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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Murder in the Mill-Race (1952) => Topic started by: Admin on September 05, 2023, 08:46:56 am

Title: Chapter Four
Post by: Admin on September 05, 2023, 08:46:56 am


IT was early in the morning of Midsummer Day that Anne Ferens heard her front-door bell jangling away. She had been awake for some time, delighting in the sunshine and the bird song, and debating in her own mind whether she would go to church to honour St. John Baptist (as a Christian should) and the summer solstice (as a pagan should). Anne wasn’t quite certain which element was predominant in her mind on that divine morning, but she certainly woke up quoting “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”

It was half-past six when the bell rang, and she said, “Oh bother!” because Raymond hadn’t got to bed until after two, for he had been out to a confinement at Long Barrow, away up on the moor. Nevertheless, he woke up when the bell rang, and was out of bed before Anne was.

“Bad luck, but it’s a heavenly morning,” she said to him, as he snatched his dressing-gown and went out of the bedroom muttering, “I bet it’s that Chandler girl . . . she just can’t count.”

He was back within a minute, all the comfortable sleepiness gone from his face, and he snatched at his shirt and trousers without a word.

“What is it, Ray? Can I do anything?”

“No, and nobody else either, I imagine. It’s Sister Monica. She’s drowned in the mill-race. Young Rigg found her and came pounding up here.”

Anne gave a gasp, and Raymond said: “Yes, here’s trouble . . .” as he flung his clothes on.

“Shall I come?” she asked.

“Lord, no. Stay here and get breakfast. I shan’t be long. It’s the police they want, not me---but one’s got to do the usual.”

He snatched his coat and hurried out of the house, across the garden, through the gate in the yew hedge and across the dewy lawns of the Manor, taking the short cut to the steep path down through the park. All around him thrushes and blackbirds were calling from the tree tops, and chaffinches and bullfinches poured out their clear liquid song: the air was fragrant with the sweetness of midsummer, fragrance of pinks and roses in the garden, hay and meadow flowers in the park. Fat white lambs rushed to mother ewes as Ferens made his way down the steep path, the world vivid and vibrant with life and sunshine.

Raymond Ferens found a sombre group standing by the mill stream. Venner, the big rubicund miller, was there, and Jack Hedges, the cowman from Moore’s Farm. Wilson, in charge of the generating engine, and Bob Doone from the saw mill, were there. They stood round the long dark-cloaked body which lay beside the bank, with wild roses stretching out delicate sprays of palest pink, gold centred, above the pallid face and dead white hair.

“A bad business, doctor. Nought we could do,” said Venner.

Ferens knelt down beside the dead woman: one touch was enough to tell him she had been dead for hours.

“We’m telephoned to sergeant at Milham Prior,” said Venner. “He’ll be along soon. Hours ago it be since her was drowned, be’n’t it?”

Ferens nodded as he busied himself over his examination. “Yes. Several hours. Do you know where the body was found?”

“By them piles, doctor. Her was swept down by the stream and her cloak caught in them bolts and the weeds twisted all around she. I helped get her out, and a tidy weight her was.”

“She’m been wandering at nights, months past, she has,” said Wilson. “Reckon her mind went, poor soul. Brooded over that young maid, maybe. Same place ’twas. I mind that well.”

“Wandering at nights?” asked Ferens sharply.

“ ’Tis true enough, doctor,” said Venner. “Us have seen her. Down through the park she’d come. My wife, she saw her once in the moonlight and fair scared she was. Looked all strange with that white hair and the dark cloak.”

“Iss . . .” Jack Hedges gave the sibilant affirmative which still sounded strange to Raymond Ferens’ ears, accustomed to Midland voices. “Us have seen her, too, like a fay, fair moonstruck. Us marked that. Fearful, ’twas.”

“I reckon ’twas brooding like. Her threw herself in, poor soul,” said Venner, and the others made mournful sounds of agreement.

“We’d better wait until the sergeant comes before we move her,” said Ferens, “but we shall have to decide where to take her body. There will have to be a post-mortem. I don’t think it’s desirable to take her to Gramarye, with all those small children there.”

“You’m right there, doctor,” said Venner. “All they tiny tots don’t want no more fearsome things. I’m meaning childer should be kept clear of corpses and all,” he added hastily. “But Dr. Brown, he’ll be along any minute. My wife went to tell he. A shock, ’twill be, poor old gentleman. He thought the world of Sister. He’ll best decide where to take her. Knows everything here, Dr. Brown does.”

Ferens nodded. He had got up from his place by the body, removing his useless thermometer. The body was stark cold, the temperature of the swirling water which came down from the moor. The woman had drowned---no doubt about that---and the rest could wait.

