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Chapter Fifteen

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« on: September 06, 2023, 07:47:36 am »


HANNAH’S screams were dying away as Cook came pounding upstairs, her heavy tread slamming on the linoleum, shaking the staircase.

“Sakes alive, what be that?” she burst out as she flung the door open. “ ’Twas like a soul in torment. God ha’ mercy, what be you done to her?”

Macdonald had got Hannah on to the chair and she sat crumpled up in it, her puckered face clay coloured now. Her eyes were shut, though tears still trickled down her cheeks, and her mouth was open. Macdonald found the pulse in the skinny wrist and realised that Hannah hadn’t even fainted. She had screamed her nerve storm out and exhaustion had claimed her. Her head fell sideways grotesquely, and she sobbed jerkily, in the exhausted state that can come suddenly to children and the subnormal after a crisis of excitement.

“I haven’t done anything to her. She started talking about her own mother’s death and worked herself into a state of hysteria over it,” said Macdonald. “I’d better carry her upstairs to her room and get the doctor to come and see to her.”

“Sakes, her do look in a bad way,” said Cook. “Had us better get her summat---brandy or somesuch?”

“Have you got any brandy?” asked Macdonald.

She flashed him a glance. “In this house? O’ course not. But I could run across to Mr. Barracombe. Sister wouldn’t have no liquor in this house.”

Macdonald picked up the skinny little form. “Go on upstairs and open her bedroom door for me. It’s not brandy she wants. It’s something to get her quiet.”

Cook thudded out of the room and on up the stairs, panting and muttering, and Macdonald followed and laid Hannah on a narrow bed in a room almost as bare as a prison cell.

“Cover her up with some blankets and then get a hot water bottle,” he said, “but don’t give her anything. I’ll go and ring up the doctor.”

“Her do look mortal bad,” groaned Cook.

Macdonald ran downstairs to the office again and called Ferens’ number on the telephone. “Is that Dr. Ferens? Macdonald here. Will you come over to Gramarye, at once, please.”

“Gramarye? You want Dr. Brown.”

“I don’t. I want you. At once, please.”

Ferens expostulated. “My God . . . what for . . .” as he hung up the receiver. But he was at the front door within two minutes, case in hand.

“It’s Hannah Barrow,” said Macdonald. “She got talking and worked herself up into a screaming fit and she’s flat out. I carried her up to her bedroom. D’you know your way?”

“No. I’ve never been inside this house before. She’s not my patient, you know.”

“So you’ve told me. I called you because I judged you’d be better primed to cope with the occasion,” said Macdonald, as he led the way upstairs. “Having studied the contents of the medicine cupboard here, I thought another opinion was indicated.”

Ferens stopped dead. “You don’t mean . . .”

“No, I don’t,” retorted Macdonald. “She screamed herself to exhaustion, that’s all. Give her a bromide, or whatever suits the occasion and let the poor little cuss go to sleep. I’ll tell you about it when you’re through.”

Hannah Barrow was now covered up in grey blankets, (good ‘government surplus’), her cap was over one ear and her hands clawed feebly at the blankets as she sobbed and hiccoughed. Cook was standing beside the bed.

“I’d be glad if you’d take my notice. Me nerves won’t stand any more of this,” she said as she saw Macdonald.

“Have you filled those hot water bottles?” he snapped, as Ferens came into the room.

Cook gaped at him. “ ’Tis Dr. Brown should come to see to her,” she proclaimed. “Her’s registered with Dr. Brown.”

“I’m doing locum for Dr. Brown this time,” said Ferens cheerfully. “You go and do what the Chief Inspector tells you and fill some hot water bottles. He’s got more sense than you have.”

Cook sniffed noisily and followed Macdonald to the door.

“Us haven’t got no hot water bottles. Sister didn’t hold with they. A warm brick, now----”

“Then go across to Mrs. Ferens and borrow two hot water bottles,” retorted the doctor, “and hurry up about it.”


“Well, that’s Hannah Barrow’s life story,” said Macdonald.

He and Raymond Ferens were sitting in the office at Gramarye. The casement windows were open wide now, and the warmth and sensuous fragrance of midsummer floated in, merging with blue cigarette smoke to make the cold bare little room seem alive and lived in.

“Poor little wretch,” said Ferens softly.

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. I shan’t forget that story in a hurry. I wonder if it’s possible that the memory of her mother’s death was blotted out by the hideous shock of witnessing it. I believe it does happen in some cases. The memory is suppressed, clamped down, as though a scar grows over damaged tissue and hides it.”

