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Chapter Five

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« on: September 05, 2023, 09:13:37 am »


--1--

“HER come over dizzy, poor soul. That be it. Terrible dizzy Sister’s been these weeks past. Only Sunday ’twere she fell flat as never was, and the little maids did all hear mun fall. And yesterday again, her did slip on stairs and knocked back of her head a real crack.”

It was ‘Nurse’ Barrow giving evidence, treating Sergeant Peel to a wealth of detail over Sister Monica’s dizziness, until the sergeant felt it would have been a relief to knock Hannah Barrow flat, and give her reason for dizziness herself. Hannah Barrow, aged 62, assistant at Gramarye since 1929, called ‘Nurse’ by courtesy, devoted admirer and servant to Sister Monica---“the most garrulous old fool I ever heard,” groaned Peel. The worst of it was that she had corroborative evidence, lashings of it. Emma Higson, aged 59, cook at Gramarye since 1939, upheld every word Hannah Barrow uttered. “Her come over dizzy like, poor soul,” she wheezed. “Her head, ’twas. Sister, I says, it’s new glasses you’re wanting. And what’s the National Health for, I asked her---you get some new glasses, Sister, I says. Them as knows can tell you wrong glasses do make folks dizzy. And a terrible fall she had, terrible. Sunday ’twas . . .”

Emma Higson was even more tiresome to listen to than ‘Nurse’ Barrow, for Emma was of Welsh parentage, reared in London, whose Cockney speech was variegated by a Welsh lilt, the whole rendered more formidable by a veneer of Devonian idiom, picked up in eleven years’ association with Devonians.

“Her fell while her was watching water, that’s how ’twas,” said Hannah Barrow, sucking her false teeth back into place. “Her was unaccountable fond o’ that bridge, a thing I don’t rightly understand,” she went on, “but then Sister was a proper saint, not common earth such as you and me.” Her glance indicated that saintliness was very remote from the police force. “Her’d pray for hours,” said Hannah reminiscently. “Terrible taken up with praying for us sinners was Sister.”

Peel got the conversation back to the topic of Sister Monica’s habit of wandering in the park after dark. “Iss, many a night she’d go out,” said Hannah. “Her said her could meditate proper when the world was all still and dark and nought to come between her and her thoughts. ’Twas then she wrestled for righteousness,” she added, “and there’s no knowing the good she did a-communin’ with spirits and souls of the righteous, and if her was took in the midst of ’oly thoughts, it was all for the likes of us.”

“That’s as may be,” said Peel, and transferred his attention to the three young serving maids---Alice, Bessie, and Dot. Here he found the same unanimity of purpose. They had all heard Sister fall on the stairs, and had rushed to see what had happened. She had been sitting with her head in her hands by the time they got into the hall, and she wouldn’t hear of having a doctor, like Nurse said she ought. “No, I’m not hurt, just shaken a little,” she said. “I’m afraid I wasn’t looking where I was going, and my foot slipped.”

“And I don’t wonder at it,” said Dot, who was the talkative one of the three Abigails. “Look at the way Sister made us polish them stairs, fair glassy they are and the lino’s old anyway and been polished for life-times. Then she wore them flat shoes about the house, soft shoes, so’s you never could hear her coming. But there, she was a saint, so it’s no use wondering she wasn’t like the rest of us.”

“How long have you been here?” asked Peel and she looked at him for a second with a bright and unregenerate eye.

“Fifteen months. I shall be eighteen come Christmas.”

Peel knew what that meant. When she was eighteen Dot would be independent and able to choose her own job. “Are you girls happy here?” he asked.

It was a false move. Dot lowered her eyelids and clasped her hands and became a virtuous automaton again. “Ever so happy,” she said smugly. “Sister Monica was wonderful. It’ll never be the same again.”

