An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1) (7 page)

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
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Wednesday, 23 May, 1792, Trundon Hall, Norfolk

dam needed
no special occasion to visit his brother at Trundon Hall. The two had always been close. Besides, Adam was fond of his sister-in-law and a devoted uncle to their children. A letter had arrived from Giles with a message from Amelia. She still felt uneasy about her daughter, Mary, who was not yet recovered in full from the bronchitis that plagued her. There was, they hoped, no cause for instant alarm, but every reason for Adam to go to see her as soon as it might be possible.

In the event, by the time he arrived, braving a sudden return of weather more suitable for November than May, the girl was much recovered. Amelia’s worry had proved mostly due to a mother’s protectiveness. Still, Adam determined to take no chances. He examined his niece most carefully, observing her eyes, tongue, skin colour and the strength of her pulse. Then he prescribed plenty of strong beef tea to build up her strength and handed over a prescription for an ointment. This was to be applied to her chest at bedtime to ease her breathing during the night.

‘It would also do no harm to give Mary a glass or two of port wine most days,’ he told her mother. ‘Girls of her age grow quickly and must soon develop into women. Such rapid alterations make heavy demands on their strength. Nor should her mind be neglected. As I have said to you before, those who treat mind and body as separate make a grave error. Each affects the other in ways we do not yet comprehend well enough. Encourage her to stimulate her mental faculties with suitable diversions. I know she likes to draw and paint. The pretty landscapes most young women produce are charming, but it would be far better to study nature. I suggest she strives to make the most accurate drawings she can of flowers or insects. That kind of art challenges the intelligence as well as the hand.’

‘Mary is like her uncle in that respect,’ Amelia said. ‘The works of nature fascinate her. I often find her in the gardens, staring at a butterfly or a flower.’

‘Then I think it would be wise also to encourage her to walk further afield in the park and around the fields,’ Adam said. He was quite carried away with his own enthusiasm. ‘Proper exercise does much to ward off disease and encourage healthy growth. We are, at the most fundamental levels, merely animals.’

‘There are clergy who would count that a blasphemy, brother,’ Amelia said, laughing despite herself. ‘Would God really concern Himself with saving mere animals?’

‘That I cannot say,’ Adam said, laughing himself now. ‘Just as I am unable to say whether any God exists to take an interest in our salvation. But all this is of little matter. I know you are the best of mothers and need no advice from me on your duty to your family. If I seem to interfere, it is from love only.’

Amelia made as if to push him from the room, exclaiming that she had work to do if he did not, but she reached up quickly to kiss him on the cheek as she did so.

Much later, as they relaxed alone together and shared a bottle of port, Adam’s brother, Giles, had an announcement. Assuming an ostentatious air of calm disinterest, he said that the Lord Lieutenant of the County would soon appoint him one of the justices of the peace. ‘It goes with being the squire of Trundon. I dare say though that I will deal with petty theft and enforce the game laws as well as any. The worst part will be to learn enough of the law to be credible. I do not have your talent for studying, brother.’

He waved Adam’s congratulations aside with a grin he could not quite conceal. ‘Anyway, they decided that I had been given enough time after our poor father’s death to get the estate into some sort of order again. Now I should step up to my local duties. Mr. Harmsworthy, who was so rude to you that time, has quit the position and that leaves a gap on the local bench. Indeed, he has been absent for most of the time since the inquest on the archdeacon. He left, it is said, last week, when there was that strange affair at Gressington.’

Adam sat upright in an instant. Giles, seeing this, groaned and looked dejected. ‘The deuce of a fool I am! I forgot to tell you. I was so eager to share my own news that I quite overlooked your adventures. Please forgive me for my selfishness, brother. Amelia and I have been preoccupied with Mary’s health.’

‘What happened?’ Adam said, sure that his eagerness must make him appear as a hound catching the scent of its quarry. ‘Please, Giles, leave no details out, I beg of you. What exactly took place at Gressington? Who was involved? Why did the magistrate’s absence cause a problem?’

