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Chapter Nine

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« on: September 05, 2023, 12:04:45 pm »


--1--

JOHN Sanderson lived in a beautiful little stone house not far from the park gates at the top of the hill. It was an early Georgian house with a porch whose classic gable was upheld by slender Ionic columns, elegantly fluted, and there were Ionic pilasters on the house front.

Sanderson himself opened the door: he was a big fellow, Macdonald noted, squarely built, with a square face whose low forehead was lined as though he were given to worrying. He looked a countryman, not a townsman, though he spoke without any accent whereby you could place him.

“Yes. Come along in. Chief Inspector Macdonald, isn’t it? I’m having tea. Will you join me?”

“Thanks. I’d be glad of a cup,” rejoined Macdonald, and while Sanderson fetched another cup and plate, the C.I.D. man took in the small dining-room. Good old furniture of the right period, pleasant curtains, some good etchings and pewter tankards and plates. “I envy you your house, Mr. Sanderson.”

“You’re not the only one. It’s a good house and I like houses of this period. It happens to have been the bailiff’s house ever since it was built. Sugar?”

“No thanks. Part of my job consists of taking an interest in other people’s. I should think yours is a very satisfying job.”

“Yes. It is. I’m interested in buildings and in the land. I couldn’t ask for a better job than I’ve got here. Which brings us on to your job. The late Warden of Gramarye would have got me sacked if she could. You might as well know it first as last.”

“Why did she want to get rid of you?”

Sanderson laughed a little. “It was mutual. I knew she was a damned hypocritical humbug and not fit to be in charge of either young children or young maidservants.”

“Any evidence to support the statement?”

“Yes. I’m responsible for the fabric of Gramarye. It’s an ancient house and needs constant attention, so I go there quite often. She didn’t beat the children, but she locked them up when they were tiresome: sometimes in a small room, sometimes in a dark cupboard. In my opinion that’s no way to treat small children. I reported it. She denied it. So there you were. I was told to mind my own business. Sister Monica got her own back by reflections on my character.”

“I’ve heard a bit about Miss Torrington’s methods,” said Macdonald. “Now you’ve probably heard that Sergeant Peel has a theory that the two cases of drowning in the mill stream may be connected. I have an open mind on the subject, but I want to get any information I can about Nancy Bilton. Did you ever speak to the girl?”

“Oh, yes.” Sanderson answered quite easily. “I was supervising a job on the roof of Gramarye and I was in and out there pretty frequently a month or so before Nancy Bilton’s death. Neither she, nor the other maids, were supposed to speak to me: they were under orders not to, but girls like Nancy Bilton don’t obey orders of that kind. She made opportunities to get in our way. She was a bad lot, you know, but I think her tendency to throw herself at any man’s head was aggravated, not lessened, by the atmosphere at Gramarye. Her line with me was to appeal for help to get out of the place.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t run away,” said Macdonald.

“She tried to more than once, but this isn’t an easy place to run away from. She had no money: her wages were being saved for her by the Warden. If she’d got on a bus she’d have been seen and reported. It’s a ten mile walk to Milham Prior, and Nancy Bilton was no pedestrian and she hadn’t much stamina. She tried it once, at night. She walked seven miles before blistered feet made her sit down by the roadside to cry, poor little wretch. She’d been missed by that time, and the Warden got old Dr. Brown to get his car out and go after her. He brought her back. After that, they locked her into her room at night and put another girl to sleep with her. I was surprised myself that she managed to get out of that window. It took some doing.”

“What was your own opinion on the matter? Did you think she drowned herself?”

Sanderson waited a long time before he replied; then he said slowly: “I don’t know. I simply don’t know. I accepted the verdict at the time. I knew the girl was miserable and I think she probably dreaded being kept at Gramarye until it was time to send her on to some other home for the birth of her child. She might have killed herself in a fit of depression. But thinking the matter over since---and God knows I’ve thought about it quite a lot: I found her body, you know---I’ve doubted whether the suicide verdict were the true one. You see, she wasn’t a miserable penitent. She was still chock-full of original sin: she enjoyed being naughty---at least that’s my opinion. And I don’t believe she’d have taken all that trouble to scramble out of that narrow window in order to kill herself. She got out of the window because she’d thought out a plan for some future devilment.”

