Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Hanging Of Esther Whitebarrow




They had built a gallows for her, a horrible angular thing made of some dark wood. The girl, the poor sad stupid girl, whose destruction would so miserably fail to cleanse the wickedness from their community, stood quietly, facing the instrument of her death. Her arms were held tightly at her sides by an unblinking man with the incurious calm of the fanatic.
          There was a murmur from the back of the crowd. Someone was forcing his way to the front, condemning pagan superstition and demanding that they release the girl. He wore the austere costume of a cleric, but his remonstrations were in vain, and as he opened a prayer book a man struck him hard on the head. The hero of rationalism stumbled to the ground, to the sound of jeers and catcalls. After two abortive attempts to pull himself to his feet, he crawled away to nurse his head wound, harried by kicks and cudgel blows.
         The crowd quickly refocused their vicious energies on the girl, hurling abuse as she was dragged on to the platform. The black-hooded hangman stepped forward.
The girl screamed, a long horrible cry of despair and anger. “I am not a witch!” she said, in a quiet, broken voice.
         At that point the curtain fell and the lights went out.
         “What have we done?” cried a lone, anguished voice.

         It was a moment of risible melodrama.

          When I reached the street outside the theatre, it had come on to rain, and I was looking for a cab when an improbably tall man in a long raincoat, who had also just exited the theatre, barrelled into me at some speed and knocked me into the road. A cyclist swerved to avoid me, muttering darkly to himself as he vanished into the night.
          The man-mountain bent down to haul me out of the gutter, and as he did so I saw his face for the first time. I was surprised to find that I recognised it.
         “Parkham! You could have killed me! They ought to make you get a licence before you’re allowed to charge around London unaccompanied.”
          “I’m dreadfully sorry, Fleming," said my old school friend remorsefully. “I was rushing for the Underground. I have to get to Euston by ten or I shall miss the last train home.”
          “Euston? I thought you were locked up in some remote Church establishment in Somerset?”
          “Ah yes, well. Turns out I’m not really cut out for life as a parson. Didn’t really suit me.”
          “I’m sorry.”
          “Don’t be. I’m not. I moved to Lincolnshire instead. Much more in my line. I bought a house up there. Look, I’m dreadfully sorry, I must go. Can I get in touch with you at the bank? You’re at Hailsham and Renwick, aren’t you?”
          “I can give you my address,” I insisted. “I’m in Islington these days – ”
          I rifled through my pockets to find a card for him. When I looked up, he had vanished.

          I saw Parkham again three weeks later, quite by chance, when we both attended an auction at Barrowman’s, the antiquarian book specialists. The executors of the estate of the late Dr Latham, a professor of history, had engaged Barrowman’s to arrange a sale of his books. The collection was broken up for sale by subject, and on that particular day it was the turn of “Volumes Concerned with the History Of Sixteenth & Seventeenth Century England, Predominantly Regarding Church Matters & the Rise of The Puritan Movement”. As this had been the Professor’s main area of academic speciality, the number of books was large and interest was expected to be intense. Skimming over the catalogue while waiting for the auction to begin, my attention was caught by a familiar name.
          Professor Latham was an expert on the folklore of the English countryside, and particularly the curious phenomenon of the witch trial, which in parts of England persisted until the eighteenth century. A significant proportion of the collection therefore focuses on this theme. Of particular interest are the numerous volumes and papers dealing with the hanging of Esther Whitebarrow, one of the last documented cases of execution for witchcraft in England, and a subject on which Prof Latham was preparing a monograph in the last months of his life.
          It was not until the bidding was underway that I noticed Parkham, who was making discreet bids from his place on the far side of the room. His opponents gradually faltered and withdrew, leaving him victorious. After the auction, on a whim, I waited for him in the grand lobby. Although he had just written out a cheque for more money than I earned in three or four months, he insisted on buying me dinner.
          I have never seen a man so elated by the prospect of acquiring a book collection. There was something unnatural about his giddy excitement. We talked of many things, old friends and politics and the latest exhibitions, but always somehow the talk circled back to Professor Latham’s library. As the evening wore on, I felt some great unspoken fact looming at the edges of the conversation, and several times he firmly rebuffed my clumsy attempts to raise the subject of his departure from St Paul’s, the theological college in Somerset.
          Nonetheless, we parted on cheerful terms, and I was happy to have renewed our friendship after a long gap. Some weeks later I received a letter from Parkham inviting me to spend the weekend with him in Lincolnshire. Having little to detain me in London, I jumped at the chance for a weekend in the country.

