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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: May 04, 2023, 12:43:16 pm »

MACDONALD himself had been having a busy day. After leaving Shermouth he had driven to Torhampton, where he had again interviewed a hospital matron. This time he had acquired information which had a much more direct bearing on his case---information which he had expected, after long consideration of all the facts known to him, plus his own estimate of Nicholas Vaughan. During Vaughan’s convalescence there had been a Nurse White in the hospital, and the Matron admitted, though unwillingly, that she had known that Vaughan became devoted to his nurse to an extent not approved of by the Matron or Sisters. On this account Nurse White had been transferred to another hospital in Devon, in the neighbourhood of Tiverton.

Macdonald had sat silent for a minute or two, studying the stern, troubled face of the Matron. At length he had said:

“I don’t want to press you to give me information which I know you would rather withhold. Later, it may be necessary for you to give information in a Court of Law---but I hope it won’t be necessary. Will you answer this question: is it not true that Nurse White is a married woman who had resumed her maiden name for her professional work?”

“Yes,” replied the Matron. She then added: “While I make no inquisition into the private lives of my nurses, especially under present-day conditions, it is essential that I should know a little about those who are working here. Nurse White is a most skilled and conscientious nurse, and I had complete trust in her ability and trustworthiness on duty. I was very sorry to lose her. I knew that she had had a disastrous marriage, and I gathered that her decision to leave her husband had very strong grounds to uphold it. He was a sadist---a pathological type well known to the psychologists. I should like to add that I think it highly improbable that Nurse White has done anything for which she could be condemned by any person of human sympathies. If your enquiries mean, as I fear, that further trouble lies in store for her, I can only say that I deeply regret it. The work she did here proved her to be a woman capable of devotion and self-sacrifice---two essential qualities in our calling.”

Macdonald bowed: a quietly courteous gesture which was an acknowledgment of the respect for the lady who was talking to him.

“Thank you for what you have said,” he replied. “Your calling is one for which I have the deepest respect, and I can assure you that I shall endeavour to avoid causing distress to any nurse. I have seen something of the devotion and self-sacrifice of the hospital staffs in the London blitz, and, believe me, I shall never forget it. Thank you for having answered my questions.”

He got up and took his leave. The Matron sat on for a few moments, staring straight in front of her. She, like Macdonald, had often to study the complex pattern of cause and effect. She had not told him so, but the Matron had often dreaded such an interview in the past few weeks, had often wondered how she would answer the questions which had just been put to her. Because truth was inherent in her she had answered truthfully, but as she sat her lips formulated soundless words: “Poor child . . . poor child.”

---

IT was evening before Macdonald came into the presence of the woman whose identity he had believed all through his enquiry to be the key to the riddle of Nicholas Vaughan’s death. As he rose to his feet when she came into the room he found himself facing a tall, pale girl, clad in the immaculate white and blue of hospital uniform. She was very fair, with smooth, pale hair brushed back severely under her starched cap. Her face had the even pallor, not of sickness but of health---firm cheeks, firm lips, rounded chin, and clear grey eyes: a Norse type, with something statuesque in her stillness and dignity. She faced Macdonald steadily, meeting his gaze with her own.

“I am Nurse White. Matron says you wish to speak to me.”

“Yes. Will you sit down. I am the officer in charge of the enquiry concerning the death of Nicholas Vaughan of Little Thatch.”

She sat down in the chair he drew forward and sat erect, her hands lightly clasped on her lap, and waited for him to continue, very still and self-controlled.

“You knew Nicholas Vaughan?” he asked.

“Yes. I have known him for many years. I nursed him at Torhampton Hospital.”

“The Matron there spoke to me of your work---and praised it highly. I don’t want to ask you more questions than I must, Nurse. The situation is a difficult one, but I must tell you this. I have reason to believe that Nicholas Vaughan was murdered, and it is necessary for me to find out what he was doing on the last evening of his life. First, will you tell me what you yourself were doing on the evening of April 30th last?”