“I think that’s probably sound reasoning,” said Macdonald, “but the query is---what devilment? Had she made contact with any other lad in the village?”

“I don’t think so. There’d been too much fuss about Nancy Bilton already. They’d all have fought shy of her. My own idea is that she meant to try another bolt and was caught by the Warden, and got shoved into the stream in the ensuing scrimmage. I may be quite wrong, but I think that’s more probable than suicide. You see, at the inquest nobody mentioned that Sister Monica had taken to wandering at night.”

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. That’s quite a point. It was early in the morning when you found the girl’s body, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. Seven o’clock. I walked down to the saw mill to see if Doone had got some planks cut ready for loading. It was a beastly business.” He sat in silence for a while, his brow frowning, his eyes downcast. Then he looked up at Macdonald, suddenly: “Obviously you’re wondering whether I shoved the Warden into the mill stream. Sergeant Peel believes I did, and Nancy Bilton into the bargain. I can only tell you I didn’t. I’ve no alibi. I live here alone. I was in bed both nights, but I’ve no means of proving it.”

“Neither have I,” said Macdonald, his voice as equable as ever, “but it’s my business to get both pros and cons. It seems reasonable to me to suppose that Miss Torrington did not share Sergeant Peel’s opinion---if it be his opinion---that you killed Nancy Bilton.”

“Why not?” demanded Sanderson.

“If she had known, or believed, that you or any other man had pushed the girl into the mill stream, she would have avoided the chance of the same fate happening to her. In other words, she would have shunned that spot after dark, or taken great care that she wasn’t caught unawares. The fact that she went on going there after dark indicates to my mind that she thought she was safe in doing so.”

“Well . . . thanks for the crumb of comfort,” said Sanderson dryly. “I should like to add this. I’ve got to know the folks in this village pretty well. They’re odd: secretive, and suspicious of strangers, but I don’t believe there’s a murderer among them. The only person I’ve ever met here whom I thought might be capable of murder was the Warden herself, and that’s because she was unbalanced. She’d got a power complex, and she was cruel. There are more ways of being cruel than by violence.”

“Admittedly, but murder is no way of restoring the balance. I believe myself that Miss Torrington was murdered. You say you know the people in this village. I ask you, have you any idea at all who murdered her?”

“No. None whatever.” The answer came quickly, and Macdonald was pretty sure that Sanderson had anticipated both question and answer. “I can’t see any point in having murdered her,” went on the bailiff. “Her power was on the wane, you know. It wouldn’t have taken much more in the way of gossip and disapproval to have got rid of her. She was obviously too old for the job and even Lady Ridding was saying that poor Sister Monica was getting over-tired. Old Brown is pretty doddery now, and I think it’d have been only a matter of months before he gave up Gramarye. Once Dr. Ferens took over, he’d have got rid of her anyway.”

“He’s been saved that trouble,” said Macdonald dryly. “Now I shall obviously be enquiring about the general routine at Gramarye, but it would help if I got some previous information to check by. So far as you know, were the maids at Gramarye given time off in the usual way and allowed out alone?”

“Not out of the village. I do know that. They went shopping, and to the cinema very occasionally, in Milham Prior, but they were always accompanied by one of the old servants---Nurse Barrow or the old cook. I know the bus conductors made a joke about it; I’ve heard them gossiping. The girls were allowed out in this village by themselves, and Lady Ridding let them go into parts of the Manor House garden, or to tea with her own servants. Incidentally, their times off were so arranged that they were not out by themselves on the days the buses run. That’s only on three days a week.”

“Did you ever hear of any other troubles among the maids, apart from Nancy Bilton, during the time you’ve lived here? Any runnings away, or carryings on in the village?”

“No. It’s obvious enough that the Warden was successful in imposing her discipline. People said she was ‘wonderful’ with the girls---you’ve probably heard that one already. I can well believe she was capable of terrorising them. She was terrifying to look at, you know, and she had a great power of imposing her will on people. She was an extraordinary woman. I can believe she was capable of almost hypnotising people. Then she ran quite a skilful system of rewards. The good girl had many inducements to be good and the recalcitrant girl had a very poor time, no freedom, no outings, no sweets, no pocket money.”

