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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 04, 2023, 12:34:33 pm

Title: Chapter Fifteen
Post by: Admin on May 04, 2023, 12:34:33 pm
IT was half-past four when Superintendent Bolton reached the spot where Gressingham’s Daimler had crashed into a stone wall, and he found the once magnificent car a heap of wreckage. Its owner had been removed by ambulance, under the supervision of the local doctor, who had found that Gressingham’s heart was still beating, though the nature of the head damage alone made it almost certain that his survival was impossible. He had been alone in the car, which had been seen to tear down the steep gradient, gaining speed as it descended. No one had actually seen the final crash, but the car had failed to take the turn towards the bottom of the hill and had hit the wall head-on, crumpling up with the force of its own velocity.

Moorbery hill was fifteen miles from the Mallorys, not on a main road, but on a by-road called “the old road” by the inhabitants. For centuries the only road or path between South Moorton and North Moorton had been the steep road which ascended over the ridge of moor and dropped again to the valley by a gradient which was one in four in that portion where Mr. Gressingham had come to grief. In 1920 a new road had been made along the river valley, so that very little traffic save farm carts and tractors used the old road. One of Bolton’s first questions was “What the dickens was he doing on this road at all?”

The Inspector in charge was able to answer this query.

“He was going to see Moorton Place, sir. It’s up for sale, and Mr. Gressingham phoned this morning to say he was coming to look over it. He asked for directions, and they told him about the old road, and then said he would be wiser to take the longer route round by Withyford. It looks as though he thought he’d save time coming this way, and he lost control of his car.”

Bolton looked at the heap of metal and grunted. So far as he knew, Gressingham was a reasonably careful driver, and certainly an experienced one. Daimlers, of all cars, were not likely to have inefficient brakes. It looked to him as though there must be some very good reason why a first-rate car should have got out of control, even on that dangerous road. He studied the surface of the road over which the car had travelled before it crashed. It was not a tarmac road, but an old macadam one, and rough at that. Being very dry, it showed few traces.

“What vehicles have been over this since the accident?” he asked, and the Inspector replied:

“First a farm tractor, then a farm cart: later the doctor’s car and the ambulance. The driver didn’t like bringing it down the hill, but what could we do? He couldn’t back up---too steep and twisty.”

Bolton bent to study the ground again, but had to admit himself defeated. He said to the Inspector: “Could you see any traces of braking when you got here? Any sane driver would have had his brakes on with all his might.”

“There was nothing to see, sir. The tractor had been past before I got here. I looked for wheel traces, but I couldn’t find any. I reckon his steering must have gone, so that he couldn’t take the bend.”

“Looks more as though his senses had gone,” grunted Bolton. “He must have been travelling like an express train to get smashed up to that extent. That car’s got to be left where it is until we’ve had a reliable mechanic out to look at it. If you start moving it we may not be able to get any evidence at all. I want to know if it was in gear, and if so, what gear. It ought to have been in one or two on a hill like this, and if it was in low gear it ought not to have attained a velocity that accounts for this.” He looked in at the tangled wreckage: the gear handle had snapped off with the force of the impact.

“Can’t think how the driver was alive at all,” he said.

The Inspector replied, “He was shockingly smashed up, sir, but the doctor said he was still alive, so we had to get the ambulance up.”

“Of course you did,” agreed Bolton. “Now who was it who saw the car coming down the hill?”

“A man named Weatherby, sir---an old chap. He was singling turnips in a field half-way up the hill. He’s still working there. Shall I go and fetch him?”

“No. I’ll walk up, then I shall be able to get an idea of what he saw,” said Bolton. He turned to the driver of his own car. “Go up to the top and wait. When you hear me whistle drive the car down---and be careful what you’re doing.” Bolton paused. He was a very conscientious man and he knew that his young police chauffeur was a better driver than himself. “Do you know this road?” he enquired.

“No, sir, only by repute. It’s one of the worst hills in the county. Fit for engine trials.”

“Do you think it’s safe for driving?”

“Oh lord, yes, sir, provided your car’s in condition and you’re careful. Nothing to make a fuss about---just a steep hill.”

“If that Daimler had been yours would you have hesitated to drive it down this hill?”

“No---except for thinking of the tyres---it’s a pretty rough surface. That car was never suddenly braked on this road, sir. It’d show on those tyres if it had been. For whatever reason it was, the driver let it rip---as though he’d gone to sleep at the wheel, or had a fit or something.”

The young chauffeur got into the police car and set it at the hill, accelerating the engine and then letting in the clutch smoothly at the critical split second, so that the car started moving up the steep gradient with as little fuss as if it had been on the level. Bolton watched with a feeling of exasperation that he could never start a car himself with the skilled nonchalance of these youngsters of to-day. It always seemed to him that the motoring age had evolved a specialised type of human to meet its needs.

