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They Hanged My Saintly Billy, Page 2

Robert Graves

  Here the Attorney-General coughed, paused, and with an accent that seemed to some persons in Court unwarrantedly pointed, went on: ‘ . . patients in whose lives he had—shall I say? —a more immediate interest than in others.'

  The Rev. Thomas Palmer, who loved his elder brother William with a sincere devotion, half-rose in his seat to protest; but their sister Sarah Palmer, a modest and beautiful young lady, who helps Thomas in his parochial duties at Coton Elms in Derbyshire, tugged at his coat to restrain him. 'Be patient, Tom,' she whispered. 'Take an example from William, who sits there no less calm and conscious of his innocence than Bishop Cranmer at the stake.'

  The Rev. Thomas thereupon subsided in liis seat, and the little scene passed unobserved by the Court officers, for all eyes were fixed on the prisoner at the bar. William Palmer certainly looks at least ten years more than his thirty-one, with which he is credited on the indictment. He is solidly built, very broad-shouldered and bull-necked, though not above the average height. His complexion is florid, his forehead high, his features somewhat mean, yet respectable enough. He has thin, lightish-brown hair, brushed back over an almost bald head, and whiskers inclining to red. Nothing in his appearance suggests either ferocity or cunning; and his manner is exceedingly calm and collected, without a trace of bravado, guilt or remorse. Shrewd observers, however, will notice a remarkable discrepancy between the ruddy coarseness of his face and the extreme prettiness of his hands—which are white, small, plump and dimpled, almost womanly in their appearance, and which he spends a deal of time admiring as he sits in the box, sometimes picking at his nails for lack of a penknife to trim them neatly. He is no longer allowed to wear wash-leather gloves as a protection for these hands against the sun, but little sunlight penetrated into the County Gaol and House of Correction at Stafford this last winter, and their colour seems to afford him great satisfaction.

  The Attorney-General's speech occupied the entire morning; and in it he gave a lucid and detailed account of what he intended should be established by the witnesses for the Prosecution. The Rev. Thomas Palmer and Miss Sarah Palmer listened with set faces; their tightly compressed lips and narrowed eyes evinced disgust at what Miss Palmer was overheard to call, sotto voce, during a momentary pause in the speech: 'A wicked bundle of hearsay, lies and scandal.' When the speaker began to discuss the prisoner's pecuniary difficulties which suggested a motive for the crime, and pronounced: 'A man may be guilty of fraud, he may be guilty of forgery; it does not follow that he should be guilty of murder,' a deep frown settled on both brows. Some offence was also felt by a gentleman in a back row, who exclaimed:' Give a dog a bad name and hang him, Sir!'; whereupon the Rev. Mr Palmer turned round in a fury, and shouted: "Who calls my brother a dog?'

  The gentleman in the back row could not be discovered, but the Lord Chief Justice threatened to clear the Court if any further interruptions occurred. He would, indeed, have ordered the ushers to eject the Rev. Mr Palmer, but that Mr Alderman Sidney apprised him of the latter's identity. Nor could he greatly object to the warmth of his rejoinder which, though officious, had been uttered in reproof of the unknown voice. He therefore contented himself with the dry warning: 'Sir, if you respect my wig, I'll undertake to respect your cloth.' The Revd gentleman duly apologized, and no further incident broke the dignity of the day's proceedings.

  Certainly, the Rev. Thos Palmer did not forget what he has since called 'the one fatal instance on which my brother William infringed the commercial code of this country'. But that had been many years before, and he now persuaded himself that William, a regular churchgoer, who took the sacrament every Sunday, and contributed generously to all Church charities, repented with all his heart of that lapse, which had been attended by strongly extenuating circumstances.

  Chapter II


  DR. PALMER'S immediate family consists of Ins elder brother Joseph, a former timber-merchant and colliery owner, now retired from business, and living with his wealthy wife at Liverpool; his younger brothers George, a Rugeley attorney, who married a rich ironmaster's daughter, and Thomas, a clergyman of the Established Church; and Sarah, an unmarried sister, who devotes her life to good causes. There was another younger brother, fourth in the list, named Walter, a bankrupt and drunkard, recently deceased; also a sister who married a Mr Heywood of Haywood and, after a life of indecent scandal, drank herself into the grave.

