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Chapter Sixteen

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« on: September 06, 2023, 08:08:08 am »


--1--

WHEN Macdonald left Emma Higson in the kitchen, he went back to the office, where Reeves was industriously writing a report. Reeves had been admitted to the house by Macdonald when the latter sent Cook into the kitchen to put the kettle on, Macdonald having undertaken to lock the front door and close the windows.

Macdonald said: “I’m leaving the house to you. I’ll be back later---garden door around eleven o’clock. Hannah’s safe in bed.”

“I’ll be there,” murmured Reeves.

At that moment the telephone rang: before he answered it, Macdonald opened the door and called: “All right, Mrs. Higson. I’ll answer it.” He shut the door and lifted the receiver. It was Dr. Brown.

“What’s this about Hannah Barrow being ill? If she is ill, why wasn’t I called?”

“I called Dr. Ferens because he was nearer, sir. She seemed in a bad way, but it’s nothing to worry about. I was just coming down to see you.”

“And who’s looking after Hannah? I tell you I don’t like it. The devil’s let loose in this place.”

“Mrs. Higson is here, sir. She’s quite reliable.”

“Reliable? How do you know who’s reliable?” snapped the old man. “Everybody seems to be taking leave of their senses. Did you say you were coming down here?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll be with you within five minutes.”

The old man was still muttering to himself as Macdonald replaced the receiver.

Leaving the door of the office wide open, after a nod to Reeves, Macdonald went towards the kitchen, whence emerged a good savoury smell and splutter of frying bacon and eggs.

“Mrs. Higson,” he called, and getting no reply he went into the kitchen and found Emma busy with her frying pan. “I’m just going, Mrs. Higson,” he called across to her. “Would you like to come round the house with me and satisfy yourself there’s nothing to worry about, or will you be quite happy in your mind if I go round myself?”

“Thanking you, sir, if you’ll go around that’s good enough for I. I’ll have me bit of supper and then go upstairs to be near Hannah. And I tell you straight I’m not letting nobody in here after I’ve bolted door when you go out.”

“Quite right. And you can bolt all the other doors, too. I’ll give you a call when I’ve been round.”

Conscientiously, Macdonald went through every room in the house. Reeves was there somewhere, but Macdonald didn’t catch sight of him. Nobody was better at a cat and mouse act than Reeves. Hannah was snoring peacefully, still lying sedately on her back, but her wrinkled face was a normal colour and her scrubby hands were as red as nature meant them to be, relaxed on the grey blankets which Emma Higson had tucked in so neatly.

Macdonald went downstairs to the office, collected his attaché case and the sheets of Reeves’s report, and then went to call Emma Higson, who saw him to the front door.

“It’s been a fine old upset and all,” she said, “but if so be us has got to have policemen all over house, us’d as soon have you as anybody, meaning no offence.”

“Very kindly said,” replied Macdonald. “You get up to bed and have a good sleep. Good-night to you.”

He heard the bolts shoot into their old sockets with a purposeful rattle as he turned away into the fragrant witchery of the summer evening. Milham on the Moor looked lovely enough to catch at the heart, the evening sun glowing on rose and ochre of cob walls, on golden thatch and enchantment of carven stone, all embellished with roses and honeysuckle, scented, colourful and serene.

--2--

“Why couldn’t you let Hannah alone?” demanded old Brown indignantly. “She’s a borderline case, I know that, got the mind of a child, but she’s a good old soul. D’you think you could put her in a witness box? Not if I know it. She hasn’t got her full complement of wits, and I won’t have her bullied.”

“No one’s going to bully her, sir. Certainly not myself,” replied Macdonald patiently. “I realise as well as you do that her intelligence is limited. She couldn’t be taught to read and write, but she could be taught to do routine tasks, and to do them well. Because her world is very limited, she remembers accurately all the small things she has been taught to do by rote. And she notices any deviation from the normal. I’m quite convinced she was telling the truth when she said she smelt alcohol in Miss Torrington’s breath.”

“I’ve no doubt she did,” growled the old man. “And how much farther does that get you? You’ve got your analyst’s report, and you’ve got the evidence I gave you about the bottle of brandy. You say it’s gone. Well, where do you think it went to? Do you think Hannah Barrow drank it?”

“No. I don’t,” replied Macdonald.

“Then what more evidence do you want? If you put the facts you’ve got before a jury, do you suppose they wouldn’t be satisfied?”

“It’s not my job to satisfy a jury. It’s my job to get all the available facts, not for a jury in the first case, but for my superior officers and for the Director of Public Prosecutions. And there are a number of facts for which I have not yet found explanations.”

