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Chapter Eleven

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« on: May 04, 2023, 04:52:48 am »

LIFE at Manor Thatch had been difficult these last days, and Anne, who generally refused to go away from home under any circumstances, was beginning to feel for the first time in her life that to get away for a while was the thing she wanted above all else. Since the fire at Little Thatch she seemed to be living under a constant strain, first in the effort to appear serene and cheerful, and then in the effort to keep her temper. Anne had not been in love with Nicholas Vaughan, but she had been very fond of him. Something in the steady way he worked---and enjoyed working---warmed her heart. She was aware that the work he did, both in garden and house, had the creative element in it. Vaughan had been making his own home, turning a house---which some would have described as a hovel---and a garden which had been almost derelict, into a beautiful and orderly place. Anne had envied him a little, for though she loved Manor Thatch, she was also aware that she herself would have enjoyed making a home, creating something that was characteristically her own, and which had not been completed before she was born.

She had never asked Vaughan any questions, neither had she discussed his private affairs with her father: she had not known if he intended to get married, but something about the way he was improving and decorating the house made her feel sure that he was not doing it for his own satisfaction alone. Reticent and self-contained as she was, Anne had enough of the romantic in her composition to derive pleasure from the thought of Vaughan working away so steadily to prepare a home for his bride. His death---a fact which Anne had never queried for one fleeting second---had been a shock to her: it was as though something had broken, something been lost and wasted, and it left her feeling desolate.

Anne had more reasons than one for concealing her thoughts: Colonel St. Cyres had been deeply shocked and distressed by the tragedy at Little Thatch, and he seemed to have aged years in a few days. He was generally a serene, steadfast man: no happenings in the war, not even the dark days of Dunkirk, had affected his quiet cheerfulness and confidence, but this lesser tragedy so nearly at his own doors had shattered his content and affected his nerves. All the more reason then that Anne should keep a steadfast front, and a sense of proportion. She hid her own feeling of desolation in the effort to console and cheer her father.

Apart from Colonel St. Cyres’s depression she had to face her sister-in-law’s malicious gossip. June St. Cyres had always resented the fact that Vaughan had been given the tenancy at Little Thatch, and she had nursed her grievance, never losing an opportunity to deride and belittle Vaughan in every way. She had also insinuated that Anne was in love with Vaughan and that the granting of the tenancy to him had been a put-up job. Anne had ignored all such innuendoes, but she found it much harder to ignore June’s repetitions of Gressingham’s opinions, and the suspicions which she cast on Vaughan’s possible motive and behaviour. It was only by a determined effort of will that Anne avoided quarrelling with her---and also prevented her gossip reaching the ears of Colonel St. Cyres.

---

ANNE was busy in the garden when a message was brought out to her that a lady had called to see her. Regretfully leaving her job in the strawberry beds, Anne went inside expecting to see one of the members of the Women’s Institute. Instead she found a stranger, a neatly turned out young woman in a well-cut suit, with a Henry Heath hat pulled on at just the right angle.

“Miss St. Cyres?” The visitor’s voice was a pleasant one, rather deep pitched---certainly not a Devonshire voice.

“How do you do? I am Anne St. Cyres. I don’t think we have met before . . . ?”

“No. I am Elizabeth Vaughan.”

Even then it was some seconds before Anne realised the identity of the unexpected visitor: the latter, seeing Anne’s puzzled face, went on patiently,

“My brother was Nicholas Vaughan. I am told that you and your father knew him.”

“I beg your pardon,” cried Anne, her face flushed with vexation at her own obtuseness. “Of course we knew him. Do sit down, and forgive me for being so dense. We have been so distressed about it all, so very unhappy . . .” She broke off, pulling a chair forward for her guest, and Elizabeth Vaughan watched her in a detached, analytical sort of way as she seated herself composedly, saying:

“I am sorry you should have been distressed. It was a wretched thing to happen. I saw the remains of the cottage and it certainly does look pretty horrible. I should apologise for bothering you, because I know Nick was only your tenant, but it’s so difficult to know who to go to for information. I have been abroad for some months, on an official job with the Rehabilitation Commission, and I couldn’t get back earlier. Actually the news only reached me a few days ago.”

Her voice was level and quite unemotional, and something about her very calm and her immaculate neatness made Anne feel dishevelled and clumsy. She replied:

“It must have been a terrible shock for you. I’m so sorry---it’s difficult to tell you how sad we feel about it, too.”

