Authors: William Savage
dam was well used
to taking his breakfast early and keeping irregular hours. He was up, breakfasted and on his way to Holt before his brother and Amelia had left their chamber.
It was a glorious morning. The birds were in full voice and he fancied he may even have heard a cuckoo calling somewhere in the distance. He had known this countryside since his birth, and his heart was always gladdened when he returned there.
Betty was less pleased to be abroad. The stables at the Hall were larger than she was used to and the food probably better. Giles loved his horses and was wont to lavish more on their welfare than he should. Now her master expected her to drag up the steep hill into Holt from Letheringsett. At least he had the consideration to get down and walk beside her on the steepest section.
Though much the same size as Aylsham, Holt presented a somewhat grander view. Buildings of quite modern style lined the main street, in place of the jumble of wooden houses common elsewhere.
The White Lion was just such a property: substantial, brick-built and well sited on the edge of the market place. Its stables would be just as well made. Adam had good hopes that he would be able to reunite William and Betty with his promise of gentle treatment fulfilled.
Although the room now set aside for the coroner’s inquest was large, it was already almost filled when he arrived. Fortunately, the usher had kept spaces free for witnesses on the bench nearest to the front. Adam hoped he might be seated next to the Vicar of Gressington, but that was not to be. That reverend gentleman was right at the other end of the short row of benches. The man next to Adam was elderly and had a somewhat florid and whiskery complexion. He was also most eager to strike up an acquaintance.
‘Captain George Mimms, sir,’ he said, twisting round with difficulty to offer Adam his hand. ‘Once of His Majesty’s Navy, then a merchant. Not a witness, like yourself. Merely an old man allowed to have this seat by reason of my infirmity…and a small donation to the funds of our good usher!’
‘Adam Bascom, sir. A physician.’
If Adam hoped by his brusque reply to stifle further attempts at conversation, he was soon set right on the matter. Capt. Mimms had either failed to notice the snub, or chose to ignore it. ‘Bascom…Bascom. Then you will be from Trundon Hall, sir? A relative, perhaps, for I have seen the new squire on one or two occasions and you and he bear a striking resemblance.’
‘He is my brother,’ Adam said. It was impossible not to reply without showing the most egregious rudeness.
‘Indeed, indeed. And a physician. A most worthy profession, sir. To have such a profession is a great good fortune. Though it may be hard and wearisome to attain, it confers sufficient status to talk at ease with the gentry and the nobility. Yet is does not deprive you of an equal ease with the merchant, the tradesman, the farmer and the man who follows the plough. I, sir, have no profession at all. I was an idle and feckless youth, who ran away to sea before my twelfth birthday, consumed with stories of pirates and privateers. I faced the most cruel disappointment, for the sea is a harsh mistress and the captains of ships learn their skills at her hands. In the end I saw that I must work hard or perish. Thus I prospered and became the captain of ships belonging to others. Later I had my own ship, and finally I have shares in ten ships and own a trading house at Yarmouth besides. Nowadays, I am too old for such work and the hard years at sea have left me lame and short of breath. I have given my business to my sons to run and live in this pleasant little town. I have become a source of amusement to many, sir, but I hope of pleasure to a select few.’
At once, Adam regretted his rudeness of a few moments ago. Here was a man of sharp wit and long experience. He should have treated him with respect for his age and his ability to turn a poor start in life into significant wealth.
‘Forgive me, sir,’ Adam said. ‘I have been deuced rude in my response to your politeness. I can only plead that I am more than a little apprehensive at what is to come. I have never attended an inquest before, and now must give my evidence before such a multitude of persons.’
Capt. Mimms smiled and patted Adam on the arm. ‘Think nothing of it, my good sir. For I took no offence, seeing that none was intended. Nor should you feel the least nervousness at what is to come. Mr. Allsop, the coroner, is a most punctilious lawyer and will have nothing take place that is not proper to such a solemn event. It was at his instigation, I hear, that they moved proceedings from Gressington into Holt. The inn at Gressington has but a small barn available. The death of such a prominent personage as the Archdeacon of Norwich is bound to draw a good crowd of the curious.’