“How did you get to know these details?”

“The whole village knows. Mrs. Yeo and Mrs. Barron at the village shop knew what money the girls had and what free time they had. The general opinion was that the Warden managed them very capably, and it was true. I didn’t like her methods---too much of the oldtime workhouse matron or prison wardress about her.”

Macdonald sat and pondered. “It’s a problem with a lot of possibilities. One wonders if any girl who hated Miss Torrington in time past came back to square up the account. But the objection to that is that they couldn’t have known she’d be at that particular spot at that particular time.”

Sanderson considered that for a while and then said: “How about this for a suggestion. I said it wasn’t easy for the girls to run away. They were dressed in uniform and they’d have been spotted anywhere; but any smart girl could post a letter without being seen. Could one of them have got to know that the Warden went out at night on certain occasions and have written and told somebody else about it?”

“It’s worth looking into,” said Macdonald. “I shall get a policewoman up and see what we can make of the three girls who were at Gramarye. Well, thanks for your help. I shall probably be looking in again some time, if further questions arise.”

“Do,” said Sanderson cordially. “I’m generally at home in the evenings and I shall be glad to see you any time. I admit that Sergeant Peel put my back up. He regards me as his hope of promotion, but you’ve been both fair and reasonable and I’d gladly talk to you again.”

“Thanks. But don’t be too hard on Peel. He put a lot of hard work into this job, and his report was an honest effort, not a biased one.”

--2--

Reeves was ready when Macdonald approached Gramarye: not exactly waiting; Reeves wasn’t the sort of fellow to stand outside a house and wait for a senior officer unless there was some point to be served in so doing. He had been prospecting, and he was able to give Macdonald a description of the entrances and exits to Gramarye.

“The front door opens on to a drive, and the drive has a gate into the park,” said Reeves. “I imagine it was used by riders, because the gate opens on to a bridle path. There’s another gate into the Manor House garden, and a small gate into the Manor kitchen garden. The back of the house opens on to that flagged yard, which has a door in the wall which is locked: inside the yard there’s a door to the kitchen premises, which tradespeople use, and a side door as well.”

“It seems to be well supplied with ways in and out,” said Macdonald. “Two ways into the square, by the drive or the yard. A gate into the park, two others into the Manor Gardens.”

“That’s it. And none of the gates on the park and garden side can be overlooked from the house because there are too many trees and clipped shrubs and hedges. And that steep path down the park isn’t overlooked anywhere. It’s an interesting lay-out.”

The two men went up the drive and knocked at the front door proper, where they were admitted by Hannah Barrow in impressive array of severely starched cap and apron, a blue cotton frock also starched as stiff as cartridge paper, black shoes and stockings and glazed collar and cuffs. She had a wrinkled old face, and her grey hair was strained back off her face. Macdonald knew that she was only sixty-two years of age, and he knew plenty of women of that age who might pass for forty-five: why was it, he wondered, that this specimen looked so much like a wizened and elderly monkey? He stated his name, rank and business, and Nurse Barrow accepted the information without any show of interest or surprise.

“Please to walk in,” she said, and led them into the parlour, where she stood as erect as a ramrod, though Macdonald noticed she walked as the elderly walk, and guessed that her severe black shoes pained her quite a lot. He asked her to sit down, but she remained standing. (Reeves, noticing her stiff skirts, knew that Nurse Barrow had not sat down since putting on her clean frock: there wasn’t a crumple in those formidable skirts.) Macdonald began by asking questions about the late Warden’s health.

Nurse Barrow replied: “Sister had very good health. All the years I’ve known her she never took to her bed. She kept to her room sometimes, if she’d got a cold, but that was to avoid spreading infection. Sister didn’t hold with people coddling themselves. You can keep well if you’ve the will to keep well, Sister said. A wonderful powerful will Sister had got.”

“But what about this dizziness she suffered from?” enquired Macdonald. “People don’t tumble about if they’re quite well.”

“It was her eyes, poor soul,” said Hannah. “Sister wouldn’t never have them seen to. She had a pair of glasses for reading, but she got them from the Market, same as I did before the National Health. That’d be it, you mark my words. ‘You can’t see them stairs like you used, Sister,’ I said. ‘We’re none of us so young as we were’.”

