An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1) (9 page)

BOOK: An Unlamented Death: A Mystery Set in Georgian England (Mysteries of Georgian Norfolk Book 1)
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‘Now, it appears, France has overcome its first brushes with chaos and is building a new and more powerful army. In the first months of popular fervour, the French navy was laid low. Too many of its officers were noblemen. Most fled, others suffered a bloody death at the hands of the peasants. Yet now even their navy is being rebuilt and fresh officers found. The Frogs hate us, sir, and have a strong taste for seizing trading advantage from us, as well as our colonies in the Caribbean. No, war with France is coming again and both sides are manoeuvring for advantage before it breaks out.’

‘And the death of our archdeacon? What of that?’ Adam said.

‘It is my belief, doctor,’ Capt. Mimms replied, ‘that the archdeacon blundered somehow into one or two French spies just landed on that stretch of coast. Thus he paid the penalty. They could not take the risk that he might have recognised what was taking place. I suspect they did not even know who he was. No, they saw only a gentleman, well-dressed, in an unexpected place. They cannot be blamed for making the obvious deduction that he must be an officer of the courts or the crown.

‘This business of high politics might also explain the reluctance of those in power to allow the archdeacon’s death to be investigated fully. They wish, sir, to keep any suggestion of what they know about the French activities from slipping out. To do so would hamper their efforts to discover the presence of spies and the identities of the people they meet with.

‘And now we have proof enough, at least to my eyes. That seizure of the smuggling gang was carried out with a superabundance of forces. Thus it is impossible to doubt something more was expected than a boatload of laces and spirits. One clandestine passenger was secured, as I hear. Maybe they expected many more. Whatever else, they have blocked that rat hole. None will risk that route for a good while to come. I imagine they have also sorely frightened any more planning to offer passage to the continent in secret.’

The old sailor sat back and took a large mouthful of punch, then leaned forward again with a look of triumph. ‘So, my good friend,’ he said. ‘What do you think of that?’

13
Frustration
Wednesday, 13 June 1792, Aylsham, Norfolk

M
rs. Brigstone provided
the two men with an excellent supper. She relished any opportunity to display her skill in the kitchen. As a bachelor, Adam rarely entertained at his home, so she felt her abilities as a cook had little outlet. Only when his mother came to stay was Adam moved to send out dinner invitations to the better class of people in the area.

That day, Capt. Mimms also proved a most agreeable guest. He praised Mrs. Brigstone's efforts at every turn and helped Adam do full justice to the dishes. The meal also made a large inroad into Adam's wine cellar. Adam was not a great drinker when alone. Now his store would need replenishment before he could consider entertaining again.

Growing merry, the two men talked of the state of trade, the prospects for a better harvest and the countryside ways of Norfolk. Then Capt. Mimms began on a series of tall tales of his days at sea, typical of mariners everywhere. He told Adam of his encounters with whales and of sailing amongst icebergs off the coast of Greenland. Then he switched to relating how he and his crew once fought a gang of pirates along the Barbary Coast. And, as was only natural, he described the delights of landing on exotic shores. How he once came close to bearing off one dark-skinned beauty to be his wife. And how glad he was after that he had not, when he found another even more wanton and voluptuous.

In all this, Adam proved the best of listeners, never suggesting any of it was more than the plain truth. Indeed, the talk was so brisk that it was late by the time the old man left for the short walk to The Black Boys Inn.

Adam was sad to see him go. His loud, good-humoured presence had filled the house, leaving it feeling somewhat empty and cold afterwards. It was with a heavy heart that Adam at last made his way to bed, rather more unsteadily that was usual.

T
he next morning
Adam’s head ached a good deal. His servants, perceiving their master not to be in the best of humours, went about their business softly and kept as far away from him as they might. They noted that he ate little, but drank a good deal of small ale – sure signs that he had over-indulged the evening before. Fortunately, he was engaged to visit several patients and left the house promptly at eleven. If he did not hear the sighs of relief that followed his departure, he surely should have done.

Whether his patients noticed any difference in his manner none of them said. Adam's way of consultation was always brisk and business-like and he liked to conclude his visits with dispatch. Some doctors spent many hours indulging their patients in discussing ailments and treatment. To Adam's mind, such close attention to their present problems too often encouraged patients to fall into melancholy. He preferred to raise their spirits by speaking and acting as if any current problems might be soon at an end. The mind was, in his experience, the most remarkable power in medicine. Let a person become sure of quick recovery and the chances of it happening were great. Let them dwell on their fears and the outlook became bleaker by the day.

Nevertheless, it was well into the afternoon when he made his way at last to Peter’s shop. His temper was not improved when he found the place shut up and his friend also engaged on house calls in the neighbourhood. One look at his face when he returned home and his servants resumed the furtive movements they had set aside when he left that morning.

