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Chapter Six

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« on: September 05, 2023, 10:33:36 am »

--1--

“THIS is going to be one of those tiresome cases where we suspect everything and can prove nothing,” said the Barnsford Inspector to Peel. “My own feeling is that deceased was a bit bats. I think she was regarded as a menace in the village, but they’ll none of them admit it, and this story of her tumbling just about makes it probable that she did fall in the river herself.”

“Something’ll turn up,” said Peel doggedly.

It was Peel who produced the next item of evidence. The observant sergeant had noticed that the letter box at Gramarye was a very solid and businesslike affair, a stout box firmly screwed to the back of the front door, its lid secured by a padlock, the key of which had been on the key ring found on Sister Monica’s body. Peel, on the principle ‘you never know your luck,’ had gone to Gramarye on the morning of the 25th to see if any letters had arrived. His luck was in. He found a typewritten envelope addressed to ‘Miss Torrington.’ Inside it was a half-yearly dividend warrant for £12-10-0 from the South West Building Society, and Peel promptly sat down to think and to do a little arithmetic, to the tune of ‘this is a very different cup of tea.’ The sergeant had been puzzled by the absence of any personal accounts. Despite Lady Ridding’s firm statement of the cash basis of all Sister Monica’s monetary transactions, Peel felt that there must be some records of her personal expenditure. He could not believe that a person who had kept such detailed and elaborate accounts of the institution she ran could have refrained from keeping accounts of the spending of her own income. Peel sat and pondered. He had some money invested in a building society himself and he knew the current rates of interest. £12-10-0 for the half year---that meant interest on a capital sum of £1000, a sum which took a bit of saving, thought Peel to himself. Could she have saved it? Pencil in hand, he worked out sums on the basis of Sister Monica’s salary over a period of thirty years. It was obvious at a glance that it meant saving an average of £33 a year over all that period. “I suppose it’s possible if she was one of the careful kind,” thought Peel, “and she hadn’t many expenses. But we shall have to find out how she paid it in, whether it was by little instalments at first and then bigger ones year by year, or whether it was in several hundreds at a time. Of course, there was the sister who died . . . she may have left her the money. That’ll mean searching at Somerset House.”

Peel sat and thought for some time, and by the time he met his superior officers who had come to make arrangements for the inquest, Peel had a number of ideas to put forward, including the suggestion that deceased might have had ‘other irons in the fire’---further capital in addition to that in the Building Society.

The Divisional Inspector looked at the sergeant with a thoughtful eye. “What’s in your mind, Peel?”

“Two things, sir. First I’m pretty certain something’s been stolen: an attaché case or cash box, maybe. That dame---meaning deceased---must have kept personal records of some kind. Where’s her Building Society book for one thing, and her cheque book or savings bank book? Second, when a woman’s told everybody she despises money and then turns out to have a nice little sum invested, I want to know where she got it from. Maybe I’m doing a bit of fancy thinking, but deceased was a very queer party indeed, to my way of thinking.”

--2--

The Deputy Chief Constable, the Divisional Detective Inspector and the Milham Prior police met for consultation that evening. Major Rootham, who was acting as Chief Constable during the illness of the permanent C.C., gave it as his opinion that the whole case indicated dirty work, and not in one direction alone.

“Deceased has been paying £10 a month into the Building Society over a period of eight years,” he said. “The money was paid in pound notes, posted in registered envelopes. That is to say, she paid her entire salary in since 1943. Yet she must have paid out money for clothes and other personal expenses. This indicates that she had other means, of which at present we know nothing unless we assume she spent nothing but the interest on the capital sum.”

“I think Sergeant Peel’s got a suggestion to make there,” said the Milham Prior Inspector. “He’s only got rumour to go on, but it’s a very suggestive rumour.”

“Well, sir,” said the sergeant. “Ever since the outbreak of war, when collections for various funds were run in most localities, deceased organised all the collections, apart from National Savings, of course. There were any number of good causes during the war---Red Cross, prisoner’s comforts, help for bombed areas, refugees and evacuees, to say nothing of the funds of the village Institute and various collections in connection with the church. I’m told that none of these accounts was audited, or examined by anybody in authority. Sister Monica was trusted to run the whole thing: she was so good at collecting money, and it saved everybody else trouble. It’s worth noting that in the last year or so she has been relieved of all these extra duties. They’ve got a new treasurer for the Institute, and the churchwardens have taken over all the collecting for the church. Now I’m ready to admit that I’ve got these stories from sources which couldn’t be used as evidence---but I reckon it’s worth looking into.”