It was Nurse Barrow who took Peel over the house, pointing out again and again how spotless it was, and frowning over the marks made on the polished linoleum by Peel’s damp and heavy boots. He knew the lay-out: the two dormitories where the children slept, with Sister Monica’s bedroom opening out of one dormitory and Nurse’s bedroom opening out of the other. Peel stood and stared at Sister Monica’s room: it was like a nun’s cell apart from its clutter of holy pictures and plaster angels. White-washed walls, a narrow iron bedstead, a chair, a little prayer desk and a wash stand and chest of drawers combined. That was all. He glanced into cupboard and drawers with Nurse’s disapproving eye upon him.

“Where did she do her writing?” he asked.

“In the office, downstairs. Sister said bedroom was for sleeping in, and her bedroom’s the same as ours. Same beds, same bedding. Never no luxuries for her.”

Peel saw again the rooms where the maids slept: two rooms, opening out of one another: the senior maid had a room to herself, the other two shared one, and Emma Higson’s room was next door, she being in control of the domestic staff. Peel remembered the maids’ rooms. They had narrow casement windows, with a stone mullion between the lights. At one time they had been barred, but orders had been given to remove the bars in case of fire, and a fire escape ladder had been fixed at Sister Monica’s window. The room in which Nancy Bilton had been locked had a very narrow window, and Sister Monica had said in evidence that she had thought the window was too small for anybody to get out of. She had had little knowledge of the athletic abilities of girls to-day. Again and again Emma Higson gave voice to her own opinion about Sister Monica’s end. “Her turned dizzy, poor soul: fell backwards maybe and knocked herself silly and rolled into water.”

Peel sent her away after she had shown him the office, and he sat down and went through the contents of the desk, using the keys which had been on a ring in the pocket of Sister’s cloak. Everything was tidy and businesslike and in order. Neatly written books gave detailed descriptions of children who had been or were now in the home: similar details about the maids: account books, recipe books, inventories of linen and blankets and clothes and stores, all written in the same admirably legible hand with the same wealth of detail. Here were all the records anybody could possibly demand so far as the running of Gramarye was concerned: account books and analysis of accounts, costs per week, costs per child, wages, food, clothing, equipment, set out legibly and meticulously in a manner to rejoice any accountant’s heart. But Sergeant Peel was not interested in accounts, or in the economics of running a children’s home. He wanted to get to grips with the personality of the dead woman, to know something of her dealings as a human being, apart from her abilities as Warden. He went through every drawer and cupboard, every file and pigeon hole, without discovering a single letter or paper of a personal kind. “Damn it, the woman must have had some personal contacts,” he said to himself. “Most religious-minded old maids are bung full of sentiment: they keep letters and photos galore and bits about their families and their young days and all that.”

He sent for Hannah Barrow again, and asked where Sister Monica had kept her private letters and papers. Hannah told him that everything Sister possessed was either in her bedroom or in this office. There was nothing anywhere else. He could see the parlour, but there was nothing there. It was only used when visitors came.

“Do you know anything about her family---next of kin?” asked Peel.

“Her had no family, poor soul. Her was alone in the world,” said Hannah smugly, with the air of one repeating an oft told tale. “One sister, her had, name of Ursula. Her died ’way back. Jubilee year ’twas. ‘Now I’m alone in the world so far as kith and kin goes,’ her said. I mind it same as if ’twere yesterday. ‘My family’s here now,’ her said, ‘the little ones, Hannah, and you and the others: you’re my family and blessed I am to have you all’.”

“That’s all very fine and large,” said Peel to himself, “but there must have been some papers I haven’t found. The woman was paid, presumably. She’d have been paid by cheque, I take it. She must have had a banking account, or a savings bank book. There’s something damned odd about the whole set-up.”

--2--

Peel’s next call was at the Manor House. For twenty years Lady Ridding had been chairman of the Committee which controlled Gramarye, and it was to be presumed that she knew all that there was to be known about the deceased Warden.

