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Chapter Eleven

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« on: September 05, 2023, 01:00:06 pm »

--1--

MACDONALD walked across the village green to the entrance gates which closed the drive of Gramarye. They were tall wooden gates and they were bolted on the inside. Having noted their solidity, Macdonald put his hands on the top of the gates, pulled himself up and got over the top without any difficulty at all. The drive was dark, shaded by ilex trees, and the Chief Inspector walked silently along the tunnel of gloom until he could see the garden front of the old stone house. It looked very beautiful and serene in the moonbeams, its mullions and flat Tudor archways showing clear in the witching light. Every window was closed, despite the warmth of the midsummer night, and the narrow leaded casements had a dark, secret look. The sunk lawn was smooth and white now, but anybody leaving the house could get immediately into the shadow of clipped shrubs and hedges. The conditions to-night, Macdonald pondered, were the same as on the night when Monica Emily Torrington had walked down to the mill, and when Dr. Ferens had driven up the village street to the Dower House.

Leaving the drive by the gate he and Reeves had used that afternoon, Macdonald moved on into the park. He paused after he had descended a hundred yards of the steep declivity. To his right, the scarp rose sharply to the line of the village street, the houses hidden by the trees on the slopes. To his left, the ground fell away steeply to river level, so steeply that it was probable that if anybody took a false step and slipped from the path, he would roll helplessly down the long bank, faster and faster, till he reached the bottom. Despite the fact that he was not many yards away from the village street, no houses were within sight. Away and below, across the river, woods banked darkly, and beyond them again the ridge of the distant moorland showed against the sky. It was midnight, but it wasn’t dark. It wouldn’t be dark all night, thought Macdonald. Everything was plain to see, though the colours of day had faded out. White and black, or grey and lilac, the great sweep of parkland and woodland was like an aquatint, its half tones treated with a wash of some faint tertiary colour which blurred some of the outlines but never hid the detail.

Macdonald walked on: the path was straight now and offered no cover: anyone walking either up or down could be seen clearly and would have no means of concealment. He stood still for a while and listened; the only sound came faintly from far below, the perpetual plash of water over the weir. Macdonald had gym shoes on, for he found they were quieter than any other form of footwear and gave better foothold on a slope. He picked up a small stone and tossed it. As he expected, he got an echo from the scarp to his right. Every sound was amplified on this path. “She had acute hearing,” he pondered to himself. (The conscientious Peel had noted this down.) “Even the rustle of a cotton frock would sound loud here. Surely no one would have risked following her down this path. She would have heard them, and once she had turned, she would have seen them.”

He walked on, thinking hard. “She must have gone to meet somebody. If she had only been walking for the pleasure of a walk in the moonlight, or to induce some sort of semi-hysterical trance, she wouldn’t have gone on through that last gate to the workaday jumble of mill house and saw mill and generating station. And if you wanted to meet someone surely you wouldn’t choose to meet them on this path. It’s not wide enough for two people to walk abreast without fear of slipping; it’s steep and toilsome, and not particularly safe. If she went to meet somebody, she’d have chosen level ground at the top or level ground at the bottom.”

He walked on, slowly and silently, down to the five-barred gate which shut off the park from the level space by the river. There were trees overhanging the path here, and a big elder tree, covered in flowers, looked fairylike in the moonlight. Macdonald wanted to know what Reeves was up to. He would be down there somewhere, near the bridge, watching and listening, as Macdonald himself had been watching and listening. Reeves would be quite capable of doing a practical experiment to discover what happened to a person who tripped up on the bridge, and Macdonald thought it not improbable that one or other of them would end up in the mill stream, the betting being that he (Macdonald) would have to swim for it. The fact that Reeves was there, unseen and unheard, but certainly watchful, acted as a sort of stimulant, and Macdonald began to test his memory about the approach to the bridge, recollecting what there was in the way of cover where an assailant might hide. There was an open space of level ground on either side of the bridge, and while he stood visualising this, Macdonald suddenly thought: “Being Reeves, he’ll probably get under the bridge somehow. It’s a wooden bridge and there must be beams of some sort to act as stays: it’s too wide a span to have no supports. If somebody grabbed your ankle or got a crook round your leg while you were on the bridge, the result might make hay of all our arguments about what happens when you go at the knees. Well, here’s his chance for a demonstration.”

