A SHAMEFUL MURDER
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A SHAMEFUL MURDER
St Thomas Aquinas:
Videtur quod voluntas Dei non sit causa rerum.
(It can be seen that the will of God is not the cause of things.)
It was Reverend Mother Aquinas who found the body of the dead girl. It lay wedged within the gateway to the convent chapel at St Mary’s of the Isle, jettisoned by the flood waters. For a fanciful moment she had almost imagined that it was a mermaid swept up from the sea. The long silver gown gleamed beneath the gas lamp, wet as the skin of a salmon, and the streams of soaked curls were red-brown just like the crinkled carrageen seaweed she had gathered from the windswept beaches of Ballycotton when she was a child. Her heart beating fast, the Reverend Mother unlocked the gate and looked down at the sightless blue eyes that stared up from beneath a wide, high brow, at the blanched, soaked flesh of the cheeks and knew that there was nothing that she could do for the girl. She bent over, touched the stone-cold face and then with a hand that trembled slightly she signed the forehead with a small cross. The Reverend Mother had seen death many times in her long life, but in the young she still found it was almost unbearable.
And then she straightened up and looked around. There was no one near. She had left the convent hurriedly, gone out into the fog, unable to bear with patience the sanctimonious comments of Sister Mary Immaculate about the floods being the will of God. Reverend Mother Aquinas, like her namesake, the great philosopher Thomas Aquinas, had no belief in the doctrine of the will of God – it was, for her, just an easy way out, of excusing man’s inhumanity, inefficiency and lack of social responsibility. These terrible floods would not happen season after season if some of the wealth of the city was spent on preventing them. Sister Mary Immaculate, she thought with irritation, would not have been so quick to trot out the customary platitude about God’s will if she, like the families of the children who attended the school of St Mary’s of the Isle, lived in one of those crowded crumbling buildings flooded with sewage by the overflowing drains. As always it was the poor who had suffered. The rich moved to the hills outside the city.
Floods were nothing new in Cork. The city had been built on a marsh, criss-crossed by streams, beginning with a small monastic settlement, named St Mary’s of the Isle, progressing, with the advent of the Vikings, to a second island and then, with the Normans, to a third. Later the inhabitants linked the Viking and Norman islands with a bridge and enclosed them with a high wall, forming the medieval city of Cork, perched just above the swamp, edged with a sheltered harbour and joined to the ocean by the River Lee. The city had become rich, trading its butter, its meat and its hides from the hinterland with nearby England and not-too-distant France and Spain. In the eighteenth century the wealthy merchants had tamed the channels of the river with limestone quays and had built stately homes above basement warehouses, their entrances, like those to medieval castles, placed high above the water with steps leading up from the mooring places. Like a Venice under a grey northern sky, the city grew prosperous and ambitious; but unlike in Venice the merchants were not content with their waterways. They confined the marsh streams into culverts and built wide streets on top of all but two of the river channels. And these two arms of the River Lee, the north and south, still encircled the town and the water beneath the streets remained part of it. From time to time it escaped and the city flooded.
Dead bodies washed up by the flood waters were nothing new, either. The Reverend Mother sighed as she rang the bell on the gate for the gardener, sent him to fetch Sergeant Patrick Cashman from the barracks and waited resignedly for Sister Mary Immaculate to pop out to find the reason for the summons.
‘I was just coming to see you, Sister,’ said the Reverend Mother as soon as her assistant appeared. ‘Could you go into the kitchen and ask Sister Rosario to serve some hot porridge to any of the children who manage to get here this morning. Oh, and get some of those socks out of the cupboard so that they each can have a dry pair.’ That, she thought with some satisfaction, should keep Sister Mary Immaculate busy until the bell rang for the beginning of morning school. Then she excused her lack of charity to her fellow nun by reflecting with pleasure on the comfort that hot porridge and thick warm socks, knitted in such profusion by some of the very elderly nuns, would give to the children. She fished out from her capacious pocket the watch that hung on a silver chain from her belt and looked at the time. Still only quarter to nine – Patrick would probably not arrive at the barracks before nine o’clock and already she could hear the voices of the children coming down the street, excitedly capping each other’s stories about the overnight flooding and the size of the rats that scampered around the hallways and crumbling stairs of those four-storey Georgian buildings in Cove Street and Sawmill Lane. Smiling to herself at their animation, and their high spirits, she went back to keep watch over the body, glancing at her watch from time to time as the slow minutes ticked away.
And then she tightened her lips with a grimace of annoyance as she heard the back door to the convent open and the high-pitched voice of Sister Mary Immaculate shouting orders. Of course, she should have remembered that the nun had the habit of marching the older girls into the chapel before the start of morning school.
