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Chapter Eight

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« on: September 05, 2023, 11:55:05 am »


--1--

WHEN the two C.I.D. men reached the little plateau at the top of the hill, Reeves said: “That’s quite a climb, Chief.”

Macdonald nodded, his eyes on the Manor House and the church tower beyond. “As you say---and that’s a lovely house. The smaller one over there would be the Dower House. I think I’ll go and talk to Dr. Ferens, if he’s at home. According to Peel, he’s the one person in the place who talks plain commonsense.”

“Right. If it’s all the same to you I’ll go and buy stamps at the post office and shoe laces at the general store and maybe some seeds for my garden.”

“It’s too late in the year to sow seeds. They ought to have been in two months ago.”

“They’re for next year,” said Reeves. “What can I sow for next year?”

“Try wallflowers. Are you playing at being the Royal Navy?”

Reeves hitched up his dark eyebrows. “R.N.? Oh, I see. Showing the flag. Those were the days.”

He grinned as he turned left, along a path which led by the walled garden to the village street, and Macdonald opened a handsome gate, strolled across a wide lawn and entered the garden of the Dower House by the gate in the yew hedge. A slim sunburnt girl, bare legged, bare armed, dark headed, clad in a cotton frock whose pattern of cerise and viridian put Macdonald in mind of Gauguin, was cutting Mrs. Sinkins pinks. When he said “Good-afternoon,” she replied: “Do you know what to do with Mrs. Sinkins after she’s stopped flowering? She’s threatening to monopolise the border.”

“Cut her back, hard,” said Macdonald firmly. She faced him, holding an armful of snowy flowers whose fragrance was intoxicating.

“Speaking as one having authority?” she enquired, her dark eyes bright and mirthful.

“No. As the scribes,” replied Macdonald promptly, “but if you don’t cut them back they will certainly monopolise the border. I apologise if I’ve come in the wrong way; is Dr. Ferens at home?”

“Yes. This village is unreasonably healthy. He’s in his surgery, in the old coach house, writing up hay fever. I’ll take you there. Chief Inspector Macdonald, I presume?”

“Correct. Is it Mrs. Ferens?”

“It is. As you’re probably aware, the very bees are buzzing C.I.D. It’ll do them a power of good, you know.”

“The bees?”

“No. The village. They’ve been making a cult of latter-day saints. Are you used to villages?”

“I’ve known a few, but I’ve never been a villager. I know enough not to generalise . . . well, not to over-generalise.”

“You’re a Scot, aren’t you? I think you’ll have your fun. This is the surgery, though you might not think it.” She opened a door without ceremony and called: “Raymond. Here’s Scotland Yard. I’ll leave you to it.”

She withdrew and Macdonald crossed a small waiting-room to an open door as a voice called, “Come right in.”

Macdonald went in and saw a leanish, pleasant-faced fellow sitting at a desk covered in sheets of manuscript.

“Good day,” said Ferens. “Do you ever have hay fever?”

“No. Never,” said Macdonald firmly, “so if you want a guinea-pig you’ll have to buy one.”

“They’re no good for this. Still. Sit down. What’s your trouble?”

“Miss Monica Torrington, deceased.”

“Congratulations. Do you know you’re the first person who’s ever used the woman’s proper name to me? ‘Sister’s this and that’ they say. ‘Sister Monica’ . . . A compound redolent of nunnery and hospital ward. It’s hypnotic. I was hoping that Peel would discover her real name was Maggie . . . or Maudie.”

“It wasn’t,” said Macdonald. “Her name was Monica Emily. Born 1888 in Kilburn, London, N.W.6. Daughter of a greengrocer, one Albert Torrington, a bandsman in the Salvation Army. A very good chap, I understand. We’ve found some of his one-time neighbours. He had five daughters: Monica, Ursula, Teresa, Dorcas, and Lois.”

“Well, well. You’ve been very diligent.”

“We’ve got the chaps to do the looking up,” said Macdonald. “That sort of thing’s easy. Now----”

“Yes. I know. But just tell me this. Did Albert, Ursula, Teresa, Dorcas, or Lois ever leave Monica a nice little packet?”

