Read They Hanged My Saintly Billy Online

Authors: Robert Graves

Tags: #Novel

They Hanged My Saintly Billy (9 page)

But I smelt a fishy smell to the business, and when the other parries wished to bring in a verdict of death from natural causes, I said: 'Gentlemen, that don't satisfy me, and I'll tell you why. Stafford is a small town, and a good deal of talk goes on in one tavern and another, some of it false, some of it true, some of it half and half. Well, I was at The Junction last night, and heard talk there about this Palmer, who laid with his old schoolfellow that Abley couldn't down more than a single tumblerful. It seems that Mrs Abley, a buxom young wench, has been an out-patient at the Infirmary—she goes to be dressed for a Severe scald on her thigh, caused by a jet of boiling water from a kettle. Palmer was directed to dress the wound in this intimate part of her frame, and from the confidences which she made to a neighbour's wife it seems that a mutual attraction ensued. However, Mrs Abley is not entirely lost to shame. She is reported to have said: " Mr Palmer, though I admit a sincere affection for you, I am not forgetful of my marriage vows, and while Abley lives I shall be faithful to him.''

' "Why, that is a pity," says Palmer, "for you are the very woman I should otherwise have asked to be my wife and help me spend my inheritance wisely and well. But there's no help to it, I see. If you take marriage that seriously, we must both pine apart."

' "I have no complaints against Abley," says she. "He's a good husband in his way, industrious and thrifty, though not everything I could wish as a lover—no, not by any means. And his stomach never having been good, I have to cosset him
with
baby-food, a diet which does nothing to whet his desire for me. If only I could give him shellfish, and great bloody beefsteaks, and roasted love-apples! Yet I have never seen him drunk in my life, nor even the worse for liquor, and there are all too few married women in Stafford who can say that of their husbands." '

A juryman asked me: 'You think, then, Mr Jenkinson, that the business at The Lamb and Flag had been rigged—that it was Palmer's intention, with the conniva
nce of Timmis, to discredit Able
y in
the
eyes of his wife by sending him home reeling drunk? Or was it perhaps so to stupefy him with drink that he wouldn't come back at all that night, but leave room in his bed for another?'

'No,' I answered, 'my suspicion is an even graver one. I think that he planned to murder the poor shoemaker!'

'You are suggesting, Mr Jenkinson,' says the juryman, 'that, having diagnosed a weak heart, he counted on the action of the brandy to kill him, and deliberately embarked on that smutty story of the sailors and the polar bear to distract attention from Abley's fate?'

' It is my decided opinion that he did not count on the action of the brandy alone,' I said. 'I keep my ears open, and one of my carters happens also to be an out-patient at the Infirmary. Yesterday I asked him: "Bowles, what do they say up yonder about young Palmer, the student?" and Bowles told me that Palmer is said to be the devil of a rake with flighty young women; and that a new order posted on the notice-board is aimed at him. "What order? " I asked Bowles. "Why, Master," he answers, "I mean
the
order which forbids
the
Infirmary pupils to have anyth
ing further to do with the dispensing of medicines. There's a shortage of hands at the Infirmary, you see, Master; and no paid officer employed at the dispensary; in consequence, any pupil can go there and mix what drugs he pleases, pretending that he's been ordered to do so by a medical officer. Well, it's buzzed about tha
t Palmer has been
in the habit of conducting exp
eriments of his own in the dis
pensary—'for a lark,' he says. He's been putting drugs in fellow-pupils' drinks to make them vomit, or piss green, or fall into drowsy fits from which they awaken only with hardship and aching heads." '

I continued: 'This is all hearsay evidence, gentlemen, I admit. But there's no smoke without a fire, and I therefore propose we demand an autopsy, and thus satisfy ourselves that no "lark" was perpetrated on the unfortunate man by Palmer. On the evidence, he had the opportunity to slip something into the second tumbler of brandy, while all eyes were watching Abley's consumption of the first.'