“Who cleaned her bedroom?” enquired Macdonald.

“I did. I always done it, ever since I come, and it was the easiest room in the house to clean, Sister being that tidy. Never a thing left about.”

“Do you know if she took any medicine? Were there any medicine bottles in her room?”

“That there were not. All the medicine in this house is kept in the medicine cupboard. If Sister took a dose at times, it wasn’t my business to dose her.”

Macdonald next asked about the routine of the house in the mornings. Nurse Barrow was first up. She rang a bell on the landing at 6.15 sharp every morning. The maids were allowed a quarter of an hour to dress. At 6.30, one went down to lay breakfast and help cook. One came to Nurse Barrow to help wash and dress the children. Some days Sister Monica came in to assist and inspect, some days she didn’t, but breakfast was at 7.30, winter and summer alike, and Sister was always there to the tick to say Grace.

“Did you take the Warden a cup of tea up to her bedroom?” enquired Macdonald, and Hannah Barrow repudiated the idea with scorn.

“You don’t understand about Sister,” she said loftily, her speech slipping more and more into her natural idiom. “Her never had nothing we didn’t have. Tea in bed? Never. Sister’s brought me a cup of tea in bed whiles I’ve been poorly, but her never had none herself, and often enough she’d be outdoors before breakfast, a-communing on holy thoughts.”

Hannah Barrow told Macdonald the routine of the household, together with the free times of the two maids. An hour off every day they had, she said, afternoon or evening, and a free afternoon once a week: Hannah or Cook took them shopping and church on Sundays. Hannah Barrow said proudly that she never worried about time off herself “and no more did Sister. Her work was her life, Sister said, and as for holidays, her never wanted holidays.” At night, Hannah went to bed at nine o’clock and so did Cook and so did the young maids. Sister locked up. What Sister did after the others went to bed was no business of Hannah’s, but she knew Sister often went out for a walk after dark, “after her had finished all her writing and accounts,” Hannah added. “Her did all that of an evening after supper.”

While she ran on, increasingly garrulous as she got used to the strangers, Macdonald pondered over the life she had led. For twenty-two years she had worked in this austere house, rising at six, working the clock round, apparently contented, worshipping Sister Monica. Was it as simple as that, Macdonald wondered?

“I see you came here in 1929, Miss Barrow. You were then forty years of age. Had you done work in a similar institution before?”

The thin lips suddenly shut tight and the pale eyes looked wary. “I’d been in private service,” she replied. “In Exeter ’twas, and then in Barnsford. Children’s nurse I’d been. Sister, her looked into everything, my character and that. Her took me on trial. Sister often laughed over that. ‘You’re still on trial, Hannah,’ she’d say, after I’d worked for her years and years.”

“On trial.” Macdonald repeated the words slowly, watching the wrinkled face. Then he said: “I’m afraid I’ve kept you a long time. I should like to see round the house next. I think Inspector Reeves has written down the main facts you have told us. Will you read it through and sign it, if you are satisfied it is correct?”

Reeves got up and laid his notes on the table. They were very simple and written in an admirably clear hand. Nurse Barrow stood and studied the sheet of paper until Macdonald asked quietly, “Shall I read it to you?”

“If you please. My eyes aren’t that good.”

Macdonald read the statement aloud: then he said quietly, “You can’t read, can you?”

She flushed, the dull red covering her face. “I never had much schooling,” she said, “but Sister, her knew I did my work. Her never found nothing to complain of.”

“You’ve worked for her for over twenty years. That speaks for itself,” replied Macdonald. She took Reeves’s pen and signed her name, slowly and laboriously. Then she turned to the door.

“Please to step this way,” she said. She was obviously accustomed to showing people round the house.

--3--

“I’ll lay any money Nurse Barrow has been ‘inside’,” said Reeves reflectively, as the two men left the house and went through the gate in the clipped yew hedge which divided the Gramarye drive from the park.

Macdonald nodded. “I’m with you. We’ll have to get on to Records. It’s curious how it came out: she made a perfectly spontaneous anecdotal statement: ‘You’re on trial, Hannah.’ That remark had become a joke and she repeated it without thinking and then suddenly became aware of the form of words she’d used.”

