The Miracles of Sister Modwenna:
The Case of the Midway Milkmaid - Part Three
By David Broome
IN PARTS One and Two, Sister Modwenna and William Ross investigated the kidnapping of the former's niece, Ada Bell. After examining the scene of the crime in Hinckley, Modwenna initially came to the conclusion that Ada was dead, but then Ross found a lock of hair which belonged to a different woman.
AFTER discovering the good news that her niece might not be dead after all, Sister Modwenna encouraged William Ross to proceed with haste back to the park where her brother’s stolen cart had been found.
Upon their arrival they found two police officers, stripped to their vests and long-johns and soaked from the waist down, having recently concluded their search of the AshbyCanal.
Joining them on the bank was a considerably drier and fully-clothed Sergeant Harding, while behind them an ominous-shaped object lay on the ground, covered by a white sheet.
As Ross and Modwenna approached, Harding stepped forward to halt their progress.
“Sister, I beg of you to go no further,” the sergeant’s moustache twitched with a rare hint of emotion, “you would not want to remember your niece like this.”
Modwenna looked briefly startled, and then recovered her composure. “Officer, I assure you this would not be the first corpse which it has been my misfortune to observe — but more importantly, I do not believe that the body you have recovered is any relative of mine.”
“What?” said Harding, his moustache now curling upwards with incredulity. “Mere hours ago you all but ordered my officers to dredge this river because you believed Miss Bell’s body would be found there, and now that it has been, you say it’s not her?”
Modwenna looked keen to continue this ill-matched battle of wits and will, but Ross, feeling that there were more pressing matters to attend to, quickly stepped in.
“Sergeant, there is a very quick way to settle this — what colour hair had the poor wretch you have fished out of the river?”
“What colour hair? Why, blonde.”
“Would you say that it matched this?” added Ross, taking the lock of hair which he had found on the cart out of his pocket.
Harding frowned and stared at the hair before signalling one of his dripping officers to come across. He did so and after observing the item himself for a few seconds, nodded at his superior.
At this, Modwenna gave off an audible sigh of relief and she and Ross smiled at each other. The nun then resumed her debate with Sergeant Harding.
“I am pleased to inform you that my niece had, and hopefully still has, brown hair, and as this lock shows no sign of having being dyed or bleached, it must belong to a different woman, presumably the woman you have under that sheet.
“And so I restate my claim that I do not believe that the body you have recovered is any relative of mine.”
Harding was taken aback, but had the good grace not to look too disappointed. “Well, obviously I am glad for you, sister, but if it is not your niece, who is it?”
“Unfortunately, clairvoyance is not one of my abilities, but perhaps if you would now permit me to examine the body, I could help?”
Harding’s moustache went into overdrive, but eventually he consented and stepped aside to let Modwenna through. Ross hung back however, being of the opinion that seeing one dead body in his lifetime was already one too many.
Modwenna spent a few minutes studying the corpse, which was once a woman in her 30s, although her face — even taking into account her current state of mortality — looked much older, with long, blonde hair and dressed in a simple white gown.
The nun eventually rejoined the group. “Sadly, although also happily, I do not know this woman.
“Nor can I tell you much about her, save that she was brought here against her will — there are marks on her hands that suggest she put up quite a fight.
“However, that is little use in itself, as few women would willingly allow themselves to be bundled into a sack and thrown in the back of a cart.”
“Anything else?” sniffed Harding, motioning for his men to re-cover the body.
“Just that she would have been 37 this autumn, was born and raised in France, married an Englishman three years ago and then moved over here, since which time she has been living — unhappily I might add — near a brewery in Coalville.”
Ross, Harding and the two constables looked shocked. The blacksmith was the first to find his voice.
“How the deuce did you know all that?”
“No time to explain now, Mr Ross, we have a trail to follow — but I assure you, Sergeant Harding, that my information is correct, and I hope it proves useful.”
With that, the nun strode off towards the cart, leaving Ross to shrug his shoulders at the three policemen before following her.
Once aboard the vehicle, Modwenna signalled that they were to follow the course of the canal, asking also thatRoss should proceed slowly.
And slow their progress was, as every few metres, the intrepid nun would stop the cart and step down to examine the ground and surrounding area.
In between her brief excursions to the floor, Modwenna did however fill the blacksmith in on her deductions about the body they had just left.
“Her age and place of birth I knew because of a brooch that was pinned to her dress — it was a French symbol that is traditionally given to young women on their 16th birthday — and that particular design was only in fashion for a few months 11 years ago.
“Knowing that she was married was simple — she was wearing a wedding ring, and it was from a designer local to these parts, so only an Englishman was likely to have purchased it. It also had the date of their marriage engraved on the inside.
“Finally, her nails are bitten to the quick, indicating unhappiness, her skin was unhealthily pale, indicating having been kept indoors for some time, while her whole body smelt of a particular brand of hops that is unique to the Coalville area, indicating the approximate location of her home.”
“As always sister, I am astounded at…” Ross cut himself off as he suddenly spied a young boy ahead of them, pulling something large and dark from a bush on the bank of the river.
