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Chapter Twelve

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« on: May 04, 2023, 06:23:32 am »

“TOMMY, do you know that there’s a story going round that you were out in your car on the night Little Thatch was burnt?”

It was June St. Cyres who spoke. She had walked down to Hinton Mallory for her evening cocktail, and Gressingham was filling their glasses.

“My dear, if you collect every story that’s going round the countryside dealing with that subject you’ll have enough material to fill several volumes, and to provide actions for libel and slander sufficient to keep the courts busy for a year.”

Gressingham sounded as cheerful as ever as he carried over June’s glass, saying “Try this one---and happy days.”

June sipped her drink thoughtfully. “Yes. That’s all right,” she said. “All the same, Tommy, I should kill that yarn stone dead. It’s all very well to sound so happy and confident, but you’re not getting a good press among the natives, so to speak, and this long-chinned Scots inspector is still snooping around.”

“Let him snoop, sweet child. That’s okay by me. I was not out in my car on the night in question---and that’s that. Who said I was anyway, and if so, why?”

“That filthy evacuee brat at Dickon’s. He’s got a swollen head because the police have asked him so many questions. He boasts he can recognise the sound of every car in the district as it passes Corner Cottage, and he says your car passed after dark that evening.”

“Well, he’s wrong,” replied Gressingham. “What that lad wants is a thrashing, and, by gad, he’ll get one if he goes on telling lies about me. Actually, I shouldn’t be in the least surprised if the young devil knows a lot more about the fire than he’s admitted. Brats of that type have indulged in arson many a time before this.”

June sipped her drink thoughtfully: “Aren’t you a bit inconsistent, Tommy?”

“How so, angel? You’re the last person who should say that.”

“Oh, I don’t mean that,” she replied. “I mean about this beastly fire. You keep on producing fresh ideas. First you say that the tenant at the cottage wasn’t Vaughan at all: then you say the corpse might be someone Vaughan himself bumped off.”

“Quite true. I only say might, mark you. There isn’t a ha-porth of proof anywhere.”

June paused a moment, fiddling with her rings, then she went on: “Well, I wish you could prove that your car was not taken out that night. Everyone’s asking what you were doing on the road after you’ve said you didn’t go out after ten.”

“They are, are they?” asked Gressingham, and for once he sounded nettled. June went on hastily:

“You’ve said yourself how country people gossip, and it’s true. Since the Yard man came here everyone is talking harder than ever. Because you’re a Londoner they’re all beginning to say that you know more about it than you’ve admitted.”

“And who are ‘they,’ June?”

“The farm labourers and the butcher and baker and oilman, and all the rest. I know, because even Pops is getting a bit fed-up about it. It was he who said it’d be a good idea if you could prove that your car was not taken out that night.”

“Did he, by jove! Very thoughtful of him. Perhaps he’d like me to prove that he was not the last person known to have been at Little Thatch before the fire.”

“Oh, don’t be tiresome, Tommy. He’s a crashing bore, I know that, but he’d never do anything he didn’t think right. Tommy, can’t you prove, bang out, that your car didn’t pass Dickon’s cottage between ten and eleven o’clock? Ridd’s saying he saw it now.”

Gressingham shrugged his heavy shoulders. “I can’t stop these clodhoppers inventing things, June. You know I walked back to the Manor with you that Saturday, and I left you on the terrace about twenty past nine. I walked through the spinney to the post box and back here by the road. It must have been about ten o’clock when I got back.”

“Did you look in your garage?”

“Of course not. Why should I?”

“Then how do you know the car was there?”

“It was there next morning, none the worse.”

“That doesn’t prove anything. How do you know somebody didn’t borrow it?”

“What on earth for? I wish you’d tell me what you’re really thinking about, June.”

She pushed her glass away and sat with her elbows on the table and spoke slowly: “I believe the police suspect that somebody killed Vaughan in the cottage after he got back and then set light to the place. That must have been done after most people hereabouts had gone to bed. Say, if the man who did it came down here and borrowed your car in order to get somewhere else to prove an alibi and then returned the car later. It’s not impossible. You’ve always said that anyone could open the padlock on the shed where you keep the car.”

“Well, well! You’ve been thinking it all out in the best detective story style, angel. That means that it was done by somebody who knew all about my car.”

“I know, but everyone knows you’ve got a car down here. Tommy, did you see Rummy Radcliffe when you got in that night?”