‘I will do my best,’ his brother said, ‘though much that was done then made little enough sense and still puzzles me now.’

t had begun
, Giles explained, ten days before. The company of men of the local militia stationed at Gressington were sent to Lynn with scarcely a day’s notice. That left the coast unguarded. A day later, the rumour circulated that the two Revenue riding officers had also been called away. It seemed they were to assist their colleagues at Lynn. The story went about that there was to be a seizure of a large shipment of contraband goods the smugglers planned to land between there and Hunstanton.

So the rumours went on. The authorities were planning to make a descent on the privateers. Some were known to be taking shelter amongst the reefs and sandbanks off the Lincolnshire coast. They would bring their prisoners to Lynn and send them to London under heavy guard. French spies were newly arrived at Lynn, posing as merchants from Norway, and were to be taken before they could leave the area. Each disclosure was more dramatic and far-fetched than the last. Yet all centred on a single element: some event of great moment was about to take place in the environs of Lynn and all eyes were fixed upon it.

In truth, whoever planned this series of revelations – for planned they were and not one of them true – acted with the subtlest cunning. Everyone along the north coast of the county was watching Lynn. And so, while all were distracted, the government were able to make their own preparations in the greatest secrecy.

Quietly and without fuss, the best part of two full companies of dragoons were encamped near Holt. When word of their presence slipped out, it was put about that they were on route to Fakenham and beyond.

Meanwhile, two fast Customs cutters were sent to lie off Winterton Ness. These were, it was later said, disguised as privateers. The troubles in France had greatly increased the number of such vessels, while the merchant ships that passed each day north and south made tempting prizes.

Finally, as many as a dozen Revenue officers arrived in secret, though none knew how that was done. In such a lonely area, strange faces are apt to draw swift notice. Yet no one suspected their presence, so thoroughly had the operation been prepared. Some, it was said afterwards, had posed as travelling merchants. Others had slipped quietly into the area, then lay low as pretended guests of farmers. Others lodged with those members of the gentry most trusted by the men in London.

‘This was no local initiative,’ Giles said. ‘The highest people in the land were surely aware of what was to take place. They must have approved the action and the cost too, for it was clear after that no expense had been spared to bring it off successfully.’

Then there was a pause.

The rumours about distant raids and seizures at Lynn, Hunstanton and The Burnhams reached a climax. Now the gang of smugglers using the part of the coast near to Gressington believed the time was propitious to land a substantial cargo. All eyes were on Lynn. None would be looking at Gressington.

So the authorities set their trap. When it was sprung, the whole band was taken, including those local men who were helping land the contraband and bring it off the beach. No lives were lost amongst the smugglers, though some of them fought hard for their liberty. As far as Giles knew, the final tally was half a dozen injured. Amongst the soldiers, sailors and Riding Officers who had seized them, two men were slightly hurt.

‘There was but one fatality amongst the government men, and the circumstances of that will interest you,’ Giles said. ‘The Revenue cutters seized both the gang’s principal ship and the smaller boats. Shots were fired in both actions. Amongst those taken in these exchanges was none other than Mr. Garnet, the Gressington constable. It seems he proved a troublesome catch, firing a brace of pistols in the darkness, then proving to have a knife about him. With this he struck at those who jumped into his boat to take it. Two men were sore wounded before he could be overpowered. One died before the boat was brought ashore within reach of the dragoons waiting there. Now Mr. Garnet lies in the gaol in Norwich and will surely have his neck stretched by the hangman’s rope after the next Assizes.’

By now Adam’s mind was turning so furiously that he feared his head might explode. Instead, he blurted out the most insistent question tumbling around there. ‘Mr. Allsop, the coroner. How have they disposed of him?’