“No. Not by testamentary disposition. Besides, they’re not all dead: or at any rate Somerset House has no record of the deaths of Dorcas or Lois and it’s believed they all remained single.”

“Did they? Singleness evidently ran in the family. Before you start the Torquemada effect on me, give me some further gen on the woman’s background. I’m enormously interested.”

“Born in Kilburn in 1888---if that conveys anything to you,” said Macdonald. “Went to the National elementary school, called Board School in those days. Left at the age of eleven and became a nursemaid in ‘good service.’ Which meant wages of £10 a year. We’ve got all this from an octogenarian charlady who is still going strong and earning good money. In 1914 Monica Emily became a V.A.D. She must have been an educable girl, and she’d done well as a children’s ‘Nanny.’ In 1917 she was appointed as assistant at an orphanage in Watford. In 1921 she was appointed assistant Warden of Gramarye. She was then thirty-three----”

“And passing rich on £48 a year,” murmured Ferens. “Thanks very much for telling me. It’s very enlightening: did you hear anything about her mother?”

“The mother, according to our octogenarian, was very respectable, very thrifty, a holy terror to live with, and believed that sparing the rod spoilt the child. She belonged to one of those obscure religious sects, probably the Peculiar People.” He broke off and then added: “I know it’s a perfect text-book case: jam to any psychiatrist who dabbles in writing, but I’d like to say this. You’ve noticed for yourself that the ‘Sister Monica’ business almost hypnotised the people in this village. It’s been going on for a long time. You, as a newcomer, contrived to see it objectively, so perhaps you will understand me when I say that not only do I refuse to be hypnotised by the Sister Monica stuff, I also refuse to be obsessed by the psychiatrist’s approach. A woman named Monica Emily Torrington was drowned in the mill stream here, and I’m not going to get that woman muddled up with halos or lamps or complexes or inhibitions or defence mechanisms, or any of the other jargon which is two-a-penny to-day.”

“Duly noted,” said Ferens, “but I’d like to ask one question. If you don’t believe a person’s background affects their mentality in riper years, why have you bothered to collect all that information about her childhood and upbringing?”

“I didn’t say there was no effect. What I do want to keep clear in my mind is that her death occurred here and she’d been living here for thirty years. This is a local problem. I don’t go back to Kilburn to discover why the woman was found drowned at Milham in the Moor.”

“I got you,” said Ferens. “You’re doing what the bomber pilots did, weaving to avoid the flak till you get a pointer on the target.”

“Very neatly put. Now I know that you have only been here three months, but I should be very glad if you would give me your own opinion of Miss Torrington, as far as you formed an opinion.”

“Oh, I formed an opinion all right. I disliked her at sight. It was the religious pose which got my goat.” He hesitated, pulled out a packet of cigarettes and pushed it across to Macdonald. “Stop me if I get too verbose. Medical men see a lot of nurses. I respect nurses: they work damned hard and up till now haven’t had much of a deal. But unfortunately there has been in times past a tendency for a nurse’s training to develop, in some of them, the quality of tyrants: it made them dominate their patients, their probationers, their patients’ relatives---everybody they have power over. And when that realisation of power is reinforced by a belief they’re chosen vessels in the religious sense, I’m very allergic to it. My first impression of Miss Torrington was that she had the dominating power of the worst type of old-fashioned hospital matron, plus the religious fanaticism which makes the most hypocritical sort of egoist.”

“Were you satisfied for her to be Warden of that home?”

Raymond Ferens thumped the desk with his fists. “It wasn’t my business. Do get that clear. If I’d had any evidence at all that the children were ill-treated, I’d have raised Cain about it. I hadn’t any such evidence. Neither had anybody else. My dislike of the woman was a personal idiosyncrasy. I disliked her get-up, her mealy-mouthed humility, her fanatic’s eye and her physical presence. She was a grenadier of a woman, with enormous hands and feet. I expect the psychiatrists would tell you that I resented the fact that she was much bigger than I am myself and looked down at me---down her nose at me, too.”

“Do you think that she resented you?---the fact that you were a newcomer, and that you didn’t regard her with the awe that she thought was her due?”