Bolton trudged up the hill, his eyes scanning the ground for any evidence of wheel-marks with the brake locking them, while he considered the nature of the hill as far as he could see it. There was a quarter of a mile on the straight from the top downwards---quarter of a mile of good visibility, and then an obviously dangerous turn, also on a steep gradient, where the Daimler had come to grief and piled up against the stone wall of Moorbery Place. Towards the top of the hill, on Bolton’s left, a gate led into a field of turnips, a field which sloped so steeply that it was difficult to understand how the ploughman had negotiated it. It was a four-acre field, Bolton guessed, and one old man was bent to the wearisome task of singling “tunnips.”

“What a job!” thought Bolton, looking at the interminable rows of young green---it looked a lifetime’s job to one not familiar with field work. The old man---as bent and gnarled as Reuben Dickon---seemed to be part of the field, something growing from the brown earth. As Bolton approached he straightened up as far as he was able and stood waiting patiently.

“Good day, Mr. Weatherby,” shouted Bolton. He knew this type, and knew that kindliness and patience would get him farther than professional abruptness. “I’m a Police Superintendent. I’m told you saw a car coming down the hill before it was smashed up at the bottom.”

“Iss, feggs, I saw mun. Shockin’ thing, that be. I waved to mun, to warn him like, but he took no notice.”

“Where were you working when you saw the car?” asked Bolton.

The ancient pointed farther up the slope, some yards farther away from the road. There was a stick in the ground, with a bundle tied on its crook.

“ ’Twas just there,” he said. “I was goin’ to have a bite and I’d stopped workin’ a minute. I seed mun, he’d come over brow o’ t’hill and he was agoin’ faster and faster, ’s if the de’il were drivin’ mun. I knew how it’d be. Iss. That carner’s a praper teaser. ’Im couldn’t turn carner drivin’ like that.”

Bolton walked up to the stick. He found he could see over the hedge, and he took out his whistle and blew a short blast. In a few seconds he saw the police car appearing: there was a copse on the ridge of the hill, so that he could not see the road at the top, but he got a clear view of the car as it crept cautiously down, and he could hear the engine in low gear. The hedge hid it from sight before the turn where Gressingham had crashed. Not much to be learned from here, although old Weatherby must have been able to see inside the car.

Bolton went back to the old man. “Could you see the man driving the car?” he asked.

The other scratched his head. “Iss, I saw mun—just so’s to see there was a driver, though I couldn’t see what sort he was. Car was goin’ turble fast, and me eyes aren’t what they was. I seed him though.”

“Did you see anybody else except the driver?”

“No. Nobbut him at t’wheel.”

“Did you hear the car coming?”

Again the old man shook his head. “I’m hard o’ hearing. I never heard nowt. I was standin’ up here and I chanced to see car ower yon bank, faster and faster mun went. I knew how it’d be. I went down along and saw mun, and then I went to the Hall and towd ’em there’d been a turble smash. Couldn’t ha’ done no more, could I, now?”

“No. You couldn’t have done anything more,” agreed Bolton. “When you got on the road, did you look round to see if there was anybody else about?”

“Nay, there was no one. ’Tis a lonely road, this. Times I’ll work all t’morning and not see a soul. Folks at the Hall, they don’t use this road. Mr. Venning, him brings tractor this way betimes, and the farm carts use t’old road, but most keeps off it. ’Tis a hill, that be.”

Bolton agreed, and leaving the old man to his interminable job, the Superintendent went back to the road and trudged up to the top of the hill. On the summit was a small spinney, stunted pines growing in the sour moorland tract on either side of the road, but looking southwards there was a magnificent view across to the tors of Dartmoor. The road surface told nothing at all. Walking a hundred yards farther on Bolton found the road dipped again. He calculated that anybody driving up the farther slope would see nothing but the road mounting to its final ridge until they were actually at the top, and then the road dropped in a violent gradient, dead straight, to the turn near the bottom where it was edged by the stone wall. Pondering deeply, Bolton walked down the hill again and rejoined his driver. Getting in the car he said:

“I want to go up to the top and reverse somewhere on the downward slope if it’s possible. If not, go to the bottom and reverse there.”

“That’s just what I’ve been wanting to do myself, sir,” replied the chauffeur. “Then we shall see just what the driver of the Daimler saw.”

Again the police car mounted the hill and reached the summit, but it was nearly a mile farther on before the driver thought it expedient to reverse, using a gateway to give him space to turn. Going up, it was as Bolton had expected---he could see nothing but the mounting hill in front of him until they gained the ridge, where they pulled up. The driver---a young policeman named Rainsford---spoke.

