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Chapter Ten

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« on: May 03, 2023, 01:10:33 pm »

THE matter of the fire at Little Thatch and Nicholas Vaughan’s tragic death had inevitably provided food for discussion and debate throughout the locality. It has been said by many townsfolk---especially by Londoners---that countryfolk who have not suffered from bombing or the major tragedies of war are callous in their disregard of other people’s sufferings. The Billeting authorities and the W.V.S. had frequently to argue with recalcitrant housewives who wished to refuse to accept billeting orders which would bring bombed-out townsfolk into farms and cottages. “We don’t want them here and we can’t do with them.” Anne St. Cyres had often countered this objection by saying: “Can’t you imagine what it feels like to have had your home destroyed, to be left standing in a bombed street with nothing but the clothes you’ve got on, and then to hear people who have lost nothing at all saying ‘We don’t want you. You’re only a nuisance’?”

The fact was, of course, that imagination---particularly the slowly moving imagination of folk in a safe and remote countryside---fails to realise the distresses of those who are strangers. London, Bristol, and Hull might be showered with incendiaries and thousands might be homeless, but this fact did not impress the rural mind as did the burning of one thatched cottage and the death of one man who was coming to be regarded as a neighbour.

“That’s a bad business: oughtn’t never to’ve happened, and him a careful, sensible fellow. Can’t see how’t came about. ’Tisn’t natural.” So said the farmers and their wives, who had lived in thatched houses for generations. “ ’Twasn’t as if he went meddling with t’place, putting in new fireplaces and that,” argued old Amos Coddling in the bar of the Blue Boar, but Joe Hosgood replied: “ ’Twas all along o’ they wires he put in. Better’ve left well alone and used lamps like all of we.”

The Coroner’s verdict had been accepted on the whole, though a few dissentient voices argued darkly that if all were known that ought to be known, ’twould have been other than accident the Coroner would have found. Macdonald’s appearance on the scene reanimated the discussion.

“Iss, what did I tell mun? ’Twas no accident at all,” cried many, and theorists aired their views in field and kitchen and bar regardless of the law of slander. One of the suspects named by many was Tom Benworthy, the farm labourer who had applied for a tenancy of Little Thatch prior to Nicholas Vaughan and had been refused it. “Mun did it for spite,” declared his neighbours---for Benworthy and his slatternly young wife were unpopular and generally distrusted. “No, not Tom. Him’d never have dared,” argued old Amos Coddling. “More like ’twas that London gent to Hinton Mallory: hated Mr. Vaughan proper, mun did---and goings on there such as shouldn’t be with that brass-faced young madam the Colonel’s so good to.”

“Now, now, none o’ that, Tom,” expostulated Joe Hosgood. “Her’s wed to young Mr. Denis, and I won’t hear nought like that. If you asks me, ’twas that tu’rble fat chat along o’ he. Him’s a praper bad un, after the maids of an evening.”

All this conversation was carried on in the bar of the Blue Boar, and came to the ears of Mr. William Holsworthy, who was having a glass of cider in the private saloon bar. Mr. Holsworthy was a small landowner and a very prosperous farmer whose land adjoined Colonel St. Cyres. Holsworthy was a man of seventy, but still hale and hearty and quick of hearing. He made his way into the bar and spoke his mind.

“Listen to me, all of you,” he commanded. “It’s lucky for you it was I who heard you chattering. I know you all, and I won’t misjudge you. You, Amos Coddling---you’re an honest man and the finest thatcher in the county, but you’re a damned old fool, chattering like a jackdaw. If your words were reported to the police you could be put in the dock for slander, and don’t you forget it! And you, too, Joe Hosgood---you’re old enough to know better. Now you hearken to me. If any of you have got any evidence in this matter, it’s your duty to report it: if you haven’t got any evidence, don’t go slandering other folks. I’ve warned you, and I shan’t warn you again. I won’t have slander circulated. Amos Coddling---what evidence have you got that Mr. Gressingham had ought to do with the fire at Little Thatch?”

Old Coddling looked foolish and fiddled with his glass, but a younger man spoke.

“Mun told Mr. Hesling he went to bed just after ten o’clock that night---but his car was out later than that. Young Alf ’eard it pass. Ridd, he saw it heading for t’main road. Benworthy saw it just past Ridd’s cross. If mun’s honest, why do he tell lies about bein’ in bed?”

“What’s his car got to do with the fire at Little Thatch?” demanded Holsworthy, and Joe Hosgood plucked up his courage.

“If mun’s telling lies, mun’s got summat t’ hide,” he declared, “and ’twas Mr. Gressingham keeps on saying that the Colonel, he was the last man inside Little Thatch, and us won’t have nought said against Colonel.”

“Quite right, too,” agreed old Holsworthy. “If I hear Mr. Gressingham say that, I’ll warn him as I’ve warned you---but think a bit, all of you. Has any one of you got any evidence at all to offer---anything beyond parrot talk? There’s been an inquest, and a very thorough enquiry, and the Coroner’s jury was satisfied it was plain accident. Can’t you let it be?”

