Authors: William Savage
hen they had lifted
the body, they found it stiff and uncooperative. Rigor mortis was well advanced. It might begin within a few hours of death, perhaps three to six, depending on the age, bulk and gender of the corpse, as well as its muscularity. Temperature too. Last night had been cold and this might have slowed the process somewhat. Whatever else, the body was stiff now and this state might last for twelve hours or more. All Adam could guess was that the archdeacon had died in the early evening and had lain outside all night. Seeing that the others had now entered the church porch, he rose and hurried after them.
The sexton wheeled the body on its bier into a chapel off the north aisle of the church. The pastor bent his head again in prayer, then stood back to allow Adam to begin his examination. Adam peered first at the archdeacon’s throat, but could see no marks on the flesh of hands or a string. No cut such as a knife would have made. Nothing. No cuts to his clothing that he could see. No sign of a bullet wound. He would have to remove the clothing to be sure of that, but to do so would go beyond the bounds of propriety.
The archdeacon's eyes were closed, yet his features were fixed in a grimace of fierce anger. Had he confronted his killer? Still, Adam had seen odd expressions on the faces of many corpses and put little store by them. He had seen executed murderers who looked peaceful and serene. Those who had passed away surrounded by a loving family, often looked surprised that death had come.
Lifting the head as far as he could, Adam looked at the skull and slid his hands over the thinning hair. Ah, there was something. A dent, a depression in the skull, most likely from a heavy blow. Taking his hand away, he examined the palm. A little blood, not much. There must be only a small cut there, for head wounds of any size usually bled a good deal.
At length, Adam straightened up and addressed the others. ‘There’s a depression on the back of the skull and a cut across it, I believe. Look. Blood on my hand. I suspect his skull was broken by some heavy blow. His neck is so stiff I cannot raise his head to take a decent look, but I reckon he has a small wound where the blow fell.’
‘Murdered?’ Rev. Flather asked.
‘There’s no way to tell, sir. Without a weapon or signs of violence on the body, all I can say is that the man suffered a severe blow to the back of his head.’
‘Enough to cause his death?’
‘Again, I cannot be sure. It may be so. To be clearer on the subject it would be necessary to cut the scalp and examine the nature and depth of the depression beneath. I expect the coroner or the magistrate will order that, but it is their decision. I can see no superficial signs of violence. I do note the dark colour of the skin on his face. Without the wound, I might have guessed at an apoplexy, but that bump on the head changes everything.’
While he was talking, a young man had entered the church and whispered something to the pastor. The response was immediate. ‘Why is he not coming yet? Speak out, boy.’
‘I found Constable Garnet with his nets and boats, sir. The tide is just on the turn. Too far out to launch, so the men are readying their tackle for the next high water. The constable had his boat upside down on the shingle and was painting something on the hull. It smelled terrible, it did! Anyhow, I told him about this corpus, as you said to, and he said he would come when he could.’
The pastor’s face was a picture of astonishment and anger. ‘Was that all?’ he said. ‘He would come when he could? The man is a fool!’
The young man hesitated, afraid to cause his master to become angrier still. ‘He said he reckoned as how the body would keep until he finished his task, master. He promised to see to matters after that. When that might be, he did not say.’
Before Rev. Flather might berate the unfortunate servant still more, Adam intervened. ‘You sent this young man to find the constable before you knew the identity of the dead man, sir. I expect neither he nor the good constable had any reason at that time to consider the matter of unusual importance.’
He turned to the servant. ‘You knew nothing of the circumstances beyond the discovery of a dead man. Is that so?’ he asked.
The man nodded, grateful to be saved further scolding.
‘Sir, you are right, of course,’ the pastor said. ‘There is no need for me to scold young Peter here. He did what I asked him at the time and knew nothing more of this matter. I am sorry, Peter. I should not have spoken to you thus. Off you go now.’
Flather turned to Adam again and stretched out his right hand. As Adam took it in friendship, the pastor thanked him for his help.
