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Chapter Nine

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« on: May 03, 2023, 12:12:00 pm »

MACDONALD walked out of Hinton Mallory by way of the farmyard, passing the open kitchen door as he did so. Mrs. Hesling did not seem to be about, and the C.I.D. man crossed the farmyard where ducks and hens waddled and clucked, cats preened themselves in the sunshine and a very ancient sheep-dog thumped its tail in response to a greeting. It was getting on for milking time and the milking cows had assembled at the gate of their pasture and were telling the world that they needed attention: they lowed at Macdonald as he emerged from the fold-yard, and he wished---as he had wished on other occasions---that farming had been his lot.

As he shut the gate he was startled by the sound of an engine just behind him---a good full-throated roar as somebody “revved” the engine up, and on turning he saw Howard Brendon bending over the open bonnet of his big Sunbeam.

“Still here, Mr. Brendon,” said Macdonald, and the other replied:

“Yes. Choke in the feed. This Pool petrol’s death to any decent engine. Taken me all this time to clear it. Can I give you a lift anywhere? You don’t know the meaning of the word mud if you haven’t traversed this road.”

“Thanks very much, if I’m not taking you out of your way,” rejoined Macdonald. “I only want to go up to Little Thatch to recover my bike.”

“I’ll take you up there with pleasure. Get in.”

Macdonald got in, and Brendon fastened the bonnet and wiped his hands on a duster before he got into the driver’s seat, and the car moved forward cautiously over the slimy road.

Macdonald risked an enquiry: “What do you make of it all, Mr. Brendon? You must have heard the matter discussed in all its bearings.”

“I’ve heard a bit too much for my patience,” replied Brendon. “I’m afraid my opinion isn’t worth having, Chief Inspector, because I don’t know the facts at first hand, and I wasn’t acquainted with deceased. I do know he had a good reputation among the farmers, and as far as I can gather he was a shrewd, steady-going fellow---not at all the sort of customer to stage a melodrama. Doubtless the police have good reasons for continuing the enquiry, but I regret that it has to continue. The amount of tommy-rot which is being talked makes me sick.” He paused, bending forward as he negotiated a particularly bad patch of road, then he went on, “It’s not my business to volunteer opinions, but I should like to say this: Gressingham isn’t a fool by any means. He’s a very astute man of business, and he’s an honest one, or I should have no dealings with him. The trouble is that he fancies himself in the rôle of detective, and along those lines he just makes a thundering fool of himself.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Macdonald. “He’s a man who could be useful to a detective. He’s shrewd, as you say, he’s observant, and he correlates his facts. I found him interesting, as I said. Take that point about identity of deceased. It’s got to be considered---until we can find definite proof that the remains are the remains of Nicholas Vaughan.”

“Yes, I see that,” answered Brendon. “You want to silence the rumour-mongers, and every decent-minded man is with you in that. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Vaughan was in hospital, wasn’t he? I should think one of the surgeons or physicians could put the thing beyond doubt. Nearly every human being has some deviation from the normal in their bone structure I’m told. Of course, it ought to have been done before. That’s the one criticism I’d make of the conduct of the case---it was assumed too easily that deceased was Nicholas Vaughan. I’m quite certain myself that such was the fact---but one has to forestall rumour and sensation-mongers.”

He pulled up the car saying, “The cottage is only a hundred yards away---to the right there.”

“Thanks very much,” replied Macdonald. “Shall I be seeing you again in these parts? Certain questions are bound to arise, concerning the character and bona fides of witnesses, for example. You are a Devonian, I am not. Your judgment might be very valuable to me.”

“I shall be over again within the week. If you are professionally interested in my allowance of petrol I should like to put your mind at rest. I am consulted by the Probate Office on certain valuations, particularly on antiques---furniture, domestic fittings, etc. It is an expert job. I am willing to act if transport facilities be allowed.”

“An excellent arrangement for both parties to the transaction,” said Macdonald. “Good-day, and many thanks for the lift.”

