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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Murder in the Mill-Race (1952) => Topic started by: Admin on September 05, 2023, 04:05:52 am



Title: Chapter One
Post by: Admin on September 05, 2023, 04:05:52 am

--1--

MILHAM Prior is a place-name familiar to motorists who take the shortest route from Taunton to Barnsford, on the north Devon coast. It is seldom anything more than a place-name, coupled to a visualisation of a rather tall church tower, and a long hill which you can rush in top gear if you have been able to take advantage of the down slope on the other side of the cross roads. It is a good stretch of main road, wide and well engineered, and by the time holiday-makers reach it from the east, they are aware that the Devon coast is not far away, and that they will soon see---and smell---the wide river estuary at Barnsford, where shining sands indicate the delights in store a few miles farther on.

Milham Prior has but little to attract the holiday-making hordes, neither---to do it justice---does it want to attract them. The Milham folk are not at all sorry that their High Street is at right angles to the new main road and not part of it. Milham is a prosperous, self-respecting market town, which caters for the country folk who live in the huge scattered moorland parishes of Milham Prior and Milham in the Moor. Conscious of a long history---it is one of the oldest Parliamentary constituencies---of a reputation for sound and shrewd dealing, Milham Prior is satisfied with its plain stone High Street, its old-fashioned Georgian Inn, and its ancient church (whose interior restoration is only regretted by busybodies from away).

Anne Ferens, sitting in the dining-room of the George Hotel in Milham, looked around her with amused and interested eyes, though most people would have found the room neither amusing nor interesting. It was rather dark, its long windows discreetly curtained and screened: its furniture was heavy mahogany of mid-Victorian date, and its tables had a full complement of enormous cruets. Anne smiled at her husband. “I like it,” she said. “It’s restful. Completely conforming to type without the least element of the incongruous.”

“That’s because you can’t see yourself sitting in it, angel. You look a complete anachronism. The meal, as you say, conformed to type, including the cabbage. The beer’s good---also true to type.” Raymond Ferens studied his wife with eyes that were at once affectionate and worried. “Milham in the Moor . . . It’s a sin and a shame to take you there, Anne. When I think of all those antiques and funnies, not a soul of your own age to amuse you, miles of moorland and Milham Prior for your shopping town. Seeing you now, against this musty background, I’m appalled to think what sort of life I’m taking you to.”

Anne laughed. “How little you really know about me, Ray. We’ve been married for four years, and you still don’t realise that I’m the most adaptable creature on earth. Chameleons also ran. You’d better leave off thinking of me as a sophisticated wench who is snappy at cocktail parties, and watch the emergence of a countrywoman. I shall be debating fat stock prices before the year’s out, and prodding pigs at the market.”

“I’ve no doubt you will,” he said. “You can pick up anybody’s jargon in two-twos---I should know---but how can you be happy away from all the things you value?---intelligent and amusing friends, and the sort of life you have made your own.”

“My good idiot, must I inform you again that I’ve put all my money on one value?” she retorted. “I can be happy anywhere provided I’ve got you. If you’d packed up on me the rest would have been Dead Sea fruit. And do get it into your thick head that I’m not being selfless in saying I want to live in the country. I’m sick to death of cities and soot and slums and factories and occupational diseases. Sick of them.” She drummed on the table with clenched fists. “Come off it, do,” she pleaded. “I took you at your word when I married you. Take me at mine, now. Give me another glass of sherry and let’s drink our own healths---good health and long lives---and no more arguments.”

--2--

Raymond Ferens was a doctor. Born in 1915, he had qualified in 1939, joined the R.A.M.C., been posted out in the Far East, been taken prisoner by the Japanese and survived the experience. After a few months’ rest, he had taken a partnership in a practice in the industrial midlands and had worked in a Staffordshire mining town. It had been a strenuous practice involving interminable surgeries, a lot of night work and a minimum of free time. In such leisure as he could wrest from the exigencies of occupational diseases, Ferens had tried to continue the specialist work which had fascinated him when he first qualified---the study of asthma and kindred nervous disorders. He went up to London, when he could make the opportunity, to consult with the physicians at his old medical school, and on one of these visits he had met Anne Clements. They had got married without any dilly-dallying. They had been very happy, but excessive work had undermined Ferens’ constitution, already weakened by two years of a Japanese prison camp. He had been ill, on and off, for a year, before Anne persuaded him to take the advice of his colleagues. “Get right out of this and take a country practice,” they said. “You’ll then have a useful life of normal duration. Go on as you’re going now and you’ll have had it in a twelve-month.”

