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Parson Pennywick and the Murdered Owler

Parson Pennywick and the Murdered Owler
by Amy Myers
Art by Allen Davis

Sometimes a storm begins with the merest wisp of a cloud. From my parsonage at Cuckoo Leas, in a clear blue sky on a September day, I saw such a cloud appear. I had returned to my home well satisfied with my work. Fearing that there was one amongst us who threatened our village, I had looked after the needs of my flock, although there had seemed no trouble in store.

I had been eager for my breakfast, as its normal hour of ten o’clock was already past, but I was dismayed to see no fire in the hearth, no muffins, no plate of meats, no toast or gooseberry jam, no aroma of steaming coffee. Something was clearly amiss, and, greatly troubled, I pulled the bell rope. There was no response.

As I hastened to the kitchens, my concern increased at the sound of sobbing and raised voices that met my ears.

“Parson,” yelled Barnabas, as he saw me. “The curses of hell be upon him.”

I was greatly alarmed. To whom did he refer? Barnabas is usually a patient and gentle giant of a man and I count myself blessed to have him in my service. But he is young; love for our young housemaid Phoebe consumes him, and I could see Phoebe sobbing in the comforting arms of my dear Dorcas, housekeeper and, since the death of my dear wife, my companion.

“What ails you, Phoebe?” I cried in alarm.

“Nothing but what ails most pretty wenches, Parson,” Dorcas soberly replied for her. “She is with child.”

A fresh bout of sobbing ensued, which puzzled rather than shocked me. Our pretty, lively Phoebe and her devoted swain Barnabas would make a happy pairing. The cause of her woe was distressing, but not without remedy.

“Then you must wed her, Barnabas,” I said, not doubting their love.

“’Tis not my babe, Parson,” he howled. “ ’Tis Jem Moore’s. The blackguard told Squire he won’t wed her.”

This was bad news indeed. Jem Moore posed the threat to our village that I feared. If he were indeed the father of Phoebe’s baby and had officially refused to wed her, not only would he be an outcast but Phoebe too, with a baseborn child. Now the truth was known, what of poor Barnabas and his lost love? Jem was a sly, cunning fellow, handsome without a doubt and with a smooth tongue at his service; he is the sort that finds his way in this world without the help of God or His parson. The way Jem chooses is, I have long suspected, the path of the turncoat, who for his thirty pieces of silver will betray his comrades without a qualm.

“I shall speak to the squire and to Jem,” I said firmly. “He must wed you, Phoebe.” I could see Barnabas’s agonised face, torn in two at losing his Phoebe to such a rogue.

“Jem will take no note of the squire or of you, Parson,” Dorcas said quietly. “You know why.”

I did. “But I will still speak to him—”

“I’ll kill him,” Barnabas yelled, half sobbing himself.

“You too would then die. And of what use is that to Phoebe?” I asked gently.

“None,” Phoebe moaned, “but my father says he will do for Jem too.”

Of course he would. My heart sank. My flock call me, in jest, the Psalmist, and I had prayed earlier this morning that the Lord would preserve us from all evil. Now it had come upon us, and it was my duty as His servant to do what I could to aid Him. But that was little, I feared. I had some influence over Barnabas—usually—but Tom Trout, the blacksmith, was a different matter. As tall as Barnabas but with the weight and muscles that the years had bestowed on him, he was as fiery as the flames that heated the iron he worked with and as handy with his fists as any bruiser. If Tom Trout were on Jem’s trail, then I almost pitied the rogue. Especially as Barnabas was taking the same view as Tom. I had always hoped that Barnabas would wed Phoebe, but Phoebe is young and does not always see what path is best for her. One look at Barnabas’s face now and I could see he was in a mood for murder not marriage.

Dorcas saw my dilemma over what to do next, and suggested kindly that if I would remove my coat she would first brush it clean of the pieces of hay that adorned it and that breakfast might then be the best next step for me to take.

