Friday, March 2, 2018

The Dark Side of Light by Tony Billinghurst

A stolen notebook tells a chilling 200-year old tale of a woman whose husband makes a terrible error of judgment; by Tony Billinghurst.

I was sitting at my desk when he came into the room without knocking; he was still wearing gloves.

"How'd it go?" I asked.

"Sweet. You were right, the alarms were easy to fix - some house. You should see it, antiques all over the place, real class stuff."

"You sure none of you were seen?"

"No, it was nice clean job."

"Good haul?"

"Yea - we got loads. Here, I got a pressy for you, found it in a bedroom." He took a small notebook from his pocket and handed it to me. "You like history, thought you'd be interested."

I took the book.

"Ok, you know what to do with the stuff, see you all Tuesday."

He nodded and went, leaving the door open. The book was old and hand written, the ink was faded, some pages were loose and parts were crossed through and re-written. There was urgency about the writing as though the writer was taking dictation. On the first page, dated October 2nd 1847 and in neater writing than the rest, as if it had been added later, was a prologue:



Dear Reader,

I, Rev. Charles de Winter MA, declare that the following narrative is a faithful account as directed by Mrs Mary Light, who is desirous of setting the facts on record of those dreadful events of long ago:

Copyright The Francis Frith Collection - www.francisfrith.com

Tom Light and me were born in Corfe Castle in Dorset. I was 4 and 20 when we were wed. Tom earned an honest living as a labourer and like most in Corfe, he toiled from dawn to dusk for a pittance, but I had a burning ambition that neither me nor any child of mine would go to our beds hungry. The day we were wed, I pledged to Tom I'd have more from life than that.

Tom's work wasn't regular; farmers hired by the day, so I sweet talked him to taking work in the clay pits. The work was steady especially when that Josiah Wedgewood purchased it to manufacture pottery, but the work was hard; in summer Tom was cloaked in dust and in winter, in slurry. The gang bosses made sure they earned themselves large bonuses, but for their part, the workers earned rheumatics and bent backs.

I was soon with child. The weather was dire and we suffered several year of ruined harvests. Bread was so expensive we though it a luxury and all the while the farmers made fortunes. Life was so unjust for the likes of us. My wedding day pledge weren't hollow words so Tom and me took in lodgers. There was John Walsh, Henry Glover and George Longfield. Longfield came from Wiltshire and was the only one who was wed. Tom enquired of him why he'd come to Dorset.

"The work's here and my missus ain't," came his reply.

Before long, Tom and the lodgers became close. Then we took that devil Richard Hill under our roof. He was hardly 3 and 20 but acted older. I didn't take to him, he was a headstrong and to my regret he taught the lads to play Faro. They'd play it in the Greyhound Inn with an acquaintance of Hill's, Henry Oldman. Tom started winning and shortly, was hooked. The stakes started to rise and then at a stroke, Tom began to lose and he built up a large debt with Oldman. At first Oldman didn't show concern. He told Tom that his luck would soon turn and then he could repay him, but the debt rose further, and then suddenly Oldman changed; he became surly and demanded his money. I'll never forget what Tom told me; they were in the Greyhound when Oldman entered.

"So Mr Light, Sir, where's my money?" Tom demanded.

"Oldman - I've explained, I'll pay in full but it'll take a while."

Oldman beckoned Tom to a quiet corner.

"I fear that time's run out. You see, I owe a sum and my capital's tied up at present. Now, I must speak plain, my partners are impatient fellows an' are pressing me hard, but I assured them their money's secured by your debt alone an' being an honourable fellow, you'd pay your dues shortly. They offered to collect it from you in person, but I assured them that wasn't necessary, but I could arrange it should you prefer."

Tom was horror struck.

"In Heaven's name can't you request a few weeks' grace of them?"

Oldman shook his head.

"Normally, I'd be happy to oblige, but the matter's too pressing now. It's truly troublesome, aint it? But don't fret yourself, I have a notion how we might resolve the situation, so if you pardon us, I wish to converse with Mr Hill here before I explain."

Tom left them in deep conversation. Later Hill returned to the cottage.

"Oldman wishes to meet us in The Greyhound tomorrow night; he has a proposition for you." He looked around to make sure no one overheard them. "The partners he speaks of are dangerous fellows, you'd do well to pay him heed."

As they were bid, the following evening, Tom and Hill went to The Greyhound Inn. Oldman was sitting alone at a table by the fire in the small back room. He greeted them with a nod, then spoke in a hushed tone.

