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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 04, 2023, 09:37:00 am

Title: Chapter Fourteen
Post by: Admin on May 04, 2023, 09:37:00 am
MR. William Tothill, Solicitor and Commissioner for Oaths, was an old-established and much respected legal practitioner in Mallowton. He and his father before him had drawn up leases and agreements, negotiated disputes, engrossed wills, advised on settlements and the management of property for nearly a century, working in the same dusty office, which looked out on to Mallowton High Street. Mr. Tothill was known as a very “safe” man. When irate clients demanded immediate legal action to redress their grievances, Mr. Tothill always advised settlement out of court. He was, as he explained, “anti-litigious.” He held it a failure if he could not induce would-be litigants to compromise without going to the extreme of taking their cases to court.

Mr. Tothill was now seventy years of age---a dry, precise little man, not to be hurried in speech or action. It was to Mr. Tothill that Nicholas Vaughan had gone when he took the lease of Little Thatch, saying frankly that he had no knowledge of land tenures in Devonshire, and that he wished to have his agreement “vetted” by a local man of law.

Hoping for information, though hardly expecting it, Macdonald called on the lawyer. It was a new experience for Mr. Tothill to have a Scotland Yard man in his office: such a thing had not occurred before, either in his lifetime or his father’s, and he told Macdonald so frankly. Concerning Nicholas Vaughan the lawyer spoke with approval and regard.

“Speaking from the short experience I had of him, I should say that Mr. Vaughan was a man unusually well endowed with common sense, practical and straightforward in his dealings. He knew that agreements about tenancies are not always the simple matters they appear to be, and he saw to it that each clause dealt fairly by both tenant and owner, and that no loophole was left for future misunderstandings.”

“I take it that he gave you to understand that he meant to settle at Little Thatch for a considerable period?” queried Macdonald, and the solicitor nodded, peering at Macdonald over the top of his old-fashioned, gold-rimmed glasses.

“I gathered that he intended to stay there for ten years,” replied Tothill. “That was the period to which his option applied. As you probably know, he was spending money and time on improving the amenities of the property, and I suggested to him that it was not always desirable to spend money on a property held on lease. He replied that the improvements he was making would probably be out-moded in ten years’ time, and that he would have his money’s worth out of them. With regard to improvements in the land, tillage and so forth, there was a clause in the lease to reimburse him at the close of his tenancy. As I have told you, I found him a shrewd, level-headed client, well versed in rural usages, and fully alive to his own interests and responsibilities as tenant. The agreement, to which he himself suggested some reasonable additions, was mutually satisfactory to both parties and was signed with a minimum of delay. Beyond supervising the agreement, I had no further dealings with Mr. Vaughan.”

“Have you any idea if he had employed the services of any other solicitor at any period?”

“Mr. Vaughan stated quite explicitly that he had never needed legal advice, and had no solicitor in charge of his affairs. He owned no real estate, and his capital---a matter of a few thousand pounds---was well invested. I gather that Little Thatch was the first property he had taken on his own account, though, as I said, he was well informed on the subject of tenancies, particularly farms and small holdings.”

“Did he never mention the subject of his Will?”

Mr. Tothill looked primmer than ever, his lips pursed up as though he deprecated such plain speaking.

“The matter of his Will was mentioned. He told me that he had made a Will and that he had drafted it himself, a mistake made by many otherwise business-like persons. He also said that he intended to make another Will shortly, and put the drafting in my hands. Unfortunately, he had not carried this intention into effect, neither had he given me any instructions about the matter. It is probable that his Will was destroyed in the fire at Little Thatch, since he had not deposited the document here nor at his Bank. The Manager of the Western Counties Bank enquired of me as to whether I held Mr. Vaughan’s Will, or if I had any knowledge of his testamentary dispositions, and I regretted that I was unable to give any information. The result is that deceased died intestate and no indication of his wishes can be known to guide his heirs.”

“Did he ever mention to you the fact that he intended to marry?”

“He did not; we had little or no personal intercourse.”

Macdonald, realising that he could learn nothing further along these lines, changed his angle of approach with deliberate abruptness.