“She had no reason to. I made it quite clear from the outset that I took no interest in Gramarye and that I had no intention of interfering. But dislike is generally mutual. The fact that I disliked her probably awoke reciprocal tendencies. But I don’t quite see where this is getting you. I didn’t bat her over the head, you know.”

“I wasn’t supposing that you did,” said Macdonald, “but I was wondering if the fact of your arrival here had any indirect effect on her behaviour?”

“How so?”

“She would have known that your patients would probably confide in you. Sergeant Peel tells me that you are well thought of in the village and she would have known that. Did it occur to her that you might eventually learn something that would make her own position here untenable, and that she was making a last bid for power and pushed somebody too far?”

“Well . . . might be,” said Ferens. “The whole situation was pretty complicated, as I saw it. Miss Torrington was strongly upheld by all the authorities here, and it would have taken something pretty drastic to discredit her.”

“She may have been strongly upheld by the authorities, but it’s my belief that someone did bat her over the head,” said Macdonald, “and it must have been something ‘pretty drastic’ that made them do it.”

Ferens grinned. “Oh, quite. You’re asking me if I’ve any ideas on who was irritated enough to do the batting. I don’t like repeating gossip. Some of the old Biddies in this village pour out floods of tripe, but most of it isn’t true: however, there are a few side-lights on Sister M.’s mentality which I might repeat. Her long suit was suggesting a fact by denying it. For instance, there’s John Sanderson, the estate agent, a very decent kindly bloke. Sister M. had her knife into him. She went round saying she was sure it wasn’t true that it was Sanderson who got Nancy Bilton into trouble. That was her method; the result was that some people went round saying that it was Sanderson who got Nancy Bilton into trouble. Sanderson ignored it. It’s not everybody who would have done so.”

“Agreed. Why did Miss Torrington get her knife into Sanderson?”

“You’d better ask him. He’s a very straightforward chap. He came fresh to this place after being in the Army and a refresher course at an Ag. Col. and he saw the woman as I did. He had to superintend post-war redecoration at Gramarye, so he saw it from the inside. He didn’t like what he saw---but he never suggested the children were ill-treated. However---you go and see him.”

“I will. Is he married, by the way?”

“No. But don’t go getting ideas into your head on that account.”

“I don’t get ideas of that variety into my head,” said Macdonald. “I’m allergic to them. Also I’m a bachelor myself.”

“Are you, by Jove. Seems a pity . . . Incidentally, here’s another Torrington-ism. Sister was quite sure there was nothing wrong when Anne---that’s my wife---asked Sanderson to this house to have a drink when I was out. I’m justified in repeating that one, because it reflects on Sanderson and me fifty-fifty, but I think you’d better find another source for others of the same kind in case you think I’m an interested party.”

“Right. Now for a few questions. You said Miss Torrington was strongly upheld by authority here. Did she ever use her negative technique against what you call ‘authority’?”

“No. Never. She was no sort of fool.” Ferens paused a moment and then went on: “The only one of the gentry who was included was old Miss Braithwaite, who used to be on the committee at Gramarye. She put down a motion that Sister Monica be retired at the age of sixty, and a younger Warden be appointed. After that, a story seeped round the village that the girl child whom Miss Braithwaite adopted in 1920 was not Miss Braithwaite’s own infant. Sorry if that sounds involved, but that’s how it went.”

“I see. You say Miss Braithwaite used to be on the committee. Did she resign?”

“Yes. I imagine she was asked to resign. Lady Ridding and the vicar and the M.O. all had full confidence in the Warden and did not want to lose her.”

Macdonald sat in silence for a moment and his next question was unexpected. “Who was it who did get Nancy Bilton into trouble?”

Ferens’ eyebrows shot up. “I wasn’t here at the time,” he said. “I never saw Nancy Bilton.”

“I know you didn’t, but from what you’ve told me it’s plain enough that one of your patients told you all the current ‘Torrington-isms,’ to quote your word. I know the way news seeps around a village like this one, and I know how determined villagers are not to share their news with outsiders, but a doctor very soon ceases to be an outsider. In the nature of things confidences come his way, as they’ve certainly come yours.”

“To a certain extent, yes,” replied Ferens guardedly.

