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Chapter Thirteen

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« on: May 04, 2023, 07:55:17 am »

WHEN Macdonald returned to Mallowton after his conversation with Mr. Thomas Gressingham, he found Superintendent Bolton awaiting him with a troubled face.

“It looks as though we’ve unearthed a bit of hankey-pankey on Mr. Gressingham’s part,” said the Superintendent, “though if it’s all of a piece with the Little Thatch business, I can’t tell.”

The new evidence ran thus: Macdonald had been impressed by young Alf’s acuteness; he believed that the boy had been telling the truth when he averred that he had heard Mr. Gressingham’s car pass Corner Cottage on the evening of the fire, though Superintendent Bolton had been disposed to attribute the statement to imagination on Alf’s part. Macdonald had set routine enquiries on foot with the object of getting further information about the Daimler---he had instructed all patrolling constables to enquire of roadmen, farm labourers, and cottagers if any such evidence could be found.

A roadman employed by the Rural Council of Creediford had that evening informed a constable that there were wheel tracks on a recently mended piece of road, which tracks corresponded with those mentioned by the police. Constable Thurgood had gone to investigate this report: he had found that a bad patch of road had been repaired in the rather sketchy manner of the times, and a coat of tar had been applied to the patch, the work having been completed on Saturday, April 30th. Some time before the tar had dried a car had been driven over it, and its wheel tracks showed clearly for some yards beyond the mended stretch of road. The road in question was a lonely by-road leading only to a farm, though it was possible to take a lane leading off to the right and to regain the main road without reversing. Constable Thurgood had examined the road-side with great thoroughness and had discovered tracks in a spinney where the undergrowth was beaten down. In the heart of the spinney, carefully concealed beneath the brambles, Thurgood had found two empty petrol cans and a heavy leather glove.

There was still an hour or two of daylight left when Macdonald heard these facts from Bolton, and in a very short space of time he and the Superintendent were in a car heading towards Creediford. Studying the Ordnance Survey map, Macdonald considered the distance and direction of Creediford from Mallory Fitzjohn. Driving from the Mallorys one reached a main road, and a left turn along it led towards Tiverton, and a fork on the right a mile farther on towards Creediford, the general direction being northwards from the Mallorys. The newly-repaired patch of road was just under six miles from Mallory Fitzjohn and four from Tiverton. When they drew up in the narrow road where repairs had been made Macdonald was in no doubt whatever that the tyre marks he saw were those left by Gressingham’s Daimler.

The Chief Inspector had had a good look at the tyres on that car and had noted their magnificent condition; “as new” described them, the tread being quite unworn, a marked contrast to the condition of most tyres in these days of rubber shortage. The patch of repaired road was not more than a couple of yards in extent, but the tar on it had adhered to the tyres, and their marks were as clear as “finger-prints taken by a pro,” to use Thurgood’s expression. The tyre marks were clear for nearly a hundred yards before the tar faded out.

“That’ll be the Daimler prints?” queried Bolton, and Macdonald nodded:

“Those were made by the Daimler all right. I saw it this evening, and there are still traces of tar in the pattern of the treads.”

They walked on to the spinney at the side of the road and walked through the fresh May undergrowth where wind-flowers and primroses still bloomed in the cool shadows. Macdonald turned to Constable Thurgood. “This seems a lonely place. Not much traffic along here at any time, I should say?”

“Nothing but farm traffic, sir, and not much of that save at haymaking and harvest. The farm below there---Swallowford’s its name---has another approach to the main road. I asked them if anybody had been along this way on the evening of April 30th, and they said no. They’re seldom out after dusk, and if they were there’s nothing to bring them out here. It’s the sort of place you mightn’t meet anybody for weeks at a time, saving when the hay carts pass, or at harvest. I hoped I might get some information about the car that made these tracks---but no one saw it or could tell me anything about it. There are some children at Swallowford, but it so happened they were laid up---measles, they’d got. Now just you look here, sir.”

