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Chapter Ten

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« on: September 05, 2023, 12:34:07 pm »


“SISTER Monica was an exceedingly obstinate woman,” said Dr. Brown. He spoke wearily, and his voice, despite the conditioned note of professional certitude, sounded disillusioned.

Macdonald and Reeves were sitting with the old doctor in the latter’s consulting room. Reeves, doing his ‘silent act,’ was very much aware of his surroundings. Even on this day in midsummer the room was dim and dank and green. “Like a new-fangled aquarium with the lights turned off,” thought Reeves; “we might all begin to swim in a minute, like deep-sea fishes.”

Green walls, green paint, green curtains, green carpet, all faded to despondency: green aspidistras in the fireplace, green rhododendrons and laurels and yews too close to the windows: green mosses and algae in glass tanks and beakers and test-tubes, for Dr. Brown had turned naturalist in his retirement, and was writing a treatise on fresh water algae: (“spirogyra and hydrodictyon? See dictionary,” noted Reeves.) “I’d hate to be doctored by him: this room must be a real breeding place for bugs. I shall be getting a sore throat myself next,” thought the hardened Cockney while Dr. Brown went on:

“Of course she was too old for the job. I admit it and I admit I knew it. But when you’re old yourself you find it hard to be censorious about people who’re a dozen years younger than yourself. She’d run that place for nearly thirty years, and she’d run it well, efficiently, wisely, economically. When younger folks complained she was old-fashioned and harsh in her methods, I reminded them that that house had a better record for health than any other children’s home I know of. She’d worked non-stop, unsparingly, without holidays and without diversion. Unwise of her? Maybe, but I come of a generation that respects hard work. She’d worked herself out, like an old cart-horse. She didn’t want to give up and I didn’t want to be the one to tell her to pack up. I was wrong. I admit it---but I’m not ashamed of it.”

“I respect your point of view, sir,” said Macdonald quietly, “but I have been sent here to get facts. The most important facts you can give me are those concerning Miss Torrington’s health. You were her medical adviser.”

The old man snorted. “Yes. I was her medical adviser. During all the years I’ve known her she’s never complained to me about her health, never asked for physic, never taken to her bed. I said just now she was like a horse, and she was as strong as a horse. Barring looking at her tongue, peering down her throat, taking her pulse and taking her temperature---which she was quite capable of taking herself---I’ve never examined her. Never so much as seen her with her uniform frock unbuttoned. No need to. She’s had colds, she’s had throats, but she’s never been really ill. Not up till this last six months. And then it wasn’t disease. It was anno domini, tiredness, frayed nerves, and the knowledge that she herself was failing. I knew it couldn’t go on, but I’d set a term to it in my own mind, and I’d told her so. This was the result. It preyed on her mind and broke her up.”

“Will you enlarge on that point, sir?” asked Macdonald, and the old man cleared his throat noisily.

“You know I retired last spring. I kept on Gramarye at Sister Monica’s request. She didn’t want a change, not at her age. For over a quarter of a century, barring my own holidays, I’d been to that house at eleven o’clock every Monday morning. The drill was always the same. Hannah showed me up to the little dispensary where Sister Monica was waiting, and Hannah paraded those tots past me, each taught to say ‘good-morning, doctor’ and ‘thank you.’ If there were any cot cases, those two women would march me up to the dormitories, regulation hospital fashion. I’ve seen them through their measles and mumps and chicken pox, prescribing the same medicine and treatment, which Sister Monica knew as well or better than I did. At the end of it Hannah would march me to the front door---always the same, Monday after Monday. Sister Monica, and Hannah too, knew all about the treatment for children’s ailments, knew it by heart. They didn’t want any bright young fellow with new ideas coming along, turning everything upside down.” He broke off and sighed: a heavy, old man’s sigh, and then went on: “When I retired, I thought I’d live out my natural span here, pottering about with algae and fossils, but it wasn’t so easy. That young chap, Ferens, he’s a capable fellow: up to date, au fait with all this hooey over glands and hormones and vitamins and antitoxins and antibodies and all the rest. Quite right, too. But his very existence up there was an implicit criticism of all I’d ever done. I’m not criticising, mind you, and I’m not grumbling. But when old Anna Freemantle lost her husband---my wife was a Freemantle---when Anna suggested she’d got a big comfortable house and not too much money to run it on and why not come along and share the expenses and the comfort, well, I thought it was a good idea.”

He cleared his throat again and said: “I’m rambling on, but let me tell you my own way. I’m too old to learn new tricks.”

