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Chapter Seven

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« on: September 05, 2023, 11:11:51 am »


--1--

MACDONALD enjoyed his drive down to Devonshire. He took Detective Inspector Reeves with him, and they left London at 5.30 a.m. on June 27th. At that hour, the London streets were almost deserted, and Macdonald drove south-westwards through Chelsea and Mortlake and then on through Staines before the inevitable lorries had set out in any great numbers. It was a glorious morning and Reeves sat in happy companionable silence as Macdonald’s well serviced car slipped easily along the sunlit roads. They drove by Basingstoke and Andover, and then increased speed over the fine Wiltshire roads to Amesbury, with Salisbury Plain to their right, and the chalk downs beyond. Reeves gave a grunt of surprise when he first saw the stone circle of Stonehenge in the distance. It looked so small---like a model of the familiar reality.

“I’ve never seen it before,” said Reeves.

“High time you did,” said Macdonald.

He pulled the car up, and they walked towards the mighty stones. Reeves stood and stared, and at last he asked a question: “Where did they get them from, originally?”

“The outer circle, the sarsen stones, from the Wiltshire downs: the inner ones, the blue stones, from Pembrokeshire.”

“How the heck did they move them?”

“When you’re tired of detecting events concerned with the unruly wills and affections of sinful men, you might find it refreshing to try to answer that ‘How?’ ” said Macdonald. “The most probable answer is by floating them here, and to do that they would have had to excavate canals connecting up existing rivers.”

“Some job.”

“Yes. Some job. As a variation, you can think out the mechanics of moving them on rollers, invoking such assistance as the law of the lever might give, bearing in mind that there were no roads and that stone age Britain was pretty thickly covered with forest.”

“Yes. Quite a nice problem,” said Reeves. “Seems to me it’d be simpler to concentrate on Who killed Sister Monica? plus How and Why? But I’ll keep your tip in mind. It’d make a nice change of thought some time when I’m browned off.”

“And when I retire, I might write a monograph, for private circulation only, on the subject of stones,” said Macdonald. “Stonehenge, the Dale Stones in Lunesdale, and the London Stone.”

“Not forgetting the item from Scone,” chuckled Reeves.

“I hadn’t forgotten it, but let sleeping stones lie,” replied Macdonald. “If you’ve stared enough, what about some coffee? We’ve made good time. 78 miles in two hours isn’t bad going, remembering we started from Westminster.”

They drove on through Taunton and reached Milham Prior in time for an early lunch at the George, Reeves studying the Victorian decor with lively amusement. After lunch they drove to Milham Prior police station to consult with Sergeant Peel and the Barnsford Inspector.

--2--

“There’s something wrong there,” said Peel, after he and Macdonald had discussed the report which had been sent to the Commissioner’s Office. “I know it’s no use guessing, and our deputy C.C. said, ‘Leave it to the Yard,’ so I’ve left it. But my opinion is that every single witness I interrogated could have told me more than they did. They just shut down, and that goes for the Manor House as well as the cottagers: old Dr. Brown, the Rev. Kingsley, the estate agent---Sanderson---they all know more than they admitted.”

Macdonald looked at Peel’s carefully typed lists. “I have a feeling that the fellows who were there when you first arrived on the scene ought to be able to give a bit more factual evidence than they have,” he said. “If I’ve got things right, all those chaps were closely associated with that bit of the village nearest to the mill stream. There’s Samuel Venner, who lives at the Mill House, Bob Doone, who’s foreman at the saw mill close by, George Wilson, who’s electrician in charge of the generating plant, and Jack Hedges, cowman at the farm close by the Mill House. Jim Rigg, who found the body, is second cowman at the Manor Farm, but he lives in a cottage by the bridge over the river. Am I right in saying that all of them would be likely to use that footbridge over the mill stream at any hour of the day or night?”

“Correct, sir,” replied Peel. “Cowmen have to look to their beasts at calving, no matter what the hour may be. George Wilson’s got to keep an eye on his storage batteries, and I know for a fact he often goes to inspect the plant late at night, especially when a lot of current’s been used up at the Manor. Doone’s often been known to work at the saw mill after dark. He does some trading of his own with the farmers, and he or his son will cut posts for the farmers, or saw logs for them when they’ve been felling their own timber. Young Doone’s got a tractor outfit of his own and runs a saw from the engine in the evenings. But I’d give them all a clean bill so far as character is concerned. The only thing I’d say is that they’re pretending to be stupider than they are.”

