An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1) (11 page)

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
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‘But these are eminent men of science,’ Adam cried. ‘They are also men of the highest repute. Most fathers would be delighted to find a son who had the honour to be accepted by them.’

‘Not Dr. Ross,’ Miss Vanstone said. ‘He cared nothing for natural science or any other knowledge beyond theology. I have even heard him say the world would have been a better place had Sir Isaac Newton never been born.’

Adam merely shook his head at this. He knew Dr. Ross was a bigot, but this was rank stupidity.

‘Young Mr. William Ross wished to study natural science and mathematics,’ Mrs. Transom concluded. ‘From his earliest youth he had a rare skill with numbers. It seems he neglected his university studies only to pursue others better fitted to his mind.’

‘His father must have been furious,’ Mrs. Wellborne said, perhaps considering her sister was garnering too much attention. ‘I feel sure he would have lectured his son on the duty of obedience. Never mind his own wishes, he must do as his father required, like it or not.’

‘Besides,’ Miss Labelior added, appearing to choose her words with both care and considerable relish, ‘there was the other matter.’

‘That was just tittle-tattle,’ Miss Vanstone said.

‘Not at all, Letitia.’ Miss Labelior sounded affronted. ‘I was told by one well-placed to know.’

Adam prompted her gently. ‘The other matter?’

Miss Labelior favoured him with a warm smile and a playful pat on his thigh. He had given her back the limelight and she was going to take full advantage of it.

‘Mr. William Ross had formed an unsuitable attachment,’ she said, in the tones of one passing on a great secret. ‘The girl is, I believe, remarkably pretty and rather shapely…’ Both were plainly attributes Miss Labelior claimed for herself. Her quick look towards him told Adam he had best agree, which he did with a slight inclination of his head. ‘…and also rich enough. But…’ a dramatic pause worthy of Mrs. Siddons herself. ‘…her family are dissenters.’

‘If every young man who formed an unsuitable attachment was disinherited, Jane,’ Lady Grandison said, ‘only daughters would ever be mentioned in wills. I myself formed several in my youth. Had I had courage enough to stay with them, I dare say I would have married more happily – though perhaps with a lesser fortune than I enjoy today.’

Adam’s mind struggled with the idea of Lady Grandison ever lacking courage to do whatever she wanted. But this intervention had broken the pattern that led to such openness from the others – as she may well have intended – and quickly brought the topic to a close.

‘Well, Dr. Bascom?’ she said. ‘Have we given you information enough?’

Adam assured her this was indeed the case and added profuse thanks.

‘Good,’ Lady Grandison said. ‘Now it is your turn to answer questions. Tell us – in full detail I say – how you found the archdeacon’s body. What state was he in? What did you next do? Full answers, sir. We cannot have an eyewitness before us and go away lacking proper information in any respect. I will not allow it.’

At the inquest, Adam wished for a full questioning and had none. After these genteel and high-born ladies had left, he felt lucky to have at least most of his skin still about him. Never had he endured such an hour. But when he ventured to make complaint to his mother on the matter, he met with scant sympathy.

‘Those who choose to meet with dangerous creatures must expect a few scratches,’ she said. ‘You did well enough. You survived. Barbara Grandison has devoured many stronger men than you, I assure you. I would not doubt the others have consumed not a few as well. Do not assume that every woman with the title ‘Miss’ knows little of the ways of men or the pleasures they offer. Letitia Vanstone has had as many lovers as hats, they say. And Jane Labelior was especially grateful that you supplied her entrance line. If you had not, your skin might show yet more wounds than it does. No, Adam, I fear they liked you. Had I not been present, you would not have escaped several most pressing invitations to dine – ones it would be most imprudent for any young man to accept. Now, it is time you met Miss Sophia Lasalle, my new companion.’