He walked back to the entrance of Little Thatch, noting the wattle screens which had so much annoyed Gressingham. Macdonald wanted to make a fair estimate of all the characters he had encountered in the case so far. He put on one side Gressingham’s theory that the tenant of Little Thatch had not been Nicholas Vaughan. Although a case could be argued along these lines Macdonald did not believe in it. Such a case involved the assumption that Vaughan had been murdered and that his murderer then came and impersonated him at Mallory Fitzjohn. It seemed absurd to imagine that anybody could impersonate Vaughan; the latter had been an expert gardener, experienced with beasts, a good practical engineer and a man of considerable ability in a dozen different ways. Macdonald went and sat on the orchard bank and chewed over his case. Gressingham had insisted that Vaughan had something to hide; the insistence seemed almost naive to Macdonald, for it was obvious that Gressingham was the very type whom Vaughan would have detested. That being so, was it possible that a much stronger enmity existed between the two men than had been observed by anybody else? Anne St. Cyres had insisted that their aversion for one another was trivial---but she might not have had an opportunity of observing the real state of affairs. The question which really emerged was this: was there any way in which Vaughan was a danger to Gressingham, or in which the one man menaced the other’s plans or security? Was there anything which Vaughan could have known that would bring such discredit on Gressingham that it was worth the latter’s while to take the risk of murdering him?

His mind busy with the problem, Macdonald examined all that was left of Little Thatch. The outhouses, apart from their thatch, were still standing. Here was the damaged remains of the electric plant, there was also the petrol engine which worked the pump by the orchard gate, and the broken greenhouse against the linhey---pathetic testimony to a man’s industry and mechanical skill. The house had gone: books, papers, furniture, clothes, everything that might have given information about the man who lived there---it was all gone, mingled with the ashes of floors and beams and rafters. There was nothing but the carefully tended garden and orchard to tell of the man who had lived in Little Thatch, those and the remains of his ill-fated electric installation and the neatly boxed-in petrol engine which worked the pump.

---

ALF got home to Corner Cottage in time for tea, and Mrs. Dickon gave him a good tea. He had his midday meal at school, but Alf always counted tea as his best meal. The Dickons kept hens, and hens meant eggs: there was also a beehive, and Alf liked honey. Old Mrs. Dickon was one of those women who suspected that all meals cooked in institutions were “rubbidge”—schools, British restaurants, canteens, and cafés all came under her stigma of “rubbidge,” and she saw to it that Alf got at least one good meal a day, and that meal was tea.

When Macdonald got off his bike at Corner Cottage Alf had just come out into the garden in a state of comfortable repletion, and he gazed at Macdonald with the acute appraising stare of the Cockney boy, so different from the ruminating stare of the country children.

“Good-evening; you’re Alf, aren’t you?” asked Macdonald.

“Yus,” replied the imp.

Macdonald knew quite well that it was no use trying to conceal his business and identity from this sharp-eyed urchin. Alf would guess who he was in two-twos, so the C.I.D. man went on, “You were born in London, weren’t you? Ever heard of Scotland Yard?”

“Cripes! Yus! You a ’tec?”

“Yes. I’m a ’tec. I want you to answer a few questions. Okay?”

“Okay cap’n. Come inside. There’s a seat ’ere-along.”

Macdonald accepted the invitation, much interested in this product of Shoreditch. Alf’s Cockney origin still sounded in his speech, despite the slurring burr which association with Devonshire children had developed, but the great difference between Alf and his country schoolmates was the quickness of the Cockney’s reactions. He was still as sharp as a needle.

Sitting on a bench in the garden, Macdonald said, “Now I want you to tell me all you can about that night when Little Thatch was burnt, Alf. I know you’ve told it before, but never mind that. I want to hear about it from you, direct. Now, did you ever go to help Mr. Vaughan in the garden?”

