December 2019, Author: Matthew Preston
As a young man with a new mouth to feed, I took the role at Stirling gaol for the promise of four farthings a fortnight. The pay was not generous, but the work was light, comprising as it was of checking the prisoners three times a day and sliding their food trays through the slot at the bottom of the door. There was little hope of advancement: the governor was appointed by the crown in London and chosen from the mercantile aristocracy, but it did afford me copious amounts of free time to learn skills that could be more profitably employed elsewhere. It was during those quiet hours that I perfected my letters and numbers, utilising the small library the governor maintained for those occasions when a notable prisoner found himself detained through some sort of misunderstanding. But despite this, I found that the door to the offices of the notaries and merchants remained firmly closed to a child of the workhouse, regardless of book learning.
I initially kept my distance from the prisoners; the governor had warned us on the first day of becoming close to the ingrates and lowlife that frequented the cells. Unlike him, I felt that there could be no harm in learning what I could of these men and women, seeing as they exhibited a fine range of the fellows I had grown up with. There was the violent bully, whose extortion of his fellow labourers had slipped from robust violence to accidental homicide. A thin, sallow man seemed the image of invisible irrelevance; he had snapped one evening and beat his wife to death. A quick talking child of twelve or eleven was eager to discuss with me the unfairness of his incarceration for pickpocketing, whilst another of eight or so merely cried for his mammy, who as far as I could tell worked her trade down the inns and guest houses of the city.
I made my rounds three times a day, once in the morning to hand out what passed for the daily meal, once to collect the empty dishes in the afternoon, and one final time in the evening to check on the inmates prior to turning in to bed. My office (at least that is what I styled the cubby hole in which I passed my time studying the thin volumes I had extracted from the governor’s library) was at the end of a long stone-flagged corridor, the only access to the cells lying behind an iron gate a the end of the corridor. Any would-be escapee would need to pass through both the cold metal and also myself before making it to the inner courtyard. At the echo of my footsteps down the drafty corridor and the metal rasp of the unlocking of this gate, the inmates would gather at the grates in their doors. In the morning they were desperate for food, in the afternoon they were desperate to tell me that they had been wronged; but in the evening they were simply desperate for any kind of company against the gathering gloom. All the inmates, that is, except the man in the furthermost cell. He was a strange one, and of all the prisoners seemingly the most content with his lot. He never once protested his innocence, nor called out to me for release. At the end of each of my rounds I’d find him cowering in the farthest dark corner of his cell, seemingly at his wits’ end. When he saw my face peering through the grate he would visibly deflate, relaxing into a quiet stupor.
This odd behaviour piqued my interest, and I resolved to look up his crime and sentence. He was a middle-aged man, by name Barnaby Hatter. Despite his surname, a now seemingly apt moniker, he had been a clerk at Pettigrew and Sons, a small law firm in the city centre. Small the firm he had once scrivened for may have been, but I was put out that this man, who now lay under my control and barely contained the movement of his bowels at my approach, had succeeded in finding a post for which my own search continued to be fruitless. Did it make it better or worse that he was now incarcerated for the crime of murder? He had slit the throats of his wife and new-born son, apparently in a moment of unprecedented psychosis. He was in our gaol awaiting transfer to the crown court, and a summary sentence of hanging. How could such a man, such an unreliable and inconstant man, have gained the position denied to me?
I said as much to my wife, one night as she sat nursing.
“Aye, but he doesn’t have the position now, does he?” she said. “And mayhap he can tell you how it is that he came by it in the first place?”
This was a thought and I brooded on it for a day or so, until on the pretence of inspections of his cell, I began to engage him in conversation. I didn’t address the matter head on, for who knows how his damaged brain might react to such prompting. Instead I started to ask him questions about his old work, about his life. He proved remarkably lucid and happy to engage in conversation, warming to our short chats the more time we spent together. I was the only visitor to his cell in all that time, and yet every time I arrived at his cell he would still be cowering, terrified in the same bundled heap.
One day I took it on myself to ask him what drove him to such terror. His eyes widened and he merely whispered, “it might be him”. I could get nothing further out of him that day, as he rocked himself back and forth, arms clutched around his knees. The next day he was back to his normal, talkative self as if nothing had happened and I didn’t broach the subject again. Instead I let slip that I, myself was looking for employment as a clerk.
