Read They Hanged My Saintly Billy Online

Authors: Robert Graves

Tags: #Novel

They Hanged My Saintly Billy (8 page)

I did my best to restore Annie's spirits, as soon as the period of mourning ended, by arranging treats and excursions for the family; and
little
by little her natural gaiety returned. But Dr Knight and I agreed that the time had come when she must go to a finishing school; and we unluckily decided upon one recommended by his cousin, Dr Tylecote of Haywood—the medical man whose then assistant was none other than William Palmer.

Miss Bond's school enjoyed, and still enjoys, a high reputation for good schooling in all ladylike accomplishments—Annie learned to play the pianoforte there in a quite masterly way—and the girls were, it need hardly be added, under continuous surveillance. It happened once or twice, however, that Palmer, as Dr Tylecote's assistant, was sent to visit the school, when a girl had been overcome by a colic, or cut her finger, or had suffered some other slight accident which lay within Palmer's limited powers to alleviate. On one occasion the sufferer was Annie, and it appears that he treated a strained ligament in her ankle with such gentleness that she fell head over heels in love with him—though he had no suspicion of her feelings, being busily engaged at the time in an intrigue with a red-headed girl from Liverpool, the stepdaughter of a local gardener. Moreover, Annie happened to be very advantageously seated in church, for her pew commanded Palmer's profile at a short distance, straight across the aisle.

My quarrel with Mr Weaver grew out of this unfortunate affair. His elder daughter had also been sent to Miss Bond's finishing school, and one day, in the course of general conversation, she chanced to reveal Axinie's secret attachment to Palmer, for which the girls were teasing her unmercifully. Weaver mentally noted the fact and, when Palmer was about to inherit his seven thousand pounds, and asked him to arrange for their conveyance, brought it out. 'Do you want a wife, Mr Palmer?' asks he. 'For if you do, I can introduce you to a very pretty young girl with a snug
little
fortune. She's a ward in Chancery. Colonel Brookes, her father, left her eight thousand pounds, which gives her a secure income of two hundred pounds a year.'

'There is nothing I should like better,' says Palmer, 'but can you be sure that this beauty would look twice at me?'

' Indeed, I can,' Mr Weaver answers.' She has fallen deep in love with you already. Annie Brookes is eighteen years old, and highly accomplished.'

Yet Mr Weaver was fully acquainted with the circumstances of Palmer's leaving his appointment in Liverpool, and of his ill-behav
iour at Dr Tylecote s; and doubtl
ess also of his profligate life while walking the wards in Stafford Infirmary. To encourage such a depraved young man to marry my Annie for her money was nothing short of criminal; and so I told him to his face.

Chapter V

STAFFORD INFIRMARY

S
TAFFORD, an ancient borough and market-town celebrated for its red bricks, its shoes, and its salt works, contains no less than thirteen thousand inhabitants; of whom at least three thousand (or so we were assured by the landlord of The Junction Hotel) are usually sober—reckoning children among that number. As seen from the railway, the town appears, at this season, like an island lying in a yellowish lake. The farmers here flood their mea
dows to manure them, and the aptl
y named River Sow is therefore divided into a dozen or more streams, which career crazily along with their discoloured waters, in haste to hurl themselves into the swollen Trent below.

All the new houses are built in brick so red that it hurts the eyes —as though one were staring at a fire—and capped by ugly slate roofs. Yet cross the long wooden bridge with its white railings, near the railway station, turn around by a flour mill and follow the lane until you reach Greengate Street'; and there you will find a charming row of old half-timbered houses on either side of the street, some large, some small, but all with heavy carved gables, and warm-coloured plaster set between the dark-brown timbers.

