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Chapter Eighteen

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« on: September 06, 2023, 09:04:42 am »


--1--

“I TELL you I didn’t know,” persisted Raymond Ferens stubbornly.

“All right. Have it your own way,” replied Macdonald placidly. The four of them---Raymond, Anne, Macdonald, and Reeves---were sitting on the lawn of the Dower House. Reeves was lying prone, his hands busy with the making of a daisy chain, and Anne Ferens watched him with amused eyes. It was she who took up the argument: “What is knowledge? It’s as elusive as wisdom. If you put me in the witness box and I said, ‘I know she was wicked,’ you would demand proof, chapter and verse. If I said, ‘I have an extra sense, and it tells me when a person is wicked---by the pricking of my thumbs,’ wouldn’t the judge rebuke me for levity and say that feelings are not evidence?”

“Probably,” replied Macdonald, and Reeves put in, sotto voce: “Depends on the judge. He wouldn’t admit your feelings as evidence, but he’d make a mental note. Some of them are both sensible and sensitive. Sorry. Don’t mind me.”

Macdonald took up his tale. “When I first called on you, Dr. Ferens, I expected you to say quite a lot about Dr. Brown: to quote his opinion, refer me to him for evidence, give the usual unsolicited testimonial by which medical men uphold their mutual probity. But during the whole of that conversation you did not mention Dr. Brown once. And about Gramarye you would only say, ‘It was not my business. I made it clear from the outset that I took no interest in Gramarye.’ It seemed plain to me that you did not want to talk about Dr. Brown. And as for your insistence that from the first you took no interest in Gramarye---well, shall I adopt Mrs. Ferens’ useful allusion, and say I wondered if your thumbs had pricked when you first made the acquaintance of that ancient charity, its Warden, and its Medical Officer?”

“Of course, you’re perfectly right, Chief Inspector,” said Anne Ferens. “Raymond is constitutionally honest and not at all unobservant, and the two qualities often cause him mental indigestion. He felt at once that there was something phoney about ‘that ancient charity etc.’. I know he did. If he were one of those chatty husbands who tell their wives all, he’d have said to me: ‘That damned old fool must have got in a mess with that ghastly female at some stage in their lives, and she’s got a hold over him.’ But he didn’t say so. Not even to me. Although I knew he thought it.”

“How did you know?” demanded Raymond indignantly.

“Because of the way you ticked me off when I said Sister Monica was wicked. You were horrified. Therefore you insisted on an extra degree of punctilio from me. It was to be hands off Sister Monica. So I was sure there was something.”

Reeves sat up here. “This isn’t evidence, but it’s a darned sight more interesting than most evidence is. What people think is far more relevant than our police methods allow for.”

“That’s enough from you,” said Macdonald firmly. “And Mrs. Ferens has produced evidence of a negative sort. What people avoid saying is just as informative as what they do say. And, finally, Dr. Ferens was all in favour of a verdict of accident. So now, having cleared the decks of all that, let’s get down to evidence which could be entered in an official report. We’ll take the findings at the autopsy first.”

“The most relevant being a bruise on the occiput, some alcoholic content in the cadaver, and the state of being non virgo intacta,” said Ferens.

Macdonald nodded. “And then there was the additional fact of deceased’s capital investments. All these facts were equally important. The bruise on the back of the head could most easily have been caused by the swinging of a heavy stick; a strong walking stick with a heavy crook or knob would have served, because if you swing a walking stick grasping the ferrule end, its velocity makes up for lack of weight. Neither Reeves nor I believed the bruise could have been caused by the head hitting the hand rail of the bridge.”

“I’m still hoping you’ll offer to come and do another experiment on that bridge, sir,” said Reeves to Ferens. “You just try to hit the back of your head on that hand rail. It’s almost impossible for a tall person to do it.”

“I was of that opinion the whole time,” said Ferens, “but I maintain that my opinions are not evidence.”