“You’re quite right,” he said to Venner. “Dr. Brown shall decide. I sent Rigg on to the Manor. Lady Ridding will tell them at Gramarye. Ah, here is Dr. Brown.”

The sound of Brown’s ancient car was known all over the village, and its brakes squeaked vilely as he pulled up on the road beyond the Mill House. He came slowly towards the bridge and leant heavily on the hand rail as he crossed the stream. He was pallid and looked worn and weary, but not without dignity, and he walked steadily up to the body and stood looking down at the clay-coloured face and sodden white hair. Venner spoke, very gently.

“We’m sorry, doctor. Her had worked here a powerful long time.”

“Yes . . . Too long. She wouldn’t give in,” said the old man. “I’ve been worried about her. I should have made her give up---but it was her life.”

“She knew she was failing like, and chose to finish it,” said Venner. “Poor soul---but she do look peaceful now. Where shall we take her, doctor?”

“We were waiting for the sergeant from Milham Prior,” said Ferens, his voice quiet and normal, “but it’d be as well to decide where to take her. There’s a stretcher in the Red Cross cupboard at the Institute, I believe.”

“Yes. We got it in 1939,” said Brown, as though he were glad to turn to ordinary trivial things. “You can bring her to my house, Venner. That’ll be best. The examination . . . should be simple.” He glanced at Ferens and the latter replied: “Yes. She was drowned.”

A klaxon horn shrilled importantly somewhere up the hilly main street of the village, and some cows bawled as though in protest. Hedges suddenly jumped.

“That’ll be sergeant,” he said. “I know that dratted horn of his. Maybe I’d better go and see to my cows. Milking’s got to be done, no matter what.”

“Aye, Jack. You’ve got to milk the cows, no matter what,” echoed old Brown. “Life goes on, thank God, no matter which of us passes out. You go and get on with your milking and I hope that hustling policeman hasn’t knocked your cows sideways. What does he want to blow his horn at the cows for?”


“Never was good coffee more enjoyed,” said Raymond Ferens. “Lord, I wanted that.” He passed his cup across to Anne to be refilled and pushed his plate aside, having polished off the eggs and bacon. “It’s going to be a peck of trouble, Anne. She was drowned all right, but I’m afraid she didn’t jump into the mill stream herself. She was shoved in---after somebody had batted her over the head with the inevitable blunt instrument. At least, that’s my diagnosis.”

Anne sighed. “You mean her head was damaged while she was still alive?”


“Couldn’t she have hit her head on one of the piles as she jumped?”

“The back of her head? If the coroner and jury are willing to believe that, nobody will be better pleased than myself. But I don’t think they will. Wherever she went in, whether from the bank or the bridge, she’d have gone slap into deep water and she would have sunk. Her body would have been carried towards the piles by the current, but she couldn’t have hit the back of her head on them.”

Anne sat silent, her face troubled, and Raymond went on: “Sergeant Peel was on to it like a knife. He must have driven about fifty miles an hour to get here from Milham Prior in the time he did. His attitude was one of expectancy. ‘I expected this’ was written all over his face.”

“But why?” cried Anne. “What did he know about Sister Monica?”

“I don’t know what he knew, angel, but it appears that he was never satisfied they’d got to the truth in the last drowning case here---the wretched Nancy Bilton. The verdict was suicide while of unsound mind, and there was no evidence against it. The girl had sworn she’d kill herself and there it was. But there was a lot of talk about it here afterwards.” Raymond held out his cigarette case to Anne. “We might as well talk it over now, Anne. It’s better that you should know what’s been said, and what’s being said now. We’ve only been here three months, but it’s surprising how much gossip comes a doctor’s way in three months. It’s some of the old chronics who do most of the talking---it’s all that life has left to them, the power to chatter. After the verdict had been given on Nancy Bilton, more than a few folks surmised that the reason she was found drowned was that Sister Monica pushed her into the mill pool.”

“You don’t believe that, do you, Ray?”

Raymond sat and looked at his wife with very thoughtful eyes. “I don’t know, Anne. I’ve always refused to discuss Sister Monica with you. We both took a dislike to her, and I was very anxious to avoid being unfair by judging the woman at first glance. Then I made up my mind to avoid taking sides in local feuds. I expect I heard very much what you heard, because I noticed that you left the subject of Gramarye severely alone after our first few weeks here.”

“Yes. I did,” said Anne. “Tell me this: gossip which somebody else has told you isn’t evidence, is it? If this sergeant comes round asking questions, I’ve only got to tell him what I know at first-hand, haven’t I?”