“Well, it’s with them I shall start,” said Macdonald. “Now, tell me this. You say deceased used to be treasurer of this, that and the other. What reason is given for her being relieved of those activities?”

“ ‘Her was tired out. Terrible tired Sister was’,” quoted Peel sardonically. “ ‘Old Dr. Brown said Sister was wearing of herself out and us was properly ashamed to’ve put upon her so.’ You sort that one out, Chief. It sounds easy but it isn’t. Butter won’t melt in their mouths.”

“Well, I’ll have a shot at melting it,” said Macdonald, “and the sooner I get going the better.”

“And good luck to you,” said Peel. “Now where are you going to stay, sir?”

“At the Inn at Milham in the Moor. I think this is one of the cases when it is salutary for everybody concerned to know that the C.I.D. is very much on the spot, and that it will remain on the spot until something turns up. Reeves and I will adopt wearing-down tactics.”

Reeves chuckled. “It does work, you know. They get to hate the sight of you, and somebody loses their temper eventually, and says something they wish they hadn’t. Haunt them, that’s the idea, day and night.”

“Haunt them,” echoed Peel appreciatively. “You’ve got something there. They’re superstitious in their own way.”

“Don’t tell Reeves so. He’s quite capable of borrowing a nurse’s cloak and providing apparitions which aren’t regulation,” said Macdonald. “For myself, I’m out after chapter and verse, hoping somebody will slip up eventually.”

The two C.I.D. men drove out towards the moor, both keenly aware of the fragrance blowing in at the open windows: new mown hay, flowering beans and clover, so that Reeves sniffed like a pointer. When they saw the church tower and roofs on the hill-top, Reeves said: “Quite a place. It’s different from anything I’ve ever seen.”

Macdonald said: “Hill-top villages are the exception rather than the rule in England. Perhaps an unusual site makes for unusual people.”

“Uppish?” hazarded Reeves, his eyes fixed on the piled up roofs, one above the other on the steep hill side.

“No. Not uppish. Isolated maybe,” said Macdonald. “Isolated communities tend to a communal defence mechanism. Sorry. That’s hideous jargon.”

“Is it? I shouldn’t know,” said Reeves, “but I get the idea. All for each and each for all and to hell with interlopers.”

Macdonald drew up outside the Milham Arms and went in to find the landlord, whom he asked for two single rooms. Simon Barracombe shook his head. They weren’t expecting visitors just now, he urged, washing his hands.

“In that case you had better take some of those A.A. and R.A.C. signs off your walls,” said Macdonald. “I am an officer of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard. I want two bedrooms. Can you accommodate me or not?”

Simon Barracombe had another look at the lean dark fellow whose quiet voice did not sound very ‘accommodating,’ and decided not to be awkward.

“Very good, sir. We will do our best. I am sorry things aren’t quite as I could wish, but we don’t have many visitors at this time. I’ll take your bags up, sir. Could you tell me how long it would be for?”

“I can’t tell you,” said Macdonald, “but I’ll take the rooms for a week to start with. We are here on duty.”

Some five minutes later, the two C.I.D. men strolled down the steep village street towards the Mill House, and Reeves said: “Order of the day: brass tacks and plain English.”

“That’s it,” said Macdonald. “Consciously or unconsciously---my bet’s on the former---this village has been developing what’s called a ‘mystique’ by some people. It involves saintliness, other-worldliness, general vagueness over matters of fact and inattention to detail.”

“Hocus-pocus. I looked that one up on your recommendation,” said Reeves.

“You’re a diligent chap. Well, the first thing to do is to clear the air, and let them see that we’re not going to be fuddled by the village technique. This must be the Mill House. You can go and consider the footbridge.”

“Right,” said Reeves. “I will meditate on fits, dizziness and giddiness, and work out the chances of hitting the back of my own head on the hand rail if I go at the knees. She was five foot eleven, wasn’t she? You might co-operate later.”

--3--

“Mrs. Venner? I am an officer of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard, and I am here to investigate the death of Miss Monica Torrington. There are some questions I want to ask you, so may I come in?”

White-haired Mrs. Venner looked as startled as if a squib had been let off under her nose: she looked up at the tall, lean officer, realised that his voice, though deliberate, was courteous, and she tried to hedge.

“Well, I’ve told all I do know to sergeant, and that wasn’t much. The fact is I don’t know anything to help.”

