An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1) (10 page)

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
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Mrs. Ross Again
Thursday, 28 June 1792, Norwich

t seemed
to Adam that the parlour to which Mrs. Ross’s maid showed him must always be gloomy. On that day, with the heavy mourning drapes over the windows, it was almost too dark to see his way. The woman who awaited him was near-invisible in the gloom, since she wore the black of deepest mourning. Only when he came close could he see his hostess.

Mrs. Ross was a short, slightly-built woman. Small of stature as she was, she now somehow shrank further within her heavy clothes as he looked at her.

Adam judged that she might be of a similar age to his mother, though the deep lines around her brow and mouth could have more to do with grief than the ravages of time. Once she would have been remarkably pretty. Now her skin was the colour of chalk and bore the faint sheen that reveals sickness within. As he took her hand and raised it to his lips, she looked at him with eyes ringed with the dark smudges betokening lack of sleep. Yet her voice, when she spoke, was firm enough. She motioned him to a chair opposite.

‘Sit, sir. I am most grateful for your condescension in agreeing to visit me, for I do not think that I could manage the journey to your surgery. It took all my remaining strength for me to travel here from my daughter’s home in Cambridge. She did not wish me to leave, such was her concern that I should not be alone in my grief. Yet I longed most for solitude, and by preventing me from meeting with you earlier, she has unwittingly increased my distress. There are questions I must ask you, Dr. Bascom. Though they may seem no more than the mental wandering of a woman laid low by grief, I assure you that your answers are of the greatest moment.’

Through all this, Adam sat silent. He was eager to know the reason why she had brought him to her house, yet his judgement told him that it would be best to allow her to approach the matter in her own way and in her own time.

‘Your silence reassures me,’ Mrs Ross said. ‘It reveals a man more willing to listen than speak, and listening is what I need.’

‘Forgive me, madam,’ Adam said. ‘I will indeed listen most carefully to whatever you wish to tell me. I will also answer all your questions to the best of my ability. Be assured of that. Yet both my conscience and my duty as a physician compel me to say something before you begin. It is clear to me that you are not well. I would not have you imperil your health further by speaking to me on matters which clearly give you pain. I am most willing to return at a later date when you feel more able to continue.’

‘No, no,’ she cried. ‘I have you here now and I will not be able to rest until you have answered what I must ask you.’

‘Then hear me too on this, madam,’ he said. ‘Our minds and bodies are one. Just as ailments of the body may cause great distempers in the brain, so the reverse is true. You are unwell in body, but it is my judgement that the source of your weakness lies in matters of the mind. Grief and anxiety will ravage the body as badly as any fever. I will not wish to trespass into areas more properly addressed by your own physician. Still, if there is anything that I may offer from my own knowledge and ability that might alleviate your distress, be assured that I will give it willingly.’

‘My physician – say rather the one appointed by my late husband, for he had his way in this as he did in all other aspects of my life – is a doctor of the old school,’ Mrs. Ross said. ‘It is beneath him to listen to his patients. No, he has but two treatments to serve in all circumstances: bleeding or cupping. When news reached him of my husband’s death, he came here at once, his knives and dishes to hand. How I found the strength and courage I do not know, sir, but I ordered him from the house. Such is his pride that he will not return, I assure you, until I am willing to make the most abject apology.’

The faintest of smiles appeared. ‘And that I will never do.’

‘Now to business,’ she continued. ‘When I have asked my questions and heard your answers, I will submit to your professional ministrations. The Lord knows that I need them.’

Once again, Adam sat in silence, while she gathered her strength ahead of what she clearly expected to be a terrible ordeal.

was told
,’ Mrs. Ross said, ‘that it was you who found my husband’s body. I was not well enough to attend the coroner’s inquest and, thank God, my presence was not required. But one who did attend told me that you gave evidence that you had found no signs that anyone else was present in the churchyard. Is that correct?’ Adam agreed that it was.

‘No one at all?’ she said.

‘That is not quite the case,’ Adam said. ‘At the time I gave my evidence, what I said was what I believed to be true. Later I learned that Mr. Harmsworthy, the magistrate, had taken your husband to Gressington. It seems that Dr. Ross arrived at Mr. Harmsworthy’s house in some distress. His chaise had suffered a mishap on the road and needed attention that could not be given until next morning. Since he was most eager to reach Gressington that evening. Mr. Harmsworthy took him there, but did not enquire the reason for his visit.’

