The Miracles of Sister Modwenna:
The Case of the Midway Milkmaid — Part One
By David Broome
THE cart bounced and shook as it sped along Ashby Road. In the driver’s seat, a man shrouded in a dark clock urged the horse to gallop ever faster, his forehead sweating almost as profusely as that of the beast in front of him..
Such of his face that could be seen beneath the hood was pale and gaunt, while his narrowed eyes perpetually glanced around him.
On more than one occasion his gaze fell upon the back of the cart where, amongst the remnants of straw, lay a large cloth sack. It jolted periodically, rolling from side to side across the floor of the cart. Part of the sack had snagged on a protruding nail, and as the vehicle hit a particularly large bump in the road, it wrenched away from the nail, ripping a hole near the top of the bag.
The driver heard the rip and looked back again, fear in his eyes. That fear turned to horror as he watched a hand emerge from the hole, and a female voice, plaintive and barely audible over the din of the cart, cried “Help!”
A few miles away, another female voice was asking for help.
Sister Modwenna, having apologised for disturbing the Ross family so early in the day, was just about to state the reason for her visit.
William Ross, the blacksmith for Hartshorne, sat at his kitchen table with his wife, Mary, who had just brought in a pot of tea. The nun smiled at her as she entered, but it was a pained smile as her usually serene countenance was furrowed, drawn and pale with worry.
“God bless you Mary, but I am afraid I will not have time for tea, and I am hoping that your husband will not either.”
“What is wrong, sister?”
“I understand that you have recently purchased a small horse and cart?”
“I have indeed — the money which you helped us to come by meant I could invest where I had previously been unable. And it is an investment, I will save on delivery costs now that I can collect supplies myself – I wouldn’t want you thinking I’d squandered the money.”
“Mr Ross, the money is yours and Mary’s to spend as you see fit. The reason I ask is that I would like to borrow it – and you if possible – for a small trip. I will explain more on the way – if you agree – but at the moment, time is of the essence.”
“Say no more sister, I am indebted to you for the rest of my life, and even were I not, it would be my great pleasure and honour to be of service. I will ready Nelly and bring her round to the front of the house, if you would care to meet me there.”
Within five minutes Ross and Modwenna were seated side-by-side on the driver’s seat of the cart. Mary rushed out and handed the nun a small parcel — explaining that she had put together some sandwiches for them — before waving them off as they headed off towards Goseley Dale and the main road to Burton.
“Sister,” said Ross after a minute or so of silence, “I will not press you for the whole story until you are ready to tell it, as I can tell you are in some distress, but if you could just let me know if we are heading towards Burton or not, I will leave you in peace.”
“Bless you William,” said Modwenna, using the blacksmith’s given name for the first time in their acquaintance, “I will tell all shortly, but no, we are not heading for the town.
“Though the crime we are investigating occurred nearby, we will be pursuing our enquiries further afield.
“Pray turn left at Ashby Road, and then take the Ibstock Road in a few miles' time."
Ross did as directed, and also kept true to his word by not pestering the nun for more information. After they had turned south towards Ibstock, Modwenna seemed to relax slightly, and turned to the blacksmith with something approaching a smile on her face.
"I thank you for your patience, Mr Ross, I feel as though I have collected my composure enough to tell the story now. Yesterday evening, my brother Abraham Bell, a farmer by trade, called on me in a terrible state. He told me that his daughter Ada, my niece, had been kidnapped!"
"Kidnapped," said Ross in surprise, "by whom?"
"We do not know yet. She helps her father on his farm and was out in the milkshed yesterday morning, doing the morning milking of the cows there.
“My brother Bram was passing by when he heard a scream and ran over, but as he entered the shed, one of his own carts flew past him, knocking him to the ground.
He did not see the kidnapper, but when he came to, there were signs of a struggle in the shed, and Ada was gone.
"She is a pretty girl and has had a number of suitors, any of whom is a potential suspect.
“She became engaged to the son of a Burton magistrate last week, one Mr Harry Lyman, and the fear is that this news has angered one of her admirers enough to take her hostage, although to what end, we also do not know."
"This is terrible, sister. Are there any clues to their whereabouts?"
"Just one. My brother and I had been doing what we could to help the Burton constabulary with their search, but this morning we received word from the police in Hinckley that they found Bram's missing cart. It was empty, but I am hoping we can find something there to help us find dear Ada before..."
Modwenna could not finish the sentence, and Ross gulped as he realised what she was implying.
He spurred the horses on ever faster, eager to do whatever he could to help his friend.
They reached Hinckley around lunchtime, and while Ross checked them into an inn, Modwenna went to meet with the local constabulary.
Half an hour later they met up again in the yard of the police station, where the cart in question had been brought, it’s horse nowhere to be seen.
A young policeman with a pencil moustache was with them, and he spoke as they approached the vehicle.
"I am Sergeant Harding. My colleague in Burton, Sergeant Harris — who I trained under, I might say — says that you have been of invaluable help to him in a number of cases. I feel that we have this situation under control, and we are pursuing a number of leads..."
"May I ask what those leads are?" interrupted Modwenna, in a rare moment of irritation.
"I cannot divulge the details of our investigation, but one of the suspects is from this area, and we are..."
"That would be Freddie Quint," said Modwenna to herself, "but I can't believe that he..."
It was the nun's turn to be interrupted this time. "Sister Modwenna, I would rather you did not allow yourself to drift into idle speculation.
“As I said, we have the case under control, but if it would help satisfy your curiosity, you may have five minutes to look over the cart."
Modwenna and Ross shared a look, but said nothing, instead walking over to the vehicle that had been used to kidnap Ada and beginning to look it over.
The blacksmith did his best to look for clues, but all he could find were some stray blonde hairs. He attempted to show Modwenna, but she was busy inspecting the driver's seat and appeared not to hear him, and so after a while he just stood out of her way.
All too soon though, Sergeant Harding came across and said that their time was up. Modwenna beseeched him for five more minutes, but the officer said he had better things to do than "supervise a couple of busybodies", and ushered them out of the yard.
In the street outside, Ross turned to Modwenna and asked what she wanted to do next.
There were a few moments silence, as the nun appeared to have once again entered an extremely troubled state of mind. Eventually though, she spoke once more. "We need to visit the place where the cart was found. I believe it was at a place called Sketchley Park."
They collected Ross’ horse and cart and rode to the park, the blacksmith eating the sandwiches his wife had made along the way. Modwenna waved away the offer of food though, and did not speak again until they reached their destination.
One of Sergeant Harding's more sympathetic constables had told them where to find the place that the cart had been discovered, and it was lucky that he had, as it looked like pretty much any other part of the park.
Modwenna clearly saw something different there though, as she immediately set to work.
The park ran alongside the Ashby Canal, and it was the banks of this to which Modwenna paid particular attention.
She did not confine her investigation to the immediate area where the cart had been found, but walked some distance along the side of the canal away from Ross, casting her eyes left and right.
Finally she seemed to find what she was looking for, and returned to the blacksmith with what looked like a large splinter of wood in her hand.
"I believe our investigation is at an end," she said slowly.
"Really? Then you know where Ada is?" said Ross, although from the expression on Modwenna's face, he did not feel confident that this was the case.
"No, I do not. But it no longer matters a great deal, as she is almost certainly dead."To be continued...