An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1) (5 page)

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
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8
Mr. Jempson Falls Amongst Thieves
Tuesday, 8 May 1792, on the road from Edgefield to Aylsham, Norfolk

P
hysicians who had graduated
from university occupied the top level of the medical profession. Even a newly-qualified one, like Adam Bascom, could expect significant fees for his services. Eminent physicians with practices in the larger cities often had greater incomes than most of the gentry. Adam had a country practice and was not yet well known amongst the better-off families in the area. It would be many years before he could gain a reputation that would allow him to expect his patients to come to him. For now, he spent much of his time travelling to the houses of the gentry, prosperous farmers, merchants and shipowners, who made up his scanty list of clients.

This dull day at the beginning of May, he was riding Betty home, in company with a farmer and his wife and an elderly parson. Since there had of late been unrest amongst the poor and the agricultural labourers, it was best to travel in groups.

The little party had exchanged their names and the reasons for their travel. The farmer and his wife, Henry and Katherine Ushant, had been to the market. The clergyman, the Rev. George Domble, had been visiting some of the most outlying areas of his large and scattered parish.

Adam had been to conduct an examination of the conditions at the workhouse in Holt. Capt. Mimms had secured this commission for him. Once he told his fellow Overseers of the Poor of Adam’s qualifications – from three universities – their agreement was certain. Adam was grateful to the old man. Yet he could not help a certain embarrassment when he considered how far his meagre experience had been overrated.

The farmer and his wife sat on the front seat of a cart pulled by a single horse, while Adam and the parson both rode. It was thus natural for the two of them to move ahead and fall into conversation. Mr. Domble was a kindly man and much concerned for those whom fate forced to seek refuge in the workhouse.

‘How did you find it?’ he said. ‘The poor are terrified of ending their lives there. They consider it to be little better than a prison, and the days of those within unimaginably harsh.’

‘It is not meant to be an easy place,’ Adam said, ‘and I would not like to live there. Yet I found the Superintendent to be a fair man, who carries out his duties to the best of his ability. The building itself is scarce a dozen years old. There is ample land around it where the inmates may grow vegetables, keep chickens for meat and eggs and even a few cows to provide milk. Most who live there are active and well nourished. Even the oldest benefit from a suitable, if plain, diet – which is more than can be said for many of those outside its walls. What I found hardest to bear was the large number of young women there with their babies. These poor souls are ejected from their homes and condemned to the workhouse by their own families. I suspect many are more victims than bent on scandalous living, seduced then abandoned by the father of the child.’

‘You may well be right,’ the parson said, ‘for Satan has ever found lust and greed two of the easiest ways to lead mankind astray. It is also correct that there are many in the countryside at large who go hungry in these times. Resentful too. The discoveries of ingenious engineers have put many out of work. That is inevitable when we build machines which can do the work of many. Others have lost their land through the process of enclosure. All look across the channel to the dreadful events now happening in France. Perhaps they wonder whether there should not be a revolution here too.’

Adam was surprised. ‘Is it that bad then? Would they destroy our constitution and social order?’

‘I think they would – and the church along with it. Many now see the Church of England as a means for those at the top of society to maintain their privileges. They believe the people who produce this nation’s wealth are thus held in subjection. And we clergy help them, sir, to hold such views. Many a parson is diligent in carousing and hunting with the local gentry, while paying scant regard to the needs of his parishioners – especially the poor. Such people pay curates to take the bulk of the services and do such visiting as they are able. They themselves enjoy servants, fine rectories, their books and the society of their wealthy neighbours. Did you hear of the recent sad death of out archdeacon? That took place not far from here.’

Adam agreed that he had indeed heard of it, though he also took care to conceal his close knowledge of the events. He had told his story far too often already, and did not want to be drawn into it again. ‘Did I not hear that the jury had ruled it an accident?’