"Well Mr Light, I've given the problem close consideration. As you know, of late farmers have been making fortunes for themselves, all at our expense I might add. I've had a dealing with such a farmer who's reneged on the transaction an' he refuses to settle the matter, so what I propose is that you visit his residence on my behalf an' claim goods to the value of his debt to me. At the same time, you could retrieve suffice to settle matters between us as well."

"What - you mean I go housebreaking?"

"Oh, that's such a disagreeable word, no, consider it settling of debt and redressing justice."

"But I haven't done such a thing before!"

"I don't doubt it, I don't doubt it at all. Indeed that's all to the good, who'll ever suspect you?"

"But I wouldn't know what to do!"

"Now don't fret yourself on that score, Mr Hill here has all the expertise that's required, do as he bids and all will be well."

"But I can't be absent at night without reason. My lodgers might talk."

Oldman's demeanour changed.

"Gracious Heavens Mr Light, you must take me for a fool! I've considered these trifling problems. You'll be in need of extra hands, take your lodgers with you. The farmer's a rich man; there'll be suffice to set you all up pleasantly. If they're with you, they won't talk, you may be sure of that. I'll dispose of any artefacts that you collect. I know a pawnbroker in London who'll pay a handsome price."

He took a draught of ale, then continued.

"As for your good lady, tell her what you will, but I suggest you inform her that on the night in question, a Lugger'll be at Warbarrow Bay with a cargo of brandy. You've all secured employment to carry the kegs to the headland. Tell her the goods are legally bought, the crew well reimbursed and the merchandise is sold at attractive prices to willing buyers. Now, where's the harm in that? 'Tis only the King who'll be in lack of his excise, which is no ill thing, he only squanders it. No reasonable person could object to that, now could they?"

He sat back in his chair and looked pleased with himself.

"When's the deed to be done?"

"Shortly."

"Who's the farmer?"

"Richard Tenman, he has Grange farm at Hurpston; it's hardly 4 miles hence, so you'll be back in no time, out of debt an' rich men."

"But we'll hang if we get caught."

"So don't get caught!"

Oldman took a pipe from his pocket and proceeded to fill it with tobacco.

"I'm a reasonable man," he added, "I'll not press you for a decision."

He stood and lit his pipe from the lamp.

"I'm away to refresh my pot," he stepped towards the door and then added almost as if to himself, "you'll have made your decision by the time I return, I shouldn't wonder."

Tom turned to Hill when he'd gone.

"What in Heaven's name am I to do?"

Hill lent over the table and spoke without looking up.

"It's a desperate scrape, that's for sure. Oldman's associates are dark coves, dark indeed, if you don't pay up shortly, I'll wager you'll soon have broken legs." He hesitated, then continued. "If you see me right, I'll handle the crack. Come some morn soon you'll be free of Oldman and we'll be set up pleasantly. If Oldman says that Tenman's rich, rest assured, Tenman's rich as a king."

"Are you certain of what's to be done?"

"Don't fret on that score, you get the others on board and talk sweet to your Mary. I'll arrange all else."

Neither spoke further until Oldman returned. Tom told him that he accepted.

"Capital," he said with a smirk, "stout fellow, oh, by the by, take heed there's no tittle tattle about our little enterprise, not before, nor afterwards neither, that'd be most vexing."

Somehow Tom persuaded the others to accompany him and he told me they were all hired to carry smuggled brandy.

The robbery transpired on a Saturday night. The five of them gathered in the parlour, blackened their faces, wrapped their mufflers about their necks and drew on their greatcoats. Tom took me in his arms and kissed me; he told me later what followed. When I'd left the parlour, Hill produced a bundle wrapped in cloth. It contained a flagon of brandy, a pistol, tools, a dark lantern and some bludgeons.

"I'll mind the barker. Walsh, you bring the lantern. Each take a bludgeon."

He put the tools in his pockets, pulled the cork from the flagon, took a drain and handed it around.

"Here's to a successful caper boys. The farmhouse is near the coast, we'll cross the fields, do the job an' return through Church Knowle. We'll meet Oldman behind the New Inn at two. There's only Tenman, his son and the maid at the farm. Walsh, when we arrive, give me the lantern and tend to the maid." He turned to Tom, "you attend to Tenman and you two," nodding to Glover and Longfield, "his son. Are we ready? Oh, and don't address each other by name - any questions? Good, then let's be away."