“If Coroner’s jury was satisfied, why for did they send a detective down from Lunnon?” queried Hosgood. “I see mun, sitting on the bank staring at Little Thatch, iss, and talking to Alf, too. And do you know, sir, Mr. Vaughan never so much as lit his kitchen fire that Saturday, no, nor’s lamp neither, ’cause t’was light when he got home. Colonel said there wasn’t no light. Reckon Crowner’s jury didn’t think of all that. He’s a tu’rble straight chap this Lunnon detective. Him’s getting at things.”

Mr. Holsworthy rubbed his white head and said, “You let him get at things, then, and answer any questions he sees fit to ask you, but don’t go naming anybody without evidence. I’ve warned you, and don’t let me hear any more accusations like I heard just now---and you, too, landlord---see to it that gossip doesn’t spread from your house, or there’ll be trouble for you too.”

---

MR. Holsworthy left the Blue Boar feeling troubled in his mind. Devon born, he was an educated man and on easy terms with his wealthier as well as his humbler neighbours. He thought the world of the Devon farm labourers and he understood them, and he knew the way in which Macdonald’s appearance would cause them to gossip and surmise amongst themselves. Holsworthy had met both Gressingham and Radcliffe and disliked the pair of them heartily, but he believed that the suspicion in which they were held was due to the fact that they were “foreigners.” A fellow-farmer had said to Holsworthy that day in all sincerity: “Miss Jameson, who’s been helping with billeting, wanted my wife to take in a London family. I don’t see it. Strikes me all Londoners are dirty. Look at the way some of ’em have treated the places they’ve been lent.” Unhappily it was a fact that the habits and behaviour of some of the London evacuees had caused the name “Londoner” to be regarded askance in the countryside.

Pondering deeply, Mr. Holsworthy got into his car and drove on to Exeter, where he had legitimate business to transact, and later he looked in at a recently formed Men’s Club. This establishment had been organised by a few landowners and professional men who wanted to have somewhere quiet where they could eat, transact business and read their papers, and the unusual venture was a success. Holsworthy, looking in at the big sitting-room, found half-a-dozen men present, among them Howard Brendon, who was studying a sale list. Holsworthy went and sat beside him, saying:

“I’d be glad of a word with you, Brendon. I’m a bit bothered in my mind about some gossip around the Mallorys.”

Brendon folded his catalogue neatly and put it in his pocket, and then turned and studied Holsworthy with his curiously light eyes, and waited for him to continue.

“You’ve heard there’s a Scotland Yard man down working on this Little Thatch case?”

Brendon nodded. “Yes. As it happens, I met him. A very able fellow, I believe---one of the best type of police officials.”

“Does his presence indicate that there’s any fresh evidence---since the inquest?”

“Not to my knowledge. So far as I can gather, it means that a Naval officer---Vaughan’s one-time commander---has been making a fuss in London, demanding a further enquiry. All tommy-rot to my mind, and waste of a good man’s time.”

“Very glad to hear you say so, Brendon, very glad!” exclaimed Holsworthy. “I followed the evidence carefully, and I’ve had a talk with our men down here, and I can’t see there’s the least reason to suspect murder. One of the main reasons that I deprecate this reopening of the case is the gossip it causes. I was in at the Blue Boar---our local---a short while ago, and the place was seething with gossip. I went into the bar and spoke my mind. The silly fellows were bandying names about---and that brings me to my point. Mr. Gressingham’s a friend of yours, isn’t he? I gather you introduced him to the locality, as it were.”

“I don’t quite see your point, but we might as well be accurate,” replied Brendon. “Gressingham is my broker, and he’s a very astute man in his own line. He wrote to me saying he wanted to buy property in this county, but it was not due to his acquaintance with me that he went to stay at Hinton Mallory. He went there, I believe, at the suggestion of young Mrs. St. Cyres---a lady with whom I was not previously acquainted.”

“Well, the plain fact is this: gossip around Mallory Fitzjohn is saying that Gressingham was out in his car on the night of the fire, and that he’s denied the fact.”

Brendon took out his cigarette case and lighted a cigarette with deliberation.

“Gossip is going to go a good deal further than that before we hear the last of this business,” he said. “There’s hardly a name that isn’t being bandied about. You, I, Colonel St. Cyres---we’ll all be dragged in, as well as Gressingham and his friends. It’s human nature. Hint at a mystery and the wildest tales become current. I admit Gressingham’s a fool over this business. He’s going round making the craziest suggestions instead of holding his tongue. The result is that half the members here come to me saying ‘Gressingham’s a friend of yours, isn’t he? Is it true he had something to do with the Little Thatch business?’ I tell you I’m sick of the whole thing. The Mallowton police and fire brigade made a very careful enquiry into the circumstances. Admittedly, they couldn’t produce an exact reason for the fire---the place was destroyed too thoroughly---but they were satisfied that accident accounted for it. Then this Naval fellow comes along and prevails on the authorities to reopen the enquiry. What happens? Every Tom, Dick, and Harry starts making suggestions. Gressingham ought to have enough common sense not to join in---and I’ve told him so plainly.”

