A Stroll On The Heath

Jack Vincent and George BorrowThis is another fragment found amongst the Jack Vincent Papers, the first volume of which I edited and published last year. Like the story of the murderer George Slaughter, this curious little anecdote was not part of the packet containing the second memoir, and I confess that I am not entirely sure where it belongs. I’ve decided to share it here because it confirms my theory that Jack Vincent and the author and traveller George Borrow knew each other, while also providing an interesting portrait of my hometown, Norwich, in the early-1850s…

A few years ago, I had occasion to attend an inquest in Norwich. It was a strange and unusual case of murder and suicide about which I have written elsewhere. I attended the hearing in the old Guildhall, as did many other interested parties. I had managed to secure a front row seat, having had the foresight to arrive early for the sake of my game leg, an old wound from Africa that had never really healed. Soon, there was standing room only, for a good death will always attract a crowd, although it is not that particular story that I wish to revisit, but its aftermath.

When the inquest was adjourned and the public galleries cleared, I turned to notice a face in the dispersing crowd that was strangely familiar. The man was well-dressed, tall and spidery, with a weak chin and receding hair. The years, it would appear, had not been kind, but I was certain that the man was Freddie Biles, the man who had absconded with my sister when she was but a girl of twelve. Though I had devoted years to the search, I had seen neither since. The rumour had been that one or both had medial powers, and that they had joined the world of itinerant mystics.

If he clocked me in return, he did not show it. He casually let himself be borne away by the swarm of morbid spectators. I was several heads behind him and my useless leg precluded the possibility of forcing my way forward. I tried to keep my eyes on the back of his head and followed him down the stairs and out into the sunlight. He cut across Guildhall Hill without looking back and was quickly lost amongst the tented stalls of Norwich Market.

The damn place was a maze of tightly packed stalls and even more tightly packed rustics. They were drinking beer and eating chips, and discoursing unintelligibly on matters no doubt pressing and various. It was harder to traverse the narrow and gridded lanes than it had been to escape the coroner’s court, and it was soon obvious that my pursuit was hopeless.

Using my native voice, for I had been raised in the wilds of Norfolk, I asked a labourer where he got his beer and limped off in search of a pint. My enemy was close, I reasoned; I would find him again. And should my little sister yet live, she was likely still with him. In either case, when I found the bastard it’d be blood for blood.

I knew Norwich reasonably well. I had visited the city with my father a couple of times as a boy, and attended the odd bare knuckle bout there in Egan’s stead in the twenties. I also did a spot of regional death hunting, and failed to catch a sight of either the Acle Bridge Ghost or the Green Lady of Costessey. My last visit had been to cover the Stanfield Hall murders for Reynolds’s Miscellany in 1848. (1) After washing away the taste of a botched pursuit with an almost equally foul ale, I therefore struck out for the most obvious landmark, the castle upon the hill, confident that there was a coaching inn quite close to the great stone keep.

The Bell was still there, just as I had left it, the lunchtime trade as rowdy and convivial as I remembered. I found a table and ordered food and strong drink, also indicating to the serving wench that I would be wanting a room later. She boldly inquired if I desired anything extra, strongly implying that I could have her company that evening for another two bob.

‘I do love the provinces,’ I said. ‘Everything’s just so much cheaper.’

Having one hand occupied by a brace of empty flagons, she placed the other on an ample hip and surveyed me with ill-disguised hatred. It was a look I recalled the locals generally reserved for Londoners, foreigners and people from Suffolk. ‘Do you want a bit or not?’ she said frostily.

She was a large woman, and well past the bloom of youth, with teeth as stained as her apron and arms like a ploughman. ‘Thank you for asking,’ I said carefully, ‘but I’m married.’

‘So am I, dear,’ said she, roaring with laughter. I tipped her a tanner anyway, and hoped she didn’t spit in my soup.

