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Chapter Seventeen

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Author Topic: Chapter Seventeen  (Read 36 times)
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« on: September 06, 2023, 08:36:21 am »


--1--

MACDONALD sat on the seat where Miss Braithwaite had left him until the colour had drained out of sky and air. Nobody came up the path from the mill, no one descended it from the village. On that June evening it was as lovely a walk as any human being could wish, but the path was shunned now by all who had habitually used it. Sitting very still, listening intently, Macdonald heard all sounds from the village die away; the children had all been called home by their parents. Tired and thirsty hay-makers had left the meadows before moonrise, certain of another fine day on the morrow, tractors had ceased their clamour, and not a car ground up or down the steep village street. Everyone was safely within doors, gossiping without a doubt, but preferring to gossip with their own families.

As the bats cut erratic tangents across the pale sky, and white owls floated silently on the warm scented air, it occurred to Macdonald that Monica Emily Torrington had cast a shadow on the village: that her power was still felt, undercutting all the confidence and serenity which should be the normal complement of neighbourliness. “Peel was right,” thought Macdonald. “Everybody here is involved in this thing one way or another. They started by refusing to admit what they knew to be true, and it’s gone on and on, getting more fantastic with every effort of concealment. It’s time it was stopped.”

When the enveloping twilight had deepened so much that a man could only be seen at fairly close quarters, Macdonald got up and began to stroll silently round the containing wall of Manor, Dower House, Church, and Gramarye itself. Each was hedged around with impassable clipped hedges of yew or holly or thorn, in which gates were set, but they were all contained within the ancient stone wall, close up against the hedges in some places, in others the wall and hedges parting company. Gramarye was entirely in darkness, but the Manor and Dower House showed lights in the graceful mullions and oriels of the ground floor. The Manor House windows were curtained, but those of the Dower House were open, their lights shining gaily out across lawn and flower borders and hedge. John Sanderson’s house showed lights in the lower windows, but the village street was dark now, candles all put out.

Just before eleven o’clock, Macdonald went through the park gates into the garden of Gramarye, keeping in the shadow of the ilex trees until he came to the garden door---a small side door which opened into a passage between Sister Monica’s office and the parlour. He turned the handle of the door and found it yielded silently to his touch as a well-oiled door handle should, and the door opened with neither creak nor groan. Closing the door behind him, Macdonald stood still in the darkness, as he had stood so often in other buildings. Houses, barns, shops, flats, warehouses, all dark, as this passage was dark, but having in the darkness their own character because each had its own peculiar smell. Gramarye smelt of floor polish and carbolic and soap: something of the unwelcoming smell of an institution, but behind the overlay of modern cleanliness, the smell of the ancient house declared itself, of old mortar, of stone walls built without damp courses, of woodwork decaying under coats of paint, of panelling and floor boards which gave out their ancient breath as the coldness of the stone house triumphed over the warmth of the midsummer evening. It flashed through Macdonald’s mind that he would remember the village of Milham on the Moor through the fragrance of midsummer, new-mown hay, roses and clove pinks and honeysuckle, the “unforgettable, unforgotten river smell”---and lime trees in flower: all these wafted on the warm air in sensuous delight. But he would remember Gramarye for its chill stone smell, coupled to the soap and polish and disinfectant which were so virtuous in intention and so comfortless in achievement.

He walked along the dark passage to the little square entrance hall, where he could see a rectangle of half light---the diamond-paned window beside the front door---and he stood and listened to the creepy rattle which told of mice scuttling or nibbling in the ancient beams. It was next to impossible to rid an ancient house of mice, unless you kept a company of cats. “She would have thought cats were unhygienic,” thought Macdonald, who liked cats. He went slowly and silently upstairs to the first floor, and sat down on the top stair. He knew that all was well in the silent house. Reeves was here---somewhere---as good as a watch dog and an insurance policy in one. Reeves would have been all over the house, as silent as a shadow, prying and guarding both. He would have looked in at the two sleeping women, quite calm and unembarrassed. Reeves was a very domestic character.