“Of course it happens,” said Ferens. “It’s that sort of memory, shut down in the subconscious, that can wreak havoc in people’s lives. But I thought you weren’t interested in psychology?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested. I said I refused to be obsessed by it. I still do,” said Macdonald, “but I did believe that when Hannah was telling me about it, her mind went back to that horror which some circumstance had routed out, and she was no longer Nurse Barrow of Gramarye, but a Bristol slum child. It was that word she used---in pity and horror. ‘Poor besom.’ It’s an old word and an ugly one. It’s certainly not a word the respectable Hannah Barrow would have used.”

Ferens nodded. “You’re probably right. It was the telling of it which broke her up. That uncontrolled weeping was quite characteristic of the whole case.” He broke off and looked out of the window, and the silence which followed in the room was broken by a thrush, singing its heart out on the top of a beech tree.

“I suppose you realise you’ve got a complete explanation of the Warden’s death?” asked Ferens abruptly.

Macdonald nodded. “Yes. The psychologist’s explanation. That’s what I meant when I said I refused to be obsessed by it. But if you would like to put forward your own idea of what may have happened, I shall give full consideration to it.”

“It’s the story of the missing brandy bottle which clinches it, to my mind,” said Ferens slowly. “Let us trace the case history. A slum child in a dockland district, undernourished, ill-treated: the father drank, and eventually killed the mother with a poker. The child was taken to an orphanage. They probably looked after her, according to the lights of fifty years ago, and they would certainly not have let her talk that memory out of her system. It was, as you say, clamped down. I gather from what you say that the job she was put to was in what would pass for a respectable household. The mistress of it beat the girl and ill-treated her and half starved her, but I gather there was no mention of alcoholism. Orphanages may make mistakes in the characters of employers, but they’re careful not to send into houses where drunkenness occurs.”

“Perfectly true,” said Macdonald. “The mistress of the house was a teetotaller.”

“Very well. Hannah tripped up her tormentor on the stairs and the woman broke her neck. Result, a prison sentence. Then a period in an institution. Rehabilitation, as we say nowadays. Then Gramarye, and over twenty years of drudgery, and up-lift which brought contentment of a sort. Hannah was now respected. She was Nurse Barrow. Life went according to pattern. She was taught to do the same thing in the same way, day after day, year after year. She was educable to that point---she could do just those things the Warden had trained her to do, and I think she was probably happy doing them. Do you agree to all that?”

“Yes. To all of it,” said Macdonald.

“Very well. Note that since the day the child had seen her drunken father kill her mother, she had never experienced drunken violence again---until she saw Sister Monica drunk. Saw it, smelled the cause of it---and it turned her brain. She remembered the last time. After that she wasn’t responsible for her own actions any more. Her father hit her mother. Hannah repaid that hit.”

Ferens broke off and lighted a cigarette. Then he went on: “As you know, I’m not a psychiatrist. It’s quite probable that, despite your scepticism, you know more about the subject than I do. You get trained psychiatrists on to all crimes of violence. I know you won’t be biased by anything I say, but I’d suggest you get a psychiatrist on to this job.”

“That’s inevitable,” said Macdonald, “and I’ll lay a bet the first thing Hannah will tell them is just how she killed Sister Monica. I thought she was going to tell me just before she began screaming, but she told me how her father killed her mother instead. So the confession is deferred until another occasion. How is she, by the way?”

“She’s all right. Fast asleep. She’ll sleep the clock round. I saw to that. She’s as tough as they make them, physically.”

“I noticed that her pulse went on ticking over quite strongly even after her crise de nerfs,” said Macdonald. “She won’t die of her brain storm.”

Ferens sat very still. Then he said: “Do you think she did it?”

Macdonald replied: “Do I think that Hannah Barrow killed Monica Emily Torrington? I’ve been very careful not to ask you that question, Dr. Ferens. I asked you to state what you thought the possibilities were in the light of your own experience of psychological processes. You replied, very reasonably, with a statement which covered the case history. I agreed as to all that. You then made two assumptions which are, to my mind, unproven. It’s my job to examine them. Until I’ve examined them, I am not going to answer your question, or put the same question to you.”

Ferens still sat in his place, and the thrush still sang from the beech tree. Then Ferens said: “Two assumptions?”

“Yes. Two,” replied Macdonald, and Ferens got up.

“I’ll go and think it over. Do you want any help here? My wife would come and sleep here, or spend the night here---if you like.”

“Thanks. That’s a very kind offer. I’ll let you know if we want assistance, but you think your patient will sleep through the night?”

“Lord, yes. She won’t stir. Incidentally, you realise she’ll probably have forgotten the whole incident when she wakes up. It happens, you know.”

“Yes. I realise that,” replied Macdonald.