By the time I was fed and watered it was late afternoon and the crowd in the taproom had thinned out. I continued to pay rent on my table with a measure of gin and wondered what to do next. I no longer had local connections and was wary of asking too many questions. The city was small enough to walk around, but still big enough to be dangerous. That said, I was loath to leg it to the station and return to London now that I had the scent. I resolved to take some must needed rest and write my wife for some counsel, retiring early to my room, which was off a long corridor above a wide wooden staircase. I washed and then penned a lengthy letter to Grace. It was dark by the time I limped downstairs to leave it at the bar so that the landlord could pass it to the mail coach. The taproom was once more packed, which I already knew from the sounds of merriment that had reached me upstairs. As travellers in such places are often obliged by the locals to regale them with a story, there was a tall, fair-haired man holding court from the chimney corner, flanked by two embarrassed looking women perched upon wooden stools, dressed in the puritan manner.

‘And that, my dear friends,’ he was saying, ‘is how my uncle recognised me at a fair and brought me home to my family after being stolen by the gipsies as a boy.’

I had obviously missed the best bit as his audience were now ardently applauding. The man was well-dressed but possessed of the broad accent common to the region, with flattened vowels and rounded consonants. He was in but somehow no longer quite of the place, much like me.

‘Don’t believe a word of it,’ I called across the room once the ovation had subsided. ‘He was playing truant from the grammar school and walking to the coast to build caves in the dunes when he was recognised on the road and deceitfully detained. James Martineau himself brought him home a few days later, and he received such a thrashing that he had to lie in bed a fortnight after.’ (2)

‘I was always a child in the habit of fleeing from society,’ agreed the storyteller, ‘but how would you know that, sir?’

‘Because you told me the last time we met,’ said I, ‘when Cribb bested Belcher near the Field of the Chapel, and Thurtell was still lord of the concourse.’

The women were clearly appalled, but the big man beamed like a baby. ‘That was a terrible fight,’ he said. ‘It was over before it started and then it rained all damn night.’

‘But you said, as I recall at the time,’ I replied happily, ‘that rain was only a problem if you didn’t want to get wet.’

‘Ah, the wisdom of Petulengro,’ said he, ‘I live by it still. How is the world treating you, Jack?’

‘All the better for seeing you, George,’ I replied, shaking his hand with genuine pleasure.

It did me good to see a cater cousin from the old days of the Fancy, as well as a brother author. If anyone had any intelligence regarding the disposition of locally based miscreants it was going to be George Borrow. He knew everybody. At least he always said he did.

I was enthusiastically introduced to his wife, Mary, and step-daughter, Henrietta—the shy women—the family having travelled over from Great Yarmouth to visit the market. They took a polite interest, but it was not difficult to discern a certain disapproval at this sudden manifestation of their husband and father’s mis-spent youth. He had been writing Newgate Calendars when I knew him, but had finally achieved some level of success ten years since through his account of his attempts to circulate the Scriptures in the Peninsula as an agent of the Bible Society. The Bible in Spain was an autobiographical travelogue that read at times like a picaresque novel, as was his latest work, the charming and eccentric Lavengro, because Borrow’s principal object of study was always himself. No one ever really understood Lavengro though, and the long-awaited sequel to The Bible in Spain was far from a bestseller. A charge often levelled was that it lacked resolution, and that it was impossible to tell the fact from the fiction, which, for me, had been the real art of the narrative. I had written a couple of very favourable reviews, positing a new form of autobiographical novel or creative non-fiction, although the idea was quickly shouted down by the likes of Forster and Thackeray.

Fortunately, Borrow had read these endorsements and was thus disposed to be generous when I told my own story. ‘That’s a rum do,’ said he, ‘but I’ve a mind to suggest I know a man that could help.’

‘No George,’ said his wife, ‘you promised.’

‘But this man is my brother,’ he replied earnestly. ‘Did we not mix our blood upon the heath all those years ago, Jack?’ he appealed.

We had done nothing of the sort. ‘Indeed we did,’ I agreed, showing his wife an imaginary scar across my palm.