It was a chill night when they quit Corfe and not a living soul was abroad. The fields were bare, the paths were muddy and the ground seeped water as it trickled to the ditches and a relentless wind moaned in the hedgerows. For the most part, they walked in single file as they descended the valley. Shortly, the path joined a lane. An owl screeched as they passed a clump of trees and a distant church clock struck midnight.

"What'll you do with your cut Glover?" Longfield enquired.

"I'm for the Americas."

"Sea journeys aren't for me," Walsh added, but before he could continue, Hill interjected.

"Gentlemen! No one's to go anywhere after the caper. Let the dust settle first and don't be free with your money. And don't utter a word to anyone. Mark me well, loose tongues cause tight ropes. Now, no more gabbling and by the by, if we happen upon any excise men, don't put up a fight, they'll have a brace of pistols and a cutlass apiece; they'll cut us down as soon as blink."

They reached a path that ran along the bottom of the valley. It was sheltered from the wind and was strangely silent. Walsh glanced up, stopped and pointed to the sky.

"Look! Three seagulls, that's a bad omen that is, three seagulls at night."

They all looked up.

"That's twaddle!" Glover exclaimed. "They're crows."

But they weren't. The three seagulls flew silently on by and the sea gently breathed in and out in the distance. A cold shiver ran down Tom's back.

"Come on lads, put some heart in it," Hill ordered. "We're running late," so they quickened their pace and crossed a small bridge. The moon slid from behind a cloud and bathed the valley in a cold eerie light. Hill beckoned them to him and addressed them in a whisper.

"The farm's at the end of this lane. If the gate's closed, I'll take it off the latch. If anything goes amiss, don't get over the wall to the right of the house, there's a steep bank with a ditch at the bottom."

A nervous Walsh turned to Hill.

"It's a farm - they'll have a dog, it'll bark before we get close!"

Hill caught hold of a handful of Walsh's coat and lifted him near off the ground.

"Hold your peace, you buffoon!" he declared through clenched teeth. "The dog died suddenly these two days past - that's what befalls things that are a nuisance."

Walsh didn't utter another word.

They walked on in uneasy silence and arrived before the squat, two storey farmhouse. The moon gave the grey slate roof a ghostly appearance. There was no light visible and the gate was open. They slipped through and worked their way behind some trees till they came to the rear. Hill whispered to them.

"I'll enter first. We'll go to the hall; wait there 'till I've opened the door, then we'll go upstairs. You," turning to Tom, "find the fowling piece and bring it, it'll be in the scullery like as not. When you get to their chambers, keep 'em in their beds, they're easier to control there. The maid's certain to have the house keys, Walsh - if you can't find 'em, loosen her tongue."

Hill led them to a small window which was protected by bars. He took the tools from his coat and prized the bars from the wall, forced the window catch, slipped it open, and then opened the shutters, all with the deftness clearly acquired from experience. Then in a twinkling, he wriggled through the opening. It was as dark as pitch inside.

"Hand me the tools - quick now!" He demanded, then helped the others through. They crept through the scullery. There were bunches of herbs hanging by a cord from the ceiling. They passed a table, still damp from being scrubbed. A row of copper pans glistened on the wall. The dying fire in the range cast a flickering shadow of bars on the flagstones. Tom spied the fowling piece and picked it up. They filed past a laundry room and a larder with shelves containing a sugar cone and a dry remnant of roast beef. The room smelled of cheese. Something ran across the floor and disappeared behind a barrel.

They entered the hall and stopped as instructed. Hill creped past the long case clock when it suddenly struck one on a harsh, jangling bell. He drew the pistol in an instant thinking the whole world must have been awoken, but not a person stirred. There wasn't a sound except the loud monotonous tick of the clock. Beads of sweat stood on Hill's face as he released the hammer of the pistol, then he crept to the stout front door, opened it and secured it with a boot scraper. He took several deep breaths of chill air before returning then led them upstairs. They'd almost reached the top when a step made a loud creak. He turned, then charged onto the landing. Hill pointed Walsh to a door at the end of the landing and the rest of them rushed the other two. Seconds later, there was a blood curdling scream from the maid as Walsh barged into her chamber.

Tom opened the door of the master bedroom. The room was shabby and although cold, the fire was unlit. The curtains were drawn but despite the gloom he could make out an old man attempting to get out of bed. Tom crossed the room in a trice and pushed him back.

"Where's your money, old man?" He demanded.