“You?” he’d looked at me incredulously. “I don’t think Mr Pettigrew hires…” he trailed off, suddenly embarrassed, and yet the implication was clear enough. In my anger, I retorted, “well I’m sure he doesn’t hire people who kill their wife and son.” He had collapsed at that in distress and buried his head in his hands. I did not feel sorry for what I had said, but I still hoped to obtain some morsel of insight from him, and so I made an apology. “No, no,” he said through tears. “It is fair. I did kill them, or at least my discovery of the gold did.” This was an unexpected development. The incarceration file had said nothing about any kind of monetary motivation to the murder, suggesting instead an inconceivable crime of passion in a moment of madness. I pressed him, but he was too distraught to answer further, and so I left.
With the interrogation of the prisoner yielding no results, I made the unusual step of approaching the examining magistrate. I made up some pretext of concern that Barnaby would seek to avoid justice by the taking of his own life and asked about the confession he had made. “It’s the damnedest thing,” the magistrate told me, in the five minutes I was able to beg. “But when he was brought in, he was screaming. Yes, screaming, that is a fair description. He was screaming that the treasure must be returned. He was quite insistent that there would be no rest until it was. It created quite a stir amongst your colleagues, to be sure. To begin with I thought it was some kind of signal to co-conspirators, and indeed one of our wardens was quite insistent that he heard footsteps approaching him in his cell late at night. But no evidence of such a visit was to be found, no evidence of any kind of unsavoury acquaintances hanging around the Hatter residence, nor was there any hoard, or loot, or what-ever you might fancifully call it in evidence at the crime scene. It was soon apparent that he was simply not in control of his faculties at which point I signed the warrant to transfer him to you pending his trial. There are quite enough disturbances in the magistrates court without the need to add the stories of the criminally insane.”
I thanked the magistrate and promised to keep a watch on Barnaby to ensure that he would only get the rest that justice deemed he should be afforded. As I walked back across town, I pondered what I’d been told. Did this gold that Barnaby had been so vexed by exist? Or was it a figment of a deranged mind?
“You mentioned the gold,” I casually said to him in his cell the following day. “I have it on good authority that Magistrate Keller would look kindly on it being returned to its proper owner.”
Barnaby gave a hollow laugh. “I wish that I had given it back, but it’s too late for that now. And yet…” he trailed off and looked at me calculating. “I’m going to hang, I know. No one believes me. And if it’s not His Majesty that does for me, well then he will. And yet… maybe my last days can be free of this infernal watching over my shoulder. He wants the gold, I know. He wants it just for himself, to be shared with no-one. Well then, we should give it to him. You should give it to him. You would do that, no?”
I had lost the trail of his reasoning but gathered enough to glean that he believed Magistrate Keller to be looking to seize on the fortune for himself. Deluded fool! But maybe there was an opportunity presenting itself to me.
“Tell me where it is, and I’ll take it to him,” I promised. Barnaby looked at me seemingly caught in a quandry. “I feel I should warn you,” he said. “There is no little danger here, although if you do as I say, and quickly, I believe that there should be no exposure.” I reassured him that I was well acquainted with hazardous endeavours and was a willing and exact student. Seemingly satisfied, he told me that in his old lodgings, under the third floorboard from the right-hand wall of the bedchamber, lay a box containing… but here he paused and shook his head. “Blood money,” he told me only, “and cursed at that. Oh Eliza! Forgive me.”
I soothed him as best I could and told him that I’d see that the magistrate received the gold. “The magistrate?” he asked, confused. “No, no. You have to take it up to Arthur’s seat. At the summit, at the base of his throne, there is a small hollow. That is where I found it, where he put it. Damn my curiosity, damn my greed. Don’t open the box, but put it back there, and do it quickly, if you value your life more than I valued that of my family’s.” I promised the madman that I would do as he asked, with a sinking feeling that the magistrate may have been correct when he judged the gold an illusion of a diseased mind.
The rest of the day crept slowly onwards, my impatience dragging at the hours. When I had locked up and handed the watch to the night warden, I made my way to the location of Barnaby’s house. It was dark and deserted, its recent foul history lying like a shroud over the neighbourhood and keeping away prying eyes and even vagabonds eager for a warm and dry lodging. I crept inside and climbed up the stairs. I was surprised to find both that the floorboard lifted easily, and that underneath was indeed a small wooden box with copper clasps. I lifted it out, my hands trembling. I was about to look inside when I paused. Was that the tread of footsteps on the stairs? I stuffed the box under my coat and stepped into the shadows by the bed, watching the door nervously. All that I could hear was the wind outside and the normal creaks and groans of a deserted house. Cursing my unreliable ears, I hurried outside, down the stairs and out into the street.