‘Is that the measure of this crowd then, Capt. Mimms?’ Adam said. ‘A mere congregation of the curious?’
‘Not all, young sir. I see many of our local clergy, attending out of respect to one of their number. Or do they perhaps wish to be seen to do so by that tall person standing up to your left to survey the crowd? That is Mr. Yerkins, the bishop’s chaplain and his right hand man. Over and beyond Mr. Yerkins, I see Col. Mansard and Mr. Unscombe, both persons of quality and owners of substantial estates. Maybe they knew the archdeacon. There I see Mr. Loffard. He will, I imagine, be writing a report on proceedings which we will see in The Norfolk Intelligencer in a day or so. John Refford to my right is a merchant like myself…Ah, here is Mr. Allsop. The game is afoot!’
it was too, at the start. The members of the jury had already been sworn in and had viewed the corpse in the presence of the coroner, as the law required. Still Mr. Allsop proved to be as Capt. Mimms predicted. First he read out the rules the jury must follow. Then he listed the steps already taken: empowering a suitable jury and moving the proceedings to more commodious premises. Finally, he explained he would be calling several witnesses, before asking the jury to reach a verdict on the cause of death. There was much shifting of feet and muffled coughing from the assembled crowd. This provoked angry looks from the coroner and, twice, a sharp rapping of his gavel.
First, the Vicar of Gressington gave his evidence. He explained how he knew the identity of the dead man and confirmed the place where his body had been found.
That over, the coroner proved that, though he was a legal pedant, he was no fool. His questions to the vicar were precise and admirably directed and he drew out clear and concise answers. The vicar deposed that Dr. Bascom had come to his house early in the morning and informed him that he had found a man’s body in the churchyard. He himself had at once sent a servant to fetch the parish constable and had accompanied Dr. Bascom back to where the body lay. They had both inspected the ground, but had found no evidence to suggest what might have happened.
The vicar then recounted how he had summoned the sexton, had the dead man set on a bier and taken to a more fitting place. Since Dr. Bascom was a physician, he had asked him to make a preliminary examination of the body. He feared the passage of time might obscure relevant items, he said, before the magistrate – or a person appointed by him – could conduct a fuller examination.
Now it was Adam’s turn. He moved to the place pointed out to him and was duly sworn to tell the truth.
‘Inform the jury of the precise circumstances of your being in the churchyard at Gressington so early in the morning,’ the coroner said. Adam could not help sensing some accusation in that dry, precise voice.
‘I had stayed the night at Trundon Hall as the guest of my brother, the squire,’ Adam said. ‘I have an interest in nature and natural philosophy – one that I am rarely at leisure enough to indulge. I therefore rose early and determined to walk along the river towards the sea. I hoped to find some interesting specimens of fauna or flora.’
Mr. Allsop interrupted him, perhaps fearing a full account of what he had seen. ‘And you came to the churchyard at Gressington,’ he said.
‘I did, sir, and entered at once. I have found that the sheltered areas of churchyards are often the best places to find rare plants and insects. The body was lying just within the walls of the graveyard. I almost fell over it.’
‘And you knew the man was dead?’
‘I did. As a physician I have looked upon the dead more than most and recognise fatality at once. Still, I could see no obvious signs of the cause of death. No weapon was visible. There was no disarrangement of the deceased’s clothing or marks of blood upon it that I could see. Has any weapon been found subsequently?’
That question drew a frown and a rebuke from the coroner. ‘It is my duty to ask the necessary questions, Dr. Bascom, and yours to answer, not the other way around. Did you examine the ground about the body?’
‘I did,’ Adam said, his face red with anger and mortification. ‘There were no signs of a struggle or a large number of people marking the grass. The dew was present in all places, save where my own feet had disturbed it. The ground was level and grassed over. The few stones that I could see were about the size of a man’s fist or smaller. The only larger stones were in the form of two grave markers. I examined both for signs of blood, but found none.’