I only wish that had been true. The meats, muffins, toast, and coffee she produced were a transitory balm in Gilead, but even as the last crumb passed my lips the storm broke.

There was the sound of people gathering, of a murmuring in the distance that grew every second. At first I thought Squire Holby had called for a hue and cry, but this was worse. It rumbled like thunder and struck like lightning.

Parson! The devils are coming!”

It was the squire’s voice, and I rushed to the window to see him already turning his horse towards the village again. As he left, he shouted: “Frogshole has betrayed us. There should have been three cows, not two, up on the hill there.”

I sprang from my chair, seized my belaboured old tricorne hat again, and ran to the village green, with Barnabas hard on my heels. It was not our neighbouring village that had betrayed us. This was Jem Moore’s work. He must have cut loose one of the three tethered cows on Swallow Hill, the sign that Prime Minister William Pitt’s Preventive were on their way to us.

The whole population of Cuckoo Leas seemed to have heard the news. On the green every man jack of the village was massing, murmuring, preparing for the battle that was surely to come. They bore staves and other weapons, mostly concealed, it was true, but they were ready. Their women and children were gathered anxiously at their cottage doors, some seated, some standing, with pails and baskets in one hand and holding firmly to their children’s arms as though our Lord himself had commanded life to pause and wait.

It would not be long now.

Even above the noise of the angry crowd I could hear the sound of thundering hooves as the Preventive, and no doubt dragoons as well, left the turnpike road to approach the heart of our village. I saw the dust rising from our lane. Jem had indeed been up to his tricks, and the storm was about to shatter the peace of Cuckoo Leas.

 

Cuckoo Leas lies in Kent, a county that, with its neighbour Sussex, is the busiest for the smuggling trade. We call it owling, as its business is conducted chiefly by night. The southern coast is near to France and in this year of 1783 the trade prospers because of the hardship and poverty in the country. England still reels from the loss of men in the American and European wars, and still our government piles taxes on goods both coming in and going out of our island. The owlers’ luggers bring in necessities, such as tea carefully stored in oilskin bags, and luxuries such as silks, brandy, and gin, landing them in the secret coves and remote beaches along the southern coastline, then load them onto packhorses. The inland gangs will bring the goods along the lanes and hidden routes to storage places from which they will be distributed, and then the luggers ship wool in particular back to the coast of France. Rich or poor, everyone has need of the owlers’ goods in these anxious times, and Cuckoo Leas is no exception. The tax on tea alone is at the rate of 129 percent, and how are the poor of the village to afford to buy tea other than from the owlers when taxes and shortages grind them down?

As I reached the village green, the squire galloped up to me, leaning down from his mare Jessie. “I have to go, Caleb. They’re coming and I must greet them as magistrate. They were too late to prevent deliveries to Frogshole and our village last night and will doubtless catch up with the owlers tonight. But now the leeches seek the goods. The Preventive, Caleb, they are coming, and worse, the dragoons will take Matthew Drake when they come. He has been betrayed by an owler, one of our own. You may guess his name.”

“Jem Moore,” I said grimly. “But Matthew is no owler!” The news had shaken me. Matthew was a good lad, the son of the squire’s gamekeeper, Moses, who had served him faithfully for forty years.

“They will take him for the army. They have paid for him. The Deputy Riding Officer tells me so.”

This was very bad. It was the law now that owlers could have their sentence lifted or fines reduced if they named candidates to serve with our armies. Press gangs work not only at our ports but here in the countryside under the guise of this new law. I had little doubt that Jem had changed sides many moons ago and was an informer not only of suitable candidates to be taken for the army but, I feared, also on our village storage sites.

“They know where our goods are stored?” I asked sharply.

His eyes met mine. “I trust not. Is all well, Psalmist?”

“If our Lord wills it.”

“He will,” the squire said grimly. “We can do little ourselves.”