“I was on night duty here. I came on duty at eight o’clock in the evening, after I had had breakfast---as night nurses call it---at seven. I was in this building from five o’clock onwards, if that is what you want to know.”

Her voice was low and steady, and Macdonald guessed it was her nurse’s training which enabled her to maintain such a steadfast front.

“Thank you. My next question is this: have you on some occasions telephoned a message to Nicholas Vaughan, using the telephone in Bridgeway, Tiverton, and calling the number of the phone at Hinton Mallory?”

“Yes. I frequently used that call-box and sent a message by Mrs. Hesling at Hinton Mallory.”

“So far as you know, could anybody else have known that you did so---that is, that you communicated with Nicholas Vaughan in that way, using a specific form of words?”

She sat statue still, her face white, but her hands still relaxed, her grey eyes dilated but steady.

“I don’t know, Inspector. The only way anyone could have known was if they took my message at the Hinton Mallory telephone and recognised my voice. I can only say---I do not know.”

“Very good. Next, did you occasionally meet Nicholas Vaughan in a spinney on a by-road between Tiverton and Creediford?”

“Yes.”

“How did you reach that spot?”

“On my bicycle.”

“Did it ever occur to you that you were followed or observed?”

“No. Otherwise I should not have continued to meet him there.” Her self-control gave a little, inasmuch as her hands suddenly clenched and she spoke quickly without waiting to be questioned. “I read of Nicholas Vaughan’s death in the paper. I don’t want to tell you what I felt about it . . . then, I read about the inquest. It seemed certain that his death was due to accident. I believed that to be true. There was nothing I could do . . .”

“I know,” replied Macdonald quietly. “I don’t want to distress you by going over matters which are not relevant, and you know enough about the law to know that there are questions on which your evidence may not be invoked. I want to ask a minimum of legitimate questions. If Mr. Vaughan ever asked for you on the telephone here, did he use the name under which he wrote---Henry Heythwaite?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think it possible that anybody in this place could have listened in to your phone calls, or spied on you---to put it bluntly?”

Again she sat with that curious stillness, tense and erect.

“I don’t know. It may have happened . . . In all institutional life there are jealousies and frustrations . . . and gossip. It may have been so.”

“Do you know a Mrs. Gressingham? Have you ever met anyone of that name?”

“No, but there is a member of the office staff here who talks about a Mrs. Gressingham---an auxiliary ambulance driver.”

“Did you know that Mrs. Gressingham’s husband retains rooms at Hinton Mallory?”

That question shook her: the firm lips quivered and her shoulders jerked in surprise. “No, indeed, I did not know . . . I had no idea.”

“Did Mr. Vaughan ever mention Gressingham to you?”

“No, never. The only people he spoke of were the St. Cyres. I have met Mr. Gressingham . . . but I never thought of him going to Mallory Fitzjohn.”

“Was the name of Henry Heythwaite ever mentioned in conversation when you talked to Gressingham?”

She sat frowning, intent, rigid, her hands gripped together. “I believe so . . . once. I avoided saying anything . . . but----”

She hesitated, and Macdonald said, “That was all I wanted to know---that that name was mentioned.”

She put her hands up to her eyes---a gesture of intolerable distress, and then resumed her pose of quiet attention, the trained stillness which Macdonald could not but admire.

“There is something else I ought to tell you, Inspector. I wonder if you can understand . . . I’m so tired of my own wretched problems that it’s only when I’m working I find life bearable. If you work very hard you have no time to think of yourself . . . I married on impulse, foolishly, thinking, as many women do, it would be good to have a home and a reliable husband. Soon after I was married I had cause to suspect that my husband had been married previously and was a bigamist.”

Macdonald’s question came quickly. “Did Vaughan know that?”

“Yes. He knew what I suspected, and he was trying to find out.” She watched Macdonald’s face and cried out, “It wasn’t that! It couldn’t have been. He couldn’t have been there that evening. I found out where he was.”