‘Yes,’ Mr. Domble replied. ‘Yet I cannot quite put the matter from my mind. I have heard the late archdeacon preach and he was most unbending in his demands. He wished for a return to a rigid, hierarchical society, overseen by a unified church. He would have the king at the top of the heap. The nobles and gentry should come next below him. Then the middle classes below them and the working people and poor firmly at the bottom. God, he said, had put each in his proper place in society, and it was blasphemous to attempt to change this. He was also most strong in his denunciation of dissenters and nonconformists.’

‘But surely those are just the views of one man,’ Adam said. ‘There are, I believe, plenty of people in the Church of England who would not share them.’

‘That is true, Dr. Bascom. But there are many dissenters and nonconformists in this county. They have little reason to feel any love for the established church. We have tried to force them back into our fold, where we should have sought to persuade them. I have met many who attend the chapels and conventicles, and I have always found them to be quiet, godly people. They seek to find the Lord in their own way, as we do. Yet still I regret that we are no longer all members of the one church.’

‘Why is that?’ Adam asked.

‘The church used to be the centre of each community,’ the parson said. ‘All came together there, from the highest to the lowest. Each group could see the other, every Sunday. The rich could not quite isolate themselves from the people around them. The poor would understand that, for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God, they must care for those less fortunate than themselves. Now we are but one sect amongst many, sir. Those who attended the chapels feel they have little or nothing in common with those who go to the parish church. The rich, seated in their grand pews, may hear that Christ died to save all mankind. Yet they act as if most people except them are beyond salvation.’

‘But how would this bear on the death of the archdeacon?’ Adam said.

‘As I said, sir, there are some disaffected people who see how the French have brought the church and the aristocracy down. They would do the same here if they could. The archdeacon was well known to be a fervent Tory. If any people of this revolutionary viewpoint had recognised him, they might have felt justified in bringing about his death.’

‘If some revolutionaries had done this, would they not have robbed the man, if only to give the proceeds to the poor?,’ Adam said. ‘His body was not touched…or so I heard,’ he added hurriedly, for he had almost given himself away.

‘Maybe…maybe. But if the reason for his death was hatred of what he stood for, why give anyone the opportunity to dismiss it as a simple robbery?’

Adam was amazed at the idea and they rode on in silence, while he tried to come to terms with the picture thus painted. Could it be true? He knew some were bent on overturning society and depriving the gentry and the rich of their easy sense of entitlement. Yet would even these have gone so far as to lure a prominent churchman to a lonely place where they might strike him down? It sounded far-fetched. Yet, as Mr. Domble had admitted, once considered it was impossible to dismiss. The government would wish to use every way available to prevent those who had done the deed from using it to stir up even greater unrest. That would give a powerful logic to the way in which all questions about what had happened were suppressed from the start. If it were just an accident, it was of no importance. An assassination would be reported in every newspaper in the land. From there, it would breed speculation, argument and still more dissension.

A
dam was so
intent on this inward speculation about the archdeacon that he stopped paying attention to anything else. He must have heard the cry that startled Parson Domble from his reverie, but he could not be certain. What definitely made him spring to the alert was the exclamation from the elderly clergyman. ‘Good gracious! Ahead there! See!’

The road had, little by little, climbed upwards. Now they were just coming over the rise and looking down into a shallow valley beyond. And ahead and to their left, maybe one hundred yards distant, three men were struggling by the side of the road. One was a tall man, wearing sombre but well-made clothing; the other two were dressed in rags. With but a single glance, Adam knew that a robbery was taking place. One of the ruffians had his hands around the tall man’s throat, while the other was searching through his pockets.

Their little party surged forward. The parson urged his horse into a stumbling trot. The farmer and his wife caused their cart to sway and rattle loudly, as their elderly horse tried to keep up. Flapping the reins and banging his heels into his horse, Adam persuaded Betty into a clumsy canter. Thus he rushed ahead towards the three men, still struggling, though now alerted to the rescue party. As he rode, he managed to jerk open one of his saddlebags and pull out a small pistol. He was often upon the roads and it did not do in these turbulent times to travel without some kind of protection. He always put two loaded pistols into his saddlebag, though this was the first time he had had cause to put either to use.