Both Anne and Raymond had favoured the west country, and when they heard of the approaching retirement of an elderly doctor at Milham in the Moor, Anne fairly bullied her husband into investigating possibilities there. The practice covered an enormous sparsely populated area on Exmoor: apart from the driving involved, it was not a heavy job, and the moor fascinated Raymond Ferens. The fact that a good house was offered him was an additional inducement. Anne paid a whirlwind visit to view the house, and after that formalities were concluded with record promptitude, so that by Lady Day, Anne and Raymond had seen their furniture into the pantechnicon, packed themselves into their own car, and had set out to Milham Prior, to spend a night at the George there, since their goods would not be delivered until the following morning.

--3--

When Raymond Ferens had started enquiries about taking over the practice at Milham in the Moor, one of his first questions had been about a house to live in. Old Dr. Brown, who had been in practice there for over thirty years, did not want to give up his own house, but informed Ferens that the Dower House belonging to the lord of the manor would be available. Ferens decided to go and have a look at it, and he had driven to Milham by himself, telling Anne that he wasn’t going to let her in on it until he had decided if he wanted to take the job on: she could then have her say, a final yes or no, taking house, locality and amenities into consideration and weighing the pros and cons for herself.

Ferens drove to Milham one bitter day in January, when the industrial towns of the Midlands were wretched with sleet drifting down from a drear grey sky and smoke mingling with the sleet in a grimy pall. He drove by Gloucester and Bristol, and once clear of Bristol the snow and sleet had disappeared, the country looked rich and green and Raymond Ferens found his spirits rising. Milham Prior was clear of snow, but a keen wind was blowing: beyond Milham Prior the road rose steadily to the moor, and though the sky was clear the country became whiter and whiter with crisp dry snow. When he had his first glimpse of Milham in the Moor, Ferens thought, “Why, it’s like a French hill town.” The village was built well and truly, on the top of a hill. Its tall church tower stood out in silhouette against the clear saffron of the western sky, and snow-covered cottage roofs were piled up against the church as though they, too, were aspiring heavenwards. It was a lovely sight, but Ferens found himself thinking “Ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to the sea.”

He had stayed the night with Dr. Brown and been thankful that there was no question of taking over the old man’s house. It was a dark, cold, dreary house, shut in with overgrown shrubberies and tall conifers, auraucarias, Irish yews and cedars pressing almost up to the windows. Brown seemed a very old man to Ferens, and rather a snuffly, grubby old man, but he was clear-headed and businesslike enough. He produced large-scale maps and gave details of the scattered steadings and hamlets and their inhabitants, and eventually spoke of the Dower House. It belonged to Sir James Ridding, who lived at the Manor House. “They’ve been trying to let the Dower House for some time,” said Dr. Brown, “but what with folks not wanting to come to anywhere as remote as this, and the Riddings being fussy about who they let it to, well, it’s still on their hands. I think you’ll be able to make them see reason. The fact is, Sir James and his lady don’t want to be without a doctor in the village. Anyway, you’ll see. It’s a good house---a beautiful and historic house.”

Raymond had been surprised when he saw the Dower House. Dr. Brown took him there next morning, and in the bright pale sunshine the stone house looked enchanting. It was obviously late Tudor and early Jacobean in period, with lovely mullioned windows, a fine stone flagged roof and handsome chimney stacks. It stood within the walls which surrounded the Manor House and demesne, but was shut off by clipped yew hedges, and had pleasant open lawns around it. After one glance at it, Raymond promptly asked, “What’s the snag? Don’t tell me they can’t let a house like that unless it’s pretty grim in some particular.”

“There’s nothing the matter with the house. It’s dry and weather-worthy, modernised as to plumbing, got a good water supply and electricity from the Mill plant,” said Dr. Brown. “The trouble’s been that Lady Ridding has wanted to let it furnished, and people won’t take it on.”

“Furnished? That’s no good to me,” said Ferens promptly. “That means a fancy price and no security of tenure.”

“I know, I know,” said old Brown testily, “but you talk to her ladyship. She’s not such a fool as she looks, and Sir James is tired of paying rates on a house no one wants to live in.”