Tenman wasn't cowered by the fowling piece that Tom was pointing at him, nor by Tom's demand.

"I'll not tell'e, you thieving scoundrel!"

"Damn your eyes, if you don't tell me, I'll blow your brains out, strike me blind if I don't."

Tom demanded with all the venom he could muster.

"Go to the devil, you'll not get a farthing from me you idle loafer!"

Tom glanced around the room and spied a silver pocket watch on the wash stand and put it in his pocket.

"Leave that be, my missus gave 'n to I."

"Where is she?" Tom demanded.

"Dead these three year."

"You'll be dead this night if you don't tell me where you keep your gold."

"I'll tell 'e nothin', do your worse and go to the devil!"

There were sounds of a fierce scuffle coming from the adjoining room. Glover and Longfield struggled to keep Tenman's son down, but eventually they overcame him.

"Where's your money?" Glover demanded.

"I'll see 'e in hell afore I tell 'e."

Hill came to the doorway.

"Anything?" he asked.

Longfield shook his head. He rushed to Tom's room and repeated the question, then left and ran down the hall to the maid's room. The maid was sitting up in bed.

"Where's the keys?" Hill demanded of Walsh.

"She won't say."

Hill pushed him aside, grabbed the maid by the throat, shoved her down on the bed and jammed the pistol into her cheek.

"If you don't tell me where the keys are you're going to die this very minute! Now, where are they?"

He gripped the maid's throat so tight she could scarce breathe, so she pointed to the pine dresser in front of the window. Walsh opened the drawers and found a large bunch of keys. Hill released his grip and snatched them from him. "Keep her here," he commanded and ran downstairs taking the lantern with him. Walsh didn't have trouble restraining the girl. She was gasping for breath, then slowly sat up, pulled the sheet to her reddened throat and whimpered quietly as tears trickled down her face. A few minutes later, Hill called from downstairs. As Walsh left the maid's chamber, he glanced back at the young woman who was reduced to a shaking, terrified being, cowering like an injured animal.

Tom and Walsh raced downstairs to a scene of devastation. Hill was in a room which served as both dining room and office. He'd ripped open cupboards and cabinets with his jemmy and thrown the contents into the air leaving the floor strewn with papers and account books and finally had found a metal box and opened it.

"Look boys!" Inside were bank notes and a large number of gold guineas. He re-locked it and pushed it into one of his huge pockets. "There must be more, get back to Tenman and his son, search their cabinets again, search everything!"

They searched every room in the house, and even inspected a sack of flour but found nothing more. Hill uttered a terrible curse, then ordered Tom to get Glover and Longfield. They warned Tenman and his son to stay in their beds for half an hour then all quit the building and started off at their fullest speed. A few short minutes later, the farmhouse bell rang with great violence. They ran as never before until they reached the bridge then headed up the valley to Church Knoll.

"Wait," said Glover, "let me catch my breath."

"How'd we do?" Longfield enquired.

"I've yet to count it," Hill replied looking ill at ease.

"Don't jest, you must have an idea, it didn't look a fortune to me."

"Hundred guineas, maybe a hundred and fifty. I couldn't see the value of the bank notes."

"Is that all? We've risked our necks for that! You said he was rich - he didn't look rich to me, everything was worn out!"

Hill was highly agitated and replied in a most defensive tone of voice.

"Oldman said he was rich, strike me blind. Oldman said he had a King's ransom and on my honour Oldman's seldom wrong."

Oaths flew like hailstones as the lads grew to comprehend the situation.

"Then we missed it somewhere."

Hill uttered another curse.

"No! I turned the crib over carefully, it's not there, of that I'll wager."

As they were talking an ashen Walsh had been looking behind them.

"My eyes! Look - over there! I think we're being followed!" They all listened, but could neither hear nor see a living soul. Hill addressed Walsh with no little exasperation.

"That's the last thing I desire to hear from you this night, we are not being followed, so keep your peace!"

But Walsh was right, they were being followed. Tenman's son followed them to Church Knoll and then onto Corfe. They set off for Church Knoll at a great pace. The footpath passed behind The New Inn where they stopped. Shortly, a quiet voice greeted them from a gap in the hedge.

"Good evening gentlemen, good pickings I trust?"

Tom squared up to Oldman.

"No there wasn't - you evil dog! You told us we'd be rich men; we've risked the rope for a handful of guineas a piece!"

"Dear me, that's most unfortunate, he has more than that for certain."

