Extract from Chords and Discords
The present high winds have done much damage in the town …
[Newcastle Courant, 28 February 1736]
It was cold, it was wet, and it was windy. Freezing rain splattered against my face and spotted the cobbles at my feet. Wind swirled, tugging at the skirts of my coat and threatening to bowl my tricorne all the way down Silver Street into the Tyne below. In short, it was March, and no one dawdles on streets in March unless there is a very good reason. So why were those fellows fidgeting at the entrance to an alley near All Hallows’ Church?
I am as curious as the next man, even when shivering and damp. Besides, what better had I to do? I’d just come from the first cancelled lesson of the day. The family had evidently removed from the town for Lent. With no public amusements – no theatre, no dancing or card assemblies, no concerts – one might as well withdraw to the yawning boredom of a country house. And if a few bills have been forgotten, belonging to say, the odd musician, well, these things can’t be helped. Never mind if the musician in question (your obedient servant,
Chass Patterson) is down to the last guinea in his pocket.
I accosted a fellow with a grubby bagwig and asked what had happened. He squinted at me. ‘Someone’s dead.’
And I had been hoping for something to cheer me up.
‘Murdered,’ he said, with relish. ‘Blood everywhere.’
I should have turned my back and walked away. Just before Christmas, I’d got myself involved in murder and I didn’t much like the consequences. But I had nothing to do and one way of passing the time seemed as good as any other. I peered through a gap in the crowd and glimpsed a yard at the other end of the alley. A middle-aged woman was glowering at a weeping girl; Bedwalters, the parish constable, was staring down at something I could not see. This was the alley leading to the organ manufactory – perhaps the dead body belonged to William Bairstowe, the organ builder. Someone must have taken violent exception to his rudeness at last.
‘All this fuss!’ said a voice behind me, scornfully. I glanced round. The voice came from a door on the other side of the street; when I looked closely, I saw the gleam of a spirit lodged on a stone bunch of grapes carved into the door lintel. The spirit slid round the carvings towards me; the living man must have died on the doorstep and his spirit, like all spirits, could not leave the place of his dying.
The spirit sniffed. ‘No one made a fuss like this when I died.’
‘But this is murder.’
‘No such thing!’
‘I have the true tale.’
‘From Mrs Forbes’s spirit, who lives opposite, who had it from Mr Ross’s spirit on the churchyard wall, who had it from the girl’s spirit in the alley.’
Spirits can pass a tale from one end of the town to another in the time it takes a living man to cross the street. I wondered why the girl’s spirit had no name.
‘So who’s died?’
‘Bairstowe the organ builder. Hit on the head by one of his own pipes.’
I thought of the largest diapason pipes in the organs of my acquaintance. One such would have given him a nasty bump, I supposed, but could it have killed him?
‘Blown over by the wind.’ As if to corroborate the spirits’ evidence, the wind bowled an empty basket along the street.
‘The wind was very strong last night,’ I mused. It had blown against my window and the rattling had kept me awake several hours. ‘An accident, then?’
I sighed. The spirit wanted to be encouraged. It’s always wise to keep on ther good side of spirits – when spiteful, they don’t mind too much what they say. I hope that when I am finally lodged in some place for the inevitable 80 or 100 years after my death, I do not turn sour and vicious. ‘You don’t think so?’
‘Well, have you seen the state that yard is in? Asking for trouble. Have you seen it?’
A note of doubt crept into the spirit’s voice. ‘You are Patterson? Charles Patterson, the musical fellow.’
I stared uneasily at the gleam on the damp lintel. ‘I had no idea I was so well known.’
A chortle. ‘You are notorious, sir, after your exploits before Christmas!’
My heart sank. ‘I do know William Bairstowe,’ I said, hoping to distract the spirit. ‘But I haven’t been in his yard since my childhood.’ I hunted for a way out of the conversation. Was I really that anxious to know how Bairstowe came by his death? Anxious enough to brave the wind and the splattering rain, and the lonely, garrulous spirit?
‘Never seen such a mess,’ the spirit said. ‘Wood everywhere, stone, lead. Pipes all over the place. Piles of rubbish. Don’t know how he works there. Well,’ it paused. ‘He doesn’t work much, does he? Or he didn’t. Anyhow, he’s paid the price now. Wind took the lead and hit him on the head with it and now he’s dead.’
Thankfully, as the spirit threatened to burst into verse, I saw the man with a grubby bagwig beckon from the crowd. I went back to him. ‘Bringing him out,’ he said. ‘He’s one of the lads in the leather merchant’s shop.’
‘A lad?’ I echoed, startled.
‘Courting the maid,’ the fellow said, with a wink. ‘Weeping fit to float a ship, she is.’
And out they came in procession: Bedwalters first, standing respectfully aside to let two labourers carry out a hurdle with a body on it, covered by a sheet. The crowd strained for a sight of blood but there was none. Then came a girl, burying her face in her apron, then the middle-aged woman – that was Mrs Bairstowe no doubt. A second wife, if I remembered my gossip correctly. And behind her, bracing himself in the narrow entrance to the alley, was William Bairstowe, the organ builder, heavy and red-faced.
We doffed our hats, and stood getting windblown and wet as the procession turned out of the alley and made its way down the street. The crowd began to disperse and the spirit slid away to call l to someone else. I pushed my tricorne back on to my head and turned to go then caught William Bairstowe’s gaze as he stared across the street. For a moment, I thought he was about to call to me, but his mouth twisted into a grimace instead and he swore at a child that bumped into him. The next moment he had swung back into the alley.
Not the sort of man I like to keep me company. Still, I thought, no need to worry myself over a fellow I’m likely to meet twice a year at most.
No one can predict the future.
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