Thursday was no better. Adam had to leave early in the morning to visit a patient living almost ten miles distant. He had put if off for as long as he could, for the gentleman, though rich, was a hypochondriac of considerable experience and a niggardly host. Thus he returned in yet another bad temper, for it had proved a wearisome ride and a yet more wearisome consultation. Now there were letters to write and fresh supplies of medications to be gathered together to refill his medical bag. It was enough to try a saint's patience and Adam assuredly did not possess that.

Still, having been forced to set the matter of the archdeacon aside for a time, he did take a small step forward. During this time, when his personal search for answers to the thousand questions that bubbled in his mind had been suspended, it finally occurred to him to write to his mother in Norwich.

As a dutiful son, Adam wrote to his mother regularly with news of himself and his practice. He loved his mother dearly and often worried that she was too much alone since his father died. He had even thought of trying to find a practice in Norwich, so that he might see her more often. His limited means soon put an end to such plans, and he had to content himself with such visits as he could manage. It was fortunate therefore that Mrs. Eleanor Bascom was a regular visitor to both her sons' homes, being still on the right side of her fiftieth year and in excellent health. Nor was she any more content to be always alone than her son was to see her thus. Her last letter had brought the news that she had engaged a companion: a young lady of excellent accomplishment but slender means. She would arrive quite soon to take up residence.

‘Thus she may be viewed and approved when next you visit me,’ his mother had written. ‘But I warn you that any failure on your part to offer her the welcome she deserves will incur my displeasure. I am quite decided that she will prove a dear friend, for she plays the fortepiano with uncommon skill and speaks both French and Italian fluently. I have already warned her that my two sons are rude, untutored men, barely able to speak English and quite without other accomplishments. Thus she will be prepared to endure your next visit with fortitude, if not pleasure.’

Adam knew his mother to be the most sensible and perceptive of women. He thus had little doubt that this female paragon of a companion would prove to be daunting in the extreme. Far from looking to show her a poor welcome, he was becoming nervous that she was quite unlikely to approve of him. His imagination drew a picture of a haughty, sharp-faced blue-stocking, who would take one look and dismiss him as unworthy of more than a distant courtesy.

Of course, he said none of this in his letter. Instead, he complimented his mother on her decision to engage a companion. He assured her he much looked forward to making the lady's acquaintance and would be affability itself when he did. Then, hoping he had occasioned a good mood in his parent with these words, he included a special request. Would she be willing to make some enquiries on his behalf amongst her friends? He assumed many must have known Dr. Ross and his family personally. Might she therefore help him to discover what manner of man he was?

This was nearly the only positive thought that Adam had managed to make in the past two days. He could not sift and make sense of all the information he had on the man's death until he better understood the man himself. What was his character? What were his beliefs? Might there be any clue there to show why he was in Gressington churchyard?

14
Bigotry Made Plain
Friday 15 June 1792, Aylsham, Norfolk

W
hen Friday morning dawned
, Adam’s mood had lifted. He had at last accomplished something. A servant would give his letter to the carter who plied the dozen miles from Aylsham to Norwich most days. Thus it would be in his mother’s hand that evening, or the next morning at the latest. He also had a day free from business commitments.

Seeing their master enjoy his usual lavish breakfast, his servants relaxed. Harmony returned to the household. After breakfast, Adam stepped out into watery sunshine to make his way along the street to the apothecary’s shop. He was hoping that Lassimer might have leisure to talk with him and he was in luck.

After a busy week, his friend was making up fresh stock. Adam joined him in his compounding room, where Lassimer assured him that he could listen and work at the same time. None of the remedies he was making contained dangerous contents. None required the most careful preparation.

‘Most are simple nostrums,’ Lassimer said, ‘which do not harm. Indeed, they do little enough good, unless they are taken with total faith in their power. Our bodies and minds are, as I know you agree, closely intertwined. Thus the most feeble medicine may have a powerful effect on those who believe in it without reserve.’

They sat together as the apothecary worked, the room filled with the fragrant odours of herbs and the sharper scents of spices and oils. Lassimer called to Anne to bring them a jug of punch and, if she could persuade the cook, a few dainties to stimulate the appetite.

Once Adam began, Mr. Lassimer’s response to his fresh news was again all any storyteller might wish. The young apothecary gasped, slapped his hand on his thigh and, on several occasions, cried out, ‘Damn me, is it so?’ and ‘The Devil!’ in his excitement. Then, when Adam had finished, he sat in silence. He seemed bemused by all he had heard, the punch untouched by his side. ‘I thought I had news enough for you, but this quite o’ertops it. Spies! Foreign gold! Why, my friend, it is like the tales of adventure I loved to hear when I was still a boy. Not in some far-off land either, but right here on my own doorstep. I am quite dizzy with excitement.’