“That’s very kind of you, Miss St. Cyres. I’d better explain a little---I haven’t seen Nick for years. We were never very much attached, and though I admit it was a shock to hear of him dying in such a way, I don’t want to pretend---well, that it was heartbreaking for me personally. I’m sorry, and I think it was a miserable business, but I’ve seen so many horrors in the course of my job that I’ve had to develop a fairly thick skin. It’s tiresome for you being harrowed by the thought of it all. I know it was very close to your home, and one feels things that happen near at hand like that---but I don’t want you to feel you’ve got to worry about me, too. I came, as I said, for information.”

“I’ll do anything that I can, and so will my father,” said Anne, “but first, can’t I get you some tea? You must have had a long journey.”

“No, thanks very much. I had lunch in Exeter. I’ll smoke, if I may. Now, do you mind telling me---did you know my brother personally or was he just your tenant?”

“I knew him personally, in the sense that I sometimes went over to Little Thatch to see how he was getting on. You probably know your brother wasn’t a sociable person: he didn’t want to waste time paying calls or having meals out, and we didn’t bother him with invitations to come over here---but my father and I both thought of him as a friend, and we liked him.”

“I suppose he never told you why he came and settled in Devonshire?”

“I thought it was because Commander Wilton told him about Little Thatch---and he liked it.”

“Yes, I see”; the calm voice was almost abrupt---the tones of one who did not want to waste time. “Wilton’s a very good sailor, I believe,” she went on, “but like many other sailor men he’s a good bit of a fool. I gather that it’s he who has started this crazy story about Nick being murdered. I hope you don’t believe it?”

“No, I don’t believe it,” replied Anne. “I think it’s a frightful suggestion. After all, why---why go out of your way to make mysteries? The whole thing was tragic---but fires do happen, and when they happen in old thatched houses the result is nearly always complete destruction.”

“Quite---I’m glad to know you take the common sense point of view. I take it there isn’t the least evidence about murderous enmity between Nick and his neighbours?”

“None whatever. People liked him and respected him----”

“They would,” said the calm voice. “Nick was a reliable, steady-going fellow, very trustworthy and sensible, and most people liked him, unless he happened to dislike them, which didn’t happen often, because he was quite good at suffering fools gladly---much better than I am. Now I want to explain quite clearly why I came to see you. I hate bothering people with my own affairs----”

“You’re not bothering me. We’d do anything we could to help.”

“Thank you very much. The point is this. Nick and I were left orphans at an early age, and we were brought up by an uncle and aunt in the north country. The aunt died a few years back, and our uncle died at midnight on the night of April 30th, the same night Nick died. In his will our uncle left his land to Nick, but if Nick predeceased him the estate was to go to a distant cousin. Do you see the difficulty? We don’t know who died first, Nick or the uncle.”

“Yes, I see, but it’s going to be very difficult . . . No one could know.”

“I suppose they couldn’t. It’s all a dreadful muddle. Uncle hid his will away among some old papers and it’s only just come to light. I’m trying to straighten things up, because presumably I’m Nick’s legal heir---his next of kin. Unless he was married . . . ?”

The calm voice paused on a note of interrogation, and Anne replied: “I know nothing about his personal affairs, but I don’t think he was married. You had better see my father. Mr. Vaughan said something to him about hoping to get married soon.”

“That’s good enough,” replied Elizabeth Vaughan. “Nick was very truthful. He’d never have said that if he’d been married already. Did he say when he hoped to marry?”

“I don’t think so---but I’ll go and find father. He will be able to tell you.”

When Anne returned with Colonel St. Cyres a few minutes later, Elizabeth Vaughan was still sitting in just the same position, calm and self-contained. She stood up and bowed, replying to Colonel St. Cyres’ words of sympathy with a composure which almost shocked Anne---it was so deliberate and complete. As soon as they were seated again Elizabeth Vaughan went straight to the point, explaining what she wanted to know without wasting any time. Colonel St. Cyres listened to her in silence, and said at length:

“I quite grasp the nature of your problem, Miss Vaughan, and I only regret that I cannot do much to help you. It is a very painful business, and I am afraid it will be impossible to do more than to presume the hour of your brother’s death. It must have happened some time between nine o’clock, when he was last seen, and three in the morning, when the state of the fire was such that no one could have been alive in the building.”