‘That’s your lifeline,’ said Henrietta flatly.

‘Is it?’ I said, investigating the creases of my hand. It looked a bit short.

‘For what was I born, my love,’ Borrow was asking his wife, ‘if not to help a brother in distress?’ I felt for him. Grace would not have been best pleased either. Respectable married men at our time of life should not go gallivanting off on some fool scheme in the middle of the night on the whim of a ghost from the past. ‘And you know as well as I,’ he concluded, ‘where and when he that can help is to be found.’

‘You best be back with the sun,’ said Mrs. Borrow, ‘or we’ll not wait for you.’ And with than she and her daughter left for their room.

‘I fear I have caused you considerable trouble,’ I said.

‘Not a bit of it, my friend,’ said he, calling for a drink for the first time. ‘She’ll have forgotten about it by the morrow. Think you not that a wife of mine must by definition possess the patience of the Saviour himself.’

‘Mine too,’ I agreed.

He handed me a stoneware mug filled with steaming punch and drained his own in a single draught. ‘You’ll need that,’ he said, by way of explanation. ‘It’ll be cold upon the heath—’


It was a miserable slog in the dark. The wind had got up and with it the rain, tearing unimpeded across the flat fields that had replaced the low terraces as we walked out of the city towards the wild woods of Mousehold Heath, quickly turning what passed for a road hereabouts into an ocean of mud. Only Borrow’s company made the journey in any way tolerable, and he babbled away merrily as if we strolled by the Wensum on a sunny summer’s day.

We talked much of literature and language, although his linguistic prowess left my own far behind, and of family, love, life and death. ‘It has always been a sore vexation to me,’ he confessed, ‘that whatever I perform must necessarily be of very temporary duration.’

‘Aye,’ I agreed, ‘the butterfly falls and is soon forgotten, as my poor father used to say.’

‘That is why I resolved to make a name for myself,’ he continued, ‘was it not so with you?’

‘I wrote for money, initially,’ I admitted, ‘the desire for reputation came later, but I do not expect it will last. My work was just a fashion that has long since run its course. It’ll be Dickens they read in a thousand years’ time, not I.’

‘Like these Spiritist you seek,’ said Borrow, ‘I would like very much to talk to people after I am dead. When I was young I set myself the task of either writing a grand original work, or conquering an empire.’

‘Then you have achieved your end, my friend,’ I assured him. ‘Lavengro is a very original work.’

‘Perhaps,’ said he. We had gained St. James’ Hill by then, and he gestured back towards the darkened houses of the city below us. ‘At least they haven’t burned it the way they did the first one.’ (3)

‘They burned all of mine,’ I said.

‘That’ll teach you,’ he replied.

‘Teach me what, George?’

‘To tell the truth,’ said he, and he laughed. The subject turned to Positivism after that, about which he knew very little, but could nonetheless discourse upon at length. He reminded me in many ways of a more upbeat version of Poe. Borrow knew a little about a lot of things, and could use what scraps of information he had picked up on his travels to imply a deal more than there was. If his bluff was called upon a specific subject, he would quickly change it, as he did now. ‘Have you noticed,’ he said, as the trees of the heath at last came into view in the moonlight, ‘that we’ve been followed for a while now?’

‘I did wonder,’ I agreed, surreptitiously gaining a better hold on the broken branch that was serving me as a walking stick.

We hastened our pace, as did our pursuers, making it clear that it was no coincidence that placed them upon the same path we trod. We all squelched and slid along towards the inevitable confrontation, which occurred when Borrow inexplicably stopped walking by the trunk of an ancient and twisted oak.

‘Show yourselves,’ he demanded, turning suddenly.

Our assailants obliged. There were three of them, low ruffians in the garb of working men, their drab appearance enlivened by the addition of a dark cloth that each of them wore as an armband. These might have been red but the moonlight painted them black. They were big men, younger than us, and their leader carried an ugly looking cudgel. They were vaguely familiar, and I assumed they had followed us from the pub.