“What you really mean is that deceased helped herself from the collections?” asked Major Rootham.

“Well, sir, I believe that other people think she did,” said Peel, “but I’m wondering if she did a spot of blackmail as a side line. We don’t know yet what other investments she’s got. But one thing I’m certain of: she must have had some private papers in that house, and probably some cash as well, and we can’t find a trace of anything of the kind.”

“You think somebody in the house robbed her?” asked Rootham.

“I think somebody robbed her,” said Peel, “but it’s not easy to see how they disposed of the proceeds if it was anybody in the house who did it. There’s the three young servant maids. I wouldn’t put it beyond any of them to steal, but I don’t think they’d commit a murder, and you’ve got to remember that deceased was a big strong woman. Then there’s this to it. Hannah Barrow cleaned that room deceased used as a study: the maids were never allowed into it except when the Warden sent for them. Hannah says there’s nothing missing.”

“But deceased wouldn’t have kept her private papers in a box anyone could snaffle,” said the Inspector. “She’d have kept them locked away somewhere.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Peel, “and if that’s the case, how did someone open the drawer or cupboard where she kept them? Her keys were in the pocket of her cape when her body was found. I found them there myself, including the keys of all the drawers and cupboards in the house.”

“I agree with Peel that that is a problem,” said Major Rootham. “The theory at present is that deceased was stunned by a blow on the back of her skull, and then pushed into the mill stream. I’m willing to believe a murderer who knew that deceased habitually carried her keys in that pocket might have taken them out of the pocket, but if that were the case, why were the keys found in the pocket when the body was taken out of the water? Have you identified all the keys on that key ring, Peel?”

“Yes, sir. Every one. There are eleven keys: front door, garden door, store room: roll top desk, two cupboards and petty cash box in office: medicine cupboard, linen cupboard, stock clothing cupboard and bookcase. I haven’t found any other cupboard, door, or box which is locked, except the pantry and such-like, and the cook has those keys.”

“Then it looks as though there must be a hiding place in the house you haven’t spotted, Peel,” said Rootham. “It’s a very old house. There are probably hiding places which it would take an expert to find. I agree that deceased must have had some private papers somewhere. We’ve no grounds for supposing they’re stolen: that’s only a supposition.”

“I thought myself that there might be a hiding place in the house, sir. I asked the bailiff about it---Sanderson. He’s been over the house with the estate joiner and mason. They all say there’s no hiding places in the fabric. And the loft is clean as a whistle and the cellars, too. Never seen a house with so little junk in it. It’s a puzzle and no mistake.”

“Look here, Peel, we’re in danger of getting confused by considering too many details,” said Major Rootham. “I think it’d be a good idea to have a restatement of the whole case and see if there’s anything we can eliminate. You have a go at it, Peel. You’ve put in a lot of work and you know the background. I often find it helps if you state a problem clearly, in your own words.”

“Very good, sir.” Peel waited for a minute, thinking hard, then he began: “The minute I heard of Sister Monica’s death, I thought of the other case---Nancy Bilton was drowned in that mill stream, also at night. I was never satisfied that we got at the truth over that, and I had a feeling that Sister Monica knew more than she admitted. I know that feelings aren’t any good as evidence, but I believe that in police work you develop a sense which helps you to sum up witnesses. You know when someone’s holding out on you, even if you can’t prove it.”

The Divisional Inspector put in a word here. “I know what Peel means, sir. I think he’s right. You can always tell the straightforward witness, who pours out all he knows with a mass of irrelevant detail, from the witness who’s cagey and watching his step.”