The sergeant was conscious of acute discomfort when he and his attendant constable were shown into the morning-room at the Manor. Theoretically, Peel had no undue reverence for the gentry. In the eyes of the law, a witness was a witness, to be treated with neither fear nor favour, but Lady Ridding had given away prizes at the police sports, beamed upon competing police teams in the ambulance competitions, received bouquets from policemen’s small daughters and salutes from sergeants and inspectors. It was Peel’s duty to collect all the available evidence for his inspector, and information about the financial position of deceased, to say nothing of her next of kin, had obviously got to be obtained, but Peel knew in his heart that he could not really deal with Lady Ridding. If she joined in the ‘I don’t know’ tactics of the village she could defeat him, not by a display of intransigence but by graciously worded regrets for her inability to help him.

Her ladyship (the title was accorded to her by all the village folk) swept superbly into the small room.

“Good-morning, Sergeant, Good-morning, Constable. Please sit down. This is indeed a sorrowful occasion. Sister Monica’s death is a tragedy, and I feel it deeply. I have had the privilege of knowing her for thirty years, and I cannot tell you how profoundly I grieve at her loss. Now I know that it is your duty to make a detailed enquiry into the circumstances of her death, but I do beg you to remember that I, and all who knew her, are mourning her loss. I ask you to be brief, Sergeant.”

This speech was delivered with all the virtuosity of one skilled in addressing committees: moreover it indicated subtly that Peel was intruding into a house of mourning, and made him feel even less at ease. Essaying a few words of apology and sympathy, Peel started on the easiest question he had to put---the matter of next of kin.

“I have already discussed that with Sir James,” replied Lady Ridding. “The plain answer is that there is no next of kin. Sister Monica told me years ago, after the death of her parents, that she had only one relative remaining in the world, her sister, Ursula Torrington. Ursula died in 1935. I remember it well. Sister Monica went to her funeral. Since then, believe it or believe it not, Sister Monica has never been away from Gramarye. She refused to take a holiday. Her very soul was in her work, Sergeant. She had no other life. Her home, her friends, were here, in this place.”

Peel then got on to the rather more difficult matter of ‘deceased’s estate.’ He said that he had been unable to find any private papers, any bank statement, any cheque book. Lady Ridding interrupted him here.

“She had no bank account. Sister Monica was utterly devoid of any interest in money. She despised money. She came to Gramarye thirty years ago, Sergeant. Wages were very different in those days. She was paid forty-eight pounds a year, plus her living expenses, laundry, and insurance. She asked to be paid monthly, in cash, and this method of payment has been adhered to. It was only with difficulty that she was persuaded to accept increases in salary. She was a selfless woman, Sergeant.”

“Do you mean that her salary was still forty-eight pounds a year, madam?” enquired Peel, and saw the constable’s eyes goggle over his notes.

“Of course not,” said Lady Ridding tartly. “We did not exploit her unworldliness. Her salary was raised by regular increments of four pounds a year until it reached ten pounds a month. That was in 1940, during the war, and Sister Monica came to me and said she did not wish for any further rise. She wanted to make her own contribution to the financial sacrifices we were all making. At her own wish her salary has remained fixed at that sum---one hundred and twenty pounds a year. It was too little, of course, but it was what she wished.”

“And she was paid in cash?” asked the sergeant.

“As I have told you,” said Lady Ridding coldly. “I, as chairman of the Committee, am empowered to draw cheques on the Gramarye account, together with a signature from the vicar. I paid Sister Monica ten pounds on the first of every month, in pound notes. She once told me that after she had paid any necessary outgoings---uniform and so forth---she gave the remains of her salary each month to various charities. She was an amazing woman, Sergeant.”

“She must have been,” said Peel. He dared not meet Lady Ridding’s eye, for the most heterodox thoughts were going through his worldly mind. A hundred and twenty pounds a year . . . and any good cook could get three pounds a week . . . had somebody been making a bit out of the Gramarye funds? Her ladyship was said to be as hard as nails over a business deal.