‘I believe you made a brief examination of the deceased, once the body had been taken to the church.’
‘I found rigor mortis well established,’ Adam was determined now to stick to the point. ‘From that, and the fact that the deceased’s back felt dry to the touch, I estimated that death had occurred in the late afternoon or early evening of the previous day.’
‘And did you find anything else; anything that might bear on the cause of death?’
‘I found a depression on the back of the skull, consistent with the deceased having suffered a heavy blow there. The skull was fractured. There was a small cut in the area of the depression too, for my hand came away spotted with blood. The body was too stiff to allow of a more detailed examination without turning it fully over. I also confirmed that there were no obvious signs of other wounds. There was a silver cross around the man’s neck and a gold ring on his finger, so I deduced that no robbery had taken place.’
‘Dr. Bascom. Your deductions are not evidence, sir,’ Mr. Allsop said. ‘Kindly confine yourself to what you saw.’
Adam bowed his head, annoyed at himself and the coroner in equal measure. ‘Then I have nothing more to add,’ he said.
‘You may stand down,’ Mr. Allsop said, and the ordeal was over.
dam paid less
attention than he should to the rest of the inquest proceedings, though they were, in all truth, brief enough. What was happening? Despite his anger towards the coroner and shame at his loss of countenance, Adam felt bewildered. These proceedings seemed only the barest bones of an inquest into the cause of death. Doubly so, given the standing of the person dead.
A certain Mr. Manton now gave evidence. He was a physician from the town of Wells, whom the coroner had called to examine the corpse. Manton confirmed Adam’s findings in every respect. He made no mistakes, as Adam had done, by drawing attention to anything beyond the state of the corpse. Then ended by saying that the most likely cause of death was from a severe blow to the head. He never ventured any opinion about what might have caused it.
‘He sounded well-rehearsed,’ Capt. Mimms muttered, just loudly enough for Adam to hear. Adam nodded agreement.
After Mr. Manton, John Garnet, the constable, was called. He explained how the vicar’s servant had called to inform him of what had been found. How he viewed the body on the bier, questioned Adam on the place and time of finding the body and examined the ground. He had, he said, noted several flints or stones, large enough in his opinion to have given a severe blow to the head of a heavy man who fell upon them. In answer to the coroner’s questions, he also confirmed he had seen no signs of robbery, nor of any weapon in the vicinity.
The coroner’s summing up was as near to a direction to the jury as it might be without breaching the letter of the law. There was, he told them, no evidence for any crime. The fact that the man had suffered a single blow to the skull was, in his view, consistent with him having fallen and hit his head. Their sole purpose now was to determine the cause of death. All the rest was the province of the magistrate, should he see fit to make further investigation.
With that, the jury retired. It took them almost ten minutes to return and deliver a verdict of accidental death. In many ways, how long they took was the most surprising aspect of the morning. The inquest over, the audience began to leave.
Adam would have left to start his journey home as well, had not Capt. Mimms detained him. The old man insisted that he should come to his house for refreshment before his journey and would not accept any excuse. To be honest, Adam was not sorry to have some source of diversion. His mind was still held by a whirlwind of passions and curiosity.
Now he strode ahead to quit a scene he hoped he would never look upon again and so outstripped his companion. Capt. Mimms seemed to know everyone and stopped every few paces to share a greeting. Thus it was that Adam passed outside on his own and stood by the roadway, unsure where Capt. Mimms' home might be.
‘Dr. Bascom?’ The speaker addressed Adam with the air of someone uncertain of himself and his reception. Yet he was neatly enough dressed in good, if workaday clothes.
‘My name is Newbridge, sir,’ he said. ‘I am clerk to Mr. Josiah Playley, a lawyer of Norwich. My master sent me here to report back to him on the verdict. He is advising Mrs. Ross, the wife of the late archdeacon. She is, as you can imagine, much distressed by her husband’s death. It seems she has therefore chosen to spend a little time with her daughter’s family near Cambridge. However, before she went, she was most insistent that Mr. Playley should send you a message on her behalf. Knowing you must be here today, he entrusted this second errand to me also.’