Macdonald had risen to his feet. “You must leave all that to me,” he answered quietly. “Just now you spoke about your work. You are on night duty, aren’t you? Go back to the Wards and do your work, and think only about your work. I hope you will have a very busy night---too busy to think about yourself. Believe me, I am sorry for all these distresses and sorry I have had to worry you afresh.”

She looked back at him, her grey eyes dark and desolate, but yet with that trained calm which never quite forsook her.

“Was it all my fault?” She asked the question of herself rather than of Macdonald, and he replied:

“The Matron at Torhampton told me you were a good nurse, capable of devotion and self-sacrifice. Put that in the balance. I do.”

She gazed at him wide-eyed, her face drawn and strained, but then replied: “That was a kind thing to say. I am grateful for it.”

“I think there’s one other thing I should like to say---as a human being and not as a police official. While Nicholas Vaughan was at Little Thatch, he was very happy. He died, I am certain, without knowing anything of suffering or trouble. Think of that, too.” And with that he left her.

---

It was nine o’clock before Macdonald saw Bolton. The C.I.D. man had had a lot of telephoning to do and many matters to arrange before he sat down with Bolton’s typed sheets in front of him. Macdonald read the sheets with only one half of his mind: the other was listening for a telephone call. Bolton was worried because he could not get on to Raymond Radcliffe’s trail. The absurdly fat man seemed to have disappeared without anyone noticing him.

“I’ve tried the Exeter stations and the bus station, the taxi hire offices and garages, and none of them report seeing him,” said Bolton.

“It’s quite likely he got on the train at a small station on some branch line,” said Macdonald. “These days there are very few porters about on the small stations and none at the halts. We shall find him all right---Radcliffe hasn’t the physique to stage a disappearing trick.”

“Do you think Rainsford’s idea is feasible?” enquired Bolton, “that Gressingham was killed and the car started by the murderer heading straight down that hill---or did Gressingham go to sleep at the wheel?”

“Either is possible. If it hadn’t been for previous events accident might well have been accepted as the explanation,” said Macdonald---and then the phone bell rang.

“For you,” said Bolton, handing over the receiver.

Macdonald gave his name and listened for some time. Then he said, “All right. I’ll come over at once. Thank you for notifying me.”

He hung up the receiver and turned to Bolton. “That was Mr. Howard Brendon. He says Radcliffe is at his house and he’s feeling uneasy. Will you come over with me?”

Bolton got up. “I’ll come. This is the last lap, Chief?”

“I think so---and it may be rough going. When a man has committed one murder he has nothing much to lose. I shall be glad to have you, Super, and we’ll take a couple of your men---but this is my show, and I do it my own way.”

“Right, but look out for yourself.”

“I will. It’s no part of my duty to get murdered. From the point of view of detection that’s merely making a mess of it,” replied Macdonald.

---

HOWARD Brendon himself admitted Macdonald to his house at Dulverton, apologising for the absence of any servants, and adding that he was shortly shutting the house up. He then lowered his voice, saying, “I’d like to have a word with you alone before you see Radcliffe. There are one or two points I should like to make.”

“Of course,” Macdonald replied, as he pulled his driving gloves off and undid his top coat. “Can I leave this here? It’s turned very warm,” he observed, and as he spoke a telephone bell shrilled in a room opening out of the hall.

“Yes, leave it on the chest. I’ll just answer that damned telephone,” replied Brendon. A moment later he was back in the hall. “Wrong number. Come along in.”

Macdonald followed him into a finely panelled room. It was gloomy, despite the electric lamps, for the dark panelling seemed to swallow up the light. The two men advanced towards the fireplace, where there were two armchairs, and Brendon suddenly said: “Do you hear anything? That chap’s behaving queerly.”

Macdonald stood and listened, his eyes on the other’s. Brendon had curiously light eyes, and the pupils were contracted to pin points. Still holding the other’s gaze, Macdonald replied in a deliberately equable tone of voice:

“No, I can’t hear anything. Why was it that you borrowed Gressingham’s car that night? I often wondered.”