‘We’re the Kett’s Hill boys,’ growled their captain, ‘and you two is trespassing on our land.’

Borrow stood his ground. ‘We’ll I’ve never heard of you,’ he declared.

‘Know us or no,’ said the villain with the club, ‘you will surely remember us afore this night’s through.’

Not for the first time, I wondered why I had left my pistol at home in a box on top of the wardrobe. Borrow, however, seemed unperturbed. He turned away from the group calmly and lifted his arms towards the forest, at the same time giving cry to a word unintelligible to my ears.

In reply, long arrows flew through the night, each finding its mark. The three assassins fell as one. One swore, one called for his mother, and one said nothing at all.

Hooded figures suddenly appeared all around us. A tall man swathed in a shadowy cloak produced a long knife with a curved blade and approached the wounded brigands, muttering something over his shoulder to Borrow.

‘He says we might want to look away, Jack,’ he explained.

I did just that, but could not block my ears as well. I thus heard two men choke noisily upon their own blood, like casually butchered swine. They seemed to take an age to die. As if marking their passing, the trees rustled in the savage east wind, and when I turned back the Kett’s Hill boys were gone. Our saviours had likewise vanished into the darkness.

‘They will likely not be missed,’ said Borrow.

‘What did you call out?’ I asked him.

‘I was just reminding them who I was,’ he said, taking my arm and leading me further into the forest.

We walked on into deeper, darker woodland, in search of the man that Borrow claimed could help me find Freddie Biles, his presence confirmed, he said, by the mysterious archers. I have heard it said that the heath is the property of those that have the privilege of Norwich birth, and as far as I am concerned they can keep it. In earlier times it had been a forest of some extent, but even now it seemed to go on for miles. If not so dense as it once was, at that moment it felt no less sinister and just as dangerous as any ancient jungle. It was barely midnight by my estimation, and already three men had died, and died badly.

Borrow, on the other hand, seemed quite excited. ‘Like Herne and his wild hunters they came,’ he was saying. ‘Avella! Warriors born, guardians of the forest. Like the lost gods of England, they came!’

‘I have mixed feelings about that,’ I said.

‘Ah, you’d blanch at Churn Milk Peg,’ said he, ‘you who have fought with monsters and demons. Has the Death Hunter gone shy of a little bit of blood?’

‘You can have too much of a good thing.’

‘Never!’ said he. ‘Would a soldier deny death in defence of his trade?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t suppose he would.’

We were in the old forest now, amidst broad, gnarled oaks which the storms of centuries had failed to uproot. Gigantic beeches shot smoothly upwards between chestnuts festooned with ivy and weird wych elms, the increasingly close canopy making a memory of moonlight. Borrow had talked a barn lantern and a couple of candles out of the landlord of The Bell, which he now lit. The illumination it provided was barely satisfactory for navigation, but more than enough to bounce off the animal eyes that watched angrily from the dark as we disturbed their haunts.

Like Actaeon, I stumbled on. ‘Are we there yet?’ I asked.

‘I have learned,’ said Borrow, ‘that the best way to find the dukkerin dook that we seek is to not actually look for him.’

‘Marvellous,’ I said, ‘you don’t know where you’re going.’

‘Who does?’ said he. ‘But I’ll warrant that smoke I taste holds out the prospect of company.’ He extinguished the light. As there can be no smoke without fire, we now perceived a muted orange glow pervading the foliage. ‘Our destination lies yonder,’ said my companion.

I had mixed feelings about that as well.

We moved towards the eerie light as moths to a naked flame until we came upon a small, secluded valley. Clothed as it was with timber, even in daylight you would not have thought it there. Here the gipsies had made their camp. There was a single fire burning within the neighbourhood of a small tent, by which sat a middle-aged woman with some sort of large animal in her lap. Otherwise there was no sign of habitation.

‘Where are the archers?’ I whispered to Borrow.