  Old Mrs Palmer, the mother, a hale woman in her late fifties or early sixties, is still living at 'The Yard', in Rugeley, the house where all her seven children were born. It takes its name from the timber-yard which old Mr Palmer, the sawyer, used to manage. Joseph succeeded him for a while in the business, but presently abandoned it altogether. The Yard is a handsome, comfortable place, built of red brick. On one side, next St Augustine's Church, a splendid ivy-tree climbs to the very roof, its dark foliage making the blind of the staircase window shine snowy white by contrast. On the other side, a bulging two-storey bow-window, built of stone and overlooking the canal, has been awkwardly patched on to the original structure. The windows arc glazed with plate-glass, and their gay wire blinds and rich silk curtains are very much in the fancy style of a prosperous public house. Another bow-window, behind, is as old as the house, and has small diamond-shaped panes set in lead, like the stern lights of ancient ships. The entrance door is protected by a wide verandah, respectably painted in clean white but, not being overgrown by clematis, honeysuckle, or other creeping plants, has a naked sort of aspect. Well-clipped box and privet enclose the front garden, so that anyone with half an eye can see that a gardener is kept here. The wharf, where the timber was formerly loaded on canal barges, and the yard where it was stacked, has of late been converted into a gently sloping lawn. A few shrubs line the gravelled carriage drive, but they are brown at the tips and look unhealthy. The great crane which once creaked under the weight of heavy timber baulks, now rests idly at the water's edge, planked over against the weather. Occasionally, long and narrow barges pass, each draught-horse forced slantwise by the strain on the tow-rope. At the farther end of the timber-yard a few blackened planks remain, piled together in the form of a pent-house, which serves as a convenient roosting place for Leghorn fowls and a bantam or two.

  Mrs Palmer's House

  The back premises are so foul that they charge the front with hypocrisy. Here the garden has been allowed to go out of cultivation—the flower beds trodden underfoot until they are as hard as the gravelled walks that surround them. A few dish-clouts hang up to dry. We noticed a water-butt with rusty hoops; and a coachhouse and stable that even a London cabman would cough at. The black thatch of the stable is dripping away, and its woodwork seems too rotten even for kindling. Old Mrs Palmer, to be sure, no longer keeps a carriage.

  'The nearer the church, the farther from God,' is a proverb of doubtful truth. But true it is that William Palmer, as a child, had two churches frowning down on him, and scores of graves around. He could take reading lessons from the inscriptions on the gravestones and vaults, such as the large one near the gate with its carved letters picked out in green moss:

  Praises on tombs are trifles vainly spent;

  A mans good name is his best monument!

  The gardener, by name Littler, once top-sawyer at The Yard, knew the family well and is ready, for a pint of ale, and a half-ounce of tobacco, to talk about them. Here is his account.

  robert littler

  Old Mr Palmer was very strict with the children generally; made them play in the grounds, or in the graveyard, and kept them out of the village lest they should run into mischief. When he died, however, they were allowed to run wild. Mrs Palmer, you see, is of a very different character from her late husband; but, being in her employ, I cannot say more than that. You must inquire elsewhere, if you are still curious. The old master never flogged William so often as he did the others, Walter in especial; and not because he was a particular favourite, but because he was careful to avoid trouble. Walter was
very rackety, and the people hereabouts used to agree on William as the best of the bunch; though perhaps fear of the birch made him a trifle sly. He was Mrs Palmer's darling, yet I never saw him fly into a pet, as Joseph was apt to do.