My fellow-jurors objected to this as an unproved surmise, and argued that on my own showing Palmer did not love Mrs Abley with sufficient passion to plan her husband's death; and that if he had perhaps dosed the brandy, this was not done with intent to kill. The verdict would, at the worst, be 'manslaughter'. 'He's well loved at the Infirmary,' one of them said, 'and I should not, myself, care to set so black a mark upon a young fellow's name.'

'The law's the law,' I insisted, 'and we have been charged to decide upon the cause of Abley's death without fear or favour.'

In the end I persuaded them to demand an autopsy, despite the inconvenience that the delay must cause us all; and Dr Masfen from the Infirmary duly performed his disagreeable and thankless task. But the vomit in the stable had meanwhile been swabbed up, and Abley's stomach was empty, except for some cordial draught which he had been given by his wife when at the point of death; thus it was too late to secure a sample of the fatal draught for analysis. Moreover, the stomach showed signs of chronic inflammation; and Dr Masfen pronounced that death seemed due to natural causes. This was accordingly our verdict, though I didn't like it, by no means.

A fortnight later—not so soon as to make it seem that the warning had any connexion with the inquest, but soon enough— Palmer was privately advised to leave the Infirmary. In my own opinion,
the
medical officers feared that if they took disciplinary action, Palmer would charge them with defamation of character; and their own negligence in the matter of allowing pupils to dispense dangerous drugs might come to light. It may even be that if some medical gentleman unconnected with the Infirmary had performed the autopsy, h
e would have found more than Dr
Masfen troubled to find. For if the state of Abley's stomach had betrayed the action of poison, would the Infirmary staff have escaped censure? Tell me that!

Idle talk, I say, idle talk! All I know for sure is that Palmer let his acquaintance with Mrs Abley lapse. He suspected, I have no doubt, that its renewal would be dangerous.

Chapter VI

AT BART'S

T
HE following account was furnished by a young surgeon, late of St Bartholomew's Hospital, now settled in Harley Street, and a decided luminary of his profession. He does not, however, wish his name to be mentioned in connexion with the Palmer case—not, at least, until his friend's character (as he hopes and trusts) shall have been vindicated in all respects. Disclosures would embarrass him professionally.

'a surgeon'

One can judge a man only as one knows him. History has made the name of Nero odious, yet it is admitted by the historian Suetonius that, after his suicide, loyal friends still laid flowers on the imperial tomb, and continued to play certain musical pieces which he had composed, though no longer forcibly obliged to applaud them—indeed, quite the reverse! Tears of sincere sorrow were likewise, we read elsewhere, shed at
the tombs of such monsters as Ge
nghis Khan, King William Rufus of England, and Lucrezia Borgia the Italian poisoner. Not that I should have shed any myself; but allow me to depose—and I would sign my name to this but for the delicacy of my present situation as a consulting surgeon to Royalty—that I found William Palmer a thundering good fellow and a deuced good friend.

He came to London in the latter part of the year 1845 and, like myself, engaged the knowledgeable Dr Stegall as his 'grinder' to help him pass the medical examination and secure his diploma. He offered Dr Stegall a fee of fifty guineas should he succeed, to which, I understand, his w
idowed mother promised to add th
e sum often guineas; and his friend, Mr Jeremiah Smith, a solicitor of Rugeley, a further ten.

For some days after his arrival in London, Will Palmer lodged at Dr Stegall's house; but the course of behaviour expected of him
,
there did not suit his book at all. It was 'early to bed, early to rise', constant study and no distractive pleasures—unless he counted it a pleasure, of an evening, to participate in a family game of cards at a halfpenny a hundred points, or in a dramatic reading of Mr Dickens s
Barn
aby Rudge,
each person representing one character in
the
novel, while Dr Stegall undertook the narrative. Will Palmer had just come into a fortune—of some seven thousand pounds, I believe—and greatly enjoyed the sense of liberty that being flush gave him.