‘Oh, they’re here,’ he said.

As we approached the fire the animal spoke.

‘You keep me waiting, brother,’ it said, raising its head. Its voice was like broken glass.

I had initially thought it a particularly ugly dog, but I now perceived that it was a man, a very old man, far too old in fact to be thus animated. His face was a leathern death mask, his skin like fallen leaves, and he wore an ancient robe that appeared of like colour to his crumbling complexion, to the extent that it was difficult to judge where he ended and it began. He moved like a bottled spider, and it crossed my mind that he might be some monstrous puppet controlled by the woman. His chin glistened horribly in the firelight, and with a shudder I realised that the woman was replacing her exposed breast within her dress.

‘Sit down, brother,’ he continued, ‘and take a cup of good ale.’ Borrow came forward and sat upon his knees, upright and reverential. The woman lifted the bag of bones onto the wooden chair she had lately occupied and disappeared into the tent. The old man now sought me out. His eyes were not hooded, as one might expect in such an antediluvian visage, but oddly bright and round in the sunken sockets, as if skinned. ‘Come closer, stranger,’ said he, ‘you need not fear me, Sharker.

I sat down, crossed legged next to Borrow, stunned. I had survived the Birkenhead, and killed a shark that had damn near killed me. I still had nightmares, but how could this twisted jakanapes know anything of this? The heat of the fire stung my face. The woman had emerged from the tent with a small cask and three battered pewter mugs. I gratefully accepted the proffered beer, heedless of the possibility of poison. The woman took her station by the ancient creature.

‘Aukko tu pios adrey Rommanis,’ intoned the old man, holding his drink with obvious difficulty. ‘Here is your health in Romany, Sharker.’

Borrow quickly raised his mug, ‘Your health in Romany, master,’ he cried.

The old man nodded towards him.’ The Romany Rye,’ he said.

Borrow nudged me. ‘The Romany Rye,’ I agreed.

The old man looked pleased. His ruined mouth gave little away, and much of his nose was gone, but he somehow smiled with his eyes.

‘How did you know?’ I asked the perceptive old skeleton, sipping the muddy beer.

He laughed. It was exactly the kind of cackle I expected, ragged and girlish. He began to cough and the women helped him guide the tankard to what passed for his lips. ‘I can see it,’ he said, ‘looking over your shoulder.’ Instinctively I turned my head and he laughed again. ‘Too slow,’ he said.

‘I dream of it,’ I confessed, the queer ale loosening my tongue.

‘You see it,’ he replied, ‘after midnight, I’ll warrant, when the boundaries between death and life are not so clearly staked out.’

‘Do you know what it is?’ I asked him quietly.

‘It is your dook, your demon,’ he replied, ‘it has chosen you.’

‘Is it the animal I shot—the devil fish?’ I said, finding it suddenly difficult to organise my thoughts. ‘I saw a man once kill such a beast because he believed he could possess its spirit.’

‘It has always been with you,’ said the old man, the firelight distorting his mouth in the most ghastly manner.

Borrow seemed suddenly miles away and I struggled to focus my eyes upon him. He drained his mug and happily accepted more from the keg. ‘By Devlehi,’ said he, ‘this is a frisky brew. What hop is this?’

‘Kukuramuttā,’ muttered the woman, causing Borrow to howl with delight.

‘What did she say?’ I asked him, already feeling disproportionately pissed.

‘Mushrooms,’ he said, giggling like a lunatic.

The light of the fire had now become somehow more organic, and the air was bathed in vivid yet earthy tones, tinged with greens and blues. Borrow’s face appeared painted. I looked down at my hands. The skin was deathly pale, my fingers cadaverous and unnaturally long. I forced them to find a cigar and awkwardly lit it from a stick of kindling that pulsed with the intensity of the sun. I ate smoke and breathed out words that floated in the air like ponderous winged insects.