“Well, we won’t get bogged down in controversy at the moment,” said Macdonald. “I have dealt with the first fact---the bruise on the back of the head. Next, the traces of alcohol. I did not suggest at any time or to any person that the analyst’s report stated that deceased was either an alcoholic addict, or was inebriated when death occurred. In my own mind I was quite sure that she was nothing of the kind. The path from Gramarye to the mill is both steep and dangerous, unless you watch your step. If deceased had been drunk when she walked down that path, the probability is that she would have slipped, and if she had slipped, she would have rolled over and over down the green bank until she reached the bottom. Anybody who did that would be badly bruised, all over. She was not bruised all over. It was while I was thinking this out that it occurred to me that her famous dizziness seemed reserved for rather odd occasions. It overcame her on a flight of stairs in her own home, and on a bridge with a perfectly good hand rail, but not on a rather hazardous path.”

“So you dismissed the dizziness as irrelevant?” enquired Anne.

“Oh, no, I didn’t,” said Macdonald. “The dizziness was very well attested. Deceased had fallen right downstairs. I thought that was extremely relevant. Far from dismissing it, I considered it with care, and connected it with the alcohol. I argued that if a woman who was known to be a teetotaller was given a small dose of high alcoholic content it was quite likely she would ‘come over dizzy.’ Being totally unused to alcohol, she would be very susceptible to it. And one way of giving her such a dose would be to prescribe an indigestion mixture strongly flavoured with peppermint to mask the flavour of the alcohol.”

“But wouldn’t she have smelt the brandy?” put in Anne.

“I didn’t say anything about brandy, Mrs. Ferens. I said alcohol. Absolute alcohol does not smell of brandy, although it does smell spirituous. And a very little absolute alcohol is very potent. Moreover it is used by field naturalists and botanists for preserving specimens.”

“Algae,” murmured Reeves. “Spirogyra, likewise Zygnema and Staurastrum. I learn some very high-hat terminology in our job.”

“Well, I’m damned,” said Raymond. “I might have thought of that one. I’d seen the Algae in absolute alc in the old boy’s test tubes, but I didn’t connect it up.”

--2--

“Well, there was a theory to account for the famous dizziness,” said Macdonald. “It was only a theory, but it was attractive. If dizziness could be induced beforehand, it provided the perfect explanation. ‘Terrible dizzy Sister was.’ And if the thing wasn’t accepted as accident, and analysts and pathologists got busy, the disappearance of the brandy bottle explained all. It was good pre-war brandy, whose alcoholic content would have been high. But again, all this was hypothetical. Having considered it, I turned to other factors, especially the cash one---the nest egg in the building societies, paid in in cash by ‘register letter’ posted by the illiterate Hannah.”

“Blackmail,” said Raymond Ferens softly.

“I thought it the most probable explanation,” said Macdonald, “so I looked around to see which persons in the locality might have been susceptible to blackmail to the tune of some £200 yearly over a period of ten years. And I considered that the amount of the sum paid eliminated the village folk at once. The Venners, Mrs. Yeo, Wilson, Doone---would they have paid out nearly £4 weekly for ten years? Of course they wouldn’t. The idea was ludicrous. It represented over three quarters of what any of them earned. Not the villagers, and certainly not Sanderson---he’d only been here two and a half years. Not Dr. Ferens. He was a newcomer. Obviously one’s mind went to the most wealthy---Sir James and Lady Ridding. I eliminated Sir James after some consideration. If there had been any cause or fact which would have resulted in Miss Torrington being able to blackmail Sir James, Lady Ridding herself would not have upheld the Warden through thick and thin. In other words, if Sir James Ridding had had an affair with the Warden in time past, Lady Ridding would have sacked the Warden out of hand. Not for one moment would Lady Ridding have countenanced such an outrage to her own dignity.”

“But if Lady Ridding hadn’t known,” put in Anne.

“She would have known,” put in Macdonald. “You make a great mistake if you think she is stupid. She isn’t anything of the kind. Lady Ridding has the brains which make a profit out of pedigree cattle, dairying and mixed farming as well as market gardening. She is extremely astute. And the rumours which have been going round about her making vast sums out of black market butter seemed to me utterly silly. To make a success out of farming, which she certainly does, makes her very cognisant of regulations and penalties. It simply wouldn’t be worth her while to take the risk of black marketing. And to do her justice, I think she has the commercial honesty which was characteristic of her generation. She’d drive a hard bargain, but she’s too much commonsense to risk her dignity and good name for the profits on butter at 10/- a pound. And anybody who knows anything about dairy farming can tell you there isn’t so very much profit in selling butter at 10/- a pound.”

