ACCORDING TO THE case notes, and checked against my private journal, it was on Tuesday the 18th of March, 1740, that a succession of disturbing events ran their course through the life of our tidy Palatinate town of Preston. That was the day on which, three hours after dawn, Dolores, wife to Squire Ramilles Brockletower of Garlick Hall, was found lying in the forest in her riding clothes, beneath an ancient oak tree.
At eight o'clock in the morning, I was sitting down to breakfast alone in the parlour when, having only just filled my tankard, I heard the brass knocker on our front door hammering. Next, a voice could be heard asking for the coroner. Finally, our girl Matty pushed a scrawny lad, whom I recognized to be the Brockletowers' kitchen boy, Jonah Marsden, through the parlour door. His eyes were popping with the import of his news.
'Well, Jonah. What's the matter?'
The boy extracted from his shirt a folded paper, which I took and opened. It was from his grandmother, the briefest of messages.
To Mr Titus Cragg, Coroner. Sir, a deplorable mortal accident has occurred. I beg you to return at once with the boy who brings this. Bethany Marsden, Housekeeper.
I studied the signature: firm, confident and businesslike. I put the paper down.
'Please elaborate, Jonah.'
The boy looked blank.
'I mean, what is this about?'
'Oh! Mistress is slaughtered, sir. In forest. This morning.'
I lifted the tankard and took a sip of beer. Twenty years in the law had taught me that a measured manner is the best project in such circumstances. I lowered the tankard again and dabbed my lips with the napkin.
'Who found the body? Was it you?'
'No, sir, I were nowhere near. It were Timothy Shipkin the woodsman found her.'
'And you say the body was away from the house and in the woods?'
'Timothy says. In Fulwood, up above Squire's own woods by the hall, under a big old oak. Seemed like she'd come down to earth, through branches.'
The night had been one of storms right enough, but Jonah's choice of words had caught my attention.
'Come down? How?'
Jonah's face twisted this way and that.
'I don't know, sir. Timothy says it seemed like Mistress dove down from the sky. Her face and hands were in the earth.'
'That's a very particular way of describing it, wouldn't you say?'
The boy did not reply, but he watched like a cat as I took another sip of beer and sawed through the slice of cold beef on my plate. And though I continued this performance of imperturbable chewing and sipping, I will admit my heart had quickened in the anticipation of interesting discoveries. I looked at this spindly messenger of death, who stood beside me with cap wrung between his hands, eyes tracking the food from the plate to my lips. I cut a crust of bread from the loaf and handed it to him. Without pausing to thank me he stuffed it into his mouth.
'So you didn't yourself see the body?'
The bread for a time gagged Jonah. He shook his head.
'How, then, did you hear of it?'
Agony filled the boy's eyes but it was not for the memory of Mistress Brockletower. In his hunger he had tried to swallow the hard crust before properly chewing it.
'It's what they're all saying at Hall. First light, Mistress went out riding, as she does,' he managed to say hoarsely, after forcing the food down at last. 'But the mare came back without her. Then us all went out looking until Timothy Shipkin come running down from woods, saying he'd found her. He told my grandma at back door and she wrote that note and sent me down here to give it you, sir.'
I rapped the note with my forefinger.
'I note that Mrs Marsden says "accident". Why did you, when you first spoke to me, say "slaughtered"?'
For a moment the boy looked terrified, as if I had asked him to prove one of Euclid's propositions. Then he screwed up his face as he addressed the question more collectedly.
'Don't know, sir,' he said at last. 'I mean, it's how Mistress were found ...'
Jonah was shifting from one foot to the other, still watching me as I resumed eating.
His face relaxed into a more neutral form of concentration, as if he were about to recite a lesson at school. Not that this boy had ever had any schooling.
'It's how she died, sir. See, Mistress's throat were cut. From ear to ear, so Timothy Shipkin says.'