          The following Friday afternoon found me on a train, a thin line of smoke and iron etched on the vast fields of the fen country. This was new terrain to me, undramatic and uncanny. The feeling of strangeness came, I think, from the sense that nothing was forgotten here; history had settled into the bleak pastures and the cold dykes, and held fast.
          Here and there, planted firmly in the old earth, a spire or tower stood out against the mingled greys of the sky. The scattered churches seemed to offer a comforting solidity and permanence in these desolate places. To whatever terrors lingered in the empty countryside – the whispers of the old gods, the savage half-remembered traditions of the long-dead – such enclaves of peace and reason stood in silent, eternal opposition.
          Eventually, we left the fens behind. Ahead lay rolling hills climbing gently upwards to wind-whipped bare fields. As we passed through a handful of quiet villages, I dropped off to sleep, and was only woken by the guard’s shrill cry:
            “Battlesby! All change, please. All change.”
          The name seemed familiar for some reason. I could not for the life of me think why, since I had never been to this part of England before and it did not feature heavily in the news headlines or the history books. Nevertheless, it was a charming place, though obviously past the peak of its prosperity and vitality. In the market square two workmen were putting the finishing touches to a war memorial, a simple granite cross on a square base, of the type that were then being erected in towns and villages all over the country. A young man with only one leg and a very old face sat on a bench watching the workmen. I noticed as I walked past that he was gripping the arm of the bench with such force that his knuckles were white.
           Parkham’s new house, Stubbs Manor, was on the far side of town from the railway station, set in its own grounds just beyond a row of labourers’ cottages. My first sight of the house only deepened the mystery of why Parkham, who had inherited a great deal of money from his father, had settled in such a place. It was squat and grey, with poorly executed gables and a general feeling of ill-proportion.
          The aesthetic failure of the house was ameliorated somewhat by a beautiful mature oak on the front lawn, whose leaves gleamed a deep bronze in the gathering dusk. On the left-hand side of the house, a long grass bank ran down to a stream. At the top of the slope, between two trees, Parkham was sitting very still on a garden chair, his attention focussed on the gentle hills of the Wolds, whose western slopes were touched with golden light by the setting sun. It was a spectacular view, somehow mesmerising and joyous and melancholic all at once. I felt for a moment that I had fallen out of time.
          I crossed the front lawn to where he was sitting.
          “Hullo,” I said hesitantly, reluctant to break the spell.
           He started slightly, and turned around.
          “Ah, hello, Fleming. You’re here. Let’s go inside.”
      The front door opened into a surprisingly gloomy hall, with a little of the failing light still flooding the upper half, and shadows and shade consuming the rest. Even after Parkham had lit the gaslamps, it took a little while for me to make out the hall’s exact shape and size. I noticed that there were a great many framed pictures of various sizes on the walls, and several small sculptures on low tables. From behind me came the unexpected sound of a key being turned in a lock, and bolts being shot into place. I turned in time to see my friend slipping a large old-fashioned key into a pocket.  
          “Worried about burglars?” I said, in what I hoped was an offhand way.
          He turned to me with a sudden intensity.
          “Oh no,” he said. “Not burglars.”
          I waited for elaboration. None was forthcoming.
          “Excuse me a moment. I must go and sort out the heating. This place gets bloody cold on these autumn nights.”
          He vanished through a door and down a flight of steps, and I was left alone in the hall with the pictures and the sculptures. The first that caught my eye was one of the most disturbing paintings I had ever seen. It portrayed a session before some tribunal, but the reassuring absurdities of an English courtroom – the wigs, the gowns, the pompous bailiff – were nowhere to be seen. Instead an unruly mob of men were crowding round a rudimentary dock, in which stood a woman, head bowed and clad in black. The faces of the men were rendered with fantastically lifelike detail, full of rage and lust and hatred. The tribunal’s president was leaning forward from his raised bench, his body twisting grotesquely and his face contorted into an outlandish shape. It was an entirely repulsive image. I felt that it was infused with real malice, as if the artist were relishing the scene as well as recording it. 
           “I see you found the gallery!” said Parkham, who had emerged from the doorway. “I’m very fond of that one. I bought it for a song at Meidelmann’s place in Kensington. Artist unknown. The catalogue calls it A Scene Of Justice. Very unusual provenance – been in a private collection for the last century. Do you like it?”
          I glanced at him to see if he were joking. He seemed in quite deadly earnest.
          “If I were Meidelmann," I replied, "I’d have paid you to take if off my hands. How on earth do you have it in the house?”
          His face fell.
          “Don’t you like it?”
          “I’m afraid not. Not my kind of thing at all.”
          “What about the others?”
          He waved an arm around the hall, and then pointed at one of the larger pieces.
          “This one is Dutch. It’s called The Last Words Of An Envoy of Satan. A witch-trial, painted from life.”
          It was a conventional court scene, with neat rows of clerks and lawyers and a bench of judges clad in the usual robes. Despite the melodramatic title, it lacked the diabolical energy of the other piece.  The only interest lay in the figure of the accused, a young woman, which had been painted with stunning vigour and energy. She was leaning forward, her eyes wide with righteous anger. One hand was on the rail of the dock and the index finger of the other was pointed accusingly straight at the judges.
          “I’m not sure this artist approved of witch trials at all. Look at that girl.”
          He looked at me quizzically.
        “That doesn’t mean a thing. Witches had all sorts of tricks for avoiding detection and garnering sympathy. The judges wouldn’t be taken in by mere theatricals.”
        For a brief moment, the full implication of his words didn’t quite sink in. When they did, I turned to look at him to see if he were joking. He did not have the air of a man who had said anything out of the ordinary. He picked up my case with hearty goodwill and mounted the stairs. I followed him to a room on the first floor, at the far end of a long passageway dimly lit with gas lamps. It was a decent-looking room with pleasingly decrepit oak furniture and an old-fashioned fireplace.
          “I’ve put you in my room for the weekend. It’s the best in the house, I think,” Parkham said cheerfully, putting my case on the bed. “Faces south and east, which means you get plenty of light. In the mornings, at any rate. Very useful in a house without electric lights! Bit noisy when the easterly gales blow – you’re fine, though, we’re not expecting any this weekend. Thought you might like a chance to freshen up – see you downstairs for a drink when you’re ready?”