‘What a strange mind you have to be sure,’ his brother said. ‘No one has disposed of him, so far as I know. Yet I do seem to recall reading in the Norfolk Intelligencer that he has been appointed a judge of the Court of Admiralty. He will be giving up both his legal practice and his role as a coroner.’

dam slept little that night
. Instead, he spent the hours pondering and weighing all that he had learned. Indeed, at breakfast his mind was still full of it. He wished for nothing save leisure and solitude to bring some order to his thoughts. Instead, he had to endure a long and loving leave-taking, then a tedious journey home on an unseasonably damp and cold day. For company along the road he must even endure two merchants. These talked first of the weather to come and their fears of a poor harvest. Then they moved on to the dismal state of barley prices and the pitiful returns offered by rapacious maltsters and brewers. Their wives, learning that Adam was a physician, questioned him on the best treatments for the vast array of ailments they, their families and friends seemed to suffer. They also, most generously, contributed their own homespun remedies. Some, it seemed, had been handed down from their most remote forebears. Adam suspected they would all generate results worse than the sicknesses they purported to cure.

Finding Adam distracted and unwilling to add any comments of his own, a more polite pair of women might have stayed silent for a while. Not so these two. Their response to his tepid interest was to demand that he answer their every observation. When he still proved silent, they plagued him with yet more remedies to allay whatever anxieties rendered him melancholy. He did not believe the day could turn worse. Then a thin rain set in an hour and a half from home, drenching him to the skin and spattering them all with mud and ordure from the foul road.

Mr. Lassimer’s Solution
Saturday, 26 May 1792, Aylsham, Norfolk

t was late
in the day and Adam was wet, tired and mud-spattered. For the last few miles Betty, his horse, appeared at least as dejected as he was. The two of them plodded along, heads down, intent only on finding warmth, food and some escape from the endless drizzle.

As soon as they reached home, William took Betty to food and a warm stable, while Mrs. Brigstone bustled about Adam. She hurried him within and sent him to find dry clothes, then told him to sit and warm himself by the fire. Back in her kitchen, he could hear her harrying the maid Hannah to help prepare their master a good meal to cheer him. Adam did not know what he would do without her motherly concern, let alone her fine cooking. At length, the warmth from the grate seeped into his frozen legs and feet so that he began to feel drowsy. When his housekeeper came at last to summon him to table, she had to wake him first.

Still, good food and a soft bed did wonders and when he awoke the next morning he was much revived, at least in physical terms. As he lay in bed, however, luxuriating in the warmth and comfort, his mind was still troubled.

This whole matter was becoming too serious, he told himself. Was the death of the archdeacon truly a problem he should concern himself with? There had been an inquest where it was determined that he died by accident. Whatever Adam felt about the scanty nature of the proceedings, it appeared that the man's family and church were both content. Why should he be correct in seeing something suspicious, where others found nothing amiss?’

Still, he could not but wonder at the news his brother had imparted. If the authorities had taken such trouble to seize the smugglers – and the constable – at Gressington, why show no interest in why the archdeacon had been found dead there? The man had no business to be there, Adam thought. Yet he could not know that for certain and the archdeacon might have had good reasons. Adam was privy to very few aspects of the man's life. Might simple answers be already known to those who knew the man better?

Perhaps he should forget the whole affair, he thought. That confounded curiosity of his must not be allowed to lead him astray. The archdeacon’s death was no business of his. Indeed, he had become involved by the merest chance. It was time to forget it and move on. He had given scant enough regard to his business of late. Yet in truth, Adam still felt torn. He had little doubt others would judge it sensible to mind his own business, but he also felt a nagging sense of worry. Even Lassimer had asked him whether any further interest from him in the archdeacon’s death was justified. What was it that would not let his mind rest easy?

Was it just curiosity about an annoying puzzle? Was it a wish to show that his concerns about the gaps and inconsistencies in the ‘official’ version of events were justified? Neither seemed enough to account for the persistent sense of unease that surrounded every thought he had about that morning in Gressington churchyard. The whole matter offended his sense of justice. A man had died. Was life so cheap that the simplest, most convenient explanation should be deemed sufficient? Was his death to be considered less important than making plans to catch a group of smugglers? Should he accept such a cynical viewpoint, simply because it might save him from further effort? He did not think he could – and that surprised him most of all.