“I know. I saw her eyes contract and her jaw tighten as you repeated her words,” said Reeves.

“It’d have been so much in character,” said Macdonald slowly. “Monica Emily Torrington liked to have people about her whom she’d got a hold over. It’s quite possible she got Hannah Barrow through one of the Prisoners’ Aid Societies. Got her, kept her, and dominated her. I can well believe that if Hannah Barrow showed any signs of rebelliousness when she first came here, the Warden would just say, ‘You’re on trial, Hannah,’ and the double-edged words became a sort of joke as the years went on. I wonder what she was tried for.”

“For her life,” said Reeves. “It’s over twenty years ago, and when you repeated ‘on trial’ she was shaken to her boots, poor old trout. A little thing like a sentence for petty larceny never kept its terror for twenty years.”

“I think you’re right there, Reeves. I may query your navigation occasionally, but when it comes to a judgment of that kind, you’re more often right than any magistrate I ever met.”

“Old lags,” said Reeves meditatively. “I’ll go out of my way to talk to ’em whenever I get the chance. And I’ve sometimes felt I’d turn the job in. These high hats talk a lot of hot air about reform. The system does something to ’em, but it doesn’t reform them. It drives the devil which possesses them under cover, deep down, and clamps it down with fear.”

Macdonald stopped and stared at the other. “So you feel like that about it?”

“Yes, chief. So do you. That old trout’s worked her fingers to the bone for over twenty years. I wish one of these social welfare dames had fitted a pedometer to Hannah Barrow’s flat feet and noted how many miles a day she walked in that penitentiary she’s so proud of. Twenty years---and at the end of it the sight of you and me, making her remember, turned her stomach. Oh, I know someone’s got to do our job and it’s a good job by and large, but I often feel we’ve slipped up somewhere when I see the mixture of cunning and fear on an old lag’s face.”

“Cunning and fear,” said Macdonald reflectively. “How much fear was there and what was she afraid of, past or present?”

Reeves stopped by a trail of wild roses, stared at them as though fascinated, and then took out his knife, snipped a flower off and put it in his button hole. “I hardly believe in them,” he said. “There’s something about them. Sorry. About the old trout. I agree the worm may turn. May get suddenly browned off and run amok. I’ve been learning quite a bit about this Monica Emily. Twenty years of her. Twenty years of being alternately sweated and prayed over. Twenty years of saying, ‘She’s wonderful’ and then running amok over some small silly thing. I agree it’s in character. But look at the size of the little cuss. About five feet nothing. She’d have had to stand on tip-toes to reach Monica Emily with a coal hammer. And the old trout puffs like a grampus and her stays squeak with every breath she takes and she sucks her teeth. Likewise she’s got shocking corns, not to mention bunions and her eyesight’s about as good as a bat’s.”

“All quite true,” said Macdonald, “particularly about the stays. But she could have taken the stays off.”

“That’s right out of character,” said Reeves firmly. “Women like the old trout feel lost without their stays, and they never realise they squeak because they’re conditioned to it. My grandmother-in-law had squeaky stays but she said they didn’t. My missis told me so.” Reeves suddenly laughed, his thin keen face boyish in his mirth. “I hand it to you for high-class quotes, chief, to say nothing of the law of the lever and items like radio-active isotopes, but when it comes to stays I can leave you standing. And her corns aren’t irrelevant, either. This path we’re on is steep and rough. I bet the old trout never comes down here. It’d be pain and grief to her with those feet. Where do we go from here?”

“To see the Medical Officer responsible for Gramarye,” replied Macdonald.

“Old Dr. Brown,” said Reeves. “He’s highly thought of in the village. This is where I do my silent act. Incidentally it was pretty snappy of you to spot that Hannah Barrow can’t read. It all adds up.”

“Yes. It adds up---to a portrait of Miss Monica Emily Torrington.”

“Some of the high-ups are going to get a bit of a shock,” meditated Reeves. “Or aren’t they? The person I’m looking forward to seeing is Her Ladyship, as the village has it. If she didn’t know, why didn’t she?”

“It’s often more convenient not to know,” rejoined Macdonald.

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