“Yes. That’s right. Now to get back to the Nancy Bilton rumours. Venner and Wilson and Bob Doone all state that Sister Monica had been wandering at night, around the park and across the bridge and into the lower end of the village, and this is apparently no recent habit. She has been known to do it for years at infrequent intervals, but latterly has done it much more often. Now it was agreed that Nancy Bilton was a night bird. If Nancy spied on Sister Monica, I wouldn’t put it beyond Sister M. to have shoved Nancy in the mill stream, because it does seem to me that Sister Monica was something less than sane.”

“You say ‘if Nancy spied on Sister Monica’,” said Anne slowly. “It might have been the other way about. Sister Monica may have spied on Nancy. Do you remember the first thing you said to me about Sister Monica---that you sensed the religious fanatic in her? Isn’t it true that religious mania, like any other mania, can make a sort of megalomaniac of anybody? They can no longer see themselves in focus, or realise their own shortcomings---only other people’s.”

“That’s true enough; they see themselves as ‘chosen vessels,’ above criticism. This was particularly true of Sister M. She had developed a mania for taking people’s characters away. But what were you thinking about when you said that perhaps it was Sister Monica who spied on Nancy?”

“I was wondering if Nancy went for her and tried to shove her in the stream, without realising that Sister M. was much bigger and stronger than herself---and it happened that way. She was a very powerfully built woman, Ray, and she had enormous hands. They gave me the horrors.”

“Yes. I noticed her hands, too. But all this doesn’t get us any nearer to who shoved Sister Monica in the mill-race.”

“Did they ever find out who was the man Nancy had been going with?”

“No. She never told anybody, and when the police enquired in the village, the answer was ‘I don’t know.’ Nobody knew, which meant that nobody would tell. This village has a very strong defence mechanism of the ‘I don’t know’ variety. They’re nearly all related or connected by marriage, and they present an unbroken front to outside interference. That’s why they resent the fact that the village children are sent to school at Milham Prior now. Children chatter, one to another.”

“Do you think the village rumours got to Milham Prior that way?”

“Yes. I think Sergeant Peel got wind of what was being said in secret conclave in this village---to wit, that Sister Monica pushed Nancy in the mill stream. Incidentally, he doesn’t believe it, but he holds there’s no smoke without fire.”

“And so what?”

“Peel’s own belief is that there’s a killer in the village, responsible for both deaths. Whether he’s right or wrong, it means a full dress police investigation. He’ll go on asking questions until somebody cracks.”

“How grim,” said Anne. She paused a moment, and then said: “Well, thank heaven I don’t know anything about anything: and in the meantime, ought I to offer to go and help at Gramarye?”

“I’d much rather you didn’t, but I suppose we ought to offer to help,” said Raymond. “I’ll ring up Lady Ridding and find out how things are. My own opinion is that it would be much better to have all those tinies dispersed to other homes. They’re bound to hear some of the gossip and they’d be better out of it.”

“Oh, do try to get that done, Ray. It’d be so much better. That aged nurse and the old cook will be fairly spreading themselves over death and disaster, and the brats of maids will be gossiping like ghouls. It’s bound to happen. They’ve all been battened down and kept under, and now the tyrant’s hand is removed they’ll go haywire.”

“I think that’s probably perfectly true,” said Raymond.


Sergeant Peel was a competent and zealous police officer, but he tended to develop a bee in his bonnet over Milham in the Moor. In actual fact, the village defeated him. It was a law-abiding village, and the constable who occasionally patrolled it had no complaints to make, but on the few occasions when Peel had had occasion to investigate irregularities---motoring offences, drinking after hours, dramatic performances in a hall which had no licence for same---he had come up against the communal answer, “I don’t know.” It had been the same over Nancy Bilton’s death: no one knew anything, and Peel was perfectly certain that quite a number of people knew quite a lot, but no wiles of his own could break down that unanimous ignorance of a village which was an integral whole. When he had received the news of Sister Monica’s death, Peel had fairly jumped to it. Milham in the Moor had diddled him once over a big case, and it wasn’t going to happen again.

He had arrived to find the two doctors, Venner and Wilson and Bob Doone all together close by the bridge. Hedges had been hurrying away after his agitated cows, who were not used to being honked at on their way to milking. No driver in the village ever honked at milking cows---it was bad for milk production. Peel had shouted at Hedges to come back and Hedges had disregarded the voice of the law, while Venner, Wilson, and Doone had all told Peel to “let mun be.” Cows had got to be milked and Hedges didn’t know aught about this here. Which negative statement set the old theme of not knowing.