17
Sophia Lasalle
Later that day

M
iss Sophia Lasalle
, needless to say, proved neither a vinegary blue-stocking nor a frightened mouse. The woman who awaited them in his mother’s small parlour was probably of much the same age as Adam. She was neatly dressed and neither tall nor short, with a pale complexion and dark hair. Adam found her decidedly pleasant to look upon. Her face was not beautiful, but she had fine, large eyes and a good figure. He greeted her with grave good manners and she replied with equal formality. 

It was too much for Adam’s mother, who proved unable to contain her laughter.  ‘I imagine a condemned criminal and the hangman would show more warmth in their greeting than the two of you,’ she said, wiping tears from her eyes. ‘You are, I declare, as solemn as owls. Come, relax as friends should. I am not asking you to wed one another, merely to be comfortable in the other’s presence.’

‘I am quite comfortable, mother,’ Adam said.

‘As am I, madam,’ Miss Lasalle added.

The silence that followed proved well enough that both were lying. Adam had never possessed any talent for small-talk. He was effective in dealing with his patients, so long as the subject-matter of their discussions was clear and lay within his area of knowledge. With others, men or women, he found himself often at a loss for words. Now, since it seemed his mother was not willing to help him, he tried again. ‘Ah...um...Lasalle. French name. Bonjour, Mademoiselle.’

‘Bonjour, Monsieur,’ she replied. ‘My name is indeed of French origin, as you surmise. My grandfather was called Martin la Salle and certainly spoke French. He was of a Huguenot family from the Austrian Netherlands and a silk-weaver of some repute, like his father before him. When persecution came yet again, he fled to England. Thus I was born in Ipswich. I am almost as English as you, sir. Both my grandfather and father took English wives, so at best I am but one quarter Huguenot.’

Adam felt a little discomforted by her response. ‘I beg your pardon, Miss Lasalle. I merely sought to make polite conversation.’

‘Now you are annoyed with me. Do not be so. Your mother warned me to expect a scholar, not a courtier. For that, I am grateful. I much prefer to talk of matters of moment. All the flowery graces and compliments in the world cannot compare with an honest sharing of ideas and observations. Let us forget the conventions and talk rather of sensible topics. I believe that you have studied in Leiden, Dr. Bascom. Do you still maintain contact with people in the university there?’

‘I do indeed, madam.’

‘You cannot imagine how much I envy you. In our society, an educated woman is too often treated as a freak, rather than a person who seeks to develop the gifts Providence has given her.’

‘I do not think thus,’ Adam said. ‘Nor, I believe, do some at least of the dissenting faiths. Only a few days ago I was speaking with a Quaker merchant who has taken great pains to see his daughter has a fine education. But you do yourself an injustice, for I believe you speak both French and Italian with some fluency. That is a trick I was never able to master. I spent a year in the United Provinces and never gained more than a few phrases of Dutch.’

‘My grandfather and father taught me French, doctor, and one of my brothers has an Italian wife. I take my opportunities where I may.’

‘I believe what decided Sophia to come to live with me was less my character than the quality of my cases of books and the excellent libraries in this city,’ Mrs. Bascom said. ‘She rather reminds me of one of my own children, whose head was always buried between the pages of a book.’

‘Now you mock me a little, madam,’ Miss Lasalle said. ‘I would never willingly consent to spend one hour with a person whose character I disliked, far less live in their house. Your dear mother, doctor, has already shown me great kindness and regard. I am delighted to be here and feel sure I will find being her companion a most pleasant experience. But come, I am all agog to know what you made of your mother’s guests. Did you like them? They are all, I understand, ladies of a most superior sort.’

Adam smiled at this. ‘Like is not a word I would have considered using,’ he said, ‘but I suppose I did like them to an extent. Once Lady Grandison had approved of me, they were happy to tell me what I wanted to know – though later I had to pay heavily for their confidences. By the end of their questioning, I felt like one of those unfortunate rabbits you see hanging outside a butcher’s shop. My skin was gone and my inner parts had been scraped quite bare.’

‘Do not let him fool you, my dear,’ Mrs. Bascom. ‘He was in his element. He loves nothing better than to worm information from unsuspecting people. If they turned the tables on him at the end, it was no more than he deserved.’

