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Chapter Fourteen

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« on: September 06, 2023, 07:09:06 am »

--1--

“CAN you identify this bag, Mrs. Yeo?” asked Macdonald.

The Chief Inspector had put his attaché case on the counter of the village post-office-cum-shop, and felt rather like a commercial traveller as he raised the lid to display his wares.

Stout Mrs. Yeo stared: took off her glasses and stared afresh. “Well, I never did,” she exclaimed, “if that be’n’t Sister Monica’s old bag. Years it was Sister had that bag. I do mind her telling me her had had that bag when her first come here, and that’s a tidy time ago, as you’d know, sir.”

“Can you tell me when you last saw her carrying it?” asked Macdonald.

“Now that be’n’t so easy,” countered Mrs. Yeo. “I mind she had it last Christmas, when her come collecting for a children’s party. In Bristol, ’twas.”

“But haven’t you seen it since then?” asked Macdonald.

“Maybe I have and maybe I haven’t,” said Mrs. Yeo. “It’s like this, sir. Sister always wore that long cloak, and if so be she carried the bag under her cloak, you wouldn’t notice like.”

“But didn’t she take her purse out of the bag to pay for her shopping?” asked Macdonald.

“Why, sir, Sister didn’t do no cash shopping,” said Mrs. Yeo. “Gramarye was registered here for fats and sugar and that, but Sister never did no little bits of shopping. A weekly order, ’twas, all very businesslike, Sister and Cook would make out the order every Saturday to be delivered Monday, and bill at the end of each month paid by cheque. And if anything was forgot ’twas Sister’s rule they must do without till the next week. Very exact was Sister.”

“Didn’t she ever buy any stamps, or any sweets?” persisted Macdonald.

“She’d buy stamps ten shillings at a time,” said Mrs. Yeo, “about once a month ’twas, and always paid for by ten shilling note. Nurse Barrow would come in, with a list, neat as anything, twenty-four twopence halfpennies, forty-eight halfpennies, thirty-six pennies. Always the same. I do know Sister’s stamps by heart. And the little maids---the children---they’d send picture postcards home every other week, if so be as they’d got a home or an auntie to send to.”

“And about the sweets,” put in another voice from the back of the shop. “Sweets was ordered, too, every week, and the points pinned on the order all neat and correct. Boiled sweets mostly ’twas, and chocolate creams for saints’ days and festivals. As good as a ‘Churchman’s Calendar’ Sister’s order was, her never forgetting no holy days.”

“That’s right,” agreed Mrs. Yeo, “and the sweets went on the bill like the rest. Sister saying that sweets were part of the children’s rations. But ’twas all ordered, no chance buying so to speak. If you’d care to step inside, sir, I could show you some of Sister’s lists. A rare beautiful hand her wrote.”

“Thank you very much, Mrs. Yeo. I should like to see them if you can spare the time.”

“I can and welcome, sir,” said the stout soul heartily. “If you’ll come this way, Rosie can mind the counter a bit.”

She lifted a bead curtain and opened a door which had glass panels in it and led the way into a comfortable stuffy little sitting-room, whose window was gay with the variegated geraniums popular in the village.

“Now do you sit down, sir,” said Mrs. Yeo. “I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you, and that’s a fact. Some o’ the things they’re saying in this village do keep me awake at nights. Such nonsense I never did hear. But first I’ll show you Sister’s lists, like I said.”

She opened a drawer and pulled out some sheets, neatly clipped together, and handed them to Macdonald. “There they be, sir, and if everyone was as neat and tidy as that, Rosie and me’d be saved a lot of trouble. Rations for eighteen, as you see, all worked out in weights: twelve children, six adults—that be Sister Monica, Nurse, Cook, and the servant girls, and you’ll mark as chocolate creams is ordered on the last list, that be for Midsummer, Saint John, he be midsummer saint. And the adding up done, too, and never no mistake.”

“Miss Torrington seems to have taken a lot of trouble,” said Macdonald. “Did she always bring you this list in herself?”

