The Miracles of Sister Modwenna:
The Case of the Midway Milkmaid — Part Two
By David Broome
IN PART One, Sister Modwenna had called on William Ross’ help to investigate the kidnapping of her brother Abraham’s daughter, Ada Bell. They travelled to Hinckley to pursue a lead, but after examining the scene of the crime, Modwenna came to the conclusion that her niece was dead
“DEAD!” exclaimed Ross in dismay. “Dear God, surely not?”
“Alas, I can see no other explanation. I would that it were any other way, with all my heart I do.” Modwenna’s head bowed as she spoke these last words, and she buried her face in her hands.
Ross had never seen such emotion from the nun in their short friendship, and was taken aback, but he comforted her as best he could, putting his arm around her and drawing her close to him.
“Is there no hope?” he said at last.
“None that I can see,” said Modwenna, recovering her composure slightly and taking a seat on the bank of the river, where Ross joined her.
“What makes you so sure?” asked the blacksmith.
The nun sniffed, then lifted her head and looked upstream. “Something that I found along this bank cemented my conclusion, but my fears had been raised back at the police yard.
“When I looked over Bram’s cart, I noticed that a small section had been snapped off the side. It did not look like any more than general wear and tear, so I doubt that the esteemed Sergeant Harding thought twice about it.
“However, I happen to know that my brother kept all his equipment immaculate, and he was an excellent carpenter to boot, so he would never have let the cart get in that condition. There were also very small pieces of material caught on the ragged edges where the wood had splintered, which appeared to be from a sack.
“That led me to think that my darling niece had been bundled up in the sack like a parcel of meat, and then either was pushed or fell out of the cart.
“At that point I still held out hope that Ada might be found alive, but when we visited the park and I found the missing piece of wood on the riverbank, it confirmed my worst suspicions — that she had been pushed into the canal and left to drown.”
“Surely there could still be another explanation,” said Ross desperately. “Perhaps the kidnapper repented, stopped the cart and let Ada go, and the board was broken some other way?”
“Unfortunately not, Mr Ross. Come, I will show you.”
They walked up the river a few hundred yards until they came to a spot that looked, to Ross at least, no different to its near neighbours. Modwenna however, bent down and pointed to a particular section of the riverbank.
“I found the tracks of the cart quite easily. There was no sign that the cart had stopped at all until it was abandoned, and certainly, at the spot where I found the missing piece of board, there was no break in speed. Further back from here, the path of the tracks becomes slightly erratic, and I assume that the kidnapper had let go the reins while he leaned into the back of the cart and committed the foul deed.
“You see how the grass leading down to the canal is slightly flattened here? “I believe this is where Ada was pushed from the cart, and I will notify the police to this fact so they can search the depths for her poor body.”
Modwenna kept true to her word, and although Sergeant Harding was initially unwilling to “waste any of his officers on an old lady’s whim”, he eventually relented and sent two policemen down to the canal.
Once that was done, the nun and Ross made their way back to their inn, where they were met by Abraham Bell and two other younger gentleman.
The farmer was a tall man of some 50 or so years of age, with greying hair, thick at the sides but encircling a barren spot on top.
Of the other two men, one was broad and stood firmly erect, while the other was slighter of build, but dressed more smartly.
“These two men were eager to come with me to help in any way they can,” said Abraham. “This is Harry Lyman, my dear Ada’s fiancé (here he indicated the slight man), and this is James Doyle, an old friend of my daughter’s.”
As the two young men offered pleasantries, Modwenna and her brother exchanged a warm embrace before the latter pulled away and scrutinised her face intensely.
“Dear sister, do you have any news?” he said.
“Let us go inside,” said the nun, “we have all journeyed far all ready this morning and a moment’s rest will give us chance to regain some strength for what lies ahead.”
Abraham reluctantly assented, and the five of them entered the inn, taking a table near the fire.
“Perhaps you would be kind enough to order us some refreshments while I speak to my brother?” Modwenna asked of Ross, giving him a look, which the blacksmith understood to mean that he should let her do all the talking.
“Now, Modwenna, pray tell me what you have found out,” said Abraham.
“We looked over your cart, and then made a trip to the place where it was found. There was no sign of Ada at either location, but I have not finished my work here yet.”
“Then she might still be alive?” said Abraham, his large, worn face folding into a pleading expression as he took his sister’s hands in his own.
Modwenna took a deep breath before replying. “Bram,” she said eventually, “until I know anything for certain, I do not want to give you false hope, but neither do I want to do cause you unfounded misery.
“We have several lines of inquiry to follow up, and hopefully you and these men can help us, but in the meantime, I would offer you this advice: pray for the best, but prepare yourself for the worst.”