‘I shall go to the constable myself, sir,’ he said. ‘Once he understands the importance of this event, I am certain he will respond with all due diligence. He is somewhat lacking in finer feelings, as are most of his kind. Lacking in honesty too, at times, but that is also common enough in this fallen world. There is no need to detain you longer. You must be in sore need of breaking your fast. If you return to the vicarage, I am sure my wife would be more than willing to provide you with suitable sustenance…’
‘No need, sir,’ Adam said, interrupting the flow of pleasantries. ‘I am staying with my brother at Trundon Hall and he will be wondering at my slow return from a simple morning walk.’
‘Trundon Hall? You are a Bascom then?’
‘Adam Bascom, sir. The younger brother of the squire – though I find it hard to remember that my brother is squire now. Somehow I still think of my father in that role, though in truth it fitted him ill.’
‘I know something of the last squire’s manner of life, sir. But I will detain you no further. We both have urgent errands before us. I to fetch the constable and you to bring reassurance to your family and food to your needs. I hope that at a later date you will be good enough to call on me, Mr. Bascom, for I should like to enjoy your company in better circumstances. I had heard that Squire Bascom had a brother who was a medical man. Now we have met once, I hope it will not be for the last time.’ And so, with mutual protestations of future contact, the two men parted.
s Adam was leaving
the church, a man of perhaps five-and-forty entered. Since he wore fisherman's clothing and smelled of pitch, it was easy to deduce this was the parish constable. Yet when he encountered Adam in the doorway, he became at once truculent and threatening. ‘I don’t know your face,’ he said. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’
Mastering his anger, Adam gave his name. ‘As to what I am doing,’ he said, ‘I am just leaving.’
As soon as he heard the name Bascom, the constable became as deferential as he had been aggressive before. ‘Begging your pardon, sir,’ he said. ‘I am but a poor man and my rough, local manners sometimes betray me. I will not detain you, I am sure.’
At this, the Rev. Flather intervened to explain Adam was out for an early morning walk and found the body. Garnet, now meekness itself, asked Adam what he had found. Yet Adam was almost sure he would not have done so, had the pastor not forced his hand.
‘Little enough, Constable,’ Adam told him. ‘At the pastor’s request, I made a cursory examination of the body and found a fracture of the skull. It is possible this came from a heavy blow, yet I could see no weapon nor sign of a struggle. He may simply have fallen’
These few remarks seemed to make Garnet happy. ‘There! You have hit upon it at once, sir,’ he said. ’Twas an accident surely. The man fell and hit his head.’
‘Perhaps so,’ Adam said. ‘Yet if that is the explanation, where is his horse? If he came by carriage, where is that?’
‘Don’t you worry about such things,’ Garnet said. ‘A horse will wander, sir, and a carriage like as not be stolen in these parts. You may leave all to me and to the magistrate. I thank you kindly for what you have done. There is no need to detain you further. I will relate the circumstances of the body’s discovery to the magistrate.’
‘The magistrate will, of course, wish to speak with me in detail. I will tell you where I may be found,’ Adam said.
‘No, no, good sir. I doubt much he will need to do that. ’Tis such an obvious case of a fall. The magistrate will see no need to ask you more questions or drag you back to Gressington, I warrant.’ And with that, the man dismissed Adam for a second time and turned to engage the pastor in conversation. Baffled and angry, Adam went on his way.
his death is most puzzling
,’ Adam’s brother, Giles Bascom, said for maybe the fourth or fifth time. ‘I cannot see how anyone can solve it.’
‘By the application of reason, brother,’ Adam said. His brother’s wonderment was causing him to repeat himself as well.
Amelia, Giles’ wife, had left them to attend to some household business with the housekeeper and the cook. Now the brothers sat alone over the remains of what had been a substantial breakfast. Adam was in no hurry to leave. One of the benefits of being an unmarried man was the freedom to come and go as you wished. Servants were expected to cope with their master's vagaries.
‘But the Archdeacon himself…’ Giles said. ‘I knew our new archdeacon was not a popular man, but I cannot imagine anyone killing him. And why in Gressington, of all villages in the county?’
