The Reverend Highley’s housekeeper brought a cup of tea to his desk. She said quietly that Mrs Highley had a sick headache and mustn’t be disturbed, and reminded him that Dr Latimer had advised rest.
Reverend Frederick Highley was thirty-five, with an intent, benevolent expression, grey hair starting at the temples, and a balding forehead. He held his cup and saucer neatly with slim fingers, and through the window, he watched a goods train steaming in the sidings. Beyond the sidings were the telegraph poles, and then the grey willows stroking the River Thames. It was a sweet July morning, and the sun projected the black, turreted shadow of the prison on the grounds outside.
His wife, Louisa, had never been happy living there, although the Chaplain’s house was as grand and crenellated as the Governor’s, which it faced, outside the prison gateway. It lay in the shade of the prison’s northern battlements; she complained that they had no garden. Highley maintained that the Gaol was one of the chief architectural glories of Reading, and that they had a garden of needy souls.
Highley clung to this idea as he climbed the wrought-iron galleries, through the sobbing of desperate men and the muttering of thieves’ cant, the stench of oakum and slop-buckets, and the whispers of ‘Screw!’ that surrounded the warder. Bespectacled, Highley peered through the cell door hatches. In his soft, precise voice, he adjured the prisoners to pray, and to read the tracts. Some replied civilly, and others turned away in haunted silence. They were in anguish for one of their own.
Two rows of cells gave on to the dark corridor that led below the chapel to what the convicts called the ‘Topping Shed’. Few men had been hanged of late; the last one, three years ago, had poisoned his own child with arsenic. But now, Highley and the warder entered within the cold bare walls of the condemned cell.
In the little light that crept in through the gratings, Trooper Farringdon sat on his plank bed, hunched over a letter he was writing with a stub of pencil. Two guards sat nearby; he must not kill himself before he could be hanged. The warder closed the massive door.
‘Chaplain’s here,’ he announced, although the men had already turned their faces to Highley, whose clerical collar shone like a halo in the gloom.
Farringdon had been handsome, with big shoulders and fair hair. In the three months since the murder, his body had become pale and wasted, with folds of reptilian skin hanging at his neck. He smelt of stale sweat. His small blue eyes looked up, but he was silent when Highley asked him how he was.
‘We will pray,’ said Highley. ‘Then I will hear your confession.’ Kneeling, they said the Lord’s Prayer, the soldier echoing the chaplain, as if he had forgotten the words.
‘This is your last day,’ said Highley, sitting up on the pallet and waiting for Farringdon to respond.
‘What more should I confess? I told them I killed Lizzie,’ Farringdon said. ‘I am sorry for it, but it wasn’t my fault, she drove me to it. I’m not a violent man.’
Highley lowered his eyes, and frowned, but he did not interrupt.
‘She tormented me beyond endurance. I was enslaved, yet she was cruel and cold. Blind to me, eyes for everyone else. I couldn’t bear to part from her. I wanted to follow her always, from her waking at dawn, to the closing of her eyes, to sleep, and beyond, into her dreams.’
‘But you killed her?’ asks Highley.
‘She was running a fine game!’ snarled Farringdon. ‘She meant to leave me. I could see it in her pretty eyes, how they darted about!’ He leant forward to Highley as if about to impart a vital truth. His face looked rotten in the bad light.
‘We weren’t given married quarters, so she stayed in Windsor when my regiment was in London. She lived under her maiden name. Stockwell! My name meant nothing! She said the neighbours talked about her, because I was away from her so much. They said she was a kept woman and I was married elsewhere. She said she wanted to be settled. I doubted what she meant by it. She had another sweetheart before I met her, I could see her going back to him. It was destroying me.’
Lines of sorrow deepened on Highley’s face.
Farringdon related the fatal day, how he had made her promise to visit on his afternoon off, and had waited outside his barracks, his jealous anger intensifying like poison.
‘By three o’clock, I knew that she would not come. I was certain of it then, that she was going to desert me. So I went to Windsor to see her. She had a paper ready for me to sign! “I hereby promise never to come near or in any way to molest Elizabeth Stockwell.” Never again to come near! She really meant to finish with me.’
‘Why were you not to molest her?’ asks Highley, but Farringdon was seeing something else, his face beaded with sweat.
‘I couldn’t bear it any more. She was getting out, so I cut her. I felt as though I was cutting off my own arm. If a man’s arm was lifeless, and gave nothing but pain, or was septic, with gangrene, wouldn’t he do the same? At first just a little blood came out, and she got out into the street, and then I cut her again, and she fell down. The blood splashed out, and it was as if my pain ebbed away with her blood. I had her blood on my shirt cuffs. I could smell it for days afterwards. Doesn’t blood wash away our sins?’
Tears formed in the murderer’s eyes, and his voice trembled as he said that his wife drove him mad, and, if only she had been a better wife, he would never have hurt a hair of her head. Then he focused again on the chaplain’s face.
‘I daresay you have a wife?’ he asked. Highley merely nodded in reply.
‘And children?’ asked Farringdon.
‘No,’ said Highley.
‘She haunts me so,’ whispered Farringdon, as though he did not know who might be listening. ‘She flies over me as I sleep, with her white face, and brushes me with bloodstained wings. She cuts off my breathing. Then she tells me I’ll soon be buried in the prison yard. Her sweet red smile turns into the cuts in her neck. I’m cursed forever, now and beyond the grave!’ His face contracted, and he buried it in his hands, his body racked by sobs.
Highley, his eyes magnified behind their spectacles, watched Farringdon cry, then with an indrawing of breath, he stood.