“No. He went up to bed early, like he does sometimes, the lazy devil. You remember he said to you he was going to turn in to read in bed.”

“Oh, bother!” she cried. “Why did he want to go to bed early on that night for? It just means you can’t prove anything.”

“Steady on, sweet! I wasn’t aware that I’d got to prove anything.”

“I know, but it would be much more comfortable if you could, Tommy. It’s all so beastly. You see, you did dislike Vaughan, and so did I. I loathed him. You remember that day he met us when we were down by the Mallow? He didn’t say anything, but you could tell from his face what he thought, the puritanical beast! I didn’t tell you, but that farm labourer---Joe Buck---was down in the river meadows that afternoon, and he saw you and me and Vaughan. He’s quite likely to say that you and Vaughan quarrelled.”

“Good God! I never realised you were worrying about it like this, angel. Is it any use telling you that I did not kill Vaughan and set fire to his cottage---because I assure you I did not!”

“Don’t be an idiot! I know you didn’t, but I wish we could prove that all this gossip is a lie. It simply gives me the horrors.”

“My poor child!” Gressingham sounded really concerned for once. “Would you rather I went away for a bit? I can’t have you bothered like this.”

“No, no! Of course you can’t go away, people would only gossip more. It might be a good idea if Meriel came here for a bit though. If your wife were here people could see . . . it’s all right and we’re all friends.”

Gressingham shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry, sweet, but I’m afraid Meriel might not oblige. She’s rather taken to paddling her own canoe---and I’ve just let her go her own way . . . You did know that, angel. You can’t have it all ways, you know. I don’t want to remind you about all the things we discussed---not now, when things are a bit complicated by all this mess, but you did agree, June. I just left Meriel to do as she liked---and she has her own life to live, you know.”

June St. Cyres sat silent, and for once her face was frightened. “What had we better do?” she asked, and Gressingham replied:

“Do nothing at all. Why should we? We’re not involved in this business, and there’s no need to get in a state of nerves about it.”

---

It was at this juncture in the conversation that a very unwelcome interruption occurred. Mrs. Hesling showed Chief Inspector Macdonald into the room, and Gressingham at least wished him at the devil. June St. Cyres’ face was a study, and to anybody observant of human physiognomy it was a study in fear---and Gressingham knew it. Rising in his slow, rather clumsy way, Gressingham spoke with his customary nonchalance.

“Good-afternoon, Chief Inspector. Have you met Mrs. St. Cyres---the Colonel’s daughter-in-law. I was just going to walk back to the Manor with her. Can you wait for just a few minutes?”

“Of course you needn’t bother to walk back with me,” protested June, but her voice was strained and unnatural. “I had better get back because Michael will be wanting me. Give my love to Meriel, Tom, and tell her to try to come down for a few days. She must be needing a rest after all that driving, and she always loves this place. Good-bye for now---and thank you for the drink.”

She was out of the room before Gressingham had time to reply, and he turned to Macdonald with a gesture of irritation.

“This business at Little Thatch seems to be getting on everyone’s nerves,” he said. “Mrs. St. Cyres is worrying herself because she’s heard the yokels are saying that my car was seen on the road the night of the fire.”

“Yes. It’s partly on that account that I came to see you,” replied Macdonald. “I take it you can give an assurance that your car was not on the road that night?”

Gressingham sat down deliberately and faced the other.

“I can give you my assurance that I did not take my car out that night, and to the best of my knowledge and belief my car was locked up in the garage---or shed, to be more accurate---all that night and the following day.”

“When did you last take your car out?”

“The previous Thursday, when I came back here. I have only recently had a car down here: there is, as you know, no alternative transport for some miles, and the taxi-hire business is very unsatisfactory. I brought the car down here so that I could get into Exeter on necessary business if occasion demanded it.”

“Quite---that does not come within my province, but I want to get at the root of this story about your car being on the road on the Saturday night. You say you had not had it out since the previous Thursday. Do you know how much petrol was in the tank then?”

“Yes. Four and a half gallons, approximately. I put in three when I brought it through Mallowton, and there were two gallons in the tank before I refilled. It took something under half a gallon to drive it here from Mallowton. The answer is the four and a half which remains.”

“You say the car was in its place all the Saturday night----”

“Steady on, Inspector. What I said was that I believed it was in its place. I hadn’t used it that day and I had no reason to go and look at it on the Saturday evening. The shed was padlocked and the key is in my possession. If the car was taken out it was done without my knowledge. No one heard it being taken out, and the petrol shows it couldn’t have been run far, if at all.”