Under the watch of my wife in the small of our apartment, I did not find time to review my find. Instead I pushed the box far underneath the bed where it would be safe from prying eyes. I slept fitfully, waking a number of times to a cold, dark room. Mostly the house was silent when I woke, with only my wife and son’s soft snoring. But in the middle of the night, I woke with a start, sitting up sharply, convinced that I heard the sharp rapport of booted feet on the stairs. I strained my ears but could hear nothing more. I warily closed my eyes, and was once more on the edge of slumber, when I clearly heard the bootstep once more on the apartment stairs. I sprang out of bed, causing my wife to wake. “What is it?” she asked me, sleepily. “There is someone outside!” I told her. “On the stairs!” I grasped the poker from the fireplace and made my way as silently as I could through the outer room to the door. Placing my hand on the doorknob, I pressed my ear to the panel. Silence. Poker raised, I carefully turned the handle and pulled the door ajar. The flickering gaslights cast pale yellow shadows on to the empty shared staircase of the apartment block. I closed the door and made a search of our small apartment. “Stop being silly and come back to bed,” my wife said sleepily. “It will just have been him upstairs coming back late from his cups.” Maybe she was right, I told myself, or maybe it was my own mind playing tricks on me. I returned to laying beside her, but my eyes were firmly open for the rest of the night.
The next day I was too tired to study and took to pacing my office in an effort to keep myself awake. I threw open the window and drew in the smoky city air in an attempt to allow the coldness to waken my lungs. As I made my afternoon rounds, Barnaby drew close to the door. “Is it done?” he whispered to me urgently. “Did you return it?” I was too tired to dissemble and only shook my head. “I’ll return it soon,” I promised him, silently adding “after I’ve extracted my fee.” Barnaby looked at me in horror, “but where have you left it? You didn’t bring it here did you?” “I’ve left it safe,” I told him. “My wife will never look in the hiding place.” “You are married?” he tried to grab my arm through the thin grate but I shook him off. “For gods sake man, return the damn thing. I did not realise, I would not have asked…” In my over-sensitive state, his words struck a nerve and I turned heel and retreated down the corridor, slamming the door shut.
That afternoon, anxious to discover what in fact I had gained that was causing such anxiety, I abandoned my post for the first time. I snuck out past the governors’ office and slipped into the street, muttering something about an errand to the door guard. My wife visited her mother every Tuesday, leaving the apartment empty and so I was able to pull out the box undisturbed and pry open the lid. What greeted me as I lifted the lid swelled my eyes and reassured my fears; for the box was stuffed to the brim with old gold coins. They were not of a currency I recognised, and I wondered how old the hoard was. Was this spoils from some long forgotten military campaign, or the proceeds of some illicit activity? Either way, I knew enough about the treasure laws to understand why Barnaby had kept this find secret, the small fortune this chest represented would be seized by the officials as a find of the crown given half a chance. I took one coin and placed it in my pocket and closed and returned the chest to its hiding place. One coin would be easier to value without raising suspicions, and as I made my way back to the gaol I pondered the best way to achieve this aim.
Sitting in my office and with my nerves settled by the thought of the fortune now in my possession, I regretted not telling Barnaby that I had returned the coins and fretted that he might let spill the secret before his appointment with the hangman. Turning the cold metal over in my fingers I resolved that my first course of action should be to discredit him in the eyes of the authorities. And so I approached the governor, and told him of my concerns of the prisoner. “He’s been telling me the most awful stories,” I told him. “I spoke to Magistrate Keller and he confirmed that he truly is deranged, and warned me to beware of the way he made up stories to discredit and bewilder the officers of the law. I worry about what he might say of me.” The governor laughed at me, and asked why I thought he would credit the word of a prisoner above one of his staff. Acknowledging the recent birth of my son, he told me to not let womanly concerns get to the better of me, and instead to limit my interactions with the prisoners. “The more you treat them as men like you and me, the more likely you are to succumb to their wicked ways. A healthy distance is needed.” I had agreed and returned to the cells satisfied that I had introduced sufficient doubt to cause any tale Barnaby chose to tell to be disregarded.