Adam realised Miss Lasalle might well not know why he wanted to meet these grand ladies, so he hurried to explain. ‘By the merest chance, I became involved in a puzzling matter concerning the late Archdeacon of Norwich …’

Miss Lasalle interrupted him. ‘You need not bother with tedious explanations, doctor. Your mother has explained to me the reasons for you coming here today. But tell me. Did you learn what you wished?’

‘I wished to know more of the archdeacon’s character,’ Adam said, ‘hoping that might help me make more sense of the rest.’

‘And has it?’ Miss Lasalle asked with great eagerness.

‘I have discovered, alas, that he was a most disagreeable person. I hesitate to say so much of a clergyman, but all I have been told is consistent. I must judge him to have been narrow-minded and self-righteous to an extreme. He was also exceedingly ambitious to rise higher. Even so, such vices are common enough in this world. None of them seems sufficient to offer a reason for him going to Gressington. Nor for any to seek to compass his death.’

‘It was to meet someone,’ Miss Lasalle declared. ‘Nothing else makes sense.’

‘The churchyard was certainly a secluded-enough place for a secret meeting,’ Adam replied. ‘But why travel so far? Are there not places closer to Norwich that are equally private and deserted?’

‘But you have answered your own question, doctor. Logic dictates that if the place for a meeting is inconvenient for one party, it must have been chosen because of its great suitability for the other.’

Adam stared at Miss Lasalle in amazement. Why had such a simple piece of reasoning escaped him? He did not know what to say.

‘I warn you, Adam,’ his mother said. ‘Once she has some piece of knowledge in her sight, Miss Lasalle has the determination and hunting instincts of a terrier after a rat. She will drain you dry before she gives you rest. But that is enough for tonight, children. I wish to hear no more of deaths and secrets. Let us turn to happier matters. Did I not hear, Adam, that you have encountered your great friend Mr. Lassimer again? Is he well? Does he prosper in the medical profession as you do?’

Since his mother had changed the subject so firmly, Adam had no choice but to bow to her wishes. He therefore embarked on the story of Mr. Lassimer’s life since they had last been together in Glasgow. His mother listened attentively, nodding sadly at the point where misfortune fell upon Mr. Lassimer Senior. Then she brightened again as Adam explained how Lassimer had found his place in the world as an apothecary. Naturally, he made no mention at any stage of widows or servants. When Mrs. Bascom asked if Mr. Lassimer was yet married, Adam simply said he was not.

At this point, Mrs. Bascom turned again to her companion. ‘I only met Mr. Lassimer once, Sophia. Then he seemed to me to be the kind of man many a young woman would judge a most suitable husband. His spirit is cheerful, he works hard and he is a generous and kindly friend. I am sure he will soon find the right lady. My elder son, as you know, has been married some years. Of the one before you, I sometimes despair. He has reached thus far in life without displaying any interest in marriage at all.’

‘Not every young person sees marriage as a desirable state,’ Miss Lasalle replied. Then she fell silent, as if to speak further risked exposing more of her thoughts than she wished.

The clock now struck the hour of four and Mrs. Bascom announced that it was time to dress for dinner. And so, being dismissed, each made their way to their chamber and prepared themselves for the evening.

18
The Alien Office
Friday, 29 June 1792, Norwich

A
dam was enjoying
a leisurely breakfast with his mother and Miss Lasalle the next morning when a housemaid came in with a visiting card on a small tray. Mrs. Bascom naturally turned to take it, looking surprised that any should call so early in the day, but the maid moved it from her reach. ‘Beg pardon, madam, it is for Dr. Bascom. I have asked the gentleman to wait in the small parlour.’

Mother and son looked at one another in surprise. ‘Who knows I am here?’ Adam said, ‘and has the temerity to call at such an hour?’

‘Take the card and see,’ his mother said. ‘What is the name on it?’ So great was Adam’s puzzlement that he merely passed her the card.

