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Chapter Thirteen

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« on: September 06, 2023, 06:29:42 am »

--1--

ON the same morning that Macdonald went to see Sir James and Lady Ridding, one of the foresters on the estate went into the bailiff’s office while Sanderson was looking through his letters.

“Yes, come in, Greave,” said Sanderson, “what is it you want?”

“It’s about that hut of mine in Coombe wood, sir. You’ll mind I spoke of it before. I keep some gear there, because it’s an awkward place to get at. I can’t get a van or tractor up there, and I’ve got a stove and so forth in the hut because it’s right out of the way.”

“Yes. I remember it,” said Sanderson. “What’s the trouble?”

“I want a good chain and padlock, sir, and maybe a hasp and staple so that I can bolt ’em through from the inside. It’s been broken into again.”

“Why, it’s not so long since I had a new lock put on it for you,” said Sanderson.

“That’s right, sir. The old one was rusted rotten. But locking it be’n’t good enow’. There’s too much play on that old door, and you can lever it open.”

“Who’s been doing it?” asked Sanderson. “Have you missed anything?”

“My sharpening stone’s gone, carborundum that be, and maybe some other gear. As to who, I reckoned it was some o’ them dratted boys, after their birds’ nesting, the last time. Nothing was took, just devilment I reckoned. But this time I’m not so sure. That’s been forced open with a bar, that door has. I reckon it was that old varmint of a tramp. Hale, the keeper, warned he off the woods last month, but ’tis a lonely ride that, through Coombe wood, and one keeper be’n’t enough to keep an eye on it. In the old days ’twas a different story. Four keepers Sir James had.”

“I don’t much like the sound of this, Greave. Game-keeping isn’t my business, but your hut and gear is. I think I’ll come along and see it, and if the place has been forced open as you say, and gear stolen, the police had better be told.”

Greave looked unhappy. “Surely now, you wouldn’t make a police matter of it, sir? We’ve had our bellyful of police, begging your pardon. I’d rather pay for the stone and padlock an’ all than have that Milham Prior sergeant poking his nose where it’s not wanted. We’ve had enough of he and to spare. And what can he do like? If so be that old varmint broke into my shed and stole my stone, him won’t be sitting in a hedgerow awaiting for Sergeant Peel to search he.”

“I don’t suppose he will be, but thefts should be reported to the police,” said Sanderson. “Look here, you come along into the yard and hunt out your padlock and staple and bolts---I know we’ve got some in store---and I’ll get my car out and drive you as near as the ride will allow. Then I’ll have a look at the damage, and you can get your hasp and staple fixed. You can borrow a brace from the joiner’s shop.”

“Very good, sir. I’ll be right glad to get that fixed. I’ll make a proper job of that this time. But don’t you go bringing that Milham Prior sergeant here again. We be fair sick of he.”

--2--

Thus it was that John Sanderson, having of necessity taken a round-about route to get his car to the woodland ride which approached Coombe wood, saw the two C.I.D. men strolling along the ride ahead of him. Sanderson pulled up and called to them: “Would you like to come and exert your talents on a case of breaking and entering? Greave here says his hut’s been forced open and some of his gear stolen, right away in the woods yonder.”

“We should be most happy to assist,” replied Macdonald cheerfully. “We shall be poaching, of course, but I expect I can square Sergeant Peel.”

“Splendid. Get in behind, will you. Greave suspects a tramp. We get an occasional hobo, generally after eggs, but not very many. We’re too far away from a high road.”

Macdonald and Reeves jumped in at the back, and as Sanderson proceeded slowly over the unmetalled track, Macdonald asked: “Where does this lead to?”

“If you keep to the ride you come out at Hazeldown, just on the edge of the moor. There’s a small mining hamlet there. The mine was disused between the wars, but they opened the workings up again in 1940, and the cottages are still lived in. But we shall turn off from the main ride, and leave the car. There’ll be a bit of scrambling---rather rough ground, I’m afraid. There was some felling done a while back. The foresters shifted the valuable timber, but there’s a lot of small stuff left, and we shift it ourselves as best we can. Timber’s the devil to come by these days and we don’t leave any to rot.”

They jogged along in the car for about twenty minutes before Sanderson pulled up, saying, “The hut is up on the rise, yonder. You can see where they felled the big stuff, on the scarp beyond. It was a difficult job getting it moved, but what some of those modern lumberjacks can do with a caterpillar tractor and cable is worthy of the Royal Armoured Corps---and looks nearly as hazardous to me. That’s the hut.”