There was nothing to do but to wait, so Macdonald settled himself comfortably on his top stair: “Waiting for somebody else ‘to be helpful’,” as he told Reeves the next day.

--2--

It was midnight before anything happened. The church clock had just struck, with maddening deliberation, slower than Big Ben. Then Macdonald thought: “It’s generally a cold draught. This time it’s warm.” Somebody had opened the garden door, quite silently. They must have left it open, wide, for the still air of the stone house was astonishingly animated by a breath of warmer air laden with the scent of hay and clove pinks. Incredibly the fragrance of the summer night was diffused into the institutional carbolic of Gramarye, and the song of nightingales became suddenly louder and closer.

Macdonald stood up on his top stair and moved a step to the left, waiting for a sound from below. It wasn’t long in coming: the footstep was quiet enough, the faintest shuffle of list slippers, but the person who moved was heavy in body, and the old boards creaked and sprang . . . crack . . . crack . . . crack. “The Warden would have used that door when she came in from her midnight wanderings,” thought Macdonald, and then, strangely, came a deep sigh from below: a sigh compounded of fear and physical weariness and mental stress, sounding preposterously loud in the enclosed space of the panelled passage. Then came a slight rattle and fumbling. “The office door . . . drawn a blank there,” thought Macdonald. (Reeves had seen to that.) “The parlour? Well, it’s not very helpful, sheeted and shrouded by the industrious Hannah, and not so much as a wall cupboard to conceal a promising clue. Kitchen quarters? I think not, and certainly not the schoolroom or chapel room. Most unsuitable. Coming up? I thought so.”

Macdonald slipped like a shadow into a room immediately behind him, where drawn blinds kept out the faint luminosity of the starlit northern sky. He slipped behind the door, which was half open. It was one of the children’s play rooms, and as such would be of little interest to the unknown ‘helper.’ Macdonald stood so that he could see through the crack of the door should a glimmer of torch-light be shown. “They’ll have to use a light sometime. Even a cat would be defeated by this floor of the house,” thought Macdonald. “Reeves again. He’s pulled all the blinds down, thoughtful fellow. If ever a chap learnt by experience, it’s Reeves.”

The stairs creaked so loudly that Macdonald thought that even Emma Higson would wake up, though he had noticed she was a bit hard of hearing. Evidently the nocturnal visitor thought so too, for there was a full minute’s cessation of movement. The only sound was laboured breathing, heavy, distressed, and quite unreasonably loud. Then the shuffling footsteps moved on, along the passage to the right, and a slender upright of light showed down the hinged edge of Macdonald’s door: the torch had come into operation.

Macdonald moved out from behind the door and stood flat against the wall beside the door jamb, whence he could see through the doorway along the passage, without being seen if the visitor turned round. Against the faint glimmer of torch-light a dark figure showed for a moment in silhouette, and even Macdonald’s well-disciplined nerves contracted in response to the totally unexpected. The dark figure was cloaked and veiled: against the uncertain torch-light was the silhouette of a tall form clad in the garments of an old-fashioned hospital nurse. “If Hannah were here to see that, she’d scream the place down,” thought Macdonald. “Spirits and souls of the righteous . . . or angels and ministers of grace defend us. I never thought of that one.”

The figure turned left at the end of the passage, and the blur of torch-light showed only the line of the old wall, a bulging, leaning line, where the wall of the ancient passage turned to form a recess which had once been a powder closet. The recess was now occupied by a built-in linen cupboard and a small matchboarded apartment called the sewing room. It held a sturdy table, an old-fashioned sewing machine with a box top and shelves on which sewing materials---cottons and tapes, and buttons and hooks, scraps of patching materials, and pins and needles---were arranged in appropriate boxes: a neat, efficient little apartment, but quite lacking in interest, or in any place of concealment for anybody or anything.