“D’you think Hannah Barrow can supply the explanations?”

“Not the explanations, no, though she has produced some interesting facts. I’m hoping that you can help me with some of the explanations.”

“I’ve been doing my best,” rejoined Dr. Brown. “What’s your trouble now?”

“You told me that you prescribed for Miss Torrington recently---a sedative and an indigestion mixture.”

“Quite right. I also told you that she probably poured the stuff down the sink.”

“She didn’t do that. Bismuth was found by the analyst----”

“I know that. Good God, are you going to tell me now the woman was poisoned?” snapped out old Brown.

“No, sir. She was drowned, after being rendered unconscious, or at any rate incapacitated, by a blow on the base of her skull. But since she had the medicine you prescribed, I can’t understand why we haven’t found the bottles, or any remains of the medicine. You may consider that fact so trivial as to be irrelevant. I do not. It’s just an odd fact which ought to be explained.”

“Well, I suppose you know your job,” sighed the old man. “Admittedly I can’t see what you’re getting at, but I’ll do my best to help. I ordered her physic a fortnight ago. The mixtures should have lasted a week. I repeated the order, without consulting Sister Monica about it, a week ago. The chemist will tell you that.”

“Yes, sir. I have verified that. So it’s to be assumed that there were several doses left of the second batch---a three days’ supply. But there’s no trace of the bottles, and Mrs. Higson, who always washes out the bottles before they are sent back to the chemist, knows nothing about them.”

“All right, all right,” growled Dr. Brown. “You’re very thorough. I grant you that. You want all your T’s crossed and your I’s dotted. Very commendable. How long have you been on the job here?---tell me that.”

“Since midday yesterday, sir.”

“A day and a half, eh? And you reckon you’ve got things taped, including the aberrations and eccentricities of a woman like Sister Monica. I tell you that woman was about as complex as an ant-hill. She’d got her own peculiar pretensions. One of them was that good health is a matter of faith. She preached it to all and sundry: ‘Keeping well is will power’ she’d say. And to prescribe medicine for her was tantamount to insulting her. When I ordered her physic I didn’t believe she’d take it, but you say she did take it. Very well, I’ll accept your word for it, but I’ll tell you this. She’d have seen to it that no one saw her take it, and that no one in that house knew she was taking it.”

“I follow that quite clearly,” put in Macdonald. “It’s in character with what Hannah said about her.”

“It is, is it? Well, you can take it from me that those bottles of physic you’re so worried about are in the house somewhere. Not in the medicine cupboard. Dear me, no. Hannah Barrow may be an illiterate, but she knows the size and shape and colour and name of every bottle and box and tin in that cupboard. She’s had twenty years to learn them in. Sister Monica wouldn’t have put her own bottles of physic anywhere that Hannah could see ’em.” He broke off and pointed a finger at Macdonald. “You’re going to tell me you’ve searched the entire house, you and that young fellow you brought with you----”

“No, sir. I’m not going to tell you anything of the kind. I haven’t had time to search the house. I’ve been too busy getting acquainted with the people who revolve around the case, what we call the contacts.”

“Well, you’re honest. I’ll say that for you,” said the old man. “I’m not belittling what you’ve done, Chief Inspector. You’ve routed out more than I’d have believed possible in the time you’ve been here, and pretty fools you’ve made some of us look, I admit it. But if, for your own reasons, you want to find those bottles of physic, you go and look for them. They’re there somewhere, where she hid them. She loved hiding things. She’d put things away in the linen cupboards, in the clothes cupboards, in the sewing room, in the store cupboard, in any one of those elaborate hoards of impedimenta she delighted in. You’ll have a job, I promise you, but you’ll find the stuff if you go on looking long enough. If you’re going to do it this evening, I wish you joy of it. They didn’t wire the place properly when they put electricity in: took the Warden’s advice and economised by not putting lights in the linen room and cupboards and so forth: penny wise, pound foolish---the very places you wanted artificial light, because there aren’t any windows.”

“I’ll leave it till morning, when the sun’s at its brightest,” said Macdonald. “In any case, I don’t want to go there again this evening and make any more disturbance. In my judgment, Mrs. Higson can look after Hannah all right.”