‘Mr. Percival Wicken,’ she said. ‘Do you know him? The name means nothing to me.’

‘I know nothing of him,’ Adam said. ‘Whoever can it be?’

When Adam entered the small parlour a few moments later, he knew the answer immediately. The tall, elegant man standing before him was undoubtedly the one Capt. Mimms had pointed out to him at the inquest. Then he had been in company with the bishop’s chaplain and much interested in what happened.

‘I am pleased to make your acquaintance, sir,’ Mr. Wicken said, holding out his hand in a most affable way. ‘Please forgive me for calling on you so early and give my equal apologies to your mother. I arrived from London late last night and must return as soon as possible. I am unable to delay until a more polite hour.’

Adam retained just enough presence of mind to take the proffered hand, but there his manners deserted him.‘How did you know I was here, sir?’ Why have you sought me out thus?’

Mr. Wicken seemed neither surprised nor insulted by Adam’s directness. ‘I would be poor indeed at my business if I had not known, doctor,’ he said. ‘You came to Norwich early yesterday morning and paid a call on Mrs. Ross. Then you returned to this house. Shortly after, your mother received some of the more prominent ladies of the city. I assume you joined them and the topic was Dr. Ross’s death. You have also talked of late with Capt. Mimms, an elderly merchant of these parts. He has been making enquiries amongst his business acquaintances in Yarmouth. All these were quickly reported to me.

‘You are a man of considerable intelligence and even greater curiosity, sir. You are also most persistent in seeking to satisfy your questions about that regrettable event in the churchyard at Gressington. I suspected at the time that neither the pedantry of Mr. Allsop, nor the clumsy bluntness of Mr. Harmsworthy, would persuade you to lessen your interest. Sadly, I was much pressed for time and allowed my need to be back in London to override my judgment. Since then, I have had even less leisure to handle the matter in person – for I soon realised that nothing less would serve.’

Adam would have spoken then, but Mr. Wicken raised his hand to prevent it. ‘Hear me out, sir,’ he said. ‘I have not come here to tell you to mind your own business, as I suspect Mr. Harmsworthy did. I certainly will not try to dismiss your thoughts as irrelevant, as Mr. Allsop. I am here to answer as many of the questions which puzzle you as I may, since our activities in these parts are now complete. You should take it as a sincere tribute to your skills as an investigator that I have done so. My praise in such regard is not given lightly, nor set against any but the highest standards.’

‘Who are you, sir? What are you rather?’ Adam asked. ‘For I know not which is the more appropriate question to ask.’

Mr. Wicken smiled at that. ‘Who I am you know: Percival Wicken, from London. What I am is not so easy to explain. Perhaps I can best put it like this. I am in charge of part of the Alien Office. That institution rarely features in the newspapers, entirely by design. On the surface, it does the most mundane tasks associated with persons from other countries who wish to visit our shores. Behind the scenes, it collects information. I am an investigator, of a sort, but one who spends nearly all his time in and around Whitehall. My task is to give advice to His Majesty’s ministers on the activities of certain people of interest. Many play significant parts in events beyond this country’s borders and we must decide how best to respond to them. To that end, I utilise many who collect information for me, some knowingly, others less so. Such information I weigh and analyse, just as you do when making a diagnosis. Indeed, if you will not consider it impertinent, I could say that, as you are concerned with the health of the body, my concern is the health of the body politic.’

‘I regret that you will find me very dull of wit, but I am no wiser, sir,’ Adam said.

‘Perhaps you may be when I have finished my tale. May we sit, perhaps?’

Adam was mortified. In his surprise at seeing Mr. Wicken, he had neglected common courtesy. Then, learning that Mr. Wicken both knew where to find him and had come from London specifically to talk to him, he had failed to right his error. Mr. Wicken had risen, naturally, when Adam entered the room. Both men were still standing.

‘My apologies, Mr. Wicken,’ he said now. ‘I have quite forgot my manners. Please be seated. I still wonder that you knew where I might be today, since I am not at my own home. Have you had me followed all this time?’