          I unpacked my things and had a long bath, and then sat by the window with a cigarette. It was now immensely dark outside, the blackest night I had seen for a long time, with a new moon and dense, low cloud. Not far away, across the fields, a few twinkling lights marked the edge of the town, but no other sign of human life or habitation was visible. The house might have been alone in a vast unseen ocean. I suddenly felt very insubstantial, almost disembodied, as if the darkness outside were solid and real and I were just a wisp of mist or cloud. 
          I was bothered by the small mysteries and oddities that surrounded Parkham. I considered the still unexplained exit from theological college; the purchase of this rackety, slab-sided house in a rural backwater far from any family or acquaintances; the acquisition of Professor Latham’s book collection; the curious artworks, and the outlandish comments about witchcraft. By themselves, none were especially worrying. Considered as a whole, they formed a pattern of disturbing incongruity.
          Taking shape in my mind was the unsettling realisation that I didn’t really know him at all. We had been close at school long ago, and stayed in touch even when he had gone to Africa to manage a farm. We kept up a decent correspondence for most of the war, though by the time of the Armistice his letters had become both less frequent and more cursory, and by the following year they had ceased altogether. For five years since then, my only news about him had come via mutual acquaintances.
          No word had reached me of any unusual behaviour or mental disorder. If he had been one of the unlucky ones who came home with some trauma of the mind, I had heard no report of it. His only wound had been a broken arm; and as far as I was aware that injury had healed fully and well. My reflections were interrupted by a gentle knock on the door. It was Parkham, asking me downstairs for a pre-dinner drink.