‘Yes, he would be most eager,’ she said, then was silent again.

‘I cannot believe that the magistrate would take your husband to that lonely place and leave him there alone. Dr. Ross would have had no means to return after his business was completed. If my reasoning holds good, Mr. Harmsworthy must himself have been present for at least some of the time. I was not able to speak to him further on the matter after the inquest. Now he seems to have left the area, giving no date for his return.’

‘I see,’ she said, ‘but you found no sign of a third person? No sign of any struggle?’

‘None,’ Adam said. ‘I looked most carefully. Nor did I find the mass of footprints that I would expect had your late husband been set upon by thieves. I assure you, I found no signs of violence upon him, madam, save for the single blow that seems to have brought about his death.’

‘And how was that blow caused, in your opinion?’ she said.

‘I cannot say for certain. There was no sign of any weapon. He may indeed have fallen and struck his head, for there were several large stones nearby. If he fell, he must done so backwards.’

‘Fell…or was pushed?’

‘Again, I cannot tell. The inquest found that it was an accident.’

‘And you stand content with that?’ she said.

Adam hesitated. He did not wish to cause her further distress, yet he could not bring himself to lie. ‘To be plain with you, madam, I am not content at all. All that I have told you is true. I found no signs of violence. There was no indication that others were present at the time of your husband’s demise. I would have expected the coroner to enquire into all of these matters, just as you have done. In particular, I thought he would want to know what brought your husband to that place. Yet he did not do so. When I tried to raise this question, he ruled it to be out of order.’

‘You suspect the verdict was rigged?’ she said. She might be sick, but her wits were sharp.

‘If it was, madam, I do not comprehend the reason.’

‘I do not either,’ she said. ‘Believe me when I tell you that I do not know why he went to Gressington on that day. I do have dark suspicions, yet they do not concern anything that would be of interest to the authorities. One day, perhaps, I will share them with you. For now, you have my thanks. You have not set my mind at rest completely – nor can you do so with honesty – but you have given me much ease. For the moment, doctor, I am too tired to continue with this subject. Would you be willing to come again, should I request it?’

‘I would do so readily,’ Adam said.

‘Then, as I promised, I will submit to your ministrations. Your diagnosis was correct. I am greatly troubled in my mind, so that I have been unable to sleep and can barely touch any food. Can you also prescribe for ailments of the soul, my good doctor, for I feel that my soul is greatly injured?’

‘That I cannot do,’ Adam said. ‘Indeed, I am not sure that such a thing as a soul exists, since, if it survives death, its substance must lie outside this natural world. No, madam, I leave the cure of souls to others. Mind and body present more than enough mysteries for any man of science.’

‘A sceptic then,’ Mrs Ross said, though her tone was light. ‘No matter. I have had enough of certainties about the supernatural world to last me this lifetime and many others.’

detailed examination and questioning only confirmed what he had already suspected. Since the Archdeacon’s death, his wife had eaten little, worried much and slept hardly at all. Yet he suspected that her grief came not from her husband’s death, but from some other matter. Perhaps she would tell him in time, when she had learned to trust him more. Until then, he contented himself with giving her instruction on how best to regain her strength. ‘You must eat, madam, whether you have appetite or no. Ask your servants to prepare you some good beef tea, adding perhaps a little bread. Then, as soon as you feel able, take some more extensive nourishment. It will be best to have whatever your fancy lights upon. Avoid large meals, for at this stage they will only induce nausea. Let your constant theme be little and often.

‘For drink, I will give you a receipt for a good, strengthening herbal brew. You may vary this with a little ale and wine, but my advice would be to avoid tea or coffee until you feel your strength returning. I have also written here a receipt, which your servant may take to the apothecary. It is for a strong tincture of hops, poppy and valerian to help you sleep. Take two or three drops in a glass of wine when you retire for the night.

‘Finally,’ Adam said, ‘I beg you take particular notice of these words: be kind to yourself. Whatever you feel is wrong, whatever you feel you have done that you now regret, do not punish yourself. Many wrongs may be righted in time, if we only have the strength to do it. Your basic health is sound and you have many years ahead of you. Look to the future and all may yet be resolved.’