Constable Thurgood indicated his find with pride in his eyes while Macdonald picked up the heavy leather glove and examined it. He then raised one of the petrol cans and turned it carefully over. Finally he said to Bolton:

“This is part and parcel of the Little Thatch case all right. That driving glove was Vaughan’s, there’s the companion to it in the door pocket of his own car. The petrol cans were his, too. He used a distinguishing mark like a cypher or monogram of his initials N.V. It looks like an awkwardly shaped W.”

“Well, I’m damned,” said Bolton, and his voice sounded despondent. “I never thought he would have been up to any tricks like this.”

“How do you interpret the facts?” asked Macdonald.

“Plain enough at first sight,” said Bolton. “It looks like Black Market dodges with petrol. Vaughan had an allowance of petrol for running his pump and lighting plant, and you found he hadn’t even charged his batteries. I’ve heard of fancy prices being paid for petrol---as much as three or four pounds a gallon.”

“And you think Vaughan cached his spare petrol here and Gressingham picked it up?” enquired Macdonald. “I admit that it looks like it, and it was intended to look like it, but it’ll take a lot to convince me that Nicholas Vaughan was in the Black Market racket. However, we’ll pick this stuff up and put it in the car, and then examine the road while the daylight holds.”

They worked carefully along the road, and in the verge of the lane which led back to the main road they found further traces of the Daimler’s balloon tyres, but no traces of Vaughan’s ancient Morris. Macdonald pondered deeply. The spinney was a good place for a private meeting---Thurgood’s evidence made that clear. If Vaughan had thus used the place, Macdonald guessed that he might have parked his car some way back along the road, where a recess in the hedge, once used for a heap of road metal, made a convenient parking spot. The fact that the spinney was about half-way between the Mallorys and Tiverton was suggestive.

Eventually, as the daylight faded out, Macdonald and Bolton returned to the police-car and set off on their return journey to Mallowton.

“What do you make of it, Chief?” enquired Bolton. “I always remember what you said to me in connection with Colonel St. Cyres---that you’d suspect anybody if you could smell a motive. I disagreed with you. I’d swear that St. Cyres is straight, and I’d back him no matter what anybody suggested. Now you’re backing Vaughan in the same way I backed St. Cyres, although you can see a motive all right---profit and a big profit.”

“Admitted,” said Macdonald, “but I find it hard to believe that Vaughan was a fool. If he had been selling petrol to a man like Gressingham he’d have been a very big fool indeed. He’d never have been safe, because Gressingham is subtle enough to safeguard himself and leave Vaughan in the soup. Then there’s this to it. Vaughan wouldn’t have dumped petrol in that spinney and left it for an indefinite period. It might have been found by anybody, particularly by the farm children. Now that road was tarred some time on Saturday morning: the Daimler passed over the tar while it was still wet---but the Morris didn’t. The only way the Morris could have reached the spinney was by the lane, and then it would have had to be reversed out, because there’s no room to turn. We examined that lane pretty carefully, and the edges are damp and show tyre marks---but there’s not a trace of the Morris. I don’t believe you could back a car along that lane and not leave some marks of your passing.”

“You could leave the car and carry the petrol cans.”

“You could---but you’d look pretty fishy if anyone caught you doing it. I still don’t think it’s the sort of thing Vaughan would have done. If there’s one characteristic which he showed in all his doings it was common sense.”

“You still haven’t told me what you make of it.”

“I don’t know,” replied Macdonald. “It can be interpreted in half a dozen different ways. The first’s your suggestion---that Vaughan was dumping petrol for Gressingham to pick up. The second is that Gressingham dumped those cans and the glove, intending them to be found, but that he didn’t realise there was wet tar on the road, which gave away the fact that he’d passed, or his car had passed. Another reading is that someone borrowed Gressingham’s car without his knowledge.”

“What about this one?” enquired Bolton. “Someone went to Little Thatch to steal Vaughan’s petrol in his absence. Vaughan came back and caught them at it; he was knocked over the head and the cottage left to burn. The thief decided to keep the petrol and get rid of the cans, so he dumped them out here.”

“And used half the petrol in doing so---a fool of a thief, but thieves often are fools. I expect it’s too much to hope for finger-prints on those cans, but we’ll try.”

They rode in silence for a while, each busy with his own thoughts, and then Bolton asked,

“What’s your opinion of Gressingham, Chief?”