          He had made dinner himself. I noted that this was an unusual practice for a man in his position; he explained that he enjoyed cooking and did not want what he called "the complications" of a permanent staff.
          As we ate, he asked: “Do you remember that play we both saw a few months back?”
“The one about a witch-trial? Yes, it was rather good, I thought. Very well written. Awful ending though. Pure ham. Did you like it?”
          “I did at the time. But I’ve been making a study of the case, with a view to writing a book setting the historical record straight, and it turns out the playwright didn’t understand it at all. It happened right here in Battlesby, you know. Well, she lived here and committed her crimes here, though she was hanged at Lincoln.”
          That was why Battlesby had struck me as a familiar name! It was here that the Whitebarrow case had happened. The satisfaction of the realisation almost, though not quite, distracted me from his choice of word to describe the poor girl’s actions. I was opening my mouth to argue when he spoke again.
          “The play was a farrago of nonsense,” he said, like an old colonel lamenting the manners of the younger generation. “The dramatist was deliberately trying to make the whole thing look like a mare’s nest, as if it were just some ignorant yokels stringing up a perfectly innocent girl.”
          “You don’t think that’s what happened?” I asked.
          He smiled, not in a way that I had ever seen a man smile before, and thrust a piece of steak into his mouth. As he chewed, I felt very strongly the absence of conversation.
          Then he abruptly ended the silence.
          “My book will make it clear that Esther Whitebarrow was a witch, and was justly convicted. Let me tell you the story.”
          “Please do,” I said with a combination of insouciance, curiosity, and - I must confess - a little disquiet.
          “She was hanged on July eighteenth sixteen eighty-one, at Lincoln jail. There was a trial, of course. Twelve sensible men from the town heard all the evidence against her, and delivered a verdict of guilty, under the good old law from King James’ time. An Act,” he said, with a slightly fantastical air, “against conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked spirits. And she was guilty!”
          There was something about those words that seemed to change the atmosphere.
       “I can see that you don’t believe me. At first I reacted just as you have, with incredulity. That was before I looked into the details of the case. Take the first accusation, that she laid fatal curses on three men. A common enough charge in those days. However, in the Whitebarrow case, all three died within two months of the curse, which she spoke in front of half a dozen witnesses down at The Quiet Lady inn. The late Professor Latham, in a spectacular bit of scholarship, managed to track down accounts of all three deaths. One of the men was hit by a coach in the town just three days afterwards. The second drowned while swimming in the Witham River. The third, a sailor, was on a merchantman lost with all hands off the Lizard.”
          I was impressed but unpersuaded.
          “A mere coincidence – and not so very unlikely in such a dangerous age,” I countered.
          “That’s what I thought. Then I looked at the next charge.”
          “Don’t tell me. She turned herself into a cat.”
          “She would predict deaths,” he said. “She did so on four separate occasions during the winter of sixteen seventy-nine to eighty. All her devilish prognostications came true.” He reeled off a grim tally with a combination of satisfaction and disgust. “Jeb Paton, twenty-three, carpenter, died from an infected injury on his arm. Ezekiel Trelawney, twenty-nine, fisherman, crushed by a falling mast. Mary Cooper, widow, sixty-eight, had a fatal stroke. Anne Carr, lady’s maid, twenty-four, contracted a fever and was dead within two days. Every single one of them is reported as having been told by Whitebarrow exactly what was going to happen.”
          “How can you possibly be sure of that? It could all be rumour and gossip.”
          “That’s what I thought. Then I found what I had been looking for in Latham’s collection – the diary of the good Reverend Dudham, the parson who didn’t believe Esther was a witch and yet admitted that her case looked very dark because the facts were against her.”
          He abruptly sprung up from the table and walked out. I was thrown for a moment, and not a little nervous, sitting there in the candlelit dining room all by myself. Then he burst back in to the room holding a piece of paper.