Adam had had more time to think over all that Capt. Mimms had told him. Thus he was gratified by Peter’s response, but less ready to accept all at face value. After all, these were but rumours. Even so, information that circulated among successful merchants must be worth more than gossip heard in a tavern. Where Lassimer was excited, his own speech was more measured. ‘Is this the answer, do you think? That Dr. Ross blundered into something quite unexpected and was either struck or stumbled and fell as he tried to make his escape? It sounds like enough, but it bears not at all on the great mystery that lies at the heart of this matter. Why was the archdeacon in that churchyard at that time to blunder into anything? Why did Mr. Harmsworthy take him there with so little curiosity about the reason. Why leave him there alone? I can make no sense of it.’

‘Listen to what I have learned, my friend,’ Lassimer said. ‘It is not so momentous as your Capt. Mimms’ discoveries, but may yet play its part. It too bears on events across the Channel.

‘On Wednesday, I paid a call on an elderly clergyman who is a patient of mine. He lives to the south of here, along the road to Norwich. Nowadays, he keeps to his house a great deal, for he is much troubled by the gout. Yet he has kind and dutiful children. From time to time, they take him to their homes in the city to be within reach of old friends and attend sermons and lectures. He is a man of some learning and likes to keep his mind active, even though his body is failing him.

‘He did not know of my interest in the archdeacon’s death. Yet the death itself – and the likely candidates to be his successor – have been topics of considerable interest amongst the clergy. On a chance, I asked him if he had known Dr. Ross. At first, his answer seemed to offer no interest. He had not known the man, for he no longer has a cure of souls in any parish and so would not come to the archdeacon’s attention.

‘All was not lost. He had heard the man preach on more than one occasion. Our Dr. Ross was, he told me, a powerful and combative preacher in several of the city churches, as well as the cathedral itself. His sermons were of a strongly moralising tone. He often castigated the people of Norwich for their laxity in church attendance. He railed against their lives of indulgence and debauchery. He was loud against fornication, whoring and the like. He had a particular hatred of men who indulged in what he called ‘filthy and unnatural perversion’. That he condemned many times.

‘Such was typical of most of the sermons Dr. Ross preached since his arrival in the city. Yet of late – or so my patient had heard – he had preached in a different vein. Indeed, he had himself heard the man speak but a few months ago and noted that his views had become more political and more extreme. Not only did he consign all who questioned the authority of the Church of England to everlasting damnation. He also seemed to have developed a tremendous hatred of the revolution in France. Their rejection of the God-given authority bestowed on the King and the Christian church was, he said, the most rank blasphemy.

‘According to his latest sermons, this rejection of God's chosen is but an aspect of a Satanic plot to destroy mankind. The overturning of proper respect for King, church and nobility, would loose anarchy upon us. Tolerance of dissent or seditious doctrines and writings is but the first step on the road to Hell. Anything that undermines orthodox belief should be anathema. All that stands between us and eternal damnation are the teachings of the Church of England. He issued violent denunciations of all who disagreed with him. Their views, he claimed, would soon bring revolution to England.’

Lassimer paused to give more effect to his final words. ‘He seemed to see it as his personal duty, to fight the forces of dissent, rational religion and heresy wherever he found them. No discussion is possible with the forces of evil. Acceptance of different viewpoints was the same as surrender to the devil. He would have us believe dissenters, revolutionaries and freethinkers – even Wesleyans and Presbyterians – are pawns of Satan. He has let them loose to overturn the established order, deprive the King of his authority, the church of its power and the rich and noble of their property.’

Adam shook his head in wonder. ‘You have done well, Lassimer. This is a vivid picture indeed. Dr. Ross, it seems, was a man of such extreme views that I marvel none had made an end of him earlier. Could he have somehow discovered that agitators from France were using places in his own neighbourhood to slip into England unobserved? Would he have been foolish enough to seek to confront them alone? Surely, if had such knowledge, he would have gone to the authorities?’

‘But what if he did,’ Lassimer said, ‘and they seemed uninterested? In no way would they have wanted such a one as Dr. Ross to know of their plans. From what I learned, he was far too likely to proclaim them from the pulpit in support of his own crusade. No, Bascom, their most likely course would have been to appear to take no great account of his words. They might even suggest he might be mistaken. For they would hope in that way to turn aside his attention into safer channels.’

‘And if he preferred his own notions?’

‘Why, then he would believe Satan had infiltrated even the government of the land,’ Lassimer said. ‘Armoured in his own invincible sense of self-righteousness, he would go forth to confront the Evil One and prove the authorities wrong.’

For a while, both sat in silence, absorbed in their thoughts.