“Yus. I cleaned them cobbles: ’e put weed-killer on ’em, but ’tweren’t much good. Them weeds always came up agen. Mr. Vaughan, ’e paid me sixpence a week if them cobbles was clean, not so much as a blade o’ grass showing. If they wasn’t clean, well, I got nix. See?”

“Yes---a very good idea, too. Payment by results. Any other jobs?”

“Yus. Sticking. Sixpence a crate for kindling, dry and properly broken and stacked. If it weren’t dry---nix. No spots on ’im.”

“I’d say that didn’t pay you quite as well as the cobbles,” said Macdonald, and Alf grinned.

“Nope. Took a long time to collect thiccy sticks and dry ’em, but I got an armful every day, coming back from school, and I stacked ’em Saturdays. He often giv me a toffee, too.”

“Any more jobs? Did you ever clean out the duck-house?”

“Yus, but it weren’t done quite to’s liking. Fussy like, ’e was, very partic’ler.”

“Did you go along to Little Thatch on the Saturday of the fire at all?”

“Yus. Took them sticks and ’is piper. Always took the piper Saturday morning. Lent ’im an ’and with the wire for ’is fruit cages, too. It was all okay Saturday morning, guv’ner. Cheerful ’e was. Whistling.”

“Did you ever go inside the house?”

“Nope. Only to the door. ’Ated mud on the kitchen floor, ’e did.”

“Think this out, Alf. Did you go to the kitchen door with his paper?”

“Yus.”

“Was the kitchen fire alight?”

“Lummy! I dunno . . .”

“Think again. Was there any way you could tell, apart from seeing the fire was alight?”

“Lummy! You’re a one. I never thought o’ that there,” said Alf, and sat with his chin on his grubby hands, deep in thought. “ ’E didn’t always light ’is fire first thing, not these warm days. ’E’d got a Primus wot ’e boiled ’is kettle on, and sometimes ’e didn’t light the fire till tea-time, but ’e always did the range---ashes and that, and laid ’is fire ready to put a match to it. Then ’e swep’ the kitchen and left it all okay. ’E put the ashes on a path ’e was making---ashes and concrete, see? ’E burnt coal in the range and coal ashes ain’t no good for the soil.”

“Quite true, Alf. Did Mr. Dickon go and work at Little Thatch that day?”

“Yus. Scything nettles ’e was, in the orchard, and putting ’em all on compost ’eap in t’corner there.”

“When he worked in the morning, did Mr. Vaughan give him a cup of tea at any time?”

“Yus. Tea at eleven. Cider with ’is dinner, which ’e eat in the linhey. Cripes, guv’ner, you’ve got it! ’E made tea middle morning, and ’e lighted that there Primus. I remember now, I was doing them cobbles and I ’eard ’im pumping it---you know.”

“I know,” said Macdonald. “Now how can you be sure? I want you to be quite certain.”

“Yus. I know ’twas Saturday, ’cos that’s the only morning I go doing cobbles. I did the path front o’ kitchen door. I always watched ’im light Primus if I could: ’e said Primus was a bitch to light sometimes along ’o the paraffin and meth bein’ all mucky these days. I didn’t know ’e was goin’ to light it, ’cos I’d have axed for a drink o’ water or summat so’s I could watch, but I ’eard ’im pump and I ’eard the flame singing like. That’s true, guv’ner, honest it is---and if ’e lighted Primus, ’e ’adn’t got fire alight or kettle’d’ve been ’ot, see?”

“That’s it, Alf---but he may have lighted the range at tea-time, when you say he generally lit it.”

“Not ’im. Not if ’e was goin’ out all evening. ’E was careful like. Always on at me if I wasted anything; even them weeds ’ad to go on compost heap. ‘Wot you tike out of a garden, you’ve got to put back on it,’ ’e said. Always saying that, ’e was.”

That one, pondered Macdonald, was certainly straight from the horse’s mouth---the wisdom of a gardener being handed on by an evacuee urchin from Shoreditch.