“Have you met a gentleman named Mr. Thomas Gressingham?” he enquired, and the lawyer stared at him for some seconds as though assessing the real meaning of this enquiry. Macdonald sat tight and waited, and at length Mr. Tothill replied,

“A gentleman of that name, who has been staying at Hinton Mallory, called on me to enquire if I had any knowledge of properties likely to come on the market in the near future. Speaking confidentially, Chief Inspector, and without witnesses, I am willing to tell you that the impression made on me by Mr. Gressingham was not favourable.” Pressing his finger tips together, Mr. Tothill continued: “Mr. Gressingham seemed to have an idea that I should be willing to discuss my clients with him and give him a leader concerning possible sellers. He held the belief, it appeared to me, that everything and everybody had a price. My interview with him was brief, and he has not sought another one.”

Macdonald allowed himself a chuckle. “I have no doubt you dealt faithfully with him, sir. Do you suppose that he visited all the legal men in the county in order to pursue his enquiries?”

“That I cannot tell,” replied Mr. Tothill. “In my case he came with an introduction. Mr. Howard Brendon wrote to me asking me to assist Mr. Gressingham with any information I was able to give.” Again Mr. Tothill paused and then went on: “Since you have mentioned Mr. Gressingham’s name to me, Chief Inspector, I may take it that your interest in him is official?”

“Speaking confidentially, as you put it, sir, I admit that such is the case. I have nothing positive against Mr. Gressingham, but I admit he arouses my curiosity. I can’t fit him into the picture, if you follow me?”

Mr. Tothill nodded judicially. “I follow you very well indeed. It is only natural that conjecture is rife over this matter. I have had occasion to rebuke several persons who carried conjecture too far. I think it only right to put you in possession of any facts known to me. I first heard of Mr. Gressingham from Mr. Howard Brendon. The latter, you may know, has a property in the Dulverton district. I think I may say without breaking confidence that Mr. Brendon’s property is coming into the market. He has been trying to sell it privately for some months past---I gather he has bought another property in the Midlands---and I think he hoped that Mr. Gressingham would buy the Dulverton place. The latter, however, did not care for it, and preferred to seek a property in the south of the county. All this is open and legitimate business, and I should have been happy to act for Mr. Gressingham over negotiating the purchase of any property on the market. What I resented was his implication that I was willing to discuss the financial status of my clients with him, so that he might be in a position to jockey them into selling property. Frankly, Chief Inspector, I found him an unpleasant person, and one with whom I had no wish to have any transactions.”

“During your interview did Mr. Gressingham mention Little Thatch?”

“Certainly he did. He said he wanted to buy it, together with the farm where he is staying, but I told him that I had no knowledge of the properties save that they were not for sale.”

Macdonald pondered for a moment, then he said: “I am surprised to learn that Mr. Brendon is selling his property. I had thought of him as being firmly established in the district.”

Mr. Tothill hesitated a moment and then said: “If you lived in this locality you would soon hear a considerable amount of discussion about him. A few years ago he had a dispute over a Right of Way through his parkland. He closed a path, and his gates were broken down. Unwisely, in my judgment, he took his case into court, and he won the case. As so often happens, it was a barren victory. If you live in the country you must live on reasonably good terms with your neighbours. Since winning his case I believe it correct to say that he has been ostracised by his neighbours. He is very wise to seek another home. This is gossip, Chief Inspector, but it is current gossip, such as you would hear in any market town around here.”

“I believe that Mr. Brendon is a married man,” observed Macdonald, and old Tothill stared at him with his shrewd, long-sighted old eyes.

“That is so,” he observed, and then made a comment which puzzled Macdonald a little. “If you are connecting Mr. Gressingham with that matter, as I believe some ill-intentioned gossips have done, I think you are at fault. To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Brendon and Mr. Gressingham are business acquaintances, nothing else. Being a man who believes in speaking his mind, I told Mr. Brendon that I was not favourably impressed with his friend, and Mr. Brendon said that I should be ill-advised to make hasty judgments. Though Gressingham might on occasion lack discretion in his speech, he was a man of probity in his business dealings.”

“I gather that you have a respect for Mr. Brendon’s judgment, sir?”

“Certainly I have. I have had various dealings with him, and found his judgment was to be trusted.”