After his first routine enquiries, Peel had agreed that the body should be moved to Dr. Brown’s house. There was no object in waiting for the photographers, for the body had already been lifted from the water and its position gave no information. The sergeant was favourably disposed towards Dr. Ferens, for the simple reason that he was a newcomer to Milham in the Moor, and things had gone fairly smoothly, except that Peel was incensed because Jim Rigg, who had first found the body, was not at hand to be questioned. Jim Rigg worked at the Manor Farm and was now milking Sir James Ridding’s pedigree Jerseys---and the Jerseys, Peel was given to understand, had to be milked to the clock and no dilly-dallying. “Him’ll tell you all him knows in good time,” said Venner, who had the Devonian’s persistence in using an accusative for a nominative and vice versa.

Eventually Peel, who had plenty of commonsense when he wasn’t being given information about dairy cattle, had decided that the best thing he could do was to search the immediate environs of the bridge. He could interrogate natives later, but any delay in searching might mean losing valuable evidence. The ground was fairly soft, and, for all Peel knew, somebody’s cows might be driven all over the place before he could stop them. The sergeant knew who had been at the bridge since the body had been found: Rigg, Venner, Wilson, and Hedges, all in labourer’s boots, Dr. Brown and Dr. Ferens in good country shoes. Rigg and Venner had lifted the body from the stream, Wilson and Hedges had turned up just after the body had been laid by the bank, and they had all come from the south side of the bridge. Dr. Ferens had come from the north, down the park. Peel and his attendant constable began to search the ground, the hedges and the grass, seeking for any object or sign which might indicate the presence of any other person who had been at the spot. When they had been at this job for some quarter of an hour, Inspector Carson of Barnsford arrived, together with two of his own men and a photographer. Peel saluted his superior officer, and while the constables continued searching the ground, the two seniors stood on the bank and Peel gave a brief description of events as far as his information went.

“I reckon we must make a job of it this time,” he said. “I wasn’t happy in my mind over the last case, and I reckon this proves I was right.”

“What have you got in mind, Peel?”

“I believe there’s a murderer in this village. That girl Nancy Bilton was a bad lot and she got into trouble with some chap here. I daresay she made a nuisance of herself to him and he pushed her into the mill stream. We never found out who he was, but I shouldn’t be at all surprised if this Sister Monica had some sort of idea about his identity.”

“Then why didn’t she tell you?” asked Carson. “She swore in the witness box she didn’t know the chap’s identity and she was a religious body. You’re not telling me you think she told lies?”

“No, I’m not, though I reckon she was queer---too religious, you know. Takes some women like that. I know she thought herself next door to the Almighty, for all her show of humble-pie. My own idea is that she had her own suspicions and wouldn’t put ’em into words because she’d no means of proving it. And the chap knew she’d got an inkling of who he was and she was going round trying to ferret things out in that clever-belike way she’d got.”

The Inspector grunted. “More than a year ago, isn’t it? Not likely she’d have found out anything now.”

“I don’t know: this village is a queer place. Maybe somebody let something out to her, thinking it was all over and done with. Anyway, my guess is she met the chap down here and charged him with it sudden like, and he heaved her into the mill-race like he did the other. They do say she wandered round here of nights. Must have been some reason made her do it.”

Again the Inspector grunted. “Well, you’ve evidently had the last case on your mind, Peel. What’s your idea?”

Peel looked cautiously round the sunlit spot where they were standing, and lowered his voice even more. “Strikes me things went on pretty quietly in this village until two or three years ago. It’s the sort of village doesn’t change much from generation to generation. It was after that new estate manager came, three years ago, there seemed to be upsets.”

“I see,” said the Inspector. “Well, it’s worth looking into. And about these folk in the Mill House here.”

Peel interrupted with an exasperated snort. “There’s none so deaf as them that won’t hear. I reckon this spot is a sort of lovers’ lane. As you see, you can come round the mill from the village street and walk up the park by that steep path there. The village folk are allowed to use that path, but not to go through the Manor garden. They can get out again, into the village square, by a gate beside the walled kitchen garden. In other words, you can take a walk down the village street, turn into the park by the mill here, walk up the park and get to where you started. The gates aren’t locked. I bet any money the Venners know who’s in the habit of walking through here: they know Sister Monica used to walk here after dark. Stands to reason they know who else does.”

The Inspector nodded. “We’ll see to that. And now what about finger-printing the hand rail of that bridge? It’s worn smooth enough. We might get something there. I reckon there’s been too much trampling around for footsteps to help, and it’s too much to hope that we’ll find anything left around. Not that you weren’t right to start here. And we’ll have those gates shut and see to it that no one comes through.”

“Very good,” said Peel. “Let ’em see we mean business from the word go this time, and not so much about the poor soul brooding and throwing herself in. Brooding my hat.”