“When did you go to examine it?”

“On the Monday after the fire. I didn’t give it a thought until I heard a report that it had been seen on the Saturday night. Then I went and looked at the petrol gauge.”

“Very good. Can we go and look at it?”

“By all means.” Gressingham got up and led the way from the room and out by the back of the house, across the farmyard. Having closed the yard gate behind them he turned right towards a row of outbuildings, built on a slight slope above the lane.

“The last one is my lock-up,” he said. “Here is the key if you like to look for yourself.”

Macdonald took the key and went and unlocked the padlock---it was a commonplace spring padlock hooked through a ring in an iron staple. The double doors of the shed---an old stable---swung out easily, revealing the back of the gleaming car.

“You run it in yourself this way?” he asked. “That is, you don’t back it in?”

“No, I don’t back it in. No object. It’s easy enough to get out. Try it yourself. Here’s my ignition key.”

Macdonald got into the drivers seat, turned the ignition, and studied the petrol gauge. He called to Gressingham: “There’s more like five gallons than four and a half---come and look.”

Gressingham did as he was asked, saying: “I said approximately, you know. There’s about the same amount as when I left it.”

He stood clear, and Macdonald started the engine, put in reverse gear, and backed the car neatly into the lane. He then leaned out of the window, saying: “What are the chances that anybody in the house could hear this engine started? It’s as nearly silent as an engine can be.”

This was true. The car was in beautiful condition and the purr of its engine was not much more than a low hum. Macdonald went on:

“Even though you had been awake, I doubt if you could have heard the engine from the house. We might try it late at night when everything else is quiet. Meantime, if I go back to the house, will you reverse the car and put it back in the lock-up? Give me three minutes before you start.”

He got out and Gressingham took his place. Macdonald walked back to the front of the house---he knew that Gressingham’s bedroom was above the sitting-room---and he listened by the open window. When Gressingham came back five minutes later Macdonald said: “I didn’t hear a sound of it.”

“No, I can quite believe that,” replied the other. “In other words, the result is negative. It proves nothing either way. If the car had been taken out the petrol gauge would have shown it.”

“The petrol gauge shows there is rather more petrol in the tank than you expected, Mr. Gressingham---and there was plenty of petrol at Little Thatch on the Saturday evening. Mr. Vaughan was allowed four gallons a month for his pump engine, and he collected it in cans.”

Again Gressingham sat down, in his deliberate, ponderous way. “All right,” he said. “There is a possibility that my car was taken out without my knowledge. By whom, and for what purpose?”

“I don’t know, but the possibility had to be considered, among a mass of similar inconclusive evidence. One of the questions I have had to consider is this: where did Mr. Vaughan go on that Saturday evening, when his car was seen to pass and repass Corner Cottage?”

“Any answer to that one?”

“Not yet. We have only had one report which seems reliable. Mr. Vaughan turned towards Tiverton when he reached the main road.” Macdonald was silent for a moment, then he went on: “You and Mr. Radcliffe told me of what you believed to be a code---the messages which arrived for Mr. Vaughan about delivering duck’s eggs.”

Gressingham’s eye brightened. “Yes. Any result from that line of research?”

“Yes, some results. We have been examining the lists of incoming calls on Mrs. Hesling’s telephone. We also interrogated the exchange operator---a very intelligent girl. There was, of course, a considerable increase in calls while you have been resident here. The London calls---incoming and outgoing---were all yours, I believe. Similarly the calls to and from Manor Thatch.”

“Probably,” said Gressingham. “June St. Cyres generally calls me before she comes down here. She does not walk for the love of walking.”

“Quite. Now Mrs. Hesling’s calls---and her husband’s---are easily recognisable: the trades people, the corn millers, the cattle market, and cattle van people, also farmers and so forth. There is one set of incoming calls not accounted for. These were put through at infrequent intervals from the Tiverton exchange. Were these yours?”

“Definitely not. I have had no calls from Tiverton to my knowledge. Who was the caller?”

“We don’t know. The calls came from a public call-box.”

“Ah ha! The duck’s eggs code.”

“Maybe. Now we have no proof that these calls were other than they appeared to be—orders for eggs from a Tiverton client, but we have traced the dealer in Mallowton to whom Mr. Vaughan sold his eggs---and unless his ducks were abnormally prolific layers he could have had no surplus eggs to dispose of to private buyers.”