He had just put out his hand to loosen the chain on the gate when he caught a sound on the farther side of the stream. It was a slight clatter, as though a stick had fallen on cobbles. Macdonald drew back into the shadows: he could see right across the bridge and on to the moonlit space beyond it. The path which ran between the Mill House and the farm was in black shadow, and it was from here that the sound had come, as though someone coming towards the bridge from the village street had knocked a stick down. Macdonald’s first thought was: “That wasn’t Reeves.” Reeves had the eyes of a cat, and a cat’s neatness in avoiding obstacles. A moment later a man moved out of the shadows between the houses and into the moonlight. He walked quietly on to the bridge and Macdonald saw who it was---Sanderson, the bailiff. He was dressed in singlet and shorts and he was very obvious in the moonlight. Behind, in the shadows, was another man, unidentifiable in the gloom. Whatever Macdonald anticipated, the next event took him entirely by surprise. Sanderson measured his length on the bridge, if not with a resounding crash, with a thud which was not far removed from a bang. Then his big form rolled over and fell in the water with a smack and a splash which made a great deal more noise than Macdonald would have believed possible. Immediately there was an outburst of barking from the dog in Venner’s house, and the calves in the nearby byre bawled their protest at being woken from sleep.

--2--

Macdonald said afterwards that something in his subconscious mind told him the whole thing was a put-up job. When Sanderson fell, his limbs did not seem to lose control as do the limbs of a man rendered suddenly senseless. It was a good fall, and in addition to the thud on the echoing planks, the timber of the bridge creaked and groaned in reverberation. The lively uproar following the noisy flop into the water was reinforced by the sound of a window being flung violently open and Venner’s voice calling, “What’s that? What’s that?”

It was then that another voice spoke from the shadows, the calm sensible voice of Raymond Ferens.

“All right, Venner. Sorry if we startled you. Don’t wake the whole village. We were only trying an experiment. Come down here a minute.”

Macdonald, peering from the shadows, decided to hold a watching brief, and assumed that Reeves was doing likewise. Sanderson, who was evidently a good swimmer, had reached the bank with a few powerful trudge strokes across the current, and by the time he had scrambled out, Ferens was reassuring Farmer Moore, who had appeared in his night-shirt in a surprisingly short space of time, roused by the indignant voices of his young stock in the byre.

Venner came out of doors and turned on Ferens in a fury.

“You did ought to know better, doctor, giving we a turn like that. Us has had enough without you fooling like a zany----”

“Keep calm, laddy. We weren’t fooling. Listen to a little commonsense. If Miss Torrington had collapsed on that bridge and fallen into the water as is generally supposed, she’d have made as much row as Sanderson did. She was as large as he is. I never believed she could have slipped in without a sound, not if she fell from the bridge. She’d have made enough noise to wake your dog and the dog would have barked.”

“The dog didn’t bark,” said Venner. “Us didn’t hear a sound that night. I told you so, doctor. Not a sound did us hear, and if you don’t believe me----”

“The whole point is that we do believe you,” put in Sanderson. “What do you think I flopped into the water for? It was to find out how much noise it made. If anybody fell on that bridge at night, and flopped into the water, they’d make noise enough to wake your dog. Your dog barks and wakes the cattle, and the cattle wake Moore’s dog, and so it goes on, like the house that Jack built. Half the village will have been woken up to-night, you mark my words. We’ve proved what we set out to prove. That’s all. Now I’m going up to have a rub down. It’s not so warm as you might think.”

He turned towards the village street, jog-trotting, and Venner turned again to Ferens. “What good d’you think you’ve done, doctor?” he asked angrily. “If so be ’twas an accident, and I reckon ’twas, what’s the use o’ making it seem harder?”

“I tried to believe it was an accident, Venner. We all did,” replied Ferens, his voice low and deep. “If the police had been willing to accept the accident theory, no one would have been gladder than myself. But the police don’t believe it was an accident, and they’ve put Scotland Yard on to it now. Sanderson and I tried this experiment to prove the thing one way or the other. If your dog hadn’t barked and the cattle hadn’t bawled I’d have gone to the Chief Inspector and said, ‘If you do fall flat on that bridge and flop into deep water at night nobody’d hear you.’ Now I know that isn’t true. You’ve got a trained watch dog and the dog wakes up at any unusual sound.”

“And so you’ll go to the C.I.D. man and tell him what you’ve found out?”

“No, I shan’t. It won’t be necessary. He’ll try the same thing himself. The reason Sanderson and I took a chance to-night is that the C.I.D. men have driven out to the moor and I thought we should have the place to ourselves.” He paused a moment and then added: “Look here, Venner. She didn’t fall when she was on the bridge. She didn’t knock her head on the hand rail. If you still believe it was an accident, how else did she fall?”

“Her come over dizzy, on the bank there, maybe, and her fell backwards and knocked herself silly.”