“You might be interested in these facts,” said Macdonald, and gave a terse account of the discovery of the petrol cans and the traces of Mr. Gressingham’s Daimler.

Mr. Tothill listened intently, and then said: “I find this evidence a little bewildering. Do you deduce that Mr. Gressingham has been obtaining petrol illicitly and that the late Mr. Vaughan connived at the transaction? I find it difficult to credit. It seems quite out of character for Mr. Vaughan to have acted in such a manner. I could more easily believe that the petrol had been stolen---though I am aware that such an allegation would be slanderous.”

“The idea of theft had occurred to me,” said Macdonald. “In the first instance it might have been suggested as a rag---one of those pieces of foolishness which grown men have been known to commit when they have had a drink too many. If Nicholas Vaughan discovered that his petrol had been stolen, I can imagine him making a good deal of trouble for the thief.”

Mr. Tothill nodded. “I see your trend, Chief Inspector. You believe that Nicholas Vaughan met his death through foul play, and you are seeking for a motive.”

“That’s it. I am pretty sure in my own mind that Nicholas Vaughan was murdered, and I am hunting for a motive. I have told you the connecting link which brings Mr. Gressingham into the picture, and I have been interested in hearing your opinion of him. You have also told me that Mr. Gressingham came to you with an introduction from Mr. Brendon. I wish you would give me your opinion on this point. I have it in mind to go to see Mr. Brendon and to put these latest facts before him, and to ask for his co-operation. Do you consider that in doing so I shall be defeating my own ends? Will Mr. Brendon be likely to act in a legal capacity for Mr. Gressingham?”

The lawyer chuckled, a dry sound but full of amusement.

“I see your point, Chief Inspector. If you want information likely to lead to the arrest of a miscreant, you would hardly expect to be provided with it by the latter’s legal adviser. Mr. Howard Brendon is a solicitor, but he has not practised his profession for many years. He would not act for Mr. Gressingham---but he might advise him. If you want my opinion of Mr. Brendon, I can tell you that he has a name in the county for being a man of his word. He may be disliked by those who find him a hard man, but he is not mistrusted. Those who have had dealings with him can tell you that if he has given his word, he will abide by it, even to his own disadvantage: if he has said he will follow a certain course, he follows it.”

“While I admire consistency, I deprecate mere obstinacy,” observed Macdonald, and Mr. Tothill nodded, acknowledging the shrewdness of the oblique remark.

“You are right,” he said. “I mentioned the matter of Mr. Brendon’s lawsuit over the Right of Way. He would have been a wiser man if he had been willing to compromise, but because he claimed that he would close the path in question, because he claimed the full rights of the property owner, he went to the extreme of a lawsuit which alienated him from his neighbours. Now, in this matter of consulting with him over his friend Gressingham. If Mr. Brendon has undertaken to help Mr. Gressingham with advice---to back him, in other words---you will undertake a fruitless errand if you seek information from him which may inculpate his friend.”

“Surely if Mr. Brendon be the law-abiding character you have indicated he would not hold a brief for a man who may have committed a crime?” asked Macdonald.

Old Tothill replied: “I have had a few words with Mr. Brendon on this matter and he stated his opinion very clearly. He believes that Nicholas Vaughan met his death by accident in a fire whose cause was accidental. Mr. Brendon regards the enquiry you are undertaking as an unjustifiable expenditure of public money to gratify the prejudice of a naval officer who cannot accept plain evidence. I tell you this to indicate that there is very little probability that he will be prepared to co-operate with you in the way you suggest.”

Mr. Tothill paused again, and Macdonald waited patiently: the old solicitor’s pauses seemed worth respecting, because in his dry, precise way he was capable of making interesting suggestions. The small rasping voice went on again at length.

“As you know, Chief Inspector, this case of yours is being debated in every house in the town---in every shop and bar, in the Council Chamber and the Chamber of Commerce, in every club and at every meeting. The public does not regard Mr. Gressingham with a kindly eye---in the minds of some he has been tried, sentenced and hanged already---but there is another individual who finds even less favour in public esteem, and that is Mr. Raymond Radcliffe. When it comes to misappropriating petrol . . .” Mr. Tothill fell silent, looking at Macdonald intently, with pursed-up lips, and the Chief Inspector allowed himself another chuckle.