So Adam took his leave, looking to the great clock in the hallway to reassure himself that he could be at his mother’s house before her guests arrived. His visit had been more confusing than enlightening. It was clear that the Archdeacon’s widow suspected that she knew the reason for her husband’s visit to Gressington. It was this knowledge which caused her so much grief. Until she was willing to divulge more to him, he could not guess what lay hidden in her thoughts. So he tucked the puzzle away in the back of his mind and readied himself to deal with the challenge ahead.

Ladies of a Certain Age
Early afternoon of the same day

hen Adam had first arrived
at his mother's home that morning, he had surprised her by leaving again after but a brief greeting. Nor did he explain, but said only that he had some medical business to attend to and would return in good time to meet her guests. That promise he had fulfilled. The fewer who knew of his conversation with Mrs. Ross the better. He had no wish to waste time turning aside the inevitable questions about why she wished to see him. Especially since still he had no clear idea himself.

Now he was back, just in time to join his mother in her dressing room to take his final instructions.

‘There will be five guests,’ his mother told him. ‘Mrs. Wellborne and Mrs. Transom, who are sisters. Then Barbara, Lady Grandison, The Honourable Jane Labelior and Miss Vastone, whose brother is heir-presumptive to Lord Maxstoke. All are prominent members of local society and knew the late archdeacon and his wife as well as any in these parts. They agreed to come readily enough, but do not be surprised if they hold back somewhat. The superstition is still strong that you should not speak ill of the dead. None will wish to be the first to share what they know. If you will be guided by me, you will look first to Lady Grandison. The rest will take their lead from her. She is old enough, and certainly rich enough, to set superstitions and conventions at naught. If she decides to trust you, you will learn all you wish to know. If she does not, your journey here will be wasted.’

hey were still upstairs
when he heard the maid go to the door to admit the first of the guests. His mother went down at once. She told Adam to wait until she sent the maid to call him, for she wished the ladies to be done with their greetings and settled, ready to talk, before she presented him.

It seemed an age that he waited. What on earth was taking them so long? Surely five rational women could greet one another and possess themselves of dishes of tea in less than twenty minutes?

Eventually, the maid returned and summoned him to the parlour, much like one of the early Christian martyrs being summoned to face the assembled lions in the arena. Allowing the maid to precede him, Adam gathered his wits and came in almost on tip-toes. His first impression of the assembled ladies was not one to give him confidence.

What he had expected, he did not know. Perhaps a group of neat, soberly-dressed women, sipping tea from fine-china dishes and talking in hushed voices. If so, he would have been disappointed. What faced him looked more as if the stock of several merchants were piled on the chairs. Rich heaps of ribbons, frills, furbelows and flounces adorned the ladies’ clothes. They had their hair piled high in the latest manner, and fingers, necks and breasts carried more gold and jewels than he had ever seen before. The persons within this bounty were scarcely visible. But the noise! It seemed everyone spoke at once. When they did not speak, they laughed or cried aloud, and all in voices of such volume and power as would carry across the largest room.

‘Ladies,’ his mother shouted, for to do less would have been a waste of time. ‘This is my son, Dr. Adam Bascom.’

The total silence which followed her words was more terrifying than the hubbub which had preceded them. Five pairs of eyes were fixed on him. Five faces showed their owners to be engaged in the closest examination of his dress and person. Five minds were weighing him against heaven knows what standards of acceptability. Adam had sat before some of the most learned professors in three universities and submitted himself and his knowledge to rigorous examination. Yet he had never felt so powerful a sense of being weighed and found wanting.

dam’s mother
introduced him formally to each of her guests in turn and the usual pleasantries were exchanged. After that, there was something of an awkward silence while he wondered how best to begin.

Lady Grandison was the first to tire of this hesitation. Her clothes bore the greatest number of frills and trimmings. Her hair carried the most ribbons and curls. And her jewels so far outshone the rest that it almost hurt the eyes to look upon her, so much did she flash and sparkle with every movement. ‘Well, young man, here we are. But before you say anything, let me ask you a question. We are all well aware that you found the Archdeacon’s body in that churchyard. But what precisely is your further interest? Is it professional or personal? Your mother tells us you never knew the man – which you should, in my opinion, count a great blessing.’