“If she fell backwards, how did she roll into the river?” persisted Ferens. “That’s what they’ll ask, you silly old fool. If you can prove to me any way it could have been an accident, I’ll back you till the cows come home, but going on talking about her being dizzy doesn’t explain how her body got in the river. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Now I’m going home to bed.”

He turned to cross the bridge---they’d been standing on the Mill House side of the stream---and Macdonald squeezed back as silently as he could behind the elder bush, for it was evident that Ferens intended to come up the path through the park. Ferens spoke again as he reached the bridge:

“It’s no use getting angry, Venner. I know you feel mad with me, but if you believe that woman drowned by accident, for God’s sake use your wits and think out how the accident happened. Phoney explanations aren’t any good. Sanderson and I have blown your blessed theory about the bridge sky high. You’ve got to think again if you’re going to persuade that C.I.D. chap it was an accident. Good-night.”

He crossed the bridge, opened the gate and chained it up again and set up the path at a good steady pace. Macdonald waited until he heard Venner shut the door and shoot the bolt before he emerged from the thicket which had concealed him so successfully.

--3--

“Talk about performing apes: I reckon I’ve proved my ancestry,” muttered Reeves resignedly. The two C.I.D. men were sitting in the shadow of the saw mill shed.

“I guessed you’d be under the bridge, waiting for me,” said Macdonald.

“I’d say I was. I heard you come down that path, for all you were as quiet about it as a tom on tiles,” said Reeves. “There’s an echo or something. You chucked a stone, didn’t you? I got a foothold and handhold on the timbers underneath the bridge, close in by the bank, reckoning I could hold on for a brace of shakes. It seemed hours,” he said, “and as for the row the chap made when he did his swooning act, you’d have thought the whole bridge had copped a V.1. Thunder also ran. I suppose water reflects sound back like any other surface. Then he fell in the stream with a proper belly flop and I was just going in after him when I saw he was swimming like hell, so I gave that idea up and held on till the curtain came down.”

“It was a very convincing demonstration, and both those chaps have been using their wits,” said Macdonald. “The swooning act made much more noise than I’d have believed possible. They’ve proved their point, all right.”

“But did they know we were there?” pondered Reeves. “When blokes start being clever, I always wonder how far the cleverness goes. And what will old Venner cough up as a variation on ‘her was dizzy like’?”

“I don’t know, but I think we can accept our first ideas as a basis of probability. I argued that she was killed somewhere near the bank of the stream because she was too heavy to carry: that it wasn’t on the Mill House side of the stream because of the risk of being heard or seen: that it was a little upstream from the weir, because her body was found caught in the piles where the current makes an eddy. Her cape would have floated out in the current and it was the cape which hitched itself on the piles and anchored the body against them. It was one of those old-fashioned capes with loops for the arms, so it wasn’t torn off her.”

“So she was probably knocked out close to where we are now,” said Reeves. “It’s good and dark here in the shadow.”

“Yes, and about as light as day in the moonlight,” said Macdonald. “That may have been an advantage from deceased’s point of view. She could have been quite sure she wasn’t being followed. That path is straight for quite a long stretch.” He paused, and then went on: “I’ve been trying to work out reasons for the woman coming here. What’s your guess, Pete?”

“Well, I might make quite a number of guesses: put them up to see if I can knock them down, like ninepins,” said Reeves. “I think we’ve got to accept the probability that she’d done the same thing several times before. Mrs. Venner saw her, that’s once. Maybe Nancy Bilton saw her---and that’s the last thing Nancy Bilton did see. I’d have guessed deceased was spying on someone, but I don’t think she’d have chosen bright moonlight for spying; she could be seen too easily. She might have been going to somebody’s house, but to do that she’d have had to cross that bridge and go along the path between the farm and the Mill House, and there was always the chance she’d wake those dogs. And there was the moonlight again: if she’d gone into the village street she’d have been so obvious if anyone had happened to be around. No. I come back to your original idea. She came here to meet someone. She’d put around this blah about meditating in the peace of the night, so if anybody did happen to see her on that path she could say afterwards she was wrestling with the devil or whatever it was she did say, and to make her date she’d only got to come through that gate and take a few steps along to the cover of these shacks. As to why she met anybody here, well, I reckon Peel wasn’t far out when he suggested blackmail. To collect her loot---that might have been the idea. And the payer-up got fed-up, and that was that.”

“I’ve been playing with the blackmail idea myself,” murmured Macdonald. “We don’t know yet what her assets are. She’s probably got some other funds besides those in the building society. My own idea is that she’d become a miser. It’d be in keeping with her character. We shall get information about that sooner or later. But why should she have come to this spot for her date, as you call it?”

“Search me,” said Reeves.

“I’ll offer one or two suggestions,” went on Macdonald. “Neither party would go to the other’s house, and the postmistress in this village may be a nosy parker. They often are in small village post-offices.”