“It’s like this, sir. Any driver coming up this hill would be on the alert as he approached the ridge. It’s nothing like so steep on the far side, but it’s a long hill. You couldn’t rush it in top gear, like you can a short hill, you’d have plenty of time to wonder what was coming, and the road drops so steeply this side it’s like driving at a cliff-edge. Anybody’d be careful to slow up, or even stop, at the top. No one in their senses would tear on down that gradient. I should say it’s so obviously dangerous that it’s not dangerous at all, if you see what I mean. You’d know you’d just got to go in low gear and take it slowly with that turn at the bottom.”

Bolton nodded. “Yes. I see what you mean,” he said. “What’d be your guess as to what happened? Defective brakes?”

“No, sir---not on that Daimler. Besides, if the brakes had been faulty the driver would have known it. You can’t drive in country like this without knowing if your brakes are holding. Then there’s this to it: if you came over that ridge you’d know at once if the brakes didn’t function, and you’d have time to steer the car into the bank to check it before it had gained speed. No. I’d guess it was something like this. The driver pulled up at the top to look at the view; it’s a wonderful view from here. Maybe he fell asleep and didn’t realise he hadn’t pulled his hand-brake back properly and the car slid forward, very slowly at first, and then gained so much momentum he couldn’t stop it when he woke up. If a man’s muzzy with sleep he can’t act quickly enough to stop an accident.”

Bolton studied the road. “Might have happened that way, but I don’t think so,” he said. “There’s twenty feet of level ground here. If he’d pulled up he’d have stopped on the level, as you’ve done---and the car wouldn’t have moved.”

Rainsford let in the clutch, moved the car forward a yard, and then pulled up again. After a few seconds he released the hand-brake and waited. Bolton waited, too, and after a few seconds he realised the car was moving---the apparently level road did slope a little.

Rainsford pulled the hand-brake on hard. “You see, sir, it’s difficult to tell. A car will move on the very least gradient. That’s why you’re always taught to leave the hand-brake on. It could have happened that way. I believe it did: the driver woke up, found he was moving at a hell of a lick, and being sleepy all he managed to do was to keep the car in the middle of the road. He may have tried to brake and his foot was numb---foozled it or something.”

“What about his hand-brake?”

“Maybe he dare not let go of the wheel and drive one-handed with that turn rushing at him.”

Bolton studied the other’s cool, intelligent face. “That explanation satisfy you?”

“Not altogether, sir, but it’s a possible one. It’s difficult to make any other. If you guess at foul play, you can suggest he was shot at the wheel just as he started driving down the hill, but I don’t see how the car kept straight. He’d almost certainly have jerked the wheel as he slumped over it, and the car would have piled up on the bank. Also, he’d have been in low gear, and I doubt if he’d have come quite such a smash. That car was either in neutral or else in top gear, judging by the pace it was going when it hit the wall.”

Bolton was meditating aloud. “He was coming to see that house, so I’m told . . . It’s probable he’d have pulled up at the top here to look at the view . . . quite a natural thing to do. The car wouldn’t have been in gear then . . . he’d have pulled the hand-brake on . . . second nature to do that . . .”

“Yes, sir. If he’d started again he’d have put her in low gear and then released the hand-brake slowly as he let the clutch in. I think my suggestion meets the facts better. He pulled up on the level, as he thought, and didn’t get his hand-brake on properly. Then he went to sleep and the hand-brake gave. The car was in neutral and he wasn’t awake enough to stop it once it gained momentum.”

“A nasty accident, eh?” queried Bolton. “If it wasn’t an accident, how could it have happened? You’re right about the car keeping the road until it reached the turn.”

Rainsford considered afresh. “I’d say it was impossible for him to have been killed while the car was travelling---it’d never have kept straight. There’s this possibility. He was killed while the car was pulled up on the level and his hands were off the wheel. The car was moved forward and left with its nose pointing dead straight down the middle of the road. Then the murderer got out, stood on the running board, released the hand-brake, and jumped off. That’s a possibility, but it’d have taken a cool nerve to do it.”

“That hill’s dead straight,” pondered Bolton. “If you headed the car straight there’s nothing to deflect it . . . Well, now we shall have to find out if anyone else was seen mounting the hill, or if there was any other car about . . . No man would choose that way of committing suicide.”

“No. That’s one explanation I wouldn’t consider for an instant,” replied Rainsford.

Bolton went on: “Try to imagine yourself waking up in a car that was tearing to perdition down this hill. Wouldn’t you have grabbed the hand-brake and pulled like hell, even if it meant a spill? Wouldn’t you have gone for the brake instinctively?”