“I ask nothing better than for you to talk in your own way, sir,” said Macdonald. “You’re giving me a vivid picture of things which I’d only guessed at.”

“You’re a good listener, Chief Inspector. Shows your wisdom and your manners, too,” growled old Brown. “Where was I?”

“Anna Freemantle,” prompted Macdonald, and he went on:

“Yes. Anna. 75 last year, but spry as they make ’em. In Wiltshire she lives: nice place, nice stretch of river, a bit of fishing, and a good housekeeper and gardener. Worth thinking about. So I told her I’d pack up here round about Michaelmas, sell most of the furniture and take a few bits along and have a little comfort for my last year or so. Well, there it was. I told Sister Monica what was in my mind and said: ‘Why not retire? Lady Ridding’ll see you have a good cottage and a bit of a pension, and Hannah Barrow will be only too glad to stay with you and look after you.’ She just said: ‘I don’t wish to retire. When it’s time for me to retire the Almighty will make it clear to me.’ You can’t argue with that, you know. Once a woman gets it into her head she’s being guided, there’s no use talking to her.”

“True enough,” agreed Macdonald. “Now you said that Miss Torrington was tired and her nerves were strained. Did you prescribe anything for her?”

“I did. Wilson, the chemist in Milham Prior, sent the stuff up. I gave her a sedative---the usual bromide. Wouldn’t have hurt a baby. And a bismuth mixture: more peppermint than anything else in it. She’d got a sort of nervous indigestion. Hannah told me about it. Faithful creature, she is. For all I know Sister Monica poured the stuff down the sink.”

“I don’t think she did that. The analyst found traces of bismuth in her organs. He also found traces of alcohol.”

Dr. Brown sat staring at Macdonald, his old face contracted into an amazed frown. “Good God,” he said slowly. “I never thought of that.” He broke off, and then added: “I’m too old to be surprised by the aberrations human nature’s capable of, Inspector. I’ve seen too many queer things done by ordinary people. Drink? It’s not the first time I’ve heard of a respectable woman falling into that snare . . . It might explain a lot.”

“Where did she get it from?”

“Depends how much she had. Have you looked into that medicine cupboard at Gramarye? Yes? I thought so. Was there a bottle of brandy there?”

“No, sir.”

“There’s been one there for years. Good brandy, too. I sent it up myself. During the war they took evacuees into the house, and there was one old soul who was in a bad way. A heart case. I prescribed brandy to keep her heart going, a matter of a few drops. After the heart case had been moved on to hospital, Sister Monica wanted me to take the brandy away. I said, No. She ought to have it in case of emergency. She ran our Red Cross unit and casualty station. It was never in action of course. She kept the brandy in the locked section of the cupboard labelled ‘poisons’---though she’d not got anything that’d poison a babe in arms.”

“It’s not there now,” said Macdonald.


“Why couldn’t she have given up?” growled old Brown sadly. He had had a respite from talking, mixing himself a modest whisky and soda with hands that shook. He looked a weary unhappy old man, and Macdonald had offered to go away and resume the conversation later, but Dr. Brown had replied: “Let’s get it over. The whole thing’s been a shock. I’ve known Sister a long time: worked with her, trusted her, respected her sterling qualities, aye and told her my own troubles, many a time. They’ll tell you in the village it was my fault she wasn’t pensioned off. That’s not true. I’ve advised her time and again to give up this last year or two, but I wasn’t going to see her packed off like a worn-out suit. After the years she’d worked at that place, she’d earned the right to choose her own time to retire. That’s how I saw it.”

“Did she talk to you about her own affairs, sir? Her family and connections, her savings and business dealings and so forth?”

“Savings? She can’t have saved much, poor soul. I told Etheldreda Ridding she’d got her pound of flesh all right. Not that Sister ever mentioned money to me. She’d got her own rigid code, you know. You couldn’t get past it. In actual fact she never talked to me about her own affairs. Never got personal. The fact was, she’d got a pose as well as a code. She was other-worldly. That’s how she saw it. I’d say, in confidence, she was a bit simple and a good bit of a snob. I don’t say that unkindly, but I suppose her origins were pretty humble. That’s guess work, because she never told me, but I do believe that she put great store on being talked to confidentially by Lady Ridding. So Sister lived up to it, part mystic, part perfect lady. No harm in it. She didn’t have much in the way of luxury, God knows.”

“But wasn’t there another side to her, sir?” asked Macdonald. “Not mystic: not ascetic: not perfect lady. Isn’t it true that she could set malicious gossip in train, too?”