          “This is an extract from Dudham's diary from the time of the trial,” he said, and read from the sheet. “Came home from Evensong in a mood of great sadness today. Dear Catherine – that’s his wife – asked why. Told her that I think it very likely that poor Esther will be hanged. The case against her seems so black. I cannot accept that she is a witch, yet after long and exhaustive inquiries in the parish I am satisfied that all of the events in which she is alleged to have taken a hand happened much as the indictment suggests, and that she did in fact make all the threats of which she stands accused of making (though without, I believe, any intention of carrying them through). She is in my view the victim either of a most damnable set of macabre coincidences, or of a monstrous and insane conspiracy unprecedented in all the long history of English law.”
          “Were there other charges?”  
          “Oh yes. She killed two men by poisoning beer at the brewery. She caused an outbreak of disease in the local sheep and ruined a local farmer, and she summoned the devil in the dead of night.”
          “And you believe these allegations against her?”
          “The deaths from poisoning are well-documented in local histories. In October sixteen eighty, fifteen men became grievously ill after drinking beer brewed here in Battlesby. Two of them died. Three men testified at the trial that they had heard her casting a spell at the brewery.”
          Before I could formulate any objection to this claim, Parkham went on. “The death of the sheep is also documented, and still talked about as a staple of local folklore.”
          “And the dealings with Old Nick? No doubt they too were attested by a great cloud of witnesses, and recorded in the vicar’s journals!” To my own surprise, my amused scorn had transformed into something approaching anger. Parkham looked hurt and annoyed.
          “As it happens, the girl herself confessed to that offence,” he said quietly. “The court records, as noted in one of Latham’s books, show that quite clearly.”
          I wasn’t sure what to say. A long, loud silence descended on the room. We both finished our meals without further attempts at conversation. The intense quiet was stifling. At length, Parkham spoke, his voice low and accusatory.
          “You go to church. You call yourself a Christian. But you daren’t really believe it, just like all the bishops and dons safely sheltered in their colleges and cathedrals. It’s an anaemic, academic faith the Church holds. What do you think it means when we ask to be delivered from evil?”
          “I saw plenty of real evil on the Somme,” I said tersely. “And so did you, for goodness’ sake. We both saw it. Absolutely concrete practical evil. No need for spells or incantations or intercourse with familiar spirits. You’re chasing the wind here. It’s the nineteen-twenties. What publisher will carry a book arguing that a woman hanged for witchcraft was actually a witch?”
          “I intend to present compelling evidence that no reasonable person will be able to ignore. Look, I won’t pretend I’m not upset by your attitude. I thought you were an old and trusted comrade who could rise above the conventional prejudices. Let’s change the subject. I’ll get us some coffee.”
          When he returned with the coffee we talked for a short time of other matters. After a little while, I returned cautiously to our former discussion, taking what I hoped was a less antagonistic tack.
          “What do the locals make of your researches?”
          “Most of them don’t know about it. I rather suspect Mrs Thorpe, who cleans for me once a week, of nosing about in my papers, and she strikes me as the gossiping kind, so the word may be out. Now she, of course, is a descendant of Esther Whitebarrow. I’ve looked into the matter quite closely, and there are still Whitebarrows in the village, a fair number. Not that they’re called that now, mostly, but it’s the same family. Riddles the police sergeant is another one. Then there’s John Dudham at the garage, and Dr Stringer too.”
          I had no idea what to say.
          “At the time of the execution," he went on, "Esther had a child, a little boy by the name of Peter, only two or three. He went to live with Parson Dudham after the hanging. Dudham did right by him, and sent him to Cambridge with his own boy. The lad did very well, as it turned out. Went in for the law at Lincoln’s Inn and died a rich KC. He had a son of his own, Arthur, also a lawyer, also wealthy and distinguished. Arthur died in London about the time of the French Revolution. After that, the trail goes a little cold, then about eighteen-fifty, two brothers named Whitebarrow moved to Battlesby. Arthur’s great-grandsons, I reckon, Esther’s great-great grandsons. There’s an old lady in the town who remembers their arrival and the local gossip that they were descended from a witch. Anyhow, both of those men married and had families – half a dozen children between them, all but one of them girls, which is why this generation have mostly lost the name. The only actual Whitebarrow left in the town is old Micah Whitebarrow, who keeps a farm out on the Wold. He’s the sort of man whose land the local children daren’t trespass on after dark.”
          The conversation, stilted and hindered by my scepticism and Parkham’s consequent disappointment, wandered off into the boring byways of local history and geography, until we decided that it was time for bed.

