Sunday, February 26, 2012

Oranges and Lemons, part 3

Mr. Caldwell was a thin man of relatively good health, a chronic dry throat and subsequent cough, due to inhalation of copper fumes in the factory, being his only outward sign of ailment. His long gray hair stood testimony to a slight eccentricity and age of eight and fifty years, but his sharp gray eyes projected a clear and deliberate mind. He stated flatly he had lost all desire for the company of others and had not stepped, nor ever intended again to step, one foot past the marble vestibule of his flat. Whatever his reason for doing so was not something he felt the desire to confide in me, nor did I care.

My first week was spent engaged in the purchase of a large steamer trunk, which was to conform to specific dimensions detailed to me by Mr. Caldwell. Why would a man owning two large and well-traveled steamer trunks require a third? At the time the logic was vexing.

My next task seemed quite in line for a man with such a charitable history. I was sent to the Bank Of England to arrange an account for a John Martin Havisham, a young man I understood to be the new recipient of Mr. Caldwell’s benevolence. I was given an envelope containing details and the amount to be deposited from Mr. Caldwell’s account, an amount that raised more than one eyebrow of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.

With the bank transaction completed I was further instructed to set up a weekly account with the grocer just off Carter Lane, handing them each a similar envelope with instructions for administration of the accounts. By weeks end it seemed my domestic tasks were completed, the accounts arranged and the aforementioned steamer trunk having been delivered. We would now begin work on the memoirs.

Mr. Caldwell wanted to complete the memoir in six months, suggesting I move into his guest quarters. I gladly consented. He was very insistent that I not publicize the project and kept me busy twelve hours a day. My only respites were visits to the market when I delivered sealed envelopes given to me by Mr. Caldwell with the weekly order, asking for them to be filled and delivered after nightfall. On one occasion an envelope wasn’t sealed. On peering inside I noticed the order was to be charged to the account of J. M. Havisham. It seemed odd to me but, endowed or not, it was still his money.

For the next six months I worked earnestly taking copious notes detailing every event of note from his privileged childhood right through to his incredible travels abroad. By the end of October I had everything I needed to convert sixty years of facts into a compelling memoir.

On the twenty-eighth of October Mr. Caldwell called me in, asking if I would take care of a small matter he had arranged. It was the trunk, the very trunk he had made when I first arrived. He said it was filled with old ledgers and invoices from his business. He had contracted with two surly blokes of questionable repute for the trunk to be picked up, taken down to the docks, and set ablaze until reduced to ashes. I was to accompany the men to ensure the deed was done.

We were on Blackfriars Lane when a gunshot spooked the horses. I was knocked to the ground. The trunk rolled off the back of the cart, crashing onto the cobblestones. The fall had broken open the trunk, exposing a badly decomposed body. I was helped to my feet by two constables, who immediately locked me up.

The subsequent investigation challenged every ounce of sanity I had. It was determined, through questionable police work and assumption, that the body in the trunk was Ebenezer Caldwell. The house on Fleet Street was searched, producing no physical evidence to support my claims of his being alive. What was found was enough evidence to indict me for murder. The Mr. Caldwell I knew had disappeared completely. The two men hired to transport the trunk were never seen again.


A key turning in the lock of my cell door interrupted my thoughts. My hand went to the tin cup. To my surprise a man walked in. He was my height, wrapped in a wool coat, scarf and hat. The turnkey stayed behind. With a grunt he closed and locked the door, leaving me alone with my visitor.

The man waited, listening as the footsteps faded off down the passage. He pulled open his scarf, lifted his head and removed the hat.

I pulled myself up from the floor. The shock on my face was evident. My attempt to speak was waved off.

“I can only imagine what you must think of me,” he said. He took a labored breath between sentences, followed with a raspy cough. “God forgive me. I was mad with anger. I certainly didn’t expect this result.”

I was speechless. Here before me was the man I knew to be Ebenezer Caldwell, the man I was accused of killing.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Oranges And Lemons - Part 2

My parents were kind and decent people, giving without thought to the less fortunate, and instilling in me the patience to understand my fellow man. My mother was educated, a fortune of her being the daughter of a governess prior to her marriage, and set a formal schedule at home to educate me, as my father was insistent I attain an education and “clean” work with an annual salary.

