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Authors: Michael Knox Beran

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BOOK: Murder by Candlelight
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There was a glow of candlelight in the cottage window. The boy Addis, “servant to Mr. Probert,” was at his post in the stable. Earlier in the evening, he had heard the wheels of a gig going past the cottage. He had thought it his master, but the gig had passed on.
Now someone was ringing the bell at the gate. Who in the name of Beelzebub was there?

A face the boy knew well—Mr. Thurtell's.

He was standing, in a drab-colored greatcoat, much stained, beside a horse and gig.

When Probert and Hunt reached the cottage, they went with Thurtell into the parlor. Mrs. Probert, who was just then coming down the stairs, was surprised to find a stranger among the company.

“This is my friend Hunt,” Probert said to her, “of whom you have so often heard me speak as being so good a singer.”

The men drank brandy, and Probert proposed that while supper was getting ready—Susan the cook was dressing the pork—he and his guests should go to Battlers Green, to ask a day's shooting of his landlord, Mr. Nicholls. They went out to the stable, where Thurtell produced Weare's gold watch and chain.

“Now I'll take you down to where he lies.”

If Carlyle illuminated the gig-pretension of Thurtell, De Quincey elucidated the deeper horror of his crime. The small, delicate man, with his courteous manners and soft, enchanting voice, was a curious bearer of the dark insights which were his specialty in trade; he seemed, at first sight, to be angelically innocent. He was “hardly above five feet,” Carlyle said, and “you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little child,” had there not “been a something, too, which said, ‘
—this child has been in hell.'”

It was true: the sensitive, retiring creature had been in hell. In his
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
, he described the
horror of his drug-laden dreams. He was transported into lands of “vertical sunlight,” and suffered “mythological tortures” at the hands of unscrupulous priests. He ran into pagodas and was imprisoned in their secret chambers, or fixed upon their summits. He was the idol: he was the priest: he was worshipped: he was sacrificed. Yet If De Quincey was fascinated by experiences which, like opium nightmares and metropolitan murders, had the mark of the beast upon them, he was no less drawn to the aftermaths of these experiences, when life resumed its customary aspect. He recounted how, during an opium dream in which he was being pursued by a malignant crocodile, he suddenly awoke to the pure sunshine of the English day. It “was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside, come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out.” So awful, he said, was “the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent
natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.” Such experiences played a part in shaping a hell-scholarship unsurpassed of its kind, one which remains even now an indispensable guide to the malefactions of Thurtell.

There was a chill in the air as the three men went down Gill's Hill Lane in the moonlight; the mercury that night would fall into the thirties.

“It is just by the second turning,” Thurtell said.

They came to a spot where there was a gap in the hedge.

“This is the place.”

A maple grew nearby, and Thurtell, who had lost both his pistol and his penknife in the struggle, kicked the fallen leaves in an effort to recover them.

The body lay on the other side of the hedge. Hunt held the lantern, and Probert took up the corpse by the pits of the arms. Thurtell rifled the pockets, in which he found—not much: a couple of fivers, folded carelessly together, a memorandum book, and some coins—mere silver, with no alloy of gold in them.

“This is all he has got,” Thurtell said.

They put the body into the sack, head first; but the sack was too small, and at the open end the feet stuck out.

They left the body there; and on the way back to the cottage Thurtell spoke. “As we were going along the dark lane Weare said to me, ‘Damn my eyes, Jack, here's a pretty place to cut a man's throat, if you want to get rid of him!' Presently I said to him, ‘I have missed the lodge gates—I must have passed them.' Then I turned the horse about, and followed your advice, Probert, by telling him how nice the country looked that way; this induced him to turn in the direction I pointed, and I shot him through the head. . . .”

But Weare had obstinately refused to die.

“I never had so much trouble to kill a man in all my life.”
For “after I had discharged my pistol at him he jumped out of the gig and run.” He ran “like the devil up the lane, singing out that he would deliver all he had won of me, if I would only spare his life. . . . I jumped out of the gig, and ran after him.”

He “fought with me till I knocked him down with the pistol, and he then struggled with me with great resolution, and actually got me undermost. While, however, I was in this situation, I took
out my penknife and cut his throat, and in so doing I broke the blade of my knife. The blood rushed from him in quantities, and some got down my throat and nearly choked me: at last when his strength failed him by the loss of blood, I got up.” But although Weare's throat was cut “about the jugular vein,” the wound did “not stop his singing out.” Thurtell then “jammed the pistol” into Weare's head. “I saw him turn round; then I knew I had done him. Joe, you ought to have been with me. . . . Those damned pistols are like spits; they are of no use.”

Carlyle alluded to an anecdote told of Dante: how in the streets of Verona he was pointed out with the words “
Eccovi l' uom ch' e stàto all' inferno
.” (“See, there is the man that was in hell.”)