It was a commonplace little wooden shack, having no windows, but a stove pipe projected from the roof at one end. The door had evidently been levered open, and the catch of the lock wrenched away.

“I reckon that was done with a bar,” said Greave.

“A tyre lever would have done it,” said Macdonald; “it’s very much on the same principle as a jemmy.”

“That’s about it,” said Reeves. He pushed the door open and looked inside. There was a rough bench along one side, an iron stove at the far end, and some sacks stuffed with bracken lying against one wall.

“I gets the lads to take them sacks along when they’ve got a tractor near enough to be handy like,” explained Greave. “Bracken, that makes good bedding for my ducks when straw’s hard to come by.”

“That’d make good bedding for a tramp, too,” said Sanderson, “and I’ll bet that’s what it’s been used for. You can see that somebody’s been lying on the sacks from the way they’re flattened.”

“Aye, that’s true enow,” agreed Greave, “the old varmint’s been using my hut to doss down in, drat he, and made free with the sticks and logs I left for the stove, too.”

“Oh, well, I’m afraid I haven’t provided you with much of a problem, Chief Inspector,” said Sanderson. “I think Greave is right---the sacks give it away.” He kicked one of the sacks aside, saying, “You’d better get those shifted. Free bedding and firing is too much of a bait----”

“What’s that there, sir? Him have left us a token, seemingly.”

He was just bending down to pick something up when Macdonald said:

“Don’t touch it. That never belonged to an old hobo. It must be stolen property.”

“Jiminy!” exclaimed Greave. “That be---”: he broke off and stood staring. Reeves turned the beam of an electric torch on to the floor, where a black object lay jammed between the lower sack and the match boarding. The object was a black leather hand-bag, a bulging, old-fashioned object, the sort of hand-bag which was once described as a reticule by old-fashioned gentlewomen.

Macdonald pulled the sack away, and the bag slipped on to the ground and lay flat: both its straps were broken and its clasp unloosed.

“You know who that belongs to, don’t you, Greave?” said Macdonald.

“It’s the dead spit o’ the one Sister carried,” said Greave. “Her’s had it for years. Put it down on our kitchen table many a time when her came collecting. Deary, deary me, I never thought o’ nought like this.”

“When did you come here last, Greave?” asked Sanderson, and the old man rubbed his head. He had taken his cap off, and stood looking down at the black bag as though it were mortal remains.

“That’d be a fortnight ago,” he said slowly. “I came here to lop some ash branches, small stuff ’twas, but good enow’ for posts for fencing. I marked mun, aye and sawed same into lengths to make a-shifting of ’em handy like. Then this morning, I got Joe Grant to bring his lorry as near as might be---seven o’clock we started---and we got the branches into the lorry and took ’em to saw mill to get ’em sawn up, ready for Mr. Moore. And ’twas this morning I saw the door of the hut had been interfered with. Joe saw it, too. And after my breakfast I went along to Mr. Sanderson’s office to tell him I wanted a padlock and hasp and staple and that, to bolt from inside and make a job of it.”

“Was the door and lock in order a fortnight ago?” asked Macdonald.

“That was, sir.” Greave turned to answer the C.I.D. man, and at the same time pulled a key out of his pocket. “I was working here all morning, Joe gave me a lift in his lorry as far as he could, and I lit the stove to make me tea. I know ’twas all in order then, and I locked mun up meself when I left. I’d sharpened my saw to cut through a trunk---too heavy ’twas to handle---and I left my files on the bench there. I missed they at once, and my old iron pan I boil water in, that’s gone too.”

“Thanks very much. You’ve told me just what I wanted to know, and told it clearly, too,” said Macdonald. “Well, I think this is our job now, Mr. Sanderson. If you’ll take Inspector Reeves back with you, he can bring my car out here.”

“Very good,” said Sanderson. “I understand I’m to leave things to you, and not report elsewhere?”

“That’s it,” said Macdonald. “It would be better if neither you nor Greave said anything about it. Otherwise there’ll be no end of stories going round.”

“I shan’t name it, sir, not even to Mother. Get a woman on a tale like this and her’ll never leave off,” said Greave.

--3--

It was the best part of an hour before Reeves came back in the car, complete with his own “gear,” some Cornish pasties, two bottles of beer and a bunch of very young carrots, which he chewed with the enthusiasm of a donkey.

“I’ll go hungry when there’s any object in going hungry,” he observed, “but I work better when I’m fed.”

“In common with other domestic animals,” agreed Macdonald. “All right. Let’s sit on the far side of the shed so that we’re not an exhibit if any happen to pass this way.”