Once Dr Stegall gentl
y rebuked Will for having bought, in the space of four days, a gold-headed malacca cane, a jewelled snuffbox, and a French watch of exquisite workmanship. 'Money, Dr Stegall,' replied Will, 'is meant to be spent. It's the mean habit of hoarding
that
dries up trade, cripples industry, and bloats the funds of the roguish Assurance Societies. What's more, these trinkets, as you call them, are solid investments which will add to my consequence when I put up a brass plate as a qualified surgeon.'

But that same afternoon he honoured me with a confidence during our walk in the Hospital grounds. 'Charley,' he said, 'if you knew how my inheritance has been earned, you would hardly blame me for the small value I give it.'

'I'm ready to listen,' I replied.

'Then here goes,' he said. 'My father ground the faces of his workmen in a shameful manner. Moreover, the principal with which he started his sawyer's business was got together by very dubious means. If I now give you the story, it's only to show you how wholeheartedly I detest my origins, and how determined I am to start afresh.'

'You want to be your own ancestor?' I suggested. 'As one of the ancient Romans, a man of vulgar birth, very happily put it.'

'That's the nail hit on the head, Charley,' he agreed. 'Well, to tell of my maternal grandfather: he began as a gunner in the Royal Navy and, pray spare me your blushes if I confess that he acted as bully to one Peggy Taff who kept a brothel in a back street at Derby. Peggy drove a pretty good trade, and was continually sending my grandfather to the bank with her earnings. The old scoundrel took the precaution to enter them all in his own name, not hers, and at last, when she reproached him with showing too much fondness for one of the women of the house, a certain Mrs Sharrod, he knocked her about severely and drew the whole of her fortune from the bank, some five hundred and sixty pounds.

My grandfather and Mrs Sharrod, who later became my grandmother, migrated to Litchfield, where they rented a small farm and lived like respectable people. My mother, their daughter, used to visit Litchfield Market, twice a week, selling poultry, butter and eggs. They did well enough, and presently settled in King's Bromley, near Stafford, where Field-Marshal the Marquess of Anglesey has his seat: that glorious old soldier who fought at Corunna, lost a leg at Waterloo, and afterwards became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.'

'I saw him in Queen Victoria's Coronation Procession,' said I, 'and how the crowd cheered!'

Will sighed and went on: 'My mother had two strings to her bow: the Marquess of Anglesey's steward, and my father, a young sawyer of low origin. The steward was named Hodson, and would have married my mother, but that he already had a wife; so my father saved him the trouble,
by marrying her himself. Mr Hod
son continued to be romantically attached to my mother; indeed, I've been told that my eldest brother Joseph may thank him as the author of his being. My own parentage was never, I understand, in doubt; because soon after Joseph's birth the family quitted King's Bromley and came to Rugeley. By this time, my father was in a fair way to make his fortune, for he and Hodson had not only gone snags in my mother's favours but done the same with the profits of the Marquess's timber, then being felled to supply the Royal Navy. The Marquess was away in Ireland, and his eldest son, the present Marquess, showed such negligence that Hodson had a clear run. Now, it seems that while Hodson courted my mother, my father was quietly marking the fallen logs
I,
I
;
2, 2;
3,
3
—so that he got six for the price of three. Or even more; an old fellow by the name of Littler who worked for him in those days has told me that he
has seen no less than ten No. 10
's carted out of Shoughborough Park during a single day. My father prided himself on a little rhyme which he had composed himself; and taught us at his knee:

It is a sin to steal a pin,

But guineas are fair game.

The hound who hounds a million pounds

Writes "Lord' before his name.

This inheritance of mine, Charley, is ill come by, and the sooner it's spent, the better I'll be pleased.'

I felt dismayed at the bitter tones in which Will Palmer branded his father as a cuckold, his
mother as an adulteress, and both
of them as thieves. His story reminded me forcibly of the Biblical text: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge.'