Silver coins (crowns, half-crowns, florins, shillings, and pennies) were sharply distinguished from the guineas (sovereign guineas, half-sovereign guineas, and half-guineas), machine-struck gold coins minted in the United Kingdom as late as 1814. Neither the gold nor the silver in any of the coins was wholly pure: the guineas were said to be eleven-twelfths pure gold, and the silver coins thirty-seven parts pure silver and three parts alloy.

Thurtell would later deny that this was true: “Weare was a very little man; and to think it possible that such a person could get the better of me, is all nonsense.”


The Party in the Parlour

this sore night
hath trifled former knowings.


n the parlor the three men drank brandy and supped on pork. Thurtell himself, “hot from slaughtering,” had no appetite and complained of feeling unwell. After dinner, Probert went into the kitchen for a bottle of rum, and Thurtell, in the good humor that comes of a warm liver, drew Weare's watch and chain from his waistcoat pocket. He urged Probert to put the chain around Mrs. Probert's neck; but this Probert declined to do. Thurtell then contrived an elaborate fiction, telling Mrs. Probert that the chain had once belonged to “a little Quakeress, a sweetheart of mine at
Norwich.” But “as I have turned her up,” he said, “I must beg of you to keep it for my sake.”

Mrs. Probert at first refused the gift, saying that it would be awkward for Mr. Thurtell to have a watch without a chain. But Thurtell persisted, and at last she allowed him to draw the chain around her neck. She received it, Hunt remembered, “very cordially,” and “promised never to part with it.”

The incident would shock England almost as much as the murder itself. That the man whose hands had shortly before done such bloody work should now put them, insinuatingly, caressingly, around the neck of his friend's wife, a woman whose sister he had once professed to love, a woman who was herself to come to a ghastly end—it savored, in its mixture of malignant eroticism and heartless frivolity, of a depravity foreign to the English character, or so Englishmen liked to suppose.

Having enchained Mrs. Probert, Thurtell was careful to pop the watch itself back into his pocket. But the revels were not yet ended. “You think me a good singer, Betsy,” Probert said to his wife, “but you must hear my friend Mr. Hunt.” Hunt was, indeed, reluctant to sing; but the company pressed him to “tip them a stave,” and he acquiesced.

The weird levity of the party in the parlor was for De Quincey the illustration of a psychological fact. In his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in
,” he explained that episodes of intense horror are commonly followed by restorations of ordinary life that reveal, as nothing else, the true blackness of what went before. Like Viking princes after the slaughter-hell of battle, embracing drink
and woman-flesh with ecstatic vehemence, or sailors on leave indulging themselves in a mad carouse, the evil-doers embrace their freshly recovered normality with an insane avidity. As, during the Black Death, men and women were roused, in their revulsion from the universal horror, to a frenzied love of life, copulating promiscuously in the very cemeteries in which they were soon to be laid as corpses, so Thurtell's struggle in the death-vortex with Weare produced the voluptuous euphoria of the party in Probert's parlor.

It was a commonplace of Romantic thought that life is a marriage of heaven and hell; but De Quincey perhaps more accurately conceived it to be a cycle in which ordinary time is routinely punctuated by intervals of hellishness and intervals of grace. The cycle was for him an immutable law, yet he recognized that it manifests itself differently in different persons. A certain kind of soul embraces hellish experience, seeks it out, in the pursuit of sensuous ecstasy; another sort accepts suffering as an inevitable part of life which, when gone through, brings one closer to grace. For readers of English poetry, Hamlet is the exemplar of the soul which finds its way through suffering to peace. Having passed through an interval of moral horror, he again sees the stars:

There's a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will. . . .

Macbeth, on the other hand, is the pattern-figure of the soul that undertakes a hellish act in order to indulge a sensual felicity, in his case the wielding of a royal scepter. Having “done the deed” and murdered Duncan, he ascends from the world of the dead to that of the living, an ascension Shakespeare signalizes by the knocking at the gate of the castle at Glamis:

Whence is that knocking?

How is't with me, when every noise appalls me?

Eventually the clownish porter, who laughingly identifies himself with the “porter of hell-gate,” gets up and with a stream of humorous talk opens the castle gate to admit Lenox and Macduff, and with them the breath of fresh life.

De Quincey traces the power of the scene to Shakespeare's comprehension of what murder ultimately is, an eruption of hell in the fabric of regular existence. The “world of ordinary life,” he writes, is during the course of a murder “arrested, laid asleep, tranced, racked into a dread armistice.” Its place is taken by a hellish world, a “world of devils,” cut off by “an immeasurable gulf from the ordinary tide and succession of human affairs—locked up and sequestered in some deep recess” of perdition. The murderer himself is “conformed to the image of devils”; and a “fiendish heart” takes the place of his human one. But at length the hellishness recedes, and like the blue sky that succeeds a storm, existence resumes its wonted aspect:

BOOK: Murder by Candlelight
12.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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