Mr. Lassimer broke the silence first. It was clear he had decided enough had been said on the topic of the archdeacon’s activities. ‘I trust that you and your mother will take dinner with me when she visits you next. I dine generally at four and will be glad of congenial company. As you must have found, company in this town is necessarily limited – especially if you have no wife and are not a suitable catch for an unmarried daughter. I tend to find myself expected to be content with some stringy spinster whom no one expects ever to think of marriage. Many an evening I spend quite alone, for, after they have cleared away and set all to rights in the kitchen, Mrs. Brigstone and Anne go to their homes. Mrs. B sets me a cold collation on the table for my supper and I busy myself with reading or compiling my notes. Only the stable lad sleeps on the premises. Like you, I imagine, it is not unknown for me to be summoned to some sickbed during the night. Unlike you though, I have also known from time to time a summons to treat a lively widow for the symptoms of loneliness and other forms of deprivation. I deem it my duty to respond to both types of need in an appropriate manner.’

Adam quickly agreed that he and his mother would be most ready to take dinner at the apothecary’s house. He also insisted that Lassimer must dine with them too, as soon as would be convenient. ‘Only, I beg of you, make no mention of any nocturnal visits to widows. It would make my life extremely difficult, should my mother wonder whether my answering a night call might not be a truly medical matter. Mothers, like wives, do not always see a bantering remark as without some foundation in reality.’

U
ntil now
, opportunities to solve the mystery of Gressington churchyard's clerical corpse had been few. Now they crowded upon Adam, so that he scarce had time to ponder each fresh piece of information before more came to his attention.

The day after he had met with Mr. Lassimer found Adam sitting at his desk, absorbed in reading, when the maidservant brought the letters the carrier had delivered to the house.

Amongst the pile, two neatly folded papers drew his attention. On the one, he recognised his mother’s handwriting. The other was also in a woman’s hand, elegant and flowing, but not penned by any whose writing was familiar to him.

He took up his mother’s letter first, surprised she had moved with such uncharacteristic speed to reply to him. She expressed no great surprise at his request for information about Dr. Ross. She wrote simply that she knew his curiosity only too well and had half expected to hear from him on the topic. Even the reports of the inquest in the newspapers had told her that the proceedings had been scanty. Indeed, amongst many in Norwich, she wrote, the inquest had been the major topic of conversation for a week or more. People were surprised that the unexpected death of such an eminent clergyman had passed off with such small interest. Where, they wondered, were the diocesan authorities or the man’s family. Still, the public memory was short and, lacking further stimulus, speculation soon ceased.

Yet if he were to visit her the next Thursday, she had asked several of those who knew the archdeacon best to take tea. He might then ask his own questions and hear the answers first-hand. All she knew of the man herself, she wrote, was his reputation as a strict moralist. Most of that came from his letters in the papers, in which he constantly took issue with the city’s dissenters and nonconformists. ‘Norwich is a pleasant and sociable place,’ her letter went on, ‘in which all rub along in amity. We have no need of puritanical witch-hunts or theological arguments. I would never have allowed such a disagreeable man to call on me. Yet I know some of my acquaintances, more concerned than I to maintain their reputations as good Anglicans, might have felt forced to do so.’

So, Adam thought, I want information, they will provide it, but I must come in person to ask my questions. These ladies will have questions of their own. To get what I want, I will need to pay dearly and in similar coin.

‘When you come,’ his mother continued, ‘I believe you will find my companion here before you. Be nice to her, I pray you. It will take her a little time to become used to our family ways. Giles can, at times, be too much of the rough squire. You, on the other hand, are prone to appear too severe and scholarly. I know both of you have good hearts, yet somehow I failed as a mother to give either of you any social graces. Still, I believe Amelia has taken Giles in hand on that score. Since you refuse to find a wife – or none will have you, which is just as likely – your solitude but strengthens a clumsy manner. My lady guests can take care of themselves, I do not doubt. It is Miss Lasalle I worry about.’

Ah, Adam thought, Miss Lasalle is both a bluestocking and a shrinking violet. How on earth will mother bear it? How will I bear it? Well, I have more important matters to attend to than nervous spinsters. Let her faint and have done with it, I say.

With such thoughts, he opened the second letter. In an instant, he had forgotten Miss Lasalle's feebleness, his mother's strictures and all else, for the message was from Mrs. Ross, the archdeacon’s widow.

In it, she informed Adam that she had returned to her house in Norwich and asked him to wait on her as soon as might be convenient.

Well, he would take her at her word. He would accept his mother’s invitation for Thursday next and ask if he might stay the night in her house afterwards. That would save him from the inevitable complaint from the groom, William, that it was unreasonable to expect Betty to carry him to Norwich and back in a single day. To leave early would be no hardship on a June morning. Thus he could reach Norwich in time to call on Mrs. Ross in mid-morning and return to his mother’s house in good time to be ready when her ladies arrived.

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