Hill passed Oldman the pistol and housebreaking tools.

"We turned the crib over right proper, we got all there was. Look - strike up the lantern and keep it low."

They opened the box and counted the contents. The haul amounted to 100 guineas, a £10 note, a £5 note, the silver pocket watch and the fowling piece. Oldman counted a large handful of guineas and put them in his pocket.

"That settles Tenman's debt and our little account, Mr Light, the rest is yours."

"And there's the bank notes, the watch and the gun. How much for them?"

Tom demanded as Oldman extinguished the lantern.

"Oh, I don't think I desire them Mr Light, you keep them."

"But you said you'd pass them to your pawnbroker in London!"

"Well, upon my word, I don't recall saying anything of the sort, do you Hill?"

Hill looked uncomfortable but made no answer.

"Those notes are drawn on local banks; they'd be difficult to sell."

Tom grabbed Oldman's lapel.

"You cheap dog..." but before he could add more, Oldman pointed the pistol at Tom.

"I'll remind you Mr. Light that I have the pistol," he said in a sneering manner.

Tom swung the fowling piece around and pointed it at Oldman.

"And I'll remind you Oldman, that I have the fowling piece."

Hill stepped forward and gently pushed them apart.

"Gentlemen, for mercy's sake keep your voices down! This is not the time for a debate, let's away to our homes before we're all pinched."

So they left Oldman who skulked back into the shadows and they went back to Corfe with all expedition.

I hadn't slept the night long wondering how the lads had fared, but as soon as they returned, I sensed something was terribly wrong.

"Did it go well? Did you have any trouble with the excise men?"

Longfield gave Tom a cold look, then addressed me.

"Ask him, I've had my fill of this night, I'm away to my bed," he said, slamming the door; the others followed. Then as Tom recounted the whole affair, my heart sank.

From that moment, no one had a civil word to say. They argued and oft came close to blows and I spent much time keeping the peace between them, but it wasn't to last. At daybreak on the Tuesday, there was a ferocious hammering on the door. As soon as Tom undid the latch, a gang armed with swords and bludgeons burst in. They were led by Tenman's son who waived a warrant in Tom's face.

"Seize them boys, don't let any of the rats escape. Search the whole place - I'll have what's rightly mine, so help me I shall!"

Then a battle ensued as the gang fought with the lads. Someone found the fowling piece and Glover was felled by a crashing blow to his head with the butt. After what seemed an eternity, the gang subdued the lads and tore the house apart till they'd recovered the stolen goods. Tenman's son turned to me with glee.

"Prepare to be a widow, you slut! This lot have a date with the hangman and I'll enjoy watching him choke the life out of their miserable necks!"

"Where are you taking them?"

"To the lock up. If you don't desire 'em to starve, you'd better bring vittles as I'll not feed 'em!"

They were dragged to the lock up, only to find that Oldman was already chained there. Early the following morning I had just taken them food and ale when a detachment of Militia arrived and marched them to Dorchester to await trial. From then on I could neither eat nor sleep I was so tormented. Two weeks later, the Parish Constable came to tell me that the trial was set for Dorchester on the 16th of March at eight a.m. before Judge Sir S.N.Thornton. The lads were charged with breaking and entering and Henry Oldman with receiving money knowing it to be stolen, but his charge was dropped when he turned King's evidence. He was acquitted and fled, may his soul rot in hell. His evidence was all that the court required to get a conviction.

I resolved to attend the trial, so I put the children in my parent's care and went to Corfe square and took the coach to Dorchester. The cheapest ticket was for a seat outside. The coachman was a kindly man.

"My word lady, you'll need to wear more'n that, you'll freeze to death, use this," and he handed me a grubby horse blanket. "Now don't you fall asleep and drop off, now will you? Hold tight everyone!" He threw his cape around his shoulders, jammed his greasy hat on his head, climbed to his seat, gave a blast on his horn, took hold of the reins, let the brake off, gave the horses a crack of the whip, then we were off. We swayed, rocked and lurched in a most alarming manner as we charged along the narrow, rutted roads. I started to feel most sick at the incessant swaying and was relieved when we eventually swept into the Royal Oak's courtyard at Bere Regis. The ostlers changed the horses and everyone rushed into the Inn to take lunch by the blazing fire. Despite feeling unwell, I took some of the Oak's excellent boiled ham.