'No, but Will,' I objected,'I heard you tell Dr Stegall the other day that you were directly descended from Sir James Palmer, Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, in the reign of the martyred Charles I; and from his son Roger, the Earl of Castlemaine, a boon companion o
f the Merry Monarch, Charles II
'

'So I did,' he said carelessly, 'but Stegall is no friend of mine; and I reserve the truth for my friends only, if I may count on you as such. To do so relieves my heart of a heavy burden. Though it may be unscientific to believe that dishonesty, infidelity, or cruelty is inheritable—as one may well inherit a gouty tendency, or short sight, or a syphilitic taint, or melancholia—I can't choke back the resentment I fee
l towards my father. Now, look'e
e, Charley, I don't relish Stegall's household or the regimen he forces on me. I shall clear out, bag and baggage, at the end of this week. What do you say to rooming with me ? I
hear you well spoken of as a th
oroughbred entire, sound in wind and limb, without vices and a good stayer. In short, I'd be proud to have you as my stablemate.'

'If it puts me to no greater expense than I am incurring at present,' I answered, 'I should be most happy to join you. I won't say that I'm enchanted with the company I'm keeping; but my purse is light, and the rooms are cheap.'

'Tell me more,' he says, handing me an uncommonly good cigar and igniting it for me.

'Well,' I said, 'it's this way. 'My "chums", as they call themselves, are sad dogs; very sad dogs indeed—though what the significance of "sad" in this phrase may be, I'm sure I don't know. They are, in point of fact, confoundedly gay, so gay as to be perfect bores. The
summum bonum
of their happiness seems to consist in strolling along the Haymarket or Regent Street of an evening, clad in ruffianly overcoats, smoking foul black cigars, and peering under the bonnet of every poor little dressmaker or milliner making her solitary way home, wearied after a day's toil, and weighed down by a heavy oilskin-covered wicker basket. They call it a lark to ogle the unfortunate girls and put them out of countenance—I call it blackguardly. Then, when the shops are closed, and they have refreshed themselves at some public-house bar with copious draughts of half-and-half, they call it a lark again to march arm-in-arm, four or five of them, down quiet streets and shouting
"Lullaliety!"
at the tops of their voices.

'Myself, I could never abear boisterousness,' says he.

'And I draw the line sharply’
I continued, 'at the sport of wrenching knockers off street doors, and proudly displaying them to one's fellow-chums, very much as a Sioux or Ojibway "brave" exhibits his scalps.'

'What are their peculiar habits at table?' Will asks with mock gravity, as one might inquire about some strange variety of jungle animal.

I told him: 'They make beer their morning beverage—"drunk from the native pewter,"—as the cant phrase is—and chaff me when I suggest that tea or coffee, both of which quicken rather than dull the intellect, may be
the
more civilized brew. "Charley the slop-drinker," one of them waggishly called me, until I flung a pint of half-and-half in his face, and followed it with the native pewter. There came no more waggishness from that quarter for a while, I warrant you. They breakfast from whatever happens to be in the cupboard—bread, cold meat, a stale pasty, or a petrified cheese-rind—and if the beer is expended, gin and water must serve. Generally half a dozen chums from the lodgings opposite thrust their way in, to join the merry meal and talk over last night's lark—how Johnny bonneted the policeman, or how old Tom stole the garter off a young lady's leg as she was mounting into a hansom cab. Savages, Will, ignoble savages! Nor do these visiting chums remember to bring the necessary breakfast tools with them; but the meat and cheese is sliced with a rusty pocketknife, or the very scalpel with which one of my party has been operating on a mouldering human femur, now carelessly tossed into the cupboard next to the loaf of bread. Gin and water is drunk from pickle-jars or gallipots, or the ornamental vases on
the
chimney-piece.'

Will chuckled at my recital, and I went on to tell of my chums' dinner taken at a 'slap-bang', or cheap eating-house, where they ate cow-heel or hot alamode, and offered familiarities to blowsy women waiters, who returned them in kind; I also described their disorderly supper. 'You'll live a very different life when you room with me, Charley,' he said. 'You'll eat and drink of the best, and never have a chum in the world to plague you.'