I hoped he was right about our Lord’s intentions. The mill was the danger point. The contraband goods are deposited there by the owlers, for a tunnel runs from the mill to the manor park, where the squire closes his eyes to its presence and the Preventive would be hesitant to search. The owlers had visited the mill last night and would be sleeping before departing to their next storage point in Tunbridge Wells, not knowing they had been betrayed to the Preventive. Who were now thundering towards Cuckoo Leas to find the contraband—and Matthew Drake. I could see Jem Moore lurking at the back of the mob, by the alehouse door, awaiting the results of his iniquity. I trembled with anger as I pushed my way through to him.

“Matthew Drake, Jem,” I said firmly.

“What of him?” he sneered, not a whit perturbed.

“You have betrayed him, but he stays here.”

“What if his country needs him, Parson?” he mocked me. “I did but my duty and have received my reward.” His hand went to his pocket where his ill-gotten gains must be stored.

“There are more eyes on you than mine, Jem. God will judge you and when this affair is over, we shall speak of Phoebe Trout.”

“That doxy.” He grinned.

I was outraged. “And you, sir—”

But the mob was shouting now. On all lips I could hear the chant: “They are coming, they are coming.”

And now they were here, twenty or so of them, some dragoons, some excisemen, with two waggons for the stores they expected to find. What should I do? Stay to plead for Matthew or follow the men now peeling off towards the mill? Which way to turn? How can one know when God truly speaks or when one merely speaks to oneself? It is a question that often vexes me, but today I had no time to ponder such matters. For a parson, there must only be one way, and I took it. My flock was in danger, and the Preventive were upon us. I pushed my way to their leader, the Riding Officer himself, who patrols the southern coast.

I had met Robert Silcot before, and for him I have respect, though the Preventive are usually a mixed bunch of poorly paid soldiers and desperate labourers. Silcot is an honest man doing his job, as indeed most of his men are. Some, however, take bribes, seizing opportunities to enrich themselves. In contrast to Mr. Silcot, his deputy, Christopher Bland, does more than his job demands. He is a man to whom it never occurs that God’s word or our government’s could be tempered with mercy in these hard times and that the closed eye sometimes sees deeper into God’s will than the keenest man of law. I feared Bland more than the dragoons.

“What seek you, Mr. Silcot?” I asked, trying to subdue the racing of my heart.

“One Matthew Drake, Parson Pennywick. We have an order to take him.” The Riding Officer did not look happy.

“On whose authority?”

“The king’s, Parson,” roared Bland. “We take Drake, and the contraband too.”

“It is the law,” Robert Silcot said gently. “We must search the village. Stand aside, Parson.”

I stood my ground, but two of the Preventive dismounted, picked me up bodily, and deposited me most ungently on the grass in front of the alehouse, where Jem jeered at me. I rushed back, but caught a blow meant for another. As I staggered backwards, Barnabas flew to help me, and as I recovered I saw the battle already in progress. The noise, the dust, the fear, the anger, the confusion were fearful as horses, uniformed Preventive-men, and dragoons clashed with my flock, who were armed only with their staves. There were soon bloodied heads as the search began, cottage by cottage, then the alehouse—and then the mill. I and my flock followed their progress as the tunnel was “discovered”—no doubt with Jem’s help—and searched. And yet as my flock and I stood silent, nothing was found. Nothing but a silken ribbon which Annie Mount, the miller’s daughter, vowed had been hers a twelvemonth.

Nevertheless, the Preventive did not depart empty-handed. We watched silently as Matthew Drake was dragged by Christopher Bland onto one of the Preventive’s wagons, while his parents sobbed and pleaded in vain.

“We are ordered to take him,” said Robert Silcot sadly.

“It is the law,” Christopher Bland added smugly, with no sadness in his voice at all. “As it is for you to tell us where the goods are, Parson.”

“How could I find them, if His Majesty’s dragoons and his Preventive service cannot do so?” I countered.

Bland glared at me, but gave a reluctant order to depart at Mr. Silcot’s nod. Horses whinnied, the drivers of the waggons took their places, and the Preventive galloped away. As he passed me, however, Mr. Silcot bent down for a whispered word. “Have a care, Psalmist. Watch your own.”