‘Come,’ Highley said, ‘there is little time’.
Later, exiting the prison gates, Highley ignored his own front door and crossed the Forbury Gardens. Bees roamed the flowerbeds, and the fragrant sunlit air took the smell of the prison from his clothes. He passed the bandstand, and the playing children, and crossed the Market-Place to the offices of Brain & Pledmore, Solicitors, in Duke-Street. His old friend, Jeremiah Brain, stocky and prosperous in an expensive suit, was alone at his great desk, scrawling on a folio, with a double underline and a couple of exclamation marks.
‘Freddy! My dear fellow! Just in time for a little sherry! And lunch at the Bull, perhaps?’ He rose, and shook Highley’s hand vigorously, patting his shoulder and asking after his health and that of ‘Mrs H’.
Highley said that Louisa was delicate, and that living by the prison weighed down her spirits.
‘Bah,’ said Brain, pouring from a decanter, ‘I hold you responsible for her welfare. You know I would never have ceased my suit to her, had you not been from a landowning family, and I merely the offspring of shopkeepers.’ Brain sipped his sherry with a smile. Highley laughed briefly.
‘You’ll never let me forget that, will you?’
Brain looked under his eyebrows at Highley. ‘And what of your lost souls?’ he asked, and curled his lip. ‘I believe that Farringdon is to hang?’
‘Tomorrow morning. There is an evil air in the prison, and we are all haunted by his situation. The grave was dug today.’
‘So, what kind of man is he?’
‘I cannot tell you his confession. But I pity him, a poor wretch in despair. If Christ can cleanse his sin, what right have the lawyers to hang him?’
Brain raised his eyes to heaven.
‘Anyone would despair at the last day of life! The criminal class, Highley, they are all beyond repentance. I tell you, every one of your poor wretches that is reformed and released, is back in the dock within a month. I had a client who was released with charity to buy a costermonger’s barrow and some stock. In less than a week he sold up, and was back to his thieving ways. They are brutes who merely learn the prison rules, and mouth your prayers, the sooner to be free.’
‘My dear old friend,’ Highley said, ‘scoundrels are your bread and butter. If they reform, you see them no more. In any case, this man will never leave the gaol.’ He looked at his sherry glass, as yet untouched.
Brain snorted. ‘The trooper, eh? John Kinnear had to represent him, a lost cause if ever I heard it. The fellow slit his wife’s throat with his razor. Kinnear had to argue it was unpremeditated, when the defendant had brought the said razor all the way to Windsor, from the Albany Barracks in London. He broke her nose the week before, and she wrote to his commanding officer begging him to keep Farringdon away from her. Save his soul, for what? So that he can be an annoyance to the Almighty when he wheedles his way in to Heaven? These brutes never change, I tell you.’
‘He can see no further than his own despair.’ said Highley, sipping. ‘My duty is to help him to find his faith, to cleanse his sin, and to offer compassion without becoming contaminated myself.’
Brain, changing the subject, invited the Highleys to Sunday lunch.
Later, Louisa’s wan face had brightened at the invitation, and so, at the appointed time, the Highley’s pony trap creaked along the drive of Brain’s large white house off the Bath Road. The air was fragrant with roses, and the lunch was elegantly served. The children were eating in the nursery, with Nanny Phipps. The French windows were open in the dining room, and a soft, hot breeze stirred the muslin curtains.
There was a good claret with the beef, and then a Tokay with the pudding. Brain’s voice started to grow louder. Highley complimented Edith on her garden, on the rose that had filled the air with scent, and bled scarlet petals across the grass.
‘I forget its name,’ said Edith, ‘a great unruly rose, it has thorns like razors, and has made itself into an impossible thicket, which I must get properly pruned. But the flowers, my word…’ she expanded her jewelled fingers, illustrating to Louisa’s murmured approval, ‘and they darken so with age, from crimson to purple, then black. Absolutely black. You must see my physic garden too…’
‘And so, Mrs H, how does your garden grow?’ Brain interrupted, grinning like a skull. Louisa smiled nervously.
‘If only I were better connected, or you had followed your heart, Mrs H, who knows?’ Brain leaned back in his chair, chuckling and caressing his glass. Highley frowned.
‘Or if only you had not had such a nasty nature!’ retorted Louisa. She smiled, but red patches have come up on her thin face. Edith swiftly folded her napkin, and rose from her chair.
‘Come, Louisa, we’ll walk in the garden,’ she said. ‘The air is too close in here.’ Louisa followed her out through the French windows, and Highley watched her leaning, dragging as if wounded on Edith’s arm, as they crossed the terrace. Brain lifted the port decanter, and poured out two glasses of dense, dark red liquid.
‘I might apply for a country parish,’ said Highley. Brain raised his eyebrows.
‘Have you wearied, then, of the architectural magnificence of your gaol?’ he asked. ‘Of your garden of needy souls?’
‘It’s killing Louisa to be there. I’m a brute to insist on it.’
Brain said that Highley must not go too far from Reading, and then he and Edith would drive out and visit.
‘It would be a shame not to keep up,’ he said. Highley made some vague promise.
‘And, speaking of brutes,’ said Brain, ‘How did it go?’
‘I gave him the Communion. Perhaps I should not have, I don’t know. I doubt he was in a state of grace, but it was his last chance. I read the burial service as he walked from his cell to the execution shed. No one else said anything. I don’t know what was in his mind, his eyes were fixed ahead, and he was silent. My prayers were the last words of his life.’
‘May he rot in hell,’ said Brain, and Highley fell silent.
Copyright © 2020, M Wallis