  I often carried William through the fields in my arms and played at marbles with him; he was a capital aim at marbles, or ball, or tipcat. As a baby he was very fat and lust, but so were all his brothers and sisters—not a one of them could walk before sixteen or eighteen months. When William reached the age of five he went as a day-scholar to the Free Grammar School, the next house along the road; that was in old Bonney's time. Mr Bonney was reckoned a man of great discrimination, he could tell a boy's character at a glance—a pity he's dead! We had as many as eighty-three scholars in his day, come in from all the towns and villages around. We have only twenty-four at present, the new master not being of the same quality. Yes, William received a sound education under Mr Bonney. And he went of his own accord to take singing lessons from Mr Sherritt, liim who's now our Parish clerk and would take no boy unless he was of good character—he speaks highly of William still. Indeed, a better-tempered or more generous lad there never was; and a very nice young gentleman he became. In the case of a school row, he would always stand up for the weaker side, and use his fists to advantage. Perhaps that was why his schoolfellows never took to him, as they did to his other brothers, but kept their distance. I have heard it said of late—since this wretched business started, I mean—that he would borrow money under false pretences from the men employed at The Yard, and not repay them; but he never tried such a trick on me, nor did I ever hear any complaint from my mates at the time. Well, William was just as generous when he grew up; he never forgot an old face. Why, whenever he met me or Mr Sherritt, he'd say: 'Will you have a glass of something to drink?' He gave a deal to the poor, and in a quiet way, too; as one who stores up treasures in Heaven, not with a sound of trumpets.

  When he left school at the age of seventeen, his father apprenticed him to Messrs Evans & Sons, the wholesale chemists of Lord Street, Liverpool. There he behaved very well indeed for some months, and was attentive to his various duties, and caused every satisfaction; until, like Samson in the Good Book, he met his Delilah. William, you see, lodged a few streets away from the counting-house, with one Widnall. He could not be put up by his brother Joseph, because at that time Joseph was working a colliery at Cannock Chase, not many miles from here—a business, let me tell you, which lost him a few thousand pounds. William had hitherto lived an innocent life, and was still what they call a he-virgin when the landlord's red-headed daughter Jane, who was William's senior by two years, decoyed him into her bed. She thought William a pretty good catch, having heard that he possessed seven thousand pounds of his own, and was determined to lay her hands on it. After a few weeks had passed she pretended to be with child and, coming to him with eyes red from weeping, begged that he would marry her.

  When he protested that this was out of the question, much as he loved her and regretted her plight, she demanded fifty pounds for the performance of an abortion. William replied that he had not above five pounds in his pockets, and would not enjoy his inheritance until the age of twenty-one.

  'Very well’ said she, 'if I cannot turn away the brat you have given me, then I must needs bear it; and my father will make you either marry or support me.'

  William stood at a loss. 'I am a respectable girl,' she went on, 'and you have seduced me.'

  'But where am I to find the fifty pounds ?' asks William. 'That's a deal of money,' he says.

  'You have a rich brother,' answers the red-haired lass. 'Borrow from him.'

  'Joseph is the last man in the world I can approach,' says William. ' 'Tis like this. My father, in the year of the Queen's Coronation, comes home to dinner one day, eats and drinks with gusto, but falls dead of heart-failure with his bread and cheese still clutched in his hand. The will he left behind was unsigned; and Joseph, as the eldest son, might by law have taken all the property in his own right, bar the widow's thirds. However, he was kind enough to execute a deed by which he should keep only seven thousand pounds, and we others should have the same sum apiece; and my mother, the remainder and the landed property, for her lifetime—on condition that she would not re-marry. And there's a clause in the deed, my dear, which debars any of us from enjoying our inheritance if we marry before the age of twenty-one, or commit any grave fault. Joseph is a good-hearted man, but he's also a severe one, and I don't propose to vex him.'

  'Why did you hide all this from me?' cried Jane Widnall in a rage. 'I'd never have let you so much as kiss me, if I'd known how matters stood!'

  ' You never asked me,' says William.

  Presently the lass goes off to an abortionist, or pretends to; then she comes back and takes to her bed for a few days. She tells William that all's well, but that he must find two hundred pounds within six weeks, because she's stolen that sum from her father's strong-box, and there'll be the Devil to pay if it's not put back before he makes up his quarterly accounts. 'I shall accuse you of the theft,' she threatens William.