Macdonald chuckled: “Meaning an uncertain extent. I argue this way. It’s obvious you were interested in the Torrington situation. So should I have been. It had a fantastic quality, because the woman herself was fantastic. The most dramatic thing that happened in this village for years was Nancy Bilton’s death---Milham in the Moor has an unusually clean sheet in such matters as suicide and sudden deaths---. Nancy Bilton was a maid at Gramarye, under Miss Torrington. Can you honestly say that you never asked your gossip-patient who was the seducer of Nancy Bilton, Dr. Ferens?”

“Well, there you’ve got me,” said Ferens resignedly. “I did ask.”

“I was sure you would have. I should have myself in the same circumstances.”

“You’ve done a perfectly logical piece of argument,” said Ferens, “but it’s not going to help you much. My gossip-patient, as you call her, died a fortnight ago. She was aged seventy-nine. I saw her every day for the last few weeks of her life, and the one thing she enjoyed was a nice gossip. But I don’t know how truthful she was, let alone accurate. She told me some pretty weird stories, some of which were certainly untrue.” He broke off, and then added: “You can’t check up on any of this. It’s not evidence, only hearsay.”

“I know that. I’m not asking you for evidence to enter in court. I’m asking you which way the wind blew, to help me to shape a case.”

“It’s not going to help you, because the chap’s dead. He was a National Service man, and he was killed in a plane crash. I haven’t tried to get any corroborative evidence of this, but I think it’s probably true,” Ferens added. “If the chap responsible for her condition had been in the village or locality at the time of the girl’s death, I think his identity would have been admitted, or at any rate there’d have been such a lot of gossip, it’d have got round. But since the chap was overseas and couldn’t have had any hand in the girl’s death, no one would name him. According to my old Biddy, the argument went, ‘He couldn’t have killed the girl. Naming him would only make more trouble for those who’re alive’.”

“Yes. I follow that,” said Macdonald, “but there’s another point. If the chap’s identity was known in the village, how was it that Miss Torrington didn’t get wind of it? I gathered she was one of those females who pries out secrets.”

“She certainly was. Thinking it out, it’s my belief that Miss Monica Emily Torrington did know, but thought it more profitable to keep her information to herself. I may be quite wrong there, but that’s my guess. And when the chap was killed, about six months after Nancy Bilton’s death, that was that.”

“Was it?---or did she try to make trouble with his family?”

“How could she? It was all over and done with. Country folk don’t make heavy weather of such little slips, you know. The lad marries the lass if he’s let her in, and nobody thinks any the worse of either of them. The infant is born in wedlock and the time which elapses between the wedding day and the lying-in is nobody’s business. In any case, there was no family for Monica Emily to make trouble with. Only a widowed mother who lives on her widow’s pension.” He turned and looked at Macdonald, his eyebrows tilted up. “I suppose you won’t give me any peace until you’ve got the name, but don’t go worrying the poor old girl. She’s Mrs. Bovey---Mrs. Susan Bovey. She lives in one of those picturesque hovels across the bridge. The boy’s name was Stephen. He had an older brother who was killed in Burma in 1945 and Mrs. Bovey’s left all by herself. If you’re seen on her doorstep the whole village will start buzzing, and I think she’s had trouble enough. Let the dead bury their dead is sound counsel.”

“Not in criminal investigation,” said Macdonald dryly, “though I agree with you that no detective has any right to cause avoidable distress. You’re probably aware that Sergeant Peel thinks the two deaths are connected---Nancy Bilton’s and Miss Torrington’s.”

“What evidence has he? That’s only Peel’s little idea, and it’s the sort of idea which leaps to the mind all too easily.”

“Peel’s no fool, you know,” said Macdonald reflectively, “and his little idea has some foundation in the accumulated experience of police work. A murderer who has pulled one job off successfully has been known to repeat himself.”

Dr. Ferens moved restlessly: a movement of discomfort which did not escape Macdonald’s notice.

“Peel’s got an idea that there’s what he calls a killer in the village,” said Ferens. “I don’t believe it.”

