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Chapter Seventeen

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« on: May 04, 2023, 01:30:06 pm »

IT was to Colonel St. Cyres and his daughter that Macdonald gave an exposition concerning the Little Thatch case. Sitting in the sunlight on the terrace at Manor Thatch, the Chief Inspector talked to the troubled pair, his voice gentle, for he realised that both of his hearers would feel sad for a long time when they thought of their last tenant.

“When Commander Wilton urged his point of view about Vaughan’s death I felt that he had one or two strong arguments,” said Macdonald. “First, in saying that Vaughan was a skilled engineer and a very careful workman: secondly, in urging that a sailor was the last person who would remain asleep while a fire took hold of his dwelling. Examination of the investigation by the local police force showed a very careful piece of work in which there were two gaps which needed to be filled---in my opinion. One was ‘Where did Vaughan go to on the last evening of his life?’ Two, ‘Who was the woman Vaughan hoped to marry?’ The first seemed important to me, because if Vaughan had been to see one of his farmer friends, or had been doing any of the business transacted in the usual run of agricultural life, I was certain that the farmer or merchant he visited would have come forward and said ‘I saw him that evening.’ The fact that nobody did admit having seen him proved, to my mind, that there was probably a secret in a life which had appeared to be open. Then, concerning the woman he hoped to marry: she did not appear. She made no enquiries, and yet I believed that he was preparing a home for his future wife. This again prompted me to believe there was a secret---and in detection, a secret is like a pointer, urging a detective to find out.”

Anne St. Cyres frowned unhappily. “All that is rather dreadful. Mr. Vaughan seemed such an open person, for all that he was so reserved. I hate the need for prying.”

“I hate it, too, in one sense,” said Macdonald, “but I should have hated more for Vaughan’s murderer to be undetected. A murderer at large is a potential menace. However, to leave that and get on with my problem. I had another argument to go on---a private and personal one with which you would not have agreed. I asked myself ‘Why did Vaughan choose to live in Devon?’ I think all men who have lived and worked in the country grow to love the locality in which they were reared. The countryman tends to take roots. I have seen something of the dalesmen in that part of England where Vaughan was brought up, and their devotion to their locality is profound, though it is seldom put into words.” Macdonald turned to Anne: “Amn’t I right in saying that it would take a very strong motive to make you forsake the West country and go to live in the North? When you saw the colourless limestone and the greyness of the fells, wouldn’t you be sick at heart for your rose-red soil and the deep flowered lanes of Devon?”

“Of course: it would be like transplanting a deeply rooted tree---but I can imagine agreeing to it in some circumstances.”

“Of course you would. So did Vaughan. He settled here, and I guessed the motive which made him do so was concerned with the woman he meant to marry. Either she was Devonshire born, or else she was a woman who had some reason for avoiding Lannerdale and the country around there. That was my guess, and you will see how near it came to the actual facts.”

Colonel St. Cyres pulled his pipe out and began to fill it. “I have thought a lot about this same problem,” he said. “I remember when Vaughan first said he would take the cottage I suggested it was only fair to his future wife that she should see it first. Later, when he got to know Anne, I wondered why his wife-to-be wasn’t brought into the picture---but it wasn’t my business to probe into another man’s affairs. I put it out of my mind.”

“Well, there was my starting point,” said Macdonald. “Just an idea, one of these ‘I wonder ifs’ that come into a detective’s mind at the outset of a case. The immediate practical job was to determine the likelihood of the theory of accident, and the more I examined it the less I was convinced of its cogency. Wilton’s case seemed to be strengthened and the accidental explanation shrank into insignificance. That being so, what grounds could I find on which to base a case? It was young Alf who started me in the right direction. I believed him when he said he had heard Gressingham’s car pass Corner Cottage.”

Colonel St. Cyres puffed hard at his pipe. “I never liked the chap,” he said unhappily. “I knew I was incapable of being fair to him, just because I didn’t like him. Then there was that business of smelling his cigarette smoke that night . . .”