“ ‘Happen’ is good,” said Reeves. “Thick and fast they came at last, meaning explanations. ‘Her was dizzy’ doesn’t seem to meet the requirements after last night’s little experiment. So a tramp is provided. Not a bad effort.”

“Provided by whom?” asked Macdonald. “I agree with you that somebody’s been being helpful, though we can’t be certain until we’ve identified the finger-prints on that bag---if there are any to identify.”

“If there aren’t, that’s proof the job’s phoney,” said Reeves. “Tramps don’t wear gloves.” He chewed away at his Cornish pasty and then said: “Rather neat the way Sanderson collected us and brought us along. Did it occur to you that he was being helpful?”

“I wondered a bit, but the plain fact is that Sanderson had no means of knowing that you and I were going to stroll through the woods arguing over evidence to date. We couldn’t know ourselves. It was just chance. And I’d say Greave is honest. The way he told his story was absolutely straightforward.”

“Yes. If he’d been on in this act, he’d have seen to it that Joe Grant found that bag, and they could have brought it along to Sanderson with everybody’s paw marks all over it. But it was Sanderson who saw to it that the bag was found under our very noses: and it was Sanderson who was helpful last night.”

“Maybe, but it was Ferens who suggested the experiment on the bridge. As I told you, when I went and saw him this morning, Ferens was quite straight over it. It was his idea, and he persuaded Sanderson to co-operate---not that any persuasion was needed.”

Reeves dealt with a bottle of beer to his satisfaction and then said: “You know, it’s a pretty ingenious spanner somebody’s thrown in the works. We shall find that the story of a tramp being warned off by the gamekeeper was true, and it’s such a nice straightforward story. Devout dame, a bit weak in the upper storey, goes wandering in the moonlight at midsummer with a nice fat bag under her arm. Tramp sees her, bats her one with his cudgel, steals bag and rolls dame in river. Tramp retires to hide-out in the woods, empties bag, keeps coin of the realm and burns any papers in the stove.”

“But why didn’t said tramp burn the bag, too, or at any rate bury it or hide it in the woods?” asked Macdonald. “Since he knew he’d just committed a murder, would he have left the bag to be found? Of course he wouldn’t.”

“I’m not so sure, chief. How often have bags been found after being emptied of their contents? You know the answer to that one. And you can’t burn a bag completely: the metal frame’s almost indestructible.”

“But you could bury it, or shove it down a rabbit burrow, or wedge it under a rock in the river,” objected Macdonald. “To burn the papers and leave the bag argues a very silly tramp. However, if you’ve finished chewing carrots, come and do your stuff on the bag.”

--4--

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Macdonald.

He sat and looked at the bag thoughtfully. When it had been new, initials had been stamped on it in gold---M.E.T. There was very little of the gold left, but the die stamp was still clear enough. There were no finger-prints on the worn surface of the leather, and the absence of them was explained by the fact that the bag had been immersed in water. It was dry now, but the temperature of the wooden shack at midsummer was high enough to explain why it had dried. The lining was a bit damp, and its worn silk showed the stain from its immersion. The torn straps interested Macdonald: they had been good strong straps, and it must have taken a severe pull to tear them away from the bag.

“Might be called over-acting,” he said. “I think the straps were torn away deliberately to give the right impression.”

“Could be,” said Reeves, and Macdonald went on: “I keep on going back to our first assumption; she was knocked senseless somewhere close by the river, because her body was too heavy to be carried far. What we’re supposed to argue from this bag is that the straps broke when the bag was tugged away from her. That implies she was holding on to it very tight. If she’d kept her grip on the bag like that when a tramp was trying to get it from her, doesn’t it stand to reason that she’d have screamed? And if she’d screamed, the dogs would have heard her and barked. They didn’t bark. If they had, half the village would have heard them. Whatever is the explanation of this bag, I’m pretty certain the woman was knocked out without knowing anything about it, silently.”

“And if she’d been knocked out, she wasn’t gripping the bag, because her grip would have gone as she lost her senses,” agreed Reeves, “therefore the straps wouldn’t have broken. I see that point all right. But we don’t know exactly what happened: it’s possible that the bag fell in the water with her body, and was washed downstream and found by somebody not connected with the original assault. The tramp, for instance. We’ve still got that tramp in the offing.” He paused, staring down at the worn black reticule. “You said something to the effect that this village had developed a sort of mystical technique, chief. I’d call it a technique for mystification. At first it was the saintly stuff. Then that wore thin---you knocked the stuffing out of the Venners with plain commonsense. Then it was ‘her went dizzy, poor soul,’ and Ferens knocked that sideways by showing she couldn’t have collapsed on the bridge and knocked her head on the hand-rail without making more row than was indicated. Now somebody’s trying again. ‘ ’Tis a tramp surely, knocked Sister down and stole her bag. Iss, ’tis a tramp.’ Can’t I hear ’em at it.”