“I think he’s a man with a lot of ability and natural shrewdness. He has got that type of gambling mind which makes a natural speculator, and that means he can take a hazard and keep cool until he sees which way the cat jumps. I should say at a guess that he has no moral values at all; he’d keep within the law because he’d find it inconvenient to be on the wrong side of the law. I have no doubt he’d buy off-the-ration petrol if he could do it safely, but he’d never do anything that was merely stupid. I have been getting a little private information about him, and I find his business associates agree with Howard Brendon about him---he’s honest, so far as the ethics of the stock market demand honesty. He pays up on settling day.”

“There’s been a lot of gossip about him and young Mrs. St. Cyres.”

“That I don’t doubt. The general opinion among his acquaintances is that he and his wife don’t hit it and that she is going off on her own account. I should think it’s quite probable that he hopes that June St. Cyres will take his wife’s place in due course---but I can’t quite see how that fits in with the death of Nicholas Vaughan. The Gressinghams of this world don’t care a snap about reputation in the old-fashioned sense of the word.”

“Isn’t it possible that Vaughan saw a bit too much? Perhaps Gressingham didn’t like to think of his lady-love being discredited.”

Macdonald shook his head. “I don’t think Gressingham would care. The St. Cyres would care---but that’s a different story. In any case I imagine Vaughan was the sort of chap to keep his own counsel. It was no business of his how June St. Cyres and Gressingham behaved. No. I’m still faced with the same two problems. Where did Vaughan go on the last evening of his life, and who was the woman he hoped to marry?”

---

After Macdonald had left him, Mr. Gressingham sat and pondered for a while. Then he went out and had another look at his car. Though he was not so quick as Macdonald, he was observant enough, and soon spotted a fact which he had not previously noted---there were marks of tar in the tread of the wheels. He got into the driving seat again and studied the petrol gauge, and at length went back into the house. Here he found his friend Radcliffe stretched out in somnolent restfulness in the biggest armchair, his feet reposing on a second chair.

“Wake up, Rummy. There’s been some jiggery-pokery going on, you’d better use your wits and do a spot of thinking.”

Radcliffe opened his eyes wearily. “What’s the trouble? I came here for a spot of rest and the place is overrun with police. Can’t they make up their minds and be done with it?”

Gressingham detailed Macdonald’s observations, and Radcliffe sat up and listened. When the recital came to an end Radcliffe said: “So you’re disposed to agree. Someone did take that car out. That it?”

“Looks like it. Bob gave the car a wash down to get the mud off. There was no tar on the wheels then. Look here, Rummy. If you took that car out that Saturday, say so. Nothing like understanding each other.”

Radcliffe sat up. “I didn’t take the car out, so get that clear. If I had I should have told you so. In any case, how the heck do you think I got the petrol to fill up again?”

Gressingham sat very still, and at length he said: “There was one place where petrol could have been pinched, and that place was Little Thatch. Vaughan would have had petrol in cans for his engine. That’s what the Yard bloke was getting at, Rummy, and that’s where you and I have got to watch our steps.”

Radcliffe sat up, his round, foolish face looked annoyed.

“I don’t quite get you, Thomas. If you’ve got any suggestions to make, make them quite clear. I told you I didn’t take the car out. Got that?”

“Yes. I’ve got it. I also told the Chief Inspector that I didn’t take it either. Unfortunately, there’s nobody to corroborate what we said. You went to bed early. I’ve known you do that before, Rummy, and heard you come in a few hours later. If you like to go chasing skirts in the country, it’s no affair of mine. At least it hasn’t been in the past. This time it’s different.”

Radcliffe sat up, and ponderously lowered his sučde brogues to the floor. “I’ve said my piece and said it quite clearly,” he said, and his voice was several semi-tones higher than usual, “so I’ve no need to repeat it. I did not take the car out, you did not take the car out, but the car was taken out. That it?”

“That’s it.”

“Then who borrowed it? Damn it, Tommy, it oughtn’t to be that difficult to decide. It’s not everybody’s car. No use suspecting the farm boys---they couldn’t drive a Daimler. What about the ignition key?”