Holsworthy nodded. “I agree with every word you say,” he declared. “All the same, I’m a bit puzzled about Gressingham. He seems to have made himself disliked in the Mallorys.”

“Natural enough, when you come to think of it,” replied Brendon. “He’s a City man. He doesn’t understand country people, with their prejudices and narrow view points, their distrust of the unfamiliar. Gressingham brings town ways into the depths of a conservative countryside. The result is he’s noticed, criticised and condemned. Of course every farm labourer is going round saying if there’s been any dirty work it’s the London stranger who’s at the bottom of it.”

Another man came and joined in the conversation---this was John Hartland, a well-known accountant. “D’you mind if I butt in, Brendon? I’m interested in what you’re saying. As it happens, I’ve heard some of the gossip that’s going round, though I don’t know Mr. Gressingham, nor Mallory Fitzjohn either. The fact is country morals and town morals are different propositions. The country folk say ‘He’s got a wife, why doesn’t she live with him?’ and ‘What’s he doing making up to another man’s wife?’ If he were in London he could take young Mrs. St. Cyres out to dinner every night and nobody would bother. In the country folk start talking, and once they start it’s the devil to stop them.”

“It is that,” agreed Holsworthy, and changed the trend of the conversation a little. “What I can’t see is this: why there’s a palaver about Gressingham taking his car out that night. If he’d wanted to set fire to Little Thatch he wouldn’t have wanted a car---quite the other way about. A car’s too noticeable.”

“Good God, man, if you’re supposing Gressingham fired Little Thatch you’re taking leave of your senses!” broke in Brendon. “The whole taradiddle is preposterous! The next thing you’ll be saying is that I helped him with the job. Rumour begets rumour.”

“That one won’t wash,” said Hartland. “I happen to know you were in Taunton that evening, and that you spent the night in Taunton. As it happened, I stayed at the same hotel; I saw you at dinner and later as well.”

Brendon looked at him with an expression of disgust. “It’s come to a pretty pass if one can’t spend a night where one chooses without accounting for one’s actions,” he said testily. “Well, here’s my opinion of the Little Thatch business. The cottage caught fire by accident, and Vaughan was overcome by the fumes. A ghastly thing to happen, but it’s been known to happen before. All this suggestion of murder is balderdash, and I’m sick of the whole argument. The upshot of it all is that everybody gossips about everybody else and rakes up all the muck they can find. If I get first-hand evidence of accusations against Gressingham, I shall advise him to take proceedings. The motto of ‘Mind your own business’ is not only good manners, it’s good counsel, too.” And with that Mr. Brendon uttered a curt “good-evening” and left the room.

Hartland raised his eyebrows. “Seems we’ve said the wrong thing---but he’s a peppery customer.”

Holsworthy mopped his brow. “Said the wrong thing!” he exclaimed. “You put your foot in it properly, starting talking about Gressingham’s wife.”

The other’s jaw dropped. “Good God! You don’t mean that Gressingham’s sweet on Brendon’s wife! I thought . . .”

“No, no, no!” protested Holsworthy in horrified tones. “I never suggested such a thing, never! For heaven’s sake don’t let that rumour get to Brendon’s ears---he’d be the first man to take you into court if you start gossip about his affairs. No. The thing you said that upset Brendon was ‘He’s got a wife. Why doesn’t he live with her?’ Brendon was married last year, as you probably know, but I gather that it wasn’t a success. His wife has left him. She gave out that she was doing war-work---Red Cross or relief-work or something---and I’ve no doubt that’s true, but Brendon didn’t like your remarks. You can’t be too careful when you make generalisations about matrimony.”

“Well, I didn’t know, and it was obvious I shouldn’t have made that remark if I had known,” said Hartland, “but Brendon doesn’t really interest me. He’s a dried-up stick of a cuss. What does interest me is Mr. Tommy Gressingham. I’m told he’s a hot lot. Come to think of it---without wishing to involve myself in the law of slander---isn’t there a possibility that Vaughan did see a little too much of Gressingham’s goings on?”

“Now look here, that’s just the sort of gossip which is mischievous,” said Holsworthy. “What I say is this: if you have any evidence to offer in this case, take it to the police. If not, keep quiet. It’s not fair to spread rumours which have no foundation. I don’t know anything about Gressingham’s relations with women, and I don’t want to know, but I’ve a great respect for Colonel St. Cyres. He’d be most distressed if he knew that his daughter-in-law’s name was being bandied about. I don’t like it, and I won’t have it---not in my presence, anyway.”

“All right: no offence meant, old man---but it’s only human nature to wonder. If it hadn’t been that the Yard had sent their biggest gun down here to make enquiries I should never have queried the Coroner’s verdict.”

“I agree with Brendon,” replied Holsworthy. “I regret the case is being prolonged. I think the verdict was a fair one.”

“So you may, Holsworthy,” put in another voice, “but there’s no smoke without fire—and the Yard doesn’t butt in without a very good reason.”

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