“Surely it’s possible to get nearer to the time than that,” she said. “The cottage must have been all right when Nick went back there just after nine o’clock.”

“Of course, of course,” said St. Cyres quickly. “The cottage was all right when I passed it at half-past nine---in fact later than that, because I passed it again when I returned from the post box just before ten.”

“Well, the lawyers will have to settle that,” she said, in her quick, determined way. “It seems to me that if the place wasn’t burning at ten o’clock it must have taken more than two hours for it to have produced enough smoke to make a man unconscious. That’s what happened, of course. People use this horrible phrase ‘burnt to death,’ but victims who die in fires are nearly always rendered insensible by smoke.” She paused, and St. Cyres murmured a pained acquiescence, and then he went on:

“It’s the matter of inheritance which has to be decided, I gather. Is it landed property which is in question?”

“Yes. It’s the farmhouse and land where Nick and I were brought up. We loved it, both of us. I hate to think of it going to the Hawkins branch of the family. They’re town-folk, business men of sorts, and they don’t care a hoot for Lannerdale. It oughtn’t to have been left to them, but my uncle was determined to leave it to a man---he was too old-fashioned to like the idea of a woman land-owner, so he cut me out.”

St. Cyres nodded. Anne could see that this matter of inheritance interested him a lot, and he went on:

“Do you know if the property was left to your brother outright, without limiting clauses?”

“Yes, to Nick and to his heirs. Of course uncle thought he would marry and have a family, as he doubtless would have done had he lived. As it is, I am his heir. After Dunkirk, when he joined the Navy, Nick wrote to me and told me that he had made his will, leaving me everything, and I did the same thing, leaving all I’d got to him. We both inherited a little capital from our parents.”

St. Cyres nodded. “I understand. I only hope that the lawyers will take a sensible view and that the land will become yours, as you care about it so much.”

“I love it,” she said abruptly. “I shall fight for it, too. It’s not going to those awful Hawkins if I can help it. Now about my other question. I asked your daughter if Nick were married.”

“I should say emphatically, no,” rejoined St. Cyres. “Vaughan told me quite definitely, in confidence, that he hoped to get married shortly and to bring his wife to live at Little Thatch.”

“He didn’t mention her name?”

“No. Not in any way---but hadn’t he mentioned the matter to you?”

“No. We had very little to do with one another after we left school. I went to Newnham---I got a scholarship---and thereafter our ways divided. We were quite good friends, but we didn’t see eye to eye over life. It seemed quite natural and reasonable that we should make wills leaving our property to one another, pro tem---we’d got quite a strong family feeling, you see, but we didn’t hanker after each other’s company. Nick didn’t like what he chose to call the ‘academic’ woman, and I think it’s quite likely if he’d got married that he wouldn’t have told me about it until it was a fait accompli---and vice versa. I didn’t write to him and tell him about my doings, and I’d no idea he’d settled in Devon. I knew he’d been in hospital and was discharged and was well again. Nick was a very reticent person. He didn’t let the uncle know he had got this place---and letters were sent by the lawyers to him to his ship, which, I believe, was in Iceland until recently. So now you see.” She paused, adding, “I apologise for burdening you with all this family chit-chat, but you’ve spoken to me so kindly it seemed natural to try to explain things a bit.”

“My dear Miss Vaughan, you are not burdening us. We held your brother in esteem---I may say affection—and we admired the way he worked and his sense of responsibility. I mourn his loss as I mourn a friend, and anything I can do to help you I will do most gladly.”

“Thank you very much. Nick was an excellent person: he was, as you say, responsible and hard-working, and he really loved the land and farming. Although he was a good engineer and a keen sailor, I always knew he would end by working on the land. It was in his bones.” She smiled, and in that sudden lightening of her face St. Cyres saw Nicholas Vaughan again, grinning happily. “Nick derided me for an intellectual,” she said. “He called me doctrinaire and theorist, but I could make a good farmer, too. I don’t like messing about in the house---Nick was much more domestic than I am---but I love cows and dairy work and horses. I used to think that when Nick took over Lannerdale I’d buy a small farm adjoining. I never told him so, but I always looked forward to being somewhere near him . . . What a pity----”

Anne began to like her better: this Elizabeth Vaughan had quite a lot in common with her brother after all.