“You will realise that charities dependent on invested funds are finding it increasingly difficult to carry on,” continued Lady Ridding, exactly as though she could read Peel’s thoughts, and he felt his face getting even hotter. “And now, Sergeant, are there any further questions which must be dealt with at this very moment? I do not wish to impede your enquiries, but I have much to arrange.”

“Quite so, madam. Could you tell me if Sister Monica had any old friends, outside this village?”

“I cannot give you a precise answer either way,” she replied, “but think for yourself. If you had made your home in one place for thirty years, identifying yourself with the life of that place, giving all your affection and loyalty and devotion to the work you had made your life, is it not probable that other interests and friendships would have slipped into the background? I think this was so in the case of Sister Monica. To the best of my knowledge and belief she neither wrote letters nor received them, apart from those concerning her work at Gramarye. That was what I meant when I said it was her life.”

A few minutes later sergeant and constable were walking away from the house, across the garden of the manor house.

“What’s your opinion of all that, Briggs?” asked Peel. He knew Briggs well, and trusted him.

“Well, since you’re asking me, Sergeant, I reckon she laid it on a bit too thick,” said the constable. “I’ll make allowances: deceased was a rum ’un, we all know that, but I can’t swallow all this selfless stuff, if you see what I mean. Too much of it, if you ask me. Makes you wonder.”

“Too much of all of it,” thought Peel. “Too much dizziness. Too much devotion. Ten pounds a month . . . paid in cash. Doesn’t sound natural, somehow. None of it.”

--3--

“If you won’t take it amiss, doctor, I’m coming to you for a bit of straight plain commonsense,” said Sergeant Peel, and Raymond Ferens grinned sympathetically.

“Have a glass of beer first, and then tell me your troubles,” said Ferens.

“Well, thank you kindly, sir. I reckon I could do with it,” said Peel. “All this high-falutin’s got my goat. There’s not a soul in the place can even mention deceased in an ordinary voice. They clasp their hands and lower their eyes and tell you she was a saint.---Thank you, sir,” he added, taking a deep draught of well cooled ale. “What do you make of all this saint stuff, sir?”

“It’s no use asking me, Sergeant. I’m sorry, but it’s not my province. As you know, the children’s home was not in my care. Dr. Brown retained his position as M.O. there. My own contacts with Sister Monica were of the brief and casual variety---time of day, the weather, and such like. And I’m not going to repeat gossip.”

“Very good, doctor. Are you willing to answer this question: so far as your observation of her goes, was she a normal, healthy creature?”

“I’ve no ground for opinions about her health. From the look of her, I should have judged her to be physically strong; she looked tough to me, but my opinion is of no more value than your own. As for normal in the usual sense of the word, no, I don’t think she was. Her appearance was eccentric and her manner studied. She was a bit odd. But women who stick to the same limited environment for thirty years, and are in absolute authority in a small establishment, do tend to get odd.” He broke off, and then added: “I take it you’ve seen Dr. Brown?”

“Yes, sir. I mean no disrespect to Dr. Brown when I say this. He’d known her for so long that he couldn’t see her as she really was. You understand what I mean when I say a person can become a legend. They all say, ‘She was a wonderful woman.’ Dr. Brown said it, too. I came to you because you’re a newcomer, sir. You saw this place with a fresh eye, and if I’m anywhere near the mark, you’re not one who’d be hoodwinked by a legend.”

Sergeant Peel was trying hard to express what was in his mind without giving offence, and he mopped his face as he spoke, while Ferens chuckled.

“Very astute of you, Sergeant. You’re quite right. I’m not impressed by legends. Say if you tell me what you’re really trying to get at. I’m quite trustworthy. I won’t repeat anything you say, but I’ll tell you if I think you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

“Thank you, sir. You couldn’t put it fairer than that. You ask me what I’m getting at. It’s something like this. I’ve got a feeling they’re all putting on an act, and it’s the same act. Sister Monica was a saint. Well, sir, was she?”

“I suppose it depends on what you call a saint,” replied Ferens. “I’ve never met one. I shouldn’t know.”