‘No great wonder, sir; and no, I have neither the people available, nor the inclination, to have you followed. You would have to seem a great deal more of a threat to the stability of this country for that to be an action I would authorise.

‘Let me answer these minor points first then, since they seem to distract you. Any government needs information to guide its decisions. Often, it is concealed with great care. Those who wish to harm the state do not advertise that fact. Those who seek to discover information which our government wishes to keep secret act likewise. Messages, letters, even people, are constantly smuggled between our enemies and rivals and their agents in this land. These include some whose dearest desire is to overthrow our government and institutions. Others wish to disrupt our trade or steal our inventions. There are also home-grown rebels, seditious groups and dangerous radicals. Please be patient, my friend, for I see you are eager to deny that you belong to any of these bands of rogues.’

Adam had indeed half-risen in shock, his mouth open and denials ready on his tongue.

‘I never thought you did, doctor,’ Mr. Wicken continued. ‘I mention them only to make plain my role. I act on behalf of His Majesty’s government to collect information to reveal the plots and stratagems of England’s enemies. I concentrate on matters that take place within our borders. Others do similar work abroad. To that end, I use agents to seek out what I need to know.’

‘Spies,’ Adam said, still shocked that he had in any way come to the attention of this man.

‘Indeed, spies,’ Mr. Wicken continued. ‘Some such reported to me that your Capt. Mimms was visiting various inns and houses in Yarmouth. He had pointed questions about what had taken place recently in Gressington. They could not understand why a respected merchant and mariner, now of advanced years, should be so interested in smuggling. They thus communicated their puzzlement to the usual persons to whom they give information. From there it came to me.

‘Knowing of your curiosity in the matter of the archdeacon’s death, it was not hard for me to conclude that you had talked with Capt. Mimms and stimulated his interest. Whether he was seeking fresh news on your behalf, or merely wished to spring a surprise on you with some novel revelation, I did not know.’

‘It was the latter,’ Adam said. ‘We had talked, but I had no idea he would look for further revelations in the way that he did.’

‘Indeed,’ Mr. Wicken said. ‘Well, no matter. My reasoning that you were still dissatisfied with the outcome of the inquest on Dr. Ross was not so remarkable. I have decided it will be best to visit you and tell you what you wish to know, as far as I can. Our activities in this area are complete, as I sad, for the time being at least, and there is no reason to prolong your curiosity further.

‘I have taken a long and twisting path to give you an answer to your first question: how did I know where to find you? It is simple, I instructed my watchers to find out and report to me. When they did, I hurried here. I must thank you, doctor. By choosing to visit Norwich today, you have saved me the extra journey to Aylsham.’

I
f Mr. Wicken
had expected his revelations to quiet Adam’s concerns about this visit, he was wrong. From what he had said, it was clear that Mr. Wicken moved in exalted circles. He was far more important than his presence at the inquest had suggested. Had he given up his time – and made a journey of more than one hundred miles – to gratify some country physician’s curiosity? No, it could not be possible.

As usual, Adam preferred directness. ‘I am indeed sensible of the time and trouble you have taken to be here today, sir. I will be glad to have my questions answered, for they have nibbled away at my mind as mice do at cheese. Yet I cannot but wonder why such an important personage as yourself should act in this way. I am no one. I have no personal standing in this matter. No, sir, I am merely the unfortunate who stumbled over the poor man’s body in that churchyard…’

Mr. Wicken interrupted him. ‘And, given what I have told you about my work, your mind worries that I have some ulterior reason for my actions unbeknownst to you. Probably a reason that you should either fear or seek to avoid. Am I right?’

Adam assented. He felt as he had done on more than one occasion when the master at his school had reason to reprimand or punish him for some misdemeanour.

Mr. Wicken, however, appeared delighted with Adam’s admission. ‘My dear doctor, your candour is as refreshing as your reasoning is swift. As you can imagine, I spend a good deal of my time with those who would conceal all their thoughts from me, if they could. Some are inside our own government, I may add. It is delightful to find one who speaks what he thinks, even if it is wrong – as it is in this case, I assure you.

