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Chapter Twelve

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« on: September 06, 2023, 04:06:47 am »

--1--

“ISN’T the real fact of the matter that you accepted Miss Torrington at her face value, madam?” enquired Macdonald evenly.

He was talking to Lady Ridding, who had already tried several varieties of technique on the Chief Inspector, without seeming to make much impression. First, her undoubted charm had been well to the fore.

“It was so wise of the Chief Constable to put the matter in your hands, Chief Inspector. I was very worried about Sergeant Peel. He showed a tendency to jump to conclusions---and very unwise conclusions, too. Between you and me, I’m afraid he’s rather a stupid man.”

“I have found Sergeant Peel a most able and conscientious officer,” said Macdonald quietly.

“Ah, but you wouldn’t know the extent to which he has upset the village,” said Lady Ridding. “Those people are our people. I know them all, and know them well. Knowing them as I do, it seems outrageous to me that any police officer should imagine that a crime of violence could have been committed by any of them. And Sister Monica----”

Macdonald let her babble on uninterrupted for a while. Saintliness and halos, self-abnegation and devotion, floated in the air like incense, until Macdonald put his abrupt question. Lady Ridding flushed and drew herself very erect.

“I knew her, Chief Inspector,” she replied. “She had worked faithfully for me for thirty years.”

“Nevertheless, I think that, apart from the qualities she made a show of, you knew very little about her,” persisted Macdonald, “but there is another point I should like to raise first. Have you any knowledge of the antecedents of Hannah Barrow, known as Nurse Barrow at Gramarye?”

“Nurse Barrow has been at Gramarye for over twenty years,” said Lady Ridding coldly. “I have no recollection of where she came from, because Sister Monica engaged her and made all the necessary enquiries. Sister was a genius at training domestic servants, and I left the engaging of them to her judgment. Of course we had village girls as domestics at Gramarye in the old days, but it got increasingly difficult to persuade girls to go into service. We were very lucky in having Hannah, who was a very hard worker.”

“Yes. I think she has worked hard,” agreed Macdonald. “I am going to tell you Hannah’s history, because it throws light on Miss Torrington’s character. Hannah was brought up in an orphanage in Bristol. She was trained as a domestic servant and placed in a job with a woman who was a very harsh and cruel employer. I need not go into all the details, but in 1918 Hannah Barrow was arrested and charged with the murder of her employer. Eventually the charge was reduced to manslaughter, and Hannah Barrow (or Brown, as her name was then) was sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude. There were extenuating circumstances, as she had been abominably treated, but she certainly killed her employer. Some time after her release, Hannah was engaged by Miss Torrington. Were you aware of these facts, madam?”

Lady Ridding looked horrified, but she kept her poise. “I knew nothing of this,” she declared. “Nothing. Sister Monica was very wrong to keep me in ignorance, but she doubtless did so from motives of charity.”

“She did so from motives of self-interest and to indulge her own mania for domination,” said Macdonald quietly. “She liked having people about her whom she had a hold over. I have had a woman police officer interviewing Hannah Barrow. She has been terrorised for twenty years. She is a very simple, ignorant, credulous creature, and her one abiding fear was to be turned out again into the world with the stigma of her conviction made known. There was certainly no charity about Miss Torrington’s dealings with Hannah Barrow.”

“But Hannah worshipped Sister Monica,” protested Lady Ridding, her voice rising in pitch in her agitation.

“Hannah’s worship was not unlike that of a rabbit towards a stoat,” rejoined Macdonald. “She had a small repertoire of phrases: Sister was wonderful. Sister communed with the spirits and souls of the righteous: Sister went out into the peaceful night to think holy thoughts. These latter were doubtless learned by heart, after many repetitions by their originator. Now that Hannah Barrow has been told that her own history is known to us, the phrases she uses about Miss Torrington are less stereotyped.”

Lady Ridding opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came. She remained sitting with her mouth open, and something about her silver hair and pink mouth reminded Macdonald of a white rabbit. He went on politely: “I agree with you, madam, that the Warden of Gramarye had no right to engage a woman with a history like Hannah Barrow’s on her own responsibility alone. The matter should have been brought before the Committee, but, if my judgment is right, Miss Torrington had a very low estimate of the Committee. She knew she could manage the Committee. That is one of the things I implied when I said that you took Miss Torrington at her face value. This, as has been frequently repeated, was ‘wonderful.’ ”

Lady Ridding had not been Lady of the Manor for thirty years without having developed a technique for dealing with difficult and tiresome people, and this C.I.D. man was, in Lady Ridding’s opinion, being excessively difficult and tiresome.