After Ferens had gone, Macdonald went up to Hannah Barrow’s bedroom. The latter was fast asleep, her wrinkled face framed now by two stiff little plaits of grey hair, her knobbly hands lying still and decorous on the grey blanket. Emma Higson was sitting beside her, snivelling miserably into a large handkerchief.

Macdonald stood at the door and spoke very quietly. “Come downstairs now, Mrs. Higson. Hannah will be all right. She’s sleeping quite peacefully.”

The stout body got up and tip-toed painfully across the room. “Is her going to die?”

“No. She’ll be perfectly all right in the morning. It was only that she got excited and upset. It’s been a big strain for both of you, I know that. Come downstairs. I want to ask you one or two things.”

He led the way to the office, but Emma Higson drew back. “Not in there. I couldn’t abide that. Gives me the ’orrors.”

“Very well. We’ll sit in the kitchen. Make yourself a cup of tea, and give me one, too.”

Emma looked at him in surprise, but her face brightened up. “So I will. Never knew a man that wasn’t ready for a cup o’ tea when things was troublesome. Are you sure her’ll be all right up there?”

“Yes. I’ll lock the front door and close those windows. You go and put your kettle on.”

A few minutes later, Macdonald was sitting at the well-scrubbed kitchen table with a tea pot between himself and the cook. After she had had her cup of tea, he said: “Cook, I’m not going to ask you anything that need worry you. It’s nothing about Hannah. I want you to tell me exactly what happened when Miss Torrington slipped on the stairs.”

“Her come over dizzy, poor soul,” began Cook, inevitably.

“What time was it, and what day of the week?”

“Sunday, ’twas. The Sunday before her was took. Just after dinner, two o’clock, maybe. I’d just a-done scouring my pans.”

“Then you were in here, in the kitchen?”

“In the scullery, there. Dot and Alice was just a-tidying of themselves after washing up. Sakes, the noise it made! I thought the roof had a-fallen in.” Cook was getting into her stride now. “I ran out into hall. Right down her’d fallen, and her was sitting on bottom stair, and Hannah was there with her.”

“Did Miss Torrington look ill?”

“Her looked queer like, not herself, and I don’t wonder at it. Her had fallen down the whole flight and them stairs is perishing steep. Doctor, him said time and again those stairs’d be the death of him. Didn’t hold with all that polish.”

“Was Miss Torrington very white in the face after her fall?”

“No, that she wasn’t. Her face was red like. I know it came into me mind she’d had a seizure, but ’twasn’t that. Her got up all right and her said: ‘I’m not hurt, Cook, so do you go back to your work,’ and her leant a bit on Hannah’s shoulder and went into the office, and at tea-time her was all right again.”

“That was the second time she fell, wasn’t it? What about the first time?” asked Macdonald.

“That’d’ve been the Friday, two days before. ’Twas after breakfast: the children had been upstairs and Sister had given they their cod-liver oil and then they all went out into garden. Dot and Alice was a-sweeping of the dining-room and Hannah was doing the dispensary. Sister had been to wash her hands in the bathroom, and her fell down in the passage upstairs. Her said that time that ’twas summat on the floor---maybe the children had been throwing the soap about. I said: ‘Better have doctor, Sister. That’s a shock that is, and we’re none of us so young as us once was,’ but her wouldn’t hear of it. Her sent Hannah for the ammonia stuff Sister keeps in her bag, Sal . . . whatever that be.”

“Sal Volatile?”

“That be it. Very powerful that be. Sister gave that to me once when I caught my finger in mangle and come over queer, and it didn’t half make I cough, but ’tis good, indeed. And Hannah did count it out in drops like Sister did say and that pulled her together. Though her did go and lie on her bed awhiles, and that’s the first time I ever did know Sister to lie down. Her hadn’t no patience with ’uman frailties.”

“Dr. Brown tells me that Miss Torrington has always had very good health, but he thought she had been failing of recent months. Did you notice any sign of illness in her apart from the two times she fell down? Was she ever uncertain in her movements, or confused in mind, or in her speech?”

“That her wasn’t,” declared Cook. “Between you and me, sir, Sister was a tartar in a manner of speech. Very noticing, her was, and as for speech, her were as clear as yourself, and a sight sharper with it if so be anything wasn’t just so. And when her moved, her was neat as a cat, and as quiet. Very upright Sister was. Real old-fashioned, with a back like a ramrod.” She paused a moment, cogitating deeply. “Her was never one to ask for sympathy, and if so be her wasn’t feeling so good, her’d never say so. Maybe her had a bit of stomach trouble, because her cared less and less for her food. Her’d never been a big eater, but lately her did only peck at her food. Hannah marked that. ‘Sister’s not eating,’ Hannah’d say, her being in dining-room for meals. Us had ours in kitchen, me and Dot, Bessie and Alice.”