And, just in case I had not appreciated the weight of this information, Jonah tilted back his head and drew his forefinger along the line that the blade would have followed: from here - to here.
Laying down the fork I closed my eyes, making a picture in my mind of Dolores Brockletower, on the last occasion that I had seen her. It was at a recent hunt - a tall, angular woman whose physical vigour was well known and whose feats on horseback had become part of local mythology.
Well known though she was, the simple demise of a squire's lady - of this particular squire certainly - would not be bound to bring much caterwauling, at least outside her own family, and perhaps not even within it. But to have the lady die violently, her throat sliced open, was quite a different matter. It might set off a small earthquake in a pocket-parish like Garlick. Well, it would be my task to quash that possibility, if I could.
I picked up the napkin and dabbed my lips. Then, clearing my throat, I leaned back in the chair, and said airily, 'I wonder ... when Mrs Marsden handed you the note, did you happen see Miss Brockletower while you were at the back door?'
'Well, sir, I - '
But, before Jonah could complete his sentence, my sweet Elizabeth came running in with the folds of her apron bunched in her fists. She had heard the news from Matty.
'What a dreadful thing,' she cried. 'Dolores Brockletower dead! What happened to her, Titus?'
As she came to me I held out my hand and she dropped her apron to take it. I squeezed her slim, pretty fingers and told her the gist of Jonah's news, omitting only the explicit fact of the gashed throat.
'And so, I suppose, I will have to go over there,' I said. 'To find the truth out.'
Elizabeth leaned and kissed me on the forehead.
'That you must, sir,' she said, 'and go quickly about it, or else the scent will be cold.'
I had already ordered my horse to be ready at half past eight since I was due this morning to discuss with a group of cottagers in the country towards Chorley what action could be taken against a farmer illegally enclosing a piece of common land. So now I quickly scraped my plate, drained my beer and rose.
'Elizabeth, my love, as always you are right,' I said, leaning to kiss her mouth.
Telling the boy to wait for me, I strode into the hall, crossed it and swung open the door connecting the house with the office. Furzey was already at his writing desk. I asked him to represent me with the cottagers as I had been urgently summoned on coroner's business. Furzey protested that the cottagers would be disappointed not to be attended by the attorney himself.
I said, 'Just tell them the clerk always knows five times more than his principal and they'll be pacified.'
I returned to the house where the boy was waiting by the front door.
'Come along, Jonah,' I said. 'You ride behind.'
A few minutes later I was in the saddle, hoicking the boy onto the cob's rump. And so we jolted off together on the road to Garlick. It was a ride of some forty-five minutes at a gentle pace - which was as fast as I considered young Jonah could sustain. We went east down to the end of Church Gate, where the way branches to the right down a hollow way towards the Ribble bridge and the bridge-end settlement of Fishwick. But we went straight ahead, past the windmill on Town End Fields, and were soon trotting pleasantly along Ribbleton Lane. As we encroached on Ribbleton Moor the lane-side hedges and trees, which had begun to come into bud, were lively with birds twittering and building their nests.
It was apparent that news about the Lady of Garlick had already travelled to every corner of the parish, like a spider running around its web. At a squalid place called Gamull, where a row of tottering cottages lined each side of the road, people came out and called after us. At first I took no notice. But then one of them caught my attention and I reined in the horse. It was a woman whose name I knew, Miriam Patten.
'What they're saying about the wife of Mr Brockletower,' she croaked. 'Is that true, Mr Cragg?'
Miriam was a widow, ancient and raggedly dressed. She was so poor that her house was chimneyless, with just a hole in the thatch to let smoke out - and that only when she had the fuel for a fire. She was one of those who keeps a cow in the house, as much to give warmth at night as milk in the morning. She was also one who, from time to time, receives a sack of coals and a bag of flour in charity from my wife, and other Preston ladies.
'I don't know,' I said. 'What are they saying?'
She leered up at me, allowing a sight of the blackened stumps of her teeth.