Macdonald came out of his dormitory and began to move down the passage towards the sewing room. He kept close to the wall, so that the tell-tale boards should not creak. At the far end of the passage, another bedroom door would give him cover and an opportunity to observe what was going on in the sewing room. Step by step he moved, putting to account all that years of training and experience had taught him about the matter of moving silently. Macdonald had listened so often to other people who were trying to do that most difficult thing---to move without giving warning of their movement to one who might be listening. He had emptied his pocket of coins and cigarette case and match box: he had taken off his wrist watch: he had not smoked for several hours. The omission of any one of those precautions had served as a signal to him when he was tracking others in the dark. Coins can clink unexpectedly: a match box can obtrude itself through the stuff of a pocket and scrape the angle of a wall. In profound silence even the tick of a watch can become audible. The rest was physical training and physical fitness: the ability to breathe silently, the balance to maintain immobility when another step would be a giveaway. Silently he moved on, aware of rustlings and fidgetings and clinkings from the sewing room, and of that laboured breathing which is the unconscious accompaniment of mental stress.

When he gained his doorway and turned towards the sewing room, the sight he saw in the dim torch-light was fantastic enough to have frightened the whole village into hysteria. The cloaked veiled figure had its back to Macdonald, and he knew it must be so exactly like that mythical figure---Sister Monica. Anyone knowing her might well have been convinced that the dead walked. Sergeant Peel had said: “They’re a superstitious lot.” Cash in on the superstition---a sound way of avoiding a challenge in a village where nerves were already on edge.

--3--

Macdonald stood and watched while the cloaked figure fumbled, the dark body, with the cloak stretched out by the elbows, obscuring the hands. Macdonald knew that he had only to take three sure and silent steps to be able to put his hand on the solid shoulder beneath the cloak. But he did not move because he knew what the reaction would be---a howl of fear, a crash of overturned furniture which would sound like bedlam let loose through the silent house. Upstairs Hannah Barrow lay sleeping, and Macdonald was a humane man. Whatever she had done in the bitter circumstances of a harsh life, he did not want to frighten her into gibbering insanity by breaking into her sleep with an uproar which a false move might cost now. In any case, what was the hurry? Reeves was in this house, and Reeves would know all about the intruder. He would wait until he got some signal from Macdonald, and then they would act together, silently and expeditiously.

Unable to see what the cloaked figure was doing, Macdonald guessed by the position of the figure and the sounds which emerged. Something was unlocked. There was only one object with a lock on it in the sewing room---the box cover of the ancient sewing machine. “Not a bad place to hide anything,” thought Macdonald. “It’s so much less obvious than a drawer or a box or a cupboard. You expect a sewing machine to be a sewing machine, not a receptacle----” His train of thought was cut short by a sound which made Macdonald’s pulses jump. Dealing clumsily with the old-fashioned box cover, the intruder in the sewing room had let it slip, and it slammed down with a bang which sounded as startling as the trump of doom. “You silly fool . . . can’t you do it quietly?” flashed incongruously through Macdonald’s mind. But no reaction came from the silent house, and a moment later the small lock clicked again, amid the heavy breathing of the startled intruder. The shaking of tremulous hands told a story of fear, and the breath came in short gasps now. At last the cloaked figure turned away, along the passage, the way it had come. It was a second later that Macdonald heard a sound upstairs. Someone had woken up.

--4--

It was Emma Higson who woke up. “All in a sweat,” as she said afterwards, she lay trembling in her bed for a while, and then, with considerable courage, she got up and crept to the top of the stairs. She had in her hand an electric torch, (necessary in a house with such niggardly wiring as Gramarye). It was a bicycle lamp with a new battery, and she turned it on just as the cloaked figure reached the stairs. The beam fell on the cloak and the bent veiled head, and Emma Higson’s nerves gave out.

“ ’Tis Sister, dear God o’ mercy, ’tis Sister . . .” she screamed.

The torch fell from her nerveless hands, jerked itself out, and Emma Higson’s shrieks rent the air as another crash resounded through the darkness, and a heavy body went headlong down the polished stairs, right down the steep flight from top to bottom, with one final crash as the helpless body hurtled against the wall at the bottom.