Peel threw him a grateful glance and continued: “I tried to sum the woman up. I knew she’d been in a position of trust for half a lifetime, and that she’d been in complete control at that home. I thought she’d gone a bit queer. Some women do as they grow old, especially if they’ve been undisputed bosses in a small world of their own. Because I wasn’t satisfied about the Bilton case, I’ve been trying ever since to find out a bit more about conditions in this village. None of the village folk would talk---what they didn’t know would fill a book. Now I’ve got a boy and girl of my own at our school here, and they’ve made friends with some of the children from Milham in the Moor, and I’ve listened to those kids chattering. According to them, Sister Monica was a know-all. There was nothing went on in the village she didn’t get to know about, and the kids played a snooping game they called ‘Sister M.’ Now I reckon when a woman takes to spying on her neighbours there’s likely to be trouble sooner or later. My own belief is that Sister Monica found out who’d got Nancy Bilton into trouble, although she denied knowing anything about it. It seems to me that the same person who shoved Nancy Bilton in the mill stream may have tried his luck again when he found Sister Monica somewhere near the bridge.”

“You mean that Bilton was killed by the chap who’d got her into trouble,” said the D.D.I., “and that he believed that Sister Monica knew what he’d done---or are you thinking she blackmailed him in a quiet way?”

Major Rootham put in a word of protest. “You’re making out that Sister Monica was a thoroughly evil woman,” he said. “I can’t see that you’ve got any evidence at all to support the theory.”

Peel got very red in the face, but he stuck to his guns. “I think she went queer in the head, sir. Religious mania is like any other mania, it makes people unaccountable for their actions. They think that whatever they do, it must be right. All this praying for hours, and going out at night to meditate in the dark, it’s mania, nothing else. Then the fact that she had a sense of power added to it. She dominated everybody at Gramarye: the old nurse and the cook and the young maids, I reckon she almost hypnotised them. It’s bad enough for anybody to get a sense of power like that. No one had ever stood up to her, they were all afraid of her.”

“I’m willing to believe she dominated her household and got the village under her thumb because she knew too much,” said Major Rootham, “but I’m not willing to believe she dominated Lady Ridding and the rest of the committee. They’re not fools.”

“No, sir,” persisted Peel, “but I can see that Sister Monica was very useful to Lady Ridding. Her ladyship’s always taken a pride in Gramarye---old family charity, unique in its way. And I know Lady Ridding’s right when she says such charities are hard put to it to cover expenses these days. Sister Monica ran that place cheaper than anyone could believe. Nurse Barrow and the cook work for a fraction of the wages any other domestics get, and the young maids were delinquent juveniles in training. Lady Ridding’s said to have a hard enough head when it comes to business, sir, meaning no disrespect.”

Major Rootham looked troubled, as well he might. Lady Ridding’s flair for business was becoming famous in the county. The D.D.I., who had no inordinate respect for county families, put in a word here.

“I can see Peel’s point, sir. The Warden at Gramarye was a competent manager and a very economical one---there’s no denying that. I’ve no doubt she soft-soaped Lady Ridding and the committee very cleverly, so the latter folks disregarded any signs of queer behaviour in the Warden and upheld the saint story. They’re not going to change their tune now.”

Major Rootham sat and cogitated. Then he said: “What indisputable evidence have we got that there has been foul play?”

The D.D.I. answered before Peel had a chance.

“It’s worth considering these facts, sir. Two women have been drowned at the same spot, both at night. They were both inmates of the same house. The first case resulted in a verdict of suicide. The question is, are we going to be satisfied with a verdict of accident in the second case? There’s evidence that deceased had been suffering from attacks of giddiness: Peel has collected unanimous opinions about the probability of her having fallen over, knocked her head, and rolled or slipped into the stream. There’s no evidence against that theory, but there’s a possibility that deceased’s private papers may have been stolen. It’s up to you, sir.”

“Yes. I see your point all right,” said Rootham. “You feel that further investigation is called for. I agree. But it’s not going to be easy. Country people can be very obstinate. Peel says the customary answer is, ‘I don’t know’ or else ‘I can’t remember.’ In other words, the village folk won’t help. It’s very odd, that.”

“You’ve got to realise the sort of village Milham in the Moor is, sir,” said Peel. “They’ve always been cut off, kept themselves to themselves. We say in Milham Prior, when we’ve got a fête or a dance or a collection, ‘No use asking those folks out there on the moor to help,’ and they say, ‘Milham Prior’s done nought for us. Us won’t do nought for Milham Prior.’ It’s not actually a feud, it’s a habit of mind, going back for centuries for all I know. They diddled me last time, over the Bilton case, because they were solid against outside interference.” Peel mopped his face and then added stubbornly: “It’s as though the moor’s in their blood. Something hard, and something different from folks who’re used to the give and take of town, and law and order that’s part of their lives. It’s as though they’re trying to be a law unto themselves,” he concluded.