Gressingham pulled his key-ring out of his pocket. “My key is there, as you see; it’s been on that ring, in my possession for years, but, as you happen to know, I keep a spare key in the locker of the car, just in case of accidents.”

“Did you tell the Yard bloke that?”

“No, I didn’t. I wanted to talk to you first---just in case.”

“Thank you so much.” Radcliffe’s voice was acid now, but Gressingham went on quite placidly,

“As I see it, the number of people who could have taken that car out is limited. I am trying to look at it from a detective’s point of view. There’s our two selves, the old man at Manor Thatch, and Vaughan himself.”

Radcliffe was silent, and Gressingham went on: “Anyway, Scotland Yard seems to have made up its mind on two points. A, My car was out on Saturday night. B, My car was somehow concerned in the doings up there---and I don’t like it!

“No use bleating at me about it,” said Radcliffe, “and neither am I going to get the jitters over it. The fact is, Tommy, you’ve talked too much. Brendon was quite right when he said you’d better keep off the grass. You’ve been too ready to make suggestions and to cast suspicion on other people. Damned bad policy. Far better to keep quiet and let the police get on with their own job.”

“Maybe; if other people had kept quiet, I should have followed suit. Do you know the Yard man told me that fag ends of my Balkan Sobranies had been found in the Little Thatch garden?”

“And you are wondering who has been pinching your cigarettes, eh? Not me, Tommy, I loathe Turkish tobacco.”

“I never said it was you, Rummy, but I don’t like the look of things. You mentioned Howard Brendon just now. I’m going to talk things over with him. He may be a dry old stick, but he knows his stuff as a lawyer. If folks are being slanderous at my expense, it’s time they were told to stop it.”

“Well, you’ve got to make your own decisions, and it’s no business of mine to interfere,” said Radcliffe, “but I agree with what Brendon said in the first place: don’t be in a hurry to talk too much. Keep off the grass.”

“Admirable advice, I’m sure, but who was it who told Scotland Yard about Vaughan’s telephone messages---his ‘code,’ as you were pleased to call it? I seem to recollect that you had a few words to say there.”

“Certainly. That was evidence. Not inference.”

“And damned awkward evidence it is, my lad. Those calls came from a Tiverton call-box, and one of them came through on the Saturday afternoon that Vaughan was killed in the fire. Macdonald has found out that the only people in this house at the hour that call was put through by exchange were you and me. I didn’t answer that phone, I know that.” Radcliffe sat silent, his round, heavy face furrowed with lines in a concentrated effort of recollection.

“I damn well know I didn’t answer it,” he said slowly.

Gressingham got to his feet. “I told Macdonald that you were asleep in the garden,” he said. “All the same, if you have been getting calls from one of your girl friends at Tiverton, you’d better say so. Things are looking a bit unhealthy, if you ask me.”

With his little mouth pursed up like the mouth of a codfish Radcliffe stared across at the other. At last he said: “Look here, Tommy. You and I have been very good friends for quite a time, and I don’t let my friends down, but if you are going to make insinuations, or try to involve me in trouble in order to keep out of it yourself, you’re asking for a headache. I’m an easygoing chap as a rule, but if I’m annoyed I’m a nasty devil to deal with.”

“Your dinner’s ready, Mr. Gressingham; I hope you’ll find it to your liking.”

It was Mrs. Hesling who spoke. She had opened the door without either man hearing it, and Radcliffe looked more put out than ever. Gressingham, however, replied quite cheerfully,

“Thanks, Mrs. Hesling, your dinners always are to my liking.”

Mrs. Hesling went back to her great kitchen shaking her head.

“I’m worried, Joe,” she said sadly. “I wish he’d never come here, nor his friends neither.”

“ ’Tis too late in the day to think o’ that now,” replied Joe Hesling. “You would have it, Mother. Wanted to make a bit of money on your own, and see how ’tis. Police in and out of the house and questions, questions enough to make a man’s head ache. I’m fair ’mazed with it all. All I do say is this, there weren’t no call for Little Thatch to burn as her did. Timothy Yeo lived there full twenty-five years and her didn’t burn. And we’ve not heard the last o’ mun yet. You mark my words. There’s trouble to come and plenty.”