“You want to know if ’e lit ’is fire tea-time,” went on Alf. “I’ll bet ’e didn’t, but I’ll ask t’others. We played up ’ere Saturday afternoon---on the bank there, and you can see Little Thatch chimneys up there. ’E lighted ’is fire with kindling and billets to get it going, and ’e banked it up with coal later. Wood smoke’s blue, see? If’e’d lighted ’is fire tea-time one on us’d’ve seen it for a cert. I’ll ask t’others---but if I didn’t notice, them wouldn’t ’ave, neither---unless it were Tommy Briggs. Comes from the Isle o’ Dogs, ’e does, and ’e notices things.”

Macdonald chuckled. He liked this evidence of London Pride.

“Well, let’s get on to Saturday evening, Alf. You saw Mr. Vaughan pass in his car?”

“Iss.” The affirmative was pure Devonshire this time. “Saw ’im and saw ’is car. Hadn’t got trailer on it, nor big baskets inside, neither. I could see right in, ’cause the garden ’ere’s higher than the road. Waved, ’e did, like this, same’s usual.”

“Had he got a hat on?”

“Yus. Always wore an ’at, even in garden, ’cause of ’is eyes. I’d know that ’at anywhere. Some ’at. Said ’e pinched it off a Jew in Lime’ouse---but that was only ’is joke.”

“Oh, he’d got his old hat on, had he. Not dressed in his best, so to speak. Had he a coat on?”

“Yus. Old brown coat: patch on the elbows wot ’e did ’imself. ’E’d got the windows of the car down and ’is elbow was outside, like this, see?”

“And you saw him again when he came back at nine?”

“Iss. I’d gone up to bed, but I ’eard ’is car, ’ooting at Ridd’s cross, three ’oots ’e always gave. I watched at me window, just to see ’im go by.”

“But you couldn’t see so much from up there?”

“No, but I saw ’im wave, and I saw ’is elbow. Always drove like that, as though ’e were too big to get all of’s self inside. Elbow sticking out, see?”

Macdonald nodded. “You couldn’t see inside the car, not to see if there was a passenger?”

“There wasn’t. I saw through the back window as ’e turned, and Uncle Roob, ’e saw t’car, and ’e knew there wasn’t nobody else in it.”

“Right. Now we’ll get on to what happened later. You ran to Manor Thatch and woke them up?”

“Yus. Chucked stones at t’windows and yelled. Colonel, ’e told me to run to ’Inton Mallory—phone was dead, ’e said, and I ran down t’big pasture. All thiccy beasts, cows and that, looked that big. Moonlight ’t’was. I wasn’t ’alf rattled, tell yer straight, and that cottage burning . . . cripes . . . I blubbed, I was that . . .”

“I’m sure you did, and I think you did jolly well to keep your head, Alf. You woke up Mr. Hesling and then you ran back?”

“Iss, but they caught me up before I got to cottage. I was blown, my legs wouldn’t run no more.”

“When you got back to the cottage what happened? Did they tell you to run off home?”

“Iss. Not me. I stayed. Mr. ’Esling ’e shouted something about the beasts, and Ted got the linhey open. I thought of they ducks. I ran round and climbed t’hedge into orchard—’twas too fierce along by the fire, so I went by the pasture---but someone’d got there first. They ducks were all in a ’uddle bottom of orchard, far away as they could get. I druv ’em into pasture.”

“Well, you did all you could, Alf. I’d have been proud if I’d done as much when I was ten.”

“But ’twasn’t no use, see? I woke up too late,” said Alf forlornly.

---

IT was well on in the evening before Macdonald returned the Superintendent’s bike, and Bolton said:

“You’ve had a day of it, and no mistake. You’ll be glad of supper and bed, seeing you were in the train all last night.”

“I’ve had some supper and bed can wait a bit,” rejoined Macdonald. “I’ve got some extra items to add to the evidence if you’d like to hear them now.”