She fixed her eyes on him and waited for his answer. Adam was not a man easily abashed, but he quailed before that gaze. He knew the course of the rest of the conversation would depend on what he said next. Almost without consideration, he chose honesty. ‘A little of both, my Lady. Professionally, I am puzzled how he might have fallen and struck his head with sufficient force to cause death. Personally, I believe the inquest avoided the most pressing question: what was he doing in the churchyard at Gressington so late in the day? Until I can see a plausible answer to these questions, my curiosity gives me no rest.

‘I should also, I believe, state at the outset that I have no proper standing in this matter,’ he continued. ‘I have no connection with his family or brief from the magistrate whose concern this should be. Indeed, he told me plainly enough to let the affair be forgotten. All that drives me on is my most regrettable curiosity and a sense that justice has not been done.’

Adam now held his breath, expecting to be sent on his way with a severe reprimand for his impertinence. The ladies continued to watch him gravely. At last, Lady Grandison delivered her verdict. ‘I perceive that you find it hard to follow orders from those in authority, sir. That is as it should be. I have never done what I was told, merely because the teller claimed some right to direct my behaviour. If I am honest, I have never done as I was told, and there is an end of it. Many people have also said that I am as curious as a cat, though rarely to my face. I like your honesty in this matter.’

She now turned to the others. ‘We may proceed as we agreed, my friends. Dr. Bascom is an honest man and I, for one, will give him my help freely.’

Adam bowed his head, murmuring his thanks. He felt as if he had unexpectedly been reprieved from the hangman’s rope even while standing on the scaffold. ‘I do not know what manner of man Dr. Ross was,’ he said. ‘That makes it hard for me to judge the likelihood of any of the situations presented to my mind.’

he ladies still seemed hesitant
, looking at one another for reassurance. As his mother had predicted, none wished to be the first to speak and hoped for another to give the lead. Lady Grandison grunted with exasperation. ‘What ninnies you all are. Surely you do not subscribe to the common superstition that you should speak no ill of the dead, lest they come to haunt you?’

She dismissed them with a shrug and turned to Adam. ‘I have several characteristics that some describe as flaws, Doctor. I consider them essential virtues. Chief among them is this: I scorn to waste energy in the toleration of fools. Nathaniel Ross was a fool, and an unpleasant fool at that. He was pompous, bigoted, self-righteous and a bully. Though he was a clerk in holy orders, he was no Christian in my book. Our Lord bade us love our neighbours. If any about him were nonconformists or dissenters, he treated them only with hatred and derision. I loathed the man.’

There was some whispering when she paused, but no one spoke against her. She had not, moreover, quite finished.

‘Nathaniel Ross’s religion was ambition, young man,’ she went on. ‘He aimed to be a bishop, and that sooner rather than later. To achieve such a position demands support amongst those with influence on the government and the King. Having neither precise scholarship nor a talent for good fellowship, he planned another route to glory. He aimed to win over those who felt they had least in common with our Latitudinarian church leaders. I mean the remnant of the Jacobite tendency and the Tories of the deepest hue. These are the gentry most offended by change. Especially if they must accommodate themselves to seeing people in the merchant and professional classes become wealthier than they are. To that end, he preached blind obedience to authority and a continuation of the laws restricting dissenters from taking a full part in civic life. In short, sir, he was a snivelling toady. He would sell his soul in exchange for the chance to wear a mitre.’

Her tirade was over, to be greeted by nods of assent from the other ladies. As if released from any obligation to hold back, several now hastened to add their own criticism of the late archdeacon’s character.

‘The Lord Bishop’s wife told me – in strict confidence you understand – that her husband could not abide the man,’ Mrs. Transom said. ‘He was punctilious in his duties, but did them with such strictness that he caused offence to many clergy of good standing. The bishop had constantly to smooth ruffled feathers.’

‘I heard the same,’ her sister, Mrs. Wellborne added. ‘Mrs. Mannerly, whose husband is Rector of Great Binstead, said to me that her husband and Dr. Ross had a serious argument. The archdeacon criticised the Rev. Mr. Mannerly’s willingness to dine with certain of his parishioners.’

‘To dine?’ Adam said. ‘Surely that can be no sin?’

‘Dr. Ross made it so,’ she said. ‘The persons with whom Mr. Mannerly dined are but occasional attendees at the parish church. Most often they are to be found on a Sunday amongst the Wesleyan congregation. According to the archdeacon, Mr. Mannerly should have refused all invitations so long as the man continued to stray from the Anglican church. Yet Mrs. Mannerly said the man and his wife were fine company and kept a most generous table.’