She was only just in time. Sister Mary Immaculate had already lined up the senior girls, each with a prayer book in hand, for their daily trip to proffer up prayers to God. She’d be better off teaching these thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds extra arithmetic so that a few of them might have some remote hope of getting a job in shop or as a clerk, thought the Reverend Mother tartly as she ordered them to return to their classroom. And then her eyes widened. The last girl in the line was wearing a six-inch-wide flounce of yellow flannel pinned with enormous safety pins to the bottom of her navy-blue gymslip.
‘What on earth is Nellie O’Sullivan wearing?’ she asked. Nellie, with her mass of curls, was a pretty girl who from the age of five had always come to school looking fairly clean, tidy and well dressed – in cast-off clothes distributed by the St Vincent de Paul Society. Since Nellie’s taste ran to pink frilly party dresses, eventually Sister Mary Immaculate bestowed an ancient navy blue gymslip on her and added a lecture about suitable clothes to wear in school.
The Reverend Mother rather liked Nellie. She was not particularly academic, but was a well-motivated, cheerful girl who had not escaped from school at the first possible moment – like her eldest sister, Mary – but had stayed on and worked hard. A confident girl, with a strong streak of common sense; the Reverend Mother was annoyed to see her victimized.
Sister Mary Immaculate smiled with pious satisfaction at her question. ‘Some of those girls have been shortening their gymslips to a ridiculous degree – so every morning, first thing, I make them kneel on the floor and if their skirt does not touch the boards then they wear the frill until they let the hem down again,’ she said smugly.
For heaven’s sake! Reverend Mother choked back the words. These girls, she thought, did not have much fun. They were poor in a prosperous city. Their youth was being spent in a country at war. The War of Independence had started in early 1919 and had petered out in July 1922 with a treaty that agreed to the partition of Ireland and less than a year later the bitter civil war had begun when brothers and cousins had lined up against each other, and where Michael Collins, hero and leader in the struggle against British troops, had been shot by his former companions. A plague on both your houses, the Reverend Mother had often thought, but her pupils were caught in the centre of the hostilities. Day after day, for the last few years, they had been sent home early from school because there had been shooting on the streets; first between the Republicans and the Black and Tan auxiliaries to the Royal Irish Constabulary and later between the Free State Army and the Republicans; between those who were for the treaty and those who were against it – the bitter civil war was almost over in theory, but in practice the guns still spluttered. The children had witnessed the burning down of Patrick Street by the Black and Tans, had dodged the grenades, and the armed battles that had followed each outrage, had endured raids, poverty, disease, poor feeding and bad housing. She was pleased to think that they had life and spirit enough left in them to turn up the hems of their ugly, shapeless gymslips to a 1920s fashionable length. She would have to have a quiet and tactful talk with Sister Mary Immaculate, who was in charge of the school – perhaps get the children to agree on a sensible length for a gymslip – no more yellow flannel, though, she decided – there was something about that image which revolted her.
However, this poor dead girl on her doorstep had to be cared for now. She sent a messenger around to the other classes ordering that the children be kept within doors for the next couple of hours and then went back to her vigil over the quiet body until she heard the sound of the convent doorbell.
‘Sergeant Cashman to see you, Reverend Mother.’ Sister Bernadette, keys clanking, came in through the garden door. He’s been quick, thought the Reverend Mother; well, this is the age of the car and the bicycle. She moved up the path to greet him, nodding pleasantly at Sister Bernadette. A nice woman, but a terrible gossip so she waited until the lay sister had disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, before addressing the civic guard.
‘Well, Patrick, how are you and how is your mother?’ she queried. Even a dead body would not be considered a reason to omit the customary enquiries, although his widowed mother lived next door to the convent and probably Mother Aquinas knew as much about her health as did her busy son.
Patrick Cashman, like all the small boys of the neighbourhood, had attended the convent school until the age of seven, when they had sent him on to the Christian Brothers’ elementary school. She remembered all of her pupils, but he had a special place in her heart. He had first come to her notice about fourteen years ago, because he had refused to return from the playground to the classroom until he had finished counting the ants that were coming out of a hole at the bottom of the wall. He had ignored a couple of sharp smacks on his bare and rather dirty leg from his teacher and had persisted. Mother Aquinas, usually appealed to as the last sanction, had come out from her study to save him from further punishment. Sister Philomena, red with anger, had marched the other children inside, leaving the playground empty except for one small boy and one middle-aged nun who was wrestling with a problem. How long would he keep it up for, she had wondered and then had allowed her thoughts to drift back. Should she leave this place and accept the suggestion made by the bishop that she should go to Rome as Mother-General of the Order? Had she done all that she could do in making this school somewhere to give hope to the poor? Would she stagnate if she stayed? Would the new position offer a challenge to her brains, to her organizing ability? Should she go, or should stay? She looked down at the small boy still muttering numbers under his breath and waited peacefully, allowing her mind to take a rest from the problem.