Hoping these reflections might make him a little clearer in his mind and rid him of the memory of yesterday’s journey, he rose. Mrs. Brigstone had already brought him warm water. His ruminations had allowed it to cool somewhat, but he thought it a poor reward for her care to make her bring fresh. Instead, he washed and shaved, albeit in a somewhat perfunctory manner, then quickly dressed in a suitable morning gown. As he did so, he formed several resolutions. First, he would apply himself to the needs of his patients and practice. In that way, he believed, he could set a distance between his curiosity in the matter of the archdeacon and regain a better perspective. Then he would talk the whole thing over with his friend Lassimer. Finally, he would do what he should have done from the start. He would apply reason. Too many passions had been clouding his judgement. If reason told him to continue, he would. If not, he would set it aside, once and for all.

Thus fortified, he went downstairs and applied himself fully to the delicious breakfast awaiting him. Whatever other problems it brought him, the archdeacon’s death would not be allowed to interfere with his appetite.

ater that same
morning Adam attended the parish church as his patients would expect. He had little time for what the parson taught there, but it would be poor business to flaunt his unbelief. He could at least take enjoyment in the fine words Archbishop Cranmer had set down for the order of service. As usual, the sermon was tedious and sadly deficient in logic. The local vicar was neither a man of great learning, nor much interested in increasing the faith of his flock. As all knew, his passion in life was fishing. He was, it was said, preparing what he hoped would be the definitive work on all aspects of the art. Since he read the services as laid down, conducted baptisms and weddings and buried the dead, his parishioners forgave him any lack of religious zeal. Indeed, few would have him otherwise. Religion was for Sundays. The good people of Aylsham had other things to occupy them for the rest of the week.

So, with the service over at last, Adam made his way through the chill, wet streets to Mr. Lassimer’s apothecary’s shop.

Spring seemed to have deserted the countryside for the present. Most people stayed at home when they could. Only when shopping, or some other necessity, forced them outside did they face the bitter showers. Sunday was a good excuse to stay within. Adam would have been no different had not his need for counsel urged him forward.

When he at last reached Mr. Lassimer’s shop, he felt as chilled as if he had crossed miles of winter heathland, though he had walked barely two hundred yards on a spring day. Since it was Sunday, of course, the shop was closed. For a moment, he thought he should not intrude on his friend's leisure. Then he shook his head and banged on the door. He needed help and he knew it would not be begrudged.

Adam found Lassimer making good use of the time in his compounding room. Such terrible weather always brought on on a rush of head colds and problems with the lungs. His stock of remedies therefore needed to be replenished in advance. Bad weather might be dangerous for most people, but it was very good for apothecaries’ profits.

Letting Adam into his shop, Lassimer left off his work at once and called for Anne to warm a jug of good mulled ale for them both. ‘You are chilled to the bone, I don’t doubt,’ he said. ‘Indeed, I feel cold enough from looking at you. A draught of mulled ale will restore us both. You have news? It must be so, and news of some moment, or you would not have left your fireside in weather such as this.’

‘I do indeed have news,’ Adam said, ‘but I will wait for your pretty servant to bring our ale before I speak further. Once I begin, I cannot risk such distraction as she offers.’

Lassimer clapped his hands with mirth at that. ‘That's better. It may be Sunday, but there is no call here to be solemn as a Presbyterian elder. Is not Hannah Neston your maidservant? I declare she is one of the daintiest creatures in the county. She came in here the other day on an errand and I marvelled that she could work for such as you. I warrant you pay her no greater regard than you might a dog or a cat.’

‘I am well aware of her charms, my friend,’ Adam said. ‘Yet she is under my protection and deserves respect as well. If I wish her to treat me as master, I cannot treat her as other than a servant. But look, here is Anne with our drinks. Thank you, my dear. I do not know how you suffer to serve my most provoking colleague here, but I am glad that you do.’

‘I am never provoking am I, Anne?’ Lassimer said. ‘I am always the kindest and most considerate of masters.’

Anne was much too wise in the ways of menfolk to be tempted into any reply. She put down the ale, bobbed a graceful curtsey and bestowed upon each of them a smile of pure innocence as she left the room.

‘Alas,’ Lassimer said, ‘I grow too fond of her. Still, a bout or two with a choice widow should set me right again.’