“Your implications are beside the point,” she said tartly. “The whole matter is one of profound distress to me, and I will tolerate neither flippancy nor impertinence from you.”

“Believe me, I am very far from feeling flippant over the condition of affairs at Gramarye,” replied Macdonald. “If I have any personal feelings about the matter, they are more like horror and astonishment that a Committee of responsible persons could allow themselves to be hoodwinked by the pose of an unprincipled and exceedingly competent employee. As for impertinence, I maintain that everything I have said was pertinent. As Chairman of the Committee, it is desirable that you should learn and face both the facts and their implications. They are very far from being pleasant facts, madam.”

“I shall be indebted if you make your statement with all possible brevity, officer, and without redundant comment,” said Lady Ridding.

There was a rustle of paper from the corner of the room, as Detective Reeves turned over a sheet of paper rather more noisily than he need have done. Reeves was a highly skilled amanuensis, who noted down conversations at a speed unattained by the majority of police clerks. He apologised for his clumsiness as Macdonald glanced round, repeated “without redundant comment” and waited with pencil poised.

“As is customary, the essential parts of this interview are being put in writing,” explained Macdonald to Lady Ridding. “To continue with my facts. I understand that Miss Torrington was paid £120 a year, in cash, £10 monthly. Is that correct?”

“It is. I paid her myself. She refused any further rise in salary.”

“Have you any knowledge of her private means, madam?”

“She had no private means. She told me so explicitly. Sister Monica cared nothing for money,” replied Lady Ridding loftily.

“Yet during the past ten years Miss Torrington paid into various building societies the sum of over two thousand pounds, this money being paid in cash, monthly, in pound notes. The sum she invested was much larger than her total salary for that period. If she had no private means, can you suggest how she acquired this sum?”

“Two thousand pounds?” gasped Lady Ridding, “two thousand pounds---but that’s preposterous.” She broke off, almost with a gasp, as though she had suddenly checked herself, and a deep colour flooded her face. “I can’t believe it,” she added helplessly.

“Did you, at any time, give Miss Torrington any money over and above her salary?” asked Macdonald.

Lady Ridding moved unhappily in her place. “An occasional present, a pound at Christmas and on her birthday,” she admitted, “but nothing, nothing in comparison with the sum you mention. I can’t understand it. She told me she had no means . . .”

“But it seems she had some source of supply,” said Macdonald. “The obvious suggestion, of course, is blackmail.”

Lady Ridding sat and stared at him, her plump white fingers fidgeting with a long gold chain which she wore round her neck. That she was surprised, and very much upset, seemed plain enough, but it also seemed to Macdonald that there was some sort of calculation going on in her mind.

“Can you make any sort of suggestion in connection with this part of the problem, madam?” he asked.

She shook her head, very decidedly. “I am absolutely at a loss to explain or understand it,” she said, and paused for a moment. “You suggest the possibility of blackmail. I am appalled by such an idea.” She drew a deep breath and went on: “You have been explaining to me, in terms which admit of no misunderstanding, that I have been deceived in this woman. That she deceived us all. It is a shocking and humiliating thought, Chief Inspector.”

Without turning his head, Macdonald was aware that Reeves had looked up. Reeves, while younger than Macdonald, had had a lot of experience of men and women giving evidence. A volte-face (or, as Reeves would have said ‘going into reverse’) was a not unusual manoeuvre for an embarrassed witness, and both the C.I.D. men recognised the indications when such a move might occur. Reeves was alert to notice if this witness would ‘crash her gears.’

“I blame myself bitterly,” continued Lady Ridding. “Suspicion is alien to my nature, especially towards those who are in our service. For all these years, Sister Monica has run Gramarye with real ability. She worked very hard, she was always willing and anxious to help in any worthy cause. I realised, of course, that she was old-fashioned, but I myself am old, and I still think there is much that is praiseworthy in old and tried methods.” She broke off with a profound sigh, while Macdonald sat in silence and Reeves wrote industriously. Seeing that she was to be given no help by the words of sympathy and agreement which she obviously expected, Lady Ridding plunged in again.