Emma Higson screamed on. It was Reeves’s homely voice which first penetrated her panic.

“It’s not Sister, you silly old fool, it’s just somebody playing the goat. I tell you it’s not Sister.”

Macdonald had got to her by that time, his own torch-light showing the familiar stairs, empty of the apparition which had appalled her.

“It’s all right, Cook. It wasn’t a ghost. Ghosts don’t make a row like that falling downstairs. What about poor Hannah? She’ll be frightened out of her life.”

Emma Higson left off screaming and staggered to her feet with Macdonald’s firm hand under her arm: she was still in a state of semi-hysteria, and between her sobs she clucked out, “Please to take me notice. I can’t abide any more . . .”

“I’ll take your notice, Cook, but better come and see if Hannah’s all right,” persisted Macdonald. They went in together to the narrow little room where Hannah lay on her back with moonbeams playing over her withered face. She hadn’t moved since Macdonald last saw her, but the uproar in the house must have disturbed even her solid slumber, for suddenly she began to snore; turning over, she tucked a hand under her cheek and a diminutive grey plait slipped askew across her peaceful face.

“I’ll light the candle for you,” said Macdonald serenely, but Emma Higson had recovered herself.

“That you won’t, and me in me night shift,” she said tremulously.

“All right. I’ll bring you up a cup of tea and put it outside the door,” said Macdonald.

“I won’t say no,” she sniffed, and then uttered the remark which Macdonald always thought of as ‘the curtain’ to that particular act.

“Doctor always said them stairs’d be the death of someone. Him was right, seemingly.”

--5--

Macdonald had been aware of sounds downstairs which were certainly not due to Reeves’s activities, though doubtless Reeves was fully occupied. When the Chief Inspector went downstairs, he found that the lights were on in the hall, and another man had appeared on the scene. It was Raymond Ferens, who was bending over the body of the man who had fallen downstairs. The cape and the veil had been loosened and thrown to one side and lay, a negligible huddle of dark material, looking oddly inadequate for the result they had achieved. Ferens stood up saying, “He’s alive . . . just. I think his neck is dislocated, apart from the head injuries. I suppose we’ve got to get an ambulance.”

His voice was irresolute, but Reeves said, “I’ll ring through to Milham Prior.”

He produced the key of the office and went in, and Ferens said to Macdonald: “I was out in the garden and I heard someone screaming, so I came over at the double and your chap let me in.”

Macdonald nodded, looking down at the grey face on the floor. “How much did you know about this, Ferens?”

“I didn’t know anything at all,” said Ferens, and he looked Macdonald straight in the face. “Neither was it my business to guess. I’ve told no lies at all, and it wasn’t up to me to hazard possibilities. It was your job, first and last. I said from the start that Gramarye was no business of mine.”

“Yes. I noticed you were adamant on that point,” said Macdonald. “And how many people in the village knew---or guessed?”

“I don’t think anybody knew, if by knowing you mean having any evidence,” said Ferens slowly, “but villages like this one have their own sort of awareness. I can’t define what it is. It isn’t detection, in your sense of the word. It isn’t intuition. Awareness is the only word I can use.”

“Awareness of human nature,” said Macdonald quietly, “and much greater powers of observation than townspeople ever realise. Country folk study human nature as they study the weather, and they’re more often right than either the psychologists or the meteorologists. They did their best for him. Some of them risked a criminal charge to try to get him out of the mess.”

“Because they were fond of him. Good man or bad, he’d doctored them for half a lifetime. He was part of their village.”

Macdonald nodded, looking down at old Dr. Brown’s face, so still and grey, as he lay on the floor.

“Can’t you understand . . .” broke out Ferens.

“Oh, I understand---but it’s no good,” said Macdonald. “And you know it’s no good,” he concluded. “The thing he did was worse than the thing he tried to escape from. There’s no all clear via murder.”

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