“And him’s quarrelling now,” sighed Mrs. Hesling. “Iss, quarrelling---Him be a nasty devil to deal with, mun said.”

“Ar . . . him could be, too, likely,” said Mr. Hesling. “Tell you what, Mother. You send mun packing. Sooner the better. Them’s no call to do no quarrelling here. Send mun back where he do belong. We’m wanting no fires in our thatches. No, nor no quarrelling neither, money or no money.”

---

Macdonald’s post the next morning brought him several reports, but the letter which interested him most was from Miss Elizabeth Vaughan. With an energy which he judged to be characteristic of her, Miss Vaughan had caught the night train from Exeter to the north of England and had reached Lannerdale the following morning. Here she had set to work immediately to collect the information which Macdonald had asked for. She sent him chapter and verse concerning the Hawkins branch of the family whose claim to Lannerdale she intended to dispute. Sidney Hawkins and his son Richard now lived near Portsmouth, and Macdonald immediately sent a telephone message to the police of that district asking for discreet enquiries to be made as to their doings and whereabouts on April 30th. Elizabeth’s next report dealt with the girl, the one and only girl, Macdonald noted, in whom Elizabeth Vaughan could suggest that her brother had been interested. “You asked me to let you know if I could get any news of her,” wrote Elizabeth Vaughan, “and though it seems quite irrelevant to me, I have done what you asked. The girl’s name was Molly White. She wasn’t a teacher, as I thought, but a hospital nurse. She was back in this district as recently as January of last year, because she was posted to the Military Hospital at Longbeck Hall, about ten miles from Lannerdale. She came over to visit my uncle and aunt. I am told that she left Longbeck last May, and she was married to someone in the south of England a month or so later. So far as I can gather, she had not heard of or from my brother since before the war, so I cannot imagine that her existence is of any interest to you. The more I think about this business the more certain do I become that accident is the real explanation. It seems quite crazy to think that anyone should have attempted to murder my brother. Of all the people I’ve ever known Nicholas was the least melodramatic and the most able to look after himself. I can believe that his cottage caught fire accidentally, but I cannot believe the other explanation.”

Macdonald showed this letter to Bolton; the Superintendent studied it carefully.

“Any chance she had a hand in the matter herself?” he enquired. “She seems a cool card and very anxious to persuade you it was all an accident. She’s mighty keen on getting this Lannerdale place, isn’t she? And she claims her brother made a will in her favour.”

“All quite true,” agreed Macdonald. “Do you imagine she borrowed Mr. Thomas Gressingham’s car and took two of her brother’s petrol tins and dumped them by the wayside some miles away?”

Bolton rubbed his chin: “Maybe if she was stranded for petrol she got it out to her own car that way,” he said, and then brought his fist down on the table with a bang. “Dash it all, Chief, the further we get with this story the crazier it becomes,” he declared. “Come to think of it, what evidence---solid honest-to-God evidence---have we which leads us to assume Vaughan was murdered? Two empty petrol cans and a driving glove in a spinney. Isn’t it possible there’s a simple explanation of everything?”

“I could give you a dozen simple explanations,” said Macdonald cheerfully, “but none of them would be really convincing. Commander Wilton made one very good point when he reminded me that a sailor like Nicholas Vaughan does wake up pretty quickly if anything goes wrong. He’d be the last man in the world to sleep while his house is on fire. Then, remember this: Colonel St. Cyres walked right past the front of the house, along the cobbles at half-past nine that evening. Wouldn’t Vaughan have looked out to see who was on his property?”

“Well, if he looked out, he kept mum about it.”

“Yes, and my guess is that Nicholas Vaughan was dead before Colonel St. Cyres walked along the cobbles---but, admittedly, I haven’t proved it yet.”

Bolton picked up Elizabeth Vaughan’s letter. “So it looks as though she’ll inherit if that’s the way of it, Chief . . . but you check up on her just to make sure.”

“Yes. I seem to spend my life ‘just making sure,’ ” rejoined Macdonald, “and it’s time I got on with it.”

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