  'Why did you pay two hundred pounds, and not fifty?' he asks, in surprise.

  'I couldn't find the ready money,' she explains, and says: 'The wretch has threatened to inform my father, and I'll be ruined.'

  William is a greenhorn, and suspects nothing. He should have known that no abortionist would perform an operation except for cash on the nail, or afterwards run the risk of going to gaol for the crime of abortion and the equally serious crime of extorting money by threats. Then, on the advice of a fellow-apprentice, he backs a certainty at the Liverpool Races. It loses him five pounds. So he sells his gold watch, given him as a present by old Mrs Palmer when he left home, and with the five pounds it fetches, backs a certainty at the Shrewsbury Races. He loses again, and in despair resorts to other means of money raising.

  Messrs Evans & Sons are troubled. Various customers write to say that they have paid their accounts owing to the firm, but have received no acknowledgements. What, then, has happened to the cash, which they are positive has been sent? It seems as if there are thieves at the Liverpool Post Office. Now, as I've heard the story, the merchants of Liverpool have their own letterboxes into which letters addressed to them are placed by the Postmaster, as soon as the mails come in by coach or railway train. Confidential clerks go to collect these letters, which arrive much earlier this way than if they had been delivered by the penny-postman.

  Well, complaints of lost money became more frequent, and the Liverpool Post Office denied responsibility; so Messrs Evans wrote to the General Post Office in London, and the authorities there sent an inspector down to Liverpool to lay a trap for the thief. But no thief was caught, and the missing letters remained a mystery, and fresh complaints came pouring in that money had been despatched by post, but had not been acknowledged. One customer had remitted ,£20, and another £42, no less.

  It occurred to Mr Evans Junior that, though the inspector had done all he could in tracing letters from the various country Post Offices to the one at Liverpool, it yet remained to trace them from the Liverpool mail-box to the counting-house in Lord Street. It happened to be the day when William went to fetch the letters— for he shared this task with a respectable senior apprentice—and Mr Evans Junior decided to watch him from a little distance so soon as ever he emerged from the Post Office. William was seen to finger and feel all the envelopes in turn, to make out if any of them had enclosures. One happening to be more bulky than the rest, he paused at the entrance to an alleyway, and opened it. But it contained only a wad of advertisements by a manufacturer of patent medicines, so he crammed it into his pocket, and finding the other letters lean and uninviting, took them to the counting-house. Meanwhile, Mr Evans Junior had hurried past the alleyway and reached Lord Street ahead of William. There he stood at the counting-house, waiting to receive the letters.

  'Why, Palmer,' he exclaims, 'these are not all that came today, surely?'

sp; 'Certainly, Sir,' answers William, lying with a good heart to save what he thought was the honour of the girl.

  'Where, then, is the letter which I saw you open in the alley and thrust into your pocket?' Mr Evans asks him.

  ' Oh, that!' says William readily.' I forgot about it. The fact was I recognized the handwriting. It is the advertisement for patent medicines that comes regularly once a quarter. I diought no harm to open it and see what new lines they are offering.'

  But Mr Evans Junior ain't satisfied. He takes William before Mr Evans Senior, and though William positively denies all guilt, he has been observed fingering and feeling all the letters. The Evans's don't risk taking proceedings against the lad, for want of evidence that would convince a jury, but they immediately discharge him, and write to Mrs Palmer at The Yard about the matter.

  Mrs Palmer, she fell in a great pother when she heard the news, and went complaining to all and sundry, myself included, that her dear son was unjustly accused of a crime that he did not have it in his heart to commit. She should have remembered the proverb 'Least said soonest mended.' For, as I heard later from Mr Duffy the linen-draper—but I reckon I should keep my mouth shut on the subject of Mr Duffy—William confessed everything to his mother, who came at once from Rugeley, accompanied by his brother Joseph, who happened to be there on a visit, and implored Mr Evans Senior to be merciful. Mr Evans tells her: 'It don't rest with us, ma'am, but with our customers, whose money has been stolen to the tune of two hundred pounds or so. You must deal with them.'