Will now rented a fine set of rooms in Bartholomew Close, belonging
to a fellow by the name of Ayre
s, and fitted them up in approved style, covering the walls with anatomical charts and models, and laying out two or three hundred guineas on professional works. This was a great convenience to me during my home-studies, and Will did not deceive me by demanding any larger contribution than I had paid at the hole-in-the-wall from winch he rescued me. I drank tea for breakfast out of a handsome china cup, and ate bacon and eggs, or grilled kidneys, or kedgeree and fish (a capital food) off a well-heated plate with excellent table silver. Our rooms were never in disorder, and Will himself showed a particular niceness about his morning dress, which was neat rather than showy; and though somewhat provincial in his manners at the start, he soon learned London etiquette and became quite the gentleman.

So far as I know, he always paid his debts, even to tailors, which many a peer of the realm disdains to acknowledge—as
though
tailors were not also God's creatures, and entitled to payment for their tedious labours! When not walking
the
hospital, I stayed at home and studied; but for the first few months Will Palmer did not join me and proved very remiss in his attendance at the Lecture Theatre. I thought this none of my business; for if he chose to make the rounds of
the
betting-houses and mix with the racing fraternity—already his thoughts were turning to the Turf— at least he did not bring any doubtful characters back with him to Bartholomew Close. He respected my quiet, a
nd showed me th
e most thoughtful consideration.

One evening, I remember, he said to me: 'Charley, you look fagged. Much study is a weariness to the flesh. Come out with me to supper! I'll stand you treat, and shan't expect any return but the pleasure of your company.'

I could hardly refuse, though I pointed out
that
if he took me to a more than ordinarily genteel place, I had no suitable togs for the occasion.

'Oh, damn the togs!' he answered. 'Borrow some of mine, if you like—we're much of a height, and your shoulders are as broad as mine.'

So presently we walked down
the
Strand, where he led me to an oyster shop, described as a 'night house', where scarlet lobsters and crabs like giant tea-roses jostled one another in appetizing profusion on the stone counters; where pickled salmon lurked in shady groves of fennel; where Finnon haddocks, truly Scotch in their hardness and crispness, were ranged in thick layers; where oyster tubs crowded the walls; and where a gilt placard hanging from the flaring gas jet invited us to partake of chops, kidneys, or steaks. At the counter stood a row of swells, cooling their parched throats with Colchester
natives, and swearing unrestrain
edly at the flannel-aproned attendants. Through the doorway of an inner room I caught sight of many ladies of the Town, in silks, satins, feathers, and plenty of'slab', that is to say, red ochre and bismuth, staining their cheeks.

Will was leading the way in, when he turned sharply about and came out again. 'Let's away,' he muttered, 'there's a fellow here whom I'd as lief meet as the Devil himself.'

'Who can that be?' I inquired, disappointed of my oysters and crab-meat.

'A fellow named Dawson,' he replied, 'who owns a big house near Stafford, and has done me an ill turn. I'm determined to marry his ward, the sweetest and most engaging little girl in the world. But he stuffs her ears with ill-natured tales against me. It's my opinion he wants to make her his third wife.'

W
e retraced our steps and presentl
y walked across St Martin's Lane, where he led me to a public house, and said: 'Charley, I shall now show you England's greatest living hero, next to the Iron Duke, of course.' He nodded at the publican behind his bar, a white-haired, battered giant who stood ringed about by prizefighters with broken noses, cauliflower ears, and bleary eyes, and by a mixed assembly of dog-fanciers, bookmakers, ratting-match concocters, and the very scum of sporting life generally. Ah, those cutaway coats, th
e nankeen trousers fitting tightl
y to the leg, the bell-shaped hats, the blue-and-white neckties, the queer jargon and outrageous oaths!

'Who's your friend?' I asked.