          I was not used to the stillness of the countryside. My flat in London was close to a railway goods yard, which conducted its clanking, discordant business well into the night. Here the only accompaniment to my preparations for bed were the sporadic scratching noises coming from somewhere above the ceiling, and the lowing of the cattle in a distant pasture.
          Nevertheless, I slept well, and woke early. It was still dark. I didn’t feel the slightest bit sleepy, so I took an oil-lantern and went downstairs to the hall, where I was once again amid Parkham’s art collection. At the very foot of the stairs, on a small table, was a miniature statue, about two feet high, a hideous representation of Medusa. It was purely my fancy, no doubt, that in the thin, frail glow of the lantern one or two of the snakes that made up her hair seemed to be writhing and slithering, but still I recoiled instinctively, a curious and unpleasant chill running up my arm. Behind the Medusa was a second statuette, showing a high platform with a trapdoor built into it and two thick beams at right angles to each other projecting high above. A pencilled caption described it as “the gallows at Lincoln Gaol, as rebuilt c.1667”.
          Behind that bizarre artefact was a row of yet smaller sculptures, all of women’s heads, crafted with some skill. Some of the women were young and beautiful. Others looked elderly and defeated. Each was set on a granite base, whereupon a small plaque gave a name, a place and a date. Moving the oil lamp closer, I read a few of the inscriptions. Ursula Kemp, Chelmsford, 1582. Agnes Sampson, Berwick, 1590. Jennet Preston, Knavesmire, 1612. Alice Nutter, Lancaster, 1612.  Elizabeth Clarke, Chelmsford, 1645.
          As I moved round the hall, the lamplight revealed more of the pictures. There were at least twenty, all told, in a variety of styles. The more I looked, the more it was brought home to me that they all shared the same subject matter: witches. I had never seen such a collection. There were witches on trial, witches dancing in moonlit clearings, witches sealing pacts with the devil in gloomy caves, and witches being put to death by various grisly methods. By far the worst, worse even than the large grim mezzotint showing three Scottish witches being strangled to death by gleeful executioners, was captioned Janet Wishart Committed To The Everlasting Fire AD1597. It showed a young woman being burned at the stake, her wide open mouth disfiguring her face in an eternal scream, and was painted with considerable skill and verve. How odd, I reflected, to devote such talent to recording such a vile scene.
          Close inspection of the hall and the revelation of Parkham’s artistic preoccupations had left me uneasy; not frightened, exactly, but profoundly unsettled. The lantern almost made it worse. Total darkness was one thing, but the flimsy, uncertain flame had revealed the macabre pictures, and now threw grim shadows into unseen corners, emphasising the unknown and unseen world beyond the circle of light.
          Feeling strongly that I no longer wished to be in the hall, I stepped through an archway into a dim corridor. The unease returned as I realised that a faint glow was visible under one of the doors. I approached the door, treading silently and carefully. The handle was cold to the touch and the crunching of the mechanism sounded agonisingly loud in the silent house.
          It was Parkham's study. There were no furnishings of any kind except a wingback chair and a desk, and one whole corner was taken up entirely with a dozen large crates of books, stamped with the Barrowman’s crest. Two of them had been opened. The clock on the mantelpiece, just visible by the light of an oil lamp on the desk, stood at ten to six. Outside the uncurtained window darkness reigned.
          Parkham was asleep in the chair with his head on the desk. He had clearly not been to bed, for he was still clad in the same smart tweed suit that he had worn for dinner. A heavy typewriter was on the desk in front of him, and a sea of handwritten notes covered the top of the desk. A book had fallen to the floor. I stooped cautiously to pick it up. It was an old and fragile volume entitled Daemonologie, supposedly written by none other than the first King James. An ex libris sticker on the title page proclaimed that it had been part of Professor Latham’s collection. I was turning to the first chapter when Parkham shot out a hand and seized my wrist, very much awake and glaring up at me with wild-eyed anger. The book itself fell to the floor, echoing loudly in the dark and empty room.
          “Thief!” he hissed.
        “For god’s sake, Parkham,” I said angrily. “It’s me, Fleming. I’m not here to steal your wretched books.”
          He did not seem mollified. His grip on my wrist tightened and his face grew fiercer. I was afraid for a terrible moment that he was about to attack me. Then, with one swift movement, he released me and rose from the chair. He stooped to retrieve the book, placed it delicately on the desk and strode out of the room, without looking me in the face. He paused at the door.
           “I’m going to bed, Fleming. I’ll see you later.”
           And he was gone.