The answer to both of their questions came minutes later when the seven-year-old had looked up at her with a beaming smile, made rather endearing by a couple of missing teeth.
‘You’d never guess, Reverend Mother,’ he said confidently. ‘Not even Holy God himself would have guessed. There’s nine hundred and fifty-seven of them little ants all living in the one little house under that brick.’
Worse even than the slums of Cork, had thought Mother Aquinas: overcrowding in Cork was officially set at a figure of over nine people living and sleeping in the one room and even so the statistics were frightening. Aloud, she suggested that they go and tell the rest of the class about this. She had been amused at the time, but in the years to come she had thought it had been a good indication of his character. He was not outstandingly clever, but was tenacious and hard-working and once he had something to do he could not be deflected until it was finished. And that day she had taken his concentration, and the intense interest shown by the other seven-year-olds in the life of ants, as a sign that she should stay where she was and try to offer a worthy education to the sharp-witted slum-dwellers of Cork city. She had not regretted her decision. And, partly because he had been connected with her deciding moment, she had always kept an interest in Patrick Cashman. Through sheer hard work and perseverance he had got one of the coveted scholarships to the Christian Brothers’ Secondary School at the age of fourteen and so, on leaving school, had the education to get into the newly formed civic guards which had replaced the Royal Irish Constabulary after the War of Independence.
And now there he was, a fortunate young man, earning three pounds a week, in a city that despite independence from England was still full of unemployment and terrible poverty.
He replied politely to her queries and then waited to see what she wanted, glancing in a puzzled way at her as she led the way down towards the chapel.
‘There’s a body washed up in the lane; it came from the river, I suppose,’ she said abruptly once they were alone. ‘Come and see, Patrick.’
He was as methodical and sensible as ever, she thought. No loud exclamations; just followed her down through the fog-enveloped gardens. And then there was a quick appraisal of the situation. He checked the body, as she had done, for signs of life. He produced a notebook and pencil and began to write in a fluent and rapid hand that did credit to the teaching of the Christian Brothers. Then he made a few measurements with the tape measure that he took from his pocket, drew a neat map in his notebook. She watched him with an indulgence which reflected their past relationship, but with the impatience of a quick mind confronted with a slower and more methodical one.
‘What do you think?’ she asked; her eyes were on the dead girl. She could barely contain her impatience to get to the heart of the puzzle.
‘Bit different to the usual bodies that we get from the river; normally it’s the girls of the street and that like; I’ve seen plenty of them,’ he said slowly and she glimpsed, behind the simple words, a world of experience that was even deeper than hers.
‘I suppose,’ she said hesitantly, ‘this sort of thing often happens; is that right, Patrick?’
‘They don’t usually look so dressed up,’ he said. ‘But yes, we do get plenty of bodies.’
‘Seems a shame,’ she said, thinking of the guns, the killing, the plotting, the great speeches, the treaties and the promises. Her emotions told her that it was sad that nothing had changed, nothing had improved for people, but her experience of life told her that it was unlikely that anything else would have happened.
He shrugged his shoulders. He would not, she thought, be one to bemoan what could not be achieved by him personally.
‘There’s a lot of trouble around here,’ he said, almost apologetically, almost as though he were responsible for the unrest that happened in the streets around where he had spent his childhood. ‘Not very good housing, in this place,’ he added and both he and she could visualize the street where he had been brought up, the stately Georgian terraced house which was now a crumbling home for twenty or thirty families with no work, little food and no hope. ‘Lots of fights, people get frustrated, they’ll fight over a handful of coins, and then there are the suicides – some of them can’t stand things any longer. But,’ he said, reverting to the body in front of him, ‘this looks like something different.’
She knew what he meant, when he said that the body before them looked different. This girl was no prostitute from Sawmill Lane or beggar from North Main Street. Even the soaking from the river water couldn’t disguise the quality of the gown that she wore – satin, she thought – expertly tailored – elbow-length gloves of fine soft leather clung to her arms, a lustrous pearl necklace was around her neck and a pair of expensive-looking, brand-new – by the soles of them – high-heeled satin shoes were strapped around her ankles. Oddly enough there was something familiar about the hair and the eyes, but she could not think of any young lady of her acquaintance – her life, for the last fifty years, had been spent among the poor of the city.