“I rather favour the public judgment there,” he said. “I might ask Mr. Brendon’s opinion of the fellow. Meantime, many thanks for sparing me so much time, and for giving me some good advice, both explicit and implicit, Mr. Tothill.”


At the same time that Macdonald was talking to Mr. Tothill, Thomas Gressingham came into his sitting-room at Hinton Mallory and found Raymond Radcliffe sitting at an old-fashioned writing bureau going through the papers which were stacked in the pigeon holes. Gressingham closed the door quietly behind him and advanced into the room with his hands in his pockets.

“What the devil do you think you are doing, Rummy?” he enquired. “That desk is mine, in the sense that I use it. Its contents are certainly mine.”

“I know, old chap, I know,” replied Radcliffe calmly. “Don’t imagine I’m laying claim to anything, or that I take any interest in your papers. I don’t. The fact is I’ve mislaid one or two letters of my own and I want to find them. The probability is that I left them about and Mrs. Hesling bunged them in here amongst yours.”

“I keep that desk locked. It was locked when I went out,” said Gressingham and Radcliffe nodded.

“Quite right, old chap, but, you see, the key of the bookcase above it fits the desk as well. Mrs. H. would know that and she probably just shoved any odd letters in. All these tidying up females are a menace---just can’t leave things put.”

Gressingham sat very still, and the expression on his face was not amiable. “It didn’t occur to you to ask me if I’d seen any of your letters before I went out, Rummy, or to wait to ask me when I came in?”

Radcliffe stood up and lumbered over to the window, and then said: “I’ve been thinking a bit, old chap. You and I have been friends quite a while. Had some good times together, too, and done some nice bits of business. I’m an easy-going fellow, not prone to take offence or lose my wool---but I didn’t like the tone you took when you were talking about that car, Tommy. You ought to have known that if I had taken the car out I should have told you about it. The fact is you’re getting het-up about this Little Thatch business. It makes you irritable, and it’s not like you to be irritable. I think you’d be better if you were alone for a bit, so I’m just packing my things up. No object in my staying here if you’re feeling irritable. Tiresome for you---and tiresome for me. That’s why I was looking for my letters. Don’t want to leave any of my junk about.”

Gressingham still stared, a frown creasing his heavy brows.

“Think you’ll go while the going’s good, do you?” he asked. “Let’s wash out all that punk about getting irritated. You’re clearing out before you’re asked any awkward questions. It’s a silly thing to do, Rummy. If the police want to ask you questions they’ll find you all right. No use playing ostriches by doing a bunk up to town.”

Radcliffe had pursed his small mouth up so that it resembled a fish’s mouth, an absurd pouting cod-fish, and his eyes protruded a little bit more than usual, but his voice was well under control: “Just shows how this business is getting you down, Tommy. It’s not like you to talk like that. If the police want any information from me, they’re welcome to all I know. If it’ll reassure you at all, I’ll call in on the Superintendent on my way through Mallowton and tell him I’m going back to town, and give him a chance to ask any questions he likes. The whole thing’s a damned tiresome business. I told you---and Howard Brendon told you---that you were making a mistake when you started all that storybook stuff about what might have happened to Vaughan. There’s such a thing as talking too much as well as talking too little. I’m sorry this has happened: very sorry indeed, but the only thing I can do in the circumstances is to clear out and leave you to yourself. If you take my advice you’ll pack up yourself and come back to town as soon as you can. This place is a washout now. No use to either of us---and, by the way, old chap, if you’d look through those letters of yours and see if you’ve got any of mine mixed up with your mail I should be grateful. Actually you’d be doing a sensible thing if you made a bonfire of the lot of them. It’s a mistake to keep letters.”

“Damn you! Mind your own business!” burst out Gressingham, and Radcliffe replied,

“That’s just what I intend to do, old chap,” as he ambled out of the room.