Giles laughed. ‘I forget sometimes that you are such a heathen, Adam, like most of your profession.’
‘Not heathen at all. Heathens worship primitive gods and follow strange superstitions. I try to be a man of science and reason – both strong defences against any belief in the supernatural, be that gods, ghosts or ghouls.’
‘Heretic then,’ Giles said. ‘for so you must admit. Atheist. When did you last attend service in a Christian church, my dear brother?’
‘I cannot recall,’ Adam replied.
‘Perhaps at my wedding?’ Giles said. ‘That was ten years ago. Dr. Nathaniel Ross, when he was still living, would would have disapproved of you, Adam. Of that I am sure.’
‘And I of him then,’ Adam said. ‘Was he such a rigid and bigoted man? And why did you call him new?’
‘I declare you are like a dog with an old bone,’ Giles said, ‘for once you have seized on a question you will not give it up for anything. I call him new because he has been – had been, I should say – archdeacon for less than two years past. And yes, he was a Tory of most unbending style: a true High-flyer. He revered the first King Charles as saint and martyr. He also wished to return to the manner of church services and government that Archbishop Laud tried to impose under that king’s rule. If he could, he would have tied up all you atheists and your dissenting friends and committed you to the flames. After that, he would reimpose strict uniformity of worship and doctrine within the Church of England. Aye, and restore the full powers of the church courts to regulate everyone’s lives and morals. For him, the Divine Right of Kings to rule was but a pale reflection of the Divine Right of Archdeacons – to be obeyed.’
‘I did not realise that you are so learned in church matters, Giles. You are correct, the archdeacon and I would have disapproved of each other with equal force. I cannot abide a bigot. A religious bigot is by a long way the worst of that loathsome breed.’
‘There is worse, brother. I never met the man, but sound witnesses have it that his manner was haughty in the extreme and his ambition unbounded. He had set his eyes on a bishop’s mitre, perhaps even the See of Canterbury itself. The man made enemies on all sides, it seems, as naturally and thoughtlessly as a cow makes dung.’
‘Nevertheless…’ Adam was like a dog with a bone again. ‘…there was no evidence of violence, so far as I could see.’
Giles suddenly rose and pulled the bell to summon a servant. ‘Ah, Jane’ he said to the flustered young girl who came to answer his summons. ‘Ask Mr. Jenkins to bring me the copy of
The Norfolk Intelligencer
that I believe I left on the table in the library.’ Jane bobbed her head in response and left.
Noticing Adam’s smile, Giles explained. ‘Jane is quite new here and is still in some awe of the squire. It will not last, I assure you. Our servants know of our financial situation and why we cannot afford a full company to serve us. They indulge us in overworking them all and we indulge them in some lack of polish.’
Jane returned with the newspaper. Mr. Jenkins, the butler, must be overworked somewhere else in the house. She handed it over without a word, paused on her way to half-turn and bob a vague curtsey, then fled.
‘Here it is,’ Giles said after a moment. ‘Let me read you a small section from a letter our good archdeacon sent to the editor of this admirable publication. He is, as you will gather, writing on the topic of the convulsions currently taking place in France.’
Assuming a voice reminiscent of a preacher of strictest Calvinism, Giles intoned the archdeacon’s words. ‘Let the mob believe the king has no power save the will of the people,’ he read, ‘and there will be an end of order, morality and civilisation. Popery has descended into rank superstition and false doctrines. Its priesthood is content to place the empty forms of religious practice before the demands of a righteous and severe God. If such wickedness as has arisen in France cross the channel, England will be destroyed.’ His voice rose to a near-shout. ‘Tolerance in moral and theological matters is unacceptable. It is tantamount to opening the door to republicans and atheists. Such people are hell-bent on seizing the property and power divinely vested in their betters. What do you think of that, Adam?’
‘Arrant nonsense,’ Adam said. ‘The ravings of a lunatic.’