We were soon off again, arriving at the White Hart in Dorchester in the early evening. I took the cheapest room they had to offer. Feeling shaken and exhausted, I gave instructions that I was to be awoken early the following morn and retired to the small, cosy room to sleep only to be constantly awoken by the clattering mail coaches arriving and departing the night long.

I awoke at dawn and despite not feeling hungry, I took a light breakfast then walked to the court room. To my surprise, I found a substantial crowd had already gathered to witness the judge and barristers arrive. The boisterous crowd was restrained until the party had entered the building then it dashed up the stairs to the gallery. Realising that the gallery would soon fill, I joined in the pushing and elbowed my way until I secured a good seat overlooking the court below.

The court room was much like a chapel. It was rectangular in form with the judge's seat on a raised platform between two large windows. Although it was the first trial of the day, the room already smelt close and unwholesome. A black robed clerk sprinkled lavender on the floor and then the jurors entered and sat beside the judge. They all looked well to do; not our class, but not a person challenged them. Little respect was manifest for the proceedings by the unruly crowd who were clearly only in attendance for a little sport. At the stroke of eight the clerk called the court to order and then called 'all rise.' Everyone stood and Judge Thornton made an impressive entrance, crossed the room and ascended the steps to his chair. He gave a nod of his head and everyone sat, the jury was sworn in and the first case was called.

The lads were brought up from the cells one by one; they appeared pale, confused and in low spirits. Each trial took the same form. They were asked their names and the charges were read and they pleaded not guilty. Oldman's affidavit was read, they were questioned further and were instructed to shout, 'Stay in your bed or it'll be instant death.' Tenman and his son gave evidence and identified the stolen goods. Directly after the questioning, the judge made some remarks to the jury who drew together in a corner and when they'd deliberated, one of their number nodded to the clerk and the prisoner was returned to the cells and the next brought up. Tom's was the third trial. He looked around the room, I waved to him, but he didn't see me. By late morning, all five had been tried and the judge addressed the jury and summed up. It was clear what he thought and he directed them accordingly. They drew together for a few more minutes then returned to their benches. One of them remained standing. The judge addressed him.

"Mr Foreman, have you reached a verdict in each of the five cases?"

"We have M'Lud."

"And is your verdict in each case unanimous?"

"Beg your pardon M'Lud?"

"Do you agree in each case?"

"We do M'Lud." The judge instructed the clerk to bring all five prisoners back and they stood together in the dock. He addressed each by name, read the charges, then asked the foreman for the jury's verdict. In each case the reply was the same:

"Guilty."

The judge then addressed them and pointed out the enormity of their crime and the violent methods they had used. He added that in the interests of public justice and security of private property, he could not give them the least hope of mercy. He enquired if they had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced on them. Some said no, others shook their heads. The clerk then placed a small square of black silk on the judge's head, who named each man in turn and then pronounced:

"You will be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead and thereafter your body will be buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy on your soul." Sentence was set for March 28th 1807 at one p.m. I sat in shock, the court was in pandemonium, then the clock struck one. The judge nodded to the clerk who called 'all rise' and everyone left for lunch.

I found myself back in the street, wandering in a daze. After a considerable time, I returned toward The White Hart and as I turned aside into Cornhill, I happened upon William Trent, a carter from Corfe. Trent was a friend of Tom's; he caught sight of me and approached.

"My dear Mrs Light, I can guess why you're here; all Corfe's talking of little else. How's the trial proceeding?"

I just blurted out: "Guilty, all of them except Oldman who's been acquitted. They're to hang next Saturday. What am I to do? I don't know which way to turn."

"Where are you lodging?" Trent enquired. I pointed to the White Hart.

"But I lack the means to stay longer, nor to go to Corfe and return. I couldn't bear that loathsome journey again anyway." Trent smiled.

"Now here's a suggestion. Firstly, now they're convicted, they'll be fed bread and water. Here," and he reached into his pocket and gave me two shilling pieces. "I've known your husband for many a year, take that with my compliments and purchase some vittles. Now, my sister has a house in High Street and she takes the occasional lodger. You're welcome to settle your affairs then I'll take you to her and we'll see what we can do."

In a few minutes, I'd paid my fee and returned to the street, and we walked to a terraced house. Trent rang the bell and was greeted by a lady of whom I had a dim recognition. He whispered to her, she nodded and beckoned me in.

"Mrs Light, this is my sister, you're most welcome to stay here the week. She'll provide for you and when you're ready, I'll take you home. I'm going to Corfe shortly and I'll return on Tuesday, is there anything you desire me to bring back?"