‘Have one yourself,’ I heard the old man say, and the woman lifted the keg to her lips and drank deeply, her form undulating in the living shadows like an enormous snake. The sight of her suddenly made me ache for a woman. I concentrated on my cigar and stared into the fire.

Somewhere above me, the walking corpse was talking. ‘The man you seek,’ the old man was saying, ‘also dreams of demons, yet he sees none.’

I tried to pay attention, my huge head turning slowly to the sound of his voice, like a blind idiot with an inflammation of the brain reacting to an unexpected blow.

‘Are you all right, Jack?’ said Borrow.

‘Never better,’ I told him, my own voice alien to my ears.

I drew on my cigar and heard it burn, doing my best to concentrate on the old man.

‘He wants what you have,’ he said, ‘he longs to see what you see. He was in town in search of demons, I am certain.’

‘He wanted to know about the girls,’ I mumbled, the penny finally dropping. At the inquest, the country folk had talked not of self-murder but of vengeful revenants.

‘He needs seers,’ the old man continued. ‘He has even come to me here, like you, in search of enlightenment.’

I was beginning to make peace with my visions. With these things the first rush is always the hard part. The mention of my enemy had also gone a long way towards restoring my senses. ‘And did you enlighten him?’ I managed to say quite clearly.

‘I told him you were coming,’ he replied.

Behind him, the woman was gyrating in a most disconcerting fashion. She had loosed her headscarf and long oily hair now fell in ringlets around the dark skin of her shoulders. She was unlacing her bodice, and when the dress fell her breast hung above the old man’s head like twin storm clouds. She began to caress his bald and wrinkled head.

Borrow lurched to his feet and offered me his hand unsteadily. ‘Time to go, I think,’ he said.

I looked at the grotesque couple hopelessly. The man had turned his head to kiss the woman and her hands were working beneath his robe.

‘Do you know where he hides?’ I called desperately to the old man.

‘Summerland,’ he hissed, returning his attention to the woman’s mouth like a devil sucking out a soul.

Despite the informality of the situation, Borrow bowed towards the old man. ‘Chal Devlihe,’ he said, ‘and thank you for the drink.’

Before I could ask any more questions, Borrow had hold of me and was steering us unsteadily away from the fire. I scrambled up the slippery bank behind him, pulling myself up with tree roots that writhed in my grip like the tentacles of some terrible leviathan. Only when I gained level ground did I look back. The old man was on his back on the ground and the woman was riding him in a frenzy, as if in congress with a cadaver.

The ground lurched beneath my feet like a deck plate in a storm, and the night sounds of nature became acute and unsettling. The trees seemed to be breathing. Borrow was talking, but in no language that I knew. I followed him in silence, and did not look back again. We had neglected to retrieve the lantern from the camp, but so inflamed were our senses that we did not feel its loss as we walked. The forest sported with us for hours until it finally spat us out, scratched and bleeding, onto the more level ground of the heath. In the pre-dawn light the distant spire of Norwich Cathedral signalled a clear line back to our lodgings.

‘See,’ said Borrow. ‘I told you I knew where we were.’

We washed ourselves in a horse trough in a futile attempt to look respectable before returning to The Bell, where Borrow took his leave to make peace with his wife. I told him to blame everything on me.

I managed something like sleep having chased the morning maid away, although I was tormented by nightmares both familiar and new. When I surfaced around noon Borrow and his family had already left for Yarmouth. In what I would have to characterise as my natural state, I was back where I started. I was also running out of money. From the look Borrow’s wife had given me the night we met I didn’t give much for my chances of any more assistance from that quarter, even if I could find him on the coast. (We had both been so out of our heads the previous evening that addresses had not been exchanged.) Without Borrow’s patronage, I was unlikely to gain another audience with the cryptic old skeleton from the heath, or even survive it. The gipsies in this neck of the woods were a deal more feral than the ones I’d encountered in and around London. And unlike Borrow I was not inclined to go gallivanting around East Anglia in pursuit of a death’s head upon a mop-stick whose bodyguards killed men as efficiently as they might dispatch a snared rabbit, and with about as much thought expended upon the matter.