“If ever I had any suspicion that Sister Monica was not all that she appeared to be, I put such thoughts away from me as unworthy,” she said sadly.

“Miss Torrington was certainly not what she appeared to be,” said Macdonald quietly. “Have you any idea if, or when, she was married?”

“Married?” gasped Lady Ridding. “Do you mean . . . married?” Her last enquiry came in a gasp. (As Reeves said later, “She wasn’t slow to tumble to that one.”)

“I think you know exactly what I mean, Lady Ridding,” replied Macdonald evenly. “The pathologists who carried out the post mortem reported that she was not a virgin.”

Poor Lady Ridding dropped her face in her hands. When she raised her head again, her face was very white, but she replied with a dignity which was real this time.

“I am more horrified than I can say, Chief Inspector. When I spoke of suspicion, I did not mean that I questioned Sister Monica’s moral character. I accepted that without a thought . . . I am afraid I must ask you to excuse me any further questions just now. I am so much upset that I feel incapable of forming reasonable answers.”

She got up resolutely, and Macdonald got up also, saying: “I am sorry, Lady Ridding. I realise you have cause for distress, but you have got to face the facts. I am quite willing to defer any other questions until such time as you feel able to answer them. Meantime, might I speak to Sir James?”

--2--

Sir James Ridding was a man of seventy, lean, erect, very neat, clean and vigorous looking. He was dressed in a checked tweed jacket, stock, and excellently fitting whipcord breeches and well polished riding boots. He came to the point promptly and without embarrassment.

“My wife is very much upset, Chief Inspector. She is an exceedingly nice-minded woman. I am not a nice-minded man. Stock breeding doesn’t leave much room for ultra refinement. So let’s accept the facts without fussing. It would save you from barking up the wrong tree if you could believe that Miss Torrington has never, in all these years, been any affair of mine.” He looked Macdonald straight in the face and added: “If she’d ever attempted to blackmail me she’d have found herself in Queer Street. But she knew just how far her sphere of influence went. It did not include me.”

“The question is, whom did it include?” asked Macdonald bluntly.

“I’ve nothing to tell you that will help you, Chief Inspector. In all the years she’s been at Gramarye, I’ve never done more than pass the time of day with the Warden. I couldn’t abide her. I believed her to be competent at her job, I knew her to be clever at managing people. I knew my wife made use of her, particularly in the realm of getting village girls trained into competent servants.” He paused, and then added: “My wife’s probably given her an occasional fiver, but it didn’t go farther than that. We’ve a joint banking account and we’re both methodical people over money. Have to be, these days. A coupla’ thousand pounds, even over a period of ten years---No. You can take that as read. Or you can see our bank statements if you want to. I’m not a fool. I know you’re not here to be polite to us.”

“I’m here for one reason alone, sir----”

“Quite, quite. Fact finding. Got to be done, I know that. It’s the hell of a mess, all the same. I could never understand the hold the woman got over people. Uncanny, absolutely uncanny. I told my wife years ago it’d be better to shift her. She was always nosing around, nobody’s business was their own. But she was competent, gad, she was competent. That place ran on oiled wheels.”

“I think the cruse has been failing a bit lately, sir.”

Sir James chuckled. “Thank God for a spot of flippancy. The whole thing’s frightful, and the saintly stuff’s got me down. Hushed voices and odour of sanctity. I knew in my own mind the woman was a damned humbug. Altruism my hat. She stayed here because she liked it. She’d got the Committee eating out of her hand, the Vicar where she wanted him, the M.O. trained to her ways, and most people indebted to her for service rendered. And now she’s gone and got herself murdered on my property. A pretty kettle of fish. What’s this story about old Hannah Barrow? My wife had got it all haywire.”

Macdonald told him.

“Poor old Barrow!” said Sir James. “And now I suppose you’re bound to suspect that poor old bit of God-help-us, arguing she’d had enough and to spare, so she borrowed a golf club and got busy. Would a golf club have done the job? I’ve mislaid my favourite putter.”

“I shouldn’t have chosen a putter myself, sir. And I’m quite sure that Hannah Barrow wouldn’t have. A police truncheon would have been handier.”