One house close to the Market Place is well worth a visit. Its great forehead hangs halfway over the pavement, with large bay windows like four-poster bedsteads let into the wall. The pale oaken beams standing out from the plaster-work are arranged in a variety of graceful lines that recall the tattooing on the body of a South Sea blander. Messrs Jenkinson & Co., linen-drapers, occupy the premises, and their shop window is decked out with every article 'that fashion can require or beauty desire*—as an advertisement informs us. Festoons
of pink and blue ribbon elegantl
y droop from side to side, and bright yellow driving gloves are arranged in straight lines across the panes. At the entrance door, a bundle of coloured silk parasols and another of sober black umbrellas are stacked like so many halberds
in an armoury; and through the
bay windows above you can see piles of blue hat-
boxes, tall slabs of linen cloth
, and portly canvas blocks of unpacked goods, bound around with bands of iron, as if to keep their figures in. Mr Jen
kin
son, the proprietor, will be introduced to our readers presently.

Meanwhile, here is
the
Town Hall, towering up from th
e Market Place, with a clock stuck against it like a target. It can hardly be called a pretty building, having no more ornament than a blank sheet of wr
iting paper, and the windows are
mere holes in the wall; but at least it is built of Portland stone, not red brick. On either side of it stand half-timbered houses, with cock-hat roofs and their fronts slashed like a soldier's uniform, which lend its pallid stucco walls a certain aristocratic dignity, as it might be an austere and gloomy Tsar surrounded by his merry Muscovite bodyguard. Then, for Tsarina, you have the tall, white, square tower of St Mary's, a church founded by King John, and famous for its memorial to Stafford's most celebrated son—Izaak Walton, the Angler. Passing the Grammar School, an ancient foundation enlarged by King Edward VI, you will observe a dozen or more inns; an elegant bowling green; and the Stafford Infirmary, about whose architecture t
he less said
the
better, but whi
ch has now acquired a certain historic lustre from the circumstance of William Palmer's having, for a period, walked its wards.

There are many better—and we fear, many even worse— hospitals for the indigent sick than this Infirmary. Money for its support being grudgingly voted, because the expense falls on the rates, the accommodation is wholly inadequate, and amenities are very few. Most patients regard their transference here as tantamount to a sentence of death, though the medical staff, we understand, sho
w a praiseworthy devotion to the
ir duties, and though one or two at least of
the
younger surgeons are aware not only of the anaesthetic use of ether in operations, but also of the principle of antiseptics as recently discovered by Mr Joseph Lister, house-surgeon at University College Hospital. For in practice, ether, as an unnecessary expense, is never administered; and antisepsis is difficult to achieve in an out-of-date building where hospital gangrene and pyaemia must remain a constant scourge, and where the shortage of nurses, except the drunken and incapable, rules out even elementary cleanliness in the wards.

Hospital reform, however, is not the subject of our study; let it suffice to say that a walking-pupil in Stafford Infirmary, or any other similar institution—if he is not to become the victim of a nervous disorder—must habituate himself to distressing sights, noisome smells, and such a scene of human misery, despair, and degradation, that his susceptibilities will soon become blunted. To relieve his mind of these horrors he may well be tempted to abandon shame in the wildest larks and most outrageous debaucheries.

William Palmer went to the Infirmary about Midsummer, 1845; but did not remain there for more than a few weeks.

Mr Edward Jenkinson, linen-draper, a small, stout, irascible man with a huge strawberry mark spread across his face and very disagreeable features, was holding forth about William Palmer in The Dolphin Inn the other day, shortly before the trial at the Old Bailey began. Mr Jenkinson drinks neat brandy only, and can afford this luxury; for he is well-to-do and has no family to support, his physical disadvantages having decided all the women to whom he ever offered marriage that they would be far better off in any other circumstances whatsoever. The contempt with which some of them accompanied their refusal has turned him into a misogynist, though one unable to conceal the jealousy he feels for men to whom women freely yield their favours, even uninvited.

mr edward jenkinson

It would never have come to this, I swear, had my fellow-jurymen listened to me eleven years ago, when the first of Palmer's vile crimes came to light. He was then a walking-pupil at
the
Infirmary and had not yet inherited his fortune. But he talked freely about how he proposed to spend the money, and the number of foolish girls whom he persuaded that they had been born expressly for the purpose of assisting him to do so must have run into double figures. Palmer had the power of deceiving himself as a means of deceiving his victims: he proposed marriage to each in turn, and convinced himself that she was the most desirable woman alive. If the girl anticipated marriage by granting him what he asked, Palmer at once cooled towards her, as too giddy to be his wife; if, on the
other
hand, she refused him, he thought her cold, and abandoned the chase. It is said that he got two girls in the family way during his
apprenticeship with Dr Tylecote
at Haywood, and three more in Stafford; but that is mere gossip from
the
public houses.

