Authors: William Savage
Back to Holt
his is a work of fiction
. All characters and events, other than those clearly in the public domain, are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is unintended and entirely co-incidental.
of A. W. Savage to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
. Savage, 2015. All rights reserved.
of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted or reproduced in any format or by any means whatsoever (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. Any such unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
& Bourne Books
, April had smiled and wept and smiled again, exactly as it should, but this morning the sky was clear in the first frail light of dawn. Adam’s brother was used to him leaving the house for walks at such an early hour and would not fret to find him gone. His breakfast would be awaiting his return, thanks to the housekeeper.
Adam Bascom was still, he supposed, counted as the “new” doctor in the small Norfolk market town of Aylsham. He had been in practice there for nearly two years now. Still, the local people were slow to accept newcomers and he suspected he would still be “the new doctor” in ten years time. It was not an ideal town for a new practice. It was small and somewhat isolated near the northern coast of the county, but beggars could not be choosers. If his dear father had not died and left him a small – a very small – inheritance, he could not have established a practice at all. Aylsham would do for now, even though there were few of the professional people of the middle sort and the local gentry on whom doctors’ practices depended. The poor had the greatest need, but the least ability to pay. Philanthropy pleased the conscience, but would not put meals on the table.
Shaking himself free of these thoughts, Adam brought his mind back to enjoying his walk. He found the early cold invigorating. His shoes might be soaked with dew, but his heavy petersham and tarred Monmouth cap were proof against any weather. There was so much to raise the spirits at this time of year. Turning his head this way and that, he caught the fleeting scents of apple blossom and cowslips. On all sides, pale blooms caught the early light. First he inspected the delicate flowers on the blackthorn. Then he bent to sniff a few early bluebells hiding under the hedge with the cowslips. A moment later a robin was singing ahead of him, and a thrush replying to his left, caught his attention. He still had much to discover of the world of nature and much to love. Presently he lacked the means to indulge himself in walks like this too often. A new doctor cannot afford to be out when any patient calls or summons him. It would not always be so.
Adam would not even have been here today, had not his niece Mary suffered from another bout of bronchitis. The cold east winds that blew along this coast were not ideal for anyone who had a weakness in the chest. After Adam’s father’s death, his elder brother Giles inherited the family estate at Trundon Hall. It contained good land and a mansion neat enough. The position was a fine one as well, for it lay just below a ridge plunging down from Holt towards the River Glaven and the sea. Yet Trundon was a troubled inheritance. Giles senior had been improvident, feckless and hopeless at any sort of business. His expenditure so exceeded his income that he had left his elder son an estate much burdened with mortgages. It also needed significant capital expenditure and much better management to produce higher rentals. Giles could supply the management. The expenditure would have to wait.
Adam had long known he could expect little in the way of a personal inheritance. Like most younger sons, his lot in life must be to find his own income. Yet there were few acceptable options. Adam had no wish to enter the church. The dullness and diligence needed to be a lawyer were not part of his nature either. Nor were the courage and daring needed to be a soldier. Of business, he knew nothing. At length, to his family’s surprise, he had chosen to qualify as a physician, even though the task was hard and he had to finance his studies himself.
Still, that was in the past. Now he was qualified, he could at least bring help and solace to his brother’s family when any fell ill. Mary would recover, he was sure, with careful tending. Indeed, he could have returned home yesterday had not a thick fog rolled in from the sea. This was an isolated area and the roads were poor at the best of times. Riding along them alone and in fog was reckless in the extreme, so he had stayed the night with his brother. Now, needing to smell the morning air and stretch his legs, he had taken an early walk.
Adam’s choice of route lay alongside the river towards the coastal village of Gressington. He could just see it now. He recalled it had but one or two large houses, principally the vicarage and the home of the most prosperous farmer. There was a single inn – somewhat weatherbeaten when he last saw it – and a group of smaller homes for tradesmen. For the rest, it was simply a cluster of fishermen’s cottages and shacks, which stood at all angles to the roadway. Most of the buildings still seemed neglected or in need of repair. A stranger would have judged some of the cottages deserted, had he or she not been able to see the thin columns of smoke rising from their sagging chimneys. Gressington had for many years been one of the poorest villages in the locality. It had not always been so, for what lay before him was all that the sea had left of a once-thriving port. Centuries of storms and the shifting of the shingle had destroyed the rest. Now only the large and handsome church still showed the place’s past prosperity. Yet even there the south aisle was just a ruin.
Adam sighed and opened the gate to the churchyard, looking towards the sea, calm and silver in the pale light of the new dawn. The fog had left during the night, though a few drifts of mist still clung to the river itself and the water-meadows that bordered it.
On an impulse, Adam decided to walk in the churchyard a little, looking for signs of spring. He was not disappointed. Here shy violets peeped from near the wall. There were the first leaves of the primroses that would soon spread themselves between the grave markers. Soon there would be daisies, wild carrot and all manner of other flowers to delight the bees. What men designated a place of death, nature ever filled with abundant life. There was a lesson there.
Just then, his foot struck something and he came close to losing his balance. It was a man's leg. Looking down, he saw where it protruded from behind a headstone near the churchyard wall. Not just any man's leg either. This leg wore a fine silk stocking and had an elegant shoe at the end of it, adorned with a silver buckle.