“In your judgment,” echoed the old man wearily. “I suppose we’ve got to trust your judgment. You’ve had precious little reason to trust ours. If you put the facts you’ve discovered down in black and white---damn it, there’s a lot of black and not much white. I went up and saw Lady Ridding after you’d been on at her, and I gather there wasn’t much left to admire in Sister Monica’s character by the time you’d done with it. Yet that woman worked faithfully and well for best part of a lifetime. And Hannah---a gaol bird, eh? I tell you Hannah’s worth her weight in gold. And what’s the result of it all? Because Sister Monica took to the brandy bottle and fell into the river when she was tipsy, you suspect Hannah of God knows what, and I suspect Higson of planning to murder Hannah. I tell you it’s enough to drive us all mad.”

“I don’t think there’s the remotest likelihood of Mrs. Higson planning to murder Hannah,” said Macdonald quietly.

“Why not? You’re guessing your way along, aren’t you? I’m sorry, Chief Inspector. I’m an old fool, but I’m so upset over the whole miserable business, I’m past talking sense. I’ll get off to bed, and leave you to your job. But don’t get it into your head that Hannah Barrow’s the malefactor. I know you’ve little reason to respect our judgments. I admit you’ve uncovered enough human weaknesses in this place to make you pretty scornful of our mental processes. We couldn’t see a thing sticking right out under our noses---the fact that the Warden of Gramarye had taken to the brandy bottle. That’s the operative factor in this case. Not the ‘old unhappy far off things’ you’ve been so successful in digging up. The fact that the woman had taken to alcohol and I didn’t spot it is what upsets me. You say that even Hannah spotted it---and I didn’t. No fool like an old fool.” He gave a contemptuous snort. “I don’t wonder you sent for Ferens when Hannah collapsed. You were quite right. But you couldn’t have done anything which was more calculated to give me a knock. Didn’t trust me to deal with a case of hysteria.”

“I did what I thought best to do in the circumstances,” rejoined Macdonald quietly. “And now, sir, I’ve got a report to think over. I’ll bid you good-evening.”

--3--

Macdonald walked back to the Mill House when he left Dr. Brown: the latter’s house was a quarter of a mile beyond the village on the level ground of the river valley, whose lush green was glowing in the last rays of the westering sun. Turning in at the footpath between the Mill House and Moore’s farm, Macdonald crossed the wooden bridge and walked up the steep path towards the Manor House. He was nearly at the top when he saw an elderly lady walking towards him, and he stood on the outer side of the path to let her pass. She stopped deliberately, saying: “Good-evening. Am I right in thinking you to be Chief Inspector Macdonald?”

“Yes, madam.”

“My name is Braithwaite. I should be so glad if you could spare me a few minutes. I have been away from home for some days, and I was deeply shocked by the news of Sister Monica’s death.”

Macdonald liked the look of the resolute, sensible face, and the sound of her deep pleasant voice. He glanced round, and she said at once: “This is a most inconvenient spot for a conversation. I will walk back to the top with you, if I may. There is a seat by the Manor wall where we could talk in comfort.”

“By all means,” said Macdonald.

She turned resolutely up the hill again, walking sturdily, and said nothing more until they reached the top and she turned to the right, and led the way to a garden seat, placed to command the glorious view of hill and vale and distant moor. She was panting a little as she sat down.

“That has always been a steep hill, Chief Inspector. I find it gets steeper. One day I shall find it is too steep.” She turned and looked full at him as he seated himself beside her, and went on: “I ought not to waste your time, but I have been to see Lady Ridding. She was so very incoherent that I am quite bewildered, and I should be so grateful if you could tell me the real facts. You see for years and years Sister Monica has been held up as a monument of all the virtues. Now she is dead, she has become a synonym for all the vices.”

“Would you like to tell me your own estimate of the Warden’s character, madam?”

“Well---it’s a bit hard. I scruple to speak harshly of the dead. But I disliked her, very much indeed. She was one of those women who cover a selfish and assertive mind with a cloak of humility, and there was something abnormal about her, almost pathological. Also she was a malicious gossip, an eavesdropper and a raker-up of other people’s secrets. I have known all that for a long time. But---do you really think she was murdered?”

“That is my opinion,” replied Macdonald. “I have no absolute proof.”

She sat silent for a while and then said: “When I left Lady Ridding, I came and sat here by myself and tried to think things out. I’ve never been a clever woman, but I’ve a certain amount of commonsense, and I have known this village and the people in it for a very long time. It’s nearly two years since I tried to get the Committee to pension off Sister Monica. It wasn’t only that I knew she was too old and too set in her ways to be left in charge of very young children, though all that was true. I felt she had changed: that her character had deteriorated in some way I couldn’t quite define. Previously, I had disliked her: but more recently I found something almost frightening about her.”