“I certainly should,” said Bolton, looking keenly at the other. Macdonald’s voice did not give the impression that his “items” were negligible. The two men sat down in the well-polished room where they had consulted that morning, and Macdonald began speaking:

“On the assumption that the fire was due to accident you suggested two probable causes: one was faulty wiring leading to a fuse: one was the uncovering of a beam in the kitchen chimney. I think it’s certain that a fused wire had nothing to do with it. I got an electrician out this evening, and the batteries in the electric plant were not charged. They had been charged, or partially charged, some time, because Vaughan had had all his lights on, but it seems probable he located a fault in the batteries. Be that as it may, the electric fittings could not have been responsible, because there could have been no current on.”

Bolton’s face flushed uncomfortably: “I ought to have thought about that,” he said. “I hadn’t even realised that there were storage batteries . . . I don’t know a thing about such jobs. I ought to have got a man out before, but I only thought of the wiring inside the house---and that had gone west in the fire. Well, that’s one point settled. What about the chimney?”

“I haven’t got any conclusive evidence about that yet, but one point is worth considering. Vaughan said he got two bricks out of the chimney---Miss St. Cyres is willing to swear that he said bricks. That chimney is built of stone: it’s only the upper part of the stack that is brick. It seems probable to me that at some time the brick coping was damaged in a gale, and a couple of bricks fell in and got lodged in the bird’s nest Vaughan found on the ledge in the upper part of it. When the stack was repaired the builder didn’t bother about the whereabouts of the fallen bricks. If this idea is right it doesn’t look as though the removal of the bricks should have bared a beam---but I’m hoping to get clearer evidence about this later.”

“Then, taking the balance, you’re disposed to believe that Commander Wilton is right?”

“I don’t know, Bolton. If this case is not what it appeared to be---pure accident---then it may prove to be the devil of a complex business. Wilton may have been right in some of his reasoning, but quite wrong in his conclusion. However, listen to a few more of the items I corkscrewed out during a very garrulous day. About those ducks.”

“Good lord, what about ’em?”

“Young Alf---who struck me as a very sharp, sensible laddie---says that when he got to the duck-house that Saturday night to let the quackers out, the door was wide open and the ducks were at the bottom of the orchard---but nobody else had let them out. Another of Alf’s items, corroborated by Dickon, was that Vaughan didn’t light his kitchen fire at all that Saturday. He used his Primus.”

“Where are you leading to, Chief?”

“It looks like foul play somewhere, Super, but by whom there’s no evidence. Have you talked to one Thomas Gressingham?”

“I had a few words with him, but he had no direct evidence to offer.”

“No, he hasn’t much direct evidence now, but he’s got the deuce of a lot to say. So far as I can gather, if the verdict of accident had gone unchallenged, Mr. Gressingham would have been happy to let well alone. Now that he realises a further investigation is being made he’s very forthcoming, with a spate of queries and suggestions---proper red herrings. Mr. Gressingham wants to know what proof we have got that the remains found in the ashes are in truth the remains of Nicholas Vaughan.”

The Superintendent swore, softly but vigorously, and Macdonald nodded. “I quite agree---but the gentleman has what counsel would call a nice point. If we don’t tidy this case up, it looks like being a cause célèbre: Commander Wilton suggests that Nicholas Vaughan met his end by foul play. I think Mr. Gressingham is going to suggest that some other chap met his death by foul play at the hands of Nicholas Vaughan.”

“I just don’t believe it!” spluttered Bolton, and Macdonald replied:

“I don’t either, but what we believe is going to butter no parsnips. When the identity of a victim is in doubt we generally have nice tidy methods for determining the facts---finger-prints, Bertillon measurements, old operation scars, dentistry. Even the latter will fail us, because, if old Dickon tells the truth, Vaughan told him that he had never had toothache and never been to the dentist. Now while it’s unusual for a man of thirty to have no stopped teeth, it’s not quite phenomenal. It does happen. When I was thirty I was in that happy state myself.”