“Her used to, sir. Every Saturday morning, like clockwork, but this last year, her’d changed a lot. These last months, Sister often sent Nurse over with the order. Seemed as if Sister didn’t want to come into village. Her’d be with the children in the garden and in the park, and her came to church same as ever: every soul in Gramarye came to church Sunday mornings, and they had a cold meal because Sister didn’t hold with Cook working on the Sabbath. But somehow her had taken against coming shopping in the village. There was some foolish things said, sir, and some downright unkind ones, about Sister and the collections she made for charity. Maybe ’twas time her gave that up. I know me own memory isn’t what it was, and Sister’s wasn’t neither. But there was no call for hard words.”

“Are you quite sure of that, Mrs. Yeo? Haven’t you ever spoken any hard words about Miss Torrington yourself?”

Mrs. Yeo’s round face flushed up, but she didn’t get flustered. “And if I have, sir, there’s not many folks in our village I haven’t got cross with, one way or another. Sister was bossy-like: she would do things her way, and she’d interfere in things that wasn’t rightly her business, like the Mother’s Union and the Choir outing and Sunday school treat. I know I’ve got proper mad with her at times. And we do seem to be more nervy-like than we used. I’m sick to death of this here rationing and Government orders and prices going up and all the rest. Sister was, too. Her was worried to death, poor soul, over costs going up all the time, and her that careful. Maybe I have got mad with her when she was alive, but I was taught to respect the dead, sir, meaning no offence.”

“So was I, Mrs. Yeo,” said Macdonald quietly, “but I am a policeman. The only way we can do our work is by getting at the truth: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And the idea underlying police work is to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. To respect the dead and thereby let the guilty go unpunished does not ensure justice, but the reverse.”

“That’s true enough, sir, but why you do make so sure that there’s guilt in our village, I don’t rightly see.”

“Because I believe that Miss Torrington was murdered, Mrs. Yeo, and it’s my job---and yours too---to bring a murderer to trial. Whatever a person’s just grievances may be, and no matter what threat is held over a person, murder is no way of settling the matter.”

“God ha’ mercy, need you tell me that, sir? I do know that as plain as you do. But how do you know her was murdered? Be’n’t you guessing, like Sergeant Peel did?”

“No. I’m not guessing,” said Macdonald, his quiet voice giving emphasis to his words. “Let’s put it this way. You’re used to judging weights---butter and fat and the rest. Your own experience tells you if a package is what it ought to be. I’m used to judging probabilities about sudden deaths. My own experience tells me when appearances aren’t to be trusted. I haven’t asked you to point a finger condemning anybody. But I do ask you to answer a few very simple questions.”

“I’ll answer them if I can, sir.”

“Very good. You’ve told me that that bag was Miss Torrington’s. You’ve recognised it. Did she always carry it about with her when she was out of doors?”

Mrs. Yeo wiped her eyes. Tears had been running down her face, but she spoke steadily, though her voice was husky. “Her used to do, sir. I’m telling the truth when I say her didn’t come into village much of late. But I’ve been in with her many a time helping with a sick neighbour, at nights maybe. Her always brought that old hand-bag along with her, and her nursing bag, too. But her didn’t use it Sundays. On Sundays her’d have the new bag Lady Ridding gave to her when we closed down the Red Cross room in Institute after peace day.”

“Did you ever see inside this old bag when she was using it?”

“Not so as to really see. There was papers in it, old letters and that, and her money, and some little books, notebooks and that. ’Twas all full up, bulging like.”

“Was it heavy? Did you ever pick it up?”

“I did once, and I mind I laughed at her, saying she’d been robbing bank, ’twas so heavy, and her said her’d got her keys in it. Her always carried they, seeing those young servant maids came from bad homes and ’twasn’t wise to trust they.” Mrs. Yeo broke off, and then said: “Was her robbed, sir? Did someone snatch her bag down there by the mill?”

“I think so, Mrs. Yeo. It was empty when it was found, but there’s a very strong old-fashioned safety catch on it, and I don’t think it would have come undone by itself.”

--2--

“Why didn’t you report that this bag of Miss Torrington’s was missing, Hannah?”

Macdonald was sitting in the Warden’s office at Gramarye. The bag lay on the desk in front of him, and it was the first thing Hannah Barrow set eyes on when she came into the room. She was as neat and clean as ever, if less severely starched, but her wrinkled pippin of a face seemed to have shrunk and puckered, and her eyes were frightened and sunken. She stared at the bag as though she couldn’t take her eyes from it, and her fingers knotted themselves into contortions, with her knuckles showing white and shiny.