‘Do you wish to hear my news,’ Adam said, ‘or do you prefer to spend the time boasting of your conquests?’

‘Begin!’ Lassimer replied at once.

assimer’s response
to the news Adam related was everything he could have hoped for. His friend gasped several times. Twice he cried out ‘Damn me!’ And, at the conclusion, he gulped down a mighty draught of ale before throwing himself back in his chair and crying, ‘Enough! My head will burst with all your questions and speculations.’

‘So what do you make of it?’ Adam asked.

‘Make of it? Why, Bascom, the answer to the mystery of the man’s death is plain enough. Your archdeacon blundered into a smuggling gang that night. So they dealt with him, lest he alert the authorities to their actions. The blackguards must then have taken fright and fled the scene. I dare say the authorities already had a plan to set a trap for the rogues. Now the archdeacon’s death made fair to wreck it. Because of that, the smugglers would expect too great an interest to be given to Gressington. Only when the fuss had died down would they risk returning to their business.’

‘No accident, then,’ Adam said.

‘By no means, though that crooked constable tried to declare it so. He doubtless hoped to avoid anyone asking questions about who else might be abroad that night.’

‘Yet why did the authorities not frustrate this intention?’

‘Because it was a godsend to them. The authorities wanted no enquiries either. Every stranger sniffing around that village would delay their trap longer. In such places, all who have a right be be there are known. A strange face stands out at once, like a blackamore amongst Englishmen.’

‘They simply wanted no fuss?’

‘None whatsoever’ Lassimer said. ‘The inquest made the verdict of accidental death official and everyone assumed the story had reached its end. Then, after some weeks had passed, they judged that the smugglers must feel safe again and would be keen to get back to work. In case they still hesitated, the authorities tried to reassure them further. This they did by spreading tales of the supposed raids at Lynn. The smugglers took the bait and the dragoons and Revenue men sprang the trap. Simple. It explains all. We know now why the constable exclaimed at once that the death must be an accident. We know why the coroner made certain that his jury returned the required verdict of accidental death. We even know why the magistrate acted as he did. Each one, in his way, has received his due reward.’

Adam rubbed his chin. His manner of shaving that morning had left enough stubble to make him feel uncomfortable.‘It is not what this explains that bothers me,’ he said after a moment. ‘It is what it does not.’

He warmed to his subject, leaning forward and leaving his second pot of ale untouched. ‘Perhaps I should be be satisfied that the matter of the archdeacon's death is as nearly solved as it will ever be. I am not. Maybe the man did suffer the misfortune to encounter desperate men. Maybe they were ready to kill to secure their freedom, as the constable later did. Even so, why did they not stay to rob their victim?’

‘There may be any number of explanations,’ Lassimer replied. ’They could have been disturbed. They could have set a greater value on a rapid escape than the goods the victim had about him. They might even have intended only to stun him or render him incapable of raising the alarm before they could get away. It is possible that his killers were horrified to find the man dead, and panicked.’

‘All plausible enough,’ Adam said.

‘So why does your curiosity remained unappeased?’ Lassimer asked.

‘Because it scarcely matters if there are rational explanations for what took place in the churchyard. None have been advanced for why the Venerable Nathaniel Ross was there at all. Senior clerics do not, so far as I know, make a habit of wandering around remote churchyards after dark. There was no cause for the man to be in Gressington on that day at all. Until I know the answer to that mystery, no explanation of the results will quiet my feeling that Dr. Ross's death remains unexplained.’

Lassimer laughed. ‘Bascom, my dear friend,’ he said. ‘It is your curse and your blessing to see hidden problems where others see none. In medical matters, this habit makes you the most thorough and conscientious of diagnosticians. In the rest of life, it condemns you to worry and fret over every loose end and unexplained trifle. Providence, in its infinite folly, failed to lay down that all things must be capable of explanation enough to satisfy Dr. Bascom. Sit back, forget Gressington, and drink up your ale. I assure you that Anne will not be pleased to find we have left any. She may have the face and figure of an angel, but she can put on the dark visage of Satan himself, if she feels her work is held at nought.’

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
8.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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