“Would it? I’ve got one somewhere. It was issued to my grandfather. Chartist riots, was it? Something of the kind. I’ll make sure it’s still around,” said Sir James pensively. “I hope you’ve no real reason to suspect that Hannah did the job, though I’m bound to admit that it would be a relief to know that she did. Sounds brutal, I know, but any good counsel could show a jury that Hannah’s not quite a hundred per cent, if you get me. I don’t suppose she’d work any harder ‘during detention at His Majesty’s pleasure’ than she’s done at Gramarye.”

“She’d work considerably less hard,” agreed Macdonald, “but I think it’d be a good idea if you deleted from your mind that we are here to serve anybody’s convenience, sir.”

“Oh, quite, quite. But human nature’s human nature. I’m fond of the village folks. I should hate to see any of ’em run in, my cowmen or shepherds or ploughmen, or the chaps who work the saw mill and the generator. It’s probable that quite a number of them hated the deceased Warden. She ought to have been pensioned off years ago. I know it. I’ve only got myself to blame. The fact is, I like a quiet life: as the hymn says, ‘give peace at home.’ Lady Ridding could only see Sister Monica’s good points. So there it was.”

“You say ‘a number of them hated the Warden,’ sir. Why?”

“Why? Devil take it, you must have learnt a bit about the woman. She wormed herself into people’s confidences. She learnt all the little shoddy secrets which exist in every village community. If a husband was unfaithful, if a wife were in debt, if tradespeople didn’t abide by the rationing laws, if a farm-labourer did some poaching and a farmer’s wife made butter on the quiet and sold it---she got to know somehow. She always has done, but it’s only in the last few years she’s taken to dropping veiled hints where the hints would do most damage. Damn it, I’m told she’s even said malicious things about that nice girl at the Dower House---Ferens’ wife. And as for John Sanderson, she did her best to discredit him. And he was right, you know. He said the woman wasn’t fit to be in charge of anything.”

“I take it you knew that Miss Torrington was relieved of her duties as treasurer and collector for various funds?”

“Yes. I knew all about that. I had a few words with the Vicar and the Church Wardens---all very guarded. Maybe she did dip into the bag a bit. More than probable. But not to the extent of two thousand pounds over a period of ten years. Nearly four pounds a week. That’s more than all the cash collections lumped together, a lot more. You can’t imagine Venner or Moore, or Rigg, or old Mrs. Yeo, paying out sums like that. Seems to me you’ll have to look further afield, Chief Inspector. You can never tell what a woman like that got up to. May have blackmailed somebody in writing. She was clever, y’know.”

“In my own belief, the essentials of the matter are here, sir, not farther afield at all. One of the points which is firmly established is that deceased hardly ever went out of this village. It’s an easy point to establish. Milham in the Moor is too far away from any other place for her to have walked, and we know she didn’t ever go in the bus of recent years. As for letters, I’ve no wish to get your postmistress into trouble, but I think she is a very observant body. She knows quite well what letters deceased posted in the area of the Milham in the Moor post office, and there were no letters suggestive of the sort of private correspondence which indicates blackmail by post.”

Sir James Ridding treated himself to a quiet chuckle. “I always post my own letters at Milham Prior or Barnsford,” he said. “Incidentally, I can’t help being interested in the late Warden’s financial transactions. Did she have a banking account?”

“Not so far as we have ascertained up to the present. Interest on her share accounts was reinvested in the companies concerned. Notice was sent to her of dividends paid, of course, but these notices were posted in envelopes supplied and addressed by Miss Torrington herself.”

Again Sir James chuckled. “She was nothing if not thorough. She worked out a method which gave nothing away. She chose investments which were tax free, or rather on which the tax was paid by the companies before the dividends were issued, so she reduced to a minimum any correspondence with the Inland Revenue, and the addressed envelope system gave the postmistress precious little satisfaction. But how did she post the cash for investment?”

“By registered post once a month from Milham Prior central post office. Hannah Barrow posted the letter and brought back the receipts, and Hannah Barrow is illiterate. But she knows it was only one letter she posted monthly, ‘the register letter’ she calls it.”

“Thorough, the late lamented,” observed Sir James. “I always knew she was intelligent.”