They met Lady Ridding walking her dogs in the drive of the Manor. Raymond enjoyed telling his wife about it when he got home. “They’re a blooming anachronism, keeping up traditional style on inherited capital, I suppose,” he said. “Lady R. is about sixty-five, stout and having the sort of presence which went out with Edward and Alexandra. She was a beauty once, that’s obvious: in fact she’s still beautiful; silver hair, blue eyes and a complexion which owes nothing to a box, and she has a manner which compels admiration: as a technique it’s perfect.”

With grace and dignity, Lady Ridding welcomed Dr. Ferens charmingly. “My husband has heard of you from his London consultant,” she smiled, “and we do hope you will decide to come here. Dr. Brown has worked so hard, and I do sympathise with him wanting to get out of harness. Now you’d like to see the Dower House. I’m sure your wife will approve of it, it really is a lovely house in its own way.”

Dr. Brown excused himself and Raymond Ferens was left alone with what he called ‘the old-time lovely’. He glanced round as they stood in the wide sweep of drive before the Manor House and said: “It’s a notable group of buildings, all on a plateau as it were.”

“Yes, it looks very beautiful from the moor,” said Lady Ridding. “The Manor, Dower House, and Church are all within our walls and Gramarye seems to lean against us, does it not---you can see the roofs just beyond the Church. They’re all the same period, built between 1590 and 1650.”

“Gramarye?” echoed Ferens. “Oh, yes, that’s the children’s home, isn’t it? Brown was telling me about it. An unusual feature in a remote village.”

“Gramarye is unique,” said Lady Ridding. “It is a very ancient foundation, and generations of Riddings have been proud to be its benefactors. We love having the children there, and Sister Monica, who is the Warden, is a genius with children. But you want to see the Dower House. I’m so glad it’s such a beautiful sunny morning, you will see how much sun the house gets.”

Raymond Ferens followed the lady of the manor through the Dower House, his keen modern mind disregarding everything but essentials. How much of this building would be acceptable, practical, and enjoyable for Anne and himself to live in and work in? Lady Ridding’s practised showmanship, her knowledge of panelling and masonry, her expertise on furniture, carpets and china, was a matter of indifference to him, though he replied with adequate courtesy and intelligence when she paused in her commentary. Ferens was counting rooms, judging space, making adaptations in his own mind, all the time he was listening to the lady’s informed prattle. Eventually he said:

“Thank you very much indeed for taking so much trouble, Lady Ridding. I think I have grasped the essentials. I’d like a few hours to consider it, and then I will write to you, and you can consider my offer at your leisure. Before I make a decision my wife will have to see the house, of course. She will have the job of running it.”

“Of course,” said Lady Ridding, with her sweetest smile. “I’m sure she’ll like it, and do tell her that she can get domestic help in the village and that we can supply so many things from the gardens and home farm. Indeed, we’re nearly self-supporting here.”

When Raymond Ferens rejoined Dr. Brown in the latter’s dank dark dining-room, Ferens said: “Am I right in supposing that beneath the cloak of graciousness, Lady Ridding has an eye to the main chance, as it were?”

Dr. Brown gave a derisive snort. “She is a very shrewd woman and an exceedingly capable one,” he replied. “It’s true that both she and her husband are wealthy, apart from the estate, but it’s Lady Ridding’s ability which makes the home farm a paying proposition, and the gardens and greenhouses yield a good return. I believe they’ve developed a good market, supplying greenhouse produce to the luxury hotels on the north coast, and it’s Lady Ridding who supplied the business head.”

“Well, if she thinks that I and my wife are going to pay a high rent for the privilege of being glorified caretakers in charge of her objets d’art in the Dower House, she’s very much mistaken,” said Ferens. “She wants it both ways and so far as I’m concerned she can’t have it.”

“Tell her so,” replied Brown. “She won’t respect you any the less when she realises you’ve got a head for business, and I tell you straight she doesn’t want to have to rely on the Milham Prior doctors when she and her family are laid up. They’ve got plenty to do in the Milham Prior practice, and Lady R. was once told she could come to their surgery when she wanted advice on minor ailments.” The old man chuckled. “She didn’t like that one,” he said.

--4--

Raymond enjoyed telling his wife about his investigation into the moorland practice. “The village is only a small part of the job,” he said. “The outlying farm houses are scattered all over the moor. There are a few hamlets, clusters of cottages around some farm houses, and there’s one mining village where tin mining goes on on a small scale, out on the moor. It’s incredibly primitive so far as housing goes, but they look a fine healthy lot of toughs. In addition, there are a few minor gentry around, mostly elderly folks. I think it’ll be quite an experience. The moor provides a few deficiency diseases---enough to make it interesting.”