Adam bent to look closer, then straightened as he saw that a well-dressed man was lying just out of sight from the pathway. There was no need for haste. Adam was doctor enough to know at his first glance that the man was far beyond mortal help.
Resting his backside on a convenient table-topped tomb, he considered the situation with care. A man of perhaps five-and-forty years was lying dead in this churchyard. How had he come to be lying thus? How had he met his death? Neither question seemed to offer a route to an answer.
Here was a man dead. Perhaps reason and observation might point beyond fact to cause, as they did so often in identifying the nature of a patient’s disease.
It was not a robbery. The man’s coat was open, showing a silver pectoral cross still in place. A clergyman then. There was also a gold ring visible on one finger, and no sign of the general disarrangement of clothing made by a cut-throat looking for a purse. He was lying in grass soaked with early dew, yet there were no footprints to be seen. If it was murder, where were the wounds? Adam could see no sign of a weapon. Indeed, from the mottling of the skin on his face, and the pinkness in his eyes from blood congesting there, he might as easily have had an apoplexy or a seizure.
The sensible course of action was to summon the local clergyman and leave matters in his hands. Adam was not sure of the current pastor’s name, but he did know where he lived. That house to the left of the churchyard, somewhat larger than the others, had been the vicarage since his childhood and before. Now … should he leave the body lying where it was? He decided this was best. Once he had found help, he could, if they wished, make an initial examination. Then it would be up to the local coroner and magistrate. They would decide what further enquiry should be made into the cause of death.
he Reverend Mr. Flather
turned out to be a man of dispatch. Adam waited scarce two minutes for him to ready himself to leave his house. Like Adam, he had dressed for a chilly morning. Together, they hastened across the churchyard to the place where the body lay. As they went, Rev. Flather told Adam what he planned to do.
‘We must take the body to a suitable resting place to await whatever examination the coroner and magistrate may wish to make. Only then can he be handed over to his family for decent Christian burial,’ he said. ‘However, I see no reason why we should not make use of the gift of Providence in sending us a physician to find the body. If you are willing, I think it proper that I ask you to make a preliminary examination to establish cause of death. We will go to the body, so that I may say a brief prayer for the soul of the departed, then fetch the sexton. Together, we should be able lift the poor man onto the parish bier and take him into the small chapel off the north aisle of the church. There we may lay him out in a fitting way and you can make your examination away from prying eyes.’
Adam nodded his agreement. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground as they walked, in case there should be any indications there of what had taken place. But there was nothing. The dew lay undisturbed on the grass all around.
Arriving back where the corpse lay, Adam stood aside to allow the pastor to see the man and make his prayers undisturbed. Mr. Flather started at once in alarm and gave out a hoarse shout. ‘Oh, my Good Lord,’ he said. ‘It is the archdeacon!’
‘The Archdeacon of Norwich?’
‘Indeed so. Dr. Nathaniel Ross. An important man in the church. What on earth is he doing here?’
‘He had not come to see you?’ Adam asked.
‘No. His last visitation to this parish was some weeks ago. He is most diligent in his duties of inspection and correction. Yet he has always informed me by letter of his attending on me. I have heard nothing. He had no reason to be here, yet here he is – and dead as well. I must fetch Tom, my sexton. We must not allow Dr. Ross to lie on the wet ground any longer.’ It occurred to Adam that the state of the ground would be of no concern to a corpse, but he held his peace.
‘And the constable and magistrate?’ he asked. He kept his tone low since it was clear this discovery had greatly shocked the pastor.
‘I sent one of my servants to fetch the parish constable before we left’, Rev. Flather said.‘His name is Garnet – John Garnet. He is a longshoreman, I suppose, for he owns a boat and sometimes goes fishing. He also hires himself out as a local pilot to such few ships as now trade to the port of Blakeney nearby. What else he does, I think it best not to ask. There are many on this coast whose dealings are a matter of concern to the Excise. For poor people scraping a living from the sea, the smuggling trade is a lifeline.’
Without more words, the pastor hurried off to fetch sexton and bier. Adam stood alone once again with the mortal remains of The Venerable Dr. Nathaniel Ross. What an intriguing puzzle! For anyone to have been out alone in the churchyard in the cold, wet fog last night was strange enough. For that person to be the Archdeacon of Norwich seemed almost past belief.
After several more minutes, the pastor returned, now accompanied by a man of indeterminate age whom he introduced as Sexton Hart. The three of them lifted the archdeacon’s body onto a bier which the sexton had brought. Then Hart wheeled the body towards the church, while Rev. Flather lead the way, chanting some prayer or psalm in a low voice. For a few moments, Adam hung back to examine the ground where the corpse had been lying.
Aside from the dry depression in the grass caused by the body itself, there was nothing to see. No marks on the dew from any footsteps, other than his, the pastor’s and the sexton’s. No weapon thrown aside. No signs on the ground of any struggle, nor where men might have gathered around. Below the head, there was a darker mark on the grass leaves that might have been blood. Adam touched a finger to the stems and it came away stained with a pale pink. Not much blood then; or the dew had washed it away. The man must have been on the ground since early yesterday evening.