“A pity indeed,” said St. Cyres sadly, but Miss Vaughan put in:

“One thing I have learnt from all this welter of misery called war, and that is that it’s no use lamenting what is past. I’m sorry about Nick, but he would probably have been killed in the Navy anyway, and he must have had some happy hours working in that garden.”

Colonel St. Cyres nodded. “You’re right there. If ever I’ve seen a happy man it was your brother, working over there at Little Thatch. He was a fine lad---I admired him as well as liked him.”

Elizabeth Vaughan paused a moment and then said: “I don’t know if you can help, but isn’t it possible to scotch this crazy idea of Wilton’s about Nick being murdered? I’m sure it’s just rubbish, and I do loathe melodrama and gossip and prolonging the agony.”

St. Cyres looked distressed again.

“I should be only too thankful to think the enquiry was at an end,” he said. “It makes the whole unhappy story doubly wretched. I will do all I can to stop any gossip in this neighbourhood, but I have no power to stop the enquiry. However, I do think the Scotland Yard officer is a very able man, intelligent and sensible---the enquiry could not be in better hands.”

“Scotland Yard! Good heavens---does that mean that there is any real evidence that things were wrong?”

“No, I don’t think it does,” replied St. Cyres. “I think Commander Wilton prevailed on the Assistant Commissioner to send an officer down here to make certain that no mistake has been made, and Chief Inspector Macdonald is doing his job most conscientiously, and considerately, too. I think it might be a good idea if you were to see him. He will have had full reports of all the evidence available, and it’s possible he could help you with regard to the time problem in your brother’s death.”

She hesitated, and for the first time looked uncertain and nonplussed. “Yes, I suppose I ought to see him,” she said. “The sickening part of it all is that this business about inheriting Lannerdale will make the whole thing more involved and increase the suspicions about foul play. I can see that---but it’s all such rubbish . . . However---can you advise me how I’m to get in touch with the Yard man?”

“I will ring through to the Superintendent at Mallowton,” replied St. Cyres. “He will arrange everything for you.”

“And meantime I will go and get some tea,” said Anne. “You must need it after all this talking and worrying.”

“What kind people you are,” exclaimed Elizabeth Vaughan, “and how much Nick must have liked you.”

---

A LITTLE over an hour later Macdonald himself appeared at Manor Thatch, having suggested when Colonel St. Cyres got through to him on the telephone that it would be simpler for Miss Vaughan if he came straight out to see her. Colonel St. Cyres brought the C.I.D. man into the sunny sitting-room at the Manor and said:

“I will leave you to talk to Miss Vaughan here. If there is anything I can do, you have only to call me.”

Elizabeth Vaughan set about her explanation to Macdonald with the straightforward clarity which was characteristic of her, ending up by saying: “I should like to say that I have no sympathy with Commander Wilton’s views: I think he is trying to make more trouble and create a melodrama from a wretched accident. I hope you have found that the straightforward explanation is the most probable one.”

“The trouble is that I don’t seem able to produce a straightforward explanation,” replied Macdonald. “There were two suggestions put forward to account for the fire; one was that the electric wiring was faulty, the other was that the kitchen chimney was at fault. Neither of these is tenable. The wiring could not have been to blame because there was no current---the storage batteries were not charged. I have spent most of to-day finding an old builder who once repaired the kitchen chimney, and he has assured me that no beam impinged on the stone chimney. The latter was almost a separate structure, built out clear of the cob walls in the way characteristic of the period, so I am farther than ever from finding a straightforward explanation.”

Elizabeth Vaughan sat silent, a frown on her smooth forehead. “So you believe the cottage was deliberately fired?” she asked.

“I am afraid that such a view must be considered. Why should that cottage have caught fire? I think it probable that the kitchen fire had not even been lighted on the Saturday of the fire, and from what I have been told of your brother, he was not the type of man to be careless with candle or lamp. He was said to have returned home shortly after nine o’clock in the evening. At half-past nine, when Colonel St. Cyres walked through the garden, there was no light in the windows. In short, the theory of accident has nothing to uphold it.”

Elizabeth Vaughan sat very still, and when she answered her voice was tense.

“Do you suppose that my brother went to bed and to sleep and that somebody set light to the cottage without waking him?”

“No. If his death were due to foul play, I think he must have been killed first, and the cottage fired afterwards to conceal the crime. I may be quite wrong, but such a possibility exists. Will you answer a few questions about him?”