‘I see. And the nature of the message?’ Adam could make no sense of this. He did not know the lady. If she needed medical advice or assistance in her loss, there were a great many doctors in Norwich. Most were also older, more eminent and more experienced than himself.
‘Mrs. Ross desires that, on her return from Cambridge, she might ask you to wait upon her at your earliest convenience. She was most insistent, sir, and Mr. Playley asked me to add his own desire that you might comply with her request. She would not explain to him further. He also told me to tell you that her mind seems much troubled by some circumstance that she refuses to divulge. He hopes that she might be willing to speak of it to you and thus find some relief.’
Adam was amazed, but a refusal would be neither polite nor an answer to his inflamed curiosity. ‘My compliments to your master and please tell him that I will be happy to agree to Mrs. Ross’s request. Only let me know when she has returned and I will make the journey as soon as I am able.’
The clerk moved away, relieved to have discharged his duty and be returning with a favourable answer. In his place, a tall gentleman of middle years moved forward.
‘Henry Harmsworthy, sir,’ the man said. ‘His Majesty’s Justice of the Peace. Constable Garnet dropped the problem body you found onto my plate, in a matter of speaking. It is fortunate that it has proved not to be as troublesome a dish as I first thought.’
‘I am glad to hear that, sir,’ Adam replied. ‘You will, of course, wish to speak with me in detail. I am at your service in that respect whenever you wish it.’
‘You mistake me, Dr. Bascom. The jury have found the death accidental. There is no more need for me to investigate or for you to waste your valuable time in coming to speak with me.’
‘But there are questions still unanswered,’ Adam said in bewilderment. ‘The missing horse, the reason for the archdeacon being in Gressington…’
‘The archdeacon’s horse and his curricle are in my stables, Dr. Bascom, where he left them. He suffered an accident to the wheel on our foul roads and could not continue until our local blacksmith might effect repairs. He was most eager to reach his destination that day and so I arranged for him to be carried in one of my vehicles.’
‘I did not enquire,’ Harmsworthy said, ‘and he did not tell me. I am not so impolitely curious as to demand answers where none are necessary – as it seems some persons are, sir.’ And, with that sharp rebuke, he walked on.
Mr. Harmsworthy departed than Capt. Mimms came up to Adam. The old sailor at once touched Adam on the arm and encouraged him to move away from the spot by the door. ‘It is not far to my house, sir. I see you are much discomforted by something. You will gain nothing by waiting here. Indeed, you have now an even greater need for rest and refreshment than I noticed earlier. I will send my groom to fetch your horse. It will be ready and waiting when the time comes for you to depart. Do not judge this town and people too harshly, my friend. It seems you have seen the worst of several of our community today. Now let me show you something of the best.’
Along the way, Capt. Mimms was careful to talk of nothing save pleasantries. He also pointed out various fine brick houses that were the result of rebuilding after a great fire on May 1st, 1708. Fearing another conflagration, the townspeople had banned all wooden structures. The mediaeval township had been wooden. Today's market town was nothing but brick and stone. The result was a neat and fashionable place with almost no buildings more than seventy or so years old.
Capt. Mimms' house proved to be a fine and solid gentleman’s residence. The builder had erected five bays and three stories and placed it back a little from the highway. Like its neighbours, it was constructed of red brick, with stone adornments and fine sash windows. The old mariner had done well for himself. Many a gentleman from an old-established family would be glad to live in such a property.
His servants too appeared well-chosen and used to their master’s vagaries. Although he had brought home an unexpected guest and called immediately for food they showed no discomfort.
Only when Adam and his host were seated in a comfortable parlour, each with a glass of excellent punch, did Capt. Mimms return to the events of the morning.
‘I observed you speaking with Mr. Harmsworthy the magistrate,’ he said. ‘If I may speak plainly, I do not much like the man. He is proud and somewhat full of windy discourse. Yet I have heard others speak of his consideration and care for his family. His words seemed to leave you upset, I thought.’