“Perfectly true,” said Anne, “and I think you’re quite right about her being astute. We tend to laugh at her because of the grande manière cult. But, Mr. Chief Inspector, since she is astute, wouldn’t she have been aware of the goings-on which you postulated in a different quarter altogether, outside her own home?”

It was Reeves who answered this. “She was aware of it,” he said bluntly. “I’ve no evidence for saying so. It’s just that I knew when I heard her talking, like Mrs. Ferens knew the Warden was wicked. And being a perfect lady brought up in the early nineteen hundreds, Lady R. knew when to look the other way, as a lady should. After all, the irregularity wasn’t in her own household, and both Dr. Brown and the Warden were very useful to her.”

Anne Ferens looked at him thoughtfully. “You’re a bit shattering, aren’t you . . . sitting there making daisy chains.”

--3--

“I think it’s time we got back to facts,” said Macdonald. “At the moment Reeves is off duty: he can say what he likes. He has no basis in fact to support his statement that Lady Ridding knew that her medical practitioner and her Warden had misconducted themselves in years gone by, but I agree with him that Lady Ridding is past mistress of the art of looking the other way when self-interest prompts her to do so. I also think I’m on firm ground when I maintain that ‘her ladyship’ would not have tolerated irregularities in her own household. The fact that Lady Ridding supported the Warden was an indication to me that Sir James was not involved. I used the same argument about the Vicar and his wife. They both said Miss Torrington was wonderful: ergo, they did not pay her blackmail. All these arguments were hypothetical, so I turned to further facts. Dr. Ferens and the bailiff gave an excellent demonstration that it was highly improbable that deceased collapsed on the bridge. The fact that Sanderson assisted so vigorously in the experiment made it more than ever improbable that he was responsible for the murder. But after I had walked up and down that hill once or twice I pondered over another argument. Reeves and I postulated that deceased had gone to meet somebody near the mill, having met the same person there before. But why at the mill? It seemed to me that the garden at Gramarye, or that seat where I sat and talked to Miss Braithwaite, were much more convenient places to meet. What was there against them? The answer was the steep hill. If a person were aged and infirm that hill would be a tough proposition for them. Dr. Brown was one of the few people concerned whose age and frailty made it very hard for him to walk up that hill, and his car was so old and noisy that everybody in the village knew the sound of it. Again, there was nothing conclusive in that, but it fitted in with other possibilities.”

“You give me the creeps,” said Anne. “I knew you would be very expert fact finders, but I didn’t think you’d argue out all the personal qualities, or that you’d notice so much about people’s general behaviour. What on earth did you think about me---and Raymond?”

“I thought that you looked one of the happiest people I’d ever seen, Mrs. Ferens,” replied Macdonald, “and you reminded me of a Gauguin colour scheme. I argued that since you looked so happy, the probability was that your husband was a very contented---and fortunate---man.”

Raymond gave a shout of laughter. “Good for you. I am---and likewise, I am.”

Reeves sat up again. “Climate,” he observed. “It’s all the thing these days---climate. Your climate seems based on a permanent anticyclone. Nothing in it for C.I.D. chaps. What the G.P.s call an uninteresting case.”

--4--

“Let’s try again,” said Macdonald. “Facts and the elucidation thereof. It was a fact, bitterly resented by Sergeant Peel, that the village folk were quite unhelpful, and they stuck to it that Sister was wonderful. I managed to get that one unstuck a bit, and they admitted ‘Sister had changed,’ but they still stuck to the explanation of accidental death. Not one of them was willing to divulge a single fact which could assist the investigation. In short, they didn’t want the investigation to succeed. When Ferens and Sanderson exploded the theory that deceased collapsed on the bridge, Venner was furious with them. I argued that the village had a pretty good idea, as villages generally have, as to what had happened, and the village was doing its best to protect somebody whom they held in high regard. And when somebody planted a very nice little piece of evidence in Greave’s shack, I realised that the feeling of the village was very deeply moved.”

“Tramps,” put in Reeves disgustedly. “Never try that one on. Silly jugginses, they don’t give the County police any credit for earning their wages. Tramps aren’t invisible. One of the routine jobs the County men are good at is locating tramps. They can pull the whole lot in any day if they want to, and check up on their itineraries, real or imagined. I don’t mind the village thinking the C.I.D. are mutts. After all, we’re strangers, foreigners. But they might give their own chaps credit for a little gumption.”