“I want to make it clear that I am starting this enquiry afresh,” said Macdonald, “right from the beginning. It’s my duty to get answers to my own questions, not to rely on previous answers. You can refuse to answer if you wish, but that will only mean a longer examination for you in court.”

“Oh, I don’t mean I’m refusing to answer, only that I’ve nought to tell,” she replied, “but come in, and I’ll do my best.”

She was a stout, middle-aged, kindly-looking woman, the type of countrywoman Macdonald liked at sight, and she led him into a tidy parlour, one of those little-used rooms which country housewives are proud of. Macdonald started on an interrogation which he knew he would have to repeat again and again.

“Did you know Miss Torrington personally, Mrs. Venner?”

“Why, yes, of course. We all knew her. Sister, she came and nursed me when I had the pneumonia. During the war, ’twas. A wonderful nurse was Sister.”

“You mean she was very good to you and you were grateful to her. You felt you could trust her.” Macdonald was very much aware of the glance Mrs. Venner shot at him, but she replied: “Her was a wonderful nurse, was Sister. Never tired of helping others.”

“When did you last speak to her?”

“Well, I couldn’t rightly say.”

“Was it shortly before she died---a day or so? Or more like weeks?”

“Well, a few weeks maybe. ’Tis a steep hill up to village and Sister wasn’t so young as she was. No more am I. I don’t go up top more’n I need.”

“It is a steep hill---I’ve seen that for myself,” said Macdonald, “and it must be just as steep going up by the park.”

“ ’Iss. ’Tis---and rougher going.”

“But Miss Torrington used to come down that hill at night sometimes, didn’t she?”

“So they say.”

“Did you never see her by the mill stream or in the park at night?”

“Well, yes. I did see her the once. And surprised I was to see her.”

“When was it that you saw her?”

“Quite a while back that was. I can’t rightly say when.”

“Well, let’s try to get the time fixed. You’re a country woman, Mrs. Venner. The seasons mean much more to countryfolk than to townsfolk. Are you going to tell me that you can’t remember if it was spring, summer, autumn or winter when you saw Miss Torrington in the park at night?”

Mrs. Venner flushed uncomfortably, paused for a long time, and then said: “ ’Twas springtime.”

“Not this year, because you said ‘quite a while back’,” persisted Macdonald.

“Well, then, ’twas last year,” she said. “I went out late, after twelve ’twas, because my young dog had gone straying, and I was worried. The farmers don’t like dogs straying.”

“Especially when there are lambs in the fields,” said Macdonald. “You lamb early in Devon, so it would have been early in the spring.”

“Yes. ’Twas---and what difference do that make?”

“The difference it makes is that Nancy Bilton was drowned in the mill-race a year ago this April, Mrs. Venner. You had seen Miss Torrington wandering in the park at night early in the spring---before April, that is---but no mention was made of that fact at the inquest on Nancy Bilton.”

“No one asked me, and ’twasn’t my business. Sister Monica was asked questions, same as all of us. It was for her to tell on what she did herself.”

“It’s the business of every honest man and woman to tell everything they know in a police enquiry. Did Miss Torrington know you saw her?”

“I don’t know. I never spoke to her about it. And we always called her Sister Monica. I get moithered with your Miss Torrington. I can’t think of her that way.”

“I think it’d be much better if you did,” said Macdonald crisply. “Then you might think straight about her. This ‘Sister Monica’ you talk about is a being who is all wrapped up in make-believe. You say she was ‘wonderful,’ and you’ve gone on saying it until you’ve forgotten that she was a real person. You’re trying to make out to yourself and me that she was a cross between a plaster figure and Florence Nightingale.”

“Well, I never did . . .” expostulated the stout dame. “That’s no way to speak of the dead.”

“I’m not talking about the dead. I’m trying to get an idea of what Miss Torrington was like when she was alive, and you’ve already told me quite a bit about her, Mrs. Venner.”

“I told you her was a wonderful nurse.”

“Yes. She nursed you when you were ill. We get used to summing people up in my job, Mrs. Venner. It’s my belief that you are a kindly person, as well as a truthful one, and I don’t think you’d be ungrateful. Yet when I ask you what was the last time you spoke to Miss Torrington you can’t remember. It must have been quite a long time ago. When you saw her out in the park after midnight, you didn’t speak to her. That seems very odd to me. You’d reason to be grateful to her: you must have thought it strange to see her out like that. In the ordinary way, wouldn’t you speak to a neighbour if you saw her out after midnight, and ask if anything was amiss?”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“I think you do. I’m trying to find out what made you change in your attitude to Miss Torrington. You say she was ‘wonderful,’ but you seem to have avoided her for some time past. Why did you avoid her?”