‘Yet a highly-placed lunatic. I have little doubt that he would have attained to a bishopric, one way or another.’
‘What puzzles me more…’ Adam began.
‘Everything puzzles you, brother, from the construction of the meanest flower to the way the Earth spins in the heavens.’
Refusing to be distracted, Adam forged ahead. ‘…is where the archdeacon’s horse may be, or his carriage? He cannot have come to the village on foot. How did he get to Gressington churchyard? That is as much a puzzle as why.’
‘If his horse wandered off, someone will find it soon enough’ Giles said. ‘No one around here could keep or sell the kind of beast the archdeacon would own. It would arouse instant suspicion. I told you, the man had the highest opinion of himself and what was due to his dignity. Horse or chaise or carriage, he would accept only the finest quality.’
‘Will you let me know what transpires, Giles?’ Adam said. ‘Please. I must return home now, but I know my mind will not rest content with so many questions unanswered. Tell me whatever you learn and do so speedily.’
‘You may be assured of my prompt attention in this matter. Now, be off. Your many patients will be agog for your return.’
‘You are right, Giles,’ Adam said. ‘I must not keep both of them waiting. Farewell…and remember your promise. Ask Amelia to be sure to give Mary the medicine I left with her. She must have it every night, at least until the weather grows warmer. I have hopes that this bronchitis will improve with age, but do not view it lightly. I gave your wife the receipt for the medicine, so that she may have the apothecary prepare more when needed.’
‘Brother, brother. You know well how Amelia fusses over our children. You have no need to remind her, or me, of the care we should take of them.’
‘I know,’ Adam said, as he rose to leave. ‘I say these things to comfort myself at having to leave my little patient, not in fear that you and her mother may not be diligent in her care. Goodbye again. I will return at any time you need me, day or night.’
‘Go! Go!’ Giles said. ‘You have wasted enough time with me this morning. No, go, sir. Not another word. I declare that if you talk as much with your patients as you do with me, they will either cure themselves to get peace or die for the same reason. Go!’
s it turned out
, Adam had little time to attend his own business on his return home. Early the previous morning, a messenger had arrived from the coroner in Gressington, requiring his presence at the inquest on the archdeacon. It would be held the following day in The White Lion Inn in Holt, commencing at 10.00 a.m. Adam had more than half expected this. Inquests were not held into every case of death. However, where the dead person was important, and the cause of death unclear, a formal inquest was certain. Since Adam had both found the body, and carried out a preliminary examination afterwards, he would be a key witness.
Such a date offered little enough opportunity to make the journey to Holt. Once again, he would be away for at least one night. The roads were too uncertain and treacherous to consider travelling after dark. There was also the minor but possible threat of robbery on the way. He would return first to Trundon Hall, where his brother would give him a bed.
‘I thought I would never feel glad to have so few patients,’ Adam said to his housekeeper, Mrs. Brigstone. ‘But under the circumstances it makes things somewhat easier. If anyone does call, or send a servant, please explain that it is my duty to attend on the coroner in this way. I will deal with medical matters as soon as I can return.’
William, Adam’s groom, gardener and general factotum in all matters outside the house, had already harnessed Betty, his horse, and brought her around to the front of the house. He now stood holding the horse’s head.
‘I’m surprised Betty seems so quiet and well disposed, master,’ he said.‘Like the rest of us, she enjoys her home and I expected her to be none too keen to be called out again so soon. Don’t you go upsetting her then. Take it easy and I warrant that she will serve you well enough.’
‘You and Betty grow so fond of one another that your wife will grow jealous,’ Adam said, laughing.‘You need not fear, William. I will treat your love with all tenderness and bring her back to you just as soon as I am able.’
Keeping his promise, Adam let Betty take a gentle pace and reached the Hall just as the sun was setting. His brother knew about the inquest, as did everyone else in Trundon and Gressington, so Adam’s speedy return to his house did not surprise him. After a late dinner, they spent the evening talking of family matters. There would be time enough to consider the archdeacon further at the inquest on the next day.