‘He made fair to ruin the accord now existing between the Christians of this city and county,’ Lady Grandison said. ‘In place of tolerance and amity, he brought argument and confrontation. Many amongst the dissenting are good citizens, who contribute much to our society and prosperity. Indeed, my son, who is, as I have told you all before, most diligent in the improvement of the estate and its cultivation, speaks highly of certain Quaker merchants. Several such now both lend money and issue letters of credit to ease the inconvenience of conducting business in distant places. His agent may now buy and sell as easily in Antwerp or Edinburgh as in Ipswich. Their beliefs forbid them to lie or depart from plain speech. As a result, they have become trusted by all. He could not do without them.’

‘Yet, for all his rhetoric, Dr. Ross took good care to speak out only when protected by a pulpit,’ Miss Labelior announced. ‘Whenever any of the labouring sort caused disturbance in the streets, he was sure to stay safe inside. In his sermons, he was most vehement in condemning riot and bidding all to be content with their lot. Beyond the church walls, it was another matter.’

‘He was not alone in that. It is clear that a good many who feel themselves oppressed by masters and employers blame the parish clergy for siding with the rich and well-born,’ Miss Vastone added. ‘For any well-dressed clergyman to venture out when the mobs are in the streets would invite abuse, if not pelting with mud.’

‘There’s much in what you say, my dear,’ Mrs. Transom said. ‘Both the Acts to enclose the land, and the use of ingenious machines to replace labour, have thrown many men out of work. They blame those who benefit most from such changes. That includes the church. It cannot be otherwise, since squire and parson enjoy increases in their rents and tithes as a result.’

Adam sensed the conversation straying and moved to bring it back to the Archdeacon’s character. ‘Was Dr. Ross a friend to the poor and needy?’

The laughter that greeted this question was answer enough.

‘More than once, as I heard myself,’ said Miss Vastone, ‘he preached that poverty was nought but God’s punishment for laziness and shameless behaviour. Yet he also derided those who seek through education and encouragement to assist the poor to better themselves. His theme was ever that each was placed by God in his station in life and to change that was simple blasphemy.’

‘The truth is, sir,’ Mrs. Wellborne said, ‘Dr. Ross was more apt to condemn than give comfort.’

‘Even his own son…’ added Mrs. Transom, then shut her mouth abruptly at the glances of accusation directed at her.

‘His son, Madam? What of him.’ Adam spoke gently, aware that too much curiosity might cause them all to take fright.

nce more it needed Barbara
, Lady Grandison, to break the silence, her words as much a command as a source of reassurance. ‘Oh, out with it, Rebecca. We all know, though some of you pretend you do not. We will not help this young man, as we agreed we would, by too great a delicacy. It is said, sir, that the archdeacon and his son had a most rancorous falling out of late. Mr. William Ross was brave enough to tell his father he would not follow him into the church. Thus his father disowned him and threw him out of the house. Young William has now disappeared, it is said. He did not even attend his father’s funeral.’

‘It was a foolish act,’ Pamela Wellborne murmured, ‘yet the boy is brave. It is said he is also handsome.’

‘Said by you,’ her sister snapped. ‘Brave and handsome young men will be your undoing one day, sister.’

‘Peace!’ Lady Grandison commanded. ‘Whether brave or not, it was honest. Mr. William Ross deserves credit for that. Now, Rebecca, finish what you have started.’

‘Dr. Ross was determined his only son should follow him,’ Mrs. Transom said, eager enough to continue her tale. ‘He imagined a dynasty of bishops and archbishops, all named Ross. The young man, unfortunately, has neither a calling to the cloth nor any interest in the learning needed to aspire to a diocese. He was sent to his father’s college at Oxford, but quite failed to attend to his lectures. After but one year, the Master sent him home, saying he was not suited. He did not drink excessively or carouse in the town, like many a son of noble parents. In the archdeacon's view his behaviour was worse. He spent his time with factory owners and the like, travelling even as far as Birmingham to talk with them. There he attended the science lectures given by Dr. Joseph Priestley, a notorious Unitarian. He also made the acquaintance of men such as Mr. Erasmus Darwin and Mr. Josiah Wedgwood. Both of them, as I am sure you must know, dissenters.’

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
9.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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