” said Macdonald firmly.