Reeves chuckled, the faintest of mirthful murmurs. “You’ve got that right. The dame in the post-office here is definitely interested. I saw her sorting the afternoon mail and she didn’t half quiz them. A nice registered packet of pound notes has got quite a feel to it.”

The two men were sitting close together on a huge tree trunk which lay close up against the shed in the shadows. Their voices were only the low, practised murmur which was inaudible to any save each other, and the plash and swirl of falling water made a background of covering sound.

“We’ve had a good evening,” said Reeves. “A free demonstration provided, which saved you a swim, and we’ve got the feel of the place. You say it was a rum place to choose for a date. I think it’s rather cosy, not far from home but quite hidden away.”

“It has its advantages,” agreed Macdonald, “and more than those you’ve mentioned. Call it a day. We’ve got a surprising lot of information in a very short time.”

--4--

“What have you been up to, Raymond?” asked Anne. “You might as well tell me, and then you won’t have to bother about every word you utter for weeks on end. You’re tiresome when you’re concentrating on keeping a secret.”

Anne Ferens sat up in bed when her husband came in, and he chuckled at her words. “All right, angel. Sorry I’m so late. I went in to see Sanderson, and we got chewing things over. Both of us have been trying to think out some convincing theory which will prove the woman’s death was due to accident and nothing but accident. I was always doubtful about that idea of her slipping into the water without a sound, because it seemed to me that a woman of her weight falling on that bridge was bound to make some noise, and Venner’s got a very spry young house dog.”

“So what?”

“I asked Sanderson if he’d come and do a reconstruction. Fall flat on the bridge and then flop into the water and see if there were any reactions.”

“Did he agree?”

“Yes. Straight away---rather to my own relief, I admit. I expected him to argue and say it was ill-advised to go butting in, and so forth. He changed into shorts and we went down the village street. I didn’t want to go down the park in case we ran into Sir James or Lady R.”

“But heavens above, Lady R. doesn’t go rambling in the moonlight.”

“Not so sure, angel. Everyone’s nerves are rather playing tricks just now---but never mind that. Sanderson did his stuff all right. He fell like a hero, an absolute pitcher. I couldn’t have done it if I’d tried, and the row he made was unbelievable, shook the whole bridge. Then he rolled over and pitched into the stream, raising a sort of water spout. Whereon Venner’s dog barked like mad and woke up Venner and the calves in the byre, and Moore’s dog began barking as well. What you might call a good reaction. Venner came out and pitched into me; he was properly furious and we had quite a party. But it convinced all of us of one thing: it couldn’t have happened the way everybody said. That wooden bridge makes too much row, and a big body flopping in the water makes too much splash, just like a flat dive. It makes a real smack and splother.”

“Oh dear . . .” said Anne.

“Yes. I know. But it’s better to get things straight. My first idea was right. Somebody gave her a good whang from behind and rolled her into the water. And they didn’t do it from the side of the stream by Venner’s house. It had to be on this side, and a bit away from the bridge.”

Anne sat up, with her knees up to her chin, her hands clasped round her ankles, and her face was troubled. “Ray, did you feel it was worthwhile, this experiment of yours?”

“Yes.” He spoke without hesitation. “It’s cleared up some possible misapprehensions, and I know you realise what I mean. Perhaps inquisitiveness isn’t a very admirable quality, but you’ve either got it or you haven’t. I wanted to get one or two things clear.”

“You’ve proved that she didn’t tumble all in a heap on the bridge. You haven’t proved that she didn’t commit suicide by slipping quietly into the water.”

“Angel, you don’t get an enormous welt on the occiput by slipping quietly into the water. The only way she could have bruised the back of her head like that was by collapsing in such a way that her head struck the hand rail as she fell. I was willing to maintain that that might have happened until this evening. Now I know better.”

“So let’s put it quite plainly. You believe somebody murdered her,” said Anne, “and that means somebody in this place. It’s not a comforting thought.”

“I quite agree. But it’s better to look the fact in the face.”

“Well, don’t you go getting a great whang on your occiput, Ray. Leave it to that rather pleasant cop. He looked pretty competent to me. I wonder where he was when you were doing your reconstruction act.”

“He told Simon Barracombe he was driving up to Stone Barrow: but for all I know he was somewhere around by the bridge. If so, he saw a very competent demonstration of what didn’t happen.”

“In that case you’ll get ticked off tomorrow. Pros don’t like amateurs butting in,” said Anne. “Let’s go to sleep and forget all about it.”

“Shouldn’t be hard, angel,” said Raymond sleepily, as he slipped into bed beside her.

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