“And the Dower House?” asked Anne.

Raymond laughed. “It’s a lovely house, Anne, but much too big for us. However, I think I’ve arrived at a formula, if you really want to go there. The house is furnished, just as the last Dowager left it, and Lady Ridding wants to keep everything in it, ready for herself if Sir James pops off. Her idea was that you and I could provide heating, cleaning and skilled caretaking, and pay a good rent while we’re doing it. Moreover, there are no safeguards for ensuring continuous tenancy in a furnished house. She could have turned us out more or less at will. No sort of proposition.”

Anne nodded. “I agree. So what?”

“Well, after a careful inspection, I realised the ground floor was quite large enough for you and me. There’s a butler’s pantry and servery off the dining-room which will make a very natty kitchen for you; a morning-room which will make a good study for me, a drawing-room, and two other rooms for bedrooms, and a slip room for a bathroom. I proposed to Lady R. that I would pay her £150 a year for the house, though I only proposed to occupy the ground floor, and convert out-buildings for a surgery. I would let her the upper floor and the old kitchens at a peppercorn rent for her to store her antiques in, she to have access by the back doors and service stairway to reach her property. There’s a central heating plant in the cellars which her minions can stoke, and we pay pro rata for the fuel.”

“Well, you’ve got a nerve. She’ll never agree to that,” said Anne.

“She has agreed, in principle,” replied Raymond. “She has enough sense to see that it’s a reasonable proposition. She gets the rent, is relieved of the rates, and has the larger part of the house for her belongings. The adaptations are comparatively inexpensive and the moving of her furniture not a large job. So there you are. Go and have a look at it and see if you like it.”

“Well, you do surprise me,” said Anne. “She must have been profoundly impressed by you to agree to such a radical alteration in her ideas of what’s fitting.”

“I’m rather amused with her,” said Raymond. “On the surface she’s all graces, graciousness and noblesse oblige. I suspect that she is derived from robber barons of the industrial revolution and a latent sense of profit-making is emerging in these hard times. Incidentally, you’ll have to keep your eyes open when dealing with her. She expects to supply us with milk, eggs, and birds from the home farm, and there were murmurs about cream, and butter if we’re pressed. Fruit and vegetables come from the Manor gardens, now being run as a market garden. Doubtless game, salmon, and trout are marketed also.”

“Cr . . . ripes,” said Anne. “Does she think we’re plutocrats?”

“I gave her no grounds for such an opinion. My own bet is that she knows to a penny what the practice is worth, and she’s hoping for a rake-off. The whole show’s a comic turn, Anne: the feudal system wedded to modern business methods.”

“Who else is there in the village?”

“A few dozen inhabitants, the men mostly employed on the land and the estate---there’s a lot of valuable woodland: there’s a stream with a big fall which provides electricity and there’s a saw mill. There’s a decent Inn, run by an ex-butler, a smithy, one or two village shops and of course the vicar and his wife. In addition a few odd birds of the gentry class, mostly elderly, and the Warden of Gramarye, the children’s home. Sister Monica: she’s wonderful, everyone says so.”

“What’s the matter with her?” asked Anne promptly.

“Well, I’ve only just seen her, and the home’s not my department. Old Brown is keeping it on to give him a spot of interest in life. As for Sister Monica, she has the rapt withdrawn look of the religious fanatic, and I never fancied that breed. However, she and her set-up won’t be my pigeon anyway.” He broke off, and Anne put in: “It all sounds a bit odd, not the typical village at all.”

Raymond laughed. “How right you are, my wench. It’s damned odd---that’s why it’s interesting. You see, the village hugs its remoteness. It’s out there on the hill-top with its back to the moor, cut off from the commonplaces of cinemas and chain stores and railways and tourists. There’s ten miles of road between Milham in the Moor and the world as we know it, and it cherishes its own ways, its own feuds and loyalties and way of life. And somehow it’s damned interesting. But it’s up to you to say yes or no. I’ll drive you there next week-end, and you can make the decision.”

“I think I’ve made it already,” she replied. “We said we should like something out of the way. Milham in the Moor appears to be it.”

“Think carefully, angel. It’s a long way out of the way.”

“With its back to the moor and the sea beyond that,” said Anne. “This is where we learn to cultivate our individual gardens and turn our backs on mass production.”