“But Monica Emily Torrington was murdered,” said Macdonald quietly. “At least, that’s what Reeves and I believe. Perhaps you’d like to enter for Reeves’s competition and demonstrate how to knock yourself silly by hitting your head on the hand rail of that bridge when you come over dizzy. Do you really believe a woman the height of deceased could have done it?”

“No. I suppose I don’t. But neither am I prepared to say it’s impossible,” replied Ferens. “Casualties do some funny things. Incidentally, I haven’t heard the result of the autopsy. Am I allowed to ask if they found any cerebral abnormality to account for her famous dizziness?”

“No. They found something much more unexpected. This is in confidence, of course. There were traces of alcohol. Deceased must have lowered some potent tots some few hours before her death.”

Ferens lowered his fist with a bang on the table. “But, good God, that’s ludicrous. The woman was a rabid teetotaller. It’s unthinkable . . .”

“Possibly, but it happens to be true,” said Macdonald placidly, “and the fact may account for the well-attested dizziness suffered by deceased.”

“Well, that’s the last thing I ever dreamt of,” said Ferens, “though I suppose the same thing’s been known to happen before. Elderly women of irreproachable character sometimes take to drink quite inexplicably.” He broke off and sat in deep thought, his chin in his hands, and Macdonald did not interrupt him. At length Ferens looked up with a start: “Sorry. I was thinking. The whole thing’s altered by that piece of evidence, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“Well, damn all, if the woman was drunk it accounts for everything. She may have had a fall some time before she toppled into the stream.”

“I didn’t say she was drunk. I said they found traces of alcohol,” said Macdonald. “She hadn’t taken anything for some time before she died. One of the things I want to know is where she got the stuff from, or who gave it to her, likewise where she kept it. But that all comes under the heading of routine---domestic enquiries. One routine question for you, doctor. You were out at a case on the night Miss Torrington was drowned?”

“Yes. I didn’t get in until about two in the morning. I was out at a maternity case on the moor. I drove back up the village street, past the Mill House. Not a soul about, not a light showing anywhere, and a midsummer night to dream of, by gad. I don’t think it got really dark all night, and the village street was white under the moon. You could see as clearly as in daylight.” He paused, and then added: “I did think of parking my car by the smithy, way down the hill, and walking up through the park, just because it was such a gorgeous night. If I’d done so, I might have been more useful to you.”

“Who knows?” said Macdonald meditatively. “Well, I’ve kept you away from your hay fever for long enough. In conclusion, is there anything you’d care to add, or opinion you’d like to express?”

“Nothing of any use to you,” said Ferens. “In my own mind I think it’s probable that the Torrington woman did shove Nancy Bilton into the mill stream. That is to say, deceased was unbalanced. If she’d taken to drinking that in itself shows she was abnormal; it was such a startling departure from the habits of a lifetime, and I’m the more disposed to believe that she got herself drowned without assistance from anybody else.”

--2--

When Macdonald left the Dower House, he found Reeves looking out for him in the little square on the hill-top.

“Had a successful shopping expedition?” he enquired.

“Very,” said Reeves. “I’ve sent my missis some Devonshire cream. Got it at the Manor House Creamery. Very high hat. D’you know what it costs? Ten bob a pound including postage---and the tin. I liked that bit. A very nice specimen in the way of land girls there. I said I’d go in again to-morrow. You can pay for the next lot. Send some to the old man. How was trade with you?”

“So-so. The things which weren’t said were more enlightening than those uttered---as usual. Now I’m going to see the bailiff, Sanderson. Would you like to come too?”

“Not unless you want me. I’d like to prospect in the park. Learn that path off by heart and find just what you can see and what you can’t see. Shall we be doing the Gramarye place later?”

“Yes. In an hour’s time. The children have been packed off, but the nurse and the cook are still there.”

“O.K. I’ll be there. I have a feeling the things they haven’t said are more interesting than those they have. Exert a little leverage.”

“First find the lever. ‘Give me a lever and a place to stand on and I will move the world’.”

“Who said that?” demanded Reeves.

“The same bloke who said ‘Eureka’,” replied Macdonald.

Reeves knew that one. “Have you?” he enquired.

“No, but I’ve got the glimmering of an idea,” said Macdonald.

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