There was dead silence, in which the two faced one another, perfectly still. Brendon stood firmly, his chin up, his hands in his pockets, and he looked perfectly normal except for his eyes. Macdonald guessed that he was on the verge of mental instability, and he had risked his question to surprise the other into replying. The answer was startling in its simplicity.

“I ran out of petrol. It was awkward. I had to get back . . .” He ran his hands over his head, in the gesture of a tired man, and suddenly jerked his head up.

“What the devil are you talking about? You want to see Radcliffe.”

“I’m much more interested in talking to you,” replied Macdonald, still in that even voice. Brendon’s face twitched and his expression altered, as a sleep walker’s might when he became aware of his surroundings.

“You’re interested in me? That’s funny . . . We’re alone here, you know. I saw to that.”

“Very wise of you. We don’t want to be interrupted, do we?”

Again that silence and stillness, broken now by Brendon’s quickened breathing.

“I’m tired,” he said. “I’ve had a lot to think about. I’m going away from here. Sick of the place. You’ll stay here, of course. You realise that. You and Radcliffe. I’ve thought all that out, too.”

“I see. I wondered how you would arrange things,” said Macdonald. “It’s an ingenious idea: your ideas are ingenious, and you have a great sense of detail. I suppose that you have arranged to stay at that hotel in Taunton, as you did before? The outside lock-ups for cars are just what you need for your plans.”

Brendon stared back, and Macdonald could see the small muscles twitching round his eyes and the pulses of his temples throbbing. He answered at last, his curt voice rather hoarse: “Yes, just what I wanted. You’re intelligent. I realised that the moment I set eyes on you, but you’ve the usual defect of the Scots---you’re too sure of yourself. It’s conceit that has finished you. You came here alone, thinking you could be master of the situation, and I’ve got you covered. You’re quite helpless. I’ve noticed the way you prefer to work alone. I’ve been watching you quite a lot---just as I watched Vaughan. Creature of habit, you know. Men tend to grow like that.”

“Yes,” agreed Macdonald. “That’s quite true. I realise the situation all right, but I’d like you to know this. I’ve got my duty to do, no matter what my position may be, and it’s my duty to caution you that anything you say can be used in evidence against you.”

Brendon laughed. “You haven’t much sense of humour, have you? Keep your hands on that chair. I’m not risking anything. Whoever gives evidence, it won’t be you. This house is well and truly secured. There are shutters at all the windows and the doors are good ones. They’ll burn eventually---but not for a long time. I’ve got it all arranged.”

“Then before you stage the final act, wouldn’t you like to hear a reconstruction of the story? This is a unique situation, isn’t it?”

Again came that short, rasping laugh and the queer twitch of the eyes. “I’d say it is. I’ll give you five minutes. I shall enjoy hearing you talk. I promise I won’t repeat any confidences.”

“That’s for you to decide. When I’ve finished you can tell me where I went wrong. I think the crucial point was the matter of Gressingham’s car. Somebody used it that night, and somebody obtained about a gallon of petrol from Little Thatch---counting what was left, after refuelling the Daimler. Now it seemed unreasonable to suppose that Gressingham took his car out. If he did the job at Little Thatch he had no need of a car. Even supposing he had killed Vaughan in that spinney where the petrol cans were dumped, there was Vaughan’s Morris to bring him back to Mallory Fitzjohn. The man who took the Daimler out did it in order to take a little petrol to refuel his own car, which had run short. He couldn’t go to a garage to refuel, could he? It was essential for him not to be seen about. Theoretically he was in his room at a hotel in Taunton---and he had got to get back there so that he could be seen in the lounge as soon as possible---say about eleven o’clock. I worked it out like this: Vaughan reached the spinney at 6.15, in response to the telephone message. He was killed in the spinney. He had backed his own car into a recess in the road where road metal had been dumped. The killer drove back to Taunton and had dinner at his hotel---it was only a twenty-mile drive. He went into the lounge from seven-thirty to eight-thirty, and then said he was going to work in his room. He slipped out of the hotel, got out the car he had hired for the purpose, and drove to the spinney again, putting on Vaughan’s coat and hat. He then drove back to the Mallorys in Vaughan’s Morris. It was twilight, and he risked sounding the horn and waving in Vaughan’s habitual manner at Corner Cottage. The rest he managed skilfully---but he had a lot of luck when he dragged a sack unseen into the cottage.”