'That the Devil finally lost the taste for her society, and chucked her over the roof.'
'The Devil himself? Coming into this small parish? I think we rather flatter ourselves if we are saying that, Miriam Patten.'
I shook the reins and we rode on, leaving the draughty hovels of Gamull behind us.
This narrative, I suppose, may be read in places, or at times, in which squires are of no account - whatever levelling times as may lie ahead, or future gardens of Eden. If so, I must make it plain first that the squire was a gentleman of much importance in this particular time and place. A Justice of the Peace, a Member of Parliament in Lord Derby's interest, he owned most of the land around Garlick; the southern boundaries skirted the north-western edge of Fulwood Forest, and stretched away for half a dozen miles to the north and east. He kept a stable of expensive horses and a kennel of hounds.
And he was hated by his tenants.
Brockletower was a younger son and never thought he would inherit. In the short time since the unexpected death of his brother he'd set about remodelling whichever parts of Garlick Hall he judged improvable by mathematical architecture. He went to London and came back with a stupefying array of Italian pictures and marbles to clutter the house. The passion for these novelties is a powerful one in those whom it seizes. I remember, in Italy when I was young, how milords exactly like young Brockletower would congregate in rooms strewn with old stone fragments, picking through them like rooks behind the plough.
A wealthy, liberal, improving squire is no doubt an adornment to any manor, especially one who employs so many extra local hands in the continual knocking down and rebuilding of his house. It is how Ramilles Brockletower viewed himself and wished others to view him. And it made him angry that they did not. But his tenants and labourers, and many of the people that lived round about, continued to grumble against him, saying that a large part of the Brockletower estate was not truly the Brockletowers' by right, but had been filched from the forest - land which belonged to all the people. In their opinion the Brockletower family were nothing less than thieves of the land. It was a complaint much heard around the country in those days.
The Brockletowers, however, had always gone about their filching by scrupulously legal means. In the time of King William, old William Brockletower got an Act of Parliament that handed him the right to enclose twenty acres of the common fronting his house. This land, around the Savage Brook and the woods and wastes that stretched across the flat higher ground on either side of it, had formerly been freely grazed by the cottagers' animals, and otherwise provided their owners with inexhaustible quantities of firewood, not to mention berries, roots, mushrooms, bird's eggs, bulbs of wild garlic and nuts at various seasons. Yet by a decision of that far-distant assembly, which knew nothing of this common, or the people who depended on it, the Brockletowers had been authorized to engross the acres to themselves, and to exclude all others from the use of it. Naturally they made out it was done in the sacred name of improvement, and for the future welfare of our great nation. But the country people said to hell with the nation, and bugger improvement. It was only done for their own enrichment, the beautification of their park and better shooting for their guns.
Ramilles the son quickly let it be known he would be even more assiduous in these efforts than his father. Black Ram Brockletower, they had begun to call him, saying he was in the habit of summoning succubi to his bed, as well as that of his wife, and of holding conference with the Devil.
We turned off the bridle path and threaded our way through the trees, Jonah explaining that Mrs Marsden told him to take me here first, where the body had been found, before I went to the Hall. After a while, the largest clearing in this part of the wood came into view between the foliage and, at its centre, an oak so ancient that it was half decayed. What had been the original trunk still stood thirty feet high, but it was dead. The sockets of its fallen branches had opened up, making three or four dark portholes into the interior at various heights. But a second bifurcating trunk had grown up from the same deep-set roots and this was thriving. Its leaves were budding and preparing to spread themselves in the air.
Riding nearer, but still at a distance, I heard voices and made out a small group of men and women standing in a huddle, as if meeting together in prayer. The impression was erased when they tossed back their heads in laughter at something one of them said. I was puzzled at first by an object on the ground, a grey hump a few feet from them, lying at the foot of the tree. Then I realized this must be the lady's corpse, concealed under a sheet of burlap. As we approached, the attendant group composed their faces and began watching me sidelong. I pulled up the horse and Jonah slipped to the ground. I more methodically dismounted and walked up to the tree. The small band shuffled a little further away, except for one, Philip Barkworth (author of the witticism that had enlivened the others), who stepped forward and pulled the sacking away. I looked down at what he had uncovered.