He was methodical as ever now that he had returned his attention to the dead girl. He took out the notebook again and she could see how his eyes travelled up and down the body, checking that he had noted all the details of the girl’s clothing.
‘She’s got something around her wrist,’ he said.
‘An evening bag,’ said the Reverend Mother sadly. ‘It matches her dress.’ Her mind went back to the dances of over fifty years ago. The gallant officers who had written their names on her dance programme; did they still do this, nowadays, she wondered? It had been a long time since she had indulged herself enough to think back to the days when she too, dressed in silks and satins, wore an evening bag around her wrist.
‘I’ll see if I can get it off.’ The string was wound around the narrow wrist twice, but eventually he managed to disentangle it.
She admired the care with which he opened the soaking wet bag – it was closed only with a drawstring. He put his hand inside it carefully once he had teased the layers apart, drew out something and held it up.
‘Ten-pound note,’ he said reverently. It was, she thought, despite his dazzling new salary as a civic guard, still a big sum of money to him. He replaced the bag on the dead girl’s body and put the banknote carefully inside an envelope that he produced from a pocket. He took his indelible pencil from another pocket, licked its tip and then signed his name over the flap.
‘Would you mind, Reverend Mother?’ He handed her the envelope and the pencil and she signed below his signature.
‘You’re very careful, Patrick,’ she said approvingly.
‘I’ll hand it in as soon as I get back to the station,’ he said as he stowed it away. Then he went back to the bag again. Patrick, thought the Reverend Mother, would always go back and double-check.
He did not comment on the next item, just held it up so that she could see a small dance booklet with tiny pencil still attached. ‘The Merchants’ Annual Ball’, it said, printed in a fancy, gold-lettered script, and she nodded. Of course, it was March, the first week in March, and then she frowned.
‘The Imperial Hotel?’ she queried. The Merchants’ Balls had been held there in her youth, and were, she thought, still held there. But the Imperial Hotel was not by the river and it was more than half a mile away from St Mary’s of the Isle. How had the body got here? She looked out at the lane where murky water still burst out from what was once a covered drain. The morning tide had receded a little, but the narrow lane that ran beside the convent grounds still bubbled like a mountain stream with water from the drains and from the nearby river. It had been the usual result of days and nights of rain allied to a south-easterly gale that had blown the spring high-tide sea water straight up the River Lee.
His eyes followed hers, but he did not comment. She felt the sharp, acrid smell of the fog rise up inside of her and swallowed hard.
‘There’s something else,’ he said. ‘It’s stuck to the lining.’ Slowly and carefully he separated the object from the silk. It was small, and oblong in shape, soaking wet, but not yet pulp. A ticket, she realized; the print was still black and quite visible. It bore the name of The Cork Steam-Packet Shipping Company and was a first-class ticket for the ferry that left Albert Quay and went across to Liverpool three times a week. The date was printed, also, the 5th of March 1923 – the midnight ferry, she thought. Patrick looked at it for a long minute before placing it into another envelope and then into one of his wide pockets.
‘What do you think that means?’ she asked eagerly and then was slightly ashamed when he didn’t reply. It was nothing to do with her, this ticket for a journey from Cork to England in a first-class cabin. Her role in this affair should now be at an end. She had reported the finding of a body to the civic guard and they would now take over. He had stood up and straightened himself decisively and she knew that he would not answer: Patrick Cashman did not deal in speculation, but in facts.
‘What will you do next?’ she asked then, as a substitute question.
‘Send to the barracks for a conveyance for the body to be taken to the vault, check the missing persons’ list, make a report to the Superintendent, contact the coroner, send for the doctor to perform the post-mortem,. . .’
He thought for a moment as though mentally scanning his rulebook and then nodded, ‘And take it from there,’ he finished.
‘You go and report and I will stay and keep guard over the body,’ she said. ‘That will get everything moving more quickly and the less said about this, the better, in case there are any political links,’ she finished. It was possible that the death was accidental, or self-inflicted, but murder could not be ruled out. Cork, in its first year of independence, simmered in the heat of a deadly civil war and the resolution of political differences was often murder.
Not the will of God, she thought with a sudden anger. No God could wish evil on this child, whoever she was. Her eyes rested on Patrick. He lingered for a while, gently moved aside a strand of wet hair and then stayed very still for a moment, his eyes on a black bruise on the centre of the girl’s throat. He made another note and the Reverend Mother bowed her head. She had noticed the bruise when she examined the pearl necklace. This girl, she thought compassionately, had known the fear and intense pain of strangulation before death took her.