“Missing? That there? ’Tis an old thing. Sister was a-going to give that away. Her had a new one. Sergeant took it, with Sister’s purse and note book and all. I showed it to he---a good new bag ’twas.”

“Yes. I know that Sergeant Peel has the new bag,” said Macdonald, “but Miss Torrington only used that one on Sundays. She always took this one with her whenever she went out, as you know quite well. But when the sergeant asked about her hand-bag, you told him about the new bag, but you didn’t say anything about this one.”

He spoke slowly and evenly, without any suggestion of sharpness in his voice, as patiently as a schoolmaster might talk to a dull pupil, and with the same expectant note of one who hopes for the right answer. Hannah’s mental age, he had concluded, was about twelve, but on the whole a very unintelligent twelve.

“Him didn’t ask me,” she said, pulling at her fingers till the joints cracked.

“He asked you if anything was missing,” Macdonald persisted. “You knew this bag was missing, but you didn’t say so.”

There was a long pause: then she answered as a dull child might answer: “If so be I had, sergeant’d have said I stole mun. I know he. Terr’ble sharp him be.” She broke off and then added: “Us all knew Sister kept that bag by her. I said to cook, ‘Sister’s old bag’s not nowhere’ and Cook said, ‘That be’n’t our business. Us hasn’t got t’ old bag. Likely it fell in mill-race or maybe they’ve got it. But it be’n’t our business.’ And I said, ‘that’s right, that be. If I say Sister’s old bag be’n’t here, sergeant will say, “ ’Tis that old fool Hannah stole he’.” Him went all around, opening everything with Sister’s keys, counting this, counting that, spying and staring and jumping out on we with questions till us was fair dazed like.”

Some part of Macdonald’s mind was almost fascinated by the sing-song drone of Hannah’s voice: there was a peculiar primitive rhythm to her sentences, and this, together with the liquid Devonshire vowels, gave the effect of some ancient ballad, akin to song rather than speech.

“What did she keep in this bag, Hannah?” asked Macdonald, sensing that he was more likely to get an answer by the method of assuming that Hannah knew all that there was to be known.

“Us never knew for sure, sir. If Sister sent for we, ’twasn’t like you saying, ‘Come right up to table’ or, ‘Sit down, Hannah.’ Us stood by the door and took our orders without drawing near. And if so be, ’twas something to be fetched and paid for, Sister would put the money down on that table there, always just right, and make me count it out, but fares or stamps or register letter, and she’d say, ‘Put that in your pocket, Hannah, to keep it safe.’ But she’d never open her bag and take out her purse. ‘Never put temptation in no one’s way’ Sister would say, meaning them young girls we had who knew no better,” ended Hannah sanctimoniously.

“Did Sister carry the bag about with her when she was in the house?” asked Macdonald.

“No, sir. Only when her went out. Her locked it away in the house. I can’t say for where. I never did see where she kept mun, and none other did, neither.”

“But she kept her keys in the bag, Hannah,” said Macdonald mildly, careful not to let his voice give away that he was getting more and more interested. She came right up to him, a withered elderly little body who put out a knobbly hand and touched Macdonald’s arm with the confiding gesture of a child.

“Her had two lots of keys, her must have,” said Hannah. “Her never did say so, and I never saw them together, but her must have had two lots.”

“How do you know?” asked Macdonald, and she replied simply: “Them had different key rings. One was brass, one was steel.”

The phrase ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’ flashed through Macdonald’s mind: he had had previous experience of the fact that illiterates, and even partially defective persons, could be very observant of small details which pass unnoticed by the intelligent.

“I’m glad you told me about the key rings, Hannah,” he said. “That may be very helpful. Now there’s another thing you could do for me. I want to see the medicine cupboard again.”

“You can and welcome, but I never touched he since you saw it afore.”

“I don’t expect you have, but I know now what a good memory you’ve got. You’ll be able to tell me just what you did when the children had their medicine. I expect you know all the bottles and all the doses, too.”