'Who's he, indeed, Charley? Are you really so green? You should be ashamed to ask the question! Why, that's the great Tom Cribb, formerly pugilistic champion of England; who sparred in the presence of the Russian Tsar and the King of Prussia in the year before Waterloo; and who guarded the entrance to Westminster Hall at the disorderly coronation of his late Majesty, King George IV. Though now attained to the age of seventy, he could still, if he pleased, dash all the teeth from your jaw with a mere back-hander.'

Then we turned up Little New Street, even at that late hour blocked by the carts opposite a cheesemonger's; along K
ing Street and the il
lumined windows of the Garrick Club; then down a steep flight of steps, and into Evans' Supper Room.

'Here you'll find a scene rather more to your liking, I hope,' said Will Palmer. And, in effect, Evans's of Covent Garden is an establishment that has ever since delighted me when I could afford to sup there. You don't know it? Why, it's the finest place of its kind in the metropolis—I rate it far above Rhodes's, or the Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane, or the Coal Hole in the Strand. It's divided into two parts, do you see? First, the cafe, furnished in truly Parisian fashion—except
that
it doesn't spill over into the street—and hung around with framed portraits of the most famous theatrical personages in ancient and modern times. The cafe is where men of importance from every walk of life gather to exchange gossip. In fact, so much gossip is exchanged that a 'syndicate', or combination, of newspaper reporters has been formed to spread out among the tables, each secretly cocking an ear to the disclosures of the group sitting nearest him. Afterwards they pool their takings, perhaps less honestly than the members of a thieves' kitchen, but honestly enough to keep the syndicate in being. The newspaper proprietors pay them a fixed sum for their suppers so long as they continue to collect, or at least fabricate, printable news.

Then there's the Singing Room, a hall with a platform at the upper end on which a grand piano is stationed, and to which the singers climb when called upon by the chairman who sits beneath. The important business of eating is solemnly and industriously undertaken here by six or seven hundred men. Ladies are, of course, debarred, owing to the freedom of language which is permitted the performers; and women of the Town equally so, owing to the respectability of the audience. It happened that some most distinguished guests were present on this occasion, including several Members of Parliament, and two titled racehorse-owners whom Will pointed out to me; and (a thing that interested me far more) seated at the next table to us were two men whom I recognized as
the
famous novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens! Mr Thackeray, a member of the adjoining Garrick's Club, still makes Evans's, as he has put it, 'my nightly chapel of ease'. He was then engaged in writing his immortal
Vanity Fair,
though under the misfortune of being married to an insane wife. Mr Dickens, already the author of
Pickwick Papers
and
Oliver Twist,
had just been offered, and accepted, the editorship of the recently founded
Daily News;
and Mr Thackeray had been invited to celebrate this success. Mr Dickens lay under the almost equal misfortune of being unhappily married to a woman who had borne him a number of children, while he loved her younger sister to desperation. Will told me all this,
sotto voce,
observing that domestic unhappiness often positively assisted men of genius to pen immortal works. 'Not that I would ever have read a word written by either of them,' he added, 'had it not been for Dr Stegall and his merry evenings. I find
Ruff's Guide to the Turf
engrossing enough.'

He ordered 'Black Velvet' (which proved to be champagne mixed with stout), a couple of dozen oysters, and thin slices of buttered wholemeal bread as a commencer; to be followed by rump-steak and a good claret. On the other side of our table sat a party of provincials, Wolverhampton tradesmen by their accent and garb, who gazed at Will with veneration and astonishment, until presently one of them recognized him. Will bowed gravely but paid no further attention, though it appeared that this was an old schoolfellow; and the chap's 'Dang me, if it isn't Billy Palmer of the Rugeley Yard!' got drowned by a growl from his mates: 'Howd thy rattle, Tinny!' For now the Chairman had rapped on the table with his hammer and was crying: 'Attention, pray, my lords and gentlemen, to the music from
Macbeth,
No.
63
in the books,
if
you please!'

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