For a dreadful moment, he thought the ruffians might put up a fight. Then, whether intimidated by superior numbers or by the sight of a madman bearing down upon them, yelling and waving a pistol, they took to their heels.

Foolishly, Adam fired at the fleeing men, though he had little hope of hitting anything. In truth, what he did was more to relieve his own feelings than to hasten them on their way. Then, the next moment, all his attention was on bringing his horse to a stand where the victim now lay fallen in the road. Though the mare had been loathe to hasten, once into her stride she was reluctant to come to a stop.

So it was that Adam came up to the wounded man and rather fell as much as dismounted beside him. ‘Peace, sir, peace. You are safe now. Are you much hurt? I am a doctor and may be able to relieve your pain a little.’

At first, the man on the ground was unable to speak, for the one ruffian had so gripped his throat that he had come near to choking the life from him. Only when surrounded by Adam, Reverend Domble and both the Ushants was he able to say anything. ‘Dear friends, Providence sent you, like Good Samaritans, to save me when I had fallen amongst thieves. I gave them the few shillings that I had, and gave them freely, for I could see their need was great, but they were not satisfied. Believing I must be a gentleman, they cried out that I must have more. One seized me by the throat to choke the truth from me. The other rifled through my pockets in the hope of riches.’

‘And found none,’ Adam said.

‘Not at all,’ the other said. ‘They found the greatest riches of all, though they perhaps did not think so. There, on the ground.’ He pointed to a small book. Mr. Domble picked it up at once and looked at the title page.

‘The New Testament,’ he said. ‘You are right enough. Are you a man of the cloth then, as I am?’

‘Nay, friend. I am a merchant and now a ship-owner. Yet the Good Book has been my constant companion and helper these many years, ever since I joined the Society of Friends.’

‘A Quaker,’ Mr. Domble said, though he smiled when he said it. ‘A dissenter. Yet, I believe, a good and honest man for all that. I am George Domble, Rector of Aylmerton. My companions are Dr. Adam Bascom, whom you have already met in the guise of a charging dragoon. And Farmer Ushant and his wife.’

‘Joseph Jempson, friends. A merchant of Norwich, though shortly to take up residence in Aylsham.’

‘Then we will be neighbours,’ Adam said, ‘for that is where I have my practice. Was that your destination when you were set upon?’

‘It was,’ Jempson said. ‘At least for the night. I have not yet moved my household from the city. I went today to Blakeney to render payment to a fellow merchant living there. I have just bought from him shares in a fine ship plying between Yarmouth and the Baltic ports. Had those sad men come upon me on my outward journey, they would have found themselves in possession of notes amounting to what would have seemed to them a fortune indeed.’

‘To venture abroad, alone and in possession of a great deal of money, was not wisdom,’ Adam said. What could this man have been thinking to do such a thing?

‘I suspect that thou, like most of thy medical colleagues, are a sceptic,’ Jempson said. ‘I do not blame thee for scolding me so, for by the standards of this world it was indeed a most foolhardy action. However, I was not alone, having with me for company a young couple newly married and received with joy amongst our congregation. Few enough join our Society these days, unless they are born to it; fewer still who have chosen to do so with such careful thought. The young woman was indeed born into a Quaker family, as thou wouldst have it. Her husband was not. Indeed, Parson, he was until recently a member of thine own church.’

‘Ah,’ Mr. Domble said. ‘I suppose I ought to be censorious of his action, but I cannot bring myself to that state. Many leave religion behind out of nothing but idleness and apathy, for our churches do little to prevent it. Some, like those in France at the moment, vent their anger upon their priests, who have put wealth and ambition before Christian principles. When a man decides to follow what he believes to be his path to the Lord, who am I to say he is wrong?’

‘Thy words do thee credit, friend,’ Mr. Jempson said. ‘I would that the young man’s father had been of your mind. Instead, he railed against his son in a most unseemly manner for any Christian.’

‘Gentlemen,’ Adam said softly. ‘You should postpone such a conversation to another time. At present, Mr. Jempson is in sore need of rest and medical attention.’

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
13.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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