He meant me to know what I knew already—that we had a traitor in our midst in Cuckoo Leas: Jem Moore.

 

I sat with Matthew Drake’s mother, Jemima, far into the night, and it was not until three of the clock that Moses returned. His cheeks were flushed, though whether through ale or anger or grief I knew not.

“My thanks to you, Parson,” he said gruffly, seeing me with Jemima. “Your job’s done now.”

“And yours, Moses?” I asked, fearful of what that might have been.

“Mine, Psalmist? That’s to hunt Squire’s poachers. You know that.”

I did. But poachers of what? This house would weep tonight for the son Jemima and Moses had lost. They knew who to blame, and all the words and comfort I tried to offer would be in vain. This disaster was Jem Moore’s doing.

As I took my lantern and returned to the parsonage, it seemed to me that night itself jeered at me and that figures moved silently in the darkness beyond the light of my lantern. If they were human, I could not identify them. Was that my Barnabas who pressed back against the trunk of the oak tree? Was that Phoebe’s father Tom who strode so speedily away? I could not tell. My heart was heavy with fear, although it lightened just a little when I found Dorcas still waiting for me at the parsonage, with a lemon posset ready to heat.

“No good will come of this day’s work, Caleb,” she said soberly, as we sat there by the dying fire.

“So let us take comfort where we may,” I replied gently, putting down the empty posset glass, and she smiled as I led her to my bed.

It seemed we were scarce abed before the storm began once more. I woke to see the dawn breaking and that I was alone, as Dorcas must already have left my bed for her own room. Trouble came like a rushing wind, as though it would sweep all aside. I could hear Barnabas talking in the garden underneath my window. Other than that, stillness reigned, but stillness can foretell danger as speedily as a scream.

I opened the lattice, and my dread was reborn when I saw that Barnabas’s companion was Tom Trout. “What is amiss?” I cried.

It was Tom who replied grimly, “Jem Moore, Parson. He’s facing his Maker.”

“Dead?” I asked. Their silence was all the answer I needed.

 

The manor estate includes Pickle Wood, where those who believe that birds are free for all no matter their nesting grounds take delight in poaching by night. The squire and Moses Drake were already present when, at my insistence, Tom led Barnabas and me to the grim scene. Jem Moore’s body swung from the branch of the sturdy oak tree, scarcely a stone’s throw from his cottage, which abuts the wood. The gibbet—the method of death for traitors. Round his neck hung a placard reading Twenty Pieces of Silver, the government’s blood money to the Preventive from Jem’s sale of Matthew Drake and of which I was sure he had claimed his share. Jem hadn’t died by the chain round his neck, however. He’d been bludgeoned to death with a stave which was still lying nearby. Congealed blood soaked the ground where he had fallen and his clothes too, as with the squire’s permission I gingerly explored his pockets. No doubt the clothes of his murderer were equally bloody, but I knew we would never find them.

As I looked at the dreadful sight before us, all I could think of was the waste of a life. Where were Jem’s good looks now? Where the mischief and laughter that I remembered from his childhood? What had turned him to the life he had led of late?

Although I’m called the Psalmist, it was Ecclesiastes of which I thought now: “A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry, but money answereth all things.”

Money had been Jem’s desire, no matter how acquired, even though it meant betraying his fellow villagers to the Preventive and taking blood money for Matthew Drake’s surrender, though there was no sign of it in his pockets. Yet he had confessed himself the traitor. Matthew’s betrayer and poor Phoebe’s seducer.

It would be the squire’s task as magistrate to decide who was guilty of Jem’s death and to commit him to the assizes for due punishment by law, but it would be a hard task indeed. I looked at the three men who would most have wanted revenge on Jem Moore. Which one had taken it so savagely: Moses Drake, Tom Trout, or my Barnabas . . . ?

 # # #

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"Parson Pennywick and the Murdered Owler" by Amy Myers, Copyright © 2014 with permission of the author.

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