          I put out the desk lamp and returned to my bed, sleeping fitfully for a few hours until mid-morning. When I finally rose and dressed, with a splendid sunrise streaming in the windows, I could hear no other sounds in the house. There was no sign of my host at breakfast, which I prepared for myself in the large draughty kitchen, and I was wondering how to spend the morning when there came a heavy knocking from somewhere in the house. I felt an echo of last night’s foreboding, but the bright, rational morning light and a cup of tea had stiffened the sinews sufficiently for me to disregard any lingering apprehension. I concluded, rightly as it turned out, that the noise was nothing more sinister than a knock on the front door.
          It was the post office boy, bearing a telegram that was – rather unexpectedly – addressed to me. I opened the envelope to find an urgent summons. The words seemed to be burned onto the paper.

RETURN LONDON IMMEDIATELY YOUR FATHER SERIOUSLY ILL DOCTORS VERY WORRIED. MOTHER XX
            
            I scribbled an apologetic note for Parkham and hurried to the station. I was at Euston by early afternoon, and a cab deposited me at my parents’ house in Ealing shortly after half past two.

          My father, as it happened, survived the crisis and after a few weeks was well enough to remove himself to friends in Sussex to recuperate. Under the circumstances, my strange and curtailed excursion to Lincolnshire slipped from my mind, until it was pulled sharply back into my awareness on a blustery evening shortly before Christmas.
           I was hurrying home late from the bank. As I reached the Embankment, the chimes of the Temple clock were sounding nine, and a cold sleety drizzle had started, drifting off the Thames in a fine mist. Peering at the river, I saw that a strong tide was running, surging fast downstream towards the Pool, throwing up great waves where it flowed against the piers of Blackfriars Bridge. Through the rain I could make out the masts and funnels of the ships moored beyond the bridge, and the silhouettes of the huge, silent warehouses on Bankside. I liked these kind of nights. London seemed alive, romantic, unpredictable – even dangerous. At any moment, you felt, Holmes and Watson might appear through a gap in the mist, hard on the heels of some villain.
            At the Tube station, the Evening Standard seller was just folding away his board and making preparations to go home. 
          “Hold fast,” I said. “I’ll take a late edition if you have one. What’s happening in the world?”
          “Well,” he replied, “it looks like we might get a government at long last. They’ve left it long enough.”
          “Goodness, yes,” I murmured. “And what about the real world? Any juicy murders or scandalous divorces?”
           “No murders, sir. Though a very queer thing has happened up in Lincolnshire. Look, it’s all over page five.”
            I took the paper from him and turned immediately to that page.         

TRAGEDY IN RURAL IDYLL – PEER’S SON FOUND DEAD IN HIS HOME

Captain The Hon Thomas Parkham, 33, fourth son of the late Lord Hassington, was found dead in his home near the town of Battlesby in Lincolnshire last night. The police have released little information. However, the local motor mechanic, Mr John Dudham, who knew Captain Parkham, says the body was discovered early on Thursday by a Mrs Thorpe, the deceased man’s cleaning woman. She sent immediately for the doctor, Dr Stringer, and Sergeant Riddles of the local police, but nothing could be done. It is believed that Captain Parkham took his own life by hanging.

       “Very peculiar sort of case, isn’t it, sir?” said the seller excitedly.
       “Yes,” I replied, feeling suddenly unwell and with the unpleasant but unshakeable sense that our conversation was being overheard. “Very peculiar indeed.”

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