“All quite true,” agreed Macdonald, “and Venner landed himself within distance of a capital charge by playing fool tricks with that bag which he’d found empty in the river.”

“Nothing like feelings for making sensible chaps go haywire,” said Reeves.

--5--

“Let’s get on to Hannah. Hannah’s a wonderful character,” said Macdonald. “They found her uneducable at school, probably owing to the shock she’d suffered in childhood, but she’s capable of arguing things out for herself which most educated people would miss. She noticed the smell of spirits in Sister’s breath. After Peel had been to Gramarye, ‘poking around in what didn’t belong to him,’ Hannah had a look round on her own. She found two bottles of medicine tucked away on a shelf she herself never used because it was right high up out of her reach, and the shelf was in her own housemaid’s cupboard. Hannah did not know what the medicine was or why it was there, and she couldn’t read the labels, but she sensed there was something odd about it. Unfortunately Peel had spoken sharply to her and frightened her, and in her half-childish, half-shrewd mind she decided that it would be better to throw the bottles away. Maybe they were poison, and if anyone had poisoned Sister, Hannah didn’t want any bottles found in her housemaid’s cupboard. So she buried them in the garden at the first opportunity, thereby throwing a spanner in the works without knowing it.”

“The medicine being laced with absolute alcohol?” queried Raymond.

“Nothing of the kind,” said Macdonald. “The medicine was exactly what it ought to have been. And to avoid confusing you further, I’m going to start in on a straight narrative. Some of it you know already, some of it you may have surmised, as I did, and some of it was told me by Dr. Brown before he died. Here is the story. Brown’s wife went out of her mind, years ago. In the distress induced by this tragedy, he turned to Miss Torrington for sympathy and eventually she became his mistress. That is a not uncommon occurrence when a middle-aged man becomes very unhappy, and if the woman in the case had been an ordinary woman, the affair might have gone its course and been forgotten, as many such affairs doubtless are. But Miss Torrington wasn’t an ordinary woman. She was avaricious and dominating beneath her habit of meekness. She eventually demanded money, and got it. Having got it, she hoarded it senselessly, as a miser does hoard. In short, Sister Monica became a miser. This went on for years, and the climax was reached when Brown, having retired from his general practice here, determined to leave Milham on the Moor and go to live in Wiltshire. It was then that Miss Torrington overreached herself. She demanded that Brown marry her. Brown refused. Miss Torrington then told him, in the authentic accent of Victorian melodrama, that she would follow him wherever he went and denounce him for what he was. Now Brown was old and tired. He wanted to get away from Milham in the Moor and the domination of Miss Torrington, and the thought of her pursuing him was a nightmare to him. He had realised what she was really like, and also what she was capable of.”

“Is this where the ghost of Nancy Bilton comes in?” asked Ferens.

“Yes---as a ghost to haunt Dr. Brown. He had known all the time that Miss Torrington had come down to the river to meet him the night that Nancy Bilton was drowned. He used to meet the Warden behind the saw mill, because he would not have her come to his house to collect the money he gave her, and his heart was so feeble that he could no longer walk up the hill without exhausting himself. The longer he thought about it, the more certain he was that Monica Emily Torrington caught Nancy Bilton spying on them and threw her bodily in the river. Whether it was true we shall never know, but because Brown believed it was true, he persuaded himself that he was justified in finishing Monica Emily as she had finished Nancy Bilton.”

“I follow all that,” said Ferens. “The way she got her tentacles on to him and wouldn’t let him go seems to me to be in character, but why on earth didn’t he give her her money when he was at Gramarye? He went there every week.”

“Hannah supplied the answer to that one,” replied Macdonald. “Years ago, the Warden had arranged the etiquette for the doctor’s visit. It was highly ceremonious. Hannah admitted him and marched him upstairs to the Warden in the dispensary. Hannah, in her capacity as nurse, stood at attention all the time while doctor saw the children. If any were in bed, Hannah accompanied doctor and Warden to the dormitories, in the correct hospital tradition. Hannah’s eyes were likely to be on them all the time---or almost all the time---and Hannah saw doctor to the front door.”

“Wait a minute,” said Ferens. “About that medicine which you surmised was laced----”

“It was laced. Brown told me so,” said Macdonald. “I was right there.”

“Then he dispensed it himself?”

“No, he didn’t. He was much too crafty. It came up from the chemists.”