“Maybe. I’ve never known a woman who didn’t,” said the old man tartly. “No one’s ever repeated gossip to me. It’s a thing I can’t abide, and if anyone tried tale-bearing about Sister Monica, I dealt with them in the only way I know. Told them to hold their tongues. Maybe she did chatter, but she wasn’t malicious. If she said a thing she thought it was true.” He paused, his face working unhappily. “Of course I know what you mean,” he admitted. “She’d turned people against her. She’d got a sort of reformer’s bug into her head. You try reforming a village and see how popular you are. Villages are all alike, made up of human beings who love and lie, who’re unselfish one minute and self-seeking the next, who’re faithful one day and fornicators the next. Human nature’s a mixed bag. I’ve lived thirty years in this village and I don’t expect too much of anybody. I’ve too much sense.”

“Wouldn’t you agree that if would-be reformers are too zealous they make enemies, sir?”

“Of course they do. We all make enemies. I’ve made plenty myself. I’m a damned cantankerous old man and I know it. But when you make enemies in a village like this, you don’t murder one another. It was that fool of a sergeant who started this murder idea. Damned nonsense. I’m willing to admit anything within the bounds of reasonable possibility. I’ll admit Sister Monica may have taken to the brandy bottle, improbable though it seems. And if she did, you’ve got a logical explanation of the way she behaved and of the fact she fell down, knocked herself silly, and rolled into the mill stream.”

The old man was working himself up into a temper, as old men do, and Macdonald changed the angle of his questions. “Getting back to Gramarye, sir. Can you tell me anything about Hannah Barrow?”

“Hannah? She’s been there for twenty years or more. I can tell you she’s a hard worker, a conscientious children’s nurse, and an ignorant, superstitious woman. Not that that made any difference to her work. She’s one of the sort who’ll work till they drop. Not like the youngsters of to-day, always out for their own enjoyment.”

“Do you know where she came from?”

“Came from? She’s Devon bred. I think Sister Monica got her by recommendation from some home or other. She was a domestic to start with, and they took to calling her Nurse when she was promoted. No training of course: no education. Just got a knack of managing children. She’s been invaluable.”

“You don’t remember what sort of home she came from?”

“I never asked. Not my business. May have got landed in trouble---Sister Monica always liked reforming people. Makes me laugh to think of reforming Hannah. Ugly little cuss she was when she came and couldn’t say boo to a goose.” He cocked an eye at Macdonald. “Not thinking Hannah took a coal hammer and knocked Sister Monica over the head, are you? Why not say I did it---it’d make just as much sense. Hannah worshipped Sister Monica. She’d have cut off her own hands rather than cause Sister any distress.” He stirred fretfully in his seat. “I expect you know how children’s homes are run these days. Trained nurses, trained psychologists, trained welfare officers, trained social reformers, trained nursery teachers. Gramarye was run in the main by two women who’d had about as little training as women can have: they ran it by commonsense, rule of thumb, and hard work: two women of humble origin, one of whom was nearly illiterate. But they did the job. And after a quarter of a century detectives come along and suggest one of those women was murdered and the other murdered her. I don’t want to be offensive to you personally, Inspector: you strike me as a fellow with plenty of commonsense, but melodrama’s never been in my line. We’re commonplace folk in this village.”

“Would you really have described Miss Monica Torrington as a commonplace person, sir?”

“Under the uniform and the mumbo jumbo, yes. She played a part, but considering how hard she worked and how little relaxation she had, it wasn’t surprising she put on a few frills and pretensions.”

The old man yawned, and Macdonald got up to go. “You’re tired, sir.”

“I’m damn tired, Inspector. Not used to talking so much. And you’ve given me a few knocks. I thought I knew our Sister Monica, saw through the pious trappings to the human being underneath. Now you tell me she’d taken to drink. I ought to have spotted it. I didn’t. I’m an old fool and you’re justified in telling me so.”

“I didn’t say that she’d taken to drink, sir; I said the analyst found traces of alcohol in her organs. We don’t know at all in what circumstances it was taken, and there was no sign at all that she was an addict. The reverse is true. But as a detective, I can’t help being aware that a stiff dose of alcohol, taken by one unaccustomed to it, may have had some bearing on her death.”

“And what about the bottle of brandy, Chief Inspector? You say it’s no longer there. It was kept under lock and key, and whatever defects Sister Monica may have had, carelessness and forgetfulness were not among them. Did you find her keys, by the way?”

“Yes, sir. Her keys were in the pocket of her uniform cloak when her body was found.”

“That’s clear enough, isn’t it?” growled old Brown.