I was overwhelmed.

"But we haven't spoken of terms. I have little to spare and my children..."

He interjected.

"The fee'll be modest and the ride back's with my compliments."

Before I could even attempt to express my gratitude, he stopped me again.

"Where are your children?" I told him. "Would you like me to advise your parents of the verdict?"

I nodded, but more I couldn't say. I was exhausted and overcome by the unexpected generosity. I slumped into a nearby chair and sobbed. Trent and his sister were kindness itself. They left me for a while, then Trent returned and handed me a small glass of brandy.

"Tell me, what possessed your husband to associate with Oldman; he's a bad lot that one and much disliked. He's the one who should be for the gallows and many'd be glad of it, I can tell you!"

Trent left to go about his business and I told his sister about the two shillings and told her that somehow, I'd repay him.

"Don't fret yourself about that," she said. "If brother gave it to you, he'll not expect it back. He sets a high price on friendship, he does."

The following day, I visited Tom. It was heart wrenching to see him so low, but I endeavoured to keep his spirits up. It was then that I told him I was with child. I have never heard a man sob so, the sound of it haunts me yet.

Mr Trent didn't return on Tuesday, but arrived on Wednesday. He told me that my parents would care for the children till I returned. He also told me that Longfield's wife, Ruth, was in Corfe and was making arrangements to travel to Dorchester. Trent said that if I should desire it, he would bring her to Dorchester on Friday and she too could lodge with his sister, I agreed, any company would be most welcome.

The following day Tom told me that Walsh's conviction had been commuted to transportation to Australia and that Richard Hill had broken prison and escaped. The whole prison was in an uproar. Tom was in a better spirit, thinking that he too might be granted a reprieve. The chaplain visited him regularly, imploring him to make peace with his maker before it was too late.

On Friday, Trent arrived accompanied by Ruth Longfield. It took a while to become accustomed to her direct manner, but I warmed to her and when she'd settled, I enquired why she desired to attend the hanging. She spoke in a confidential manner.

"I met George in Amesbury. My mother didn't like him, she said he had a roving eye and nothing good would come of him. She was right, soon after we were wed I heard rumours that he'd been seen in the company of other women. I paid no heed, but at length I discovered that it was true. It was the start of several affairs, rows, new starts and fresh betrayals, each worse than the one before, then finally, he had an affair with a neighbour. I'd reached breaking point and told him that it was over between us. We had our worse row ever and he hit me. I told him that if I ever saw him again, I hoped it would be when he was hanging at the end of a rope. That was these three years gone. Whilst he still draws breath, I'm not free to proceed with my life. I loved him dearly once, I hate him now."

"Have you found anyone else?" I enquired. She smiled.

"Perhaps."

I had my final, tearful visit with Tom. He still held out hope of a pardon and we spoke of what we'd do if he was transported. The hanging was set for the following day.

On advice from Trent's sister, we had an early night, but I slept badly. We rose early, I couldn't contemplate food but Ruth had an ample breakfast and we left the house to a breezy and cheerless day. Ruth wrapped her shawl about her and, linking arms with me, marched us to the hanging fair. We shoved our way through the growing crowd and took a place with a good prospect.

Dorchester castle stood on the hill above us. Over its entrance was a large stone ledge on which a gallows had been constructed. A black flag flew from the flagpole. Every conceivable rogue and low life had arrived and was busying itself, drinking, hustling, gambling, selling, begging, bartering, picking pockets and propositioning. An organ grinder played Lillybullero endlessly. A gang of unwashed ragamuffins were running wildly amongst the crowd. One of them barged into Ruth who gave the young wretch a resounding slap which sent him reeling. Later, a thin man sidled up to us, clutching a bundle of papers and kept looking over his shoulder, as if by habit.

"'Ere ladies, 'ere's somethin' to remember the day by, I have a confession made by the three blaggards who'll soon be launched to eternity. They're usually thruppence, but to you 'andsome ladies, tuppence, now 'ow's that for a bargain?"

Ruth enquired if they were genuine confessions as she wouldn't wish for less. The thin man pushed his hat back on his head and looked to the heavens as if for Divine confirmation.

"Now, would I offer you anything less?" he enquired, much hurt. Ruth lent over and said something in his ear. He recoiled and looked shocked.

"That's not a very ladylike thing to say, now is it?" he said as he turned and oozed back into the crowd. A drunken rabble who'd been in the tavern since dawn started singing vulgar songs.