“We’ll get that cigarette smoke cleared away at the outset, sir,” said Macdonald. “It always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable that if Gressingham were concerned in the case he would have been so foolish as to smoke in the garden of Little Thatch that night. There was a possibility that the person who smoked Balkan Sobranie cigarettes had done so in order to throw suspicion on Gressingham, but as it turned out the cigarette smoke had a quite different explanation. Radcliffe gave a box of Balkan Sobranies to the land girl he had been amusing himself with, and this girl came out to Mallory Fitzjohn that evening and sat below the hedge of the Little Thatch garden, wondering if Radcliffe would come out to meet her there, as he had often done. She threw the stubs of her cigarettes back over the hedge, where I found them---but Radcliffe did not come to meet her, and the cigarettes had no bearing on the case---except to point to the unfortunate Gressingham.”

“Didn’t you inevitably suspect Gressingham to begin with?” enquired St. Cyres.

“Yes---but I suspected everybody. It was my business to do so. When I first met him I was interested in his reaction to the case. Had he been guilty I should have expected him to avoid any discussion of the case, and to express a strong belief that the jury had been right and accident accounted for everything. Gressingham never struck me as any sort of a fool: I thought he was shrewd, observant, and far-seeing. Had he been guilty he would have realised the risk he took in prolonged discussion of the case---it is so very easy to slip up and show that you know just a little more than an innocent person has any business to know. However, far from avoiding discussion, he fairly spread himself and talked over the matter in all its bearings. He was genuinely interested: he admitted to disliking Vaughan---none of the ‘poor chap . . . shocking accident’ attitude about him at all. Gressingham was full of enthusiasm for an investigation which, if he were guilty, was fraught with danger to himself. No. If Gressingham had been guilty he would most likely have produced some convincing evidence which would have reinforced the accident theory.”

Anne sighed. “I should never be any good at detection. It’s like chess, you have to suspect what every move leads to.”

“That’s quite true,” agreed Macdonald. “Now I think it was pure chance which determined that Howard Brendon should have been present when I first saw Gressingham, and I was immediately interested in him. He stayed deliberately while I talked to Gressingham, rather in the manner of a solicitor holding a watching brief---but Gressingham didn’t care a snap for the caution advised by Brendon. Gressingham talked and talked, and Brendon was quite unable to hide his own exasperation at the fool who tried to open the doors of the enquiry wider and wider. Brendon was white-faced, tight-lipped, and his eyes were as wary as the eyes of a wild animal expecting attack. It was his eyes that interested me, very light eyes, but very cruel ones. Then there was this point: Gressingham irritated Brendon to the point of fury: it was unmistakable---and also understandable. Brendon was by nature secretive, impatient, not given to suffering fools gladly. He despised the other, and disliked him, yet I learnt a little later that Brendon had been coming over to Hinton Mallory frequently to play bridge with two men whom he despised. I think Brendon himself realised that he had made a mistake in showing his irritation so plainly, for he waited for me on the pretext of adjusting his car, in order to say a few polite things about the man he had shown he despised. I was very much interested in all those three men---Gressingham, Radcliffe and Brendon.”


Macdonald paused for a moment and turned to Anne, who sat with bent head, slightly turned away from him.

“You are hating all this,” he said gently. “Wouldn’t you rather go away and not listen?”

She shook her head. “No. I want to listen, and I’m grateful to you for talking to us. I want to understand, so that I need never wake up and wonder again how it all happened.”

“You are very wise in that,” said Macdonald quietly. “To understand is the best way of setting your mind at rest.” He turned to St. Cyres again. “Here then was my case. I felt sure that murder had been committed: I had the three men at Hinton Mallory to consider: in addition was the farm-labourer Benworthy, the would-be tenant of Little Thatch; yourself, sir, because you touched the case so nearly, the Heslings at Hinton Mallory---and, using Gressingham’s inverted argument, Vaughan himself. The next thing was to find a motive. One point of real interest emerged from my interview with Gressingham and Radcliffe, and that was the matter of the telephone calls which came from Tiverton. Here was a suggestion of great importance. It seemed probable that Vaughan would act on these messages---go to an appointed place at a given time, and if that place were a secluded place, he could well have been killed there.”

“But what made you believe he was killed in some other place than the cottage?” demanded St. Cyres.