My father worked a milling machine in a factory located on Cheapside, toward St. Paul’s. Mr. Ebenezer Caldwell owned it, having been bequeathed to him on the death of his father. He ran the business with his half-brother Anderson. Mr. Caldwell gave my father the job in gratitude for stopping what was certainly intended as a deadly assault. One evening at dusk, just prior to the glow of the gas lamps, a ruffian confronted Mr. Caldwell and his half-brother on their way home from the factory. When the man produced a revolver Anderson ran, leaving Mr. Caldwell to fend off the attacker alone. My father witnessed the confrontation and came to his aid, thwarting the attack. Anderson’s flight was regarded as an act of cowardice that was answered with his dismissal from the company. Mr. Caldwell never saw, nor spoke the name, of his half-brother again.

Those first years of employment for my father were a time of prosperity for my family. I went on to attend Harrow – Mr. Caldwell, I found out years later, facilitated my placement there. I thought the passing of my parents, due to an outbreak of cholera during my second year, would be the end of my formal education. Through Mr. Caldwell’s benevolence I continued, eventually attending Cambridge. I remember thinking through my university years how fortunate I was my father interceded on the attack of Mr. Caldwell. That quickly changed, driven with every ounce of malevolence I could dredge up from the bowels of Hades, to wishing my father had left him to die at the hands of his attacker.

You might think it shameful for me to speak of the dead in such a way as this. Shameful to condemn a man whose benevolence afforded my father a decent wage and myself a fine education. Perhaps you’re right. At the time I was so consumed with hatred for what he had done to remember the acts of kindness that actually defined his life.

The judge and jury listened patiently as the facts of my case were revealed, occasionally stopping the proceedings to quiet the assorted gawkers jammed into the gallery in the Old Bailey. They were told during the trial Mr. Caldwell was murdered in April of 1886, his body stuffed into a steamer trunk in the attic of his flat on Fleet Street. It was further asserted that I remained in the flat after killing the man, availing myself to his substantial wealth and property. The police and medical examiner gave detailed reports substantiating those claims; claims based largely on information supplied to them from the grocer who delivered our meat and produce, the stationer who sold me the steamer trunk and the banker who set up the account for John Martin Havisham.

My legal counsel, a man whose name I find no need to remember, a man scarcely my senior but mentally and judiciously most certainly my junior, was inept in his ability to dispute even the most subjective of claims by the prosecutor. His laziness placed my whole defense on my testimony, a testimony which brought laughter from the gallery after my insistence of Mr. Caldwell being very much alive up until the twenty-eighth day of October, the last day I spoke with him and six months after his confirmed death. These “delusions”, as the court referred to them, were dismissed as nothing more than a feeble attempt to substantiate a claim of mental incapacity in defense of my actions.

I pleaded with the court to hear me out, assuring the judge my defense would be simple and address each of the claims related to the prosecutor’s assertion of my guilt.

“If you still find my statements an insult to the integrity of the court,” I said, pounding my fist on the well-worn rail before me, “I’ll concede my guilt and waste no more of the courts time.”

The court was reluctant to indulge me, finally conceding due to the overwhelming insistence from the gallery. It appeared their expectation was of a fanciful tale of my consorting with an apparition; a carefully spun tale to divert the jury from the greed and murder depicted by the prosecutor. The chamber went silent as I began.

I had nothing less than respect and gratitude for Mr. Caldwell. At the time of my graduation from Cambridge he had sold his factory for a substantial sum, resigning himself to a quiet life of travel and leisure. You’ll think it odd my having never met the man personally, knowing him only through his benevolence, but such was the case.

With my schooling complete I was excited over the prospect of becoming a journalist and eventually a novelist. The stipend for my education and living expenses, an account set up for me at the Bank of England by Mr. Caldwell, was closed out on my graduation from Cambridge. I took a small flat above a bakery on Bread Street and spent the next three years as an editor with the publishing house of Bascomb & Aldritch, a rather prestigious house with ties to Cambridge. It was there, on that blustery day in March of 1886, when a letter arrived from Mr. Caldwell.