‘He told me to mind my own business, sir,’ Adam said, ‘and came damnably close to rudeness in doing so.’
Capt. Mimms banged his hand on the arm of his chair, his voice rising in anger. ‘The proceedings were a disgrace, my young friend. I told you that Allsop was a pedant for the law, but the way he treated you was abominable. I never so much admired any man as when you refused to be put out of countenance by his rudeness. The questions that you posed were pertinent to any inquest, if properly conducted. Yet he used the letter of the law as a weapon to quiet you. That verdict was decided upon in advance, I tell you. Allsop was under instruction to make sure that it was duly delivered by the jury, staying as near within the law as he could manage. It was the fact that you came close to upsetting his plans that made him so annoyed.’
‘Why?’ Adam said. ‘The archdeacon was an important man in the church. Did his death not warrant the fullest possible investigation?’
‘Indeed it did, sir,’ Capt. Mimms said. ‘Yet someone with authority and power was able to make things otherwise. It was not our Mr. Harmsworthy, you can be sure. He was under orders like the rest. Indeed, I would venture that someone noted your curiosity and told him to quiet you forthwith. I wonder…’
For several moments the old man was silent. Adam was moved by the way he offered his support, without suggesting Adam might need it. He was soon to be amazed at the man’s sharpness of eye and wit.
‘I believe that I pointed the bishop’s chaplain out to you, Dr. Bascom,’ Capt. Mimms said. Adam nodded in agreement.
‘There was a gentleman close by his side, I observed. A well-dressed man of some breeding and substance. Yet he is not from these parts, for I know every person of quality this side of Norwich by sight, and not a few from much further afield. Nor was he a churchman, by the fashionable cut of his clothes. No…he came from London in my view.’
‘Then he must have come in uncommon haste,’ Adam said. ‘This inquest has been held but one day beyond the time specified by law. That might easily be explained by the need to move it to a neighbouring town where more people could be accommodated.’
‘Yet was that the sole reason?’ Capt. Mimms said. ‘The room at The White Lion was full enough, I give you, but not packed out. What if that was but a convenient excuse to allow someone to arrive from London to observe – even to direct – the proceedings?’
‘Perhaps we are allowing our imaginings too much freedom, sir,’ Adam said. ‘I own that I felt the inquest was conducted in a superficial manner. I was also annoyed that my curiosity on certain matters was so brusquely dismissed. Still, I have never attended a coroner’s hearing before and may well be expecting what would not be usual.’
‘No, sir,’ Capt. Mimms said. ‘I have attended more than one such – old men have time on their hands. Many say I have also more curiosity about what goes on around me than is perhaps becoming. I tell you it was rigged…rigged most firmly. By why – and by whom – I can scarce even guess.’
‘Nor I,’ Adam said, but his host continued as if he had not spoken.
‘Now, my friend, set your mind at rest. George Mimms is not to be trifled with in this way. He is not a fool, even if some think it so. They see only an old man and do not consider what it took to rise from cabin boy to captain, then a ship-owner and finally a successful merchant. I shall find the truth. Like you, I am filled with curiosity about this event. I will not rest easy until I have answers in place of questions.’ He paused and grinned at Adam. ‘Henry Harmsworthy, J.P. might have warned you off, sir, but nothing has been said to me on that score. Ah, here is food. Eat, my friend, eat, for you have a weary journey ahead. Do not let your mind be troubled, for I shall have my answers – and you shall know them too. Return to your surgery and your practice and leave all to me. Only, I pray you, be so good in return to apprise me of anything else that may come to your ears. For I hope to see you in my house again, sir, and that I may count you a friend, as you may indeed count me.’
‘A friend indeed,’ Adam said, ‘and one much in your debt for both food and company. You have restored my spirits most wonderfully. You have my promise that I will keep you abreast of whatever further information comes my way. Besides, I will certainly visit you again, when it is convenient to us both.’
With that, they went to an excellent table, to which they both did ample justice. Thus it was that when Adam set out on his way home, he found he had eaten far more than was comfortable for a man on horseback.