She broke off, and Macdonald said: “You are telling me the same thing that the village people have told me. The Warden had changed. It’s obvious, too, that she was no longer trusted. Can you tell me when this change in attitude occurred?”

“In attitude---you mean when the village ceased to trust her? I expect you have guessed: it was after Nancy Bilton’s death. But Sister Monica herself had changed before that.”

“Will you answer this question, Miss Braithwaite, even though it’s a hard one: do you believe that the Warden caused Nancy Bilton’s death?”

“Yes. I’m afraid I do. I have no facts to give you, none whatever. It was just an unhappy feeling.”

“And did the village people share your belief?”

“I can’t answer that. I never asked, or discussed it with anybody at all at the time. But I believe the mistrust which developed was due to the fact that the village people were never sure she hadn’t done it. Only they would never have admitted it. And indeed, there was no evidence, either way.”

She sighed, and then went on: “You will be wondering why I am wasting your time. I asked you to stop and talk to me because I had an idea as to what might have happened. Lady Ridding said that Sister Monica had been drinking. I can believe that. She may well have wanted to forget---quite a number of things. And she knew that the village had turned against her. Her power had gone. Granted the woman’s character, her craze for domination, I can well believe that if she got drunk she would have been capable of boasting of what she had done. I’m probably putting this very badly, but do you follow what I mean?”

“Yes. You think she boasted to someone that she had killed Nancy Bilton, and that someone took the law into their own hands and meted out their own idea of justice?”

“Yes. It’s the only reason I can think of which would have made anybody in this place commit a murder---that they felt it was the only way of arriving at justice.”

“I’m very much interested in what you have said, Miss Braithwaite. A similar line of thought had occurred to me. But I think there are some additional complexities which I am not at liberty to tell you.”

Miss Braithwaite stared out across the parkland: the sun had gone now, but the clarity of light remained; every tree, every branch and flower was still and clean cut in the lucent after-glow, not a breath stirring in the evening air. Then she said: “If such a confession---or boast---had been made to you, and you knew that you had no hope at all of bringing the woman to justice---you see, there was no evidence---might not you have meted out rough justice yourself?”

“I hope not,” said Macdonald soberly.

--4--

She had left it at that, and Macdonald had let her go, and watched her sturdy figure in its sensible silk dress as she went down the path, keeping in carefully to the side away from the drop. When she had disappeared, Macdonald took out the pages of Reeves’s report, and read them while the larks sang high in the faint blue vault of heaven, and the thrushes and blackbirds pealed out long phrases of liquid song. Reeves had his own manner of writing a report for Macdonald’s eye. It was a sort of colloquial shorthand, and might have been obscure to one unaccustomed to Reeves’s phraseology. To Macdonald it was entirely lucid.

Reeves had set out to discover ‘who had been helpful;’ who, in short, had broken into the shed and left Sister Monica’s old black bag under the sacks. Starting from his assumption that this was a variation to replace the ‘her was dizzy’ theory, Reeves began his investigation by studying the footwear of his suspects, the latter being those who knew about the experiment which Ferens and Sanderson had conducted last night. By dint of playing experiments of his own connected with gauging the velocity of the stream, Reeves had attracted some of his suspects to the damp ground by the river, and had got impressions of their boots while they gave him advice and information. Three of these impressions were easily recognisable. Farmer Moore wore heavy nailed boots with horseshoe-shaped irons on the heels. Wilson, the electrician, had patterned rubbers on his heels. Venner had nailed boots, with two nails missing from the right heel. Taking measurements and diagrams, Reeves had set out for a ‘preliminary reconnaissance’ along the most probable route from the Mill to Greave’s hut. This route lay beside the river for the first mile, along a footpath which did not dry out before the heat of August. Thereafter, when the path turned into the woods, it crossed two ‘splashes’---subsidiary streams which joined the river. By the river itself, and in the mud by the splashes, Reeves found traces of Venner’s boots, going in the direction of the hut, but there was a variation. In these ‘outgoing’ prints only one nail was missing from the right heel. It was when Reeves spotted some “incoming” prints that he got hopeful: when Venner had returned home he had lost the second nail.

During the greater part of the time that Macdonald had been talking to Mrs. Yeo and Hannah, Reeves had been crawling about in the rough ground near the hut in the woods. He had remembered that part of the ground they had scrambled over was rocky---the rock cropped out on the rise where the hut was built---and rocks may loosen nails in a worn heel.

Reeves finished his report in laconic style. “I found the nail. I’ve known men hanged on less.”

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