"'Ark at 'e," a woman behind said. "They's goin' to 'ave a sore 'ed cum the mornin', ain't 'um?"

A clock struck twelve and a detachment of militia marched out of the castle and stood guard. The discordant din from the crowd grew to deafening pitch. Dogs barked, vendors shouted, barrel organs and musicians played, children screamed, drunks sang, people argued and fought and then the castle bell started a slow, mournful toll. Several officials emerged from the castle and climbed the steps and after what seemed an eternity, the lads were brought out. When they were all assembled, someone shouted 'hats off' to the crowd.

"Thank 'eavens for that missus," the woman behind said. "I can't see noffin' with you wearin' that. 'Ere, I do like a good toppin', don't you?"

Then the crowd fell silent. The only sound was of the echoing, tolling bell, it went on and on and on and in my mind is tolling yet. An official stood before each prisoner and read from a piece of paper, then the chaplain stepped forward and addressed each in turn with great urgency, and finally he stepped aside and bent his head in prayer. On a signal, the warders grabbed each man's arms as the hangman removed their shackles, tied their hands in front of them and quickly passed the cord around them, pinning their arms to their sides. He moved them to their positions, pulled a hood over their heads and looped the noose around their necks.

Heaven knows I had no desire to watch, but I felt powerless to take my eyes from the dreadful scene in front of me. Everyone on the platform stood back and turned towards the most senior official, who appeared to wait for ever. Eventually, as the clock struck one, he nodded to the hangman who pulled a lever and all three hurtled down to their deaths. The crowd erupted. Ruth gave a little whoop of joy at being set free and I wept.

After a few horrific, never ending minutes, all three stopped kicking and twitching and then slowly swayed and turned in the breeze as if in some silent, macabre dance. They were left to hang for an hour. The drunks started singing again and the organ grinder replayed Lillybullero.

Ruth and I took our leave of Trent's sister. She charged me the most modest of fees and after thanking her for her exceeding kindness, Trent took us on a bone jarring journey back to Corfe. Ruth stayed with me overnight and then left. I haven't seen her since.

As a widow, I was able to claim Parish relief for a while, but was unable to find much work as I was heavily pregnant with Hester. I managed to scrape a living; in summer I picked crops, but I near starved in winter. The children oft went to their beds crying with hunger.

Hester died directly after her ninth birthday and one by one, the children left me. How I wish I could turn the clock back. The bitter memory of those events haunts me since. I've lost everything, my dear Tom, my reputation and my home. My family disowned me and I'm alone with a broken heart and shunned by many in Corfe. Eventually my health declined such that I could no longer earn suffice to stay alive. I had no option but to come to this accursed workhouse. How I endure this mean, verminous place, I know not. Life here is an endless round of hunger, drudgery and funerals. Every night it echoes to the sound of some poor soul sobbing themselves to sleep. I sleep in a dormitory filled with children sick in mind and old folk sick in body. Nor can I gain solace from sleep either, as I close my eyes, the same nightmare haunts me, I see the three lads endlessly plead for mercy and I scream at them: 'Let me be!' but I cannot utter a single word and the silence makes my ears ring. Before I draw my last breath, I implore all who read this account to choose with care the path you walk.'



And here, the Reverend had added a post script: 'Amen to that.'

I closed the book, put it down on my desk and then slowly reached for my phone to text the lads.

9 comments:

  1. A tense, well-structured crime story. Learning lessons from history ...
    Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. It looks as if the story's narrator may have just seen three seagulls. Unlike Tom and his cohorts, I get the feeling that history may have (as Ceinwen notes) finally taught someone a lesson. A deep sense of the desperation of that period of time. Well done.

    Jim

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  3. Very good. I felt as if I were reading an actual historical journal.

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  4. A haunting tale cleverly written. Would make a great movie.
    Anna Barnes

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  5. Dark moonlight nights down in Dorset, wild and rugged lands just the kind of place this could have actually happened.
    A good yarn.
    Stumbled on this by acident, will be looking at this site and author again, keep it up! Lorna Queen

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  6. a first class tale, authentic and compelling with first class characters. It could only end one way for Tom. A real page turner!
    Mike McC

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  7. Loved this, the narrative came across to me as authentic for the time.

    James

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    Replies
    1. Thank you everyone for your kind comments, they're greatly appreciated.
      T.B.

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  8. Truly gripping, a great story which kept me hooked to the last, even though poor Tom was doomed from the start.

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