“Good God!” groaned Bolton, and his exclamation---or groan---was in no way concerned with Macdonald’s teeth. The Superintendent was just beginning to realise some of the complexities which Macdonald had perceived to be potential in the case when he first studied it. Bolton was no defeatist, however. He sat up, squared his shoulders, and spoke firmly.

“I’ve no doubt you’re right in describing it as a ‘nice point,’ but I damn’ well don’t believe it, and the fact that Gressingham put the idea forward simply makes me ask what he has got to gain by confusing the issue. Now look here. You have had more experience of these sticky cases than I have. What can we do to kill that particular rumour?”

“At the moment all I propose to do is to get a report from the hospital authorities, and also to ask Wilton if he can make any helpful contribution.”

“Good. It’s up to him---he barged in with cries of Wolf. I wonder how he’ll like this development.”

Macdonald chuckled. “Admittedly, I sympathise with your line of thought, but it looks like plenty of work ahead of us. Now leaving the fertile Mr. Gressingham for the moment, just concentrate on those ducks. It seems to me that if the ducks were not shut up in their house on Saturday night, the probability is that Nicholas Vaughan did not get back to Little Thatch. A careful chap like that would never have forgotten to shut the ducks up, would he? You ought to know more about ducks than I do, Super. Wouldn’t you say it’s true that poultry keepers do certain things by routine---that is, they do not go to bed leaving their birds on the loose?”

“Quite true,” said Bolton, “but say, if this is the explanation, for once in his life Vaughan got drunk: that would explain everything. He forgot the ducks, and he knocked over his paraffin lamp as he staggered into bed.”

“Yes, that would explain quite a lot, but you’ve got to remember that he drove his car home along a very awkward road: he remembered to wave in his usual way when he passed Corner Cottage, and he backed his car into a very narrow gateway in a manner which denotes sobriety of mind.”

“Yes. All right. Since everybody else is guessing in this case, I’m going to guess too. When Vaughan got back to Little Thatch, he found somebody---or something---waiting for him which quite put his usual routine out of his mind. How’s that for a start?”

“That’s all right. I’m pretty sure Commander Wilton would agree with that for a beginning.”

“Damn you, I didn’t mean that,” protested Bolton, and Macdonald replied:

“No. I know you didn’t---but we’ve got to foresee other people’s suggestions in this case. However, take your idea for what it’s worth. What evidence have we about Little Thatch between the time Nicholas Vaughan would have got home and the time the fire was observed? We know that one person at least went into Vaughan’s garden. That was Colonel St. Cyres. He admits this himself: further, he told me that when he was in the garden he smelt the smoke of a Balkan Sobranie cigarette, and the only person known to smoke those cigarettes hereabouts is Mr. Thomas Gressingham.”

“But here, steady on! Why didn’t the Colonel tell me that to begin with? It’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Yes. Apparently he was ashamed to put forward a piece of evidence for which he could offer no proof. I think that for once, although he would not have admitted it, Colonel St. Cyres was of the same mind as Mr. Gressingham: accept the verdict of accident and leave bad alone. It wasn’t until I came on the scene that Colonel St. Cyres, and Mr. Gressingham, began to think.”

“But, heavens above, Chief! St. Cyres is above suspicion. He’s . . .”

“To my mind, nobody is above suspicion,” said Macdonald. “Detection involves a sceptical attitude towards one’s neighbours. Give me one clear, obvious motive to kill Vaughan---any really sound reason for killing him---and I’ll suspect anybody. Lots of people may have had the chance of killing Vaughan. An unsuspecting man is not difficult to kill. Any fool can do it with a coal hammer.”

“Oh my God!” groaned Bolton. “If you go on like this I shall suspect that chap Wilton killed him.”

“Suspect by all means, but bear in mind that what you want is a motive---and remember this, too. If a motive for killing anybody can be ascribed to Nicholas Vaughan, there will be plenty of people to point out how easy it was for him to have killed an enemy and to have left the body in the burning cottage.”

And Bolton had no choice but to agree.

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