AT the same time that Gressingham and Radcliffe were coming to loggerheads over the matter of the writing bureau, Macdonald was driving himself on the main road to Shermouth, and his objective was the Auxiliary Naval Hospital where Nicholas Vaughan had been treated in the first months after he had been wounded. Later he had been moved to the Convalescent Home at Torhampton, and Macdonald intended to go on to the latter establishment if need be. As he drove he considered all the enquiries he had set on foot, taxing his brains to discover if any consideration had been neglected. Miss Elizabeth Vaughan’s movements and acquaintances were being followed up by a woman detective who was in one of the services. The Hawkins family---the alternative inheritors of Lannerdale---were also being subject to scrutiny. Mrs. Thomas Gressingham’s activities as an auxiliary ambulance driver were being enquired into, likewise the excursions of Mr. Raymond Radcliffe. The latter had often been seen about in the evenings, and it was said---with what truth Macdonald was uncertain---that he pursued some of the Land Girls who were billeted in the locality.

As he drove, Macdonald pondered over the evidence he had collected during his four days in Devonshire, trying to weigh it up fairly and put it against the evidence which had led the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Could it be said that he had disproved that verdict? He had to admit that it still remained a matter of weighing probabilities. He had proved to his own satisfaction that the causes of fire suggested by the Coroner---defective wiring or a beam bared in the kitchen chimney---had not been the agents which led to the fire. For the rest, his theories were based on evidence which few would consider conclusive. Macdonald believed himself that Vaughan had been murdered before he reentered Little Thatch, and his argument for this belief was one that would not prove convincing to many. He argued that, given normal conditions, Vaughan having put his car away would have gone to shut up the ducks before he entered the house. It was growing dusk, and it seemed the natural thing to do to shut up the ducks before going indoors---and they had not been shut up. Although country people went early to bed, Macdonald did not believe that Vaughan would have gone to bed before half-past nine, yet Colonel St. Cyres said there was no light showing in the house. It would certainly have been too dark inside the cottage at that hour to read or to write, and Macdonald had learned, by persistent enquiry, that Vaughan did not habitually go to bed early. His windows could be seen across the valley, and a farmer and cottagers from across the river Mallow had said that the faint light from Vaughan’s curtained windows was always observable “late,” late meaning after the hour that most country folk went to bed. Superintendent Bolton and his men had made very thorough enquiries as to whether any stranger had been seen in the vicinity of the Mallorys on the evening of April 30th, and could get no evidence of any one seen on roads or fields or bypaths. Young Alf’s evidence remained uncontradicted: between nine o’clock and half-past ten two vehicles only had passed Corner Cottage on the road to Mallory Fitzjohn---one was Vaughan’s Morris, going towards the Mallorys, one was Gressingham’s Daimler travelling in the other direction. If a car or pedestrian had approached from the other side of the river the route would still have led past Corner Cottage, because this was the only road leading to Little Thatch. There was an alternative private road which led to Manor Thatch, but anybody using this would have had to pass along the drive of the Manor itself---a very improbable route.

As he drove, Macdonald pondered over all these points, considering the report he would be sending in to the Commissioner’s Office. It could be boiled down to this statement:

“I believe that Vaughan was murdered and the cottage deliberately fired, but I have no direct evidence to uphold my opinion.”

It was midday when the Chief Inspector arrived at Shermouth Hospital, where he had made an appointment with the Matron, and he was shown into an office as severely business-like as his own office at Cannon Row. The Matron, a formidable lady of commanding presence, sat at her desk, looking as impressive as a judge in his robes. To Macdonald’s mind, no type of trained ability produced a more notable personality than the hospital Matron, the very apotheosis of controlled energy and organising power. He felt that he had to proceed circumspectly in this august presence, but he went straight to the point.

“I am the detective officer in charge of the enquiry into the death of Lt. Com. Nicholas Vaughan, who was a patient in this hospital from June to August, 1944.”

“Yes, Chief Inspector. I remember the case you mention very well. Lt. Com. Vaughan left here at the end of June and went on to the hospital at Torhampton. The latter is in the nature of a convalescent home, and he was discharged from there in October last, having made an excellent recovery. I was very grieved to hear of his death. We heard that he died in a fire, and I understood that a verdict of accidental death was returned.”

“Yes, madam. That verdict has not been disproved, but a further enquiry is being made to ensure that no evidence was overlooked. I am hoping that I shall be allowed to see the nurses who had charge of the case. Am I right in believing that a patient whose eyes have been seriously damaged is in charge of a special nurse during the crucial stages of his case?”