--3--

“I’m disposed to put this business to the Yard, Grey,” said Major Rootham later to the D.D.I., after Peel had left. “I see your point about the two deaths looking fishy. We can’t leave it alone. But it looks like being one of those long jobs. You’ve got your hands pretty full already, and I don’t think the chaps here have got time for this job: neither do I think they can get to the bottom of it.”

“I agree with you there, sir, but all the same I think Peel’s done pretty well. He jumped to it: he got all the routine evidence, timing, position of contacts and so forth. He examined the ground and he went over that house. In addition to all that, he thought out the possibilities involved and some of his ideas are worth following up. But I don’t think he’ll get any further. It’s not his fault. It’s the peculiarity of those two places. I thought he put it pretty well when he described that village as a law unto itself, but he’s got a bias. They’ve put his back up, and that means he’s put their back up.”

Rootham nodded. “That’s it. I think a newcomer would have a better chance: would see the thing more in focus. Of course I could take you and your chaps off that job you’re on.”

“I’d be sorry if you did that, sir. We’ve put a lot of work in with the excise officers and I think we’ve a chance of getting it cleared up. It’s a sizeable racket and it involves a lot of local knowledge. This business here is concentrated into a limited environment, if you see what I mean. And I think there’s this to it. The Milham in the Moor folk are holding out against the Milham Prior police. They’ve seen them before and they reckon they’ve sized them up. They may feel quite different when a Yard man tackles them. And that goes for all of them, the quality as well as the villagers.”

Major Rootham’s eyebrows shot up, but the Detective Inspector went on: “It seems to me, sir, that Lady Ridding must have known her Warden was getting a bit odd, to say the least of it. I’ve every sympathy with Peel when he gets hot under the collar about all this ‘saintly’ business. There’s several people in that village who’d be none the worse for knowing what it feels like to be pinned down to hard facts by an expert investigator.”

“You may be right,” agreed Rootham, “and if that’s so, well, someone from London might tackle the job with a more open mind, if you take me.”

The D.D.I. grinned to himself as he went back to his car to get busy on the job he’d been working at for weeks.

“If they’re to be bullied, let the Yard wallahs do the bullying. I bet they will, too, saints or no saints.”

The Deputy Chief Constable sat and thought very deeply after he had parted with his officers. Rootham could not help being conservative by nature, in his general approach to a problem as well as in his politics. It was ingrained in him to trust and respect the ‘right people,’ and he felt uncomfortable about the D.D.I.’s comments on Lady Ridding, and still more uncomfortable when he remembered that phrase, “It’s up to you, sir.” Did Grey think he was going to shut down on an enquiry because its continuance would cause discomfort to the Riddings? But Rootham was honest enough to admit to himself that he would feel relieved if this case were to be handled by C.O., and not by the County men. It would have been very uncomfortable to have a sense of divided loyalties, a desire to save ‘the right people’ discomfort and a desire to back up his own men, no matter which way their enquiries led them. “Probably all a mare’s nest, but there may be some mud slinging,” he thought to himself.

The thing which nagged uncomfortably at the back of Rootham’s mind was that he believed he had a faint glimmering of what might have been going on so far as the mystery of Sister Monica’s finances were concerned. Lady Ridding had paid the Warden’s salary, in cash. Officially that salary was £10 a month, all of which had been thriftily paid into the Building Society. Had Lady Ridding augmented the salary, unofficially? Rootham remembered hearing a woman friend of his wife’s say: “You can always get a little extra from Etheldreda Ridding.” Mrs. Rootham had promptly changed the subject. Cream, was it, or butter? pondered Rootham. Had the Warden of Gramarye tumbled to it? A trivial thing, but unpalatable. Of course, Major Rootham didn’t really know anything about Lady Ridding’s affairs: he’d only overheard a remark---and ignored it. He had not been Deputy C.C. at the time, and a man can’t snoop on his wife’s friends.

Major Rootham stretched out his hand for the phone. “I’ll ask for a first rate man,” he said to himself.

The upshot of Major Rootham’s request to the Commissioner’s Office was that Chief Inspector Macdonald was detailed to investigate the matter of Sister Monica’s death.

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