“Of course.”

“Have you any idea why he came to live in Devon?”

“The only answer to that seems to be that Commander Wilton suggested this place and Nick liked it.”

“Would you have expected him to settle in Devon?”

“Certainly not. I should have expected him to go back to Lannerdale. They would have been glad to have him there: Uncle Joe was an old man and needed help.”

“Your brother was fond of Lannerdale?”

“He loved it. We both did.”

“Then can you make any suggestion as to why he came and settled in Devon and at the same time told his family nothing of his doings? Was there any reason to keep him from Lannerdale?”

“None that I know of.”

“Next, about his intended marriage. Have you any idea whom he meant to marry?”

“No idea at all. He never mentioned anything of the kind to me.”

Macdonald sat back in his chair and went on: “Doesn’t it seem reasonable to connect the two topics---his choice of abode and his choice of a wife? Isn’t it probable that his wife-to-be was either a Devonshire woman, or else a woman who did not want to go and live up north in Lannerdale?”

“That’s quite a reasonable supposition, but what has it got to do with his death?”

“I have been thinking about this problem from every angle, Miss Vaughan. Your brother seems to have been a very straightforward person. I can only find two points concerning him which aren’t easy to answer; one is his choice of Devon as a place to live in, one is the identity of the woman he hoped to marry. If there is any mystery about his death, it may well be concerned with those points. Can you remember any woman he cared about up north?”

“I don’t know. My brother was a very reticent person and did not discuss his affairs with anybody. I think when he was an undergraduate he was in love with a girl over at Kirkby Lonsdale---but I believe she got married to someone else. Since then I’ve never known Nick to show any interest in a woman.”

“Can you remember her name?”

“No. I never knew her. Her first name was Molly, or Mary or Maggie---something commonplace. She wasn’t a native of our parts: she used to stay with some people we knew in the holidays. I imagine she was a teacher. Oh, it’s all ages ago---and what can it have to do with the fire at Little Thatch?”

“Possibly nothing, but will you try to find out her name and who she married?”

“Yes. If you want me to. How furious Nick would have been about all this! He simply loathed people who ran round asking questions.”

“I’m sorry, but questions have got to be asked. Another point: did your brother always type his letters?”

“Of late years, yes. His handwriting was execrable. He took to typing when he first got things published. He wrote a bit, mostly journalistic stuff but he produced one book---pretty good. He didn’t tell me about it---that was just like him---but I got it out of the library and recognised what he was writing about. It was called Simon the Dalesman---it was all about Lannerdale.”

“I read that book,” said Macdonald. “I’d been on a job up north, near Lancaster, and I enjoyed reading about the country I’d just been in. Then your brother, Nicholas Vaughan, was the Henry Heythwaite who wrote Simon the Dalesman?”

“Yes. I only told you that because you asked about his typing. I expect when he settled at Little Thatch he meant to do some more writing.”

“Next,” went on Macdonald, “I think you had better tell me about the cousins who were to inherit Lannerdale if your brother predeceased his uncle.”

“The Hawkins. Sidney Herbert Hawkins---our pet abomination. He was something to do with shipping. He lived at Barrow when we were young, then he moved to Liverpool, and of recent years he’s lived in Southampton or Portsmouth, I believe. If you want to know about him you can write to uncle’s lawyers---Prestwich & Bonner of Sledbergh. I can’t imagine Sidney Herbert killing Nick in order to inherit Lannerdale. He despised the place.”

Macdonald sat silent for a moment, then he said: “One of the reasons, among many others, that a case like this has to be fully investigated is this: to kill the gossip which always rages round any unsolved problem. Do you know that an enterprising journalist has wormed out the fact that Colonel St. Cyres went to Little Thatch at half-past nine that Saturday evening, and has insinuated that St. Cyres was responsible for the subsequent disaster because Nicholas Vaughan was making love to his daughter?”

“How loathsome! Why, the old man is a dear---the kindest, straightest person.”

“So I believe,” said Macdonald, “but stories like that make me determined to find out what did happen.”

“Oh dear!” Elizabeth Vaughan sighed. “All this fuss and gossip about Nick who hated fuss and gossip---and he probably forgot to blow his candle out when he went and got some paraffin from the cupboard.”

“I don’t see him doing that---not if he was the man I imagine him to be,” replied Macdonald.
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