“Several people have told me that Miss Torrington seemed to have changed quite a lot this past year or so,” said Macdonald and Cook nodded.

“Yes. Her changed. Sharper her was. I reckon her brooded like. I said all along her brooded over that Nancy Bilton. ‘I ought to’ve saved her from herself,’ Sister said. She took that hard. ’Twas a failure, if you sees what I means, and Sister took failure hard. And then some said in village as ’twas Sister’s fault the girl went and drownded herself, and Sister’s always been so well thought of in village. So maybe it was only to be expected she’d brood. But as for falling downstairs and getting dizzy like, that was her eyes, sir. Her wouldn’t wear glasses save for reading and that, and often not then. You see, her fell after her’d been reading, and that without glasses.”

“But you said it was just after meals that she fell down.”

“And so ’twas. Sister did always read a chapter to the children after meals. She said ’twas good for them to sit quiet a bit. You could have heard a pin drop when Sister read a chapter to they. Her was a wonderful woman right enow.”


Cook had filled the tea pot again from the kettle which sang peacefully on the old-fashioned range, and she poured out another cup for Macdonald and another for herself. The stout body had got over her upset, and was almost enjoying her prolonged gossip. Macdonald went on with his questions quite placidly, almost as though he also were enjoying a quiet talk.

“When the chemist sent medicine up here, were the bottles packed up in a parcel?” he asked.

“Of course they were. Sister was very particular over they. The parcels was sent up to dispensary, as her called it, and Sister unpacked they and put ’em away. Always kept the key o’ the cupboard herself, Sister did.”

“And what happened to the empty bottles?”

“Sent back to chemist, corks and all, after I’d washed they out particular.”

“Have any bottles gone back within the last week or so?”

“No. Not for a long time. There’s been no illness to speak of, and the children don’t have to take their cod-liver oil summer time.”

“Dr. Brown said he ordered some medicine for Miss Torrington recently. It’s not in the medicine cupboard and you say no empty bottles have gone back.”

“No. They haven’t. Chemist’ll tell you so. But if ’twas for Sister herself, that’s different. She never liked no one to know nothing about she. I do mind doctor gave her cough mixture last winter. Hannah heard doctor say he’d send that up. But I never saw no bottles with Sister’s name on. Her washed the labels off and swilled they bottles out herself. Queer her was that way. Very secret.”

“When the bottles are ready to go back, where are they put?”

“In that box by back door. Always the same place. The chemist’s boy, him knew. But there’s none there now.”

Macdonald dropped the subject, finished his tea, and then said equally placidly: “I was asking Hannah about that old black bag Miss Torrington used to carry about with her.”

Cook looked round at him quickly. “Sister’s old bag? Have you found mun? I know I reckon Sister never went outside o’ this house without mun. ’Twas like part o’ she.”

“Why didn’t you say at once that it was missing, especially as you knew Miss Torrington always carried it?”

“No one never axed and ’twasn’t my place,” she retorted sharply. Then she went on more slowly, as though she regretted her tartness. “ ’Twas like this here, sir. Sergeant Peel, he’d been on at us over Nancy Bilton when her died. Now I couldn’t a-stand Nancy Bilton, her was a nasty pert baggage, and bad with it. Not that I never wished she any harm. But sergeant, he picked up every word us said and tried to twist it around. And I learnt one thing from he that time---never to say nothing beyond what’s axed. And as for Sister’s old bag, it do stand to reason that if her fell in mill stream, her bag’d fall in too, and if they wanted to find aught, them could drag for it. I said that to Hannah, when her came to me all in a flap. Don’t you go out of your way a-telling sergeant things, I said. Him’ll say us stole mun, iss, feggs, us that’s been trusted here since him was nought but a gaping lad.”

She began to put the tea things together, and then stood, arms akimbo, for a further effort of oratory.

“Don’t you drive she too far, sir, our Hannah. Her’s like a child some ways, for all her’ll work till her do drop. There’s no more wickedness in Hannah than there is in a little babby. But her do take things to heart; and if her’s the next to be fished out of mill stream, that’ll be plain wickedness, that will.”

“I think we can make sure that doesn’t happen,” said Macdonald.

“I wouldn’t be so sure. Why can’t you be a-done, sir? Sister, her came over dizzy and her brooded like. That’s good enough for I. All this here’s not going to bring Sister back.”

Macdonald would dearly have liked to ask, “Do you wish Sister would come back?” Perhaps some reflection of his impious thought reached Emma Higson’s mind, for as she lifted the tea pot she said: “Not that it’s for the likes of we to question the ways of Providence. And when you’ve done your lookings around in this house, sir, I’d take it kindly if you’d say so, and let me lock up proper like. Us don’t want no more carryings on to-night.”

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