The blacksmith drew Modwenna’s attention to the lad, and she bade him draw alongside.
Upon seeing them, the urchin — for they could see now that he was dressed in ragged clothes several sizes too small for him — dropped the item he was attempting to free from its gorse prison and held his hands up in a display of innocence.
“I weren’t stealing nowt,” he said, in response to Ross’ stern but silent accusation.
“Then this is your cloak, is it?” replied the blacksmith, stepping down from his cart and towards the item in question, which was indeed a large black garment made from very fine material.
Ross was more successful in his attempt to free the item, and he passed it to Modwenna to inspect.
She turned it over in her hands until, feeling something within, plunged her hand into its woollen depths and emerged with an envelope clutched between her fingers.
It was already open, and the nun quickly pulled out the letter enclosed and read it. She then raised her eyes upwards in thought, before stepping over to the urchin.
“Young man, how would you like to earn yourself some money?”
“That depends on what it is I’ll have to do fer it, duck,” replied the youngster, adding quickly: “although happens I’m very versatile when it come to paid work.”
“How are you at following animal tracks?”
“There ain’t none betterer this side of the Trent.”
“I do not doubt you for an instant, and if you can follow these hoofprints to the horse that made them, and report back to me, you will be handsomely rewarded.”
“It might involve a journey of around 13 miles, but I would have thought half a crown would be more than enough to compensate you for your time.”
“Going rate’s a pound.”
“Don’t be ridiculous you little wretch,” interjected Ross, noticing that his friend was about to reach into her purse, “half a crown is plenty.”
“Half a pound then, be reasonable.”
“Half a crown, we said.”
“You’re a stubborn one ain’t ya? Half a crown it is then, though I’ll have to come back o’course, so that’s a crown all told.”
Ross began to haggle again, but Modwenna stopped him. “A crown it is young man, and you shall have it if you report back to me at the Cap and Stocking by eight o’clock tomorrow morning.
“And I will know if you have not followed it all the way, so do not even think about trying to deceive us.”
After professing his innocence of any such notion, the young lad went on his way.
“Do you trust him?” asked Ross.
“I think so. I can’t imagine he had anything better to do with his day, and he wouldn’t want to risk losing a crown by not doing the job properly.”
“What made you give him the job, sister?”
“I have a feeling that the tracks would lead all the way to Coalville, possibly even to Burton if the horse got free and found its way home, and there are better ways that we can spend our time.”
“Such as finding James Doyle.”
“Doyle? Then you think your brother was right in his suspicions?”
“It seems so, although how this other woman fits in, I have yet to deduce. Perhaps you should read this letter.”
Ross unfolded the paper which had been hidden in the cloak, and began to read.
My dearest Ada,
I regret that since my return, we have been unable to speak in private. I have something of great importance to tell you regarding your impending marriage – pray can you meet me by your father’s cowshed tomorrow morning?
Ever your friend,
“Ham?” queried Ross, returning the letter.
“A futile attempt to disguise himself. Though he grew up in Burton, James Doyle’s family originate from Scotland, and his given name is actually Hamish.”
“So he lured her to the cowshed and kidnapped her?”
“I would guess that his intention was to try and dissuade her from marrying Mr Lyman, and when she would not break off the engagement, he took her. It may be that this body we have found is unconnected, possibly Doyle abandoned the cart that he stole from my brother and it was then used by someone else, but we need to find him before the police.”
“Why before the police?”
“Yes, sister, why before us?” said a third voice, and Modwenna and Ross were shocked to find that Sergeant Harding had appeared from the bank of the canal, where presumably he had been crouched out of sight.
“Sergeant Harding!” said Ross. “Why did you follow us? Surely we are not under suspicion?”
“Indeed I do not consider either of you suspects, but did you really think that I would just let you go off, after you revealed all of those suspicions about the deceased, without even explaining how you knew them?”
“If that is all you wish to know, officer, I am happy to…” started Modwenna, but she was cut short.
“Initially, that was why I followed you, but then I saw you talking to that disgusting young vagabond, and I decided to keep my distance.
“And I’m glad I did, for it sounds as though you were planning to keep the name of the kidnapper — and possible murderer — to yourself.”
“Sergeant Harding, please do not be too hasty, I had good reason to…”
“I’m sure you did sister, but I have wasted almost an entire day listening to and attempting to reason with you. For all I know, you could just be trying to stall me so that this Doyle fellow can get away, so if you don’t mind, I’ll take this horse and cart of yours — it is for police business after all — and arrest him before any more bodies turn up in my canal.”
And before either Ross or Modwenna could stop him, he had done just that, leaving them without a vehicle.
As they began the long walk back to town, Ross said, “Why were you so keen for the police not to get to Doyle?”
“Because if Ada is still alive, she is being held somewhere, and our best chance of a rescue would have been to follow Mr Doyle to wherever he is keeping her.”
“I see. So what do we do now?”
“Now, Mr Ross, we break James Doyle out of prison.”
To be continued on September 22