“You’re assuming that the village knows what really happened?”

“Yes. And they’re going to prevent us finding out. I don’t suggest the murder was a co-operative effort: co-operation in murder doesn’t happen in our experience. It’s my belief that the village knew the woman was a menace and feels justice has been done, but whether that’s so or not they’re going to protect whoever it was who did the job---one of themselves, that is.”

“Query, does Ferens know what happened?” mused Macdonald.

“Might do. What do you think yourself?”

“I should say he didn’t know, not as evidence goes. He’s got that sort of professional probity which bars telling plain lies. It isn’t entirely a moral quality. It’s an awareness of the loss of prestige---professional dignity---if found out. That type would hate to be bowled out telling a lie: they prefer to stick to the truth. But Ferens has done some guessing, as you and I are doing some guessing, and it’s my belief he staged that demonstration last night as a warning to somebody, or as a warning to the whole village. It was like saying, ‘You can’t get away with that one.’ That’s my belief, anyway, but he’s not likely to admit it.”

“What’s the betting that this racket with the bag was worked last night---after Ferens’ demonstration?”

“I think that’s quite possible. If so, it involves the fact that somebody had this bag in their possession.”

Macdonald broke off, and was silent for a moment or two. Then he went on: “We’ve got to square the discovery of the bag with the assumptions we’ve made on the earlier evidence. Peel argued that an attaché case, or a box containing documents, had been stolen from the office at Gramarye because he couldn’t find any personal papers. It seems possible to me that deceased carried her personal papers about with her in this bag. It’s large enough to contain quite a lot of stuff.”

“That’s reasonable enough,” agreed Reeves. “Women do carry the most incredible lot of stuff around with them in their bags. I can quite see this Torrington dame being suspicious of everybody at Gramarye, and making a habit of taking this bag around with her whenever she went out of the house. She was evidently a methodical cuss, and a very careful one. She’d never have mislaid the bag, or left it about.”

“Well, if we accept that, it seems probable to me that whoever laid her out would have taken the contents of her bag. We’re arguing she was a blackmailer. If she carried that bag about with her habitually, it might well be argued that she’d got something valuable in it.”

“O.K. The argument following that seems to be that the murderer pocketed the contents of the bag and then tore the straps off it to indicate that it had been snatched, and threw it in the stream---the safest thing to do with it. It might then have been washed down stream and found by somebody else. The latter party put it somewhere to dry, so that it was ready to plant in an emergency, so to speak. And planted it was.”

“It’s a possible reconstruction,” said Macdonald, “but there could be plenty of variations on it. It was a neat enough idea putting it here, and I’m disposed to believe it could have been done last night, ‘after the demonstration’ as you say. Anybody could have known that Greave was coming out here with Joe Grant to pick up the timber for the posts.”

“And some could have known better than others,” meditated Reeves.

“Well, when you’ve finished your job here, we’ll screw the door up. There don’t seem to be any more souvenirs about,” said Macdonald. “I’ll put the bag in my attaché case, and try to find out when deceased was last seen carrying it in the village. After that I’ll send it up to C.O. and see if the backroom boys can help. They ought to be able to tell us if it was ever in the stream at all, or merely held under a tap.”

“Oh, they’ll tell you a lot---age, place of origin, habits of owner, and force required to sever straps to three places of decimals,” said Reeves, “but the village won’t tell you anything. They’ll run true to form with ‘I can’t rightly say. Maybe that is and maybe that isn’t’.” He paused, as he put his insufflator and camera away. “I’m a bit surprised that Peel didn’t get on to the fact that the bag was missing. He was very good at the routine stuff.”

“We can’t blame Peel any more than ourselves,” said Macdonald. “A leather hand-bag was found in deceased’s bedroom: it contained a purse, note case, handkerchief, and all the items you might have expected, including smelling salts and sal volatile.”

“That was her Sunday-go-to-meeting bag,” said Reeves promptly. “The smelling salts was to ginger up any toddler who tried to be sick in church. The Sunday bag was probably a gift from titled employers. You ask if it wasn’t, chief.”

“I will. You’re probably right over that one.”

“They do crop up, don’t they?” said Reeves reflectively.

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