“This. From all I could learn, Vaughan never invited anybody---barring Miss St. Cyres---inside that cottage. He certainly did not invite Gressingham into it. It was as though his habitual reticence expressed itself in a desire to keep the cottage to himself. I couldn’t see him saying ‘Come in and have a chat’ to any of the trio at Hinton Mallory, and certainly not to Benworthy, the farm-labourer. Farming custom seldom involves going inside another man’s house: the business is more often transacted in the garden. Then there was this: if anybody called on Vaughan, they would have run the risk of being seen in the locality. If they wanted to reach Little Thatch unseen, the idea of driving there in Vaughan’s car, wearing his coat, with his old hat crammed down to conceal the driver’s face, was a good one. It was growing dusk and the risk was very small. That idea came off all right. Alf said he saw Vaughan. What he saw was Vaughan’s car, his coat and hat, and the hand he waved. I believed all along that Vaughan was in the car---but that he was dead long before the car reached Little Thatch.”

“Yes. I follow all you say there,” said St. Cyres. “It’s all well-reasoned---particularly the fact that Vaughan did not ask people into his house. I think he had a feeling that he didn’t want everybody to talk about the work he was doing there. Anybody who saw it would have realised at once that it wasn’t for himself alone that he was taking such pains with it.”

“Well, that was my reasoning,” said Macdonald. “I assumed---for the time being---that Vaughan had gone to keep an appointment, but that appointment had been made over the telephone by someone who had a motive to kill him. There was a likelihood, to put it no more strongly, that the secret of this method of making the appointment had been learnt by someone who took a telephone message for Vaughan at Hinton Mallory itself, and that someone recognised the woman’s voice which spoke over the phone, and having recognised it, took steps to watch the woman in question and thereby learned the place of the appointment. All this was hypothetical, but it gave me grounds for further enquiry.”

Anne asked a question here: “Who told you about the phone messages? Was it Mr. Gressingham?”

“No. That’s quite a point,” said Macdonald. “It was Radcliffe. If Gressingham himself had told me about it I should have counted him out earlier. It’s obvious that if the murderer had used the phone message idea to decoy Vaughan to his death I should not have been told about it by him. Now here was the position---on hypothesis. Vaughan was meeting a woman with whom he used the ‘duck’s egg’ code to give the time of an appointment at a given place. It might be argued from this that the woman he met had need to meet him more or less secretly, and from this again came the possibility that the woman was either married or engaged to some other man, and the jealousy motive---which is a very potent one---gave rise to murder. Now having got thus far, the original question arose, who was the woman whom Vaughan hoped to marry? You both know that I saw Miss Vaughan, and she told me that she knew of only one woman in whom her brother had been interested. Later she told me that this woman was a trained nurse. It seemed fairly obvious to do a little research at the hospitals where Vaughan had been nursed, and it did not take me very long to find the woman in question, but before I tell you about that I should like to put in a word or two about Howard Brendon.”

“Yes,” said St Cyres. “I shall be interested to hear how you got information about him. You must have been very cautious, because no one seems to have had any idea you were making enquiries about him.”

“I felt need to be cautious. Brendon always struck me as the one potentially dangerous person in the case. I frequented the bars of Mallowton and the district in the evenings, and I listened. I went and talked to old Mr. Tothill. I heard enough to assume several things: first, that Brendon was trying to sell his Dulverton property privately and that he had bought another property in the Midlands. Next, that though he had only been married a short time it was believed that his wife had left him. Finally, that he was disliked by his neighbours to an extent which is unusual unless a man has some really bad traits in his character. It seemed worth while making a few enquiries about what Mr. Brendon was doing on the night of April 30th. I learnt that he had stayed in an hotel in Taunton, where he had been seen by different people at the hours of four o’clock, half-past seven, and finally between half-past eleven and midnight.”