“Quite right, Chief Inspector. Lt. Commander Vaughan had two special nurses at first---a day nurse and a night nurse. It was essential that he should not touch his bandages or make any movement which might impair the treatment. The surgeons were particularly interested in his case---Mr. Lee Simpson, who is our greatest ophthalmic surgeon, performed something like a miracle of surgery in Vaughan’s case, and he emphasised that nursing must do the rest. We did our best, and the result surpassed all our hopes. Now what is it you really want to know?”

The last words were spoken with a half smile, as though the mask of professional severity were doffed for a moment to allow the kindliness and humanity of the nurse’s mind to shine out through her habitual severe dignity. Macdonald smiled back.

“I’m only too willing to tell you, madam, if you will allow me to do so in my unofficial capacity. As a human being I am convinced that Nicholas Vaughan’s death was not an accident. As a detective officer I have very little evidence to offer to support my opinion. My only hope of getting that evidence is by talking to people who knew Vaughan’s mind. He was an unusually reticent person. Would you not say that it is true that even the most reserved men do talk sometimes to their nurses, when physical weakness relaxes their habitual reserve?”

“Quite true, Chief Inspector. There is a child latent in us all, from our babyhood to our death, and helplessness often brings the child to the surface. The professional nurse is debarred---in most circumstances---from repeating what a patient may tell her, but I admit circumstances may alter cases. Again, what is it you want to know?”

“In all that I can find of Nicholas Vaughan there are only two points which puzzle me,” said Macdonald. “He was a very straightforward, hard-working fellow, whose manner of life seemed consistent with all I can learn of him, but he was a north countryman, born and bred, who was devoted to the north. He came from that corner of England which lies to the west of the northern end of the Pennine Chain, just south of the Lake District. It is a countryside which grips the imagination, yet Nicholas Vaughan chose to settle in south Devon. I find that inconsistent and I want to know the reason for it. Further, Vaughan was meaning to get married---he had said so, but I can find no trace of the woman he intended to marry. Now both of those questions are intimate ones. It is possible that his nurses may be able to tell me the answer to them. My only justification for asking is that I believe Vaughan was murdered, and that it is some fact in his private life which may lead me to the murderer.”

“You interest me, Chief Inspector: this is a new angle on detection. I am willing for you to see the nurses who did special duty for Nicholas Vaughan, and to instruct them to answer your questions if they can. Both are well known to me. They are neither of them young women, and both have fine records. The night nurse detailed for his case was Nurse Cranley---a grand old nurse who has specialised in surgical cases. The special day nurse was Nurse Whelpton. They are both still in this hospital, and I will make arrangements for you to see them. Could you come back here about three o’clock? It would save us trouble if you could defer your interviewing until then.”

“By all means,” replied Macdonald. “I apologise for the necessity of bothering you at all. I know you are all working to the limit without being interrupted by outsiders.”

The Matron smiled. “Even in a hospital, among trained nurses and sisters---people like myself---you will find that human nature is as inquisitive as elsewhere. We want to know what goes on, and you must remember that Nicholas Vaughan was a favourite patient here. You won’t have any difficulty in getting his nurses to talk about him. Your difficulty will be to evade their questions.”


NURSE Cranley---she whom the Matron had described as a grand old nurse---was a white-haired woman, and Macdonald guessed that she must be over sixty. Her wide cheeks were still rosy, her blue eyes bright, and she had a magnificent expanse of shining white apron across her ample bosom. Seeing her kindly face and comfortable presence, Macdonald thought, “If I’m ever ill I should like a nurse like that.”

He began: “I’m very sorry to bother you, Nurse. I know you’re on night duty and I have got you up early.”

She laughed. “Bless you, I’m always on night duty. I like it, and I often get up early, so don’t bother about me. Tell me about Nicholas Vaughan---we all called him Nick after a while. My eldest son is called Nicholas, too. How was it he died, poor lad? We were so proud of the way we got him better.”

Macdonald explained, briefly and patiently, and then went on: “I want to find out something about the real Nicholas Vaughan, and to get to know him a bit. He talked so little, apparently: I haven’t had a chance of getting to know what he was like. He’s still like a closed book to me: I have only read the title page.”