One day I was summoned to attend a Coroner's inquest on the death of a poor shoemaker named Abley, and my fellow-jurymen elected me their foreman as perhaps the most talented .
..
well, for whatever reason it may have been, they elected me. The evidence was provided by Mrs Bates, the landlady. It appears that Palmer invited Abley to take a drink at The Lamb and Flag—it was a cold, raw day—and asked him what he fancied.

'A pint of ale, if you don't mind,' says Abley.

'Come, come,' says Palmer, 'don't stint yourself! A pint of ale falls chill on the stomach in weather like this. I'll treat you to something better. What about a sip of brandy?'

Abley says that he's no great shakes at brandy drinking, but at this a young Rugeley fellow named Timmis, who had been at Bonney's school with Palmer, pipes up: 'Abley's damnably modest. He's one of the grandest brandy-drinkers in the county. Why, I've seen him toss down three tumblers full, one after t'other, and not turn a hair.'

'I'll lay you three to one in half-sovereigns,' says Palmer, 'that he can't down more than one.'

Timmis then takes Abley aside and says: 'Did you hear that? Palmer's word is his bond, and if you drink a couple of tumblers it will be worth thirty shillings to yours truly.'

'What you win is of no interest at all to me,' says Abley. 'Nor am I any sort of a drinking man. All I want is my pint of ale, and if Mr Palmer grudges me that, I'll pay it myself.'

'Come, don't be unreasonable,' says Timmis. 'What are two tumblers to a bold fellow like you? Drink them down quick, as if they were medicine, which indeed they are, and I'll give you one half-sovereign of my three.'

'Agreed for fifteen shillings,' says Abley, 'which must be handed in cash to Mrs Bates, who'll pay me when I've sobered up.'

'Very good,' says Timmis, and entrusts the money to Mrs Bates.

Abley then accepts his first tumblerful of brandy—right French brandy from Cognac—and drains it, like a soldier of the line. While all eyes watch him do so, Palmer waits at the bar, with his hand on the
second tumbler, which he presentl
y takes over to Abley. 'You conquered that manfully,' he said, 'but I wager this will make you choke.'

Abley downed his second dose, without heel-taps, neither. The men in the tap-room laughed and joked a bit at Palmer's expense. 'Never mind,' Abley says, 'I'd do the same again for fifteen shillings, these hard times.'

Presently he turns greenish and, says he: 'I'll go into the stable. I'll be cleared out just now and ready for my pint at last.'

'Good luck to you,' says Palmer. He pays his debt to Timmis, and then launches into a long, tantalizing story, a cruelly funny one too, so the fellows said, about the straits to which a ship s crew were reduced for lack of women on a long voyage of exploration in the Arctic Seas. Never you mind the details, but it kept the house in a roar, being very comically told. Timmis capped it, and then another customer chimed in—the landlady meanwhile hiding her blushes b
ehind a row of bottl
es. Everyone had forgotten Abley, and it was nigh an hour later that Palmer paid his score and sauntered off. Then someone remarks:' Abley's not come back for his pint, has he? I wonder how he's faring?'

A search was made, and they found Abley stretched on a heap of sacks in the stable, groaning, with both hands pressed against his stomach. Two men carried him home and put him to bed between warmed sheets; but he died the same night.

At the inquest we jurymen viewed the body, and some of us were satisfied that since Abley had been a thin, pale man in indifferent health, to drink two full tumblers of brandy on an empty stomach and then He in the cold stable for an hour or longer was a fatal act—even though the intention cannot have been suicidal.

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