“This village has always kept itself to itself,” went on Peel. “We never heard anything much about it at Milham Prior, but since the older children have been sent down to our schools, it’s been a bit different. Children chatter to each other, and a bit of what they chatter about gets through to the parents. The children don’t think Sister Monica was a saint. Some of them were frightened of her. They said she knew everything. The fact is, sir, I’ve reason to believe she was one of those women who nosed out secrets.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised, Sergeant.”

“No, sir. I reckon you wouldn’t. Now being a nosy parker isn’t my idea of being a saint, for all they say. And I reckon deceased was knocked over the head from behind and then shoved into the stream.”

“So you may. But you’ve got to remember there’s another possibility. There’s evidence to show that deceased has been suffering from giddiness lately. She’s certainly had one or two tumbles.”

“Do you reckon it was possible she fell, knocked herself silly, and then rolled into the stream, sir?”

“It’s possible, yes. If she were standing on that bridge, came over faint and went at the knees, there’s a chance she might have knocked the back of her head on the hand rail behind her as she fell, and her body might have slipped backwards under the hand rail into the water. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it’s a possibility.”

“Maybe it is, sir, but somehow I can’t see it happening like that, not unless she’d got some actual disease which made her liable to tumble---epilepsy, or something of that kind. They’ll find that out at the autopsy, I expect. As for all this dizziness, well, it seemed to me they all laid it on too thick, like her ladyship did with her saintly stuff. You’ll excuse me if I’m putting it crudely, sir, but there’s such a thing as overdoing it.”

“I get you, Sergeant. Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“That’s the size of it, sir. And not only the lady. Those two women at Gramarye---Barrow and Higson—they simply echoed each other. ‘Her came over dizzy: terrible dizzy Sister was.’ And those bits of servant girls---cheeky pieces they’d be if they acted natural---all casting their eyes up and saying Sister came over dizzy. I tell you it put me in mind of a Greek play they did at that queer school Dartmouth way---fates or furies or some such all chanting in chorus. That’s what it was like, sir, sort of chorus of fates.”

“Very cogently put, Sergeant. You’ve got an analytical mind, but it’s worth remembering this. Sister Monica was a dominating woman. I’ve no doubt she trained all those domestics to be faithful echoes of herself, and it hasn’t worn off yet. They’ll come natural later on, when they’ve got over the shock of her death.”

“Maybe they will, sir, but I feel bothered about the whole thing. There was that other case of drowning---the Bilton girl. I never believed we got to the bottom of that. And I’m not going to take anything on its face value this time.”

Ferens sat very still: he recognised the Sergeant for what he was: an honest, painstaking officer, by no means devoid of intelligence, capable of a more imaginative and analytical approach than might have been expected, and the Sergeant was appealing to him---Ferens---for help, on the grounds that an intelligent newcomer to the village should be able to give some helpful counsel.

“I entirely agree with you,” said Ferens quietly. “You’ve got to examine everything both sides, so to speak. You’ve come to me to ask me for help---an honest opinion, or information if I’ve got any. Don’t think I’m holding out on you. I’m trying to be honest in my turn. I have no first-hand information, and I’ve told you I won’t repeat hearsay. Village gossip is the devil. I’ll think the whole thing over very carefully, and if I think of anything which bears on the matter and which it is my duty to tell you, I’ll let you know.”

“Very good, doctor. That’s all I want. I’ve gone farther in talking to you than I’d’ve risked with anyone else, and I’ll tell you what’s really bothering me. They all say she was a saint, but if I know my onions the woman’s death has been an almighty relief to the lot of them, high and low alike.”

“I think you’re probably right, Sergeant. But keep a sense of proportion. You’ve talked to me off the record, so to speak, and I’ll do the same to you. I’ve known people who were described as saints, especially after their death. And I’ve often been aware of an element of thankfulness mingled with the tears in the house of mourning.”

Peel allowed himself a quiet chuckle. “Does me good to hear you talking, doctor.”

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