‘What brought me here is something like admiration, doctor. As I understood the way you have reasoned in this matter, I found myself most impressed. That is a rarity, I can assure you. No, sir, I have come to have the pleasure of meeting you for myself and showing you how close you have come to the truth of this matter. Though, if I am to repay frankness with frankness, I must own to a curiosity of my own.

‘There are still some aspects that escape me. I can no longer devote my scarce resources to their resolution. Indeed they probably have no bearing on the duties of my office. However, it occurred to me that I might be able to persuade you to go just a little further on your quest and satisfy my curiosity as I hope to satisfy yours. When I have told you what I can, I will return to this and we will see if we can strike a deal. Is that acceptable to you?’

The thoughts and questions in Adam’s mind were moving so fast that he could scarce focus on one before it was displaced by the next. His answer, therefore, came from instinct, not rationality. Perhaps that was a blessing, perhaps not. Only time would tell. Yet one thing was clear to him, even through the fog swirling in his mind. He had a patient whose future health and ease – perhaps even her life – depended on his ability to lay her fears to rest. To walk away from the puzzle of the archdeacon’s death now, regardless of what Mr. Wicken could tell him, would be the gravest dereliction of his duty as a physician. He would never be able to live with himself.

‘I accept, Mr. Wicken,’ he said, ‘though I cannot see how my fumbling efforts may succeed where your superior knowledge and skills have not.’

‘We will see, doctor,’ Mr. Wicken said. ‘It seems I have more faith in your ability that you. Well, I am willing to back that faith. I do not believe you will prove me wrong.’

They were interrupted now by the arrival of a servant bearing a tray with a jug of punch, glasses and two small dishes of sweetmeats. ‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ the girl said to Adam. ‘The mistress thought that you had perhaps forgotten to offer your visitor refreshment.’

It seemed Adam was fated throughout this morning to be found wanting in matters of simple hospitality. The thought had never crossed his mind. Blushing with embarrassment at his woeful lack of politeness, he told the girl to set down her burden. Then he asked her to convey his fullest thanks to her mistress for making good his absence of manners, however belatedly. As the maid poured glasses for them both, he thought he detected a grin on her face, though she quickly hid it, sensing he was observing her.

When she had gone, he would have offered more apologies to Mr. Wicken, but his guest gave him no opportunity. ‘As I said, doctor, I must return to London as quickly as I may. Please thank your mother for her kindness and tell her I was glad of what she sent. Now, with your agreement, let us return at once to the matter in hand.’

‘Earlier, you mentioned spies,’ Mr. Wicken continued, after taking a long draught of the punch. ‘What you may not have realised is that such persons come in many forms. Some, as the popular imagination insists, are disreputable personages from the lowest ranks of society, who frequent vile inns and bawdy-houses to pick up what rumours they can. Some are honest tradesmen and artisans in contact with colleagues infected by radicalism, revolutionary fervour or simple greed. Mariners are needed to move undiscovered amongst mariners. Labourers observe labourers and so on. Like is needed to pass unnoticed amongst like and observe their thoughts and actions.

‘At the end of last year, our attention was drawn to the parts of this coast northwards of Norwich. First, we picked up rumours of a group of gentlemen meeting in secret. No more than that. Then word reached us that certain groups in which we have an interest talked of a secret pathway to and from the other side of the German Ocean; a pathway that began on this same part of the coast. Many seek to enter or leave England unobserved, doctor, and we are ever trying to stop them. Since 1789 and the outbreak of revolution in France, we have redoubled our efforts. Not all who seek to enter our land are nobles fleeing the guillotine and the mob. Men like Paine wrote openly about beginning a similar revolution on this side of the Channel. Indeed, we are well aware that the French have been sending many spies here, both to foment trouble and to report back on the state of our ability to withstand invasion.’

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