Mrs. Venner sat very still, her rubicund face troubled. At last she said: “I’m not saying I avoided her. It just happened like that. And what ’tis to do with police I just can’t see.”

“Why do you think I have been sent here from London, Mrs. Venner?” asked Macdonald. “We have plenty of police work there, you know.”

“I can’t see for why,” she said obstinately. “Sister, her came over dizzy and her fell in the mill-race. ’Twas plain accident.”

“The only thing that’s plain is that two people were drowned at that spot,” said Macdonald. “The verdict on one was suicide: you say the second was an accident. I’m here to try to find out if it was an accident, and to do that I’ve got to find out all that I can about Miss Torrington. One of the things I want to know is why you didn’t speak to her that night you saw her in the park after midnight. Was it because you’d seen her there before?”

“No. I’d heard tell her wandered . . .” Mrs. Venner broke off. She was quite unused to protracted arguments, and her distress showed in her face. Sergeant Peel had asked questions, but he hadn’t picked her answers to pieces as this London detective was doing.

“Do you know where she went?” persisted Macdonald. “Did she cross the footbridge or go into the village street?”

“I don’t know.”

“You sound very sure about that,” replied Macdonald, “but you haven’t answered my question. Why was it you didn’t speak to her?”

“Well, if you must know, her had gone queer. She’d changed like. Doctor said she found work too much for her and her wasn’t well. When a woman of Sister’s age gets overdone and won’t give up, her do get snappy and tiresome like. I knew her was queer.”

She broke off as she heard a footstep in the passage outside, and she said quickly: “That’ll be Venner, wanting his tea.” The door opened and a big grizzle-haired man stood in the doorway, looking at Macdonald as Mrs. Venner said hastily, “ ’Tis a detective from London, that C.I.D. they’re always telling of, and I’m fair moithered with all the questions he do keep asking.”

Macdonald stood up. “My name’s Macdonald, Mr. Venner. Chief Inspector C.I.D. There’s no need for me to tell you why I’m here.”

“That there isn’t,” said Venner, “but we’ve told all we do know to sergeant, and a-worrying of us isn’t going to make us tell no more.”

“Well, I’m going to tell you just what I’ve learnt since I’ve been here,” said Macdonald, speaking easily and deliberately. “The first thing is that though you knew more than a year ago that Miss Torrington walked about in the park after midnight, that fact wasn’t mentioned at the inquest on Nancy Bilton, though it certainly ought to have been. Second, when Mrs. Venner saw Miss Torrington out in the park late one night, Mrs. Venner did not speak to her, as you’d have expected a good neighbour to have done. Finally, Mrs. Venner says that Miss Torrington had changed: she had become queer.”

“Well, so she was,” agreed Venner. “Her’d got awkward like.”

“Very well,” said Macdonald. “She was queer. And part of her queerness was wandering late at night. You knew she was in charge of small children. Did either of you report to the committee of the children’s home or to the doctor, that the Warden had ‘gone queer’---was behaving in an abnormal manner?”

Venner answered that one. “Folks in village don’t go reporting things,” he said. “We live and let live. Life wouldn’t be worth living if us got telling on one another.”

“Live and let live. In this case it’s been die and let die, hasn’t it?” said Macdonald.

--4--

It was some time later that Macdonald came out of the Venners’ house, and turned down the path that led to the footbridge over the mill stream, less than fifty yards away from the Venners’ windows. Reeves was standing on the bridge, looking down into the swirling water. Macdonald went and joined him there and Reeves said promptly:

“I’ve no use for this idea that deceased hit the back of her head on that hand rail. She was too tall and the hand rail’s too low.” Macdonald nodded and Reeves went on:

“When a person falls in a faint, in my experience they more often fall forward than backwards, but if they fall backwards their head goes back first, of its own weight. If she fell backwards, the rail would have caught her somewhere in the small of her back. She might have toppled backwards into the water, but she wouldn’t have hit her head.”

“But she might have slumped down like a sack, weak at the knees,” said Macdonald.