His letter was my first direct contact with him since my parent’s death, now twelve years past. It requested I meet with him to discuss writing his memoirs. He wanted people to know the good he had done in this life. This entailed my leaving Bascomb & Aldritch. Without hesitation I agreed, soon finding myself sipping Earl Grey tea in the sitting room of his flat on Fleet Street.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Oranges And Lemons - A mystery most foul, part 1

I wanted to share my short story featured in Suspense Magazine, January 2011. I've serialized it in 4 parts, this being the first. Enjoy.

Oranges And Lemons

When will ye pay me,

Ring ye bells of Old Bailey.

When indeed. Surely I was going mad. I could reason out no other explanation why a child’s rhyme would occupy my thoughts on that cold morning before I was to face the hangman. The time was growing near when I, too, was to follow the path worn into the dismal stone passage beyond my cell door leading to the gallows. A path worn deep by all that were deemed wretched in this world, deserving or not, but condemned just the same to leave this world dangling lifeless from the taut end of a course length of hemp.

I heard the footsteps of the clerk from St. Sepulcher’s as he made his way down the passage, pausing at my cell door. His bell tolled, repeatedly and with long pauses between each ring, announcing to all in earshot the coming execution of the sentence afforded me by the court. A sentence justly appropriate for the guilty of such a heinous crime but never appropriate for the wrongly accused, as I so boisterously, and at times belligerently, addressed my accusers. At the end I was alone without voice nor hope to stay my execution. My face aged, my hair grayed from the thought of the gallows and the collar that awaited my neck. I was labeled mad by the prosecutor, so it’s mad I must be. Such was my fate; as was the fate of those wretched men before me whose shoulders wore smooth the cold section of stone I rested against.

As I looked up from the floor, my arm resting on a square wooden bench, which was as much a table as it was a chair, I was confronted with the dismal history of my cell. The dim light of a gray morning, reluctantly drifting in through the crossed steel bars covering my only glimpse of the life I would soon leave behind, drew out the last thoughts of those I was soon to walk amongst. Every inch of the grimy stone walls had been etched with the pathetic pleas for mercy or forgiveness for the sins that brought this refuse of society to their end. The writing was barely discernable, but the intent was obvious. Those petitions for mercy, those desperate attempts to leave behind some token of existence, appeared little more than a crude imitation of a patterned wall covering to my educated eye. Layer upon layer of incoherent scribbling ran together, blurred from the soot and grime deposited by the years that stood witness to the hundreds who came before, removing all hope of salvation. Those walls were cold and hard, a reflection of the verdicts delivered to the souls unfortunate enough to gaze upon them. I had no intention of leaving this life behind in such a fashion.

I made only one request of the Keeper. Whether for my youth of eight and twenty years or just a genuine kindness for my politeness in manner, I will be forever grateful for the paper and pen left for me. The inkwell was less than half full but it was more than adequate for my needs. My intent was to leave behind some small note of regret for my fate, fulfilling a personal desire to make one last claim of innocence. Afterwards, I reserved a small amount of water in my wooden cup to assist me in what was to be a final act of mercy on my soul.

I was told from other prisoners I met in the quadrangle that a vial of arsenic could be obtained for a price from the turnkeys. If caught bargaining such a deal, a turnkey could find himself on the other side of a cell door, but the fruition of the transaction left no fear of accusation. I had no money, nor a means to acquire any. What I did have was an exceptionally well-made pair of leather boots. I kept them buffed to a high shine, having torn a pocket from my trousers for use as a polishing cloth. They hadn’t gone unnoticed by the turnkeys, having twice broken up attacks on my person by other prisoners wanting to acquire the footwear for themselves. The deal was struck, the exchange made under cover of night to protect the turnkey. By the time I was moved to my cell in the ward where the condemned await their fate I stood content in my stocking feet, knowing I would at least cheat the hangman.

I had but a few hours left before the warrant for my execution arrived. I pulled from my pocket the small glass vial, pulling out the stopper and pouring the deadly liquid into the remains of my water. There was no comfort to be found on the cold, damp floor of a Newgate cell. My solace came from warm memories of a life with loving parents. Putting thoughts together for a final note I reflected back over the facts leading to the desperate situation I then found myself in. When finished, and with a mind at peace and in acceptance of what I had resigned to do next, I would take a final sip of this life.

To be continued...