That said, my instinct was that Freddie Biles was close. I was certain I had seen the bastard at the inquest, and the weird old oracle’s intelligence would seem to confirm that he was in the area, at least if he spoke the truth. I was well aware of the simple techniques by which counterfeit clairvoyants fathom their customers cold. I had been doing much the same thing myself as a journalist for years, dropping questions as a fisherman might cast a fly until the subject of my enquiries bit. It is not so difficult as people suppose to read a mind. Yet the old man’s counsel was not so easily dismissed. I was certain we had never met before, and I was equally sure that Borrow had made no introduction. Yet he knew about the shark. The old crypt kicker did not strike me as a man who read the London papers, and I could not shift the impression that the only wild stabs in the dark that night had been the ones that made missing persons out of our prospective assailants.

With uncommon credulity, I concluded that it was actually easier to accept that the gipsy mystic had seen Freddie than to construct a plausible chain of events whereby he was lying. No money had changed hands, and no plans made to meet again. Unless he played with me for sport, there was no profit in his information. Like his mesmerising ale, the knowledge was given quite freely, which certainly fit with Borrow’s version of the Noble Savage. If anything, he was eager to pass on the message, such as it was, in order to get back to swiving his mort wap-apace. And who was I to come between a man and his woman?

Traces of the strange brew remained, manifest in an unfamiliar sense of wellbeing, and a painful sensitivity to daylight. I purchased some tinted spectacles from a local apothecary, who tried to interest me in various potions for the treatment of syphilis. I assured him I was simply hungover, and thus protected from the savagery of the sun’s rays I struck out once more for the heath.

Summerland. With or without Borrow’s protection, I needed to know.

In the daylight the heath was picturesque rather than sublime, the forest somehow friendlier, as if it knew I was not a threat and thus let me pass unmolested. I found my way to the little valley soon enough, hoping that I might once more engage the weird old man in conversation. I was willing to pay the pike-keeper, and resolved this time not to drink anything but the water I carried with me.

Not a trace of the camp remained. I was certain that the location was correct, yet there was no sign of a fire, or any human disturbance on the ground, leaving me to ponder if the adventure of the previous night had really happened at all.


  1. The ‘Tragedy at Stanfield Hall’ was a notorious double murder that took place in Wymondham, just outside Norwich, in 1848. The victims, Isaac Jermy and his son Isaac Jermy Jermy, were shot to death on the porch and in the hallway of their mansion by the delinquent tenant farmer James Bloomfield Rush in an attempt to avert the foreclosure of his mortgage. It was a very popular murder, with additional public interest aroused by the gothic atmosphere of the gloomy and remote setting, which recalled the famous murders of Maria Marten and William Weare in similarly bleak East Anglian locations. Rush was hanged at Norwich Castle in 1849, and his wax effigy was on permanent display in Madame Tussauds’ ‘Chamber of Horrors’ from 1849 until 1971. Dickens visited Norwich while Rush was awaiting trial, later describing the city as ‘a disappointment, all save for its place of execution, which we found fit for a gigantic scoundrel’s exit.’
  2. The Unitarian philosopher and academic James Martineau (1805 – 1900), brother of the novelist and social theorist Harriet Martineau, was Norwich born and raised and educated at the local grammar school.
  3. As a young man Borrow was already an accomplished linguist, much in love with German Romanticism, which he learned from his mentor, William Taylor. His first work was a translation of Faustus, his Life, Death and Descent into Hell by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger. Borrow playfully altered the name of one city in the text to that of Taylor’s birthplace, amending the relevant passage to read: ‘They found the people of the place modelled after so unsightly a pattern, with such ugly figures and flat features that the devil owned he had never seen them equalled, except by the inhabitants of an English town, called Norwich, when dressed in their Sunday’s best.’ For this youthful satire of provincial Society, the Norwich Public Subscription Library burned his book in the street.

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