She laughed a little. “You say he talked so little---but he wasn’t like that when you knew him. He had a bad time at first. His eyes were bandaged, and it was difficult to persuade him he wasn’t always going to be blind. When he couldn’t sleep I used to encourage him to talk. These boys are all alike---they talk about their homes and the things they did before the war. I got to know quite a lot about the place he came from---Lannerdale, wasn’t it? How he loved that place. I’m a north countrywoman, too. I was born near Jedburgh, in the Border country, and many’s the crack I had with Nick Vaughan about the north.”

“Did he ever tell you what he meant to do when he’d recovered his health?”

“He meant to go back to Lannerdale, to his old Uncle Joe.”

“That’s just what I should have expected,” said Macdonald, “but he changed his mind and settled in Devon. Did he ever talk to you about getting married?”

“No, but I told him he ought to marry. A farmer should never be a bachelor. He always said he didn’t like the thought of getting married, he liked playing his own game by himself. He was a shy fellow, like so many of these big north country lads, but he’d have made a good husband.”

“Do you imagine he got fond of any of the nurses here?”

Again she laughed. “No---not if it’s marrying that’s in your mind. He chattered away to me and to Nurse Whelpton because we ‘specialed’ for him for a long time. It’s not usual for the patients here to have the same nurses over a period of weeks, but the surgeon was very anxious not to have the nurses changed---his was a tricky case. No, if it was marrying he had in mind, he must have fallen in love after he left here. You’d better ask Nurse Whelpton---I’m sure she’ll tell you the same thing. Now tell me---do you really believe he was murdered?”

Macdonald’s answer was in the nature of “evasive action,” and as soon as he could he terminated the conversation and asked for Nurse Whelpton. The latter corroborated Nurse Cranley’s evidence, inasmuch as Vaughan had talked to her, too, about Lannerdale, and spoken about going to live there, to farm the land where he had been brought up. Nurse Whelpton added one opinion of her own, and Macdonald summed her up as a shrewd woman.

“Nick Vaughan was an idealist---the type who would set a woman on a pedestal. He gave me the impression that he had been in love once, and that it hadn’t come off, so he put all thought of marrying out of his mind. I can’t quote you chapter and verse, it’s simply an impression.”

Before he left Macdonald asked a question which seemed to have little bearing on his case.

“If a trained nurse gets married these days, under wartime conditions, does she have to go on nursing?”

Nurse Whelpton laughed. “All women, married and unmarried, between the ages of 19 and 50, are registered with the Ministry of Labour, and liable to be ‘directed,’ subject to certain exceptions. All trained nurses have been registered separately, including Hospital trained, Nursing College and Civil Nursing Reserve. If a nurse gets married she might be allowed a period of leave---I don’t know much about it, we’ve been too busy in this hospital to think about marrying, but she would soon find herself ‘directed’ again if she didn’t get a nursing job herself. Wives of men serving are non-mobile, but they are still directed. We’re all in it for duration, save for mothers of young children. I should love to know who you’ve got in mind, Chief Inspector!”

Macdonald laughed this time. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you, because I’m not sure myself. One last question: is a trained nurse allowed to choose another job---ambulance driving, or relief work, for example?”

“I shouldn’t think so, although I’ve never tried. Nurses are in ‘short supply,’ to use the current jargon, and they’re kept to their job. Quite right, too, otherwise their training would be wasted.”

Macdonald agreed, thanked her very politely, and took his leave without having satisfied the very natural curiosity of two highly trained nursing specialists.

Immediately on leaving the hospital he put through a telephone call to Superintendent Bolton. The latter said: “I’m glad you’ve rung up, I was wondering where I could get hold of you. Mr. Thomas Gressingham has had a motoring smash. I’m just going out to look into it. He seems to have lost control of his car on Moorbery hill and crashed into a wall at the bottom of it.”

“Is he alive?”

“They thought so, but only just alive. Terribly smashed up. Not likely to live, according to present information. Head wounds.”

“You’d better carry on, Bolton, and give me a report when I get back. I want to finish off the job I’m on.”

“Right. It looks to me as though Gressingham may have chosen his own way out.”

“Maybe---but keep an open mind. I’ll see you between five and six this evening.”