MACDONALD paused here a moment and gazed across the sunlit valley before he resumed: “Obviously the man I wanted had had to be free at certain hours on April 30th. He had had to be at Tiverton to phone the message purporting to come from Nurse White which Vaughan himself took on the phone at Hinton Mallory---and at the back of my mind all the time was the problem of Gressingham’s car, its errand on the night of the fire, and those petrol cans of Vaughan’s. Who could have needed the car and the petrol? Certainly nobody at the Mallorys---not in connection with the Little Thatch case. But if the murderer came from a distance he might have been desperately pressed for some extra petrol. I began to try to fit Brendon into the scheme of things: could he have been at Tiverton at five o’clock to phone? Yes, since he was not seen in his hotel between four and half-past seven. If he had committed the murder he must have had to drive the best part of a hundred and fifty miles to achieve his various appearances at Taunton---but the thing was possible, as anyone can see who looks at any map of the county. The distance from Taunton to the spinney is only just over twenty miles, but it’s a very hilly road and is expensive on petrol: the return journey of forty-three miles would have taken two gallons in Brendon’s car. I tried the following assumption for purposes of argument: that, Brendon, who had booked a room in a Taunton hotel at four o’clock, could have got to Tiverton in time to phone at five, and then could have driven to a spot near the spinney, arriving before Vaughan got there at 6.15. He could have killed Vaughan with a loaded stick as the latter got out of his car, which I assumed that he parked at the roadside a little farther back---before the tar strip. Vaughan’s body was then hidden under a rug in the back of his own car, and Brendon returned to Taunton in his Sunbeam, arriving in time for dinner at his hotel. That is forty-three miles of driving and two gallons of petrol used. Brendon left his hotel again unseen after dinner, drove back to the spot near the spinney where he left his own car, got into Vaughan’s Morris, having donned Vaughan’s hat and coat, and drove to Little Thatch, hooting and waving at Corner Cottage en route. He got Vaughan’s body into the cottage and prepared the fire by means of a slow match and paraffin. Next, he had to get back to his hotel in time to be seen in the lounge before everybody was in bed, so he went down to Hinton Mallory and borrowed Gressingham’s Daimler to cover the six miles from Little Thatch to the spinney, and he took two gallons of petrol from Vaughan’s store, to refuel the Daimler and to help him out if his own tank were running low. This involved having to return yet a third time to the spinney---shortly after midnight---to return Gressingham’s Daimler to Hinton Mallory. It sounds complicated in the telling, but the whole performance was possible on account of the loneliness of the roads. At any rate, I assumed that it could have been done, especially if Brendon knew that he could get in and out of his hotel unseen, and collect his own car from its lock-up without being noticed.”

St. Cyres shook his head helplessly. “What beats me is this,” he said. “Why didn’t he leave poor Vaughan’s body in the Morris where he killed him? He hadn’t been seen: there was nothing to connect him with the murder.”

“The whole point was that he tried to guard against the word ‘murder’ ever arising,” said Macdonald. “He was convinced he was clever enough to stage an accident---and he very nearly got away with it. Unfortunately for him, he over-acted his part. Since it was obvious that Vaughan’s death was to be labelled ‘accident’ I was particularly on the lookout for someone who emphasised that aspect of the matter: that’s why I was interested to note that Gressingham did nothing of the kind.”

Anne St. Cyres lifted her head and asked a question here. “Do you think Mr. Gressingham suspected who had done it?”

“Yes. I think eventually he did---and, unhappily for himself, he did not tell his suspicions to me. Gressingham was very astute, and he had a lot of information to ponder over. He knew that Brendon had taken to coming over to Hinton Mallory frequently after he had heard something about the tenant at Little Thatch. He knew about Brendon’s marriage and its break-up. He knew that Brendon had answered the phone at Hinton Mallory on at least one occasion---Radcliffe knew that, too. He knew that the name ‘Henry Heythwaite’ had been mentioned at Brendon’s home. He knew that Brendon could drive his Daimler. I think Gressingham thought it all out for himself---and then made the mistake of trying to do a little extra detecting on his own account by ringing up Brendon and suggesting a meeting. That was fatal for him. Brendon guessed, too, and arranged to meet Gressingham at a spot where a car accident could be staged only too easily---as happened. Brendon killed Gressingham, put the car in neutral and released the hand-brake----”

Anne shuddered. “Brendon must have been mad,” she said, and Macdonald nodded.