“All right: that means she slipped into a kneeling position---you’ve got to fold up somewhere. The knees go forward, the feet back. In order for her to have hit her head on the hand rail she must have been facing the water, either up or down stream. If she’d gone at the knees, wouldn’t she have grabbed at the hand rail?---it’d have been almost a reflex---you grab at anything when you’re dizzy. In which case her weight would have gone forward, not back. Finally, assuming she slumped down on her knees and toppled backwards, her head still wouldn’t have hit the hand rail because she was too long in the back. You try it. She was only a couple of inches shorter than you.”

“I’m not sure that’s a valid argument, because a body slumps at the waist as well as at the knees,” said Macdonald, “but I think you’ve got one point. If she went on her knees first, even though she did hit her head somehow on the hand rail she wouldn’t have hit it hard enough to make the bruise described. There wouldn’t have been enough velocity. It’d have been a flop, not a crash.”

“The only other way she could have bruised the back of her head was if she fell flat on her back while walking over the bridge,” added Reeves. “In which case I don’t see how she rolled into the river without assistance. The bridge isn’t that narrow, and it’s perfectly steady.”

“Yes. I agree with you there.”

“We might offer a prize to any near-six-footer who succeeds in banging his-her head on the hand rail when they go at the knees on this bridge,” said Reeves. “Seeing’s believing. How much could the folks in the Mill House hear of what goes on out here, Chief?”

“They couldn’t hear any ordinary coming and going, nor voices speaking conversationally. The sound of the water prevents it. They could have heard a scream, I imagine. Also it’s worth while remembering that farmers develop an uncannily quick ear for hearing any unusual sound at night. It’s second nature to them to listen for any disturbance among their stock---and that house on the other side of the footpath by the Venners’ is a farmhouse.”

“I don’t believe anybody batted the woman over the head while she was on this bridge, Chief. It’s too close to the houses and the road.”

“Yes, and it’s an awkward spot to swing a stick or a cosh,” said Macdonald. “Added to which, footsteps are much more audible on a plank bridge than on solid ground. But nobody would have wanted to lift deceased’s body if they could help it. She was too heavy.”

Macdonald walked across the bridge and stood on the far bank facing the stream: behind him was a hedge of thorn and dogrose, elder, blackthorn and bramble: to his left the path led on to the saw mill, to his right the hedge was broken by the path leading up through the park. There was a five-barred gate across the path, latched but not padlocked.

“I think it must have happened here,” he said. Reeves, who had followed him, nodded.

“I agree, but where was she going? I’d got it into my head she’d have been walking across the bridge, towards the street, but she must have turned off here, and gone left a bit, by the stream.”

“The point we want to decide is ‘what was she doing here?’ ” said Macdonald.

Reeves looked at him enquiringly: “We’re cutting out all the stuff about ‘Sister was queer like, awful tired Sister was and her turned dizzy, poor soul’?”

Macdonald nodded. “I think so. I shall know better when I’ve seen her account books and the rest. Nervous disorder nearly always shows in a person’s handwriting and arrangement of the page, as well as in precision or lack of it: mistakes, erasures and the like. If I find, as I expect to find, that her recent book-keeping has the same precision and legibility as that of past years, I shall assume that she was in normal control of her faculties.”

“All right,” said Reeves. “My guess would be that she came here to meet somebody, or else to spy on somebody. She may have been one of those dames who get a thing about courting couples.”

“Quite possibly, but I favour the former rather than the latter. You see, the village knew she wandered at night, and villagers share their information among themselves. Courting couples would have avoided this spot.”

“Yes. There’s that,” agreed Reeves, “but if she was meeting somebody, why the heck come right down here? There must be plenty of meeting places in the park where nobody would have been likely to see her at all, and it’s the devil of a steep path, isn’t it?”

“I imagine so. Let’s walk up through the park,” said Macdonald.

“And call on the quality,” said Reeves, a grin flashing across his keen dark face.

“Not yet. I’m going to leave them till last,” said Macdonald.

“That’ll annoy them no end. Gentry expect to be priority,” said Reeves. “Didn’t you sense that Peel believed the gentry was on in this act?”

“I think he felt that they’d been reinforcing the village technique,” said Macdonald, as they went through the five-barred gate and turned up the path which had been cut in the steep hill-side. To their right the ground dropped almost sheer to the river: to their left it rose to the ridge where the village street ran.

“It’d be the hell of a path on a dark night,” said Reeves thoughtfully.

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