“Then how in Hades did he get the alcohol into it? You say Hannah was watching him all the time.”

Macdonald took a script from his pocket. “This is an accurate account of Hannah’s evidence. See if you can spot the loophole,” he said.

Ferens read it carefully. “I don’t see how he could have done it. One can argue she may have kept the medicine in the closed half of the cupboard so that Hannah didn’t see it, but how could he have got at it?”

“When Hannah watched the children go downstairs, all respectful like, and when the Warden was copying the chemist’s list in her private note book,” said Macdonald. “If Hannah had seen him fiddling in the medicine cupboard, it would have seemed quite natural. ‘Him had many a good laugh over our medicine cupboard.’ With Hannah out of the room for a couple of minutes, and the Warden busy writing, Brown took his chance and laced the indigestion mixture. To save you further worrying, I may as well tell you that he did come up that hill after he had thrown Monica Emily’s senseless body in the mill stream, and emptied her bag of its contents, so that these could be destroyed. With the keys he had taken from her bag he let himself in by the garden door, went up to the dispensary and emptied out the doped medicine, replacing it by a harmless mixture. Then, because he knew Miss Torrington’s mania for hiding things in odd places, he put the innocent mixtures in Hannah’s cupboard, confidently expecting she’d hand them over to the appropriate authorities. He also removed the bottle of brandy. It sounds complicated, but it was a very logical ingenious plan. It was Hannah throwing the medicine away that scuppered it.”

“I still don’t see why that mattered,” said Anne.

“You’ve an innocent mind, Mrs. Ferens. Brown was wise enough to tell me he had prescribed medicine for the Warden. It was on the chemist’s list. And it was an essential part of his plan that the innocent bottles should be found by us, so that no suspicion should arise in that quarter. I told him that I couldn’t find the bottles. He then began to panic, and determined that something had gone amiss. He guessed by this time that Hannah had disposed of the bottles in her cupboard. So he toiled up the hill, arrayed ghostlike in the Warden’s best cloak which he had taken away with him the earlier night he was in the house, and proceeded to hide appropriate mixtures for me to find. His main argument was sound enough. There was no direct evidence. No one had seen him knock the Warden over the head and roll her body into the mill stream. If anybody in the village knew the truth about his one-time relations with the Warden and guessed at his possible guilt, they were obviously going to keep quiet over it. And the explanation of death being due to falling in the mill stream while under the influence of alcohol was just the sort of explanation a jury would accept.”

“But why couldn’t he leave it alone?” said Ferens.

“Because I was being tiresome over the medicine bottles,” said Macdonald. “Brown wasn’t stupid. He knew I should ask all about deceased’s previous falls--her famous dizziness. Each occurred shortly after a meal. ‘To be taken three times a day. After meals.’ ‘Ter die,’ as the prescriptions have it. He’d have noticed that himself, and thought I might notice it, too. So it was essential that the medicine must be found, in some improbable place, before I really set-to on a full dress search. If he could only prove the medicine had been harmless, he felt there wasn’t any concrete evidence against him.”

“And provided the village kept mum, he was quite right,” said Reeves. “The way he handed over the money---a few pounds at a time in pound notes---was almost foolproof. You can’t prove what a man’s spent or not spent in ready money. It’s only cheques, or large withdrawals of cash, which can be proved. It’s anybody’s money, so to speak. And as to motive---anybody in the village could have been credited with a motive.”

Ferens suddenly laughed. “But only a medical man could induce dizziness three times a day, after meals. Well, I congratulate you both. I do admire other people’s brains.”

Anne turned to Macdonald: “Did anybody talk to you about Dr. Brown---any of your chief witnesses?”

“No. They all avoided mentioning him, or bringing him into their statements as one might have expected them to do.”

“I must remember that,” she said thoughtfully.

Reeves suddenly sat up. “Forget it,” he said, and threw his daisy chain round Anne’s neck. “It’s not your line of country. You go and persuade her ladyship to let Gramarye to some nice young couple from away, who’ll only think of the Warden as a bad joke and who’ll take an interest in vegetable marrows. It suits you,” he concluded, regarding the daisy chain with admiration.

“Forget it,” murmured Anne. “That’s good advice. I will. But I shan’t forget you, either of you.”

“That’s very kindly said,” replied Macdonald.

THE END
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