“Them has been the same so long I couldn’t help but know they,” she replied. “When the war come, they began to give ’em all cod liver oil, the dear lord knows why. Them did well enough without it. But mostly ’twas the same. Doctor he wasn’t one to change. Him be a wise and good man, kind him is, kindest soul I do know. Him’s the same to all, saint and sinner too. You ask in village, they’ll tell you.”

“Yes. They all say the same,” agreed Macdonald. “They like Dr. Ferens, but they miss old Dr. Brown.”

“He was homely like. Never frightened the childer,” said Hannah.

“Look, Hannah: as we’re going upstairs, you can show me just what happened when Dr. Brown came for his weekly visit. He came on Monday mornings, didn’t he?”

“Iss. Mondays at eleven to the minute. I was always ready for he, to open door and take he up to dispensary, and the childer, they was ready and waiting, too.”

“I’ll go to the front door and you can let me in and pretend I’m doctor,” said Macdonald, and she nodded, evidently quite proud to be asked to assist.

Hannah was nothing if not thorough. She had been drilled to the same actions for so many years that she performed them accurately. On opening the front door, she said: “Good morning, doctor” and waited.

Macdonald said: “Good morning, Hannah . . . My hat and gloves . . .” (He had neither.)

“And your stick,” she said firmly, setting them on a chair in dumb show. “If you’ll kindly step upstairs, Sister’s quite ready.”

She led the way up to the little room called the dispensary, knocked on the door and opened it. “Doctor, Sister.”

There were two chairs, and Hannah indicated the more important for Macdonald. “Doctor’d mention the weather and maybe his rheumatiz,” she went on. “Sister would answer very polite---her stood up by table, see---and doctor’d say, ‘Anything to report?’ and generally ’twas, ‘All doing nicely, thank you, doctor,’ and her would show him lists of the children’s weights and that, and mention if we’d any in bed. And then him’d say: ‘Well, have them in. I like to see them,’ and then I’d go to door, so, them being all ready on landing, and them’d come in, walking round table so, while Sister said their names: girls first, then boys. And us taught them all to say, ‘Good-morning, doctor. Thank you.’ And times he’d stop one and say, ‘Put out your tongue, now. Sister will give you a nice drop of summat to-night’ though ’twas always that Gregory powder he meant, and a real poisonous taste that has: and then I’d see the childer go downstairs all quiet and respectful like and Cook’d be waiting with their milk and a bite o’ summat. If so be we had any in bed, I’d show the way up and wait inside by bedroom door till Doctor and Sister had done, and then I’d bring they down in here again. And maybe doctor’d write an order if so be we wanted more medicine or plasters or such-like, and he’d give the paper to Sister and her would copy the order in her book, and doctor might say a word or two about they in the village---new babies and the old folks he called his dear old chronics, and then he’d always say: ‘Mustn’t stand gossiping. Hannah wants to get on with her work and I can’t find the way downstairs unless her shows me,’ and in winter maybe he’d say: ‘Give me an arm, Hannah, my dear. My rheumatiz is playing up to-day, and you two women’ll be the death of me with your polished floors,’ and I’d take he downstairs and give mun his hat and his gloves and his stick and say, ‘Good-mornin, doctor, and thank you.’ ’Twas always the same.”

“Thank you, Hannah,” said Macdonald. “You’ve got a very good memory. Now when Doctor Brown wrote the orders for more medicine from the chemist, didn’t he ever look in the medicine cupboard?”

Hannah’s face puckered in disappointment. “I did forget to put that bit in,” she said. “Doctor, he had many a good laugh at our medicine cupboard. ‘None o’ they new fangled notions here,’ he’d say, ‘Gregory powder and Epsom salts and Cascara, Bicarb, Chlorate o’ Potash, Ammonia-quinine, Cod-liver oil and Castor oil: good old-fashioned remedies and you can’a beat they.’ ”

She went through her list complacently, and Macdonald told Reeves later that the list sent a reminiscent shiver down his own back. He had been dosed with all those remedies in his own childhood, and the one he had resented most was the Chlorate of Potash tablets, which had tasted repellent. He got up, took the keys from his pocket and unlocked the medicine cupboard. It was a tall built-in cupboard with double doors. In the right hand section were all the ‘good old-fashioned remedies,’ together with medicine glasses, thermometers still in their glass of disinfectant, methylated spirits, enamelled basins, rolls of bandages and cotton wool, boracic powder and carbolic ointment. All the bottles were clean and polished and not a drip or stain sullied the scrubbed shelves. The other half of the cupboard was latched top and bottom; when opened, it showed one of the shelves shut in by an extra door, labelled ‘Poisons.’ Macdonald unlocked it and surveyed the contents: there were several bottles of disinfectant, camphorated oil, chlorodyne---and a bottle of aspirin. Hannah pointed at the latter.