These were manifestly the remains of Dolores Brockletower, dressed in her riding outfit of scarlet dress under a black jacket. In death she was no vision of elegance, for she had died in the undignified, rump-in-the-air posture of a pig rooting out truffles. The body had gone down on a patch of almost bare earth, with arms folded under the torso, the hands pressed palm-down by the bosom, the nose pushed into the ground that had been softened by recent rain, as if attempting to inhale the earth. I lowered myself to my haunches and squinted at the neck. A bloody gash evidently began (or perhaps it ended) just below the left earlobe and jagged downwards. Losing sight of it, I rose, took a pace back, stepped around to the other side of the dead woman, and crouched again. Here I saw, on the right-hand side, where the gash finished up (unless it had in fact started), at a spot lower down than on the other, at least two inches below the hinge of the jaw. Along the whole of its length the sloping wound was caked with a dried lip of black scab half an inch thick. In the leaf-mould below I saw the coagulated pool of gore. Suppressing a spasm of nausea I stood up and surveyed the cold, stiffening bag of flesh that had previously housed the soul of Dolores Brockletower.
There were four present, apart from the boy and myself. I looked at each of them in turn: Old Matt Thwaite, whose beard reached to his belt, the witty Barkworth, fat Jenny Milroy and pretty Susannah Shipkin.
'Where's Timothy Shipkin?' I asked. 'Wasn't he the finder? Susannah, where's your father?'
Susannah was a girl of seventeen with clear blue eyes, creamy skin, a raspberry mouth and full hips. She works as dairymaid at the Hall.
'Medad's not come home, sir,' she said. 'After he told them at Hall what he found, he didn't come back for his breakfast. Happen he's gone on to Shot's Hill. He's felling a dead beech up there.'
Shot's Hill is a tree-crested ridge the other side of the big house, a remnant of the old forest, just a hundred yards wide, with fields lying beyond it that were once part of the woodland, and are now laid to grass pasture for the squire's cows and sheep. It was strange that Timothy took himself off. For most men, the vanity of being the first finder of a woman's mysterious corpse is enough to make them stay and enjoy the glory.
'He'll be hungry, then,' I remarked. 'And what about the squire? Has he not been up here himself? The summons I had was from Mrs Marsden. But why does Mr Brockletower not come to bring his wife home?'
Thwaite shook his head.
'Squire knows nowt about it, we're thinking. He's away to York on his affairs this past seven days.'
'Is he indeed? And when expected back?'
'Our Poll says he's to come back today, sir,' said Jenny, whose sister Polly was also a maid at the house.
'Has anyone touched the body?'
'We've not gone nearer to her than we are now, sir,' said Jenny.
'None of you?'
They all shook their heads.
'We've covered her and guarded her,' growled Thwaite, assuming the role of foreman. 'But we've not looked close at her. Better to wait for you, sir, is what we thought.'
I considered for a moment, then pulled the sacking back over the hunched cadaver.
'And has anything been found? Any weapon, or object, that might have caused this injury?'
The four looked at each other.
Thwaite said, 'Not a thing, sir.'
'Have you looked?'
They evidently had not. I strode back towards my cob.
'I suggest you do. Quarter the ground of this clearing between you. If you find anything, keep it safe for me. Now I must go down to the Hall. I'll send back a cart and litter for the body. Stay until it comes, and in the meantime you may lay the corpse out before it stiffens.'
And so I left them, with a host of questions forming in my mind about how Dolores Brockletower had come upon her death. It did not look like an accident. But had it been by her own hand?
A DARK ANATOMY. Copyright © 2011 by Robin Blake. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.