The day had now passed, and dusk was drawing its shadowy fingers around the city. I followed the example of the lamplighters and reached for the matches and the oil lamp in my office. However, as I returned to sit behind my desk, a sudden gust of wind from the ajar window blew the flame out and plunged me into a gloom even deeper for being sudden. I swore and then started, for I heard, clearly and unmistakeably the tread of footsteps in the corridor leading to the cells. Rising to my feet I grasped the oil lamp and quickly relit it before crossing rapidly to the door and throwing it open. The corridor was dark and shadowy, but the light of the oil lamp showed it to be unmistakeably empty. I rushed to the iron gate and fumbled with my keys to unlock it before proceeding down the corridor, carefully testing each door as I went. They were all locked and when I reached the end, I peered through the grate to see Barnaby back cowering in his corner. “He is here,” he was babbling repeatedly to himself. “he is here…”. But there was no-one here, and there was no-one but the other prisoners in all the other cells.
My sleep that night was similarly disturbed, with every small noise and movement making me shake. A number of times I thought I heard steps on the stairs and in the corridor outside, but I forced myself to close my eyes and ignore them. In the end the tiredness of two nights of undisturbed sleep sent me over the edge into slumber and I fell into an undreaming sleep, only to be woken to the sound of a sharp rapping on my door. “Who is it?” my wife asked me. I only mutely shook my head, and something in my eyes must have startled her. “Aren’t you going to open the door?” she asked nervously. Again, I shook my head and she fell silent. The violent knocking persisted for a half hour as we sat silently, before finally subsiding as dawn began to cast its pink light over the rooftops. In the daylight, she remonstrated with me for my cowardice but I just shook my head and left.
The day passed in the slow fugue that a lack of sleep brings. I performed my rounds as quickly as I could, and the prisoners must have sensed my mood for even the most voluble fell silent when I looked at them. Barnaby didn’t move from his crouched position all day and I retrieved his meal uneaten. I sat at my desk and attempted to study a book of historical military expeditions, but the words weighed on my eyelids.
I woke with a start in the evening gloom to the sound of footsteps in the corridor once more. This time I took my time lighting the oil lamp and making my way to door, convinced that I would once more find nothing. I reached out my hand to clasp the doorknob and heard a loud banging on a cell door. I threw open the door but the light from the lamp was door was too weak to allow me to see with certainty to the end of the corridor, where the banging continued from Barnaby’s cell. I could hear the inmates shuffling to their cell doors. “What is it warden?” they whispered to me as I went past. The uncharacteristic reticence made me nervous myself, and so it was that when my lamp finally threw light onto Barnaby’s door, only for the knocking to suddenly cease, I was seized by an irrational anger. Reaching out my keys I unlocked his door and threw it open, striding across the cell and seizing him by his shirt. “Why were you banging on the door?” I shouted at him, but the only response was a witless “He is here…”. I shook him hard, knocking him against the wall. “Who is here?” Barnaby laughed, making me angrier still. “He is here. You should have returned the treasure.” “This?” I cried, drawing out the coin from my pocket. “Is this what you are speaking of?” Barnaby’s eyes widened at the glint of the gold and he tried to shrink away. Disgusted at such a reaction I seized him once more and threw him to the floor, causing him to strike his head against the corner of his bed. Suddenly all was still, and I looked in horror at his raggedly breathing form and bloody head. Dropping the coin from my hand, I turned and fled back to my office, where I sat head in hands. Time passed, or did not pass, I cannot say, but when the night guard came to relieve me, I am told that he found me in my chair, rocking back and forth. His inquiry as to my health was halted by the sound of heavy footsteps heading down the corridor outside. “Who is that?” he cried, and rushed to the corridor, following the sound of the footsteps to the unlocked cell at the end. The rest passed like a blur; the discovery of the still-warm bloody corpse, its throat cut; my immediate arrest on charges of homicide supported by the governor’s reluctant testimony of an unstable mind. “What happened to the coin?” I asked them. “What coin?” was the reply and I shuddered. “He’s taken it back. He wants to take it all back. Please, it must be returned.” Their eyes were sympathetic but horrified. “No, you don’t understand!” I cried. “She doesn’t know it’s there. She’ll think it’s me. She doesn’t know. You have to tell her; it has to be returned.” But their eyes were blank and uncomprehending.