“Sister never did hold with they,” she said. “The housemaids would make free with aspirin and such-like if so be they’d a headache or that, and Sister wouldn’t have it noways. If so be we found they’d been a-buying they when them was out, Sister’d take ’em away. Her always went through their rooms reg’lar, and the place they’d hide things in you’d never believe.” (When Macdonald repeated this to Reeves, the latter so far forgot himself as to say, “I can’t think why the woman wasn’t drowned years ago---poor brats of girls.”) “Sister always kept this cupboard locked, and her gave out all the doses herself,” added Hannah.

“When Miss Torrington had any medicine for herself, was it kept in this cupboard?” asked Macdonald.

“ ’Tis hard to say, sir. Her never had no medicine in her room, but if her kept any in here, ’twould be in that locked part, and her didn’t often open that for me to see. And her wouldn’t let me see her taking no medicine, because her was proud of never being sick.”

Macdonald set both cupboard doors open wide, together with the ‘poison cupboard.’

“When did the bottle of brandy disappear, Hannah?” he asked quietly.

She shook her head. “ ’Tis hard to say. I’d tell you and welcome. I’d tell you anything, you been that homely and quiet with it. But her didn’t often open that part o’ cupboard so’s I could have a good look, see. I know that be there. For years ’twas there, and Sister’d say, ‘ ’Tis of the evil one, Hannah, and if so be I didn’t lock it away safe, maybe ’twould be putting temptation in the way o’ poor weak souls.’ That was there, sure enough, but when sergeant opened the cupboard, that’d gone. I don’t know how long ago that went.”

She picked up her apron and began pleating it in her fingers, her face puckered up like a troubled infant’s. “Was it that . . . made Sister come over dizzy like, sir?”

“What made you think of that, Hannah?”

She went on screwing up her apron. “Her’d got queer like. Her was always hard, hard as a stone her heart was for all her loving talk, but these last months her’s changed. ’Tis true. Something about she was fair frightening. I can’t tell you for why----”

“But when did it come into your mind that she’d been drinking brandy? You say you didn’t know the brandy bottle had gone until Sergeant Peel opened the cupboard.”

“No. Not till sergeant opened it, like ’tis now. Then I saw ’twere gone.”

“Did you think Sister had taken it when you saw the bottle wasn’t there any longer?” Macdonald’s voice was as even as ever, his tone pleasantly conversational. Hannah sidled up to him and put out her knobbly hand and twitched his coat, looking up at him in a way that was oddly childlike, but something about her eyes was different: their silly complacency had given way to a distraught look, half wild, half sly. “She’s going to tell she murdered the woman,” flashed through Macdonald’s mind, but Hannah whispered:

“I smelt her breath when I went to pick her up.” The knotted fingers still twitched at Macdonald’s coat, and her words came in a rush now. “ ’Twas so long ago since I smelled that. Years and years ’twas. But I knew it. My pa, he drank. In Bristol us lived, down by the docks, and us was poor . . . poor. Hungry and cold I was. Him was like a mad thing when him was drunk. He beat my ma, beat her like a dog. I mind the smell o’s breath, all that time ago. I’d forgotten that; never give it a thought all these years, but I minded it when I picked Sister up.” Her breath was coming fast and she was nearly sobbing, struggling to get her words out, her hand still pulling at Macdonald’s sleeve. “I never thought o’ that, not all these years. I put that behind me. I’d not smelled that since he hit ma over head with poker: him killed she, poor besom . . . and me there . . .”

Her laboured voice broke off in a clucking sound, and then she began to scream, and went on screaming with a shrill dreadful iteration, while her fingers still clawed at Macdonald’s sleeve.

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