Gressingham chuckled. “I hand it to you for thoroughness, Chief Inspector. You don’t leave much to chance. Now just answer me this: have you been able to prove that the remains found in the cottage are indisputably Vaughan’s remains?”

“No, not actually proved it yet, but the probability is very strong. If need be, we shall get an exhumation order, and we have information which will put the matter beyond doubt. To return for a moment to the matter of Vaughan’s movements on the Saturday evening. It seems reasonable to assume that he drove towards Tiverton. A call from Tiverton was put through to this house at five o’clock on the Saturday evening. The exchange knows the connection was made, and I want to know who answered the phone. Mrs. Hesling was shopping in Mallowton at the time: her husband and the other men about the place were milking. The servant girl was out over at Mrs. Ridd’s—but that phone was answered. Can you tell me anything about it?”

“I didn’t answer it myself, if that’s what you mean. Five o’clock on Saturday . . . Radcliffe and I had tea in the garden---out yonder under the trees. Peggy, the maid, brought us our tea before she went out. I didn’t hear the phone, but you don’t hear it out in the garden.”

There was silence between the two men, and at length Gressingham said: “Obviously you want to know who took that phone call. I did not. Radcliffe did not. It’s possible that Vaughan himself came down here and waited for a prearranged call. He has done that occasionally when I haven’t been here. He knew where the phone is, because he used it when he wanted to make a call.”

“That’s quite a possible suggestion,” said Macdonald, “but do you think Vaughan would have gone into a room which was your sitting-room without ascertaining if you were about, or asking permission?”

“He wouldn’t have done so if he knew I was here, but how should he have known? I had been in town for some weeks, and I came down here on the Thursday evening. I didn’t see anything of him on the Friday or Saturday. It’s quite possible that he walked down here about five o’clock on Saturday afternoon: he’d have gone into the kitchen and found nobody about. If he came expecting a phone call he would have answered the phone when he heard it ring. Nobody would have noticed---certainly Rummy and I wouldn’t have noticed, we were asleep in our deck chairs to the best of my recollection. It was the first really warm day we’d had. Anyway, that’s the most probable explanation, of how the phone got answered if no member of the household answered it.”

Macdonald studied the other’s face. Gressingham was as calm and unconcerned as though he were talking about the weather, not a tinge of apprehension on his stolid face. He returned stare for stare, and then spoke again.

“As I see it, Chief Inspector, there are two ways of viewing this business. The first is that taken by the Coroner’s Court, and I still regard it as the most probable: the fire, and Vaughan’s death in it, was due to accidental causes. The alternative view is foul play. If that is the explanation, I submit you have no proof, as yet, that Vaughan was the victim of foul play. He may have been the guilty party. That being so, the matter of this telephone call becomes plain. Vaughan would have been only too glad there was nobody about when he took that call. Then there’s the matter of my car. Vaughan knew where it was kept. It would have been easy enough for him to borrow it. Such a small matter as an ignition key would have presented no difficulties to an expert engineer.”

“Why should he have borrowed your car and returned it? He had his own car.”

“Certainly he had. He also knew that young Alf claimed to be an expert at recognising the sound of every car which passed Corner Cottage. If Vaughan was seeking to enlist the unsuspecting sympathy of the countryside for his own demise in a terrible fire, it was better for him not to advertise that he was wide awake driving his own car at midnight---when he ought to have been stupefied by accumulating smoke. In my view, the probability is that if my car were used at all, then Vaughan used it---to remove something from the scene of action, something too heavy or cumbersome to be carried. Having removed whatever it was, he returned my car and relocked the shed, having thoughtfully replaced the petrol used on his jaunt. Then, if anybody had noticed my car on the road, it was pretty certain that questions would be asked of me---questions which, as you have observed, I am quite incapable of answering, because I am totally ignorant of the whole matter.”

Here Gressingham took a deep breath, adding, “And after that I reckon I deserve a drink---and I’m going to have one. While I do so, if I can’t persuade you to join me, you will perhaps explain why my whole reconstruction is manifestly at fault and totally irrelevant.”

“It isn’t,” replied Macdonald amiably. “I think it’s a very logical effort. As I said once before, you are good at correlating evidence.”