Rainsford looked at the straight hill and the turn at the bottom. “I don’t know, sir. Maybe I’d have held on to the wheel and tried to take that corner . . . you couldn’t turn the car with one hand . . . I just don’t know.”

And Bolton didn’t know either.


THAT evening, before Macdonald returned, Superintendent Bolton sat and wrote his report. In the course of many years of police work he had learnt to write an admirable report, terse and factual, and he no longer found writing a toil as he had done when he was younger. He told his wife that putting facts down on paper often helped him to realise the significance of the evidence he had collected. On this occasion, however, Bolton found himself worried, and his worry was due to the fact that he could not determine if the matter of Gressingham’s car smash were a case which must be judged as a thing apart or if it was part and parcel of the Little Thatch case.

While Bolton had been busy investigating on Moorbery hill, Mr. Hesling had been talking to the Inspector, who went to Hinton Mallory to make enquiries about Mr. Gressingham’s next of kin, that information might be sent concerning the accident. Hesling had told the Inspector that Gressingham and Radcliffe had had a furious quarrel the previous evening, and though Gressingham had attempted to make out that things were normal between himself and his friend, it was obvious to the Heslings that Radcliffe had taken his departure in a state of sullen rage. The news of Gressingham’s smash---and his own dying condition---came as a shock to the Heslings, and they immediately connected it with Radcliffe. The Heslings were only able to give a guesswork description of the cause of the quarrel between the two men. Mrs. Hesling maintained that the dispute was concerned with Gressingham’s car, Gressingham having accused Radcliffe of taking the car out on the night of April 30th. Mrs. Hesling, however, believed that the trouble was concerned with Radcliffe’s pursuit of a certain Land Girl of whom he had been enamoured. Mr. Hesling was able to give information on this score: it seemed plain enough that Radcliffe had on some occasions gone out late in the evening to meet a girl in the fields between Hinton Mallory and Little Thatch, and Hesling believed that he had done so on the night of April 30th. When questioned more closely on this point he admitted that he had no evidence to offer---it was just guesswork. He had certainly not connected Radcliffe’s “going after the girls” with the fire at Little Thatch, but what he had overheard of the final quarrel between the two men led him to believe that Gressingham suspected that Radcliffe knew more than he had admitted. The Inspector had immediately enquired when and how Radcliffe had left Hinton Mallory and was told that Gressingham had taken him to the station in his Daimler. Radcliffe had rung up for a taxi, but had been unable to get one at short notice, and Gressingham, who was endeavouring to keep up appearances, had said he would take him. The two men had left in the Daimler, with Radcliffe’s suitcase, at ten o’clock that morning. The Inspector had enquired if Gressingham had said where he was going, and to which station he intended to drive Radcliffe---Exeter, Mallowton, or Creediford. On this matter Hesling could give no information, though Mrs. Hesling had said that Gressingham had told her he would not be in until his evening meal. He had had a long conversation over the telephone early that morning, and Mrs. Hesling had overheard enough to gather that he was making an appointment to meet somebody, and was also asking for directions as to route.

The next point on Bolton’s report dealt with sending information to Gressingham’s London address. He had a suite of rooms in Mount Street, to which the police had telephoned, and his personal servant had said that he had no knowledge of Mrs. Gressingham’s whereabouts, but he gave the address of Gressingham’s partner and his lawyer. Bolton’s next point concerned the Land Girl who had been the focus of Radcliffe’s attention. Hesling did not know who she was, but had assumed the girl was one of a trio who had been billeted about three miles away from the Mallorys. When the Inspector enquired at this farm he found that two of the three girls had left the farm a week ago, after quarrelling with their landlady---a stout Devonshire dame, who said roundly that they were a good for nothing pair and not fit to be in any decent house. When the Inspector described Radcliffe the landlady admitted he had been one of those who “came after” the two girls---Doris and Flossie. “I know his sort, turning a girl’s head, giving her expensive cigarettes and chocolates, and taking her out after dark. I don’t hold with it, and I told them so,” declared the irate dame.

“Had either Doris or Flossie been out late on the night of the Little Thatch fire?” enquired the Inspector, and the landlady gave him what he described as an “old-fashioned look.”

“I don’t know,” she declared. “I never could keep even with them. They’d get out of their bedroom window after they’d said they were going to bed---oh, proper naughty they were.”

Bolton concluded his neat precis of all this information with one startling fact. He asked Exchange for the telephone number which had been connected with Hinton Mallory for Gressingham’s long conversation that morning: it was the number of the call-box in Tiverton from which the so-called “code messages” had been sent to Nicholas Vaughan. Bolton, by the time he had completed his report, had only one wish in mind---that Macdonald would return shortly and discuss all these events with him.