Brendon’s face twitched more than ever. “That was the difficult part,” he said. “I can use my brains---but it took a lot of muscle to move that sack . . .”

Macdonald went on in his even voice: “Having completed all that it was necessary to do at Little Thatch, the killer went down to Hinton Mallory. It was getting dark now, and he risked walking in Vaughan’s old coat and his ancient hat. He got the Daimler out without being observed, drove up the hill and picked up the petrol he had dumped, and drove back to the spinney. He put some petrol in his own tank, and drove back to Taunton. I know that because he was seen in the hotel there at half-past eleven. I think he must have left Gressingham’s Daimler parked by the spinney where the petrol cans were concealed. Very few people pass that way, and none of the folk at the farm near by went out that evening after dusk. This plan necessitated another drive: leaving the Taunton hotel in the small hours he drove back to the spinney and returned the Daimler to the shed at Hinton Mallory, with added fuel in its tanks. Then, a walk back to the spinney and a final drive in to Taunton, and the matter of getting back into the hotel again by the bedroom window---not too difficult for a determined man. It was very well thought out.”

Brendon was breathing heavily, but his pale face was more under control, the twitch around his eyes less noticeable. “You interest me,” he said, and his dry voice was almost his normal curt tone. “You have a hypothetical case, but you have no evidence. It’s all assumption. I should be interested to hear the case put forward by Counsel for the Prosecution and to hear it riddled by defending counsel---as it would be---but it won’t come to that. I’ve thought it all out.”

“Your mistake was in using Gressingham’s Daimler, and thereby bringing Gressingham into it,” said Macdonald. “He began to think, and, unlike you, I never despised his ability. I always thought he was shrewd and observant---and you found that to be true in the end. Gressingham guessed, and you had to finish him, too, to safeguard yourself. You might have got away with the Little Thatch fire, but not with the second business. The case is complete against you---including motive and method.”

“So you boast. Do you think I have planned thus far and not thought ahead? I know what I’m going to do, and I know what I’m going to do with you, too. You’ve come here to see Radcliffe, and you’ll see him---and that will be the end . . . another fire. I tell you I’ve dreamed of fire, dreamed of it . . . flames rising higher and higher, flames burning up all that went against me. Nicholas Vaughan thought he could beat me, thought he could win . . . I tell you I killed him as easily as I could kill a rabbit, as easily as I can kill you . . .”

The curt voice rose, getting sharper and shriller with each word. Brendon stood there, a pistol in his hand, the light of madness in his eyes, and suddenly there was a sound from the other side of the room as the old door creaked on its hinges as it opened. In the door space stood Bolton and two of his men, and when he saw them Brendon squealed as a rabbit squeals in a trap. He lifted his pistol to his head, and the shot reverberated through the room before the heavier thud of his own falling body.

---

BOLTON mopped his forehead and sat down heavily on a chair. “That was an ugly sight, Chief, but you took an almighty risk.”

“No, not much of a risk. When I got his phone message I realised his mind must be going. If he thought he could trick me into coming here alone it meant that his normal mental capacity was failing. When I saw him I knew at once he was mad---and a madman is not dangerous when you’re prepared for him. When the phone here went as we arranged when I came in, he gave me the chance I wanted to open the front door for you to come in. He never noticed that. Now we’d better look for Radcliffe. He’s here somewhere, and I’ve a feeling he’s still alive.”

Radcliffe was found in the dining-room. He was lying back in one of the big leather armchairs, snoring as a drugged man snores.

“He was luckier than his friend Gressingham,” said Macdonald. “I can’t say I’ve ever liked the look of Mr. Radcliffe, but I think he may be useful for once in his life, answering a few questions.”

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