Mr. Gressingham had replenished his glass, and as he raised it he said: “Then I wish to God you’d tell me why you assume that I, who have a reasonably good record of lawful behaviour, should have batted that great tough over the head and left his corpse to incinerate in the cottage embers. Damn it all! I may be a fool, but if you believe that, then you’re a bigger one.”

His tone was quite cheerful and unaggressive, and he grinned as he put his glass down again. “What about it?” he asked cheerfully.

“The first essence of detection is scepticism,” replied Macdonald. “A detective cannot afford to accept anybody or anything at its face value. Your persistent enquiry as to proof concerning the identity of the remains found in the fire is consistent with good detection---never take anything for granted. But just now you mentioned your own record for lawful behaviour. That is relevant, too, so you will agree it is reasonable to consider Vaughan’s record. We have settled one point beyond doubt, by means of finger-prints on existing documents. The tenant of Little Thatch was the same Nicholas Vaughan who was Lieutenant Commander on H.M.S. Absinthe. Now consider that man’s record and tell me if you think it consistent with murder and arson---because I find it difficult to swallow.”

“All right---but that’s assumption, not proof.”

“Admitted. Now it was you and your friend who told me of one very interesting piece of evidence---the telephone messages for Vaughan which probably came from a Tiverton call-box. I think that evidence may prove to be very important. Can you make any suggestion concerning Tiverton?”

Gressingham shifted his position a little. “I’ve already told you that I know nobody at Tiverton. Neither do I know the place, I don’t think I’ve ever been through it. Why on earth expect me to know who put through calls from the place?”

“Without meaning any offence, Mr. Gressingham, I should say you have one quality in common with Kipling’s famous mongoose, and that is curiosity. Curiosity can be very valuable to a detective. You have told me a number of interesting things, and you have, presumably, discovered those things by virtue of your own enquiring mind---a quality not to be despised. I suggest that you should carry your researches a little further.”

“I might reply by a simple formula, also implying no offence,” rejoined Gressingham; “do your own job. It’s up to you.”

“Certainly it is, but you may have a vested interest in the matter. It occurs to me that someone may have been providing evidence meant to reflect on you. If so, it’s certainly to your interest to find out who it is.”

“Do you know, I think you’d better enlarge on that. I like to know just where I stand.”

“That’s quite reasonable. First the matter of your car. It was undoubtedly taken out on Saturday evening, you say without your knowledge. Next, I believe you smoke Balkan Sobranie cigarettes. Two of these cigarette ends were found in the garden of Little Thatch, and someone has attested that the smoke from one of these cigarettes was hanging in the air in Little Thatch garden on Saturday evening. It has also been reported that you had reason to resent Mr. Vaughan’s observation of your attitude towards Mrs. St. Cyres. On account of these points, I suggest that you should do all you can to clear the issue.”

Gressingham sat silent, his shoulders hunched, his face less amiable, but his voice was as cool as ever as he replied:

“Well, that’s straight. I agree with you that it looks as though somebody’s been doing the dirty on me, and my guess is still the same---Nicholas Vaughan. I’ve said that all along, and I stick to it. You get your exhumation order. That’s the only way of clearing this up. I’ve told you all I know, which is mighty little.”

“But have you?” enquired Macdonald. “I may be wrong, but I have an idea you’re holding out on something. You’ve a right to keep your own counsel, of course---but it may be a dangerous proceeding.”

Again Gressingham stared. Then he said: “You’re wrong. I’m not holding out on you. I think you’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick. I’ve told you from the beginning Vaughan was a fellow who’d got something to hide. Do you know he typed all his correspondence---does that seem a natural thing for a simple farmer fellow to do?”

“How do you know he typed all his correspondence?”

“Because the farmers say so. It struck them as damned odd.”

“They forget that Vaughan wasn’t a simple farmer fellow. He was a highly educated engineer. In addition, he was a writer of repute.”

“That’s a new one on me. Never struck his name on a book yet.”

“He didn’t write under his own name. He used a pen-name---Henry Heythwaite.”

“Good God!”

Gressingham was startled out of his immobility this time, and Macdonald went on: “Does that name enlighten you, Mr. Gressingham?”

“Well, I read that book---Simon the Dalesman---dashed interesting it was, too. I’d never have thought him capable of it.”

“He wrote about his own country, on the Westmorland-Yorkshire borders. Do you know it at all?”

“No. Never been there. Well, well . . . I still tell you that that chap at Little Thatch had something to hide.”

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide,” rejoined Macdonald.
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