“Her intelligence didn’t prevent her from being too thorough,” said Macdonald dryly. “She ended by driving somebody too far. Now, sir, you have a pretty clear idea of the main facts. I put it to you, have you any information which can assist this investigation?”

“No, thank God, I have not,” said Sir James. “I have always carefully avoided any discussion about Sister Monica. I disliked her, and I have told you so frankly, but my wife valued her and wished to retain her services. I left it at that.”

“But you were aware that discussion of deceased might have landed you in difficulties, sir?”

Sir James rose to his feet with an air of finality. “I thought she was a canting old hypocrite, Chief Inspector. I realise that she felt herself a person of importance, that she cherished her position here, and that at one time she threw her weight about too much in the village. But I also believed that villages like this one have the ability to deal with busybodies. The process is slow, but sure. I was not prepared to cause a domestic upheaval in my own house because I disliked the woman. She didn’t seem to me to be important enough to warrant it.” He gazed out of the window for a moment, fingering his stock, obviously in two minds whether to continue or not. Then he turned and faced Macdonald and added: “There are occasions in married life when, for one reason or another, a husband puts his foot down without regard to ensuing recriminations. The same is true of a wife. Sister Monica did not constitute one of these occasions.”

--3--

“I enjoyed that, Chief.” Reeves murmured his appreciation of the foregoing interview a little unkindly, for as he spoke he was enjoying the colour and fragrance of Lady Ridding’s rose garden. From the clear yellow of Golden Dawn, through the orange copper of Luis Brinas, the flame of Madame Herriot, to the deep crimson of Etoile de Hollande, the roses flamed in a glory of rich colour, their fragrance seeming to quiver on the sun-warmed air of midsummer.

“All right, but you can’t pick her roses,” said Macdonald.

“I wasn’t going to. I’m a cockney. We know it isn’t allowed,” said Reeves, “though if I were going to pick one I’d have the dutchman . . . Etoile de Hollande. That’s a rose, that is. How much of all that did she know, Chief? She registered surprise quite snappily, but I wasn’t really convinced.”

Macdonald made no answer until they had left the Manor House garden and were in the park again. This time, the two men turned away from the steep narrow path which led down to the mill, and took a diverging path which led across the park to the woodlands.

“I don’t know,” said Macdonald reflectively, “but I think I was more interested in trying to assess how much Sir James knew. He didn’t have to register surprise: his wife had told him the essentials. I can’t judge Lady Ridding. I agree with you that something about her horrified astonishment struck me as accomplished.”

“But she is accomplished,” said Reeves. “You’ve hit on the right word. It means finished, doesn’t it, complete, polished off. Product of a finishing school. She’s got a veneer, and you can’t get past it. Isn’t that what you mean when you say you can’t judge her?”

“Something like that. But I think there’s something substantial underneath the manner, the courage, and the stability which are, to some extent, the result of being very sure of herself. If she did know the real Monica Emily, there must have been some very powerful factor which forced Lady Ridding to accept a situation which would surely have been intolerably distasteful to her. And look at her face, Reeves. Hardly a line on it. It’s the face of a woman who’s pleased to the point of complacency.”

“Umps . . . Yes. There is that. No hair tearing or nerve racking about that dame, I grant you. But there’s a type which kids itself by saying, ‘I prefer not to know.’ Turns away and doesn’t look: very careful not to look. And calls not looking good taste.”

“If ever you forget your technique in the witness box and give evidence in your natural idiom, may I be there to hear,” said Macdonald, “but emulating your method, I’d say this. She might say, ‘I’d rather not know. I’d rather not look,’ but she’d know other people wouldn’t be equally accommodating. She’s shrewd, and she’d hate her friends to say, ‘Poor Lady R. How she was hoodwinked’.”

“Yes. She’d mind what other people say. She’s found her Warden very useful to her all these years and she didn’t want to lose her.”

Macdonald chuckled. “The fivers mentioned by Sir James probably indicate Lady Ridding’s gratitude for extra-mural services, so to speak. You know, in his indirect way he told us quite a bit. And there were the points he didn’t mention.”

“Yes. I’ve got him verbatim. We might chew him over in detail,” said Reeves reflectively, as they entered the shadow of the beech woods.

Macdonald added: “I’m convinced of one thing. Monica Emily had become a miser. She didn’t spend. She hoarded.”

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