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chapter twenty-five

For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together

(St Matthew, ch. 24, v. 28)


regis's (Morse's) cracking of the Swedish Maiden verses had sparked off a whole series of letters about the Great Wood at Wytham. But only one of these letters was to be published by The Times that week the latest in a correspondence which was grip-Ding the interest of that daily's readers:


From Stephen Wallhead, RA

Sir, It was with interest that I read what must surely be the final analysts of the Swedish Maiden affair. I had not myself, of course, come within a mile of the extraordinarily subtle interpretation (Letters, July 13) in which Wytham Woods are suggested surely more than suggested as the likeliest resting-place of that unfortunate girl. My letter can make only one small addendum; but I trust an interesting one, since the injunction 'Find the Woodman's daughter' (1. 6 of the verses) may now possibly be of some vital significance.

An oil-on-canvas painting, The Woodman's Daughter, was worked on by John Everett Millais in 1850-1. It depicts the young son of a squire offering a handful of strawberries to the young daughter of a woodman. Millais (as always) was meticulous about his work, and the whole picture is minutely accurate in its research: for example, we know from the artist Arthur Hughes that the strawberries in the boy's hands were bought at Covent Garden in March 1851!

The background to this picture shows a woodland area with a clear perspective and a distinctive alignment of trees, and in my view it is at least a possibility that even allowing for decades of cutting-down and replantation the original site could be established. But here is the point, sir! From the diary of one of the artist's friends, Mrs Joanna Matthews, RA, we learn as follows: 'Millais is hard at work painting the background of his picture from nature in Wytt,am Wood' (my italics). Could not such a background point the place where the body is to be found? And may we not further infer that our murderer has not only an intimate knowledge of the woods themselves but also of the Pre-Raphaelite painters?


Yours faithfully,

STEPHEN WALLHEAD,

Wymondham Cottage,

Helpston,

Lines.


Early on the morning of Friday, 17 July, this letter had seen by Strange, Morse, Lewis, and most of the personnel on at Thames Valley HQ. But not by everyone.


'Just tell me exactly what the 'ell we're supposed to be looking for!' Constable Jimmy Watt complained to his colleague, Constable Sid Berridge, as the two of them halted for a while, side by side in the riding between Marley Wood on their right and Pasticks -their left.

Seventeen of them, there were, working reasonably scientifically through this particular stretch. Watt had been seconded only that day, taken (quite willingly) off traffic duties, while Berridge had already spent the earlier part of his week in Blenheim. And in truth, their present duties were unwelcome to neither of them, for the temperature was already warm that morning, the sky an almost cloudless Cambridge blue.

'We're looking for a condom, Jimmy preferably one with ahandful of fingerprints on it-'

'Wha'? Bloody year ago?'

'-so's Morse'll be able to discover which 'and he pulled it with.'

'We used to call 'em "french letters" in my day,' said with a hint of nostalgia in his voice.

'Yeah. Things change, though.'

'Yeah! Some of us missed out a bit, don't you reckon? The way some of these young 'uns'

'Yeah.'

'Who'd you wanna go in there with, though?' Watt pointed it his left, to the dense patch of forestation nearby.

Berridge rose to the challenge: 'Brigitte Bardot? Liz Taylor Joan Collins? Madonna? Me next-door neighbour's wife-'

'In there, though?'

Berridge decided to scale down his previous decision: 'Perhaps not Perhaps only the woman next-door.'


It had been an hour earlier, at 8.30 a.m., that a member of the Wytham Trust had addressed their party, and explained why Pasticks could be a reasonably safe each-way bet for a site where a body may have lain undisturbed for a longish time. Why? Well, most people would think that the cutting-down of trees and the selling of the wood to wholesale dealers was invariably going to a profitable undertaking. Not so! The expense of hiring men to saw down trees, to trim the fallen timber, then to transport and treat it, and finally to sell it to furniture dealers, or fencing designers or the rest such expense would always be considerable. And the Trust had long since agreed that it could do little better than see the whole business of thinning the woods, etc., as, well, as tit-for-tat: they would pay nothing for the cutting-back of the various copses and spinneys; and in turn the wood-cutters and carters would receive the proceeds from the tens of thousands of assorted trunks that were annually removed from Wytham Woods. But occasionally there was a bit of a hiccup in the system when, for example, a few of the areas of re-forestation were not quite ready for such biennial decimation; when the thinning of a particular area ought, for whatever reason, to be delayed for a couple of years.

Such a situation had in fact arisen the year before in the very latest plantation (1958-62) a mixed hardwood affair of Norwegian spruce, oak, beech, red cedar in the area called Pasticks. And that wouldn't be a bad place to leave a body! The trees there allowed in very little light; and in the middle of it all were three four old spinneys that had existed even before the Enclosure

Dense places. Double-dense.

For Berridge and Watt the task certainly looked uninviting. From any point some two or three yards within the wood it seemed almost as if a curtain had been drawn in front of them, cutting them off from any further investigation, with the leafless horizontal and perpendicular branches of the trees there forming a sort of blurring criss-cross mesh of brown across their vision.


It was a good many hours later, at 3.55 p.m., that the deeply and progressively more pessimistic pair of constables heard a shout of triumph from somewhere to their left. A body had been found; and very soon each wing of the search-party had enfolded the scene like the wings of a mother-bird protecting her young.

The foxes had already been there often enough by the look of -;-.d the badgers, and the birds of the air for the bones of what appeared to be a single human being had been dragged apart there in some cases seemingly removed from their familiar configuration. Yet not so far removed as to render the pristine pattern unrecognizable. A femur still lay in its approximately normal relationship to its pelvis; a few ribs still in roughly parallel formation above it; a shoulder bone in a vaguely formal relationship with the vertebrae; and the vertebrae themselves about two or three feet separated from a comparatively small and bad savaged skull; not far from which was a faded, tasselled neck-scarf still boasting its original colours the twin proud colours of the Swedish national flag.


chapter twenty-four | The Way Through The Woods | chapter twenty-six