It was after nine o’clock that evening when Macdonald got his car out, saying to Reeves: “There’s a rhyme to the effect that a policeman’s lot is not a happy one. I’ve always maintained that there are good points about the job, and we’re going to prove it this evening. Hop in, Pete.”

“Where are we going?”

“We’re taking a couple of hours off duty, and we’re going to drive to the highest point of Exmoor and see the county of Devon from sea to sea: from Bideford Bay in the north to the Exeter gap in the south. It’s as near the summer solstice as makes no difference, and we’ll see a midsummer evening over Exmoor.”

“Suits me,” said Reeves.

Macdonald turned northwards: they drove at first through deep lanes with high hedge banks, warm and fragrant with the incense of midsummer, while already tall foxgloves flowered in serried ranks and the lush green foliage of oak and beech nearly met overhead. Then the hedge banks dwindled away and the bonnet of the car tilted to an unaccustomed angle as they mounted to the moor. White owls swept across the road, and as they drove on a great hawk flew in front of them and came back again and again as though to protest against their intrusion into his territory. The north western sky was still lambent, glowing with pale golden light, and when they reached the summit of the rough road the very air seemed drenched with the aftermath of sunset. Macdonald pulled the car on to the rough verge, and they got out and walked over close turf, starred with flowers and tangle of blackberries, until they reached a ridge where two mounds stood out against the sky.

“Long barrows,” said Macdonald: “your ancestors and mine, maybe. A good spot to be buried.”

Reeves stood and stared: some moorland ponies stared back and then bolted in a wild stampede of flying hooves and manes and tails. To the far west, Lundy Island hung like a cloud on the horizon: Bideford Bay was one great curve of reflected light from Hartland to Morte. To the north the head of the Lynn valley showed a sinuous green among the dark green of heather. Turning about, Reeves looked beyond and below the moor to a chequer of farmland and woodland, the rich earth of south Devon spread out to the river Exe and the distant hills behind Exmouth. Having stared his fill, he sat down beside Macdonald, who was gazing out to Hartland and remembering the coombes that cleft that rocky coast---Welcombe, Marsland Mouth, Coombe Valley, and Moorwinstow.

“Well, thanks for this,” said Reeves, as he gazed at the first white pin-prick of starlight. “I shan’t forget it in a hurry.”

They sat in silence and listened to the call of the moorland birds and watched kestrels hovering until the light faded and the northern sky paled, misted to faint amethyst and then to lilac grey. Reeves lay on his back and watched the stars strengthen, while his mind inevitably went back to the problem they had come to solve. It wasn’t that he didn’t value this high solitude of air and sky and distant sea, but an active mind cannot easily ignore a present problem. Sensuously he was aware of near bird call and far constellation, of fragrance and the chill of evening air, of the reflection of headland lights flashing out from hidden lighthouses: intelligently he was aware of a conundrum in which human motives made a criss-cross of pattern, moving inevitably to the cold rush of the mill-race.

They stayed there for a long time, each busy with his own thoughts, the smoke of Reeves’s cigarettes mingling with the mellower smoke of Macdonald’s pipe, while rustles in heather and bracken told of unseen small beasts busy on nocturnal occasions, and the last bird call died away in sleepy cuck-cuckings, save for the mournful hoot of owls. When Macdonald got up and stretched himself, Reeves could see his tall straight figure like a void against a sky which was still vaguely pale, though myriad pin-points and scintillas of golden starlight quivered from horizon to horizon. Reeves got up and stretched too, and found his coat was misted with dew.

“You can see it’s round when you’re at sea, but you don’t often see it’s round when you’re on land,” he said.

Macdonald considered the cryptic phrase and turned slowly the full three hundred and sixty degrees. They were so high above the rest of the moorland that they had their own uninterrupted circle of horizon. “There’s something satisfying about a full circle,” he said. “It seems to settle the infinity argument. This is where we go back, in time as well as in space. I’m going to drop you about half a mile from the mill. I shall go on up to the top and walk down through the park. We will each follow our own devices and discuss results when we get home. There’s a moon for you---like a dinted green cheese.”

They went back to the car, turned the headlights on and bumped down the steep descent, lighting up an occasional white owl, and once a hawk flew in the beam of the head lamps, every pinion displayed in its great wing spread. Back into the tunnel of the lane they drove, and on till the first thatch gleamed in the moonlight at the bottom of the village street. Here Reeves got out and Macdonald drove on up the hill to the little plateau between inn and manor and church. Every south-facing wall was white in the moonlight, white as milk: every thatch gleamed with the faintest tinge of gold on its well-combed surface, and beneath the eaves the shadows were purple black.

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