Abraham nodded sadly, and sat back in his chair, raising his face to the ceiling. Ross returned with a plate of cold meat, some eggs and a bottle of rum.
The latter was quickly seized upon by Lyman, who poured himself a substantial draught which he drained in one long gulp. Doyle, meanwhile, merely sipped at the drink proffered to him by Ross, who also poured a measure for himself and Abraham.
The food was left untouched, and the group sat in mournful silence for a few minutes before Modwenna broke the quiet.
“Bram, I think that the thing to do is for us to split into two groups and each investigate a different line of inquiry.”
“As you say, sister. What would you have us do?”
“The police seem to think that Mr Freddie Quint is a suspect — you remember he was sweet on Ada last year? — and he lives in this area. I’m not sure that he had it in him to do something like this, but you never know. Perhaps it would be worth you going to speak to his neighbours to see if they noticed anything unusual last night — they might be more willing to speak to you than to the police.”
Abraham nodded in agreement, and his sister noted down the address for him. The five of them headed outside again, where the farmer told Lyman and Doyle to get their horses ready. As they departed, he drew Modwenna and Ross to one side before bowing his head in close to speak to them conspiratorially.
“The police may have their eyes on young Freddie, but I have my own suspect,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the departed young men.
“Mr Doyle?” said Modwenna. “Or Mr Lyman?”
“Not Mr Lyman, no — he’s a magistrate’s son and anyways, why would he need to kidnap my Ada when she was already betrothed to him? No, Mr Doyle is the one I’ve got my doubts about.”
“Why is that, sir?” asked Ross.
“His father was a wrong-un, for starts — took to the drink after his wife passed away. But the main thing is, young James has just returned from serving in the army, and I wonder if he’d expected Ada to take his hand when he returned.
“They was only ever close friends when they was kids, but boys sometimes take that to mean more than girls do. He was a quiet lad in his youth, but things happen to a man in the army, and maybe he came back with a temper, heard about dear Ada’s engagement, and flew into a rage.”
Abraham stopped there, emotion getting the better of him. Modwenna patted his arm, and he continued. “Anyway, I thought I’d better bring him down here with me so Harry and I could keep our eyes on him.”
“That seems a sensible idea brother. You do that, and find out what you can from Mr Quint’s neighbours, while Mr Ross and I return to the park.”
“What are you hoping to find there?”
“The villain, whoever he is, abandoned the cart, but he must have escaped himself somehow. I’m hoping to find some trace of him.”
Doyle and Lyman returned with the horses at that moment and so, not wishing to tarry a moment longer, Abraham merely nodded at his sister, before mounting his steed and riding off.
Modwenna and Ross got back into the blacksmith’s cart, and set off in the direction of the park. They had not been travelling long when the nun turned to her colleague and said: “I suppose you are wondering why I didn’t tell Abraham that his daughter his dead?”
“Not at all, it seemed the right thing to do.”
“Then you don’t think me cowardly?”
“Of course not, dear Modwenna, nothing could be further from my thoughts. Suppose you had told him? Would he have just stopped looking for her? Not in the slightest, he would not have been satisfied until he saw proof for himself, so you telling him of your conclusions would only have served to make his even more disconsolate.”
Modwenna smiled faintly. “I am glad to hear you say that Mr Ross. And I am glad for your company and assistance on this expedition, and not just for the use of your horse and cart. This is a trying time for me. Ada was the closest thing to a daughter I will ever have. Now she is gone, and I don’t even have anything to hand to remember her by.”
Ross put his arm around the nun to comfort her, and then a thought struck him. He retracted his embrace and instead reached into his pocket, pulling out the lock of hair which he had discovered when they examined the cart earlier.
“Sister, I hope this is not inappropriate, but perhaps this would help?”
“What is it?” said the nun, peering at the object with some puzzlement.
“It’s a lock of Ada’s hair. I found it in the cart this morning — I did try and show you at the time,” he added, apologetically.
Modwenna suddenly looked animated, and for the first time since hearing the news about her niece, there was something approaching hope in her eyes.
“You…you found this in the cart?”
“Yes,” said Ross, puzzled, “why? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Mr Ross,” said Modwenna, delighted, “this is the first piece of good news we’ve had!”
“Because Ada had brown hair, not blond!”
A little slow on the uptake, Ross still looked confused.
“Which means, this hair belongs to another woman…” explained the nun, but Ross still frowned.
“Which means, it could have been this other woman whose body was dumped in the canal…” continued Modwenna.
Light began to dawn on the blacksmith’s face, and he finished the train of thought for his friend.
“Which means,” he said triumphantly, “that Ada might not be dead!”To be continued...