“Yes, I think he was. He was of the megalomaniac type. I never saw a more ruthless face. He was a man who was utterly self-centred and self-satisfied. When things went against him his ingenuity and determination seemed to curdle his brain. He had worked out some fantastic scheme to get rid of me in a manner which involved my body and Radcliffe’s being found together. To that end he got Radcliffe to come to his house and drugged him---to be ready for the final dénouement. Undoubtedly Brendon was mad then---but I always thought him capable of violence. Any psychologist could have told that he was abnormal by his eyes.”


“LET us have the whole story in perspective,” said Macdonald at length. “Nicholas Vaughan fell in love with a girl named Molly White up at Lannerdale, but was too slow to tell her so. This girl, having come to the conclusion that she would never have a chance of marrying Vaughan, married Howard Brendon---for security and a home. She soon found out that her husband was a sadist, a cruel, unprincipled man. She also had reason to suspect that he was a bigamist. She left him and went back to hospital work. Here she met Vaughan again as a patient, and they fell in love. She told Vaughan the truth about her husband, and he said: ‘Whether he is a bigamist or not, you’re never going back to him. You are going to marry me when we have got things straightened out.’ Vaughan took Little Thatch for two reasons: one was that Brendon was selling his Dulverton home and going to a place in the Midlands: two, was that he could not take Molly White home to Lannerdale for a few years, because people up there knew that she had recently married another man. So Nicholas Vaughan took Little Thatch, and Nurse White went to the hospital near Tiverton. From this place she used to phone the code message to Vaughan telling him the hour she could meet him at the spinney. Unhappily, Brendon heard her voice over the phone sending a message---about duck’s eggs---to Nicholas Vaughan. He began to think---for he was a desperately jealous man---and he also knew that he was in a dangerous position if his wife suspected his own past doings. Brendon undoubtedly spied on his wife, and at length learnt the place of her meeting with Vaughan. When any one person goes frequently to a given spot, like the spinney, it’s not very difficult to trace them, if you have a car and plenty of patience. Brendon decided that an accident should end Vaughan’s life---and I have no doubt if the ‘accident’ verdict had been accepted another accident would have happened to Nurse White.”

“You put a stop to that,” said St. Cyres gruffly, for Anne was incapable of saying anything at all.

“Yes. The story has been pretty horrible, but think out the few good points which can be said to emerge,” said Macdonald. “I hold it as a good point that Brendon eliminated himself. He was a menace to the community. For Vaughan---I can only say what I have said before: he was very happy during the last months of his life, and he would have died without knowing it. Brendon wasn’t the man who would have fumbled his blow. And for Molly White---she at least had the joy of Vaughan’s devotion to make up to her a little for her disastrous marriage.” He broke off and spoke to Anne: “I am so sorry about the distress you have suffered over all this . . . and about Little Thatch. I know you loved it.”

Anne wiped her eyes vigorously. “I still do,” she said. “I’m not going to leave it like that. I’m going to rebuild and re-thatch it, and keep that garden cultivated---as Nicholas Vaughan would have done . . . and one day I’ll ask Nurse White to come and stay there and see if she’d like to have the home that was being got ready for her. It ought to be hers . . .”

Colonel St. Cyres put in one final question: “I wonder what will happen to that place . . . Lannerdale, wasn’t it? Somehow I sympathised with Miss Vaughan: she did care about that place, and I’m afraid it will have gone to those shipbuilding cousins who didn’t care about the land.”

“ ‘The awful Hawkinses,’ ” said Macdonald, and he smiled as he spoke. “They weren’t so awful after all: they renounced all claim to Lannerdale and said that Elizabeth Vaughan could have it and welcome. Farming isn’t everybody’s notion of bliss.”

“Quite true,” said St. Cyres, “but if you are born in the country and learn to love the land---well, you’re as happy as young Vaughan was, digging away in that garden.”

Macdonald got up and held out his hand to the old man and then to Anne: “You stick to your idea and rebuild Little Thatch,” he said as he shook hands. “One day I’ll come here again, and I shall hope to see that cottage looking as it did when Vaughan asked you to tea there at Easter.”

Anne gripped his hand and smiled back at him, though her eyes were still misty: “I’ll write and ask you to come and see it,” she said. “I’m going to get busy on the garden straight away. It’s the best way of making me forget all the waste . . .”

“Yes, and Vaughan would have said so, too,” agreed Macdonald.


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